Katrina Onstad has never won anything in her life. “Nothing! Not even a door prize,” she laughs over the phone from her home in Toronto.
Wish fulfilment by transference, however, is not the reason she centred her latest novel around a family that wins $10-million in the lottery. (And anyway, “I just don’t think those kind of things will happen to me. I have too much of a Gen X, glass-half-full outlook to make that sort of gesture,” she says.) It was, quite simply, a plot device, a lever by which she gained access into a world she wanted to explore: “The lottery itself is a kind of Trojan Horse,” Onstad explains. "Anything could have happened to shove them toward this reckoning with one another and with themselves.”
The result of pressure-cooker circumstance is Stay Where I Can See You, Onstad’s delicately observed, utterly gripping fourth novel. Told in parallel perspectives, it follows Gwen and her daughter Maddie as they move from comfortable suburbia to the moneyed world of Toronto. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age tale for both women: Maddie as she explores the complicated contours of adolescence’s last gasp, and Gwen, approaching middle age, reckoning at last with a past that didn’t match the nice, middle-class-mom persona she’s built.
Luck feels like a theme in this story – the way the Kaplan family’s circumstances change, yes, but also the way in which fortunate circumstances (or lack thereof) play into the social inequality this story explores.
Everybody in this story is in some way a victim of their circumstance, but the better for their circumstance, too. I believe there are systemic forces at play in everybody’s life, and I’m very wary of the myth of the self-made person, that if you just work hard enough, the doors are open to everybody. I think the doors are shut to some people. The system is rigged – and actually, Maddie says that at one point. It’s such an adolescent revelation, but once you become an adult, you see it every day.
As I was reading this, it felt like it had Reese Witherspoon’s next project written all over it. It’s a different book, obviously, but it reminded me so much of Little Fires Everywhere and Big Little Lies.
I’m really curious about those worlds and what’s behind the curtain of these lives. Particularly mothers, because motherhood is such a performative act, especially now that it’s so public-facing. I am a mom and I’ve always been so uncomfortable with the patina of perfection that’s expected of a modern mother. I wanted to create one of those moms and then thrust her forward and say, “No. People are more complex than their Instagram feeds.”
Did this book spring from a nugget of thought or a specific moment?
This book had a lot of iterations, and the first one was much more about Maddie. It was much more about a teenage girl and that moment where she’s breaking from her mother. When I started this, I had a little girl who’s now a teenager, which has been weird – it’s like I wrote my existence before it existed. I had an image of a girl looking out the window of a bedroom that someone else had decorated for her. I saw her looking out, filled with that feeling of adolescent dislocation and feeling so out of your skin.
Your previous novel, Everybody Has Everything, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Did that affect the writing of this one?
I think it actually was a bit crippling. I felt I had to put that away, that there was more pressure on this one and that more people might read it. But it was also a hard time – I was raising kids, going to work. I don’t have a garret that I go up into to write.
Do you get lost in the act of writing?
I do, but it gets harder when there’s a professional edge to it. Volunteering with a group called the Toronto Writers Collective, we go into marginalized communities and do free creative writing workshops. We use the Amherst method, where the facilitator writes with the writers and I found that incredibly liberating.I felt like it took me back to that feeling of really loving it and getting lost in it.
Did anything in this book come out of those sessions?
Peripherally, maybe, but not specifically. Definitely being in those kinds of communities in this city makes one hyperalert to inequity and empathy, and seeing people in their full humanity and vulnerability. All of those triggers are hit when you’re around people who are struggling.
This is a novel that is also so deeply rooted in its setting. It’s such a Toronto book.
This is my third novel set in Toronto. I’m from Vancouver, and although I’ve lived here for quite a while, I’m still trying to make sense of it. It’s a Canadian story, too. It’s a specific kind of exurb experience. The suburbs around Toronto are very different than Vancouver suburbs. Cities are great settings for novels, and for people to hide and secrets to circle. I loved that Gwen’s past was here and as soon as she came off the Gardiner, it came crashing back.
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