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Author Ashley Audrain in Toronto, on Jan., 7, 2021.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

At the beginning of that June, Ashley Audrain felt ready, finally, to send out her manuscript. She had been working on it, very part-time, for nearly four years. She was nervous, but a trusted mentor assured her it was ready. Audrain – former publicity director for Penguin Canada, who left her job to be a full-time stay-at-home mother – hoped she could at least find an agent to represent her.

By the end of that month – June, 2019 – Audrain not only had an agent, but a multimillion dollar deal that would see her debut novel published in Britain, Canada and the United States. Translation rights for what would ultimately be 32 markets swiftly followed. “It happened so quickly, which I know is insanely rare,” says Audrain, from her home in Toronto, where she lives with her partner and their two children, who are three and five. Film rights have been sold too – to a major producer. “It still feels as surreal as you can imagine.”

The Push was published this week in Canada, the U.S., Britain and far beyond.

The novel has been billed as a psychological thriller about motherhood. Postpartum depression, intergenerational trauma – and romantic love – all figure as well. In the opening scene, Blythe Connor is outside the home where her daughter and former husband live with their new family, watching them through the window on Christmas Eve. Heartbreaking, right? But there is something more ominous at play. Through tense, short chapters, this emotional roller coaster of a story unfolds.

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“A mother’s heart breaks a million ways in her lifetime,” reads one sentence.

Audrain, 38, was born in Toronto and grew up in Newmarket, Ont. After working for a public relations agency, she started with Penguin in 2012. “I felt like a kid in a candy store,” says the lifelong reader and writer – although while on the job, she didn’t do any fiction writing. “It just fell away from me,” Audrain says. “And I read. I read so much when I was there.”

She left Penguin in early 2015 as she was about to have her first child – she and her partner had planned to move to Britain for his job, but their baby had significant health issues and they decided to remain in Toronto.

Six months in, Audrain felt like she was starting to get her footing again, and she began writing.

“When you become a mother, you instantly start to give everything you have to this new human that has entered your life. You just give so much time and so much energy and all of your space is taken away from you in an instant,” Audrain says. “I struggled with that at the time and really took a hard look at what time and space and energy do I have left for myself and what do I want to do with that? And it was so clear to me that I wanted to write.”

She hired a babysitter for a few hours a week and went down to the local coffee shop with her laptop under her arm, where she would write for a couple of hours.

The writing brought Audrain joy, even if in the book she ended up venturing into some extremely dark territory. “There’s such a huge connection between fear and motherhood; it’s almost as hard to separate between love and motherhood,” Audrain says.

After about two years of writing in those small chunks, she felt ready to show her draft to her partner, who works in finance. Over lunch with their toddler in tow – Audrain was pregnant at this point with her second – he gave her what turned out to be crucial feedback: he suggested the book keep its focus on the core issue of motherhood and not the other plotlines and twists, which seemed extraneous.

“I deleted probably 75 per cent of the book. It was the most painful thing, more painful than childbirth,” Audrain says. It was hard to hear, but it was the right advice.

Audrain still wasn’t sure the book was ready to be sent out to agents. “I didn’t know what I had,” she said. She sought help from Toronto’s Flying Books – a bookstore and creative writing school that offers one-on-one mentorship. Audrain was paired with the novelist Amy Jones and after Jones read the manuscript, they met for tea at the Gladstone Hotel in mid-March. Audrain recalls Jones telling her: “This is ready, send it out, it’s going to be on shelves, you’re going to get this book published.”

Then that spring, nervously over tea, Audrain told her friend and former boss, Penguin Canada publisher Nicole Winstanley, that she had written a manuscript. Winstanley – who had always had a sneaking suspicion Audrain might write a book someday – wanted to read it immediately.

“And it did not disappoint. It was everything I could have hoped for and then some. Everything I knew about Ashley as a colleague was on the pages of the manuscript,” Winstanley says. “That attention to detail, that care, that recognition of people in different circumstances is all present in her as a writer as well. I think Ashley is a very observant, caring, thoughtful person. That’s very clear in this manuscript – now book.”

On June 5, 2019, Audrain e-mailed a query letter to her top choice, Britain-based agent Madeleine Milburn, and began the nervous wait. She heard back within 10 minutes.

“I’m completely transfixed by the sound of your book,” Milburn wrote to her – it was June 6 in Paris, where she was. “I know I’m going to love your voice.”

Milburn started reading as soon as the manuscript landed in her inbox. “From the first line I was hooked,” she recalls. “She made me cry in the first chapter.” She was at a dinner that night and says just couldn’t wait to get back to the book.

“I read it all in one go and I thought: oh my gosh, I’ve got something on my hands [that is] so brilliant,” Milburn says. “I knew I wanted to be her agent.”

They set up a meeting in New York; Milburn was going to be there on June 17. “It felt like, who am I, to be getting on a plane and going to New York to have dinner with an agent?” Audrain says. Early into that dinner in SoHo, she told Milburn she wanted to work with her, and they talked strategy.

That night, Milburn drafted an e-mail to Penguin U.K.’s commercial imprint Michael Joseph, and she sent off the manuscript the next day, giving the publisher 48 hours to decide. She received a phone call that day. “They came back,” Milburn says, “with an offer that she couldn’t refuse.”

The deal was confirmed on June 20, while Milburn was also negotiating a deal with Penguin Canada. The Canadian publisher came in with an offer within 24 hours, and the deal was set on June 21. In the United States, the book was sold to Penguin U.S. at auction on June 24.

Translation rights have since been sold to 32 additional publishers, in languages from Arabic to Ukrainian; 20 of those deals were done within two weeks of the U.K. sale.

“It was the fastest submission process we’ve ever dealt with,” says Milburn – unheard of for a first-time, unknown novelist.

“The speed with which this happened and the responses we had from multiple publishers in every market across the world – they were just glowing,” Milburn says, “with responses saying how much the book had meant to them, got to them, and they all wanted to publish it. To see it happen that quickly – and she was on the phone, back-to-back phone calls with publishers all around the world – that’s extraordinary.”

Then came the film rights, which were sold after a nine-way auction.

One of the interested parties was David Heyman, whose Heyday Films produced the Harry Potter films, as well as, more recently, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood.

“He called me personally,” Milburn says, “and spoke to me for an hour about how much this book had got to him, and how he kept thinking about his own parenting and everything that he’d done throughout his life. So that was really remarkable. You usually don’t get the producer calling you to tell you this.”

Heyman wanted to meet Audrain in person. Over breakfast in London, he shared his vision. The deal went to his company. Expect announcements about the production soon, Milburn says.

The book was published on Jan. 5, with glowing reviews in publications that include The Guardian and the New York Times, and the announcement that Good Morning America had selected the novel as its January Book Club pick.

“I think it’s a literary phenomenon and I’m excited that the whole world is going to be reading it,” Milburn says.

Audrain is now working on the second book of this two-book deal, while raising two young children during a pandemic lockdown.

“In so many ways it is absolutely life-changing. There is no denying it. It’s a life I never thought I’d be able to have, being able to write for a living. That was my wildest dream,” says Audrain, whose kids were downstairs watching Paw Patrol while we spoke. “And then at the same time, I remember doing these calls with these publishers when all of this was happening that summer, I had the phone [in one hand] and cleaning up the yogurt my kid spilled on the carpet with the other. Everything changes, and yet nothing does.”

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