Canadian novelist Mona Awad has lived with pain for years. A hip problem necessitated surgery – the surgery was not successful, and the subsequent recovery was long and difficult. Because Awad was unstable on her legs for so long during that period, she herniated two discs in her back, which caused intense neurological symptoms down both of her legs. It affected her ability to walk, to sit, to drive. She had to cancel literary events; she couldn’t go grocery shopping, or even close a window. Having a meal at a restaurant was impossible.
“Suddenly everything became very, very hard,” Awad says in an interview from Boston, where she lives. “My whole working life, my social life, my romantic life – all of that started to become shaped by this ongoing experience that was also invisible. Nobody could see what I was dealing with, because it was all neurological. It was a really kind of a dark period for me where I just didn’t know if it would ever get better.”
This went on for years. Awad, now 42, saw specialists and went through physical therapy. She did her teaching work while standing up, leaning hard onto a desk or table to take the weight off her hip – a strategy a physiotherapist suggested. She wrote much of her previous novel, Bunny, literally on her back, using a Korean reclining desk she found on eBay.
Awad’s new novel All’s Well, released this week, is very much shaped by her own experience of chronic pain – as well as Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Macbeth, and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
“I was feeling helpless and powerless, and I started dreaming about what it would feel like to suddenly be well – and that’s what led me to Shakespeare,” Awad says. “Shakespeare has these incredible reversals of fortune in his plays where people who are just in the absolute depths can rise, and people who are at the absolute top can fall. And so the plays really became fascinating to me as I was going through this really difficult ordeal.”
All’s Well stars Miranda Fitch, a professor at a Massachusetts college’s tiny, “decrepit” theatre department. Miranda has symptoms and a medical backstory similar to Awad’s – except in Miranda’s case, her downfall began with a tumble off a stage during a performance, back when she was a beloved actor. Break a leg? Suddenly everything was broken: Miranda’s career, her marriage, her sanity.
And yet she must make a living. She lies her way into her teaching job and drags herself through the motions dressed in her cardigan sweater, pockets loaded down with painkillers.
One fateful year, she decides to direct a production of All’s Well That Ends Well – over the objections of her students; the kids want to do Macbeth. All’s Well may be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, but it is the show in which Miranda found stardom. She forces it down the students’ throats.
Awad’s novel was also inspired by British theatre company Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an immersive take on Macbeth staged in a New York warehouse. The audience moved through various rooms – masked and silent – and could follow any character. Awad, in the depths of her chronic pain, followed one of the witches – and ended up at an orgy scene.
Witchcraft, magic, the supernatural – whatever you want to call it – was something Awad, in her despair, was thinking a lot about. In addition to physiotherapists, she was visiting New Age and occult shops, and having a friend read her tarot cards. Awad says it’s not unusual for suffering and desperation to push patients outside the traditional medical system – which she says can be narrow-minded, denying patients’ lived experiences, especially those of women. “But then you kind of wander beyond that and ... there are charlatans and snake-oil salesmen and lots of other kind of disturbing … shadow institutions,” she says.
“I was interested in that with All’s Well. Miranda’s desperation leads her to a shadow source of help. And I think that would be so easy for anyone in her situation; it would be so easy for them to fall under that spell – I certainly have myself.”
Awad’s knack for observation and appreciation of stories with an outsider’s perspective began at an early age. Born in Montreal to a French-Canadian mother and Egyptian father, Awad moved to Ontario when she was 13 – first Mississauga, then Toronto – and after doing her undergrad at York University, headed to the U.S., where she received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Denver. She is currently an assistant professor in the creative writing MFA program at Syracuse University.
Her first book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, was shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, as well as the Colorado Book Award. Bunny, published in 2019, was another award-winner. All’s Well feels like a natural progression from Bunny – another darkly funny novel set in a slightly askew world of academia and mean girls.
From the first sentence, Miranda feels like a friend. As you follow her through her nightmare, you can’t help but root for her – in spite of her small-mindedness, her malice, her squirm-inducing behaviour. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe.
Awad also employs otherworldly elements to take the novel into the realm of the fantastical – which, like in theatre, calls on the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.
“The stage extends beyond just the theatre and the school where Miranda teaches and directs. She is living another play offstage, so the stage extends beyond that physical theatre – and that allowed me to play with the borders of reality,” Awad says.
While it might be fictional, Awad wrote the book with the intent that it might offer some hope for others also suffering from chronic pain. It provides a glimpse of the euphoria that comes with finally feeling well after horrendous agony.
“It’s a joy and elation that I think you can only truly feel after you know what it’s like to really endure deep anxiety and pain about your condition,” Awad says.
After years of suffering, Awad describes herself now as “better than I was at my absolute worst.” But she still struggles. Time has helped. Meditation too.
“Part of the awful experience of chronic pain is just the anxiety – the fear that it’s always going to be that way; your body is never going to change,” she says. “Meditation, because it teaches you to sort of go moment to moment, it shows you that yes, things change all the time. Nothing stays the same. And that made me more hopeful.
“When I was finally able to go for walks again, I just thought: You can never take walking for granted,” she recalls. “You can never take being able to get into your car and driving to a nearby town for granted. You can never take those things for granted again.”
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