Grace O'Connell's Magnified World

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First aired on The Next Chapter (24/9/12)

In Magnified World, Grace O'Connell's debut novel, Maggie Pierce is 23 years old. She grew up in downtown Toronto, with a father who was a professor and a mother who owned a new age shop. But this life is thrown into chaos when her mother walks into a river, with her pockets filled with stones, and drowns herself.

O'Connell was interested in exploring the tension between perception and reality, and Maggie's mother's death forces Maggie to confront this head on. "I'm so interested in the idea whether we can know somebody else, whether that person is our mother or partner or friend," O'Connell told The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview. "I think people are strange, unknowable creatures."


As Maggie realizes she never really knew her mother, the cracks in the rest of her world start to widen as well. She begins to experience blackouts, presumably caused by grief, and these blackouts make Toronto, the city she knows, loves and feels safe in, a dark and dangerous place. "The blackouts really become the manifestation of what she's going through," O'Connell said. As they become more frequent, Maggie withdraws in order to protect herself. "She's getting boxed into smaller and smaller spaces with fewer and fewer options of how she can deal with what's happening and the blackouts herd her into a very desperate place."

Like Maggie, O'Connell is a young woman living in Toronto. But that's where the similarities end. O'Connell grew up outside the city, not downtown. And she's never experienced the loss of a parent, as Maggie does. "There was some anxiety around do I have the right to put this into a book? To feel these feelings? To assume I could know this experience without experiencing it," O'Connell admitted. But she also found the process liberating. "I didn't have to be true to my own experience. I only had to be true to Maggie's."

Like any good writer, O'Connell did mine her past experiences to make Maggie's story feel authentic. "The best tool for writers really is to extrapolate from your own experience without being dependent on it," she said. "So you take a small kernel of emotion that you yourself have felt and you explode it through the lens of your character."

O'Connell's love for the city is also evident in Magnified World. But the novel is more than a love letter to Toronto. It also is an exploration of how cities and people intersect. Toronto is a "surrogate mother" to Maggie, and in many ways, Maggie's relationship with the city parallels her relationship with her mother. "A city is unknowable the way a person is unknowable," O'Connell said. "It's always changing. It's unmappable in the way it paves over itself as new buildings open and are torn down [and] restructured, and streets change."

While O'Connell had to go to very dark places to write this book -- and ended up calling her parents far more often as a result -- she believes she's still not ready to face the death of a loved one. She thinks it's an experience nothing can prepare you for. "There is no way to be familiar with death. There is no way to be prepared for that kind of loss," she said. "It's a force you have to find a path through, there's no way to have a map."

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