Books

Cary Fagan's The Student was inspired by the opportunities his mother never had

The Student is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, one of the Fagan's two nominations in 2019.
The Student is a novel by Cary Fagan. (Freehand Books, caryfagan.com)

The Student by Cary Fagan opens in the late 1950s as a University of Toronto student named Miriam enters her final year with dreams of going to graduate school. Miriam is crushed when a favourite English professor tells her that women have no place in higher education. She finds solace in an affair with a free-spirited American student. 

Nearly five decades later, Miriam helps with her son's wedding preparations and finds herself thinking about the past.

The Student is nominated for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Fagan is also nominated in the Governor General's Literary award for children's literature — illustration category for the picture book King Mousewhich is illustrated by Dena Seiferling.

The winners of the 2019 Governor General Literary Awards will be announced on Oct. 29.

Fagan talked to CBC Books about how he wrote his novel, The Student.

Motherly inspiration

"In a funny way, it came from thinking about my mother. I haven't even told my mother this. She's 93. My mother didn't get to go to university. Her parents were Jewish immigrants, who came in the 1920s. My mother was born into a house on Nassau Street in Kensington Market in Toronto and grew up downtown. Her dad was a fur cutter on Spadina Avenue. He died suddenly when she was in high school. My mother had to quit school and go to work, so she couldn't finish high school and didn't get to go to university. I was thinking about what might have happened if my mother had other opportunities.

"My character Miriam, a young woman who goes to the University of Toronto, came through my mother not having had a chance to go. Miriam's nothing like my mother, but that's where it began."

Writing women characters

"Writing about a woman character is certainly a challenge because I am a man. I wanted to create an interesting character and be respectful of my character but also not excessively restricted by that respectfulness — allowing her to behave badly, for example.

I was thinking about what might have happened if my mother had other opportunities.- Cary Fagan

"I had this idea of Miriam as this ambitious, intellectual young woman who has hopes to go on to graduate school. I didn't know how many obstacles there would be for a woman in the 1950s wanting a higher education, especially in a fairly conservative institution like the University of Toronto. I read and talked to people and discovered that women were discouraged in a very heavy-handed way, from trying to go to graduate school and take up positions that would be 'better' occupied by a man. I didn't know that was going to be part of the story when I started.

"I spoke to journalist and author Michele Landsberg for the book. She went to University of Toronto, a few years after my character Miriam did. Michele was interested in going into graduate school and was told the same thing that Miriam gets told.

"I borrowed a little bit from Michele. She was told that no one would ever hire her to teach, that she'd probably just drop out eventually to get married and have babies and she was going to fill a space that she didn't deserve. That struck me and I knew that Miriam would have to encounter the same problems."

Toronto of the 1950s

"The first part of the book is set in 1957, which is the year I was born. I was interested in thinking about the world that my parents lived in and the world that I was born into. I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s. Toronto didn't change that quickly in those years. Some of the places Miriam goes to in the book still existed. She goes, for example, to a roller skating rink on Mutual Street. I went there with my high school friends. It's what Henry James called the visible past. You could still sense it — and also the more restricted narrowness of Toronto back then.

Toronto's a city I've always lived. I am, for better or worse, stuck here.- Cary Fagan

"I'm the product of that period, whether I know it or not. I look at my own kids who are now young adults. They grew up in a very different Toronto — a diverse Toronto, where far more interesting issues were being talked about in a global environment, with access to so much.

"Toronto's a city I've always lived in. I am, for better or worse, stuck here. It's the one place where I feel most comfortable. I am interested in knowing where it came from, how it got here, where it might go. "

Cary Fagan's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews from the How I Wrote It series here.

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