Books·How I Wrote It

Fawn Parker wrestles with the complexity of memory and trauma in the novel What We Both Know

The Canadian novelist, poet and musician's third novel, set in the wake of the #MeToo movement, takes on issues of abuse and the nature of truth. What We Both Know is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 27, 2022.

What We Both Know is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist

What We Both Know is Canadian writer Fawn Parker's third novel. (Penguin Random House Canada)

The title of Fawn Parker's third novel, What We Both Know, is at once a hint and a ruse — on the surface, the story of a famous older man set in the wake of the #MeToo movement seems all too evident. But its narrative of fractured memory that pushes the reader to consider what truth is — or if it really exists at all — is anything but.

In What We Both Know, protagonist Hillary Greene's father, a famous author, is losing his memory in his old age — and with it, his ability to write. As an aspiring author and his full-time caretaker, Hillary agrees to ghostwrite his memoir — but delving into his past leads to unearthing buried memories of the abuse of her late sister Pauline, who took her own life not long ago.

Based in Toronto and Fredericton, Parker is also the author of the novels Set-Point and Dumb Show. Her story Feed Machine was longlisted for the 2020 McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Toronto and is an incoming PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of New Brunswick.

What We Both Know is on the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 27, 2022.

Parker was named a writer to watch in 2022 by CBC Books. She spoke with CBC Books about tackling thorny issues — including trauma, toxic masculinity, aging and dysfunctional family dynamics — to write What We Both Know.

Channeling urgency

"I started writing the novel in November of 2019, which was funny because it was National Novel Writing Month — I wasn't necessarily doing it for that reason, but I did end up writing it in 30 days. Something just felt so urgent about it.

I think because there was so much urgency in the book, I mirrored that in the way I wrote it."

"I knew that I wanted to write about memory. And I knew I wanted to write about an influential, toxic man. I think because there was so much urgency in the book, I just sort of mirrored that in the way I wrote it."

Character-driven

"I like to start with a scene. And then I start to get to know who the characters are. I'll have them say something, and I think, 'Who would say that? And what did they mean by it?' and then really expand from there.

Shaping plot is a lot of work, but the characters come to me quite organically.

"I'm a character-driven person — when I read, that's what I really am interested in. And I think it's the most natural part for me — I find shaping plot is a lot of work, but the characters come to me quite organically.

"Once I see something that they've said, or I have them sitting together, I find what they do next just feels right. And I can tell when something isn't in character. So I think the real inspiration comes from thinking about these people, and then I have to do the work to write the book around them."

LISTEN | Fawn Parker on The Next Chapter:

Interrogating toxic masculinity

"I wanted to write a male, really famous hyper-celebrity that doesn't exist in CanLit. But what if he did, and what would he be like?

"There's a masculinity that was so accepted in that generation that he was part of — a lot of what he did in the past wouldn't fly in the present day of the book. But it was still part of his daughter's lifetime. I was really focusing on the progression of her life as she grew up and saw society changing and saw that men can't act like that anymore.

I wanted to write a male, really famous hyper-celebrity that doesn't exist in CanLit. But what if he did, and what would he be like?

"As he loses his memory, he also loses himself. And so it's like, 'Where does the abuse go?' It doesn't go away. But he's forgotten it, and society's moving forward. So she's almost trapped with it."

"I think [the abuse that is alluded to in the plot] was something I really wanted to be a bit foggy, even by the end of the book. In some cases, it can be summed up as 'someone did XYZ to another person,' but I think the experience of abuse is so hard to grasp that I don't think Hillary ever really understands the boundaries of it.

"She sees herself as the sister who didn't get harmed — but of course, we can see that she was. I guess I wanted the reader to really be in that mindset of, 'It's not so easy just to leave; it's not easy to walk away,' because abuse is everywhere. It's not just in the physical moment."

Role reversal

"I think I didn't even fully connect it when I was writing, but I was working on the book after my mother passed away that same year. It was such an active role in my life, that reversal of becoming a caregiver to the person who raised you. And it was obviously a conscious block in my mind that I didn't put the two together. But I do think I drew on that very much, the idea of the child becoming a parent and the loneliness of that."

"I think what I found so interesting about Hillary is that she sort of skipped a life stage — she was young and living in Toronto and thinking, 'Do I want to be with someone and have children?' and then all of a sudden, she feels like she's just too old.

There's this idea of a woman feeling like a failure for reasons beyond her control — and yet it's such an interesting time to be a woman, because being alone is not a weakness.

"And then her father is her child, essentially. It's just such an interesting predicament. And maybe something I was afraid of when I was writing her was that I saw myself sort of approaching a future like that.

"There's this idea of a woman feeling like a failure for reasons beyond her control — and yet it's such an interesting time to be a woman, because being alone is not a weakness. I love that she was sort of living in that and not as apologetic for it as people might think she should be."

Fawn Parker's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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