Books·How I Wrote It

How his mother's cancer diagnosis inspired playwright Jordan Tannahill to turn to fiction

The Governor General's Literary Award-winning playwright discusses how he wrote his debut novel, Liminal.
Jordan Tannahill is a playwright, director and author. (House of Anansi/Lacey Creighton)

Jordan Tannahill is a playwright and multidisciplinary artist who recently published his first novel, Liminal. Set during the split second between seeing his mother on her bed and not knowing if she is alive or dead and learning the answer, Liminal explores a man's relationship with his terminally ill mother — and what grief and death can mean for the living. Tannahill won the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award for drama for Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays.

Tannahill spoke with CBC Books about how he wrote Liminal.

Reasons for writing

"My mother was diagnosed with terminal illness, or stage 4 cancer. That put me into a bit of a tailspin, in terms of it provoking fundamental questions around mortality, consciousness and the frameworks through which we understand those things. My mother has a spiritual framework that allows her to make sense of those unanswerables; I have art.

"Around the same time, I was reading the novel The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. It's an extended monologue that meditates on consciousness; it features an existential and ecstatic awakening. I thought it was a very profound container for a novel.

"I walked into my mother's room around the same time I was reading the book. There was a split second where I saw her lying in bed where I could almost see her death prefigured in that moment. I felt an instant panic; we sat and talked about it afterward but that split second stayed with me for the rest of the day. I wanted to explore that instant and to understand what actually transpired."

A solitary act

"I moved to London to be with my partner. I had no other friends, or other commitments there, so I had hours in the day to read and write. I sort of had a monastic practice of going to the library every day to write. I didn't try to overthink or censor myself during writing. I convinced myself I wasn't working on a book, because if I knew I was I would have freaked myself out and abandoned it."  

A playwright learns prose

"I allowed myself time to explore and essentially teach myself how to write prose. Like many writers, I have folders of projects or novels long abandoned. But even those abandoned efforts were all opportunities for me to hone the voice of my prose. I have the opportunity to write for theatre and I understand what it's like to write for bodies, space and for things unfolding in real time. That makes sense to me.

"But understanding how to work with the page alone took me many years to figure that out. That includes the intensive year in London working on this book."

Jordan Tannahill's comments have been edited and condensed.


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