How I Wrote It

Janice Lynn Mather's novel was 15 years in the making — now it's a Governor General's Literary Award finalist

The Canadian-Bahamian writer discusses how she wrote her debut novel, Learning to Breathe.
Learning to Breathe is Janice Lynn Mather's debut novel. (Simon & Schuster)

After 15 years of rewrites and edits, Vancouver-based Bahamian writer Janice Lynn Mather finished her debut novel. Learning to Breathe is a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl named Indira who, burdened by her mother's reputation within her family and community, attempts to forge her own path. When Indy is sent to live with relatives in Nassau, Bahamas, troubles emerge, including an unwanted pregnancy that she must hide from her aunt. The novel follows Indy as she searches for a place to call home.

In her own words, Mather discusses how she wrote Learning to Breathe.

Learning to Breathe is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.

Different experiences

"Growing up, I was quite sheltered and naive about the different home experiences that children have. Then, at a certain point in time, I started to hear about things that had happened to very ordinary girls who were just like me, but were in a household where someone made them feel uncomfortable, was interacting with them in a way that was wrong or they experienced some sort of assault — even rape. It was something that I had been unaware of. Something about those experiences stuck with me. That's how the character of Indy started to form, thinking about how someone would actually cope and deal with a situation like that."

Guiding character

"When I started the story, I didn't know where that character was going to end up. It was just a matter of wanting to spend time with her. I felt like when I was writing the story the character was showing me where it was that she was ending up. One of the themes — thinking about and exploring responsibility had been on my mind for a while and kept coming to the forefront. Growing up and even now, it wasn't unusual to hear that if someone experienced sexual assault, they had somehow brought it on themselves, by dressing a particular way, being from a particular area or in a particular place at a particular time."

Taking a step back

"It definitely challenged me at times, like, 'Am I on the right track with this story?' The rejection process always gives you the occasional moment of pause or doubt. But [this story] was definitely something I felt needed to be told. I am particularly thankful for one piece of criticism that influenced a significant revision — it was along the lines of the story feeling quite heavy and hopeless at times, which is definitely not what I wanted. It made me step back and look at the story more objectively. I thought the manuscript was much stronger after. The goal was to make sense of an experience that is difficult and also quite common. I felt like I owed it to the story to get it to the best possible version of itself. I'm excited to see it out in the world."

A love of words

"There's a lot of reading and a lot of love of words. In my house growing up, we had one TV channel until my early teens. What my mom did was read with us. We read a lot of books. We read our own books for school, for fun and then sometimes we would read books together. Well into my mid-teens, my mom and I — in the evenings — would just read aloud to each other. And my dad was a minister, so it was a regular thing for there to be a lot of writing going on in the house. He would be working on sermons. I got that love from both of my parents."

Janice Lynn Mather's comments have been edited and condensed.

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