Books·How I Wrote It

Méira Cook's The Full Catastrophe is a frank and funny coming-of-age story about finding your own path

The award-winning Winnipeg author's fourth novel is a story about identity, community and the journeys that secrets can set in motion.

'Anyone's story that is told is dependent on the other forces of storytelling.'

Méira Cook is an award-winning novelist and poet based in Winnipeg. (House of Anansi)

Winnipeg novelist Méira Cook's new novel, The Full Catastrophe, reads like a tragi-comic film with a unique cast of characters: there's protagonist Charlie Minkoff, a 13-year-old boy born with intersex traits; his grandfather Oscar, a Holocaust survivor and Charlie's best friend; his mother Jules, an unconventional artist who's lost her ability to speak; even their dog, Gellman, is a fully fleshed-out presence.

Charlie's quest to honour his grandfather with the bar mitzvah he never had leads him on a journey that's both humorous and thoughtful — one that teaches him what it means to be truly yourself.

Johannesburg-born, Winnipeg-based Cook is the author of the novels Once More With Feeling, which won the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award; The House on Sugarbush Road, which won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award; and Nightwatching, which won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction.

She has also published five poetry collections, including Monologue Dogs, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry and the 2016 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. She was the winner of the 2007 CBC Poetry Prize and the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize in 2012.

Cook spoke with CBC Books about taking her time to craft a tale about a teenager on the path towards figuring out who he really is — through taking in the stories of those closest to him.

Drafting dialogue

"Dialogue is a really interesting animal. You can't just listen to people and take it down as a sort of Harriet the Spy. Dialogue is quite complicated, because what people say is fairly prosaic. So you have to create something that reads like dialogue, but sounds like fiction — that gives the interest, the added little kick of irony, etc."

Getting to the heart of the narrative

"Writing this novel did take time — I'd say between five to seven years. That was in part because I had to try to work my way into the material. I wanted to write a what was really a love story about the deep friendship between two men: the friendship between 13-year-old Charlie Minkoff, the boy with intersex traits, and his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor — who, despite their differences in age and experience, are really lifelong confidants and best friends.

Although I used very little of my research directly, it did help me gain a grounded sense of the personal and political issues that were at stake.

"But in order to write about the intersex part of the story, I needed to do so much research — that was for me a very important thing, to read memoirs on transitioning and intersexuality, as well as journal articles, conference papers — things that were very difficult to figure out and interpret.

"And although I used very little of my research directly, it did help me gain a grounded sense of the personal and political issues that were at stake, because I realized that although Charlie's medical issues are important to him, they weren't the most important thing about his journey into adulthood. And I wanted to frame the narrative as one in which his interesting journey is not the most important thing about him. Writing him was a profound experience."

Character study

"The characters did develop along the way, as they always seem to. I think I'm most comfortable writing about ensemble casts, because I feel as if we're all connected — and particularly in the city that I wasn't born in, but that is my adopted home of Winnipeg. Usually everybody knows everybody else, and our stories connect; and anyone's story that is told is dependent on the other forces of storytelling.

"To a large extent, Oscar is trying to get Charlie to tell his own story. And I tried to illustrate this in the novel, from all the different ways of telling a story — through emails, computer files, even biblical exegesis through Oscar's sermon — to show that even though it's important to tell our own story, we do so in the context of other people's lives and narratives and bodies."

Everyone has their own story

"I think people's own experience is so interesting and so profound. It was important for me to share Charlie's story — I didn't always know his story, but in writing The Full Catastrophe, I came to know it. And there's Charlie's wonderful grandfather saying to him, 'You know, you can't become a man until you know your story and become the author of your own life.'

As a writer, I don't start off knowing what is going to happen, and there are such interesting things that happen along the way.

"In a way, during the years that I was writing the book, I had my ear pressed up against listening to Charlie's story as it unfolded for me. As a writer, I don't start off knowing what is going to happen — I don't know everything about my characters. And there are such interesting things that happen along the way: you're startled by changes, by acts of indiscretion, by things that are overheard.

"And so I think part of the joy of writing the book was discovering Charlie's story through his interaction with characters that seem to know their own stories — but are not always the storytellers that they first appear to be, such as his mother, Jules. She's an artist — she manipulates first-person point of view. But in the end, I discovered that she was going to do this quite terrible act of appropriating his voice — something I wasn't initially aware of, but ended up being quite interesting."

Listen | Méira Cook speaks with CBC Winnipeg about The Full Catastrophe:

Sense of place

"In setting my novels in places that I know, I think I start to understand the underpinning of what makes a city. In this case, Charlie and his mum live in the Exchange District of Winnipeg, a downtown area filled with immigrants, artists and renegades of all stripes. And the way some parts of the city, like where Charlie lives, are poised between renewal and gentrification means that there's a precarity that those residents face."

Balancing act

"Humour is the most difficult thing to write for me — not because I don't have an appreciation of humour in all situations, but you do have to tread a very fine line between humour and seeing the situations that your characters find themselves in as important and profound to them.

It was a balancing act to find a form of humour that is life-affirming and warm, rather than makes light of people with very real difficulties and serious issues.

"And being aware that you can sometimes come off as being overly ironic or glib, and then you lose the sense of pathos that I thought was important. So it was kind of a balancing act to find a form of humour that is life-affirming and warm, rather than makes light of people with very real difficulties and serious issues."

Méira Cook's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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