How I Wrote It

Mona Awad: How I wrote 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Mona Awad talks about writing her debut novel, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Mona Awad is the author of the novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. (Penguin Canada/Mona Awad)

Mona Awad's debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, has struck a chord with readers — it won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The book follows a sharp-voiced young woman named Lizzie, who struggles with her weight as a teenager and then with her weight loss as an adult. Fatness and skinniness seem to factor into all of Lizzie's relationships, feeding the tension in this compelling, compact debut. 

Awad sat down with CBC Books to talk about the process of writing 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

First vision

"I had this vision of a girl in a dressing room struggling with a dress and just outside the change room door, her mother and a sales clerk were waiting for her to come out. Then I thought of the title, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, because I didn't want to write just about that scene. I wanted that girl to have sex, to go to lunch with a friend that she idolizes, to lose weight and see what happens to her when she undergoes that physical transformation. Does she change? I wanted to take her back to the dressing room and see if she was encountering the same demons."

Silencing the critic

"I like to write in silence and without distractions. There's also something brave-making about the morning. I have a lot of problems, as a writer, trusting myself. Writing early in the morning quiets any inner critic that you might have.

"The more conscious I become in the day, the more I do tend to censor myself as a writer. In the morning you're tired; you're still in that state of sleeping and waking. There's something about that time that makes me more inclined to trust that little voice that you need to tap into to write a story."

The scene she wrote over 40 times

"The stories about the mother-daughter relationship were really hard. I think mother-daughter dynamics are hard to capture in fiction. In this one, the mother-daughter dynamic is really informed by weight. The mother is struggling with her weight and my main character has lost weight, so there are a lot of different emotions going on in those scenes. Initially, when I wrote them it was just a mother and daughter having dinner and it was tense. It just wasn't working for me at all, but I was writing that scene over and over and over again. I probably wrote it 40 times and finally I abandoned it. Then when I came up with this idea of, 'My Mother's Idea of Sexy' [which became a chapter in the book]. There was a lightness and playfulness in that that let me be more dreamy about it, and let me tap into the dynamics that were going on under the surface."

Post-writing playlist

"I made a playlist for almost every story. I wouldn't ever listen to it when I was working on the story. I would listen to it when I was not working on it — when I was just going for walks or whatever. It helped me stay in the world and helped me be creative about it, so it was an important part of my process. Nina Simone was a big person — there's a story about Lizzie dating a jazz musician, so for that story the playlist had Peggy Lee and Nancy Sinatra and Chet Baker. For the chapter 'When We Went Against the Universe,' I had people like Nick Cave and Depeche Mode and Lee Hazlewood. For 'My Mother's Idea of Sexy,' I had a lot of The Rolling Stones."

Mona Awad's comments have been edited and condensed.

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