The Next Chapter·Q&A

Mona Awad's latest novel All's Well explores personal pain, suffering and self-doubt set to Shakespeare

The Canadian author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing her new book.

'I love using the fantastic to explore the real'

Mona Awad is a Montreal-born short story writer and novelist. (Brigitte Lacombe)

This interview originally aired on Sept. 11, 2021.

For years, Canadian author Mona Awad lived with chronic debilitating pain. It was invisible and invasive — creeping its way into every aspect of her life.

Awad, who is now based in Boston, is the author of the short story collection 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, the Colorado Book Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the novel Bunnya surreal fairy tale set at an elite American university. Bunny is being developed into a television series by AMC.

She returned in 2021 with All's Well, a novel that explores her relationship and experience with pain through the eyes of Miranda Finch, a pill-popping theatre professor living with chronic pain, but everyone around her questions whether she's truly sick. As Miranda teeters on the edge of losing her job, she starts to believe a stage production of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well will save her.

Awad spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing All's Well.

Is there something you're exploring with all your novels?

I'm interested in the different ways that we are lonely. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is exploring the loneliness that you can feel when you are grappling with body image issues — there's that disconnect between how you see yourself and how other people see you. 

We've all felt like an outsider at one point in our lives. I'm interested in those moments and what they bring up.

Bunny is about being an outsider — feeling estranged from your surroundings, which is an experience that I think we've all felt. We've all felt like an outsider at one point in our lives. I'm interested in those moments and what they bring up. 

Your protagonist, Miranda, was a promising actor. Her career came to an end after an accident, so she has debilitating chronic pain. I understand you've had personal experience with chronic pain. How did your experience shape Miranda's? 

I struggled with chronic pain for a number of years. I had a hip injury and had to have surgery for it. It was a rough recovery where I injured my back and ended up having neurological symptoms down both legs. Tasks that I took for granted —  like sitting at a desk, driving to the supermarket, shopping in a supermarket, bending down to get the socks on the bottom shelf — I couldn't do those things anymore. They suddenly seemed impossible.

So with Miranda, I was interested in exploring living with this kind of condition, which is invisible to the outside eye. Nobody could see that I was in pain, but it affects so many aspects of everyday life and your relationships and vital aspects of your life, like your career, your romantic life, your friendships, everything.

Miranda seeks medical advice and help from a series of male doctors, physiotherapists and surgeons — and many of them just dismiss her pain as depression. How ingrained is that perception of women's pain in the medical profession?

I think it's deeply ingrained. That was part of the reason why I wanted to write this book — that feeling of utter helplessness and rage when I would try to communicate my experience to doctors and physical therapists. I felt diminished. I felt denied. I felt dismissed so quickly and it was so crushing it made me doubt myself.

That was the worst part of all, I think, was the self-doubt. That can be a terrifying place.

What I find interesting is you have given Miranda the career of a performer, so she's performing anyway. That creates even another layer of doubt about how much pain she's actually feeling. 

That was why I made her an actor. I do think there's a performance element to sharing pain. I would often find myself performing my pain to my friends, to doctors, just to be able to communicate it, to be able to explain what was happening. 

So I guess that's what I love: I love using the fantastic to explore the real.

Pain is so visceral, and language seems to come up short — I have to perform a little hunch, a rub to our hip or our back. We do this performance. But then by virtue of doing the performance to communicate it, to be understood, we now doubt it because we've performed it. So Miranda is in this interesting place because she is an actor by trade and she's a performer by trade. It's even more fraught for her. 

I found as I was reading All's Well, I was going through what felt like trap doors. You seem drawn to that sort of other world, almost a world of fairy tales. What do you think? 

Something happened when I wrote Bunny. I got so excited about going down this rabbit hole.

There's something in the fantastic that reveals the real profoundly. It reveals the truth of the heart. I've always been interested in how fairy tales do that. They have magic in them. Yes, they have these wish fulfilment and they have these amazing transformations, but they are grounded in emotional and psychological reality. They explore very human fears and desires.

There's something in the fantastic that reveals the real profoundly. It reveals the truth of the heart.

I love All's Well That Ends Well because it is drawn from a fairy tale — it is about a woman who has a dream to fall in love, to be with this man who does not want her. She goes down this fairy tale path to get this man.

It's a questionable journey: Why is she doing all of this just to get this man? But the trajectory comes from a very human place, a very psychologically, emotionally real impulse. 

I guess that's what I love: I love using the fantastic to explore the real.

Mona Awad's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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