Why Shandi Mitchell wrote a novel about the triumph of failure
This interview originally aired on June 7, 2019.
Imagine being a 911 operator answering urgent calls for help from people in extreme situations, an ER nurse fighting to save a life or a police officer investigating the scene of a shocking murder.
Shandi Mitchell's new book The Waiting Hours immerses us in the lives of three first responders. But after the tragic death of a 12-year-old boy, they begin to crack under the immense pressure of their work.
Real world inspiration
"I had borrowed a neighbour's vehicle. They had a police scanner in it and it was a gorgeous day just driving down the highway. At the same time, there was this constant chatter going about all these horrible things happening and it really unsettled me. That I could pass through a world and be so unaware of all the narratives, all these silent stories.
"When I began to think about the idea that we were moving into this age of anxiety, it was before Trump, it was before we had terms in the media like 'Black Lives Matter.' But, there was something building — there was this undercurrent in the world. Then the Boston Bombings happened and all of this started to blend together to raise a question in my mind.
"I see the resilience of people, I see the good, I see humans cracking and failing and falling. I see people standing up again and I have to believe that's our strength. That's how we win."
A traumatic occupation
"Everybody that I met in the field were exceptional professionals, highly trained and deeply serious about their work. But there's a cost. All of these characters are exposed constantly to trauma on their jobs. We as individuals move through life and it can be hard. It can bring loss of life and trauma. Somehow we cope or we try to protect ourselves —we try to navigate it. Some of those choices aren't necessarily the ones that are going to help us the most.
"There's ways you have to shut down. You have to not feel in order to navigate through. But you can't easily be open once you step off the job and come back home. How do we straddle those worlds? How do we turn to the ordinary world? The work is the ordinary world. The general population has no idea what you've experienced. How do you communicate? How do you connect? I don't know if you can, or if people find communities of help who have shared similar stories."
A personal tale
"Writing this book happened through a very difficult time of many losses, many traumas. It was one of the hardest works to hold on to, to find time to write. I think I absorbed the humour a bit; the black humour. A belief that we have just now, so you live it well and don't catastrophize.
"I was here for Hurricane Juan. We had warnings that the storm was coming, but all the assurances at the time were that nothing was going to happen. It was just going to be a blow, it was going to go past us and of course it wasn't a normal blow. It was an incredible on-your-knees awe at what nature can be, what nature is and how insignificant you are."
Inviting the reader in
"I like to try to get a narrative line open for the reader to step in, to lay their stories in alongside and I hope they become another writer to the work, as they leave my fictional characters' stories.
"For The Waiting Hours I wanted to be open at the end, I wanted to keep soaring, I wanted to keep flying and want you to step away with all that you've been through. But in this moment of flight knowing that there'll be other storms and this one may not even arrive. We're gonna keep standing out as a species, we keep moving and now here's another chance."
Shandi Mitchell's comments have been edited for length and clarity.