The Next Chapter

How a concussion gave Amy Stuart a fresh perspective for her new thriller

In the follow-up to her debut novel Still Mine, the writer articulates trauma through the female characters in Still Water.
Amy Stuart is the writer of the thriller novel Still Water. (CBC)
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Amy Stuart's debut thriller Still Mine came about after a friend suggested she should try writing a novel for her master's thesis. That dare led to a bestseller. Two years later Stuart has released a follow-up,Still Water.

The novel continues the story of her compelling and complicated protagonist Claire, who is hired to track down a missing woman and her son.

Writing with a concussion

"I coach my middle son's hockey team. I got my feet taken out from under me on the ice at practice. I was wearing a helmet, but when you're crashing down at that speed, it's not going to prevent an injury. I had the typical experience where I was headachy and nauseous, but then I thought, 'OK, I'll just pick myself up and keep going'.

"I had trouble sleeping and I had anxiety issues, but I didn't even really associate it with the concussion. Eventually, I started to take steps to address it in a meaningful way and my publishing team was very understanding. It just added this new perspective. In most most lines of work, but particularly as a writer, if you don't have your brain fully operational you can't do your job. I had a period of a few months where I would just stare at the computer. When I got better, the writing came back. Life just comes at you and you get thrown curveballs.

"I think the concussion taught me that, especially as we get older and our bodies change, you just don't have that same kind of control over what's going to happen, whether it's external or even your own health. I think for Claire, and even some of the other women characters in this story, I was really able to understand from a much more empathetic place what it feels like to to have to accept that things are not linear when you're trying to recover from something, whether it's a trauma or an addiction in Claire's case. It's given me a greater capacity with characters to understand that nuance."

Articulating authentic anger

"The research into building a story like this comes down to authenticating it. I want to stay authentic to a person's experience, women's experiences in domestic abuse situations in particular, rather than using it as a device in the story. I read case studies, stories, listen to podcasts and watch documentaries about real women sharing their experiences. Unfortunately, the news is full of stories about this. I think, particularly in the past few years, it's been something that we've been talking about a little bit more directly and openly.

"I was an organizer for the first and second women's march in Toronto. I was very lucky to have a front row seat and to be surrounded by some really strong advocate women in that experience. But, I was also angry about what was unfolding. It seemed like, especially in 2017 when I was in the thick of writing, this was every day. Even now the same is true. Maybe we're just used to it now, but the bombardment of stories [gave me] reasons to feel frustrated or angry... But, I really do think that the anger that has been simmering up to the surface within me really did work its way into the books, through the women and particularly the way they interact with each other."

The dangerous Canadian landscape

"I think, even from Still Mine into Still Water, the setting and how we're beholden to our physical environment is something that interests me a lot — how it limits us or presents a danger to us. Years ago, I remember reading a poem that was on the inside of a subway car in Toronto. It said something like, 'We live in a country where a person can die just from going outside.' That never left me."

Amy Stuart's comments have been edited for clarity and length.

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