Interview: Miriam Toews, The Flying Troutmans

Halfway through my interview with Miriam Toews, sitting on a café patio overlooking Churchill Square, her eyes suddenly lock onto something over my shoulder, and her voice trails off. Then she breaks into a huge, involuntary smile and stands up. “Oh my God,” she whispers. “Holy shit!”

Walking towards us, it turns out, is a friend of Toews’ from many years back who now lives in Edmonton. They hug, excitedly ask how each other’s family is doing, and Toews brings up an old black-and-white photo of them that she still has on her mantel at home in Winnipeg: they’re standing in front of a beat-up VW van, their kids all knee-high, their faces enviably wrinkle-free. (This last bit is mostly bravado: Toews is 44, but could easily pass for 28.) It’s a time Toews looks back on fondly: “When we got out of bed and nothing ached — we jumped out of bed!”

This story, which takes her all of 10 seconds to tell, is charming, and direct, and told with real warmth. It makes everyone involved grin, partly because Toews makes no attempt to downplay its potential cheesiness. In short, it’s exactly the kind of anecdote that abounds in her winning new book, The Flying Troutmans.

While ostensibly a road-trip novel, The Flying Troutmans is really about the strange and strangely unbreakable bonds between family. The book opens with a woman named Hattie receiving a phone call from her frantic 11-year-old niece Thebes, who tells her that her mom is in the throes of another psychotic episode, her older brother Logan is flunking out of school, and would she mind getting on the first plane from Paris to Winnipeg and making everything better? Hattie, of course, rushes to the scene, and once her sister Min is safely checked into a hospital for treatment, she loads the kids into the family’s Ford Aerostar and — in an effort to distract them as well as find a replacement parent that isn’t her — sets off south to track down their long-absent father.

In person, Toews is an engaging and instantly lovable figure, and never more so than when talking about her characters, whom she describes with as much care as she does her real children. As you might expect, one of her biggest concerns is making sure that the Troutmans seem true to life.

“I don’t want my dialogue — or the story, period — to be heavy-handed or remotely contrived,” she says. “My characters are often defined by their dialogue, and I work really hard at making it authentic. If that means lots of pauses and ellipses, and just ordinary, awkward dialogue that people have, I’m okay with that.”

In addition to her novels, Toews has contributed to PRI’s This American Life and had a well-received role in the 2007 film Silent Light (whose director, Carlos Reygadas, intentionally casts non-actors). Aside from paying the bills, she says that telling stories is simply how she makes sense of the world.

So what conclusions has she drawn so far?

“Oh, none,” she says, “other than the fact that we’re all alone, and needy, and often alienated from each other and our thoughts. I mean, the world is an awkward, tragic, painful, hard place for so many people so much of the time … and then there are moments of great beauty, great clarity, great connection, splendour, and grace.”

I mention that that’s quite a bleak outlook for someone who’s won humour awards, and she laughs. “That’s where the humour comes from, a lot of the time,” she adds.

Not that her readers need convincing of her abilities. Toews’ previous novel, 2004’s A Complicated Kindness, won the Governor General’s Award and the 2006 Canada Reads competition, and can still be found in many a bookstore’s staff picks section. The Flying Troutmans seems poised to continue that winning streak — it’s been number one on the Canadian fiction charts since its release earlier this month.

Despite her conquest of the Canadian literary scene, however, Toews is still seen as something of an unknown property in other countries. (A recent interview on the high-profile American literary blog Bookslut was done as part of their “Indie Heartthrob” series.) She’s on a smaller, independent press in the United States, and her upcoming tour there will be much more low-key than the 10-city, cross-country jaunt she’s just completed here.

Still, being an up-and-comer may have its advantages. When I confess that before I read The Flying Troutmans, I assumed Toews would be a bad writer simply because of how popular she is, she nods with understanding.

“See, I get that,” she says. “And that concerns me. That would be exactly my reaction too.”

Knopf Canada, 288 pp, $32, hardcover

(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, September 25, 2008)