“There’s something about the San Diego sun that always brings out the darkness in me.”
To hear Mona Awad talk about it, a stay in San Diego was exactly the right thing to do to complete her third novel “Alles gut” (Simon & Schuster). The book is a darkly comical story of a once aspiring actor turned college theater director grappling with chronic pain, and is mainly set in an unnamed town somewhere on the New England coast.
And while Awad admits that it seems “strange” that the book was mostly written on one coast but set on another, she says that the tone of the book is largely San Diego.
“The sun, the movement towards the sun, the ocean and the unsettling ecstasy, that’s all San Diego,” says Awad, who, after a semester of teaching at Syracuse University, rented an Airbnb by the sea in La Jolla.
“It really was the most incredible creative experience I’ve ever had,” she continues. “The book just unfolded when I got there. I wrote everything there within a month. The natural beauty of the place definitely helped shape the book. I remember the book not only as a book, but also as a place because it was such a magical experience. “
This magic extends to the story that unfolds in “Alles gut”. The book’s protagonist, Miranda Fitch, suffocated physically and mentally after a series of unfortunate events. Her acting career has washed up, her divorce was uncomfortable and most importantly the stage accident and botched surgery that left her with chronic back pain and addiction to pain medication. Then, as if she has given up completely and is about to lose her teaching job, she is visited by three mysterious benefactors and suddenly things take a fantastic and fantastic turn for the better.
“The first third of the book is filled with this wintry New England desperation,” says Awad, who often strolled along the La Jolla coast several times a day and listened to the productions of “Macbeth” for inspiration. “The book begins in winter during the school theater season. So it starts in New England in the winter and Miranda is in terrible pain on the floor and then things start to change because it ends up being a comedy. So the trajectory shifts up to the source, to the sun, and your experience shifts with it. “
In “Alles gut” there are Shakespeare dualities. There is of course the title of the book, a cheeky allusion to the play that Miranda is currently trying to stage (“All’s well that ends well”) and her physical health. However, there is also the fact that it has long been debated whether the Shakespeare title play was a comedy or a tragedy. And just like Shakespeare’s Helena, Miranda is a comically tragic character who doesn’t seem to pause.
“The stage production in the book is obviously ‘All’s well, that ends well,’ because that’s the play, life, and story that Miranda wants for herself,” says Awad, putting some of her own experiences with chronic pain in the Figure infused by Miranda. “But then there is the piece that she has to live, that she doesn’t want, namely ‘Macbeth’.”
In addition to Miranda’s rebellious students, there is also her unrequited fixation on Hugo, a set designer who has parallels to Count Bertram in Shakespeare’s “Alles gut”.
“Part of the reason I find ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ is so disturbing, weird, and compelling is because Helen, the main character, is so interesting,” says Awad. “She’s so funny, smart, and enterprising, and yet she’s fixated on this guy who doesn’t like her. She moves heaven and earth, she turns the world of the play upside down just to get this man. There was something about this improbable, irrational pull that was just so irresistible to me. “
For Awad, this attraction to the improbable and irrational seems to have always been there. Growing up in Montreal and Mississauga, Canada (Awad jokingly referred to the latter as a “misery saga” in her first novel, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl”), she says that writing magical stories was her escape route.
“I was always a shy kid and I wasn’t always comfortable speaking, but I felt a lot about the things I saw,” recalls Awad. “I was resourceful, but I was scared of a lot of things, so my head kept turning these crazy stories. So writing became a place of freedom and freedom of action, of power. “
While her mother loved a good thriller, Awad has always found her much more drawn to stories that inject magical realism into the plot. That year she published an essay in Vogue telling how films like “The Wizard of Oz” helped her deal with a largely absent father.
“I’ve always felt this concrete reality, if I told this story, I wouldn’t tell the whole truth as I experienced it,” says Awad, whose previous two novels also contained fantastic elements. “That’s why I love ‘The Wizard of Oz’ because it’s an exploration of the truth of the heart, not just the truth. To tell that kind of truth, I would like to have magic and possibilities and wonders with me. “
This particular kind of truth is evident in “All is well”. Awad is a writer talented enough to simply write a comprehensible, straightforward narrative about a woman in pain and happiness. Instead, she wrote something far more exciting: a mystical journey of spectral benefactors, mysterious curses, and limitless magic. Something the bard would have been proud of.
“There is something about playing with the possible,” says Awad. “There is something about the introduction of magic and the supernatural that to me, when I tell a story, makes it seem more true psychologically and emotionally.”
“Alles gut” by Mona Awad (Simon & Schuster, 2021; 368 pages)
Warwick’s gifts Mona Awad
When: Tuesday 4 p.m.
Where: Warwick’s virtual event
Combs is a freelance writer.