The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow
Inanna Publications, 2017
In late October, my novel The Other Mrs. Smith—a novel centred on electroshock—was published. The fact that the release of such a novel was newsworthy became evident shortly after its launch. I was approached by CTV National News Channel for an interview (http://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=1270212) But days later, I was approached by Amy Pitt for an interview. What follows is the edited version of the second interview; I invite the reader to peruse and ponder it:
AP: This novel traces the life experiences of one highly successful woman who falls prey to electroshock. What inspired you to write it?
BB: In the early 1980s, I was part of group that held hearings into electroshock. And those hearings were an incredible eye-opener. I had known people who has been subjected to electroshock, but the few I knew were men. And so while I had certainly seen terrible damage—nothing like what I witnessed from the legions of women at this hearing. The extent of the memory and other losses was horrifying. And that was the start of my becoming highly involved in the fight to ban electroshock. What followed were decades of research, articles, and activism. Now at one point in the mid 80s, it looked like we had the electroshock industry on the ropes. Then we lost the interest of the press and the public and never got it back. Anyway, after decades of research and activism, I remembered the power of art and embarked on this novel. Could a novel, if powerful enough, lead to a public outcry against shock?, I wondered. So what was my inspiration? Very real people and the very real damage done to them.
AP: Primarily, you wrote it from the perspective of Naomi, the protagonist, who suffers from enormous memory loss. How did you go about writing a novel from the perspective of someone who can’t remember much of anything?
BB: That was the struggle; and that, the gambit. As I was keenly aware, all instructions on how to write novels warn you against writing from the first person where the person has been severely damaged or traumatized. And I could totally see why. Nonetheless, I knew from the get-go that this was the only way to do it if the reader was to end up really understanding. So I took the plunge. Decided to write it from inside the head of a brain-damaged narrator. And indeed, writing from the first person virtually forced me into her perspective.
AP: Did you have to employ any special strategies to tell the story?
BB: Well there was no problem getting into her head—none, for I had been making common cause with shock survivors for decades. The issue was: How was she to tell a story when she cannot remember? Also, how do I ensure that reader does not get drowned in her problems? What did I do? I started employing two devices early on in the project. One was to switch back and forth between pre-shock days—when her memory was good—and her post-shock life. The second was to invent point-of-view characters and allow the novel to occasionally drift into the third person narrative from their points of view—for that way we could learn the odd thing that we that we needed to know but that Naomi was in no position to tell us. Those were the two main devices. But even doing that did not come close to addressing the biggest problem facing me. The point is, narrating a novel primarily from within the head of someone who could not remember her story was crazy-making for I kept running into dead ends. Anyway, a couple of years into the project, I decided: I can’t take this any more. I want my life back. And I can get my life back. All I have to do is stop writing this novel. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt: Yes, I can’t get my life back. But shock survivors cannot get their lives back. Which means that I have to continue and to do it well. Herein lie the moral imperative. And once I took that in, I solved problem after problem. And in the process, the novel grew richer and richer.
AP: I get that. Let me ask you something somewhat different. They say that all writing is autographical. Where’s Bonnie in this?
BB: Besides the concern over shock? Like the protagonist, I spent most of my life in two cities—Toronto and Winnipeg. Now Naomi loves Winnipeg, not Toronto, and I’m the opposite. So I asked myself, if you loved Winnipeg, what would you love about it? Also I found myself drawing on the type of arguments that my best friend and I have when I scripted quarrels between Naomi and her sister. One way or another, your life always flows into the fiction that you write, and in the absence of that, you just cannot write anything deep.
AP: I’ve heard you refer to this as very much a Canadian novel. How so?
BB: Two Canadian cities come alive in the novel, Toronto and Winnipeg—especially Winnipeg. We are led to shiver at the cold Winnipeg winter. We are introduced to the legendary flooding of the Red River. Aspects of Canadian history—the Winnipeg General Strike, for instance—are frequently referenced. We experience Kensington Market in its heyday. We get a taste of Newfoundland. So, yes, this is quintessentially Canadian. Let me just add, it is at the same time a Turtle Island novel, if I may call it that. An Indigenous theme runs throughout. We witness the oppression of Indigenous people. We make the acquaintance of a remarkable Indigenous man named “Jack”. And we see Indigenous wisdom. When Naomi does not know what to do, she calls to mind Jack—and suddenly, she knows.
AP: Which reminds me, this novel has a huge rich cast of well developed characters. Who’s your favourite and why?
BB: Hands down, Naomi. That said, if I were to choose another, it would be Ger. Ger is a trans man. He is also the kindest and most sensitive soul in the novel—the sort of guy we would all dearly love to have as a friend. And we see him thoughtfully make the connection between his struggles and those of other oppressed people. And then there is his uncanny eye. He realizes early on that there is a secret lurking between the lines in some writing of Naomi’s known as Black Binder Number Three. But let me ask, Amy: Who’s your favourite?
AP: One of the many characters that I love is Naomi’s father. His kindness, his spirituality, his open-mindedness, his connection with nature. My favourite scene is when he takes the girls outside to feed the birds. It reminds me of my own father. You know, we can all identify with your characters, for they link up one way or another with our own lives. Okay, a more literary question: How’s this novel different from the other famous novel about electroshock—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
BB: Let me say from the outset, that Kesey’s is a truly terrific novel for Kesey is an exceptional writer. At the same time, his novel does not provide either an intricate or an accurate depiction of electroshock. On one level, we are left with the impression that electroshock mainly befalls men, when two to three times as many women as men are shocked. Moreover, women are way more damaged by it. Nor is there any exploration of the damage done. Now it is a fascinating novel, but I would have to add, it is also a sexist novel. The primary adversary in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Big Nurse—a woman, in other words, not the patriarchal figures who actually have the power. By contrast, in The Other Mrs. Smith I lay bare the reality of electroshock. In other words, my novel is once experiential, true-to-life, and what goes along with this, a feminist novel. I was trying to show what happens to women in this patriarchal society and what happens to women with electroshock—the sheer violence against women involved.
To move beyond the question of Kesey, you know, every woman survivor that I have ever known—and I’ve literally known hundreds—have overlapping stories to tell. Which leads me to this point: While the character Naomi is very individual, there is a way in which some version of what befalls her not only has befallen many women, but beyond that, could happen to any woman. You know, the morality plays mounted in the Middle Ages typically contained a character called “Everyman”. And, as unique as Naomi is, what we gradually come to realize, if I may coin a term, is that Naomi is “Every-Woman”. What happened to her happened ultimately for no reason other than that she is a woman. So we see the plight of Every-Woman in Naomi. We also see the wondrous strength of Every-Woman. A testament in itself to the beauty of the human spirit.
AP: Yes, we do indeed see her heroically and brilliantly rebuild a life. Bonnie, congratulations on writing an exceptional novel. You have written a highly lyrical novel. You have provided a sobering account with such grace and tenderness that it speaks to the paradox of what it means to be human. There is something here for everyone.
BB: Humour, pathos, ingenuity, comraderie, activism, mystery, insight.
AP: All and all, a stunning work of art. And I imagine many people will be itching to dip into it over the holidays. So one more question: Where can one pick it up?
BB: From libraries. From the publisher’s website (https://www.inanna.ca/catalog/other-mrs-smith/), from Amazon. Also, from local bookstores. For example, in Toronto, Book City on the Danforth has the equivalent of signed copies.
AP: Good to hear. Congratulations again.