Register Monday | August 8 | 2022

What We Both Know

What We Both Know (McClelland & Stewart), the latest novel by Fawn Parker, weaves together a decades-long tale of abuse. Hillary Greene is a thirty-something arts administrator who has been emotionally and spiritually wrecked by her sister’s death. She’s also been tasked with caring for her father and ghostwriting his memoir. Once an admired Canadian author, he’s been publicly admonished following a series of sexual misconduct allegations from multiple women, including former students. At the same time, his memories are beginning to fade, likely due to an undiagnosed case of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Grappling with her new responsibilities, Hillary slowly begins to remember the horrors of her childhood, including foggy details of her father’s sexual abuse of her sister. As she struggles to write her father's story, she’s faced with the unreliable nature of memory, and the reality that words can't do justice to the complexity of her experience. Still, she must find a way to reveal the truth of her father’s actions—whatever that may be. 

What We Both Know could easily present a narrative where Hillary is perpetually victimized. Yet Parker’s psychological rendering of her protagonist is sharp and dignified, even during Hillary’s lowest moments. A refreshing counterpoint to most abuse novels, this is an urgent account of trauma’s evolution: how it manifests and lingers, even as memory breaks down. In the midst of a mass public reckoning with sexual violence, What We Both Know presents an unsettling yet compassionate portrait of a survivor coming into their own. 

I spoke with Parker about the hierarchy of trauma, the false division between an artist’s work and life, and her parody Twitter account @ILoveCanLit. 

Katia Lo Innes: What We Both Know is, first and foremost, a story about abuse. It’s also a story about how truth is codified in words, Alzheimer's and memory loss, and the Canadian literary scene’s power dynamics. Where did you begin?

Fawn Parker: It began almost in the order of what you were saying. I wanted to write about abuse, and I wanted to write about the relationship to abuse and how that changes—how the abuser can continue to affect you after the incident or the period of time that they're concretely affecting you. I thought memory loss on the part of the abuser was a really interesting thing to explore, and how that affects the victim, and how their relationships with abuse sort of evolves together. It's like a twisted toxic intimacy, but I really wanted to start there. That aligned with CanLit in a way—that was very interesting, too—because I think the Canadian literary scene has a lot of that dynamic as well. There's a lot of toxicity, unfortunately. It's great, but I wanted to address that part of it.

KLI: You also run the very funny parody account @ILoveCanLit. What’s motivating you to represent or confront CanLit in these ways? 

FP: I don't know, I just think it's such a funny place. In one way, it's small enough that we all sort of know each other, and especially on things like Twitter, we're all in conversation all the time, and it feels like this big family. I just felt like there are all these funny tropes, like everyone's saying “Baby’s first” and that you finished your manuscript and then everyone's asking for a big group hug. But at the same time, it's this horrible cutthroat place, and I think there's a lot of humour in the Canadian dichotomy of “We're so serious, but we're also so hokey.” I think that's what I really find funny about it—or it's not funny, because it's also really damaging to a lot of people. 

KLI: I love that tweet that’s like, Acquisitions editor’s girlfriend turns 18.

FP: [Laughs.] I've been the girlfriend, unfortunately.

KLI: The novel is also tracking Hillary’s growth to maturity as an artist. She’s finding her own literary voice as she writes her father's memoir. At one point she notes that he has taught her the “special rules” to art and life, and that these spheres should remain separate. Why did you want to explore this division?

FP: I think there's something to this traditional masculine approach to literature, and I do see it in CanLit still. It's like there's the forefathers and they're still floating around. I'm not thinking of anyone in particular. I just think that the approach to literature can be very masculine and structured and closed, and it's not very inviting. I wanted to show how that—coupled with this toxic character—there's something very anti-feminine or maybe anti-feminist about these hard and fast rules. Separating art and life in that way is another way of quieting victims—you know, these ideas that you can never draw out the truth from works of art, or a woman should never write her true story or never name names. I wanted to shine a light on aspects of the teaching of writing that can be sort of closed, toxic and masculine in an outdated way.

KLI: Hillary is grappling with the truth. While she can remember her father's actions, she’s also storing memories of these events within the memoir. Both of these spaces are muddled, especially as she’s struggling to establish her narrative voice. Could you speak more to how  truth is documented over time in the novel?

FP: It was important for me that the reader have this idea that maybe Hillary's memories are not the complete truth, or not encapsulating what actually happened to her. It's tied into this feeling that we're all outsiders. I feel like every writer I know feels like they're the least writerly person that they know, and I feel that way. I think it's the same with abuse, where everyone feels like they're not enough of the victim. They didn't have it bad enough in this big hierarchy of trauma. I think that those things are very similar, if not the same. I wanted Hillary’s constant question to be: why not me? Why my sister, not me? Why did she get such worse treatment? And does that mean I'm not special? Even though, of course, the treatment was horrific. I hope some readers will start to think that maybe it wasn't just her sister—maybe this character is robbing herself of so much that she doesn't even accept what happened to her. It's not necessarily true either way. I like the mystery of: how much does this woman even accept? Because she's not open to her own value.

KLI: In an interview with Event magazine, you mentioned that you enjoy writing characters that don't have a huge amount of self-awareness. Hillary can fall into this category because she always seems to be teetering on a breakthrough about herself or her father, but doesn’t quite self-actualize. Did you create her psychological profile first, or did it emerge as you crafted the narrative?

FP: It always emerges over time. I knew I wanted to finally write someone that wasn't me. I think this is the first protagonist I've written that wasn't me. The choices I made along the way were just sort of thinking: how would I navigate this situation? How can I imagine somebody else doing this? Then she just formed on her own. We do have in common this self-awareness of the surface and no self-awareness of what's underneath. I feel like that's my fatal flaw. I'm hyper aware of if I did my makeup right, but I have no insight into why I'm so weird. I think that's the same with her.

KLI: There are a lot of relationships that invert traditional power dynamics in the novel. How do the characters in What We Both Know negotiate power?

FP: For Hillary it’s very nebulous, and maybe that's another thing that I drew from my own life to create. I've never really understood the power dynamics that are socially accepted. My family was just like a network of peers, and the ways that can become dysfunctional are very interesting to me. Hillary is her father’s caretaker, but also one of his victims. There’s the motherly figure of Catherine, but she's also a romantic relation [of Hillary’s]. And her sister is older, but also so troubled and lonely that in a way, Hillary becomes the older sister. It’s interesting to explore how these archetypes fall apart as soon as dysfunction takes over. To really be the perfect archetype you have to also have the perfect network, which is just never really possible.

KLI: At first, this seems like a realist novel. But it's also meta, as it tracks the process of writing. And then there are also some surreal, horrific moments, like the dream sequence near the end of the book with the dog, which really struck me—I won’t spoil it for readers. Why did you choose to fuse these genres?

FP: It’s something I've always been interested in exploring. This was my attempt not to go there, and the amount that the horror did come through was just that I think I naturally gravitate that way. With madness, extreme anxiety, stress and trauma, real life can get a little bit gray, where the delusions in the dream start to bleed through. I wanted a way to map out her experience. Obviously, she begins as a very troubled person, but it really starts to sort of close in on her around the time of the dog. That moment of her having this very serious accident, and doing the wrong thing, would be a moment that would just boil over. She falls apart in that moment, and that's when surrealism or absurdism—whatever you want to call that—starts to come out. 

KLI: I guess the dog scene is that scene that really struck me, which is a more graphic scene in the novel. There's a few other scenes that are pretty explicit, like when Hillary recounts reading a sex scene in her father's book. But beyond that, there aren’t any explicit representations of the abuse that Baby perpetrates. Why did you make that decision as a writer?

FP: I didn't want to give him the power of having these scenes drawn out. With shorthand we can all assume the details. I wanted Hillary's real life to be the most detailed thing. Her reading [her father’s] book, and also the book being something that hasn't changed, so if she were to go back and read that novel again, those words would be the same. But the abuse she witnessed changes as she tries to remember it and as Baby forgets. The dog, of course, also happens in real time. I wanted to focus on the present, because the trauma bleeds through, but the actual moments of the present are the only thing she can trust. This moment with the dog is the most real trauma she has. It's the only one that she knows it's happening because it's happening as we witness her.

KLI: What other books, movies, or pieces of media were you drawing from while you were writing What We Both Know?

FP: I was doing an interview a couple days ago, and I admitted that I don't read, and it's one of my great shames because I'm just the worst reader. If I do read, I open a book and I never finish it, which is just horrible. Every time I write a book, I feel like I'm putting it together not knowing what a book is, which is very stressful. I draw on music. I don't watch live TV. Something's wrong with me. I draw the most on observing people and my own experiences. Because I'm not the biggest consumer of entertainment, I often end up piecing it together from what people talk about and say. So if someone is describing a book this is often very exciting to me, and I’ll think: “Okay, I should put that in, because that's what that person liked. Everyone's talking about this movie, so that must be something people like.” Maybe that's why my books are strange, because I don't really know what a book should look like.