This interview first appeared in an episode of Portal Magazine’s Portfolio series on YouTube, and has been edited for written format.
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I found myself on Giller Prize-nominated author Aimee Wall’s website after my professor said I needed more biographical details for my book review on Wall’s book We, Jane. My eyes landed on the “email author” option.
Why not? I figured.
What I did not figure was that Wall would actually reply and agree to a Zoom interview with me.
In a nutshell, We, Jane is Wall’s debut novel about a mismatched and tenacious group of women who aim to provide safe abortions in rural Newfoundland.
My full review on the book will appear in the upcoming 2022 edition of Portal, VIU’s annual student-run literary magazine. Suffice to say, I really enjoyed reading it.
“It really makes my day to see all the sticky tabs in the book,” Wall said when I showed her my copy of We, Jane exploding with sticky notes. “I really love a lived-in book.”
Based in Montreal, Wall translated novels by Vickie Gendreau and Jean Phillippe Baril Guérard before publishing We, Jane, though she had actually written the book first.
Wall, born in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland, has been seriously writing since her early twenties. When she moved to Montréal, she was working on a different book idea.
“[It] had some similar themes to We, Jane, but it was entirely set in Newfoundland and it would have been the part of Marthe’s story before [the events of We, Jane],” Wall explained.
However, she couldn’t make the story work and it ended up in the drawer.
“After I’d been living here for about a year, I got curious about translating,” Wall said. “But this whole time, I’ve been quietly carving out time to write, as well.”
Wall appreciates the variety that translating and writing offer, and the “really interesting” ways they complement each other.
“It gives me a nice balance when I need to switch gears,” she said.
Wall’s first translation was in 2016 with Book*hug Press, a small Canadian publishing house. Because of her relationship with them, Wall’s “secret hope” was that she would be able to publish We, Jane with Book*hug.
“I had been talking a little bit with the fiction editor and eventually told him I have this manuscript,” she explained. When she felt ready, Wall sent the book to him, and Book*hug accepted it.
“It kind of worked out nicely,” Wall reflected. “I guess it’s kind of unusual because I have this pre-existing other relationship with them because of the translation[s], so it was kind of nice to get to stay in the family.”
When it comes to Book*hug Press, Wall “can’t say enough good things.”
“They really care about their books … they have great taste and they’ve been so supportive,” she said.
She especially enjoyed the editorial process with Malcolm Sutton, who also designed the book’s cover.
“He was fantastic to work with,” Wall said. “It felt like such an honour to have this really brilliant person spending time thinking about my sentences and making suggestions.”
When I read We, Jane, I was a bit surprised by there being less of a focus on abortion than the back cover promised. But Wall expanded on this in a really illuminating way.
Wall explained that abortion stories she was finding in books and films were either set in the past, so the narrative conflict was “built-in” because it was hard to access or illegal, or they were set in dystopian near-futures with reproductive rights in peril.
“Both of those are interesting perspectives, I just kind of wanted to see something now,” Wall said. “Then the other side of it was that I wanted to avoid that being the narrative arc because it puts a weight on the event that I didn’t want to give it.”
Wall referenced a ‘70s film by French director Agnès Varda called One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Although both the main women characters have abortions, Wall said, “in neither of those cases is it a turning point in the film or even really in their lives. …The film allows them such a bigger life.
It’s not that it’s an unimportant or [in]significant event,” Wall clarified, “but life is full of many, many events, so … that is how I wanted to situate it.”
Marthe, the leading character of We, Jane, has had an abortion prior to the events of the book.
“I wanted it to be the driving forward of ‘what happens next?’ I just felt that we didn’t get that view quite enough,” Wall said.
Wall was also intrigued by Marthe’s age, saying she’s in “that moment where you’re in your early thirties and you don’t have a lot of ties still.” Marthe is “a bit rootless,” but she wants to be “obliged.”
“She wants to be tied to something or someone or have something to work for,” Wall said. “She’s sort of at loose ends, and kind of more interested in turning to the collective than the couple, like ‘what is another way I could live?’”
That led to the multi-generational group of ‘Jane.’
“I wanted inter-generation friendships, the kind of tensions between them, but I felt kind of most comfortable being close to Marthe’s perspective because she’s closer to my age,” Wall said.
Perhaps the most intriguing inter-generational relationship in We, Jane was between Marthe and Ruth, an older woman who introduces Marthe to the rural abortion movement. Wall admits she’s been a bit “perplexed” by reader responses to the pairing.
“I’ve read things where people have taken that friendship to be a toxic relationship and I … didn’t think about it that way at all,” she said. “It’s complicated, but it’s complicated on both of their ends.”
Wall describes Marthe as placing Ruth on a pedestal. “Marthe[‘s] looking up to Ruth, she is a little bit in love with her, she kind of wants to become her … when [Ruth] kind of falls from the pedestal, it’s Marthe’s responsibility to forgive her for being human too.”
“I feel like a lot of us have had some version of that relationship with a mentor figure or even just a friend who’s a little bit older,” Wall said. “There’s just so much there. It can be such a pivotal relationship in your life, and we don’t tend to give those kind of friendships as much airplay as, like, a romantic relationship.”
Another aspect of the novel that had grabbed my attention was the lack of quotation marks around character dialogue. Usually a stickler for the rules, I was intrigued by this choice and asked Wall about it.
“I started doing that a long time ago,” Wall said, explaining that it has to do with speed. “I find it allows the rhythm to continue in a different way when you don’t have it broken up as much.”
She said she often reads out loud when she’s writing. “I really like to be able to hear it and kind of manipulate that rhythm and doing what I want with it is really important to me. I sort of like the frictionless-ness of it.”
The stylistic choice also forces her “to make the dialogue good enough so that [the reader] knows what’s happening.”
“I kind of like that extra little bit of impetuous to really sharpen the dialogue.”
“I’m not intentionally setting out for it to be confusing,” Wall said. “My hope is that once you realize what’s happening and you get used to it, that it’s clear enough.”
The lack of quotation marks is a “stylistic preference” for Wall, but she isn’t committed to continuing it in future projects.
“But I felt like it kind of worked for this story,” she said. “That exact amount of distance [from Marthe] that I wanted was hard to land on, but [removing quotations] kind of made it work once I figured it out.”
The Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist jury certainly agreed. Wall describes finding out she made the longlist as “actually pretty funny.”
“I didn’t even know they were announcing the Giller list; it was really off my radar,” Wall said. She was at her translating job when her phone rang at 10 am.
“All I could see was that it was an Ontario number, and when I picked up the phone, there was nobody there immediately.” Thinking it was Elections Canada, she hung up. But her phone rang again, and Wall answered to her publisher.
“She was like, ‘Aimee, are you sitting down?,’” Wall said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, something bad happened, and she was like ‘no, no, no—it’s good news.’”
Wall was obviously thrilled. “This is the last thing I ever expected, so it was a nice phone call,” she said.
“It did take a long time [to write We, Jane] because it’s hard to find the time,” Wall said. “I get up really early, so I was writing it in the mornings before I went to my job. Sometimes I took my whole vacation from work and went away by myself and worked on it. It was kind of a long haul.”
But Wall was glad for the learning experience not just from We, Jane, but also from the first story idea she had set aside.
“Even though … I just kind of threw it away, you learn something from it, too,” Wall said. “You have to teach yourself how to write a novel and now what I’m realizing is you might have to teach yourself each different novel. …I’m sort of starting to think through an idea of a new book and haven’t quite found the door into it yet. …You kind of do have to learn how to do it all again. Or maybe some people have it down,” she allowed.
“I think that when I was a bit younger, I was in a big rush. I really wanted to get [that first novel] out there, I really wanted to make something, and in retrospect, I’m kind of glad I was forced to slow down because I really needed it to get where I wanted to go with this book,” Wall said. “I guess it just takes time.”
That extra time paid off.
“I really didn’t expect I’d be talking about this book now,” Wall said. “I didn’t think its life would be the life it’s been having, which has been a very pleasant surprise.”
But that has meant that Wall hasn’t been able to fully move onto her next book yet.
“I do have the germ of an idea,” Wall said. “[I’ll] make some notes, do some reading—see if it turns into everything. That’s what’s next, I guess. The thinking part.”
Wall had some advice for hopeful writers at VIU.
“I feel like everybody says this, but read a lot, and widely and eccentrically. … [It’s really important to] share your work with people when you’re starting out and you’re really first finding your voice. Even if it’s just to learn what not to listen to, which advice to take, and learning to trust your own style and your own voice and your own taste. I think that’s a really important step, even if it’s really scary when you’re starting out. Stay curious. That’s kind of the crux of it, I think.”
As a lifelong reader, it was a bit surreal—not to mention intimidating—to talk to the author of a book I’d read. But when the actual interview began, a welcome if surprising sense of calm came over me and I really enjoyed the conversation Wall and I had about We, Jane.
To see Wall’s full interview, check out the episode of Portal Magazine’s Portfolio series on YouTube.