Atlantic Books Today chats with Sarah Mian about the craft, her characters and pulling up a stool in the local legion
Sarah Mian is fascinated by human relationships, the dynamics between families, how where we come from informs where we go, and how for some, leaving home is the option for survival. Yet, no matter how far we roam, or for how long, inevitably, all roads lead home.
In her deeply authentic debut novel, When The Saints (HarperCollins Canada), Mian writes a harrowing ode to family abuse, shame and the ties that bind. It’s an intensely gripping read, both wildly heartbreaking and deeply witty.
Mian explores the unruly family history of Tabitha Saint who, after a decade living estranged, returns to Solace River, a fictional small town in rural Nova Scotia, to find her childhood home deserted. She falls into bed with the local bartender West, who offers her use of his truck, and sets off to nearby town Jubilant to discover the shards of what’s left of her family mosaic.
Tabby finds her frayed and frazzled warrior mother, two kids abandoned by her sister Poppy, an unstable drug addict, and her brothers Bird and Jackie, one crippled by a merciless assault and the other holding a grudge on the attackers. The worst Saint of all: her father, a wretch of a man, who even in his dying days is sinful.
In the midst of a major showdown between her family and her brother’s rival, it would be easy for Tabby to run back to the wilds she came from, if not for her newfound five-year old sidekick, Janis, whom if she abandons, will likely become the next calamity in the family tree.
Atlantic Books Today sat down with Mian to talk about the craft, her characters and pulling up a stool in the local legion.
What inspired When the Saints?
The novel is not autobiographical, but like my protagonist Tabby Saint, I lived in a rough neighbourhood with only one parent and was a juvenile delinquent for a couple years (though my crimes were pretty lame). During my court-ordered counselling sessions I used to put my muddy boots up on the psychiatrist’s couch and insult his techniques. It was great fun. That former self is now a dot in the rear view mirror. I currently work for the federal government supporting law enforcement, but I wanted to give a voice to the experience and to those people I grew up with who are still struggling.
Recently, at your Halifax book launch at Gus’ Pub, you mentioned the book took you nearly 20 years to finish. Naturally, you were talking stock of all the years it took you to find yourself here, at this moment in time. How does it feel to have your first novel out in the world?
After labouring at the craft since childhood, it’s enormously satisfying to take my hard-earned place on the bookshelves. The week my novel came out, Bookmark on Spring Garden Road arranged all their copies into a window display and it was like the physical manifestation of a dream come true. I thought nothing could top that, and then a passionate review in the Toronto Star endorsed When the Saints as a new Canadian classic. Something I never considered, however, is that my work isn’t over now that the book is published.
There are readings and book signing obligations. Though I’ve always proclaimed myself a writer, having a novel published seems to authenticate it for others. Suddenly people are inquisitive about my creative process, which is excellent, but I’m discovering that writing and talking about my writing are two different beasts. I’m scuffling with that a little and also with twinges of feeling exposed now that my writing and my life have become more public.
Given the myriad of complications and struggles your characters face, how was it emotionally for you to write When the Saints?
A couple of times, I cracked open an old wound while writing a flashback to Tabby’s early teens. I remember very acutely the loneliness and despair of being 15 years-old. It really is the most insecure and vulnerable year of a female’s life when you suddenly look like a woman yet still have the emotional maturity of a child. Back then I had no curfew, was extremely resourceful about getting across the harbour to Halifax [from Dartmouth], and to add kerosene to fire, owned a fake I.D. with my own photo on it. I found myself in some scary situations back then, so sometimes after I wrote Tabby Saint into a corner, I’d have to close the laptop and stare out the window for a while.
Though writing a novel is a massive time commitment and can test a writer’s faith, I found it easier than composing shorter works. When I’m into a story for the long haul, I can take my boots off and get comfortable, try out a few dance moves on the carpet, peek in some hidden drawers, wander off down the street, sniff the night air.
Once I’m intimately acquainted with my characters, they start to breathe on their own and grow into fully formed people who rebel if I try to pull them in unwanted directions. From there they guide the events of the story quite naturally. I didn’t have to pause after each scene and formulate the next plot points. In fact, I had no idea what would happen to the Saints or how the story would end. I just faithfully followed these people around while they ran off at the mouth.
When The Saints is terribly funny, yet grapples with bleakness and tragedy. How did you arrive at this bittersweet tone?
I listen carefully to the way people talk to each other in Nova Scotia’s small towns. There are brilliant turns of phrase and creative usages of profanity—a vestige of the Irish ancestry. Sit on a stool in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere and you will overhear everything. In fact, the only research I did while writing the book was to occasionally drive an hour or two down the highway and nurse a beer in some random legion.
You make a beautiful connection between bloodlines – “I wonder if there really is such a thing as blood ties. Even though I always thought of my family as just a pack of wolves forced to live together in that big drafty shack.” Families are inherently complicated, but I am curious, what drew you to write this particular family story?
Years ago at my day job, I came across an old police file on a serial petty thief with the last name Saint. I also encountered quite a few files on people who were related to each other, the same surnames recurring over and over. That’s how the Saint family was seeded in my imagination. I began to muse on whether the maxim that we can all succeed with enough determination might not be universally true. I’ve decided some people are doomed to fail, if not by difficult circumstances alone then by the erosion of self-esteem such circumstances engender.
As a reader, I found a strange comfort in your book, as parts of it spoke to a familiar dysfunctional bloodline, yet page after page I was lifted by your unabashed humour and firecracker wit. How do you balance the weight of the human condition?
Growing up in my household, even at the worst of times we managed to find hilarity in our predicament. My mother is not easily fazed and has a twisted sense of humour that kept us afloat. Humour still keeps me afloat and I gravitate toward people who share a facetious commentary on life.
When The Saints explores themes of abandonment, abuse and homecoming. What do you hope readers take away from the Saint family and their struggles?
The through-line of the novel is the idea that some people have such a traumatic upbringing that it stunts their growth into adulthood. The only way to move forward is to go back, sort through the baggage and throw a match on the discard pile. I hope readers who have complicated family relationships might be inspired to stop being so hard on one another. I also hope that after reading the book people who grew up relatively comfortable will take a more empathetic stance toward their “town losers”. And I hope people laugh at least once every two pages. Lofty goals.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Tabby at first either, but she won me over big time. She’s immodestly opportunistic, but also a very giving person for someone who has received very little. I actually found her easy to write. She has a grim-yet-practical lens on the world that is very consistent.
Jackie, Tabby’s younger brother, was more of a challenge. At a certain point I realized I had an affection for him that the reader might not share given he’s far more self-interested and short-sighted than she is. I had to hunt for cracks in his rough exterior that would reveal glimpses of the emotional turmoil he’s buried. I didn’t have to do that kind of work with Tabby. She was laid bare from page one.
Which character are you dying to have a beer with, and why?
Janis! She has very strong opinions and we could shoot the breeze for hours. But she’s only five years-old, so it’ll have to be root beer.
How does living in Atlantic Canada shape you as a writer?
Halifax has a tight-knit writing community. There’s no cutthroat competition. We have each other’s backs and one writer’s success is a celebration for us all. I’m blown away by the support and high fives I’ve received from other writers and from the invites that have been extended by local media and booksellers. I am a proud Maritimer and thrilled that my book is being recognized as distinctly Atlantic Canadian, a writing tradition characterized as raw, unpretentious and darkly poetic.
What are you currently working on?
With When the Saints, I didn’t deliberately set out to tell the particular story. The family just showed up one day and refused to get back in the box. So with my next novel I intended to sit down before typing a word and painstakingly tease out what I most want to say to the world. Yet once again, a story has chosen me and it refuses to wait. My new character’s name is Errol. He’s on a rusty bicycle on a backwoods road in Nova Scotia searching for a mysterious former lover of his mother’s. He hasn’t told me why yet.
Shannon Webb-Campbell is an award winning poet, writer and journalist of mixed Aboriginal ancestry. She is the inaugural winner of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award and was Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2014 critic-in-residence. Still No Word (Breakwater Books, 2015) is her first collection of poems. She lives in Halifax.