Brought to Book – Miriam Toews: ‘Ignore all advice about writing. Leave your blood on every page. Every page!’

‘I wanted to do a Masters degree in Irish literature but I ended up getting pregnant instead’

Miriam Toews is a Canadian writer. She won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for her novel, A Complicated Kindness, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for The Flying Troutmans. She had a leading role in the film, Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas, an experience that inspired her fifth novel, Irma Voth. Her latest work, All My Puny Sorrows (Faber, £12.99) – the title is a line from a Coleridge poem – is written out of her personal experience and is, in some ways, a grown-up version of A Complicated Kindness.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Sammy the Seal, by Syd Hoff. It was my first picture book. It’s about a seal who escapes from the zoo and spends the day in the city. I grew up in a very small town and was utterly fascinated by the details of the city. The fact that I was observing the city through the eyes of an adventurous seal didn’t bother me one way or the other.

What was your favourite book as a child?


Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Grey. It's about an 11-year-old boy's life as a minstrel in medieval England. There's a beautiful line in it that has always stayed with me: "A road's a kind of a holy thing."

And what is your favourite book or books now?

There are so many but a book I absolutely love is called Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. She spent more than a decade documenting the lives of several families in the Bronx. It's a document of obsessive reportage and it reads like the best novel. It's a modern urban successor to James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

What is your favourite quotation?

“The glory of love might see you through.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Rosalind, in As You Like It.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I don’t know but I’d like to find out. At one point in my life I wanted to do a Masters degree in Irish literature but I ended up getting pregnant instead.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Traditional print version.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky.

Where and how do you write?

In my dining room, on my laptop.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I spent 18 years in a small, Mennonite town in the middle of the Canadian prairies.

What book influenced you the most?


What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Amos and Boris by William Steig.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

All the books I’ve read I’ve read at the right moment.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Ignore all advice about writing. Leave your blood on every page. Every page!

What weight do you give reviews?

I think it feels heavier when it’s a bad review.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I have no idea. I can’t even keep track of my receipts.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

I don’t even know what they are. Tame, badly-written erotica? Amish romance? Karl Ove Knausgaard?

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

That I’m not alone. That I’m alone.

What has being a writer taught you?

How to stretch a dollar.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Samuel Coleridge. Elena Ferrante. George Saunders. Mavis Gallant. Marilynne Robinson. Stephen Spender. Astrid Lindgren. David Foster Wallace. Sylvia Plath.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

It would be something from PG Wodehouse.

What is your favourite word?

Fuck. Sorry. It’s just so versatile.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Or Mary Wollstonecraft covering the French Revolution. Some type of revolution.