People deal with stress in different ways. Some self-medicate. Others exercise or practice relaxation techniques. Syracuse University professor Mona Awad usually reaches for a good book.
Reading as a form of therapy might not be for everyone, but it’s helped the Montreal-born writer navigate some rough moments. It’s also inspired her latest bestseller, the Shakespearean-laced All’s Well.
A complex meditation on human suffering, the novel follows Miranda Fitch, a college theater professor and director who is trying to mount a production of All’s Well That Ends Well amid a rebellious cast intent on staging Macbeth. Complicating matters is a hip injury that has left her with severe back pain and an opioid dependence.
“Miranda came to me all at once at the beginning of the writing process. I simply sharpened her by studying Shakespeare,” says Awad, whose story also contains traces of The Tempest. “Characters don’t always come to you fully in their voice. Sometimes you need to hunt for it.”
Awad should know, having made a big noise with her two other novels—Bunny and 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl—and a raft of stories in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, TIME, McSweeney’s and Ploughshares. She also has contributed to the Canadian magazine Maisonneuve under the pen name of Veronica Tartley.
Claiming one’s voice can be empowering and sometimes a little scary. But it’s always illuminating.—Professor Mona Awad
In 2020, Awad joined the faculty of the acclaimed graduate program in creative writing, based in the English department of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her wry, insightful prose, combined with an innate ability to connect with students, has made her a campus celebrity. “Mona is a generous and inspiring teacher,” says fellow professor Dana Spiotta. “Her writing is sharp, subversive and inventive.”
Awad teaches a variety of courses, including one on fairy tales. Her favorite is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which she feels like she’s been rewriting most of her career. “Fairy tales are important because they expose our interior reality,” Awad continues. “There’s magic in the supernatural that’s real, and I want my readers to feel it.”
Blending Pathos and Humor
All’s Well opens with Fitch on the floor of her office, chain-smoking and sneering at an infomercial for a pain management drug. Everything hurts—her legs, her back, her pride.
Meanwhile, Fitch’s students are onstage awaiting her “Valium-laced vision” of Elizabethan theater. Putting on a brave face, she defends All’s Well That Ends Well as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—neither tragedy nor comedy, but something in between, something far more interesting.
Awad is no stranger to Shakespeare and surrealism. And chronic pain. As a graduate student, she suffered a devasting hip injury that caused neurological problems. “For years, I went from one surgeon to another, wondering if I’d ever get better,” recalls Awad, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh, an M.F.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver.
Tension is a big part of storytelling. I’m often inspired by a moment of profound powerlessness that I’ve either witnessed or experienced myself.—Professor Mona Awad
Feeling powerless in the presence of male doctors, Awad became convinced that the health care industry was misogynistic, that her suffering didn’t matter. “I felt invisible because my situation wasn’t taken seriously,” she confesses.
Fitch is in a similar bind in All’s Well, smarting from an injury that is met with a collective yawn from the male medical establishment. The plot takes a peculiar turn when she encounters three mysterious men in a bar who offer her a “golden remedy,” causing her body to unkink itself.
Dramatic complications ensue as Fitch revels in her newfound physicality, but not before realizing her Faustian-like bargain comes at a price. “I had fun combining the dark comedy of All’s Well, being acted out onstage, with the tragedy of Macbeth, which is Miranda’s life,” says Awad, noting that both plays explore the idea of the supernatural but to different ends.
Awad credits Shakespeare’s use of language—the sentences, word play and implied stage action in Macbeth—for shaping Fitch’s voice. “There’s a crazy energy to Macbeth’s soliloquies that when braided with different strains of language—like Old English, the language of witchcraft, and Latin, the language of reason—influences Miranda’s character,” she continues. “Let’s face it, she’s a drama queen.”
Professor George Saunders G’88, Awad’s faculty mentor, discovered this last year when All’s Well overtook his life. “When I was away from the book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it,” he says. “I started deferring chores, working less and staying up late reading it.”
A Fairy Tale Ending
If Miranda is the dame of drama, then Awad is the empress of irony. It’s a device the latter has used to great effect since publishing some of her first stories as an undergrad at Toronto’s York University.
Awad’s first novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, tells the story of a woman’s weight issues through a series of vignettes. After starving herself to save her marriage, the heroine is ironically no happier than before. “All comedies have shadowy places,” says Awad, whose 2016 book won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. “Tension is a big part of storytelling. I’m often inspired by a moment of profound powerlessness that I’ve either witnessed or experienced myself.”
Awad believes that writing provides a sense of agency, especially when thorny issues are afoot. Ergo her wickedly funny follow-up, Bunny, where an outsider in a small, selective M.F.A. program is drawn into a clique of sinister students. Bunny solidified Awad’s place as a “fearless chronicler of the female experience” (Goodreads), while earning her the 2020 Ladies of Horror Fiction Best Novel Award.
Combining academic satire with a sense of dread, Bunny is being optioned for film by producer Jenni Konner (HBO’s Girls) and Los Angeles-based New Regency Productions. “The book made me cackle and nod in terrified recognition,” says Girls’ creator, writer and star Lena Dunham.
Awad is feverishly working on her next novel, Rouge, part of a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. It’s a dark, supernatural comedy like All’s Well, but with more of a gothic edge, she explains. Her goal to is to package Rouge, All’s Well and Bunny as a “loose trilogy.”
“I feel like Rouge is crystallizing,” says Awad, who does most of her intense writing in La Jolla, near San Diego. “In this book, I’m exploring the idea of change. Can we really change? Is change possible?”
Awad says that while finishing All’s Well in California, she worked in the morning and then watched, listened to or read aloud one of Shakespeare’s plays in the afternoon. “It was lovely spending time with Shakespeare like that, immersing myself in his language and cadence,” recalls Awad, who also creates musical playlists for her novels, available at largeheartedboy.com. “When you’re creating a world, you need to believe in it—the tone, the texture, the atmosphere. Music helps me do that.”
The result is fiction that’s “deeply pleasurable, even addictive to read,” Saunders continues. “Mona’s writing is full of the classic virtues—deep humanity, humor, a thrilling awareness of human flaws and, most of all, a joyful stance toward her characters and the world.”
Adds Awad: “Claiming one’s voice can be empowering and sometimes a little scary. But it’s always illuminating.”