The title of Fawn Parker’s third novel, What we both know, is both a clue and a trick – on the surface, the story of a famous older man in the #MeToo movement seems all too obvious. But its tale of broken memory, which urges the reader to consider what truth is — or if it even exists — is anything but.
in the What we both know, the father of the protagonist Hillary Greene, a famous author, loses his memory in old age – and with it his ability to write. An aspiring author and his full-time caretaker, Hillary agrees to ghostwrite his memoir – but delving into his past leads to buried memories of the abuse of her late sister Pauline, who took her own life not long ago.
Parker lives in Toronto and Fredericton and is also the author of the novels setpoint and stupid show. Your history feed machine was longlisted for the 2020 McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of Toronto and is a PhD candidate in creative writing from the University of New Brunswick.
Parker told CBC Books about tackling thorny issues — including trauma, toxic masculinity, aging, and dysfunctional family dynamics — to write What we both know.
“I started writing the novel in November 2019, which was fun because it was National Novel Writing Month — I didn’t necessarily do it for that reason, but I ended up writing it in 30 days. Something just felt so urgent.
I think because there was so much urgency to the book, I reflected that in the way I wrote it.”
“I knew I wanted to write about memory. And I knew I wanted to write about a powerful, toxic man. I think because the book had so much urgency, I kind of reflected that in the way I wrote it. “
“I like to start with a scene. And then I start to get to know the characters. I let her say something and I’m like, ‘Who would say that? And what did you mean by that?’ and then really expand from there.
Plotting the story is a lot of work, but the characters come naturally to me.
“I’m a character-oriented person – when I read, I really get interested. And I think it’s the most natural part for me – I find the plotting to be a lot of work, but the characters are quite organic to me.
“As soon as I see something they said or I sit them down together, I find that what they do next just feels right. And I can tell when something isn’t in character. So I think the real inspiration comes from thinking about these people, and then I have to do the work of writing the book around them.”
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Question toxic masculinity
“I wanted to write a male, really famous hyper celebrity that doesn’t exist in CanLit. But what if he did, and what would he be like?
“There’s a masculinity that was so accepted in this generation that he belonged to – a lot of what he’s done in the past wouldn’t fly in the present of the book. But it was still part of his daughter’s life. I was really focused on the progress of her life as she grew up and saw society change and saw that men can’t act like that anymore.
“If he loses his memory, he loses himself too. And so it’s like, ‘Where does the abuse go?’ It’s not going away. But he’s forgotten, and society is moving forward. So she’s almost caught up in it.”
complexity of the trauma
“I find [the abuse that is alluded to in the plot] was something I really wanted to be a bit foggy about, even by the end of the book. In some cases, it can be summed up as, “Someone did XYZ to another person,” but I think the experience of abuse is so elusive that I don’t think Hillary ever really understands the limitations of it.
“And she sees herself as the sister who wasn’t hurt – but of course we can see that she was. I think I wanted the reader to really be in that mindset, ‘It’s not that easy to just go; it’s not easy to walk away because abuse is everywhere. It’s not just in the physical moment.
“She represented that kind of power to me. Hillary feels they are such opposites – but as a writer, I don’t think they are. I think they are both just victims and they missed this opportunity to find peace with each other and help each other.
“Pauline represents Hillary for all of her own shortcomings – Pauline is a born writer; she was told that she is beautiful. And Hillary just can’t accept that. She was never able to take her into her life and her heart away is almost a possibility that Hillary will no longer have to fear or be jealous of her. It’s just a very complicated sister relationship.
“I don’t think I even fully understood it as I was writing it, but I worked on the book after my mother died that same year. It’s been such an active role in my life, this reversal of becoming a caregiver, the person who raised you. And there was obviously a conscious block in my mind that I didn’t bring the two together. But I think I drew on that a lot, the idea of the child becoming a parent and the loneliness that comes with it. “
“I think what I found so interesting about Hillary is that she skipped a stage in life — she was young and living in Toronto and she was like, ‘Do I want to be with someone and have kids?’ and suddenly she feels like she’s just too old.
There’s this idea of a woman feeling like a failure for reasons beyond her control – and yet it’s such an interesting time to be a woman because being alone isn’t a weakness.
“And then her father is essentially her child. It’s just such an interesting situation. And maybe I was afraid when I wrote her that I was approaching such a future. There’s this notion of a woman feeling like failure for reasons beyond her control – and yet it’s such an interesting time to be a woman because being alone isn’t a weakness. I think it’s great that she lived something like that and didn’t apologize for it like people might think she should be.”
Fawn Parker’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.