Katherine Ashenburg, in conversation with Sen. Paula Simons
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Perhaps working at a newspaper makes one partial to novels or movies with the same setting.
Author Katherine Ashenburg knows this all too well. The former newspaper and magazine writer and editor turned an element of her own CV into fodder for her newest work, Her Turn.
“I had in the back of my head for a while the idea of writing about a woman whose life looked very good on the surface, but was really still emotionally stalled after a divorce that was 10 years in the past. I couldn't find a situation and I just finished writing Sofie and Cecilia so I wasn't in any hurry,” she began.
She was taking a train trip from Liverpool to the Cotswolds, and those rolling hills must have sent her into a pensive daydream about her old job as the Facts and Arguments editor at The Globe and Mail. There, it was her daily job to choose one out of a stack of personal essays sent in by readers from around the country. Such writings often described quite personal things. Some of the writers even asked for pseudonyms because of this.
The thing was that no one knew she was the editor. Occasionally, she would get essays from acquaintances of hers.
“While I had that job, I never dreamed that I was going to go on to write novels. I remember thinking the woman in this job who gets all these revelations from all around the country is the most perfect Carol Shields heroine because she would do something brilliant with somebody in that job,” she continued.
It was while she was on that train ride that she contemplated a fictional character: a woman whose life had stalled that would somehow have a confrontation with the woman who broke up their marriage. That eureka moment helped Ashenburg turn her protagonist into the editor of something like the Facts and Arguments page while the other woman submits an essay.
The way that Ashenburg describes the end result on the page should be the blurb on the front of the book.
“A small section of hell breaks loose, but it's funny. I mean, it has a frothy kind of plot that just moves along, almost like a farce sometimes, but underneath is a serious … I won't say meditation, but a kind of serious thinking or investigation about forgiveness.”
What makes it all better is that it’s set against the backdrop of the lead-up to the American presidential election in 2015 — a period of time with its own amount of froth and vitriol, and humour. Ashenburg wanted the story to be contemporary, making it a distinct departure from her first novel with its two heroines in a plot that stretched over a few generations. The atmosphere had to be just right for this one to work for her, though.
“I knew that I could not cope if Trump were the president because he would just suck up all the oxygen, so I brought it as close as I could,” she said. “It was really fun to look back at some of the political columns in The Washington Post of the time when really everybody still thought that Trump was this complete nutbar who wasn't going to go anywhere.”
She admitted she liked stretching her writing into the contemporary, and even bringing it a little closer to home with a touch of her own history in it. That kernel of an idea she had on a train in England was a good one.
"I get some of my best ideas on trains. I'm going to take a lot more trains in my life as soon as travel is easier."
Her Turn was released on July 27.