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Miriam Toews sees 'rewarding' response to personal novel, 'All My Puny Sorrows'

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TORONTO - Miriam Toews says she's "grateful" for the response to her heartbreaking novel, "All My Puny Sorrows," which mirrors the author's relationship with her older sister and father — both of whom committed suicide by stepping in front of a moving train.

The incidents came 12 years apart.

"It seems to have generated early discussions about some of the ideas that are in the book, and that's really rewarding, so it feels like it's something useful," Toews said in a recent telephone interview, noting the story is resonating on several fronts.

"It's not even the depression, mental illness and the idea of suicide, but just simply the lives basically of women in their 40s and the stuff that they're dealing with. ... Typical stuff: Divorce, teenage kids trying to make ends meet, but then of course also the darker issue of mental illness."

The newly published book is written in the voice of Yolandi (Yoli) Von Riesen, a 40-something writer and mother of two who has to travel from her Toronto home to her childhood province of Manitoba after multiple suicide attempts by her older sister, Elfrieda (Elf).

A world-renowned concert pianist, Elf is maniacal in nature and eventually asks Yoli to take her to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.

As Yoli ponders the request, she desperately tries to persuade Elf to want to live, often sitting by her Winnipeg hospital bed reminiscing about growing up in the conservative Mennonite town of East Village, Man.

Toews, who grew up in the Mennonite town of Steinbach, Man., said she'd just finished the manuscript for her novel "Irma Voth" when she received news that her sister (and only sibling) had taken her own life on June 5, 2010.

Gripped with grief, Toews wasn't able to start writing again until 2012. When she did, she decided to do what she's done with several of her stories — use her personal life as inspiration.

"The time leading up to my sister's death, and her death, and the time following her death — that was an incredibly excruciating, difficult time," said Toronto-based Toews, from a book tour stop in Vancouver.

"So to write then about these events, to take that and relive it, it was gruelling in a sense, it was exhausting."

But Toews said she also felt that way while writing some of her other books that have been inspired by her own life, including 2004's "A Complicated Kindness," a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist that won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. Toews has also won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for 2008's "The Flying Troutmans."

"There's sort of a sense of like, 'OK, can I do this? Am I going to actually put down on paper something that's as close as it can be to the stuff that's going on in my head, and to do justice to my own experiences and to create hopefully something beautiful?'

"And I realize that's kind of a strange word to use for events that are as dark for themes and issues like mental illness and suicide, but it's really something that I feel strongly about."

Toews punctuated the story with the humour she's known for.

And she ran the material by her Toronto-based mother, letting her read the book before anybody else did.

"She's my biggest fan, so she was very supportive," said Toews. "I've been doing this for so long that she understands what I do and how I do it."

Toews said her family was "quite a bit" like the Von Riesings, whose love of the arts and literature make them "oddballs" amongst their fellow Mennonites (the title "All My Puny Sorrows" comes from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Elf adores).

Depression plagues several members of the Von Riesing family, and at one point in the novel Yoli wonders: "Are Mennonites a depressed people or is it just us?"

Toews said she's also wondered the same thing, after reading studies showing "that the rate of depression in Mennonite communities is higher than in other communities."

"I don't think I'll ever come to any conclusions on anything, but in the book Yoli is attempting to come up with some answers or to try and figure out what that means, and does it have something to do with the ... reluctance amongst Mennonites to express rage, anger? This is something that's kind of discouraged, it's almost considered to be a sin."

Yoli also becomes upset with the poor bedside manner of some psychiatrists at Elf's hospital, and Toews said that's something she was "profoundly frustrated by" when it came to her own sister.

Toews said she hopes "All My Puny Sorrows" will help readers facing similar issues feel "not feel as alone."

After all, books and art are what helped her cope and come to a sense of understanding and acceptance about what happened to her sister and father.

"I'm not angry at my father or at my sister at all, but I do kind of rage against the system or just the existential despair that exists, like why do we have to suffer these types of things and what's wrong with this world?" she said.

"So I have to balance that out with realizing that my life is quite good, and to really appreciate my capacity for happiness when they couldn't, and the sense to sort of live the type of life that they weren't able to but would have dearly wanted to."

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