Mona Awad, ALL'S WELL

Mona Awad, ALL'S WELL

Mona Awad joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, All’s Well. The pair talk about Mona’s own experience with chronic pain and how she found solace from it in Shakespeare’s plays, much like the book’s protagonist. Mona also recounts her rocky educational journey and why she credits fairytales with helping her find her way to creative writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mona. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All’s Well.

Mona Awad: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s an honor.

Zibby: Aw. You have such a great cover, by the way. Were you so happy with this? Tell me the story.

Mona: Yeah, I was so happy with it. I was really freaked out by it. I thought that that was good. It’s still playful. I love all the colors. I think they wanted to do something where the image embodied both theater, which the book is on, and then the story of this woman’s pain, so the pills are what make up the mask.

Zibby: It’s so cool. I almost didn’t notice at first when I first got it. Then I was like, oh, my gosh, those are pills. It’s very cool. On that note, I should’ve started with this, but could you tell listeners what your book is about? Also, what inspired you to write this? I know it’s your third novel. Why this one? Why this topic? Why now? That should take us for a while.

Mona: I’ll start with just talking a little bit about the book. It’s about a theater professor at a New England college. Her name is Miranda Fitch. She is suffering from chronic pain that no one believes she has. Then she is just hell-bent on staging this student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, but the students are mutinous. They want Macbeth. Miranda makes a bargain with dark forces to ensure that her show goes on. Then she ends up this kind of Macbeth off stage. How I came to write it — it’s sort of a dark supernatural comedy about Shakespeare, pain, and revenge. I was going through chronic pain of my own when I started having this idea that I wanted to write about pain. I was injured. I hurt my hip really, really badly and had to have surgery. Then I had a really rough recovery. I hurt my back in the process of recovery. I ended up getting all these neurological symptoms down my legs. It was the worst. It made everyday tasks so hard suddenly. Just driving in your car, going grocery shopping, sitting down, all of those things felt, suddenly, like insurmountable tasks. Another surgery wasn’t an option.

I was just in this weird rehab limbo going from physical therapist to physical therapist, consultations with surgeons, consultations with physiatrists. I was feeling pretty helpless and pretty powerless. At the same time, I was a graduate student. I was teaching. I was reading Shakespeare. I just fell in love with the plays because they have these reversals of fortune that feel very, very exciting. They were very exciting to me in my situation. I fell in love with All’s Well That Ends Well. It was just something about the play that really ignited my imagination. The heroine was both villainous, but she was also heroic. She’s so powerless at the start of the play. It’s a fairy tale. She ends up taking this agency and turning the world of the play upside down. She’s able to fulfill her heart’s desire through this nebulous, mysterious magic. I just thought that was really fascinating and wanted to explore that story of a woman who is — she’s desperate to stage it because she wants All’s Well That Ends Well. She wants a happy ending for herself, but she has to live this other kind of narrative in her actual life.

Zibby: Wow. Did you have, in your life when you went through your pain, a Mark, somebody who actually was a partner? Miranda has a physical therapist-type person — I think he’s a physical therapist — who actually believes her and is like, we’re going to do this. We’re a team. She’s so relieved after so many misdiagnoses and attempts and whatever. Not that it was necessarily working, but just to have that validated. Did you feel like there was someone out there who finally, you were like, oh, thank god, this person gets me?

Mona: Oh, yeah. I had a few of those moments with physical therapists. I feel like it’s just one of those things where it’s so hard to cure chronic pain. It’s so hard to cure people who are suffering from injuries, especially when they’re complicated injuries. Let’s face it, most of us are not textbook. It’s really, really hard to actually follow just this physical therapist path of recovery and actually get better. Most people, I don’t think, follow that course exactly. It was always hard. I had people who were really well-meaning, but they were ultimately kind of at a loss. Sometimes I think it’s just a matter of time for these kinds of injuries. Still, it was so scary because I didn’t know what to do for so long. I feel like there are so many people who are in that position. I met so many people like that in the waiting rooms of these physical therapy offices, all of us just going through the motions and hoping for the best. It usually doesn’t work out the way that they hope it will.

Zibby: I’m really sorry that that’s been a part of your life. That’s really tough. Especially, I feel like there’s something with the word chronic. It just sounds so bleak, like it’s never going to lift. This is it, like a death sentence. It sounds terrible.

Mona: In some ways, it kind of is. Then the interesting thing is, I think a lot of it is the fear of the unknown and the fear that I’m going to have this thing forever. It’s never going to change. The one thing that really helped me, apart from the Shakespeare plays, which I have to say really helped me — it helped me to get lost in another world. It helped me to get lost in theater. It got me excited about life. That was really good for me. I think, too, just meditating, paying attention moment to moment, you realize that it’s not true that things always stay the same. Things are always changing. That was a real comfort because I realized, no, what I’m feeling right now, it’s not going to be this way forever. It will shift, and that’s good.

Zibby: Yes, thank god. One thing I found really interesting is how the pain affected all of Miranda’s relationships. You start at the very beginning by showing the contrast of the man in the ad, the loving husband of the woman in the YouTube ad who’s just waiting patiently and smiling. You’re like, that person’s not being like, I’m at a loss here, I’m giving up. Even the friend who, they used to be close, and then suddenly, she’s like, maybe, have you considered that this isn’t real? That kind of thing and just how people keep failing her, honestly. Everybody is disappointing her in some way. What about that? That also compounds the isolation factor.

Mona: I think that was part of what made me want to explore pain in a story, is just to explore that loneliness of what it feels like. To some degree, I think we all have it. It’s not just physical pain. It can be emotional pain or mental pain. There’s something very isolating about it. When you start to share it with other people, yes, they’ll take it on. Yes, they’ll listen to you, if you have good friends and family around you. What can be scary and what I was interested in exploring with this story is, there’s a shelf life to it. There’s something finite about it. There’s a limit, basically, to how much other people can bear your particular pain. With that limit, when you come up against it, it is a very isolating experience. It can be very scary. I was very interested in exploring that. Hopefully, people who read it who are going through that can connect to that and find some solace in that.

Zibby: Have you read Eleanor Henderson’s new memoir about her husband’s chronic pain and how people think it’s part psychiatric and part physical? They don’t really know. You have to read it. You guys should do an event or something together. She is the caregiver in this situation. You’re the primary person. Hers is memoir. I think it would be interesting. It would be a very interesting discussion, let me just say. I feel like I’ve been reading a lot about pain. I think I like that because, especially how you do it here, you get the reader to really feel it. You wake up the reader. You can do that in many ways. I think by putting someone in a place of physical pain through your words, you can’t not respond to that. You can’t not feel it. That’s part of the magic of great writing, how you put us in the shoes of someone who’s really suffering and make us suffer for a little bit. Yes, we can close the book and walk away, but that lingers. It doesn’t just stay inside the pages.

Mona: I think that that was really important to me, to create that experience so that the reader really understands what that might be like, what it might be like to move through your life in chronic pain. To do that, it’s so weird because — I’m sure you’ve had this experience. I’m sure everyone has. When you’re in pain, whether it’s physical pain, emotional pain, mental pain, and you’re trying to communicate that pain to someone else, language really feels like it comes up short. I used a lot of sentence fragments. I used a lot of absurd metaphors, like you do. Miranda says her pain is red. It’s throbbing. It’s like there’s a chair on her foot. Somebody else hears that, and it sounds crazy. It’s the closest she can come to communicating it to somebody else. That communication is so important because it’s the way that you’re going to be able to make your experience of your pain understood to someone else so that they can help you, or at least so that you can not be alone in it. There’s something so dark about the fact that language comes up short because it’s all we have. Then there’s also something funny about it too. I tried to lean into that a little bit. It’s funny that she’s saying it’s red, it’s throbbing, and there’s a chair with a fat man sitting on it on my foot.

Zibby: You have this funny sense of humor. I feel like I would be very nervous to be a student of yours ever again. You’re like the person sitting backstage, as Miranda, maybe this isn’t you, but definitely finding the humor. I loved when, I think it was Trevor, one of the actors, you’re like, you’ll have to do that as an actor. Then Miranda’s like, ha. She wants to laugh out loud that this pathetic student is actually an actor. It’s just funny. I felt like I was in the teachers’ lounge, finally.

Mona: Totally. I love those kinds of teachers’ lounge stories, stories from the other side of the desk. It’s weird. I was a student for a long time. I felt like I had one understanding of what it’s like to be a teacher. I think I felt like teachers were pretty powerful in some ways. I certainly thought that they had authority in the room. It’s so strange when you are actually a teacher. You start to realize how it’s a very vulnerable position to be in. There’s only one of you, and there’s a group of them. They’re young. I think young students have more power than they know. Young people have more power than they know. That’s interesting. It’s interesting to observe that as a teacher having been a student. I was interested in exploring that power dynamic. The teacher is powerless. She has the appearance of having power, but she does not. Maybe she rebels against that sense of powerlessness by thinking these dark thoughts about her students.

Zibby: This seems so ridiculous, but back in the day when I was in my twenties, I was a Weight Watchers leader. I would go around to all these meetings. I used to be a member when I was pre-wedding. I had nothing else. There, you idolize the leaders. Then finally, I was the leader. I was standing there with all these people looking up at me. I was like, um, okay. Now what do I do? Then I was so upset to realize that some of the other leaders would do what you’re saying. They would be like, oh, my gosh, that person, she comes every week. She’s never lost a pound. I’m like, you can’t talk about the people like this. It was heartbreaking.

Mona: I know. It feels like such a betrayal. It’s funny, too, because they have their own life. Students have their own life. They’re talking about you, probably, the whole story about you. It is a really strange position to occupy, being in the front of a room talking to a group of people who are just supposed to listen to you. You’re supposed to be the person that facilitates and knows things. Maybe you don’t know as much as you think you do once you stand up there. It’s kind of like theater.

Zibby: Vulnerability mixed with power. Which will win? You’ve pursued all these degrees. Don’t you have a PhD and an MFA and something else in English or something?

Mona: I have a master’s in English. For somebody who dropped out of high school three times, not bad, huh?

Zibby: What? Wait, why did you drop out of high school three times?

Mona: I don’t know. For whatever reason, I couldn’t be in the classroom when I was a teenager. It was just uncomfortable. I felt really out of place. I didn’t really feel like I belonged. I couldn’t do it. I would always leave. I ended up having to go to an alternative school. This was in Canada, so alternative schools were free at the time. Thank god for them. I went to one. I was able to finish my senior year. Then I went to undergrad. Then I got more serious about reading. I needed that patience. I needed more support than the school system at the time really provided.

Zibby: How did your family deal with that?

Mona: It was really hard. I was a reader. I was really interested in books. I would skip school to go to the library. I would skip school to smoke cigarettes in my bedroom and read. They really struggled with it, but my mother was really patient with me. Thank goodness I was able to find another situation where I could finish. Then in undergrad, I got really into reading. I wanted to keep studying. I kind of started to feel at home in it, but it took a while. I’m very sympathetic. I think that might have something to do with my fiction. I’m really interested in outsiders. I’m really interested in that feeling of unbelonging that a lot of people have. I think we all feel like it at certain times in our lives. We just feel like we don’t belong. I’m interested in stories that explore that feeling, that perspective.

Zibby: That’s great because I’m sure that will be such a comfort to everybody who has ever felt that way in one way or another. That’s when you discovered reading as much, but when did you start writing? When was your first attempt at a novel? Were you smoking cigarettes and also writing in a journal?

Mona: I was. I was writing my sad girl poems. I was writing a lot of skits. I loved theater even as a teenager. Even going in and out of high school, I loved theater so much. I would write for the theater club that would put on plays. They would ask me to write. I would write skits for them. That always excited me. Just dialogue excited me. In my teens, I think I got into it. I didn’t get really seriously into story writing until later on, until I discovered fairy tales. Then I started understanding the power of those plots and the power of those conflicts and tensions that fairy tales explore. That’s when I really wanted to start writing novels because the magic and possibility in them really excited me.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What was the story of selling your first book, then? How did that come to be? By the way, have you ever thought about just actually acting yourself? You seem like you would be an actress.

Mona: Yeah, I was so into it. I love giving readings. That was the one thing about high school that I loved. I loved theater, but I think I got really shy. Then I wanted to be more behind the scenes. It’s a true joy of mine. That’s why I think All’s Well was such a pleasure to write, because it explores — it really is a love letter to theater.

Zibby: You should put it on as a play, the book.

Mona: Yeah, I know.

Zibby: That would be so meta and cool.

Mona: That would be so fun. I would love to do that, honestly. My first book, I was working full time as a bookseller. I was writing on the side, writing at night, writing in the morning. I had this idea. It was so funny, I remember writing in a notebook — I had the idea. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I knew the title. I wrote to myself — this was in September of 2009. I wrote, you will finish this by December. It took me six years to finish it. I was so delusional. I thought it would take me three months. It did not. I applied for a funded MFA because I felt like I would really dedicate the time to it, time that I didn’t have because I was working full time. Although, honestly, if I hadn’t — I always ask myself, if you hadn’t gotten into the MFA, would you have finished? I would have. I just think it would have taken me maybe a little longer. I did get in. I wrote for those two years. Then when it was over, I had the book. I sent it out to agents and got an agent. Then we sold it that fall, the fall after graduating. It was good.

Zibby: That’s really exciting. Then tell me about your middle novel. Now I have to go back and read these ones.

Mona: Bunny was crazy. Bunny was a real leap from 13 Ways. 13 Ways was very realist. It’s about body image. It’s about women and body image. It was short stories that tell the story of this one woman moving through a body image struggle and how her body image affects all these different aspects of her life. Bunny was all about my love of fairy tale and horror and mean girl movies in the eighties and the nineties like Heathers and The Craft and Pretty in Pink and all that. It’s kind of a tribute to that. It’s a tribute to outsiders. It’s about an outsider who gets sucked into this clique of girls who call each other bunny. That one, I wrote really, really fast. It was really scary because it was such a leap. I wrote that as a PhD student. I was a creative writing student, so that was my thesis, was Bunny.

Zibby: Wow, so is this your only non-school, deadline-focused manuscript?

Mona: It is my only one. It’s weird because it’s true. I had a deadline that the institution gave me to finish. That was helpful. To be quite honest, the thing that really worked to get Bunny done — I highly recommend this for anyone struggling with deadlines, with accountability, with just being motivated to keep going with your project. My friend and I, we drew up this contract. It’s based on this contract that Aimee Bender has. She published it in O magazine a while ago. It’s a writer’s contract. You get somebody else to be your mentor. You set deadlines for yourself in the contract. Then you’re accountable to your mentor each day. My friend and I did this over the course of the summer. I said, I’m going to write 1,500 words a day. When I’m done with those 1,500 words, I’m going to text you that I did it. I have to do it every day. I would do that. Then she did the same. She would text me. We were accountable to each other. We got drafts done of our novels that summer that we did that. It was so helpful to have a friend to be accountable to, more so than the college, I would say.

Zibby: Did she sell her book?

Mona: She did, yeah. She did sell it, which is so cool. We both sold them I think around the same time too.

Zibby: Aw, they’re like cousins, these books.

Mona: I think it’s good to have those people in your life. They don’t even need to be writers, just creative people who understand how important it is to have those deadlines and to be accountable just to get a project done because you can really talk yourself out of it. You know what I mean? You can have bad days where you’re just like, I don’t know if I’m good enough. I don’t want to do this. I have so many other things to do. Should I really make time for this thing? Yes, you should because it’s what you really want to do.

Zibby: It sounds so simple.

Mona: It’s so hard, but it’s so simple.

Zibby: I know I want to do it, but do I really want to do it today? Is this the afternoon? I don’t know. I think I’ll wait until tomorrow. So what are you working on now?

Mona: Now I’m working on — I kind of see Bunny, All’s Well, and this new one as a trilogy. They all have the fantastic in them in some way. This one is called Rouge. It’s about a woman who gets sucked into this really sinister beauty cult in California. It’s got a lot of elements of horror, but it’s got fairy tale in it too. It’s been really fun to work on.

Zibby: There is a book I did two years ago called Rouge. Not “I did.” I interviewed the guy. Is that okay? You can still do it? His name is Richard Kirshenbaum. Just in case there’s any intellectual property issues or something.

Mona: That’s interesting. It’s so compelling, the idea of red but in French. The character, she’s French Canadian, as I am.

Zibby: I know you just already gave a lot of advice, but any other advice you have for aspiring authors?

Mona: Yeah, absolutely. The advice that I gave myself when I was working on Bunny, which was my second book and was a big departure — I think because it was a big departure, it felt very scary. I doubted myself a lot and wanted to give up on it a lot. My negative self-talk was, nobody would want to represent this book. Nobody would want to publish this book. Nobody would want to read. What I ended up doing to counter that was I just told myself, okay, let’s say that’s true. Do you still want to write it? Are you still interested in the story? The answer was yes. When the answer was yes, I realized that I wanted to tell the story independent of the outcome. That was so empowering because it was really about the process. It was really about the journey of writing the story. It was about the story itself. It’s a good question for a creative person to ask.

Zibby: Love it. My advice to you if you choose to accept it, I think you should write this as a play. I think you should produce it this year while you’re up in Syracuse in the dead of winter when you’re despairing about the weather, which, how can you not? I think that should be your side project. You can get all the students to produce it for you.

Mona: Oh, my god, I love that idea. It could really be very meta then.

Zibby: Right?

Mona: Yeah, for sure.

Zibby: Then you could livestream it if you wanted and just link it to your book sales page and stuff.

Mona: It could be great for the paperback release in the summer. That’s great. I love that, Zibby.

Zibby: Go for it. I love it. I’ll work on the playbills. You can do the casting. I’m kidding. I do think that would be fun for you to do. I mean, I think that would be fun for someone to consume that you do. I don’t know if it would be fun for you. It might be terrible.

Mona: I think it would be really fun. I think it would be an adventure. I’m up for that.

Zibby: Nice. Excellent. Thank you again for being so flexible with timing. Congratulations on All’s Well. I feel like I need to keep this in my — what do you call it? Where I keep the meds and lotions and potions. Cosmetic cabinet. You should really make some little pouches, like some pill boxes and stuff.

Mona: Oh, yeah, we did.

Zibby: You did? Oh, okay, good. Great. I’m out of ideas. All right, have a great day. Thank you so much.

Mona: It was a total pleasure. Thank you.

Zibby: Good. Enjoy your new home.

Mona: Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Mona Awad, ALL'S WELL

ALL’S WELL by Mona Awad

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