This week on The Chat, we’re in conversation with Toronto novelist Grace O’Connell. In Be Ready for the Lightning, her second book, we meet Vancouverite Veda and follow her relationship with her troubled brother Conrad and their group of childhood friends. Caught as a bystander on a hijacking on a New York City bus, Veda is forced to re-evaluate her past.
Writing in The Toronto Star, Robert Wiersema says Be Ready for the Lightning is “a novel of stunning beauty and impact, its revelations and realizations are startling, hard-earned and realistic."
Grace O’Connell is the author of Magnified World, a Globe and Mail Best Book and she was the 2014 winner of the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award. She holds an MFA in creative writing, and her work has appeared in various publications including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, The Globe and Mail, National Post and Elle.
THE CHAT WITH GRACE O'CONNELL
Trevor Corkum: Congrats on the publication of your new book, Grace. This is your second novel, after Magnified World. How does it feel to have this one out in the world?
Grace O'Connell: Strange and wonderful. I'm proud of my first novel, but I think this second book really shows how I've grown as a writer. I want to be able to say that with each new book. I really focused on things that are tougher for me as a writer—especially pacing and tightening the plot arc—during the writing process for Lightning. Even though it took a lot of drafts, I feel like I got it where I want it to be. It's a book I really like talking about with people, and that is a great feeling.
TC: The book weaves together the coming-of-age story of Veda, a late 20s Vancouver audiologist, with a hijacking on a bus in New York City. How was the story born?
GO: It started with the hijacking—I wrote an early version of the scene that would become the first chapter (when the shooter enters the bus in New York) in one sitting, and then I had the question of who is this woman, in this terrible situation, and how did she get there? It's funny though because I have had people ask me about why I added the hijacking, when it was the genesis of the story from the first word I wrote. I had often wondered what I'd do in a situation like that, given that we hear about public shooting events so frequently. When I wrote the scene, it drifted away from the personal, but was still a way to process those anxieties. We all want to be the hero, but what if the hero isn't a strong person? What if they're a wildly imperfect person, and the tools at their disposal are words, not weapons?
What if the hero isn't a strong person? What if they're a wildly imperfect person, and the tools at their disposal are words, not weapons?"
TC: What scared you most as you wrote? Did you come across any particular challenges in the writing?
GO: Getting Veda right was the biggest challenge. I wrote the first draft in third person, and it just wasn't working; Veda felt too distant. She was resisting being known. Switching to first person for the next draft was the first (very involved) step in a long editorial process of letting Veda be a more honest and real narrator.
The other tricky thing for me was balancing the violence of the book. There's the big violence of the hostage situation, there's the gritty violence of Conrad's fighting, and there's violence that happens to Veda and that Veda commits against herself. I wanted all the violence to feel real; it had to be as awful as it was, but without becoming over the top and losing its impact for the reader. There's a banality to violence that I wanted to capture, a straightforwardness—what isn't straightforward is what comes of it, its after effects, but the violence itself needed to be sort of flat, not overly stylised. It was a really interesting challenge, because we're used to the sound effects, the soundtrack, to violence being this mythologized thing, even having a romance to it. I wanted to strip that away.
... we're used to the sound effects, the soundtrack, to violence being this mythologized thing, even having a romance to it. I wanted to strip that away."
TC: I was struck by how “growing up,” of fully entering adulthood, proves challenging for Veda and her friends. There’s a push and pull between striking out independently and returning to the familiar (if claustrophobic) comforts of home. The story of Peter Pan also plays a pivotal role, thematically and in terms of plot. Can you talk about this conflict more? Do we all carry a little bit of Peter Pan inside us?
GO: A reviewer referred to all the male characters in the book as being Lost Boys, which I really loved. It's absolutely true that the theme of being unable or unwilling to grow up applies to most of the characters, including Veda. It's very much a book about fear, and one aspect of that is the fear of change, of moving on. Veda's a very fearful person, and her solution is try to keep everything from changing, like an animal freezing in the forest and trying to blend in when it's afraid. I can understand that.
The Peter Pan connection for me though about how deeply sad the original book is. It's a book about being left behind and forgotten. Barrie talks about how Mr. Darling doesn't really know Mrs. Darling, and then Peter forgets about Wendy and she just waits and waits, every year, for him. Peter is this wild, destructive force, all impulse and id and no empathy. I think a lot of the characters feel left behind, are waiting for someone to come for them in one way or another. For the ones who manage to change through the course of the book, part of it is figuring out a way to move beyond that waiting.
TC: What’s next for you, Grace? What are you working on now?
GO: I'm in the very very very early stages of a new novel project. It has to do with two childhood friends whose connection becomes somewhat poisonous as they become adults, and what happens when that reaches a crisis point. I'm taking it slow, partly due to work commitments and partly because, like every time, I'm learning all over again how to write a book.
Excerpt from Be Ready for the Lightning
Our parents murmured to each other at night, when they thought I was asleep, about how tender-hearted I was, how lucky they were that their second child was so mild and kind. I heard them when I walked sock-footed to the kitchen to put away the things I’d used to look after Conrad. The first few times, my mother protested, said she wanted to do it herself. But Conrad said, “It’s okay, Mom. Veda can do it,” and after awhile, she stopped asking.
After that, it was easier for Conrad and me to get into a routine, to hide the worst of his cuts and bruises from them. We’d head to the basement to “play video games” or “watch Buffy,” and in the grim glow of the fluorescent-tube ceiling lights—like sunlight on a dead planet—I’d unearth the bag of supplies we kept under the old floral couch. It was an odd tradition, but it was ours, and even when he was wincing under the iodine, there was an impishness to Conrad, to his enjoyment of the trick we were pulling off. He kept my spirits up about his own pain, and if I let it slip, and he saw my lip tremble, he’d pinch it and smile, saying, “I saw that.”
We were close then, closer than Annie and Al, or my other friends at school and their brothers, and I thought what a good brother and sister we were—I was vain about it. Conrad was a boy, he was older, he was handsome; he looked like our mother, and I didn’t. He was removed from me in so many ways, but all that was erased, as I wielded those Band-Aids and cold washcloths. Is it strange to say I was never more sure of being loved than I was just then? I knew what Conrad did. I knew there might be another sister or a mother or father somewhere else at that same moment, patching up another boy or man because of Conrad. When I tended to him though, the universe shrank to just the two of us. A small room where I was both useful and safe.
But if in those moments Conrad went upstairs to get a drink or to use the bathroom and left me alone down there, the basement became cold again, a dour half-renovated space full of rejected furniture, and I became a girl with blood under her fingernails and hands that stank of disinfectant.
Excerpted from Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O'Connell. Copyright © 2017 Grace O'Connell. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.