Just a few years ago, Ashley Audrain was the publicity director for Penguin Books Canada; today, she’s the bestselling author of The Push, a gripping new novel already touted as a book to watch by Grazia, Red, Stylist, Marie Claire and Evening Standard, among others.
As unsettling as it is powerful, The Push is a thoughtful exploration of the dark corners of motherhood, as the arrival of a new baby in a family where the women “aren’t meant to be mothers” signals the beginning of what should be a happy new era, but doesn’t quite feel right. It’s an inventive twist on the suspense thriller form, informed by Audrain’s long literary career and a fearless approach to subject matter.
We got in touch with the Canadian author to ask her 21 questions about life and literature, where she opened up about her unlikely love of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, how Beatrix Potter and Anne Enright helped shape her, and the “very scandalous encounter” an author once (wrongly) assumed she’d had.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
Oh, it’s hard to pick just one! But as a publicist at Penguin Canada, I had the pleasure of working with Khaled Hosseini for the launch of his novel And the Mountains Echoed in 2013. He is, of course, an exceptional writer, humanitarian, activist and physician, but I learned he is also an incredibly kind and gracious human being.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
I have a truly terrible memory for this kind of thing (and all things, really). But I do recall having a lovely boxset of Beatrix Potter books that I kept on my bedroom shelf, and a particular fondness for The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
I was always trying to get my hands on books that were a bit more mature than I probably should have been reading at the time. Oprah launched her book club when I was 14, and I remember following along with many of her selections, curious about the kinds of adult lives I had no exposure to otherwise. White Oleander by Janet Fitch was one of those books that stayed with me for a long time.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
I’m not sure if it changed my life, but I have a vivid memory of reading The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright in one sitting, 10 years ago, and feeling an overwhelming conviction that I wanted to be a novelist. I’m not sure exactly why that book spoke to me so strongly as an aspiring writer, besides Enright’s obvious genius – but perhaps it was the flawed and unusual narrator, Gina, who I thought was so compelling as both a woman desperately in love and a lying adulteress. And she was disgusted by motherhood! That book has stayed with me and I think often of the feeling I had while reading it.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
While I was in high school, saving for university tuition, I worked at a Canadian retailer called Mark’s Work Wearhouse selling construction boots to (mostly) men. It didn’t exactly align with my interests, but I quite enjoyed it regardless.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I can’t remember where I read this advice, but: write like your parents are dead. I remind myself of that sometimes, as a way to let go of inhibitions when I’m writing, to not worry about how a certain scene will be perceived. It was easier to do when writing my first novel, because I really didn’t think anyone would ever read it, let alone my parents!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I never re-read books, although I know I’d be a better writer if I did. There’s so much to learn by re-reading, of course, but I suffer from a fear of missing out on all of the other books out there calling my name. I love the feeling of diving into something new, and that feeling always wins out.
What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?
There is a very, very long list of books and authors I wish to have read (although I’m not sure how guilty I feel about it). But I do confess I’ve never read Jane Austen! I should probably start there.
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
Still writing, trying to become an author.
What makes you happiest?
A wide open day ahead.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I don’t know if this is all that surprising, because I am Canadian, but I really enjoy following the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. I’m really not a sports person otherwise.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
Six uninterrupted hours at my favourite neighbourhood coffee shop with an endless pot of hot English Breakfast tea.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
Well, as a former publicist, I have had many of these encounters. Some of them shouldn’t be repeated! An author once mistook me for someone they’d had a rather scandalous encounter with, and I had the very awkward job of correcting them.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
The thought of this fills me with anxiety! I’m not a very good cook. But it would have to be Alice Munro, and I feel like she might like a nice simple chicken with roasted vegetables.
What’s your biggest fear?
Dying too early.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
There is a wonderful memoir called Natural Killer from a Canadian writer, Harriet Alida Lye. She survived an extremely rare form of cancer when she was 15; in fact, she’s the only known survivor. The beautiful narrative captures her reflections on that time woven with her present-day experience of becoming a mother, something she was told would never be possible.
It’s a remarkable book about our capacity to create life and make death, and it’s quite hopeful, despite the topic. I don’t know if the rights have been sold outside of Canada. But I hope they will be.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
My answer to this always changes, depending on the day. Today: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
What inspired you to write your book?
The experience of being a mother.
The Push by Ashley Audrain is out now..