My chat with Angie Abdou

So as I mentioned, I have been friends with Angie Abdou on twitter for a while, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about The Bone Cage, her writing process, and a bit about herself. For those of you in and around the Toronto area, Angie will be at the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival on September 16th. It’s a stellar line up of authors this year that’s not to be missed! Follow them on twitter for more information. You can also visit Angie’s website here.

Sadie is quick to disprove the myth that all athletes are wealthy and respected. Digger also does this when he speaks of how well financed and championed wrestlers are in other parts of the world. I don’t think I had ever realized how unsupported some of the athletes are in Canada. Was this an important message that you wanted to get across to readers of The Bone Cage?

Yes. Exactly. I think a lot of Canadians are under-informed about the lives of amateur athletes. We tune in for that two weeks of every four year cycle, and sit glued to the TV, judging the athletes, declaring a fourth place finish a disappointment. We know little about how hard they’ve worked or what they and their families have sacrificed – and all in near obscurity. We don’t understand how competitive the playing field is or the extent of the support athletes receive in other countries.

I don’t think a novelist’s job is to tell readers what to think, but I wanted to immerse readers in that world and then let them make an informed decision. Either athletics are important and we support athletes throughout the four year cycle (and of course all the years leading up to that crucial four years), or they are not important to us but then we don’t show up at our TVs during the Olympics and whine about Canadians not getting enough medals. The best compliment I received for The Bone Cage was from Kevin Sylvester (@kevinarts) who says it should be mandatory reading for anyone covering the Olympics.

At the same time, I don’t want to overstate the hardships of athletes to the extent of ignoring the fact that it’s also a luxury – to be able to devote that amount of time to being fit and fast. Swimming a fifty free really super fast doesn’t make the world a better place. The Bone Cage was MacEwan University’s 2012 Book of the Year and when I visited the campus, a professor asked what to make of the book’s tension between sport as sacrifice and sport as luxury. After some discussion, we decided: Let the tension stand. That’s the great thing about novels: they can hold conflicting ideas and outlooks.

One of the most powerful moments in the book, for me, was when Lucinda talks about her trip to the Olympics and tells Sadie how a person’s whole life can lead up to a single moment which is over, for better or for worse, in a matter of minutes. This was a completely heart-breaking moment of disillusionment that I felt like I experienced with Sadie. I’ve read that many athletes said that ‘you nailed it’ when depicting their lives. Have you had many athletes relate similar moments to you after reading The Bone Cage?

I’m glad you liked that Lucinda scene. It’s a key one for me and one I often read at public events. Lucinda’s story is, in fact, a mix of true stories I’ve heard from a variety of athletes who competed at that level. You’re right about athletes relating similar moments to me after reading The Bone Cage or hearing me speak about it. When I do public talks, they always end with a long line-up of athletes waiting to tell me their sad Olympic story. There are a lot of them. Once I did a keynote speech at an equestrian coaching seminar, and those stories surprised me the most because equestrian is a sport of which I know so little. One woman talked about training her whole life to make the Olympics and then months before the event her horse developed some horrific gastrointestinal ailment and died a painful and fast death. She was left in grief and without a partner; no partner, of course, meant no Olympics for her. She said The Bone Cage pulled her out of that depression (which was amazing news for me and evidence of Joseph Gold’s bibliotherapy at work). Another woman at that event talked about arriving at the Olympics as a medal hopeful and finding a big loud jumbo screen full of advertisements – the lights freaked out her horse so bad that he refused to enter the arena.

I’m glad you talk about that moment in a person’s life without connecting it specifically to sports. With The Bone Cage, I hoped to address these themes (the end of a dream and the connection between body and identity) as they extend beyond sport.

You’re a teacher, mother, writer, athlete and many other things in between. I’m sure you can’t describe a ‘typical day’, but in what environment do you do your best writing?

I do my best writing when I get out of my house, which is more difficult to do than you might imagine. The challenge of a writing day is that initial step of getting into the work; once I’m into it, there’s nothing else I want to be doing. Before I get to that spot, anything is more appealing than writing (cleaning the fridge, reorganizing the shoes, de-cluttering the garage). I need to get away from those options. I do most of my writing in the Fernie Heritage Library, which (thank the powers that be) has no wireless. The other crucial part of my process is keeping the momentum going by working on the project every single day, no excuses. There’s no typical day to model how I go about doing that. When I’m in my busiest times (i.e. the teaching semester), I get up at 5am and write until my kids are up at 7am. If writing doesn’t get done then, it won’t get done at all. Just putting in that couple of hours helps me keep enthusiasm and focus on the project. In that way, writing is not unlike the athletic life. An object in motion stays in motion. An object at rest stays at rest.

One of your favourite books you recommend most often?

I used to think “favourite book” was an impossible question to answer, and then I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. That novel answers the question: Why is fiction important? On the surface, I have nothing in common with the novel’s main character. If I were in India and walked by a man like that who was begging on the side of the street, I would look the other way and possibly think his suffering had nothing to do with me. I would be unable to imagine how I could end up in the same situation. In A Fine Balance, Mistry puts me in that man’s skin. I end up in that situation with him in a visceral and real way. In other words, the novel teaches empathy. If everyone had that kind of empathy, the would be a better place. That’s why fiction matters. Fiction puts readers in the skin of an “Other” and builds empathy.

Skill you wish you had? (For me it’s speaking Russian… no idea why. I find it so dark and intriguing.)

I wish I could sing. I’m a terrible singer. I come from a long long line of terrible singers. Last week I was at a party with Steve Heighton and Dave Bidini and they were both playing guitar and singing around the camp fire. Not for the first time, I thought: I would give an awful lot to be able to do that.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read The Bone Cage, then stop here.

Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie is a two-time Olympic medalist who recently suffered from a tragic fall on the board during training in Spain. In The Bone Cage, Sadie is in a horrific car accident, completely ruining her chances to swim in the Olympics at all, let alone win a medal. Does this type of accident happen more often than we, the fans, are aware? How does someone like Despatie move forward after such an injury?

Oh Alexandre – wasn’t that heartbreaking and frightening? But yes, of course, tragedies like this one happen all the time. These athletes are pushing hard against the limits of what the body (the bone cage) can do. We’d be naïve to think that there aren’t serious injuries and accidents and long-term physiological (and, as we’ve seen in recent hockey news, neurological) consequences … all the time.

Despatie will move forward. I have absolute confidence in that. Our elite athletes are as strong mentally as they are physically. (Go, Alexandre!)

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