Strange and Wonderful: Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World

Grace O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, is a magical book about identity and discovery and grief. She’s taken on a lot of big ideas. How we grieve, how we cope, how we learn to be ourselves, how things we don’t understand at first start to make sense and ultimately change us. Magnified World is full of mystery and honesty, written in lovely language. I think you’re going to like it.

The novel’s protagonist, Maggie, copes with her mentally ill mother’s suicide by turning her attention to Carol’s beloved curio shop, instead of the people around her. Surrounded by healing stones and gems, talismans and tarot cards and myriad gift items, Maggie delves into herself, taken in by her own world. And then things get stranger, and darker, but not too dark, and awfully complicated. She begins to suffer back outs. Then she encounters a strange man who strains her relationship with her father, her boyfriend and her best friend. Amidst it all she’s seeing a psychiatrist to try and sort out her feelings, though what she wants is to sort out her mother’s past, something that doesn’t come easy.

In our First Time interview Grace talks about the world of Magnified World, how love, grief and anxiety affect us and also takes some time to gush over her editor. I think you’re going to like her.

You can’t tell here, but this cover is mad shiny. Pretty.

Congratulations on your first book. How does it feel to have Magnified World out in the world?

In a word, strange. In two, strange and wonderful. It’s something that was at one time so private, and now it’s fully public and very much its own animal. I no longer have control over it. But that’s where interesting conversations spring from – interpretations that wouldn’t have occurred to me, reactions I couldn’t have predicted. The first time I realized there were people crying at one of my readings was a gobsmacked moment for me. Something that was fully internal is now fully external and it’s exhilarating.

How long had you been working on Magnified World before publication? 

My agent sold Magnified World in late 2010, at which point I’d been working on it in a focused way for two years. I had ideas and notes as early as two years before that. Then the editorial process was about a year. In that time my editor, Michelle MacAleese, and I went through about two full drafts. The ending changed significantly. Michelle’s notes were so helpful, they shone light into every dark and craggy corner of the manuscript. She performed exquisitely gentle surgery on the book and on me.

How was your experience of writing Magnified World initially on your own compared to working with your editor?

I always had excellent readers and was very lucky in the availability of great feedback, both through my master’s program and from writer friends. But an editor is different from a reader or even a mentor – it’s like the difference between a date and marriage. An editor is (ideally) every bit as committed as the writer – this is his or her career just as much as it is that of the person whose name appears on the spine. Michelle had that kind of commitment to Magnified World, in spades. I very much hope to work with her again.

Tell me about your experience with Random House’s New Face of Fiction?

It’s so encouraging to see the energy invested in the NFOF program, which gives a sorely-needed nudge to a first-time novelist, both in terms of promotion and in the emotional and critical support it provides. It’s been a wonderful experience.

This novel is set in a particular late ’90s Toronto neighbourhood. It felt such an appropriate setting for the type of story that dips into the world of New Age curios and their potential healing powers, but without the constant Googling and smart phone researching that can take away that mystery. How important was place and time to you in telling this story?

I always thought of the narrative as a ’90s narrative, partly because I wanted to talk about Bellwoods as a neighbourhood that was neither the rough and rundown strip of the ’80s but also not the gentrified (and beautiful) place it is today. I wanted it to be in a sort of awkward transitional stage, much like Maggie is. It also simply felt like the right time for the story – it’s a fairly stripped-down sort of narrative (a small cast of characters, limited geographical movement, etc) and I wanted to preserve that simplicity, meaning no intrusive technology. That paring down gave me the freedom to get as crazy as I wanted with the internal action, with Maggie’s experience of madness and a distortion of reality.

Maggie’s blackouts are gaps or absences, but overall they seem to bring her to a greater understanding of her grief over her mother’s suicide, and ultimately about her mother. Why did you decide to use these black outs of time as a way to explore grief?

The blackouts are disorienting, and that’s Maggie’s whole existence after her mother’s death: disorientation. As well, they are dangerous and real, much like Maggie’s mother’s issues were. It’s a sort of preservation in Maggie’s life of something really negative but also really familiar and therefore, in an unexpected and conflicting way, comforting.

As well, in her grief Maggie’s perception of things in her fully waking life are skewed and somewhat difficult for her to understand. She befriends a mysterious man than comes to be almost a life-crutch during this difficult time, and she relies on him more than any others in her life. You present a very complex and layered grieving process. Could you talk about the way she essentially lives in two worlds?

Maggie lives in her own head, for a variety of reasons, which have more to do with her need to feel safe than with any above-average imaginative abilities, I think. A division of the self is something she’s lived with in order to cope with her family situation and the competing feelings of love and anxiety she had for her mother. But while her mother was alive, Maggie was able to sort of use her internal division to preserve the status quo – after her mother’s death, the division becomes more problematic as Maggie tries to realign herself, to figure out her new identity if she is no longer her mother’s caregiver. That’s where Gil comes in – even though he’s not necessarily a safe influence, he occupies a familiar mental space, a space of secrets and protection that she shared with her mother.

Mental illness also plays a role in the book. How did you want to present her mother’s depression compared with Maggie’s magic realism-like experience? What concerns did you have in the portrayal of mental illness and treatment in the novel?

I certainly had some anxiety around writing about mental illness. I wanted to show Carol as a fully realized person who, although she refused treatment and eventually lost her battle with her illness, was more than simply a sick person. I think the stigmas around mental illness, both for those who are ill and for their loved ones, are still very much alive and often have an incredibly negative effect. I hope that Magnified World is, at its core, a merciful book – one that portrays the humanity of mental illness.

Just look at that new face of fiction?

What are you working on next?

I’m currently pecking away at a very new novel project. It toys with fairy tales and video games and a bougainvillea plant plays an important role. It’s a bit early to talk about it, but I’m hoping people will wish me luck.

Good luck, Grace! Magnified World is available now. Go buy it wherever fine books are sold. Find out more about Grace here.

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