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Katherine Ashenburg's comic turn

By Kobo • July 30, 2021Author Interviews

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of the novel Sofie & Cecilia and several non-fiction books.

Her new book, Her Turn, is the fictional story of a Washington DC newspaper columnist navigating a personal crisis against the backdrop of the 2015 US presidential primary.

What are you reading? How has reading over the last year and a half been for you?

One of the things I enjoy about my book club is that it decides a certain amount of my reading for me. I can get a bit paralyzed by all the new and wonderful-sounding books out there, so when the members settle, more or less democratically, on our next book, I usually fall in happily. Several of the club’s choices — including Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain — provided some of my most glorious reading experiences this past year. I’ve also been re-reading more and more, sometimes with responses that surprise me, both positive and negative. The novel that is even more wonderful than I remembered is Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. I think it’s going to be one of those books I read every five years or so, discovering new things every time. Like a lot of people, I thought the pandemic was a good opportunity for self-improvement, so I began reading Dickens’ last finished novel Our Mutual Friend in December. I’ve been on page 303, out of 797, for the past four and a half months. In retrospect, reading a dark novel in a dark time was not a good combination. I should have read more mysteries!

When did you know there was a novel to be written with the 2015 presidential primary as its backdrop? Is there an earlier draft set at a different time?

Something that’s very important to me as a reader and as a writer is "the spirit of place," the combination of all the spot-on details both large and small that convince readers they are firmly in a book’s unique setting. The location of Her Turn — Washington, D.C. — came first. I needed a big American city and D.C. is the one I know best, having been an undergraduate and graduate student there. Clearly, there’s no setting a novel in Washington without a healthy dose of politics, but I was careful to date Her Turn before Donald Trump became president. I couldn’t cope with him sucking all the oxygen out of my story, so it takes place in the fall of 2015, when Trump and Hillary Clinton are competing in the presidential primaries. Talk about the election is a thread that runs through the story, and the heroine, Liz, begins to see Hillary’s experience with an unfaithful husband as an echo of her own situation.

You’ve published a handful of books now, each one completely different from the last. How do you know when you’ve got the spark of a book-length project — and has each book’s genesis felt different?

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me this question. There are writers who work for quite a long time on a subject and then decide that it’s just not going to turn into a book. Touch wood, that hasn’t happened to me yet. And yes, each book’s genesis felt very different — but very convincing, at least to me. My first book, a series of architectural walks in my favourite Ontario towns, called Going to Town, came about because I wanted a book like that to use on my trips around Ontario and it didn’t exist. The second, The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die, was born as I watched my daughter grieve the death of her fiancé with her own homemade mourning customs. Writing that book was a way I could accompany her on her sad journey. After that I wrote The Dirt on Clean, a history of many centuries of washing and not washing our bodies. While looking at a museum display about the 17th century, when it was considered much safer to be dirty than clean, the proverbial light bulb went on and I thought, “There’s a book here in our wayward and often wildly incorrect attitudes about cleanliness.” My first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, emerged out of my fascination with a couple of Swedish painters whose marriage looked idyllic and was actually less idyllic and more interesting than I had imagined.

As for Her Turn, I wanted to do something comic based on a job I had had at The Globe and Mail editing personal essays sent in by readers. I combined that with a subject that has intrigued me for a long time — forgiveness. What is it, how do you do it, is it worth doing? Liz tries to find out. Writing this out, I see what a disparate group of inspirations they are. And yet in each case, the hunch or the light-bulb moment turned into a book.

Your first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, was a work of historical fiction – but then so, in a sense, is Her Turn. Do you find it helpful to write into a context that has its own narrative arc? Or is there a tension between the historical record and the story you’re trying to tell?

Although things were beginning to change for women in late-19th and early-20th-century Sweden, my heroines in Sofie & Cecilia were still expected to be patient wives and mothers, and to help their husbands fulfill their ambitions rather than pursue careers of their own. Quietly and brilliantly, Sofie and Cecilia defy those expectations, in love as well as in art. Of course, I made that up: as far as we know, the two real women who inspired my characters were more accepting. But it’s very satisfying to write about people who put aside the script their culture has written for them, and write their own. Liz, the heroine of Her Turn, is at odds with her world in a more subtle way. Unlike her circle of friends, who seem to take infidelity, divorce and remarriage in their stride, Liz is not, as she says, “a modern person.” Ten years after her divorce, she’s stalled emotionally and still nervous, embarrassed and crippled by self-consciousness when dealing with her ex-husband and his wife. In the course of the book she makes progress, although I’m not sure if Liz is ever going to be a completely modern person. ◼

Her Turn by Katherine Ashenburg

For fans of Nora Ephron and Jennifer Weiner, here is Katherine Ashenburg's witty, contemporary new novel about a forty-something newspaper columnist navigating her bold next chapter, set in Washington against the 2015 US presidential primary.

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