Truth and consequences: Ottawa author Joanne Proulx’s second novel a powerful exploration of anger and sex

When she was young, Joanne Proulx had a brush with danger. A young man threw her over his shoulder at a party and headed upstairs. It was funny to start and then it wasn’t funny at all. Proulx avoided being sexually assaulted because, she said, she’s a fighter, but many, many women aren’t so fortunate.

The Ottawa writer has taken her own life experiences and those of many others, and built a book, a complex, thoughtful and provocative second novel called We All Love The Beautiful Girls (Viking) that probes deeply into the lives and relationships of privileged people and those that they hold in their sway.

She started thinking about it in the Year of 50 Shades of Grey.

“There just seemed to be this rise in violence against women worldwide at the time. It was always there but the conversation seemed to be moving more to the centre. At the same time, the hit of the year for many women was 50 Shades of Grey.

“Here was a rich man taking control in a very dominating way of a much younger, more vulnerable woman. That was a dynamic that I struggled to reconcile.

“Out in the real world, we witnessed the story of a horrific rape on a bus in India. We saw women torn apart in Cairo (during the Arab Spring).”

In her novel, Proulx lays out what happens when very privileged people cross the line of social acceptability.

“They will probably survive their actions but what happens when their actions start rippling out into the community where people are more vulnerable.”

The book is also about anger and its consequences, both sexual and physical. Only one of the central characters, a young teenaged boy named Finn, doesn’t give into fury, even though he is betrayed by a friend and almost freezes to death at a party.

Proulx’s first book, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, was published in Canada in 2007 and was highly praised in many reviews. She even snagged a rare movie deal. But her second book was delayed because much of her time in the past decade has been spent being a mother to her own three children and the three children of her sister who passed away during this time.

“I have been busy raising what I hope are wonderful human beings,” she says.

Her first novel, though, happened pretty quickly. She started it in Paris where she was living with her husband. At the time she had a writing coach, the well-known author Lauren B. Davis, who helped Proulx get her first short story published.

Proulx believed she was writing what she thought was another short story when she complained to Davis that “‘It’s already 28 pages and I’m not close to being done’. Lauren said, ‘Joanne why don’t you relax and see what happens’. Two years later I had the book done.”

Before moving to France, Proulx was in a different world. She was a corporate banker in Vancouver.

“When I was leaving the bank, they had a party for me and one of my friends said ‘You don’t strike me as the stay-at-home-mom type.

“I said, ‘I always wanted to write so I might give that a go’. I’m one of those who takes action so I went home and wrote a short story. From then on I was head over heels.”

Proulx had kept a diary as a teenager but when she looked at it “it was mostly sarcasm.” She also wrote stories in elementary school and high school and “some supportive teachers came to my first book launch and they said that they had told my parents I should pursue writing. My parents never said a word. I was good at math and science and they thought that was a more stable career path. I don’t blame them. My life has changed a lot and I’ve learned a lot at every step.”

Her journey started in Peterborough, then Toronto, Vancouver, Paris and finally Ottawa. The capital is where Proulx finished her first book.

Between Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet and the new novel, she did try other things including a furniture business and she built a beautiful house with her father who is an architect. But she realized these were distractions and turned back to writing.

The movie version of her first novel will come out in 2018 and stars Juliette Lewis, Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel and Alexander MacNicoll. Proulx did have a consulting role on the script and was on scene during filming in Kelowna, B.C.

When Anthem was published it picked up comparisons to the stories in the films Juno (2007) featuring Canadian actor Ellen Page and Donnie Darko, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal. The rights were picked up by Vancouver-based Sepia Films.

“Nicole Winstanley, my editor at Penguin, who bought the first book (and the second), she said to me, ‘This is the most cinematic book I have read in ages’. I didn’t really know what she meant.” She does now.

Negotiations are now under way with a different production company for the rights to the second book which might end up being turned into a television series. No names yet, she says, but the deal could be finished this fall.

The first book, because it deals with issues emerging from the Iraq War, was set in a fictional town in the States.

Beautiful Girls is set in a place called Old Aberdeen which is obviously Ottawa. It even includes references to the House of Targ, the pinball, perogies and music palace in Old Ottawa South. Why the name change?

“I love Ottawa but I wanted to break any link to Ottawa and government and make the novel more universal and timeless.”

Proulx is a music lover and named the city Old Aberdeen after the hometown of one of her heroes, the late grunge star Kurt Cobain, who was from Aberdeen, Washington.

So she was a head-banging corporate banker. It was a bit of a secret life.

“I could go to concerts and be absolutely certain I would not bump into colleagues.”

To show how much of a music fan she is: “The best quote from a review of my first novel was “The White Stripes hover over the novel like rocking guardian angels” I remember thinking that is so perfect.”

Another of the central characters in the new novel, Mia, Finn’s mother, is a corporate banker who left her corporate career. That prompted an obvious question.

“I drew pretty heavily on my own experiences. In the first book I tried really hard to distance myself. And nobody confused me with a 17 year old boy. But friends read the book and said it was so me.”

When she sat down to write this book she thought, “I’m not going to even try.”

The book is full of sex that is occasionally violent. To that Proulx says, “I draw on my own experiences but it is ultimately fiction. People can think whatever the hell they want. I’m good with my life. I’m trying my best here, with more important issues.”

Such as: “I don’t know a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual attention that they did not want. Women my age just did not talk about it. It was a fact of life.

“How are we shaped by society so that we don’t push back harder on this, that we have stayed quiet? What are those forces?

“When my daughter was going off to university I sent her and her friends two letters. The first talked about their brains and their abilities. The second one said: ‘You are also taking your body so let’s talk about sex.”

She told her daughter and her daughter’s friends to be brave enough to say no, to listen to their bodies when they know something isn’t right. She also communicated that sex is and should be enjoyable. The young women were happy to get the letters, she says, because it’s a very complex sexual world young people are navigating full of sexting and online pornography.

After the long wait between first and second novels, Proulx says her next book will be finished a lot sooner. “I am a full-time writer now.

“I believe that if you are walking in the right direction, the world eases for you and you find the people you need. Now I feel like there is no looking back.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.