Mona Awad’s debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (Penguin Books), won the Amazon Best First Novel Award, the Colorado Book Award and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Arab American Book Award. It was also long-listed for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and the International Dublin Award. Her new novel, Bunny, was released June 11, 2019 with Viking Press, Penguin Canada, and Head of Zeus. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, TIME magazine, Electric Literature, VICE, The Walrus, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in fiction from Brown University and an MScR in English from the University of Edinburgh where her dissertation was on fear in the fairy tale. She recently completed a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English literature at the University of Denver.
Bunny, a dark and hilarious mix of fairy tale and horror set at a prestigious writing program, is the second novel from Mona Awad, author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.
I caught up with Mona in between book launch events taking her across the country and back to Canada. In a far-ranging conversation, we talked twisted creativity, building a collective of characters, and the benefits of living multiple lives before committing to creative writing.
Amy Lee Lillar: Bunny has such a heady mix of fairy tale, gothic fiction, and toxic girliness, with a major dash of the weirdness of MFA programs. How did you arrive at this mix? What was that process like?
Mona Awad: I had just attended an MFA program, and I thought to myself: There might be a horror novel here. It’s such an insular environment, a bubble in which people are forced to be very intimate with each other, very quickly, in order to make your dreams come true. People are asked to be very vulnerable, and to activate imagination in ways that’s almost magical. All of which lends potential towards a good horror show.
But I also always wanted to write a fairy tale novel. Initially I’d imagined a teenage girl gang of Snow Whites, told from the perspective of an outsider. Then I realized: My fairy tale girl gang book, and the MFA horror book, should be the same book.
AL: What did you read and write as a kid, as a young girl? I have a feeling some of this impacted the novel.
MA: I always loved fairy tale and horror, and cult films like Heathers, Carrie, and The Craft. I remember in particular some fairy tale anthologies from the 1980s and ‘90s, with wonderful names like Snow White, Blood Red, that featured writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood reworking classic tales. I read those and thought: This is home for me.
As an adult, those books inspired me to look more closely at classics outside the canon, like seventeenth century French writers who created very subversive, dark fairy tales with women exploring their desires. They’re very sexual, dark, and wry. That spirit of fairy tale, where the story embodies humor, darkness, and desire, had a major impact on me.
AL: Let’s talk about Workshop in the novel. There’s the actual MFA writing workshop at the university, and there’s an alternate Workshop led by the Bunnies, in which they create…something else. How much fun was this to skewer the clichés of the writing world? Did that make you nervous?
MA: Absolutely, it made me nervous. To be honest, I had very positive experiences in workshop in my actual life, both in my MFA at Brown and my PhD at Denver. Both were incredibly supportive, and I couldn’t have done either of my novels without them. That being said, there are a lot of strange things about workshop, things that are very funny no matter what. The language we use is very disorienting and is designed in some ways to cloak our commentary. Our challenge is to hear past the cloak to what might be true, and in effect the experience can make us feel uncertain about what is real about ourselves and our work. It’s also scary in workshop. To share work with people and receive feedback is very frightening.
AL: Bunny has such a gloriously twisted vision of girly girlhood, and the “endlessly entitled fury” of this certain kind of moneyed girl. What do you think fascinates you about this type of girl, and this type of clique?
MA: It’s a fascination that I’ve always had. This kind of girl is so easy to hate, and yet, we want her to accept us so badly. That paradox is my focus, especially when these girls form a group, which makes them even more monstrous and attractive. My main character, Samantha, hates them, but also wants to be them, wants to be seduced and embraced by them.
AL: Why is it so easy for this type of girl to turn so bloody so easily?
MA: I often think about! Each one of the Bunnies alone would not be formidable and frightening. But as a group they are. I read an essay called “Monstrous/Cute” in which Maja Brzozowska-Brywczynska talks about how cuteness is a kind of monstrousness. It has so much power over us. And if that cute thing, that pretty thing, has a dark, sinister intent? That was what I wanted to explore.
AL: There’s a wonderful twist in Bunny, from fairy tale magic to the sort of black magic we do to ourselves. And I felt a lot of this came down to loneliness. Was that a goal, to talk about this particular kind of loneliness? Particularly in situations like an exclusive MFA program, when you’re supposed to be happy and your dreams fulfilled?
MA: Absolutely. Loneliness is at the core of this book, and I was very interested in how loneliness activates our imagination and informs our perceptions. Loneliness guides Samantha’s imagination to wondrous and dark places. Part of the reason the Bunnies are so frightening is because Samantha is relaying them to us, through her skewered vision that’s deeply informed by loneliness. Her embarrassment at her outsider-ness makes everything around her appear more sinister. In effect we can’t fully trust her account of her environment, of the campus, of the girls.
AL: Each character in this book feels absolutely essential, which I think speaks to your structure but also your ability to make even these sorts of twee girls very human. How do you go about building character, especially when there’s a hive-mind aspect to this group?
MA: That was very hard. In fact, the Bunnies at first appeared only as a collective in my mind, with a collective voice and unattributed dialogue. But I knew they needed a leader and individual voices. The trick was finding the balance: if they are just a collective, they’re dehumanized and not as formidable; if they’re too individual, their potency as a group is lessened. Ultimately it came down to communicating where Samantha was in her head and her insecurity. The way they appear at those moments is a barometer of her inner turmoil.
AL: You have a background as a bookseller, as well as a journalist and food writer! How do all your previous lives come together in your writing?
MA: Journalism taught me about structure and meeting deadlines, as well as giving myself permission to complete something and not be perfect. I learned I like that aesthetic, so I try not to mess too much with my sentences in revision. I trust the first impression and the first way of phrasing. Writing food criticism taught me how to pay attention, how to bring in a lot of sensory detail, and how to evoke an experience for the reader in a way that’s funny and entertaining.
Working at the Pages Bookstore in Toronto, which is now closed, was probably the most beneficial to me as a writer, simply because it exposed me to so many writers I might not have encountered otherwise. Whenever it was dead, I would wander the aisles and discover my first loves, like Lydia Davis, Kelly Link, and Aimee Bender.
AL: Final question: How did you resist the hivemind of writing programs, and become your own unique voice?
MA: I was lucky, because I was older. I needed time to live in the world, and have experiences beyond academia, to be able to write in the way that was exciting to me. I entered my MFA program in my early to middle thirties, and I had a strong sense of my interests and voice. I came in with a project, so I felt more secure and more able to create a healthy detachment from other feedback, while still benefiting.