Novelist Ashley Audrain is the buzziest thing in literature
The Newmarket native plumbed the dark side of motherhood to earn a $3-million, two-book deal
Six years ago you were a publicity director at Penguin Canada. Now you’re the publishing world’s buzziest author. What happened?
As a kid in Newmarket, I always told people I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But I didn’t know any writers, and the whole idea just seemed like a total pipe dream. I took a few writing courses after university, but when I started working in publishing, it was humbling to see the very best of what’s out there, and I felt like there was no way I could ever achieve that. So I put my own writing aside. Then, in 2015, I got pregnant. Our son ended up having health problems, and my husband and I basically lived at SickKids. I decided I wasn’t going to go back to work, and then I began to think about what to do instead. I started writing, initially as a kind of therapy. Then my scribblings became a novel.
The Push is a pretty dark take on motherhood: a woman who believes her daughter may be the personification of evil. Did you worry people would assume it mirrored your experience?
My experience of motherhood was nothing like that of the mother in the book. I love my children. They are totally normal, and the book is so much darker than anything I went through. At the same time, I wanted to push back against the narrative that motherhood is always this natural, blissful thing. We’re meant to believe that we’re automatically going to love our child. We’re going to like who they become, and we’re going to have this magical connection. The question that drove me was: what if we don’t?
You signed a two-book deal for a reported $3 million. Do you feel like your experience in publicity gave you an edge?
There was a time when I was thinking in terms of what was selling. I got into publishing post–Gone Girl, and I was at Penguin Random House when Girl on a Train came out. In fact, I originally was influenced by that book’s dramatic-twist ending. My husband read my draft and said it wasn’t working, that it wasn’t the book I had been so excitedly describing for so long. That was harsh, and I wouldn’t recommend working out your writing problems with your partner, but he was right.
What was your first inkling that your book was going to be a big deal?
When I signed with my agent, Madeleine Milburn. I can still remember her reaction to reading the book. She emailed me to say that she’d started it just before hosting a big dinner party. And the whole night she wanted everyone to leave so she could finish it.
The Push closed 34 translation-rights deals, and the film and TV rights just sold, too.
Yes, the whole TV process was totally surreal. We got nine offers from producers or streaming services. I was at my parents’ cottage in Parry Sound taking calls with people from Hollywood. Meanwhile, I’m trying desperately to get a signal and hide from my kids. In the end, we went with the producer David Heyman, who did Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
What gave him the edge?
I didn’t want another story based on the trope of a bad mother or a crazy, unreliable female narrator, and he got that. The Push is about what happens when we don’t believe women and when we dismiss their experience because it doesn’t fit the narrative we want.
How does one market a book during a global pandemic?
No book tour, but this story is about a mother in isolation, and I hope that idea resonates with readers. You could argue that there’s never been a harder time to be a parent of young children. We’re always told that it takes a village to raise a child, and essentially everyone’s village has been taken away. Before the tour was cancelled, I was excited to visit some new cities. I guess there’s always book two.
On that note: is there a book two?
Yes. I finished the first draft during lockdown in the spring. My kids are three and five, and they were home full time, so I woke up at 5 a.m. every day to get in a couple of hours.
What’s your best advice for an aspiring novelist?
A lot of people say you have to write every day, but that’s not always possible. What I recommend is that you think about the book every day. Your brain can work through things while you’re pushing a kid on a swing or whatever else you’re busy with.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.