What We Both Know: Hannah Macready Interviews Fawn Parker
In front of me are hundreds of pages of work. Already I feel it leaving me. He will obliterate what is there, replace it, deny I ever wrote a word. But, he cannot take the words I write on my own.
Hillary Greene’s father, once a celebrated author and public figure, is now losing his memory and, with it, his ability to write. As her father’s primary caretaker, each day begins with two eggs, boiled and Charlie Rose or some other host on the iPad screen. Her father compulsively watches himself in old interviews, memorizing his own speech, trying to hang on to who he was.
An aspiring author herself, Hillary impulsively agrees to ghost-write his final work—a memoir spanning his career—and release it in his name. Diving deep into her father’s past, and in turn her own, a horrifying truth begins to piece itself together.
With full control over her father’s memoir, Hillary is faced with a stark choice: reveal her father as a monster or preserve his legacy as a respected literary figure. But she wonders what writing the truth will do to her and if it will damage her own prospects for a career. Whichever option she chooses, Hillary has to deal with the significant pain writing the memoir has re-surfaced—specifically, how the truth about her father adds to her grief over the death of her enigmatic sister, Pauline. For the first time in her life, Hillary holds the power.
Set in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, What We Both Know is a visceral, intimate, and complex novel about confronting the personal and professional consequences—and potentially devastating fallout—of revealing the truth about a famous man.
Fawn Parker is the author of the novels Set-Point and Dumb-Show and the poetry collection Jolie Laide. She is co-founder of BAD NUDES Magazine and Bad Books Press, and president at The Parker Agency. Her story, “Feed Machine,” was longlisted for the 2020 Writers’ Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Parker lives between Toronto, Ontario, and Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Hannah Macready: Welcome, Fawn. I’m thrilled to be interviewing you again. I became a fan of your work when I first read “Feed Machine,” a short story first published in EVENT, that made the Journey Prize long list. Your characters in “Feed Machine,” as well as What We Both Know, are highly self-aware, yet agonizing in doubt and a kind of beautiful internal loathing. As a reader, I see the potential in them so clearly, and it makes me root for them even though I fear for them. I want Hilary to get what she wants, but it kills me to watch her stumble through it. What is your process for developing characters? Do you pull internal inspiration? Do you watch people on the street?
Fawn Parker: I appreciate you connecting this book back to the short story, especially because I actually wrote those pieces back to back. It’s interesting to hear that some similarities came through for you. To answer your question, I don’t know if I take on too active of a role in character development. It tends to start for me with a scene or a bit of dialogue back-and-forth, and the characters feel real and complex to me in the way I’ll sometimes feel when I look at a painting. There’s so little there, in literal terms, but there’s also a whole story. I think that’s how it started with Hillary—I wrote the scene between her and Catherine on the front porch and I could feel their dynamic already taking shape. Maybe some art people are going to take issue with me saying “there’s so little there” about a painting. You know what I mean.
HM: I have so many good things to say about this book. Not only does it feel like a satisfying sequel to Lolita, but it feels so well-placed in the CanLit horror story we’ve been living through in recent years. Can you tell me a bit about how the idea for this book was born?
FP: Haha, thank you. I knew I wanted to write a book about a woman whose abuser started to lose his memory. It took some time to put everyone together and decide to write from the perspective of a daughter, and I wasn’t sure how to navigate her father’s fame and public reputation. The image of Baby memorizing his own interviews struck me at one point and I knew it would make most sense for him to have some level of celebrated success. I also wanted to try writing something a bit slower and softer, because for a long time I think I felt pressure to masculinize my writing, whatever that means. This is the first time I didn’t really want things to be funny.
HM: This is your third novel, and first with a major publisher, though you have an impressive list of small pub heroes behind you. Was anything different about working with a big publishing house? And how did your previous publishing experience help you there?
FP: It has definitely been different in many ways, but in the most important ways it has been the same in that I have felt consistently grateful to have editors, agents, publishers, and readers engage with my work. Of course, different sized publishers have different levels of access to various resources, but all of the publishing professionals I’ve been lucky enough to work with have shared the same passion for and dedication to what they do. I am extremely thankful to have been published by M&S, but small press publishing is something I hope never to take for granted. Canadian indie presses keep so much of our lit scene alive.
HM: Without giving too much away, the turns in this book are exquisite. They creep into the pages in the best possible way and I found myself yearning for new secrets on each page. Did you always imagine the book to unravel like this, or were there stylistic decisions made in editing?
FP: Not exactly! The name reveal was something I knew was coming and I knew Hillary would be the one writing the book, but some of the other moments came later. I worked with Harriet Alida Lye on early edits and she really helped me bring the book into its best form.
HM: You do a great job of making the mundane shine and the chaos seem benign. This is one of those books that is quiet on the page but screams in your mind every time you put it down. What, or who, do you think has been the biggest influence on your style? Have there been any “aha” moments in your career where you felt you truly discovered it?
FP: I’ve always been such a terrible reader. I’ve gone literal years without so much as opening a novel, and more often than not I start a book and never finish it. It’s horrific. So I think a lot of my inspiration comes from other places. As far as entertainment/consumption goes, music is definitely number one for me. With regards to literature, though, I would say Amy Hempel and Joy Williams are two writers who make me feel inspired, whether or not that ends up shaping my work. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel is a story that really changed how I think about character and story. She’s a genius. Is that a really entry-level thing to cite?
I’m not sure if I feel I’ve definitively found my style yet, or maybe I see my style as whatever common thread runs through all of my different books. My first two novels feel very separate, to me, and this one even more so. But I’m sure there’s some sort of “Fawn Parker” shade to them. Maybe I just don’t see it, like how when you share your bed with someone you always think it smells like just them, but to them…vice versa. I hope that’s not perverted that I brought up the bed.
HM: You’re a dedicated writer, as we know from our last interview. You had another book, Dumb Show, published just this past October of 2021 by ARP Books. Of course, publication doesn’t always reflect process, but lay out your writing life for us, what does it take to publish consistently on this level?
FP: Perhaps I can very efficiently paint a picture of my writing life by saying last week I was nearly admitted to the psych ward and right now I’m having to quit my job because the nerves in my arms are so shot I can’t type (I’m composing the majority of this via voice dictation). I’m just kidding. I mean those things are true but I don’t mean to get weird. I love to write every day if I can, whether it’s a longer project or a poem, or an idea.
I think the way that I write is a double-edged sword, maybe. I write quickly and excitedly and when one project ends I’m eager for the next to begin, but I’m also a lazy editor and sometimes I convince myself a book I finished three months ago is so old it’s not even worth submitting. This answer seems to be taking many turns. Maybe I don’t know the answer! I just love to write. It surprises me when people tell me I write a lot because I can’t imagine what else I would do. Maybe other people are spending a lot more time thinking, resting, editing, and so on, and I’m just blasting out these drafts at sunrise. Their way is better is what I’m saying. At least for the brain. If you want ten thousand small press books and four therapists then maybe my way is better.
HM: Baby is such a great trope of the classic writer. White, male, womanizing. Yet you do a wonderful job of unraveling him, crushing the trope, not giving him the grandeur many before you would. Was it important for you to give this classic story a new kind of ending?
FP: Yes! I’m happy you feel that way. Of course, he is disgusting, but I do love him. Maybe love is the wrong word, but there were moments I really wanted to reveal a side of him that was more naive and helpless, not because I think an abuser can be redeemed in a moment of softness but because real life abusers are people. Sometimes they can be funny or truly loving or situationally good, etc., but the damage has still been done. I think if he were pure evil the whole time then the story would only have to be a page long.
HML: The frailty of memory is present throughout the novel. Hilary constantly confuses the memory of her life with stories she’s read or been told. She recalls moments with her sister but is unsure they ever happened. In some ways, this makes her an unreliable narrator, and there were moments where I questioned whether she really knew what happened. This made me uncomfortable when I compared it to real life, when public figures are shown to be insincere, the public debate is always: Are you sure? How do you think your novel fits into our current cultural landscape? And what do you hope Hilary adds to the conversation?
FP: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I agree Hillary’s memories are quite confused, and often she doesn’t trust herself. The more I think about it the more I’m not sure what a character like her adds to the conversation, other than just one more example of how horribly complicated and unique every experience of trauma can be. There is often so much judgment cast on victims regarding why they handled things the way they did, why they didn’t leave, or tell, and so on. Hillary’s story felt important to me in that way… a demonstration of the sort of circling madness of trying to live and heal at the same time. I do think many readers will imagine there’s more to Hillary’s past than she’s willing to admit, and that’s something I really wanted, but kind of quietly and in the background.
HM: Thank you so much for taking the time, once again, to speak with me. I’m thrilled by this novel. I haven’t stopped thinking about it for a moment since I started reading, and I feel it will stick with me for a long time to come. As a final question, tell us, what’s next for Fawn Parker?
FP: Thank you for asking me such great questions! I’m so glad we got to talk again. What is next for Fawn Parker…my next novel is “on submission” right now, so we’ll have to see what happens with that. I feel extremely grateful to have enough stability in my writing and publishing life that I can take a breather right now, so maybe it’s time for me to learn how to be better at doing all of the other things a person has to do. I like the idea of taking a full year to only read and not write, but I don’t know if I could follow through with that. Thank you, Hannah!
Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.