Mona Awad on plumbing her 'unspeakable' chronic pain — and Shakespeare — for her new novel All's Well
"This book is interested in that experience of having your reality denied as a woman because the health care industry is so inherently misogynistic."
If Mona Awad's latest novel is a walking shadow of her own pain, then Shakespeare has been her unexpected balm.
All's Well follows Miranda Fitch, a college theater professor and director trying to mount a production of All's Well That Ends Well while dealing with mutinous students hell-bent on staging Macbeth. Meanwhile, she's coping with her own fibromyalgia-like symptoms — something Awad knows about firsthand after a hip injury in grad school triggered neurological issues.
"It was years of going from one surgeon to another and feeling at a loss, and just beginning to dream constantly of this day when I would be well again and that dream feeling so distant," the writer tells EW.
Concurrently, she was reading and teaching Shakespeare and became "irrationally attached" to his comedy All's Well That Ends Well. "What's so exciting about Shakespeare plays is that they often speak to positions of powerlessness and articulate them so beautifully," Awad says, "and those reversals of fortune that just happen were really exhilarating to me."
Her All's Well heroine is in a similar boat, wrestling with excruciating pain as she attempts to fulfill her professional duties. The Scottish play seeps into her real life when she begins an interaction with three strange benefactors — instead of three witches, it's a trio of businessmen because, as Awad puts it, "I wanted to be afraid of them, and when I was writing in 2017, men were scary." The encounter leaves Miranda free of her pain, finally — but at what cost?
Fitch sees Macbeth as a "black mirror" of All's Well That Ends Well, as they both interrogate narratives of power achieved through supernatural circumvention with wildly different conclusions.
"I started thinking about this director putting All's Well on stage and wanting very much for that to be her life, but offstage she is living this other narrative, this tragedy that is Macbeth," explains Awad, who also acknowledges her desire to ultimately pull back from the more tragic ending of that play. "I thought, 'I'm just going to go all the way with Macbeth,' but then I thought, 'I don't want that for Miranda.' The book is called All's Well, and it has this incredible reversal, and I just wanted to celebrate that a reversal might be possible."
A former actress who was forced off the stage after a freak accident, Miranda struggles to find understanding and answers for her pain— an experience that mirrors Awad's own struggles with the health care system.
"You start reaching the borders of physicians' knowledge," she says. "You don't trust your experience, and there's a lot of room for it to be dismissed, to be denied by doctors. This book is interested in that experience of having your reality denied as a woman, because the health care industry is so inherently misogynistic… We still live in a world that is very keen to negate women's experiences and deny them their reality. I wanted to inhabit that feeling of helplessness."
Awad also delves into the ways that pain is so emotionally insidious, impacting every relationship in one's life. "I was really interested in looking at how pain can shape so many aspects of everyday life," says Awad. "It's very similar to the experience she has with the health care industry — there's a dismissal, denial, helplessness. Every relationship [in the book] is a way to explore how pain creates divides and distance."
But the book also tackles our own limits of compassion. As soon as she experiences her magical state of wellness, even Miranda loses some degree of empathy for those who suffer from chronic pain. Awad employs this theme to underline how much we take our health for granted and fail to comprehend the intricacies of pain when not experiencing it ourselves.
"Wellness is a base, a default state," she says. "It's so easy to forget pain once it's over, and I really wanted to capture that, and give some credibility to the people around her and how much they can give of themselves and just how much compassion they have because they're not experiencing what she's experiencing."
Statistically, chronic pain affects a higher proportion of women than men, and Awad avoided giving Miranda a precise diagnosis to emphasize the frustrating lack of treatment female patients face. She still needed to articulate it — but how do you describe something invisible?
"Part of the real struggle of dealing with pain is communicating it to people so that they understand what you're going through so that they can help you," Awad says, noting that she made Miranda a former actress because of her own tendency to "perform" her pain when trying to verbalize it.
On the page, her syntactical descriptions of her affliction are vivid and varied: "red," "pulsating," the sensation of the weight of a chair crushing Miranda's foot.
But Awad relied on the magical realism of the novel precisely because words often failed her. "It is such an unspeakable experience. I tried to get it in fragments, as visceral as possible, and almost lean into the absurdity," she says. "It leans into the fantastic to express the real trauma."
Ultimately, she wanted to tell a story that put words to something she and countless others find difficult, even impossible, to express — and, on a broader scale, emphasize the societal structures that perpetuate our inability to relate to it. "The solutions aren't acknowledging the entirety of the experience," Awad says, "because the entirety of the experience is not fully understood."
All's Well strives to give a surrealist framework through which to understand pain. The result is a portrait of trauma that lingers, whether all ends well or not.
All's Well is out August 3 through Simon & Schuster.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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