I received a copy of Toronto resident Gina Sorell’s debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers ($21.99, Publishers Group Canada, Prospect Park Books) earlier this year and started reading it immediately. I was pulled right into the story of Elsie and her recently deceased narcissist mother, who left her only child with an inheritance of debts and mysteries. When I realized the book wasn’t set to release until today, May 2, I stopped reading it – but not for long; I, too, wanted to “unravel the message” Elsie’s dying mother left for her, a quest that ultimately takes her to the South African family homestead she never knew existed. Then, when it came time to craft my questions for Sorell, who was born in South Africa, I found myself re-reading most of it.
Q. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. You have had an interesting and varied career and life. You are an actor, copy writer, copy editor and brander. You have a thing for words. When did this love of words start and how?
A. I’ve always loved words. As a young girl I wrote poetry and had the good fortune to be encouraged by the late renowned South African Writer Isaac M. Pfaff. He was president of the South African arts union, and worked to end apartheid with a group that included Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Mr. Pfaff and his wife were clients of my hairdresser father, after we came to Canada. My dad shared my writing with Mr. Pfaff, and he showed great kindness and interest in my work. He even introduced me to the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. Even when I started acting full time, he would encourage me to keep at my writing.
Q. Mothers and Other Strangers is your first published novel. How did you come up with the idea?
A. The idea started with that first line:
(“My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”
It rattled around in my head for along time until I knew more about why it was being said. It happens that way for me; a line, a voice, a person with a story to tell. And then I wonder, what is that story? Who else is in it? What is the driving force behind their life? What keeps them up at night? I had an idea about identity, and secrets and lies. About people who fictionalized their lives, adjusting the truth about time and circumstances and even who the other character’s were to suit their need. The novel has been on a long journey, from idea to publication, it was seven years
When it comes to mapping, I have to say that I like to wait as long as I can. I like to map when I’m about 100 pages in, then I rework that map as things come to me in the writing. And then I cue card my chapters and scenes and fill an entire white erase board with cards and notes that I adjust as I write. But for the most part, I like to be surprised by my characters and where they will take me. However, I do know that at some point I will have to get ruthless with shaping their story and I’m fine to do that. There were lots of small revisions over the years and some major drafts, I’d say maybe four distinct drafts.
Q. The book has a fair amount going on – depression, a narcissist mother, cult-like spiritual group and a mystery. Did any of these pieces come from real life? Have you experienced any of these situations yourself?
You know the interesting thing was at first I didn’t see Elsie as depressed. I saw her as angry and frustrated, but anger often masks depression. Depression is definitely something that I understand, it’s in my family and friends, and I think that each one of us has experienced it to some degree. A lot of artists have experienced depression, the rejection, the shelf life of a career, the lack of control, the limited opportunities presented when there is so much inside that we feel we have to offer. Our art gives us a way to channel our feelings, so what happens when that is taken away? What happens if you don’t have that outlet in the first place? Not only artists get depressed, that’s for certain, and I’ve seen lots of people struggle with it to varying degrees. I’ve also seen great progress and relief and joy on the other side of it.
As for the cult-like spiritual group, I grew up with a lot of exposure to religion and philosophy and new-age thinking. My grandmother studied religions her whole life and was always open to new ways of seeing things, some of which I found strange and wonderful and mysterious all at once. I myself studied yoga and yogic philosophies and then when I moved to California, I was exposed to even more alternative ways of thinking and communities, and it all fed this idea that while it’s important to keep an open mind, it’s also important to be aware of the self-proclaimed gurus and false prophets. They aren’t just in religion. Anyone who says it’s my way or no way, I’m wary of. But in a world of so much uncertainty, I understand how attractive that can be. And that push-pull is great to write about!
I was an actor for two decades, and in the entertainment industry narcissists are not uncommon. It’s a very selfish way of seeing the world, so what happens when it can no longer be about them? How does a narcissist raise a child and what does that look like?
Q. Do you see yourself in any of the characters? Do you have a favourite character?
A. I love Elsie. In early drafts, I often heard that she was too harsh, but I never saw her that way, she was just honest and flawed, and it didn’t always come out right. That’s something I can relate to. That honesty has also softened as I’ve gotten older. Not the honesty itself, but the way in which it is delivered, and that’s a good thing, too. The truth is most effective when it can be heard. And I used to dance, not at Elsie’s level, but I really loved it. Just adored it, still do. I have such admiration for how dancers communicate with their bodies. And every time I see an amazing dance performance I yearn to be able to do what they can do. I can’t pick favorites, but I love hearing what readers pick!
Q. You were born in South Africa. How old were you when your family came to Canada? Why was it important to include your homeland, and hometown, in this book?
A. I came to Canada when I was five years old. My family didn’t agree with apartheid, so we left. It was a big decision and a hard one to make logistically at the time. My parents were young with three children. We settled in North York. A huge theme in the book is about finding home. Where we belong. And that was a feeling I understood. We moved around quite a bit, and then I moved to New York City and back to Toronto, then L.A. and that feeling of needing to find home was really something I could relate to. And for many years being South African defined me. I was other. We were different. My parents were foreigners. And I wanted to write about that and include touchstones that meant something to me, whether they were typical or not.
Q. While Mothers and Other Strangers is your first published novel, have you written novels that haven’t been published? Are there ones you hope will be published now that Mothers and Other Strangers has been? You are also a writer of screenplays. What do you enjoy most about each?
A. I wrote a book that I am very proud of called Navel Gazing, that is more autobiographical, about a young actress finding her way in life and love and it’s funny and sad and hopeful and it will never see the light of day, because it feels so young and of a time. But I needed to write it. I needed to learn how to take real life, which I always draw from, and turn it into fiction. And I feel like I’ve done that with Mothers and Other Strangers. Yes, there are things that are from my life, but they are reshaped and crafted and distanced from myself to the point that they are truly fiction. That’s always a goal of mine.
Screenplays are far more difficult for me to write, which makes my friends who write screenplays laugh! Give me 300 pages over 80 any time. All that mapping and specific structure is really challenging, but it’s good for me to do. I recently wrote a pilot with Caroline Leavitt that I’m really proud of and had a great time doing. To me great episodic writing is like a novel spooled out in sections.
Q. You are also the creative director of Eat My Words, a brand naming agency. What do you enjoy about coming up with names, taglines and messaging for various companies? What makes you successful in this role? How does being a copywriter help in creating novels?
A. I really do have the best job in the world. I started as a namer 10 years ago and was mentored by amazing boss Alexandra Watkins, into my role as creative director. A name is the first thing a person hears or sees. It announces you to the world. Establishing someone’s name is about establishing their identity. And I enjoy being a part of that process, and love the challenge of communicating the “who” and “what” with just a few words. A few words can say a lot. Being a copywriter supports my novel writing in as much as being a copywriter means I need to be concise and clear and stay on message, as a novelist that translates into my willingness to edit and remembering to keep coming back to my themes.
Q. Copy editor, actor, namer and mother. What is your favourite job? What would you like to do more of? Less of?
A. I love working with other writers on their manuscripts as I learn so much and I know how hard the process can be. I also know how important it is to have someone you can reach out to, so I’m happy when people trust me to be that person with their work. I will always love naming, and being a Creative Director of Eat My Words. Being a part of the moment when someone is ready to take their project or company from being a dream into a reality is such a privilege. I’m there with them as it goes out into the world, and that’s exciting. I don’t act anymore and haven’t in years. I gave so much of life to acting and being an actor and I had great experiences, but I’m done. I like living in my world of words. I love being a mother and feel very blessed that I am. All of these hats I wear allow me to stay creative, make a living, support my passions and create my own schedule, which is a gift. I would love to have a few more hours in the day to read and write and walk. Walking clears my head and is a good way for me to think my novel through.
Q. What are you working on right now? What are your future projects?
A. Right now, I’m working on getting this book out into the world, and that’s a very big job and I’m lucky to have so much support. A lot of people put their faith and time into this happening and I want to do all I can to make sure that my novel finds a home with readers. And I’m on my last-revision-before-I-show-it-to-my-agent draft, of my next novel. It has all of the same themes that I love to explore; identity, belonging, and secrets, along with justice, class and privilege. It’s the furthest thing from me I’ve written and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Right now it’s called, A Fictional Life and the protagonist is male and his name is Nigel Hawthorne. But is that his real name? Probably not.