Will She or Won’t She? An Interview with Sarah Mian


By Julienne Isaacs


Sarah Mian is a Nova Scotia writer whose fiction has appeared in journals such as The New Quarterly and The Antigonish Review; her non-fiction has been featured on CBC Radio’s “Definitely Not the Opera” and “How To Be.”

Mian’s first novel, When the Saints (HarperCollins Canada), tells the story of the Saints, a family infamous for hard living in their hometown of Solace River, Nova Scotia. When Tabby Saint returns to Solace River to find her childhood home empty, she sets out to find the missing Saints in nearby Jubilant. With the help of a local bartender named West and a five-year-old sidekick named Janis, Tabby must navigate both her family’s troubled history and their complicated present.

I interviewed Mian by email about the challenge of breaking family legacies, Atlantic Canadian literature and the value of finding humour between a rock and a hard place.

Where did the story of When the Saints come from, and how long was it in the works?

The original spark came out of a job I had cataloguing old RCMP case files. I discovered that in one small town many members of the same family were committing crimes independently of each other. It got me thinking about how often people repeat the mistakes of their parents.

When the Saints began as a short story, but the voice of Tabby Saint kept talking my ear off. She was determined to have her say. It took me almost three years to commit to the idea that the story was a novel and then another four years burning the midnight oil. Parts of the book were written at the Banff Centre, but mostly I had to squeeze in a lot of writing around my day job.

To pick up on that theme, this novel seems to lightly assume that whole lineages can get locked into abusive or self-destructive ways of being—while also acknowledging that there are ways to break these patterns. Can you speak to this tension in the novel? What is your personal view of the reach and power of family in influencing our choices?

I grew up in a rough neighbourhood and later in life taught basic literacy skills to adults who had been in prison or had addiction issues, so I firmly believe that going down a dark path isn’t always a choice.

In one scene of the novel, Tabby catches herself about to “pull a Daddy” by screwing over the rest of the family for her own gain. This moment of self-awareness is the turning point of the novel: will she or won’t she?

I began reading When the Saints with slight trepidation at the thematically heavy terrain ahead. But the novel treats all kinds of terrible situations with deftness and humour. Tabby Saint simultaneously thinks deeply and wisecracks about her experiences. This approach is much more nuanced than the assumption that heavy themes (violence, addiction, rape) require a funereal tone. Is this your experience of people who have lived difficult lives—that they are able to take tragedy seriously while holding it lightly?

Maritimers seem to have the ability to find humour in the bleakest of circumstances; a vestige of the Irish. My mother survived an abusive marriage and raising three kids on her own and she’s one of the most hilarious people I know.

If I were to have written this novel without the humour, it’d be an unbearable read. Who wants to hang around a bunch of depressing screw-ups if none of them are cracking jokes? Humour is a defence mechanism, but it’s also salve for the wounds. Making light of things diminishes the weight of the world.

Speaking of rape: in one scene Tabby reflects on her experience of rape as a teenager. The scene downplays her emotional devastation while still graphically communicating the horror of sexual abuse. Why is this scene important to the novel?

Being the victim of sexual abuse at a young age put Tabby on emotional auto-pilot. One of the ways in which she survives as an adult is by using sex as a form of currency. She’s an unapologetic opportunist who will sleep with a stranger to secure a roof over her head. This is how things kick off with West, her love interest in the book. It’s only when she realizes he wants more than sex that she starts to do some soul searching.

One of my favourite characters in When the Saints is five-year-old Janis, Tabby’s niece. She’s mouthy, brave and incredibly funny. Is she inspired by a five-year-old you know? Is she a five-year-old version of Tabby herself?

She’s a composite of kids I know, including some within my own family. She has a Teflon personality and accepts the rotten terms of her life as matter of fact. Tabby asks her, “Do you wish you had a Daddy?” and she shrugs and says, “I figure it don’t make no difference.” Janis is very much like Tabby was at her age, which influences Tabby’s decision not to take off again. The question of whether or not the cycle of poverty and delinquency will continue with Janis hovers throughout the novel.

Critics are treating When the Saints as an East Coast novel; it is set against a backdrop of unemployment and boarded-up businesses, with a background cast of juvenile delinquents, rowdy drunks and out-of-work lobster fishermen. How do you contextualize the novel to yourself—do you see it as an East Coast novel or a novel set in the East Coast? What are your influences?

There is a tradition in Atlantic Canadian literature that I wanted to work with and against. Our humour, irreverence, dialect, seascapes, hard drinking and economic turmoil are present and accounted for in the story of the Saints, but I kept it modern (for the 90s, anyway) and purposefully steered away from iconic Nova Scotian imagery such as blizzards, lighthouses, schooners and shipwrecks. Stories such as those about surviving harsh climatic conditions on the coast have been done already and done well. We’ve taken that era and processed it, learned something about ourselves from it. I wanted to switch gears from how crappy we had it then to how crappy things are now—haha.

Despite the many idiosyncrasies of Nova Scotian culture in the novel, I’ve been hearing from readers in small towns across the country who tell me, “I know these people.” This points to certain universalities about rural Canadian life. Until recently I thought flashing your headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap was as Nova Scotian an invention as the donair.

My influences? Mostly stories told through music. The song Farewell to Nova Scotia chokes me up to this day. As I teenager, I devoured American writers like Salinger, Cheever, and Oates. Lately, I’m digging the short fiction of Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky.

What’s next for you?

I’m seesawing between two different novel ideas, both of which take place in Nova Scotia. One is set in a similar world to When the Saints, but cast with very different characters. The premise is that (the protagonist), Errol, is seventeen when his single mother dies suddenly of cancer. Her last request is for Errol to find an old boyfriend of hers named Vinnie who lives down a back road in the middle of nowhere. Along the journey, he encounters many people whose own stories bring him to an important revelation. It’ll be funny like When the Saints, but more romantic.

The other is taking shape in my mind as a kind of literary horror fiction. It’s about a couple, both visual artists, who buy a church and renovate it to live in. Creepiness ensues, but it’s actually quite political.

Much like When the Saints did, one of these story ideas has chosen me instead of the other way around. I would like to do the choosing this time, but I’m not sure if that’s how it works. We’ll see. I hope I end up writing both of them.

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Isaacs Julienne

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and an associate editor at the Winnipeg Review.