A writer’s foray into film and back to fiction

Maybe it was her blonde hair and striking eyes...A photo on the inside flap of Miriam Toews' book A Complicated Kindness was all it took to snag Toews a leading role in the film Silent Light.

Maybe it was her blonde hair and striking eyes…

A photo on the inside flap of Miriam Toews’ book A Complicated Kindness was all it took to snag Toews a leading role in the film Silent Light.

In 2006, Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas hired the award-winning author to star in his film about Mennonites in northern Mexico after a friend handed him her book.

Toews had never acted before and didn’t even know how to speak plautDietsche (Mennonite Low German).

“He just saw the photo and thought there was some kind of internal energy,” said Toews.

Toews, who won the Governor General’s Award in 2004 for A Complicated Kindness was surprised by the invitation, but up for the challenge.

“It was very strange how it came to be,” said Toews from Toronto where she now lives. She’s in Whitehorse this week for the Yukon Writers’ Festival.

“It was a surreal experience. It was fun though.”

The film, Silent Light, eventually went on to win the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 along with a fistful of other international awards.

“It was my first and probably last foray into acting,” she said. But it planted the seed for her latest novel which takes place in Mexico.

Toews is putting the finishing touches on her sixth book. But she’s coy about what exactly it will be about.

“Writers are so weird about talking about what they’re working on,” she said.

“I guess I think it will sound ridiculous if I try to explain it or I’ll just lose confidence in what I’m writing.”

A Complicated Kindness won Toews international acclaim for her skewering account of Mennonites.

Toews herself grew up in the small, Mennonite community of Steinbach, Manitoba. Her newest book will be the first of her novels that isn’t set in Manitoba.

Toews didn’t start writing until she was in her early 30s. She began her career in freelance newspaper writing and radio, but discovered that neither gave her the freedom to cover the issues she wanted to get into.

While trying to freelance a radio documentary about single mothers on social assistance in the early ‘90s she got the idea to start writing.

“It was a time of welfare bashing and there was a strong neo-conservative agenda out there,” she said.

“I thought the lives of these women was interesting.”

Toews herself used to be on social assistance after giving birth to her first child at the age of 22.

She quickly realized single mothers on social assistance wasn’t a news story that people were interested in. She decided instead to fictionalize the stories she had heard and work them into a longer novel.

That led to her first book, The Summer of My Amazing Luck, about an 18-year-old Winnipeg girl living on the dole.

Like most writers, she writes what is close to home. Her third novel, Swing Low, is a story of her father, a man who battled depression and eventually took his own life.

“I like to go to those places of darkness and understand the loss, pain and struggle,” she said.

After finishing Swing Low, she was so exhausted by having to step into the shoes of her father that she could “barely move,” she said.

But it was an experience that eventually brought her closer to him.

Toews tones down the emotional volume of her novels by adding humour to her writing – it’s now become a trademark style of hers.

“I like writing a scene that’s sad and fuzing it with something funnier,” she said.

“That way you’re yanking the reader from one emotion to another.”

Toews is one of six authors who will be speaking at this year’s Yukon Writer’s Festival.

Other writers include Yukoner Miche Genest, Toronto fiction writer Linda Holeman, epidemiologist and poet David Waltner-Toews, Newfoundland Giller prize-winning author Lisa Moore and former Yukoner and playwright Yvette Nolan.

Wednesday night catch all six writers at a free reading and reception at the Old Fire Hall at 7 p.m. Sunday evening Waltner-Toews gives a lecture, Between Proteins and Planets, at the Beringia Centre at 7:30 p.m.

Contact Vivian Belik at