In conversation with Angie Abdou
What happens when a busy middle-class couple in a small mountain town hire an attractive live-in nanny for their two young sons? That’s the premise of Angie Abdou’s highly regarded and fully realized new novel, Between.
Set in BC mountain country, Between tells the story of Vero, a new mother feeling overwhelmed with new responsibilities, her bike-loving husband Shane, and Ligaya, the live-in Filipina nanny Vero has reluctantly agreed to hire. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Ligaya–as she navigates life as a domestic worker in Hong Kong before her eventual arrival in Spucedale–and Vero.
As the lives of the three protagonists become more entangled, the book deftly explores issues of gender, class, desire and privilege. Along the way we trace the story of Ligaya’s own complex family history, stay with Vero and Shane at a Caribbean swingers’ resort, and grapple with tough questions about intimacy and loneliness. It’s no simple task to write a book that handles such complicated subject matter and still has us turning pages wanting more, but with exceptional pacing, a fine (and often hilarious) attention to detail, and deep empathy for her characters, Angie makes it look easy.
Angie Abdou lives in the skiing mecca of Fernie, British Columbia with her husband and two young children. Between, her fourth book, is inspired (in part!) by her own experience as a new mother living with a Filipina nanny.
Congrats on the release of Between, Angie. It’s a fantastic book. How did the writing of this one differ from your earlier projects?
I had more false starts with this one than with my previous books. Between began as a first-person novel in the form of emails from a new (possibly depressed) mother to her therapist. My agent at the time insisted that a novel in emails would never work (you can imagine my reaction when The Antagonist came out to great acclaim the following year). The second major version of Between was in third-person from three different perspectives—a wife, a husband, and their children’s nanny. I was quite far into that draft before I realized the true story concerns the relationship between the two women, so I cut the husband’s perspective.
It’s never before taken me so long to “find” a story’s form. However, the effort (and the frustration!) paid off: this time I’m confident that, in the end, I got it right.
The other big difference between this project and my previous ones: research. My first book Anything Boys Can Do focused on dysfunctional relationships. No research required there. My life is my research! The same goes for The Bone Cage (elite sport) and The Canterbury Trail (ski culture)—I didn’t need to do very much traditional research for either of those. However, Between tackles many topics of which I know little. I’ve never lived in the Philippines, for example. I’ve never worked as a nanny in Hong Kong. I’ve never stayed at Hedonism, a swingers’ resort in Jamaica. This book, therefore, required extensive research. I enjoyed that work more than I expected. Inspired by Lawrence Hill’s claim that he writes best when he inhabits a character whose experience is far from his own, I won’t shy away from research-intensive projects in the future.
What inspired you to write Between?
Even though Between does in some ways stray far from my own experience, its genesis does not. Like my other books, it originates with my own preoccupations. It takes its initial energy from struggles I face in my own life. I had children late in life, and I found myself completely unprepared for the monumental change motherhood would bring. When the children were one and three, we hired a nanny from the Philippines. I struggled with many issues around that. I remember one friend labeling my anxiety “liberal guilt,” adding that “in other countries, nobody has trouble hiring servants if they can afford them.” Servants! That did nothing to ease my anxiety. As usual, I went to the page to work through anxiety. Between is the result.
One of the things that impressed me most about the book was the pace—I was hooked from the start, and even though you covered a wide span of time and geography, not to mention emotional terrain, it was a quick read. How difficult was it to structure the novel? Did you have an idea of how it would come together when you first began writing?
Ha! Thank you. That was my main goal—to produce a fast-paced story that keeps the reader zipping along (even while I attempt to tackle pretty big—and sometimes uncomfortable—emotional and political issues). Very many books are published in a single year, and people have too little time. In my mind, the writer’s number one job is to keep a reader turning the pages—above beautiful sentences, above important themes, above authentic settings, above complex characters. If the reader is not compelled to keep turning the pages, none of that matters. After my initial struggles with this manuscript, I decided to go back to the structure of The Bone Cage—fairly short chapters in alternating perspectives of two characters destined to meet. That structure is effective from a straightforward keep-the-pages-turning angle. Even though Between is more ambitious and complex than The Bone Cage (geographically, emotionally, and politically), I felt the same structure could work. Thank you for confirming that it does.
In part the novel tells the story of Ligaya, a Filipina nanny living in the mountain town of Sprucedale with Vero and Shane. The details to Ligaya’s backstory are rich and striking. How much research was involved to create her character? Can you talk about the role of research for the novel?
So. Much. Research. It was vitally important that I did not screw up the scenes set in the Philippines and Hong Kong. I could absolutely not get those parts of the novel wrong—not geographically, not culturally, not linguistically. Errors there would undermine the whole project.
I have (I admit sheepishly) never been to the Philippines or to Hong Kong. Early in the writing of this novel, I applied for a grant to go to both, but my application was unsuccessful, so I relied on interviews. I also read everything I could find about the Philippines and about international nannies, but talking to real people proved so much more useful than book research. Filipina nannies were wonderfully helpful, answering endless questions from start to finish.
Nonetheless, when the book was nearly print-ready, my biggest fear remained. I worried about inaccuracies in the Filipina nanny material – the stuff so far outside my own experience. As a final check, Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen agreed to do a last-minute read through. Her input was invaluable.
One major themes of the book is desire—sexual desire, in particular—and how alone we are with that desire, inside our own bodies. Ligaya, Vero, and Shane each struggle to connect authentically, often through or by way of the body. I love the honesty and truthful was you approach writing about sex. It’s often an area that’s underwritten, particularly in Canadian literature. Can you talk more about sex in your own work, and in writing generally?
A well-known critic of Canadian literature claims that Canadian writers shy away from sex, turning down the lights just as the act commences and not turning them on again until the cigarettes are lit. I never want to be accused of chickening out of sex (on the page!). In part, I feel I’m rising to that critic’s dare. I’m a sucker for a dare.
However, sex is also such a crucial part of being human—leaving it out of our literature is negligent. Between hinges on sex: sex and desire, sex and identity, sex and power. Sex becomes a way of talking about loneliness and alienation and lack of connectedness but also a way of talking about inequality and lack of voice. In the whole Fifty Shades of Grey craze, what’s missing is a discussion about power.
In the fall, I was on a panel with Dionne Brand and she insisted that the first thing to do in any relationship is name the power imbalance, to be honest about it. Nobody in this novel wants to do that. Shane and Vero don’t acknowledge their gender-based power imbalance. Vero refuses to acknowledge the power imbalance between her and Ligaya. She wants her underprivileged employee to be “like a sister” or at least “a friend.” In part Between explores the extent to which that is impossible. I use sex as a way to facilitate that exploration.
So I can go on and on like this about the thematic and political implications of sex in Between, but Shawn Syms once asked me an unexpected and pointed question: do you like writing about sex? Yes, I do! Writing about sex is fun. Reading about sex is fun too. Maybe my answer should be as simple as that.
You also grapple with the guilt that often lies at the heart of North American middle class privilege, particularly with the character of Vero. I’m interested in the response you’ve had from readers who might identify with Vero and this particular form of guilt. What have readers been saying?
Ah guilt. I’m the guiltiest person I know. I find ways to feel guilt over nearly everything. Not surprising, then, that guilt permeates my novel. Generally, the response to Between has been overwhelmingly positive. None of my other books has generated the same consistently positive reviews or the same number of generous emails from readers (for that, I’m very grateful). Funnily, though, the two lukewarm responses I got were from readers I expected to most identify with Vero (with her guilt, her postpartum depression, her dissatisfaction with married life, her ambivalence about motherhood, her mourning for her career that never was).
One such reader told me “Vero should just pull up her mommy pants and get on with life! It’s not that hard.” This from someone who can sure make it look hard. I’m intensely interested in the way we are often incapable of sympathizing with people whose weaknesses mirror our own, to the extent that we seem oblivious to the similarity.
Writing across cultural barriers can also be tricky and fraught. Were you at all wary of writing from the perspective of a Filipina nanny?
Very wary! I suppose I had a similar wariness in writing about wrestlers in The Bone Cage or ski bums in The Canterbury Trail. Those are also cultures I’ve only witnessed from the outside. The difference in Between? Power. Acknowledging that power imbalance, I proceeded with great trepidation.
The conversation about appropriation of voice appears to have run its course. If we can only tell stories from our own experience, writing is at risk of becoming no more than an act of narcissism. Both writing and reading should immerse us in lives different than our own and be an empathetic experience. Still, I knew I must proceed with great sensitivity—sensitivty and research, research, research. The positive response has been a great relief.
What’s next for you, Angie? What are you working on currently?
For something completely different, I’m working on a ghost story. This new novel was inspired by a Fernie neighbourhood built on top of human remains. In a surprising turn of events, after I began writing the novel, my husband and I built a house in that very neighbourhood (disclaimer: no human remains unearthed during our dig).
After we started our build, these graves that had for so long been largely ignored suddenly became the focus of a media scandal. Here is a sensationalized Global TV story on that very development. It’s called “A Grave Mistake,” which I can’t even say without putting on my Halloween voice, and my house is the one in progress.
I approached this project thinking: Genre Fiction. I wanted to write a novel with wider reach. I wanted to be Stephen King or Andrew Pyper. One day I heard a friend ask my husband what I was working on, and he answered “She’s writing a ghost story but in her own Angie way.” That opened the novel right up for me. Since then, I’m writing more freely. He’s right: I’m not Stephen King or Andrew Pyper, and the wonderful thing is I shouldn’t even try to be. I’ll continue to write like Angie Abdou. Fortunately, I’ve found some readers who like that.
Learn more about Angie and order a copy of Between here.