Miriam Toews is an accomplished writer—a bestselling author in her native Canada—and she has always mined her upbringing in a conservative Mennonite community for her fiction. But her latest novel, Women Talking, which Bloomsbury will publish in April 2019, could not be more prescient or timely. Not that she planned it that way.
The novel is inspired by real-life events that took place in a remote, ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia: between 2005 and 2009, 130 girls and women there were drugged and then sexually and physically assaulted while they slept. Its residents blamed demons, ghosts, or “women’s wild imaginations,” until a perpetrator was witnessed breaking into a victim’s house, eventually leading to eight men from the community being put on trial and convicted for the crimes in 2011.
Toews, who calls herself a secular Mennonite, left her home town of Steinbach, Manitoba, when she was 18—“chucked out of the church,” she says. She fled to Montreal right before her high school graduation. (She is now 54 and lives in Toronto.)
“As a teenager,” Toews says, “I began to understand the patriarchy and how damaging it was.” But, she adds, it was difficult to come to terms with: “I didn’t feel at home in the Mennonite community, but I was also not at home in Montreal.”
Toews heard about the assaults in Bolivia through the Mennonite grapevine and says, “There was anger and sadness, with people forming prayer groups in response to the news.” She decided that she would write about the events in Bolivia, but her sister Marjorie got very sick and committed suicide in 2010 (as their father had 12 years before). “It stopped me right in my tracks,” Toews says. “I didn’t think I would ever write again. Getting out of bed was hard enough.”
After a while, Toews was able to write again, and her next book, All My Puny Sorrows, drew heavily on her relationship with her sister. A bestseller in Canada in 2013, it was published in the U.S. by McSweeney’s. “Hard on the heart but good for the art,” the author says. “But the incidents in Bolivia were always in the back of my mind.”
Toews calls Women Talking “an imagined response to real events.” The book has the women of the Bolivian community meeting in a hayloft, sitting on milk buckets, to discuss the situation and their options. The meetings are recorded by a male teacher, August Epp; the women are illiterate and speak only an obscure low German dialect, Plautdietsch (Toews’s grandmother spoke the dialect but discouraged her granddaughters from learning it, thinking that it would be easier for them to assimilate into the world if their first language was English).
“Just the fact of women talking is a transgressive act,” Toews says. “Their getting together shows such courage; the future they face is terrifying: do they say nothing, do they leave, or do they stay and fight?”
Writing this book, Toews says, felt like a culmination—a pressure cooker containing all the questions of her own Mennonite community: the misogyny, isolation, patriarchy. “Everything came rushing into me, and hopefully out of me as well,” she says, noting that the experience of writing this book, her eighth, was “like no other.” She adds, “There was rage and heartbreak mixed with feelings of faith.”
Toews says she thought about how many hours she had listened to sermons about love and compassion and tolerance. “When I write critically about a culture of control, I feel both connected and disconnected and I want to explore these feelings.”
Sarah Chalfant, senior agent and director at the London office of the Wylie Agency, writes that she saw a partial manuscript for Women Talking in June 2016 and a complete draft in early 2017. Already under contract in Canada and the U.K., the final edited manuscript, according to Chalfant, was submitted widely in the U.S. in October 2017 to “a swift and strong response.”
North American rights (minus Canada) went to Liese Mayer at Bloomsbury in a six-figure auction. Hired in February 2017 to grow Bloomsbury’s fiction list with upmarket commercial fiction, Mayer says that “Women Talking fit perfectly with my aim as editorial fiction director.”
Mayer handed me the book over a casual get-to-know-you lunch. She grew up a block away from me in Greenwich Village; discovering that our literary tastes match was just an added pleasure. “Toews has such fierce humor and tragedy in her fiction,” Mayer says. “She writes about complicated subjects with levity, which makes them approachable even though they are devastating. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Even the narrator being a man is a provocative choice.”
When Mayer received the manuscript, right before last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, she knew immediately that she wanted to buy it. The deal was closed in a few weeks. Women Talking came out in Canada with Knopf in August and in the U.K. with Faber in September, but Mayer is waiting until April 2019 to publish it. “McSweeney’s did such a beautiful job with All My Puny Sorrows that I wanted to take time to build on that,” she says.
Mayer says that when she came to Bloomsbury, fiction was “getting the short end of the stick, and the company was not competing aggressively.” She adds, “Women Talking is a big book for Bloomsbury. We have put a ton of energy behind it and printed a huge amount of galleys.”
Rights have so far sold in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Serbia, and Taiwan, according to Chalfant, who also told me that Counterpoint, which published Toew’s backlist in the U.S., will be reissuing new editions of her books in winter 2019. “It’s been a pleasure to see her work gaining dedicated readers around the world,” she notes.
“Miriam is a writer’s writer,” Mayer says. “And this is an incredibly brave book with an uncanny relevance to what’s going on now. I see it as part of a big cultural movement.”