Annabel Lyon, an award-winning writer first hailed for her short stories, and later for her work in both YA fiction and historical fiction, continues to find new ways to broaden her reach in her latest novel Consent, which draws from both literary fiction as well as the thriller.
Consent might be closest to Lyon’s earlier work in short fiction, which earned her comparisons to fellow-Canadian fiction writer Alice Munro. Lyon, professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia, also manages to break new ground by blending her short fiction with aspects of the thriller novel, and harkening back to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But in Consent, we get a chance to hear the women’s side of the story, as Lyon beautifully interweaves the stories of two sets of sisters, Saskia and Jenny, alongside Sara and Mattie. The two through-lines collide, setting in motion a chain of events that races to the finish.
I spoke with Lyon over Zoom about the duality showcased in her novel, story structure, blame, and more. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your back catalog spans a really wide spectrum of writing, from historical fiction, young adult fiction, short stories, and literary fiction. Does your process or your mindset change depending on what mode you’re writing in, or is it all sort of connected to you?
I think it’s very much connected by the content. One of the things that I’ve come back to again and again is [that] I have a person in my life who has a developmental disability; and I keep struggling to find ways to kind of capture all the complexity of that. I’ve got characters like that in my short fiction, and in The Golden Mean, the historical novel about Aristotle, there’s a fairly significant character who’s got a disability. And certainly in this novel, we’ve got the character of Mattie, whose sister is sort of her caregiver and that relationship is something that I’ve been interrogating.
So I think that’s the material that I seem to come back to again and again, for better or for worse. I’m not sure that the form is so much what unites all the things, but the content probably does.
I thought Mattie is just such a beautiful character. Her story is so touching and her journey where, of course it’s different from how many people experience the world, but it’s so moving and powerful in its own right. Is that what you wanted to convey with that? What do you want people to take away from characters like Mattie?
Definitely, she was the germ of the novel. She was where it started. I wrote a short story way back in 2004. And that’s now chapter two, in a somewhat different form, but the bones of it were there. As I said, I have someone in my life like that. And I’d also heard from a friend who’s a lawyer, about a case that he’d been working on, of a young woman from a wealthy family who had a disability who was basically trapped into a marriage by a con man. She consented to it, or she thought she did, but the family had to go to the courts and get the [marriage] annulled on the basis of her inability to consent. And it’s a miserable thing to have to do with a family member. Because you basically have to stand up in front of a judge and say, “This person can’t make decisions for themselves.” It’s devastating. That kind of stuck with me, and I wanted to play with that.
When you asked about, What do I want to do with these characters? I want to make them more complex, which I think reflects their reality. We’re so used to when we have characters like this in books and movies, they’re either often brutally violent and dangerous and there’s no complexity, or else they’re saintly and happy and teach us all to be better people; and there’s no complexity there either.
What I was really interested in was the complexity of relationships that they can have with other people, what it is from a caregiver’s perspective, but also what it is from their own perspective. If that person thinks they’re consenting to something, who are we to say, “Oh, no, actually you’re not”; what does that actually entail? Are we recognizing someone’s full humanity if we take that away?
Regarding the wide range that your work falls into, when you’re coming up with a story, do you know early on where a piece is going to settle into, or does it develop naturally?
This one was a little bit different, because I approached it [thinking about] linked short story structure. I got stuck at a certain point; at that hundred page point. And so I brought in this other story, and the moment where they finally connect—this is where Saskia is in the car, she’s just gotten her sister’s cell phone back, and she turns it on and to see what’s there. And that’s the sort of little moment where the two stories collide, because we realized that this character, Robert, is a character in both storylines. That surprised me in the writing of it. When I wrote that, I thought, Ooh, I don’t know if I can pull this off. I don’t know if I can sustain this. I don’t know if that’s actually going to work. I don’t know if I can make that consistent.
I like those little moments, for all that I like to control the big picture. It’s like architecture, right? You don’t build a skyscraper based on intuition and a lot of red wine. You have to plan or the whole thing’s gonna fall apart. But at the same time, those little moments, I really prize those, because I feel like that’s where you know that you’re actually making a sort of a leap forward. And if you’re surprising yourself, you’re probably surprising your reader.
Talking about the second half of the novel, the thriller aspect, and the first half, I love that the second half sort of re-frames everything that’s come before it. Not only to cast doubt, but also just changes our interpretation of the events proceeding.
The metaphor that stuck with me as I was working on it was this fabric called shot silk, where it’s got different colored threads in the warp, and in the weft. So you look at it one way and it’s like, Oh, it’s blue, and then you look at the other way and you say, No, wait it’s purple. It kind of changes in the light. That was the effect that I was going for, very, very deliberately. So that you would read a scene and then you’d be halfway into the next scene and you’d think, Wait, what I just read is not what I thought I just read. What I was trying to get out of that, is how every character’s perspective is going to shift their reality a little bit, and how these are never entirely going to sync up.
The relationships and the decisions that they make, and the decisions they make about each other, are always faulty in a way; they’re always based on this incomplete knowledge. We don’t see all the colors—everybody’s their own color, but they don’t see all the others. I wanted those shifts, and I wanted for the reader [that] when you’re in a character’s perspective, you’re with that character. Even for the male character too—I guess I don’t treat him quite very nicely in this novel, he’s not the most sympathetic always, but there were times when I did want him to be sympathetic, because he’s got his own kind of understanding of the world, and view of things too. And he’s got his own kindnesses as well as his own kind of darknesses.
Then in terms of the thriller, you asked about the re-framing of it. To get a little bit geeky and technical: I tried to structure it like a set of short stories that all came together, because I love the short story form. It’s where I began. I’ve written a couple of very conventionally structured, three or five act novels. And I really wanted to get back to that other thing. So they’re a little less connected. There’s sort of jumps in time and that kind of thing.
I mentioned Crime and Punishment [before]; and there’s this crime at the beginning [of that book]… we all know the story, right? There’s this young student, Raskolnikov. He decides on very high-minded moral utilitarian principles that he’s going to murder this old woman, this money lender, because that’s for the greater good of everyone.
But then when he goes to do it, it gets messy right away, because it turns out that she lives with her sister who is—I think Dostoevsky uses the term “simple-minded” or something like that to describe her—she’s in need of care. She’s quite innocent. She’s quite kind. And he has to kill both of them because she’s a witness. And I thought, Huh, okay. But what if we could tell the story from the women’s perspective, because they’re presented very much as the evil, sour, suspicious money lender woman and her saintly sister. And I thought, Yeah, but what would be her story if she was telling her story of this? Is she completely evil if she’s in this care-giving position, and she didn’t give up on her sister. Isn’t she right to be suspicious? She got murdered! She had a point…
Mattie’s Robert is so different from who we come to see as Jenny’s Robert; just this duality in him. I really thought that was an interesting part of the novel, obviously with the pairs of sisters, but there’s a few moments that feel like inflection points. Was that something you wanted to play with intentionally, that duality?
There’s a couple places that that’s coming from. I didn’t necessarily want to use conventional fictional structures. It’s almost like breaking the fourth wall, saying, Well, this happened and this happened: you figure it out, reader! when I wanted to not have to abide by those sorts of fictional, dreamy rules. And then there’s the unreliability of memory, of course.
But the other thing I was really playing with was addiction. That comes up again and again for various characters in the book. And I think that sort of speaks to that, in Robert, for instance, who is an addict, there is that swing back and forth between the light and the dark, between the, I love myself, I hate myself. I can be a good person. I am utterly ground down by this thing that I’m a slave to. And Sara similarly with her alcoholism. The duality of that, the true and not true, the Yes, it happened; no it didn’t. Yes, you’re good. No, you’re bad. The idea that those things co-exist, for me, addiction speaks very directly to that as well.
By Annabel Lyon
Alfred A. Knopf
Published January 26, 2021