What inspired The Bone Cage?
Writers are often advised to write what they know. I would go even further and say, “Write about what absolutely obsesses you.” Writing a novel requires a great deal of momentum over a long period of time, and obsession helps me find that momentum. For a while I was very preoccupied with our society’s attitudes toward the body, particularly the body as it ages, and how this preoccupation is intensified in the athletic world. I guess it’s no coincidence that I started The Bone Cage just after I turned 30, the age at which I realized my body was beginning to grow older and my own chances at athletic greatness were gone forever.
At the same time, my brother was reaching the end of his athletic career. He had wrestled at a high level all over the world and had been extremely successful in the sport. This pursuit had consumed such a large portion of his energy and time that I started to worry whether or not he’d be OK when his career was over. His identity seemed so intrinsically connected to his athletic success that I imagined him facing problems with his transition from competition to “regular” life. It seemed to me a metaphor for—or at least an intensified version of—the problems everyone faces with aging.
As I was thinking about these things, many other chance encounters fuelled my obsession. For example, I heard Mark Tewksbury (Canadian swimmer and Olympic gold medalist) say, “The Olympics leaves its athletes broken souls.” That rang very true, and I wondered why. I also had a discussion with Joanne Malar, a great Canadian swimmer, in which she said she felt she’d let the whole country down by not winning a medal at the Sydney Games. I started thinking deeply about the Olympics and the single-minded focus on medals.
Finally, for me, writing (not to mention reading) is very much about the characters. The athletic world is overflowing with wonderful characters—crazy, quirky, passionate, energetic, unique—and I had never seen a novel that captured those people on the page. The combination of controversial/thought-provoking issues and loveable/bizarre characters was too irresistible to me—I had to write this novel.
What is the significance of the title?
“The Bone Cage” means “the body.” I could have even called the novel The Body, but that’s a bit heavy-handed and doesn’t have the same ring. I like the cage imagery, the suggestion that we’re trapped by our own body’s limitations. Mostly, the book focuses on the athletic realm, a world where the connection between body and identity are highly intensified, as are the ways in which individuals come up against the body’s limitations. However, there are also some scenes that intentionally raise counterpoints for comparison, such as scenes with Sadie’s grandmother’s aging body or the scene that takes place in the yoga class. I’m especially proud of some of the scenes describing Eva’s body—because of point of view, those gory descriptions tell us more about Sadie’s attitude toward her own body than they tell us anything about Eva.
Is this book meant to “out” the Olympics?
No. A writing instructor once told me, “If you have an argument to make, write an essay; if you have a story to tell, write a novel.” The Bone Cage is not saying anything as simple as “Olympics = bad” or “sport = bad.” I love amateur sports and can hardly tear myself away from the TV during the Olympics. In fact, that’s the only time I ever watch TV (other than the occasional Hockey Night in Canada). Rather, I wanted to immerse the reader in the world of amateur athletes to start a conversation about the Olympics, as well as about contemporary society’s attitudes toward amateur sports. A novel should initiate a dialogue rather than tell readers what to think. This is one reason why I love talking to book clubs—I find it fascinating to observe the widely varying responses to The Bone Cage and am always (happily) amazed at how differently readers form arguments about sports based upon their reading of the book.
What was the biggest challenge in writing The Bone Cage?
One challenge was to immerse readers into the body of a wrestler. My initial descriptions of swimming were, I think, very sensual and immediate. Because I have a passion for swimming and know the feelings of a swimmer very well, it wasn’t difficult to replicate those feelings in an immediate and vivid way. However, I’ve never wrestled, making those scenes much more difficult to depict. My editor’s first constructive comment on the initial draft was, “When I’m reading the wrestling scenes, I feel like I’m outside, just watching.” Hmmmm, I wonder why?! I thought. So, to get those scenes right, I had to interview a lot of wrestlers and rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite) in order to infuse that new knowledge throughout the entire book.
Another challenge was examining sport’s dependence on cliché. To do this, I had to use the clichés and scatter them throughout the entire novel, while at the same time creating some sort of distance from them so readers would realize that the book is meant to question the clichés rather than reinforce them. For both of these challenges, my editor Suzette Mayr was a great help. I’m very lucky to have had such an insightful editor, and The Bone Cage is a better book for it.
Is the material autobiographical?
No, no more than anybody else’s novels. Bits and pieces, of course, come from people I know and stories I’ve heard, but the essence of the book is imaginative. A character might have one friend’s physical gestures, another friend’s verbal tics, and yet another friend’s phobias. In this case, I liken writing a novel to making a collage—stealing useful bits from here and there. Why make things up when there’s such great material everywhere? Or as one friend always says when truly bizarre things happen (as they often do), “You couldn’t make this shit up if you tried!”
Regarding the question of autobiography, I did deliberate for a long while whether or not I should use wrestling and swimming as the novel’s key sports. Because my family is heavily involved in both sports, I thought readers would be tempted to make faulty autobiographical assumptions. My mom swam competitively and my dad wrestled. My brother wrestled internationally and I swam at the varsity level. My husband also swam at the varsity level. I didn’t want people thinking, “Digger is so-and-so” or “Sadie is so-and-so.” Digger is Digger, and Sadie is Sadie. However, in the end, I decided it’d be absurd to research two new sports from the outside when I already know two so well from the inside. Good writing comes from exact details, and ultimately I couldn’t pass up the wonderfully strange details of either of those sports.
What are the similarities between this novel and your first book, Anything Boys Can Do?
I’m more interested in readers’ answers to this question than my own. Once a book is “out there,” my opinion matters very little. To me, though, the books are entirely different. Anything Boys Can Do is about dysfunctional relationships and focuses on rather sad, lonely (even lost) people. In The Bone Cage, characters are kinder and take better care of one another (maybe that’s one of the aspects of sport that the book celebrates—the wonderful camaraderie between athletes).
Another point of comparison might arise in the books’ treatments of sex. Several readers have told me that both books have a liberated attitude toward female sexuality. Perhaps, but that wasn’t intentional.
Finally, I think I do a better job of capturing male characters in The Bone Cage than in Anything Boys Can Do, which wasn’t really about “boys” at all.
Where do your characters come from?
I wish I had a ready-made process for building characters. My work would be so much easier! Once I have the characters, the fiction practically writes itself, but unfortunately the characters arrive differently and often only after multiple drafts. Usually, I steal defining characteristics from people I know to get myself started, and each character is a mishmash of several people. Oddly, though, my favourite character (Fly) emerged from nowhere. I love that guy! I miss him, in fact. When people tell me they’re reading The Bone Cage, I have to stop myself from exclaiming, “Say hi to Fly for me!”
Did you have the novel’s structure in mind from the first draft?
Yes. Absolutely. From the very beginning, what I did know was that I wanted to alternate between the stories of Digger and Sadie, and also that the story had to be in present tense to create immediacy. Physicality plays a crucial role in this book, and I don’t think it would be nearly as well captured in past tense. I also had all the key plot points in mind right from the start. The book absolutely had to end as it does in order to raise the issues I wanted to raise.
The rest of The Bone Cage came to light through many drafts (and some wonderfully insightful feedback from teachers and editors), but the structure, the main plot, the tense, and the ending were there right from the very first word.