Connecting Through Story gives us empathy and understanding

Photo of author Iona Whishaw.The theme of the 2023 Whistler Writers Festival is “Connecting Through Story.” Iona Whishaw, a guest author this year, shares what this means to her as we prepare for the festival in October.

Story famously connects. It connects writers with their readers, it connects us with the past, and perhaps even the future, but most often it connects writers with their own inner selves. I had the uncanny experience of story connecting not with my own past, but with an episode in my mother’s past that happened long before I was born, and about which I knew very little apart from lingering bitterness. It led to an extraordinary moment of understanding for me, and even forgiveness. 

Contention tends to run in families. My mother had a contentious relationship with a father whom she disliked intensely, and I had a relatively contentious relationship with her. Though happily she was not the kind of person you could dislike for long, she could be very difficult. When I was growing up, she often told me how much she disliked her father and how he favoured her pretty, cheerful younger sister, and never had time for my mother. Even as a small child, she said, he often “cut her dead.” It was as if he couldn’t bear to have her around. On top of that ongoing unhappiness, her mother had died when she was four years old, so she went through life without a caring parent, which I imagine was the reason her own stabs at parenting were a bit spotty.

My mother’s response to childhood misery was to become a positive, fearless, adventurous, remarkable woman—the original inspiration for Lane Winslow, the main character in my books. (Lane has since managed to deftly avoid some of the pitfalls of my real-life mother’s character.)  Lane Winslow comes onto the page equipped with a father not unlike my grandfather, and a sister not unlike my aunt, with whom my mother also had an icy relationship. I never understood much about the root cause of my mother’s unhappy family, and she, who had a life-long horror of psychology, claiming it only served to give people excuses for their own bad behaviour, never examined the source of her own unhappiness. It simply was. One didn’t dwell.

Then one day I was writing a scene in which Lane, trying to understand why she has such a poor relationship with her father, is remembering when her mother died suddenly when she was five, and her little sister was still a baby. Lane remembers that she fell into a state of silence and sorrow as a child at the loss of her mother, while her little sister, who was too young to remember her mother, grew up cheerful and blithe. As a result, Lane believes, her father came to love the happy younger sister, and in his own state of heartbreak, couldn’t bear to be around Lane with all her unhappiness and constant reminder of his wife’s death.

As I was writing this scene, I suddenly understood that this is precisely what happened in my mother’s family. My mother was deeply affected by her mother’s death, and her father disliked her for her unhappiness and preferred her younger sister, who was cheerful and agreeable. It was a magical feeling, as if I had somehow carried around inside me all the bare scaffolding of my mother’s deep, life-long unhappiness about her father, and quite suddenly the roots of that sorrow came through my fingers and onto the page in fiction. It really felt like magic. It was a moment of deep connection to my mother and her story, and it helped me to finally understand and empathize with her in a way I never had before.

Whishaw is a former educator and social worker whose mother and grandfather were both spies during their respective wars. She is the award-winning author of To Track a Traitor, the tenth book in the Globe and Mail bestselling Lane Winslow Mystery series.

Whishaw teaches Pantsers vs. Plotters: How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants and reads from her newest book at Thrills and Chills: Mystery and Crime Writers Panel. Both events are Oct. 14. Tickets are on sale now and 10 percent off until Oct. 1.