or Alice, a young Mohawk woman, motherhood always seemed like a gateway to her best life. But after she gives birth to Dawn, a healthy baby girl, her dream starts to resemble more of a nightmare: she struggles to bond with her child and, soon, begins to lose grip on reality entirely.

Such is the beautiful, terrifying, and occasionally surreal trajectory of And Then She Fell, written by Alicia Elliott, winner of this year’s Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Rather than leaning on one-dimensional portrayals of mental illness, Elliott, who has spoken candidly about her own experiences of mania, gives plenty of ink to the complex antecedents of madness: generational trauma, oppression, and isolation from one’s community. Here, Elliott describes how she constructed Alice’s un-reality, the liberating upsides of fiction, and what madness can teach us about our collective need to connect.

Your 2019 book, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, was a work of nonfiction. What made you want to explore the fictional realm with And Then She Fell? How was that transition for you?

Fiction was my first love. Creative non-fiction was more of a diversion—one that I enjoyed. Anyone who has written memoir-esque nonfiction will probably say the same: it’s very emotionally draining. Not just writing about it, but touring and talking about it. It kind of felt like I had been wrung out when I finished doing that for Mind. Before And Then She Fell, I was just tinkering around with some short stories and I thought maybe I would put together a collection. One of the stories was very long and unruly, and it kept rebelling, pushing against the bounds I put on it. I realized it was a novel.

Funny that you use the word “rebelling.” And Then She Fell plumbs material that some people might consider taboo, like mental illness. There’s always a chance that exploring thorny topics will draw readers to you, but there’s also a risk that it’ll only sort of further alienate you or amplify an existing experience of loneliness. Which was it for you?

This story has had so many incarnations. When I decided that Alice was going to be dealing with elements of madness, I had seen my mother experience it but I hadn’t experienced it myself. So I was trying to do research and read different people’s accounts of what it was like to experience postpartum psychosis or mania. Only then did I understand that a lot of the writing about madness isn’t helpful to people who have not experienced it to understand what that experience actually feels like.

When I was writing the back half of the book, or really the last two-thirds of it, I was trying to write something that I wish I had to read after I came out of my own manic episode, to assure me that there was still a point to me living despite having this illness. That there was still hope, that I still mattered. I was also hoping that people who had experienced madness would read it and say, “Yes, that’s what it feels like.” That it would humanize and reassure them that this experience is something that is shared, even if the individual details are different.

It’s interesting that you use the term “madness.” There’s a huge vocabulary for the way people choose to describe experiences of psychosis or mental illness. Why do you prefer that term?

I suppose because it encapsulates the scarier parts of mental illness. There are certain types of mental illness that are considered acceptable or more palatable, like depression or anxiety. It’s like, I can understand this and therefore empathize with people who have it. That isn’t the case for other mental illnesses—ones that people might not want to engage with. Some people can accept or respect someone who has depression, but what about when they encounter someone who’s having a psychotic episode?

You pull some of those scarier manifestations of madness into And Then She Fell, like losing bits of time, delusions or hearing voices. Obviously, those would be terrifying phenomena to experience in real life, but in the fiction space, they can be extremely evocative creative devices. In what ways did you find madness leant itself to really rich writing territory?

I find the experience of madness manifests very metaphorically. It can take your deepest fears—like a fear of being alone or people controlling or judging you—and turn them into a delusion, hallucination or paranoia. Creatively, it’s almost like your brain is having a heyday with all of these possibilities that could happen, as though another world is overlaid on top of the real world. So, I think the creativity, for lack of a better word, of your brain when you’re mad is a very rich territory.

Not to sanitize the experience, but what kind of wisdom has madness imparted to you? And what did you learn from Alice’s experience of madness?

One of the experiences that can come along with mania is the feeling of being connected to everything—like you can commune with plants or animals. It feels like a very spiritual experience, even if it’s happening within the confines of a diagnosable condition. I think that connectivity is lacking in our everyday lives as we’re walking around or going to work. We are so disconnected from the natural world and even each other. Not to be too provocative but, in some ways, the world that we live in is an acceptable kind of madness.

What helped me with Alice was thinking through her biggest fear: of not connecting the way she should with her daughter, and whether that meant she was also failing her mother, who never got a chance to meet her daughter. Part of the story was about reassuring her that there is still that connection: that there’s a chain that connects from her mother to her and then to her daughter and daughter’s daughter.

It’s sort of cringe-inducing to call a female character “complicated,” but Alice really is. But she’s a woman—an Indigenous woman—and she’s a mother, which means that in the eyes of society, there’s a very low ceiling on exactly how complex or challenging she’s allowed to be. Was her character a kind of conduit for your own freedom of expression?

There are moments in the book where Alice is reflecting on the responsibility of storytelling; those parts were very much influenced by my own thoughts. But the great thing about writing fiction is that when it’s going really well, you feel like you’re a conduit for the character. She’s someone I created, she’s not real, but there were parts of the novel in which I felt like we had the same opinions on things. At other points, she interpreted events in a way that I wouldn’t. That’s the joy of writing: when the characters feel as real as real people.

Another good thing is: they’re not you, so you could still learn a thing or two from them.

Exactly. I think some people have lost the understanding that fictitious works don’t necessarily reflect the perspective of the author. I can share certain opinions with Alice, but she’s not me. If I wanted to write about myself, I would have just written non-fiction. This time, fiction felt like the safer carrier for my message.

The Walrus Lab