Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn,” but is seems to me that the best modern satires, particularly topical satires, do a little more than this. The vices and follies they expose are collective rather than individual and they implicate us all because we are all drawn into collective absurdities.
I became acutely aware of this when reading Bridget Canning’s debut novel, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes. The novel sees an obscure young woman, the Wanda of the title, turn into a media — and social media — sensation when she instinctively knocks out a deranged gunman by hurling a can of coconut milk. Her modest home becomes the location for a 24-hour media scrum and she comes under intense pressure to become the person the news networks, Facebook, twitter etc. . . want her to be. All the time, of course, she has problems of her own and these are on a far more human and humble scale.
Q1. It seems to me that satire is quite separate from other literary forms in that writers either have a satirical gene or they don’t. You clearly do, and while you obviously have mastered all the other accepted crafts of writing, your type of satire seems to require a super-sensitive understanding of trends and currents of collective thought and behaviour – Zeitgeist, if you like. I found myself recognizing almost everything, although I hadn’t necessarily noticed noticing them before. Are you a very keen observer? And how much of this is conscious?
Bridget Canning: I try to take note of things as much as possible – there are different lists on my phone of descriptions, snippets of dialogue, interesting names. As for unconscious observation, I think my background in teaching has trained me to be reflective – for example, considering how a lesson went, what worked, what didn’t, etc. I spend a lot of time journaling and attempting to pick apart why things are the way they are. Teaching and studying education has made me a better writer.
Q2. One thing that comes through very clearly in this novel is a sense of place and society. I can experience St. John’s in this book – its hip, arty side as well as its more bourgeois side – and I think anyone reading the novel would emerge with an idea of what the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador feels like. How do your themes relate to your own relationship with St. John’s?
Bridget Canning: I’m not originally from St. John’s, but I consider it my home and love it dearly. It has everything I want in a city and community. However, it can be a frustrating devotion – unstable economy, heartbreaking spring weather, blatant nepotism, history of poor leadership. For me, St. John’s feels like a beloved friend who gets really stubborn when you gently suggest they maybe take a little better care of themselves.
In The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, I wanted St. John’s to be recognizable, but universal – as in, what happens to Wanda could happen in any city. Wanda is also not originally from St. John’s, so through her, I hoped to create recognizable “St. John’s scenes” – but since she’s not really a part of them, there’s a distance that can make them interchangeable.
Q3. One of the strands in the novel is that we are all frantically searching for heroes and saviours. Do you think there is something about the present era that intensifies this belief in heroes? Would this story have been different in a different time?
Bridget Canning: I believe so. We’re the starter generations of the information age and concepts like fame and notoriety have expanded their inclusion. You could be the leader of the free world or someone who made a really funny video with your cat and the same amount of people will know who you are.
There is so much information that we reduce people to nuggets of meaning – listicles, memes, gifs. And we do this with our “heroes” – for example, the two Swedish students who caught Standford Rapist Brock Turner a few years ago. I read Buzzfeed articles praising their heroic actions, their faces were everywhere. I read comments about how people wanted their children to be like these two guys. Yet even with their actions and testimony, Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist. The heroes were idealized, but it still didn’t get appropriate justice for the woman they saved.
Q4. Do you think this kind of satire is uniquely urban? Can you imagine a rural topical satire, or would a rural story have a different objective and a different tone?
Bridget Canning: I don’t think it’s uniquely urban and much of Wanda’s situation is not distinctly urban – St. John’s is small enough for her to be recognized, and of course, she’s from a small town, so there’s the awareness of how her identity is impacted there.
When I consider a rural topical satire, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland comes to mind. The actual shrinking of rural life, the young people who leave to make money and it makes them worse – there’s so much play between different worlds there.
Q5. I wonder how this novel plays out in generational terms. Your protagonist is educated and a conscientious employee but is also precariously employed, and this landscape of young(ish) highly educated underachievers is all too familiar everywhere in the western world where the kinds of certainties the older generations enjoyed are no longer available. Is this consciously part of the satire? Do these circumstances give Wanda’s generation more bite than those that went before?
Bridget Canning: Oh definitely. When I consider so many of the “baby boomer” novels I read in my 20s and 30s where the young protagonist got a good, solid job or backpacked across Europe or went on a drug-fueled road trip, I think, how’d they do that? I had creditors after me for my defaulted student loan and I couldn’t afford a futon.
For many people of my generation and younger, economic security feels like a non-renewable resource older generations have depleted. It’s a frustrating reality, but fun to write about.
Q6. What are you working on now? Might the next Bridget Canning novel be a continuation of the same brand or something quite different?
Bridget Canning: I’m involved with a few projects. Currently, I’m working on a screenplay through the From Our Dark Side Incubator program. It’s a psychological thriller about a serial killer who targets internet trolls. I’m also doing the Masters in Creative Writing at MUN with a short story collection as a creative thesis. There’s also another novel manuscript I hope to pick up when I have time – not the same brand as The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes – it takes place during the early 1990s and is kind of a coming-of-age story. I’m also working with my writing group to put together a kind of coffee table book with photos of bathroom graffiti and writing inspired by it. So not busy at all!