Home Culture Sarah Mlynowski: My characters, like my dad, are searching for home

Sarah Mlynowski: My characters, like my dad, are searching for home

Sarah Mlynowksi with a friend at Pisa.

In her new offering, I See London, I See France, author Sarah Mlynowski uses her signature humorous style to address topics that are darker and more serious than her previous work. The novel, for young adults and adults alike, is Mlynowski’s 30th book, and tells the tale of a young woman who escapes her mother’s claustrophobic house in order to travel through Europe where she finds friendship, love and herself.

Full disclosure: I was Mlynowski’s childhood friend, studying Yiddish grammar and Venn diagrams alongside her at Bialik High School in Montreal.

This new novel seems particularly Canadian, with mentions of many Canadian places and people. As I was reading it, I kept wondering if this book is based on your own experience (i.e. Am I in it?!) .

I See London, I See France was absolutely inspired by a real trip. When I was 19, I backpacked through Europe with three good friends from McGill (sorry, not you, Judy). My boyfriend at the time, also a student at McGill, was traveling through Europe with his friends and we kept meeting in various cities along the way. When I started the book, I wanted to capture the experience of alternating between traveling with friends and a boyfriend, but I changed the scenario. In I See London, Sydney and her friend Leela (who also goes to McGill!) are traveling together when they run into Leela’s ex-boyfriend, Matt. Sydney falls for the guy Matt is traveling with and a secret romance ensues.

I often have Canadian references in my books. Fishbowl was set in Toronto; the main character’s boyfriend in Gimme a Call is Canadian; and poutine is a running joke in How to Be Bad. You can take the writer out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the writer. And I should say that, just as I sprinkle Canadianisms into my books, I try to ensure that every novel has at least one Jewish character.


So even though you’ve lived in New York for nearly two decades, you cling to your Canadian and Jewish roots. In my own case, it was only after writing my memoir White Walls that I realized that chronicling the anxieties of third-generation Holocaust survivors was a particularly Canadian Jewish theme, as was my outsider stance. Are there Canadian elements to your writing? Do you consider yourself to be a Canadian Jewish, or even Montreal Jewish, writer?

My dad’s parents were Holocaust survivors. My dad was born in a DP camp in Germany and moved to Montreal when he was just a toddler. I believe I inherited a feeling of rootlessness from him, which I think of as part of the Montreal Jewish identity. My characters are always a little bit lost, searching for home and trying to figure out what home is.

I write comic adventures and coming of age stories for girls, and I usually think of my humour as being Jewish-ish, too, perhaps due to its hints of sarcasm, to my desire to make jokes in bad situations, to laugh, to survive.

This book has a heavier storyline, focusing on the mental illness of agoraphobia. (And claustrophobia, its opposite.)

What drew you to these disorders?

Sydney’s trip through Europe is all about her world opening up and getting bigger for the first time. I thought her mother’s agoraphobia stood in contrast to that experience. Sydney’s mom has trouble leaving the house and has become more and more cut off from the outside world. Her world was getting smaller as Sydney’s was growing.

I have two young daughters, and imagining them one day navigating the world on their own terrifies me. I want to protect them from everything and everyone. Forget backpacking through Europe – I’m worried about them walking to school by themselves. So I started the book with Sydney’s mom just being anxious, but as I did more research, I became interested in agoraphobia and how that condition would affect Sydney, the daughter. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought an agoraphobic would be afraid for her child to be out in the world, like I am, but I learned that an agoraphobic mom would be more likely to want her child to be fearless in ways she couldn’t be. She might also be incredibly dependent on her daughter to help manage her disorder – turning Sydney into a quasi-parent.

So being a parent pushed you to write this book about being a teenager?

I always wanted to write this book, but I knew I wanted to make Sydney 19 so she could do things 19-year-olds would do in Europe. Ten years ago, hardly anyone was publishing books with college students as protagonists. Back then, YA (young adult literature) was geared towards 12-year-olds. Now the YA market has changed and grown dramatically and houses are eager to publish crossover books for teens and adults.

Speaking of changing times, Europe is a different place than it was in the 1990s when you took your trip. Was it challenging to use this contemporary setting?

In my first draft, my characters celebrate Bastille Day in the south of France. After the Bastille Day attack, I had to rework the timeline. My first readers were terrified for my characters’ safety. That was not this book, so I had to change it.

Technology was another interesting challenge. When I backpacked through Europe, we didn’t even have email. We reserved hostel rooms from payphones and left messages back home with our parents. There was no Instagram or cellphones or Google Maps. My first instinct was to set the book in the ‘90s, or to have them lose their phones on their first stop, so I wouldn’t have to deal with them, but I knew that was a cop-out. Instead, I decided to embrace today’s technology. My characters would scour the continent for free Wi-Fi! They would post a hundred pics and use funny hashtags. They would mock tourists using selfie sticks but secretly want one. Still, you can’t really connect with people when you’re staring at a screen the whole time, so Sydney does have to learn to disconnect by the end of the book – from her family back home, but also from her phone.

I draw on my childhood memories in writing non-fiction memoirs for adults. Usually my process involves recalling a particularly intensely felt moment, then writing it out in great detail, figuring out why that memory was important, and framing the anecdote with adult insights in a way I hope is enlightening to an audience outside my own head.

How do you work with memory as a writer of fiction for teens? How do you plumb your own childhood?

I also start with an intense feeling or intense moment. Like the feeling of freedom you have when you are backpacking and can go anywhere. Or the exhaustion of jetlag. Or panic at losing or misplacing your passport. I try to bring myself back to those moments, but I don’t write them yet. I plot first. I string those intense moments and feelings together, and once I have my plot, I write. I also work hard not to frame them with adult insights. Since I write for young adults and kids, I want the moments to feel as real and raw and immediate as possible.

You have another book out this fall, Abby In Wonderland, the latest instalment in your Whatever After series for kids. How are you so incredibly prolific? What are you on?!

Coffee. So much coffee. I am also very good at asking for help. Plus my husband is extremely supportive and an amazing co-parent. He happens to be the McGill boyfriend I strategically bumped into in cities across Europe – the romance that inspired my novel had a happy ending.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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