Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Mona Awad’s new novel explores the cult-like, cliquey world of the literati

An interview with the Montreal-born author ahead of the hometown launch of Bunny.

Mona Awad grew up in Montreal. Though she left in her teens, her genuine love for the city is evident as her voice on the phone emphasizes how truly happy she is to return this week for the launch of her latest novel. Bunny tells the story of Samantha, a young woman burdened by family trauma and self-doubt, who finds herself isolated as she participates in an elite MFA writing workshop. Samantha is forced to reckon with her insecurities and the consequent powers of her inner darkness, as she tangos into the night with her audacious best friend, as she avoids a puzzling experience with an older professor and as she teeters on the frothy allure of a clique turned cult: the Bunnies.

Sruti Islam: There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the novel wherein the popular rich-girl clique “the Bunnies” are adamant about approaching their feminism via their sexuality. They are feminists obsessed with boys, even if they prefer to call them Drafts. Can you expand on your choice to complicate their value system?

Mona Awad: I think it’s funny that these women talk about creation as a lofty act of empowerment and agency and then what they create are cute boys out of bunnies. There’s a lot of satire not just around gender politics but around notions of creativity and control. The boys are meant to perform the Bunnies’ will, they embody the Bunnies’ desires and particularly their desire for control. I love that there’s such a sharp contrast between the ways that The Bunnies talk about their creations vs. the actual creation, the actual boys, who are essentially these monstrous pets, handsome “yes men” who lack complexity, among other essential traits. The boys reveal a lot about the Bunnies as creators. 

SI: In your construction of the Bunnies, you describe a group of MFA writers that I myself know all too well. I say this in particular because of your literary references. Of course the Bunnies love (Marguerite) Duras, of course they’re reading Julia Kristeva, of course their approach to their empowerment is exclusively in their sexuality… Is this a group of the literati you have seen firsthand?

MA: Yes and no. Ultimately the Bunnies are fiction — they’re so over the top. But I did go to an MFA program and a PhD writing program, so I’m very familiar with those communities and they certainly inspired me. There are recognizable types in these programs, and the Bunnies are definitely an exaggerated version of a type you might encounter.  

SI: I loved Kristen Roupenian’s blurb: “The Secret History meets Jennifer’s Body.” It seemed so apt! Have you always had an interest in the secret academic world of the elite, and in the occult? I guess I’m wondering if these themes were simmering away in you for awhile or if something more recent came to spark them?

MA: I think that the occult and academia are inherently connected. The elitism around certain academic institutions and programs has an occult quality. They’re hard to get into, there are rites of passage, there’s the promise that by going through the program, you’ll gain knowledge that’s not accessible on the outside. And that occultism is especially true in writing programs because a lot of writers talk about their creative process in kind of mystical terms. When we’re talking about creativity, there are so many unknowns and the outcome is so uncertain. There’s just no way to predict, when you’re sitting by yourself with your laptop or a piece of paper, what’s going to happen. And so that language of magic around writing and creativity makes sense to me. I never really saw them as separate.

SI: Because the book centres around the concept of a cult, can you tell me about any pop-culture influences you had vis-a-vis the cult? 

MA: A lot of teen movies inspired Bunny, in part because graduate school can be a lot like high school in some ways: clique-y and insular. Certainly Heathers was a favourite for me.The Craft was another big one. There were a lot of teen movies, I have to say. And Carrie was definitely an influence as well, especially for Samantha. She’s sort of a classic outsider character. 

SI: Samantha is often frustrating to me, and I can definitely relate. Her insecurity had so much power over her that she repeatedly strayed away from standing up for herself, braving the truth and confiding in friends. What was at the root of this “weakness” in Samantha?

MA: She’s an artist, she’s vulnerable, she has an overactive imagination. She communicates her will through her writing but she has writer’s block. That’s where her voice really is, it’s in her work. Her creations are far more strong-willed than she is, but they do come from her — they come from that place inside of her that she hasn’t fully claimed. In a lot of ways it has to do with where she is emotionally and psychologically and where she is artistically as well. She is genuinely outside of the Bunny circle, and being outside, as romantic as it can be in a movie or a book, in reality, it is pretty embarrassing and humiliating and it does cause genuine pain, loneliness and doubt, and it does kind of frame everything in a way that can make it almost seem surmountable.

SI: Certain themes were very evident in the book: privilege in academia, gendered discourse, etc. But I’m wondering what interested you about Samantha’s blurring of reality. Why did you choose to play with that line as consistently as you did? 

MA: That again comes from her being an outsider. When you’re an outsider, when you’re kind of dark-minded and you have an overactive imagination, you tend to second-guess your impressions of the outside world and that’s what she is constantly doing. I wanted to explore just how far outsiderness can shape one’s experience of reality and one’s experience of other people, how much of it can actually reframe things and actually generate a sense of real horror. I think a lot of the horror in the book comes from Samantha and her own imagined idea of what’s happening.

SI: You address the social dynamics of Samantha’s relationship with the Lion. There isn’t exactly a predictable #MeToo moment but there are power dynamics in play. I’m very curious about that choice.

MA: Again, it’s that play with reality. And those are exactly the kind of interactions where you do really second-guess yourself. You replay it over and over again. “What happened? Did nothing happen? I mean it wasn’t nothing because I’m still thinking about it.” It’s one of those really interesting gray spaces. If nothing happened then that’s one thing, but what about this weird kind of not-nothing that Samantha’s not living in.

The interesting thing about the MFA programs and about PHD programs in writing is that, because we’re all adults, there is room in graduate school to be friends with your teachers. But there are still those lines that are drawn between student and teacher that have everything to do with power. It’s common in your MFA to have those kinds of relationships and end up in this weird gray space. And they do inform your relationship with your writing and your peers, so it felt important to include a relationship like that. 

SI: Without spoiling anything, did you know what you were going to do with Ava and Samantha’s friendship from the very beginning, or did it unfold as you were writing?

MA: Yes, I knew. Within a few weeks of writing it, I remember I was in Denver at the time, I was doing a PhD and I was in class writing notes to myself about the book. And then the ending came to me and I was so excited. I knew I had the book and I understood what the stakes were going to be. And I knew just how much this book was going to let me lean into the power of imagination, both the consolatory power it has and its dangers. And that was very exciting. 

SI: Were you excited to be writing about female characters who were in love in the platonic sense, or were you interested in challenging Samantha by creating her opposite?

MA: I loved that Ava plays so many roles. Ultimately, I wanted her to be a friend to Samantha in a place where she has no friends. Ava is solid ground where Samantha is at sea, and that ground is something she desperately needs. And here is this person giving her exactly what she needs. But it’s a layered relationship, a fierce bond, so there’s a lot of conflict and opposition in it. I didn’t want it to be just this perfect friendship, I wanted it to ring true. There’s real love between them and the people you love are the people you can hurt the most. 

SI: Why bunny?

MA: Bunnies are really interesting to me because they’re adorable but sort of creepy.This book is all about being seduced by the power of the adorable, and how the adorable can be sinister. So they felt like the perfect animal. An animal had to be at the center of the novel because of its connection to fairy tale, transformation and particularly Beauty and the Beast. There’s actually a version of Beauty and the Beast called The Hare’s Bride, which features a rabbit bridegroom. 

SI: I read that AMC recently acquired the novel’s rights, and early stages of production have already begun. That’s so exciting! Samantha’s race is never addressed in the book, though the whiteness of her rich Bunny cohorts is. Given the television adaptation, will more consideration be given to Samantha’s race?

MA: I’m glad that you picked up on the whiteness. The fact that the bunnies are frequently described as white is very intentional. There’s kind of an othering of whiteness that’s happening in the book. And Samantha’s race is not given so it’s kind of open to interpretation but I definitely wanted the whiteness of the bunnies to be explicit and to be something that she fixates on. As for the AMC adaptation, I can’t say for certain, but I suspect they might draw out some of these tensions. And that would be very interesting. ■

Mona Awad launches Bunny, Chris Boucher launches Big Giant Float at la Petite Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (176 Bernard), Aug. 15, 7 p.m.