The Jewish Nomad: Martha Schabas on how dancing with words led her to write a relatable novel

Regular readers of this column would probably be interested in the story of a woman approaching the age of 30, who happens to be Jewish… and Canadian… and an actor, too.

No, the recently published second novel by Martha Schabas isn’t about me! But the Toronto author offers plenty that I can relate to in My Face in the Light.

Plus, the fact that Martha herself has a theatre background came through her main character Justine Weiss, who braces herself for the question I’m accustomed to hearing: “What have I seen you in?”

As the book has increasingly gained attention since it was published by the Knopf imprint of Penguin Random House in April, it was about time to catch up with the writer, and learn more about her writing inspirations—and her hope for reaching audiences in a new way.

I checked in with the wonderful Martha Schabas in order to give you a glimpse into her life and work.

The art of living many lives

Martha started dancing when she was five years old, primarily ballet, and initially conceived that would be her long-term career. 

But at age 15 she was kicked out of the National Ballet summer school. So, she convinced herself that it wasn’t going to work out as a profession.

“It was quite a brutal rejection to deal with at such a young age. For a long time I grappled with how to fill that hole that ballet had left in my life.”

Martha tried political science, and then switched to studying theatre. But neither felt quite right. 

She’d always loved to write and decided to apply for a master’s degree in creative writing—and was accepted to one of her top choices, the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

And, a few published short stories later, it became clear that writing was her destiny.

When I asked her if she still dances in her spare time, Martha said she initially quit cold turkey at 15: “I was determined never to go back, but I just can’t get away from it.” 

But returning to dance classes was something she couldn’t resist while in undergrad at McGill University, and during her time at the George Brown Theatre School in Toronto. She missed it too much.

Martha’s debut novel, Various Positions, was about a teenage girl who finds her only solace in dancing. (Of course, things get complicated.)

Two types of writing become one

Between novels, she was the Globe and Mail’s dance critic for five years, along with articles and book reviews published in that newspaper and beyond. 

And she’s concluded that the creative and critical approaches originate from a similar place: “I’m always trying to express really precise phenomena in words.”

(The difference with fiction is that you can make up facts.)

Martha has come to enjoy blending the two. “Creative writing that has the same layering and intellectual component as critical writing,” she explains, “and critical writing that is as beautifully written and as evocative and moving as creative writing.”

In this field, her inspirations include the late German writer W. G. Sebald, the underrated Australian legend Gerald Murnane, and the Saskatoon-born British novelist Rachel Cusk.

The origins of My Face in the Light

“I really wanted to explore a mother-daughter relationship where the mother derived all sense of meaning in her life from her art, to the extent that she renounces more material and conventional values. And the fallout that would have on a daughter, who doesn’t feel capable of the same artistic output.”

Martha wanted to delve into the richness that comes from being raised by an artist—as well as the narcissism and neglect that could come with it. 

The character keeps trying to run from her reality. But it continuously catches up to her.

Justine has a visible scar across her forehead as the result of a childhood accident, which she’s always trying to cover up. “It symbolizes the part of herself that is stuck in the past and unable to come to terms with things that have happened.”

As an actor, Justine hides behind her characters, using them as a disguise. For her mother, it’s all about exposure and revealing her truth.

My Face in the Light is beautifully written and hooks you from the first page. I highly recommend giving it a read.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai