The Joanne Gallant Interview

Joanne Gallant is a nurse, wife and mother. She recently wrote her first book, A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, a memoir about her numerous miscarriages in her attempts to have children. A review of her book can be found here. It will be released by Nimbus Publishing in September 2021. She lives in Nova Scotia.

Miramichi Reader: Tell us a bit about your background, education, employment, etc.

I graduated with a BSc in biology from Mount Allison University in 2008 and I completed my nursing degree at the University of Alberta in 2011. For the past nine years, I’ve been working at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, and I worked in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) for six of those years. Those years were the most challenging and rewarding of my career and they altered me in ways I find challenging to articulate in a sound bite. It was an immense privilege to spend time behind the doors of the PICU.

Currently, I’m working part-time as a Clinical Leader of Development for the Children’s Health Ambulatory Clinics—which is a lengthy title for nurse educator. I provide guidance to my teams on current, best medical practices, I support new research initiatives in the health centre, and I’m actively involved in the professional development of other nurses and health care professionals. It’s rewarding in a very different way from my time in PICU as I’m able to help teams in the hospital thrive and provide incredible care to the patients and families who rely on the IWK.

MR: Tell us about some of the books, authors, poets or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.

My grandmother has always been a writer. When I visited her as a young girl, she always had her typewriter out on the dining room table, or she’d be writing notes on scrap pieces of paper that could be found all over her house. She used to write a column for her local newspaper, The Oxford Journal, which was mostly about who was visiting whom and what social events were taking place. Seeing her incorporate writing into her daily life influenced me greatly because it never looked like something that was hard or that you struggled with. It just looked like a natural part of life. At 93, she still gets a lot of joy from writing, and when I visited her recently, she had her typewriter out and was working on stories from her childhood.

My mother was also instrumental in why I wanted to become a writer. She was an English teacher for most of my childhood and she was always reading or speaking about books she’d read. To see her read often and to really value literature made it feel like a worthy pursuit. To have two women in my life engage deeply with reading and writing certainly laid the foundation for me becoming a writer.

“When I lost my fourth baby—and began therapy—I ended up writing with much more intention. It was as though seeking help unlocked this overwhelming desire to share my story and that of my babies’.”

I was fortunate that I had access to a lot of books as a child, partly because my mom valued reading so much. I grew up with the Babysitter’s Club, Harry Potter, and many of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume’s novels. As a teenager, I was deeply affected by Judy Blume’s novel, Summer Sisters, and I even tried writing my own version of that story—which was terrible of course—but something about that book inspired me to write, which feels magical now looking back. I hold onto those moments of inspiration now when I read authors like Maggie O’Farrell or Beth Powning because there is something that stirs within me—inspiring me to write—and it reminds me of that spark I felt as a girl.

MR: Your debut book, A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, is a highly-anticipated book. At what point did you decide to make your (and your babies’) stories into a memoir?

When I was first going through my miscarriages, I was initially writing for myself. It was a way to process the things I was experiencing, and to try and understand what I was going through. When I lost my fourth baby—and began therapy—I ended up writing with much more intention. It was as though seeking help unlocked this overwhelming desire to share my story and that of my babies’. It may have been a way for me to control things that were uncontrollable, but I also wanted to join the conversation that I felt was finally happening in our society.

Speaking out about miscarriages—or any form of infertility or perinatal loss—has been taboo for many years and suddenly it became more mainstream to talk about. I saw more articles and books published on this topic than ever before and I wanted to contribute. My desire to turn it into a memoir became less about me and more about reaching someone who might be struggling as I had. I didn’t want anyone to go through something similar and feel as lonely or as ashamed as I had felt during each of my losses.

MR: It must have been difficult to relive and re-experience all that had happened since you and Joey decided to start a family. Was there any point at which you wanted to dump the project as not worth it emotionally?

The most challenging part for me emotionally has been during the last few rounds of edits. Most of the book takes place several years ago and there are some painful scenes that are very raw on the page. In the years since they occurred, and since I first wrote them, the sharp edges of those experiences have softened. And so, to relive those times as the person I am now became difficult because it stirred up feelings as if no time had passed. I didn’t ever want to dump the project per se, because I always felt it was a worthy pursuit despite the emotional weight, but I certainly needed to take breaks from it in order to sit with my grief and process those emotions again.

MR: Do you plan on writing more books? Any works in progress?

I really hope to have another book someday. Right now, I’m working on a novel that’s loosely based on my experiences as a PICU nurse and as a mother who has dealt with loss. I’m drawn to stories of heartbreak and grief—not surprising I suppose—and I spend a lot of time reading books in that genre. It may sound intense or gloomy to spend so much time in those spaces, but I find grief beautiful and fascinating. We all experience a life-altering event (or events) at some point in our lives, and I love when those experiences are captured on the page. I’m enjoying the process of writing fiction and letting my imagination take me places I couldn’t go with my first book. It feels freeing after the last few years of writing my memoir. So, we’ll see if I have another book in me when this is done! It’s in its early days, but I’m still writing, which is just as important as the end-product.

MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?

Oh gosh, so many. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is one of my most beloved books. I relate so much to the main character, Francie, and I connected with her deeply as a girl. I like to re-read parts of that book to remember how it felt when I read those words for the first time. It’s like visiting a younger, more innocent version of myself. I’ve also re-read the Judy Blume book I mentioned earlier, Summer Sisters, six different times throughout my life. I’ve been reading it since I was about twelve years old. It’s about two girls who grow into adulthood and I have related to the characters differently as I grew up too. Sometimes my memory of that book bleeds into memories of my own childhood and I need to remind myself that I didn’t live through the events of that novel.

More recently I’ve been revisiting passages from Beth Powning’s book, Shadow Child and Kate Inglis’ Field Guide to Grief since they act as a source of comfort and guidance. They’re usually left out on my side table or are within reach because I read them so often. Books feel very spiritual to me, and I revisit many of the books on my shelves to search for answers or to simply feel understood. It’s like visiting an old friend when I open a book I know intimately, and I love the solace they provide.  

MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?

I’m really drawn to stories of women who have done incredible things in science, which is where my love of literature and science intersect. If I were to write a biography, I’d love to write about Dr. Linda Griffith. She’s a contemporary biological engineer and after winning the MacArthur Genius award for the famous research project where an ear was grown on the back of a mouse, she used the prize money to open the Center for Gynepathology Research at MIT. Its main objective is to study things like endometriosis, infertility, and other pathologies of the female reproductive system, things that have been historically under-researched for centuries. These are topics that are obviously very close to my heart, and Dr. Griffith suffered from endometriosis for most of her life as well. I’m in awe of her brilliance and just how far she is pushing the boundaries in the field of regenerative science. Not only is her work inspiring, but I am fascinated by the strength of her character, how she worked so intensely while hiding a debilitating condition, and how she navigates the very male-centric world of engineering.

MR: Tell us about your writing space. (Do you always write in the same area? Do you use a laptop or a desktop computer, etc)

I have a small room in my house that we call “The Library” that is next to our living room. It’s only the size of a walk-in closet but it’s filled with bookshelves, has a column of windows that look out toward the ocean, and it’s where I have my writing desk. I spend most of my time writing in there, but I often find inspiration in other places, so I’ll use my phone to type notes whenever a thought strikes or I’ll pull my laptop onto the couch and play Legos with my son while also trying to type out a few ideas. As a parent to a small child, I can’t be too restrictive in my writing practice because he still needs a lot of my attention so I will write wherever I can.

MR: Covid question: how have you been coping with the pandemic? What changes (if any) has it made in your life?

Working in health care during the pandemic has been incredibly challenging. When the pandemic first hit, my work-life got tipped upside down. I went from working part-time as a nurse educator to working 70+ hours per week managing the operations of the covid unit, which was very stressful. I worried about bringing the virus home to my family or infecting someone without knowing, and there were a lot of fears in those early weeks. We didn’t know how bad it would get or if our hospital was going to be filled with patients on ventilators like the images we’d all seen from around the world. With that being said, I only dealt with a tiny fraction of the stress that other health care teams around the world had to endure. I often think of the nurses and health care teams in Italy, India, or New York City who are likely still processing the incredible amount of loss that took place over the last year and a half.

The pandemic has given me a deeper appreciation for the things I’ve taken for granted my whole life, like visiting friends or being able to go places for fun. Before, it felt like those things would be a certainty forever, but now it feels like a privilege to be able to spend time with our neighbours at their house or visit our family in New Brunswick. I’ve learned to be grateful for the simplest of life’s pleasures because the world is an uncertain place and I understand that in a visceral way I didn’t before.

MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing (or reading)?

I’m usually spending time with my husband and son. I’m fortunate that we get to spend a lot of time together and that we are as close as we are. My husband works from home and on the days I’m not at the hospital we’ll all sit together for lunch and chat about our days so far. I love listening to my son, Teddy, talk about the things he’s interested in because, at four, he is now at the age where he has a lot of thoughts about the world. I love getting to know more of who he is with every passing year.

I’m also really enjoying time outside these days. I take my dog for walks, visit the park, or go for a jog in our neighbourhood, and I feel energized whenever I come back inside. I’m always looking for new things to do outdoors and I recently bought a skateboard for the first time—at thirty-five—and my husband is teaching my son and me how to skate. It’s fun to learn alongside Teddy who is encouraging and sweet, saying things like, “Nice try, Mama,” when I nearly fall or make a mistake. My favourite way to spend my time is when I can combine a fun outdoor activity with the two people I love most.

MR: Thanks, Joanne!

Joanne’s book, A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, will be released by Nimbus Publishing in late September 2021.