Joanne Gallant is a pediatric nurse and writer. She is a graduate of Mount Allison University and the University of Alberta. In 2019, she was selected by the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia as an apprentice writer in the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. She lives in Halifax with her husband and son. A Womb in the Shape of a Heart is her debut book. (Photo Credit: Katie Tower)
A Womb in the Shape of a Heart, which is forthcoming with Nimbus Publishing this fall, tells your story of motherhood, including your miscarriages and medical complications. What led you to write about infertility initially? Were you motivated to share your story with others, or was it more about trying to process the experience for yourself?
Writing is often how I process difficult emotions. I’ve kept a journal since I was a young child, so it felt very natural for me to turn to writing when I lost my first pregnancy. Initially, I was just writing to survive. The more I wrote however, the more I began to consider what it would be like to share my story with others. I read a lot of books about pregnancy and infant loss during my miscarriages and they brought me a lot of comfort. It can be a really isolating experience for many people to lose a baby, and it certainly was for me, so when I read books about it, I felt like I had someone to turn to. Someone who understood what I was feeling and going through. I am hoping that maybe my story might bring comfort to someone else someday.
I’d imagine that your partner’s experience of the journey to parenthood together is both very similar to and very different from your own. What was it like to navigate these two perspectives while writing your memoir?
It took me several years into our journey with infertility to fully understand that although Joey, my partner, and I experienced the same events, we held very different perspectives of that shared experience. When writing my memoir, I didn’t want it to be our story, but rather my version of our story, leaving space for Joey to maintain his. Joey is incredibly supportive and when I started to write this book, he was involved early on. I read him parts out loud, showed him pieces I was working on, and he read through it entirely before I submitted my manuscript. It was important to me that he felt fairly represented and that he was okay with everything I included. Even though it’s my story, it’s still very much about our life together and our family’s beginnings. We actually worked on a few parts together and it was cathartic for our relationship to re-visit difficult moments and to reflect on how we would act differently now or how we would care for each other in different ways. It showed me how much we have grown as a couple.
It was just last year that you were participating in the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, and now in a few months you’ll have your published book in your hands. I think this speaks both to the strength of your writing and to how much your story resonates with others. What has it been like to receive outside feedback on such a deeply personal book?
I can’t speak highly enough of the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program and my time spent with Carole Glasser Langille who taught me so much and continues to be a wonderful support in my life. That program is truly what has gotten me to this moment.
The last couple of months have been overwhelming, in a really wonderful way. I’ve always been quite private about my writing and rarely did I share it with others. A part of me was nervous that some people might think I was making too big of a deal over my miscarriages if I spoke up about it or shared my writing on it, but I think that’s an echo of how infertility and loss have historically been handled in our society. Grief surrounding infertility is often disenfranchised, misunderstood, or not spoken about at all, so I had to push those thoughts aside and be confident that my story is worthy to be shared. The warm, loving reception I’ve received has made me feel very cared for and has made this process a lot less scary. It’s helped quash my fears of judgment since I’ve allowed myself—the most fragile parts of myself—to be exposed and the responses I have received so far have been incredibly generous.
Are there any authors you drew inspiration from while writing A Womb in the Shape of a Heart?
There are so many authors who inspired me and gave me courage during the process of writing my book. I could spend this entire interview talking about them! I used a quote from Beth Powning’s book Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss as the epigraph for my book because I wanted to acknowledge how deeply her work has impacted me. She writes about grief in a way that I am really drawn to and her book feels like a safe place for me to turn and feel understood.
Kate Inglis’ Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief gave me permission to see myself as a grieving parent and to claim my story for what it is without needing to qualify it in terms of others’. Her writing is so elegant, and I turned to her book for advice like a dear friend when writing mine. Jessica Westhead, Maggie O’Farrell, Elizabeth McCracken, and Lucy Knisley all wrote books about the loss of babies and I felt like each one was a piece of a roadmap that helped me navigate the telling of my story. I have a section at the back of my book dedicated to all the books and writers who inspired and comforted me along the way because without their guidance, this book could never have been written.
This is your debut book. Has there been anything about the editorial or publishing process that has surprised you?
I still feel like I am such a beginner when it comes to understanding the world of publishing, so I’m sure there will be more surprises down the road, but before I began working with Nimbus, I didn’t realize how much emotional labour editors take on. My editor, Whitney Moran, is so emotionally invested in my book and the way she handled the editing process came from a place of genuine love and empathy. I don’t know how editors do the rollercoaster of preparing a book for release multiple times a year since they must manage and absorb the emotions of each writer. I’m in awe of the work they do to elevate, support, and be champions for a book that isn’t their own, but they adopt it for a brief period of time as if it is.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a pediatric nurse. How has your career influenced the way you’ve told this story? Has the exploration of your own experience with infertility influenced your work life in any way?
Even though my career as a nurse is not a big part of the narrative, it provided a lot of context for my story. I worked as a pediatric critical care nurse for several years and when you spend time with children and their families in deeply grave circumstances, it’s impossible to not have those moments shape your worldview. I was also cognizant that I have medical knowledge that the average reader may not have. So, my editor and I tried to make sure the language I used was accessible to those who may not have the same intuitive knowledge I carry because of my work.
My experiences with loss and having my son born prematurely certainly changed me as a nurse. After becoming a patient at the IWK where I work—and perhaps more importantly, the mom of a patient— it was as if I was given new glasses through which I saw my profession. I now understand what it feels like to see your child attached to tubes and wires, needing life-saving medicine to keep them alive. I learned how it felt to get woken up by a call in the middle of the night to come quickly to your child’s bedside because they were worried about him. I feel my families’ fears and grief in a visceral way that I only imagined before. It’s given me a deeper understanding of the importance of my work as a nurse and the privilege of caring for those who are at their most vulnerable.
On your website you’ve shared a Spotify playlist for A Womb in the Shape of a Heart. What role does music play in your writing process?
I often listen to music when I’m writing. It helps me focus and songs allow me to readily access the emotion of a scene I am trying to write. It was a useful tool when working on my memoir because I listened to songs that were important to me during different times in my life and they put me right back in the moment I was trying to write about. I love how different forms of art interact, as though they are holding a conversation, and listening to music can inspire me to write something new.
I have a chapter in my book dedicated to my son’s first birthday. When I was trying to write it, I heard Jenn Grant’s song, “Happy Birthday Baby” play on one of the playlists I had put on. I listened to it on repeat for about six hours straight when writing and editing that chapter. Now, when I hear that song, I am thrown right into the space of celebrating my son’s birthday. The song now holds such meaning for me, which is a wonderful unexpected experience.
The cover of your book is so beautiful! Can you tell me a bit about how it came into being?
Thank you! I have always been drawn to covers with paintings, I believe that books are pieces of physical art, and when I shared my vision with my editor at Nimbus, she reached out to local artist Briana Corr Scott to see if she’d be willing to paint an original for the cover. I have loved Briana’s work for quite some time, my son and I play with her paper dolls, I have many of her prints on the walls in my house, and I have all of her books that we read often at bedtime. Her art has meant a lot to me over the years, so I was thrilled when she agreed to do it. The piece she created for the cover still brings me to tears. I’m honoured to have her art represent my words and to be given a cover that I am so proud to show off.
Parenting in a pandemic comes with its own unique set of challenges. What’s bringing joy and delight to you and your husband and son right now?
We’ve turned inward and slowed down in a way we hadn’t since our son was an infant. We’re used to rushing to activities or playdates, but ever since things shut down, we’ve found joy by connecting in small, quiet ways at home. We spend a lot of time in our yard exploring, collecting sticks and rocks or making friends with worms and ants. We have a little dish on our entryway table that I used to toss spare change into when I came home. Now, my son empties his pockets and fills it with the rocks he’s gathered on our walks.
We have neighbors who have similarly aged children to our son, who is now 4. Since they can’t see each other right now they will stand in their front yards in the evenings and yell back and forth about what they did that day. I love hearing what they share, which is usually what snacks they ate and what they did at the playground. It gives my son a sense of community with other children and I love seeing his face light up when he hears one of them shout their greetings to him from across the road.
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin