Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

Jann Arden’s debut novel took 14 years to finish

Zoomer / November 2023

A Q&A with the Juno Award-winning singer turned fiction writer

Fourteen years ago, Canadian singer Jann Arden had a great idea for a novel about the dark secrets of an unhappy couple running a floundering farm and a 15,000-word burst of creative energy that eventually became The Bittlemores.

As every writer will tell you, even the rich-and-famous kind, following through is no easy task. In this case, Arden shelved and unshelved her novel countless times. In the meantime, she wrote three memoirs, Falling Backwards, Feeding My Mother and If I Knew Then, released six albums, created and starred in a TV series, Jann, and started a podcast. Where other writers might never revisit a decade-old manuscript, Arden diligently returned to her farm story and finally finished her first fiction book.

If you think some likeable main characters compelled the eight-time Juno winner to complete the book, you’re wrong. Harp Bittlemore is mean, cruel, lazy, cheap, sexist, drunk and abusive (to both humans and animals). His wife, the nameless Mrs. B., with “the look of a barrel with legs sticking out of it,” is so nasty Arden couldn’t come up with a moniker to capture her villainy.

On an isolated farm somewhere in the Prairies that Arden, 61, calls “the Backhills,” the miserable Bittlemores are desperately keeping a secret from unravelling: 30 years ago, they stole a baby from a hospital and raised her as their own. That child, Margaret, becomes an unwed mother at 14 and runs away from home, leaving baby Willa behind. Just as the Bittlemores pretended Margaret was their flesh and blood, they passed Willa off as their daughter. Then there’s a newbie constable trying to solve the stolen-baby cold case, and – this is the fun part – a farmyard of talking animals that know all the Bittlemores’ secrets and conspire so justice can prevail.

It’s fiction, mostly. “When she was little, this just was her world: a hellscape of uncertainty and hardship. The long days and weeks and months on the farm bled into each other, a childhood mired in chaos,” Arden writes of Willa, although, naturally, she has borrowed from her own troubled childhood in Springbank, Alta. Zoomer had a lively telephone chat about The Bittlemores, why the book took so long to materialize, whether she is at all sympathetic to the criminal couple and what’s next.

Rosemary Counter: So lovely to speak to you! Where are you in the world?

Jann Arden: Hold on, I just popped a piece of bagel in my mouth! I’m in a café in downtown Toronto. I’m just waiting on my gingerbread latte, because I can’t get a damn pumpkin spice anymore. They cut it off after Thanksgiving. But I’ll take what I can get, cause I’m doing press all day. I’m having fun though.

RC: That’s good to hear! I was up late last night reading your book.

JA: You better have been reading it! It took me 14 years to write it!

RC: That’s impressive. I think most writers, myself included, would have thrown in the towel.

JA: I’d had this wacky idea about the Bittlemores years ago. I was staying at this converted garage in Nashville, on this really hot and humid day. I was typing on my old Mac, and was so enamoured that I probably wrote 15,000 words in eight hours. That was the easy part. My poor editor, Anne Collins, probably trimmed away 19 rambling subplots. I’d leave it for six months, come back, write 5,000 more words. I’d never written a novel before, obviously.

RC: How did the process compare to your other writing?

JA: Well, you can’t just make sh-t up in a memoir. With fiction, you can take it anywhere you want. You can change your mind. The weird part though is that those people become as real to you as your friends are. Even the Bittlemores endeared themselves to me, after I knew what happened to them.

RC: Why is Mrs. Bittlemore only “Mrs. B,” with no first name?

JA: Because I just didn’t think she deserved one. A name would humanize her, make it too personal. I did try though. Is she a Brenda? A Donna? I ultimately decided she was neither. For me, I found her worse than Harp. There’s something so sinister to me about complacency.

RC: I felt like you were having fun with the reader, with their sympathy. Those Bittlemores are terrible, but I feel bad for them, too.

JA: I thought about this, because you have to be able to forgive the ugly fact that they kidnapped someone’s baby – the way Mrs. Bittlemore rationalizes it, after she’s miscarried and miscarried, and it’s turned her marriage into this loveless sham – you have to understand that.

RC: Was that baby-stealing plot from real life? Maybe a newspaper headline?

JA: Nope, it’s entirely imagined and made up by me. There are certainly similarities to be found in this book – Mrs. Bittlemore is a lot like my dad’s mother, and, as sad as this is to say, Mr. Bittlemore is my dad. He wasn’t mean to animals, but he was an alcoholic. I can write about this in a very real way, because I grew up with a guy just like that: unpredictable, frightening.

RC: You got sober yourself in the middle of writing this book. Did it change how you saw or understood your characters?

JA: First of all, I would never have finished the book had I kept drinking. I had no motivation, I didn’t feel good, I was always hungover. I was a terrible version of myself. When I stopped drinking, I became the person I knew that I could become and, yes, I did see things with a lot more clarity. The whole latter half of the book, actually, was almost written by a different person, and she’s got an acute sense of what alcoholism looks like and feels like. She knows that secrets don’t serve anyone, ever. The Bittlemores can never be happy because they have this secret that they haven’t thought through and they can’t make it right.

RC: Talk to me about the talking cows. Does your editor say, “Woah, Jann, about the cows…”?

JA: Haha, yes. When the people are so miserable, I needed the cows around to be the good in the world. They’re helpful, thoughtful, loyal. I started their dialogue as an inner language thing – maybe they’re mooing to each other, and you can interpret it however you like. Soon they were talking to each other, and I was loving it. If it’s too weird, I’ll find out, but, for me, the cows are the heroes of the story.

RC: Will you write more fiction after this?

JA: I’m already writing it! It’s set in about 1912, in a church somewhere up north, about nuns running a school for girls who’ve been dumped there, as people mine the town for gold. And there’s a band of terrible people attacking the settlers. It’s like Home Alone, in 1912, with nuns. And I promise it won’t take as long as the first one.