A publishing house executive leaves her job to raise her young family and pens a debut bestseller, attracting a $3-million two-book deal.
This may read like the synopsis of a story too good to be true, but it’s a chapter from Western alumna Ashley Audrain’s life.
Audrain’s debut novel The Push has been flying off shelves since its release in January, continuing a whirlwind response that started in early June, 2019, when a top literary agent responded to her query within 10 minutes. By July, Penguin had acquired English-language rights as part of a two-book deal in the U.K., U.S., and Canada, with another 23 translation rights deals signed in fewer than two weeks, setting an industry record. A nine-way bidding war for TV/film rights followed.
It’s a scenario that Audrain, BA’08 (MIT), a former publicity director at Penguin Random House Canada, could never have imagined.
“I started out just writing for myself to satisfy my creativity and story ideas, because that’s what I love to do. You write thinking nobody will ever read these words, which is likely why I could go into dark places.”
The Push is a psychological drama told through the eyes of a woman whose experience of motherhood is not at all what she’d hoped for, her child not as idyllic. The story explores the unrealistic expectations about mothering that women learn from an early age, as well as the concept of nature versus nurture, and the loneliness that accompanies shame and not being believed.
Those themes are resonating with readers everywhere, pushing Audrain into the spotlight.
“Hitting the New York Times bestsellers list, that’s an incredible highlight that can’t be beat,” said Audrain. “I just never dreamed of that, it’s so far beyond what I could have hoped for.”
But just as important to her is the direct response she is getting from readers.
“I had an email from a mom the other day who has a child at SickKids who is quite ill. She shared that she rarely picks up a book, but something told her to pick up mine. She said it was the first time she felt heard, seen and validated through her entire experience with her gravely ill child. That moved me to tears.”
Audrain’s empathy comes from having spent more than six weeks at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto after her first child developed a chronic illness at just two weeks of age. “It was incredibly difficult to be mothering within the context of the walls of a children’s hospital. It was very isolating, lonely and difficult.”
The idea of motherhood had always fascinated Audrain, and when her experience didn’t match up with society’s idealistic portrayal, she imagined what would happen if one woman’s journey ventured into dark and fearsome territory. She began writing about it when her son was six months old, a few hours each week in a café.
“I knew I always wanted to write a book, and I had all that time in my 20s and I didn’t. I thought, it’s now or never,” Audrain said.
After three years, and another child, her time had come.
Today, her second book The Whispers is in revisions, and she is eager to watch The Push brought to life on screen by British producer David Heyman (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Marriage Story), who won the screen bidding war.
“I am excited about somebody else taking the story and translating it into their own piece of art. I feel thrilled to be a part of it (as executive producer) and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it. And as an MIT (Media, Information and Technoculture) grad, I love that world and having these types of conversations.”
While Audrain’s former role at Penguin Random House helped her navigate her path to success, it also had her cautioning herself every step of the way.
“The more you know, the more you know what can go wrong,” Audrain said. “Even though I had these wonderful publishers I’m so grateful for, in the back of my mind I was thinking this means nothing until people read it.”
Audrain held her breath until early copies of the book started going out, and responses flooded in.
“Hearing from strangers, people who are picking up the book and reaching out, is more meaningful to me than any other feedback, any review or what a publisher says because those readers decide what the book is and how it’s going to do. That’s the way it should be.”