The Inward Place: A Conversation with Claudia Dey
I spoke on the phone from San Diego with novelist, playwright, and clothing designer Claudia Dey while she was in her Toronto study on the top floor of an old house in the West End. Her husband, a musician, was playing with his band in the basement, and the music wafted upward.
A self-described nerd, Dey has spent ten years raising a family (two young boys) while collecting, quietly and internally, material for her work. Her latest book, Heartbreaker, published with Random House in August, is a novel set in the 80s in a tiny, isolated community inside wilderness, and told from the point of view of first Pony, an astute and heartbroken teenager, then Pony’s lesbian, loyal dog, and finally, Supes, a teen intimately connected to Pony and her family.
Heartbreaker is Dey’s first American release, and we spoke about the inspiration and creation of this vibrant novel, the danger of social media for a novelist, and the life of the mind.
The Rumpus: What did it look like in the very beginning of writing Heartbreaker?
Claudia Dey: I hadn’t published in ten years. I had read a lot and lived a lot and noted a lot, and the book was kind of in me like a tornado. And the opportunity presented itself: my husband was going away with our kids, and I was going to be alone in our house. Time just expands when you are on your own and what you are able to do inside of that expanding time accelerates. So I think that’s why I was able to complete a draft of the book so quickly, because it had been lying in wait, and because I was on my own, so a day becomes a month.
I felt desperate to write; I felt desperate to settle this unsettled feeling that I had inside. I had so many images in my head and then the book played out in front of me the way a film reel does and I just needed to keep up with the transcription. In the beginning I did that ten-day kind of manic draft and then friends would hand over their house keys whenever they were going out of town, so I’d go and hole up and work in this kind of intense, monkish way.
Rumpus: You said in a recent Lit Hub interview that if there was a “plot machine” you should probably get on it but don’t—did you have the plot from beginning to end in your head? Did you know the arc of the story when you began?
Dey: I had the arc of the story; I had the world, and I had the structure of the book. I definitely work from the circuitry of my intuition; I work from what I’m obsessed by and then the craft comes after. So it’s definitely deepened and refined itself over time. Then you do that thing with cutting anything that stands in the way of forward motion, and a lot of plot did come in those subsequent edits. I’m not a writer who graphs out books—I hear the voices first.
I think there is something so special about that first draft. Before anyone’s eyes are on it, it’s such a private, secret strangling that I feel very protective of it, and writing it the way that it comes to me.
Rumpus: Protecting your secrets makes me wonder, what’s your social media activity like?
Dey: Fraught, it’s so fraught. The Paris Review thing has been so interesting to me and actually really touching. I wrote that piece and it was the most personal piece I’d written, certainly Heartbreaker is personal but it’s fiction. We do the most personal thing in the most fictional way with our books. The Paris Review wrote to me last week and said it went viral. That to me feels like company; it feels like readership, and it’s the most heartening thing.
I understand now that I have some distance from that initial shock when I first became a mother why I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone and why no one talked about it to me.
In terms of social media, that’s where social media felt like companionship, weirdly, was through that Paris Review piece. But otherwise it’s not my natural… technology.
Rumpus: I’m really interested in this because you have such a strong voice in your writing; your writing is assured, and I’m really interested in how writers stay—I used to cringe at this, because brave is a strong word—but I feel like the older you get the braver it is to write like that. You get so many voices in your head about the right way to write, the wrong way to write. I’m starting to form the opinion that it’s better for your work to not be on social media very much because it’s harder to get those voices that get in your head out and tap into that vein that you found—your unique creative spirit, that has to come first. You have that first, and then you craft around it.
Dey: I know for myself I have to draw a very sure and hard line between facing inward and facing outward. I basically can’t be on social media when I start writing; I completely turn it off. And now that I essentially am working for my book and what feels like a former self, now I am [on social media].
I think you can end up corrupting your voice, actually, because I can see how the private self that went into the novel, which is the deepest thing that I can offer to the form, aside from the craft, the living, the serving, thousands of hours, and I know in this book I didn’t waste a microsecond in terms of just the work. But I’ll protect that above everything.
Rumpus: You are confirming my theory.
Dey: I think your theory is really correct. For me, it’s a place that I visit but it’s not a place that I want to live. I want to live in the other place, in the inward place.
Rumpus: You wrote [in the Paris Review piece] that the genesis of Heartbreaker was a loss you had ten years ago, and I assumed that to be a miscarriage or a stillbirth although I don’t know, I could have been reading that too literally. I was wondering if you could talk about that more, how that experience birthed Heartbreaker eventually.
Dey: I think that it was actually almost the opposite moment; it was the moment that I got pregnant with my son. That moment I wrote about, “something so sinister entered her pregnancy”—that was the death piece. It was only when I was working on the book that I found language for it; the book gave me a form for settling that commotion in me.
Rumpus: I did read that wrong. I’m sorry for that.
I wanted to talk about your use of language, which I found masterful, beautiful. I really enjoyed how many specifics were in this work; you did not shy away from that: whether it was album titles, cars, people’s names, specific hairdos. I would get images in my head, like when you detailed Pony looking out of the window and all of the teenagers had their handmade signs hanging out of their windows. Can you talk about your use of language, your influences, and how you opened up to finding your voice?
Dey: One of my original influences was that moment, that teenage moment when you are turned on and you see wheat you want to become. I saw a play adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and I had always written poetry and I had written a play by then, and I was writing small books and stapling them together and illustrated them. I was the hungriest reader. Books were sentient, they spoke to me, they were my companionship. They knew exactly how I felt and they taught me to live.
I saw this adaptation of Billy the Kid on stage, and I left the theater at fifteen, and I was smoking and in a trench coat, and I was like that’s it, that’s what I want to do. I think that with this book particularly… I worked as a playwright for many years, I wrote three plays, so I’m such a sonic thinker, and voice is such a part of this book particularly. And in a way I thought of the voices like rooms like you enter and exit like in a theater, like you enter Pony’s voice as a room, lights out, new room.
Some of my influences have been that play adaptation, but also Chekhov and Sam Shepard and a lot of contemporary women writers who rearranged my brain chemistry, like Samantha Hunt, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams—these women who manage to carry such weight and strangeness and humor all at the same time and do it in a prose that’s clean and not too pyrotechnic. I want to someone to be in love with language but I don’t want to see their effort.
It’s about editing. I spent a lot of time with it. Sometimes the time looking at it and sitting with it in a room. Sometimes it was about deepening, cutting a word, adding a word. I guess I put this in the book and it’s something I often reference really for myself, which is the idea that an unhealthy human heart beat has a regular beat, and a healthy human heart has an irregular beat. And I’ve always loved art that has an irregular beat.
Rumpus: I remember when you wrote that in your book; it struck me. So when you are talking about language and your influences, obviously a huge influence in this book is the 80s, and 80s culture. Did you know when you were setting out to write the book that it was going to be set during this time period?
Dey: That came pretty quickly, and I think it came for a few different reasons. I knew that the heart of the book was a dark and sorrowful one, that it was a book about grief and loss and finding a place to reckon with your ghosts. It’s about the place where intimacy and closeness intersect, how much we guard from each other however deep the love might be, so I think it was very conscious of having pleasing qualities really to get myself though the writing, and also the reader.
I had this teacher when I was a theater student who used the French word “cado,” which means gift, so she would offer these little cados, like flourishes in a way, like these little pleasing gems. And I felt those 1980s references offer that, a kind of lightness and brightness.
I like bombastic aesthetics like the Cohen brothers, and I also think it would have been hard to write a book about a woman who vanishes now with the technology we now have. Like I didn’t want technology in the book; I didn’t want texting, social media, GPS; I didn’t want the deadpan, corporate, un-mysteriousness of what it is to be alive right now given the technology that is literally within our reach all of the time.
Rumpus: I’ve wondered how modern-day novelists are making decisions about their novels based on the technology we have right now, because it really can interfere with plot.
Dey: If you look at our lives and the way we are thinking and feeling through our phones, the same thing can happen with our books, and I don’t want that intrusion there.
Rumpus: When you were writing Heartbreaker did you have a real place that you were thinking of when you were creating this strange environment with the lots, and the numbers, and the leader who led them there and then he died… did it have anything behind it?
Dey: I think when I track it back, it’s the eight summers I spent working in lumbar camps. I planted for two years and I cooked for six. We’d get in these huge trucks and drive on these unmarked logging roads, and find our campsite, set up camp. And when I was cooking especially the planters would leave and I was on my own, I didn’t have a walkie-talkie, I didn’t have a truck, and I was much more afraid of having a townsman coming in than a bear. It definitely gave me a feeling of what it could be to disappear. It was very wild, wild country.
I think a lot of the details from the book—like the nicknames, the duck tape, the big dogs, the big trucks, and then also the wish for comfort, and the wish for ease, the wish for warmth—I think all of that entered the novel. Just that feeling of isolation and scarcity; you are kind of nationless.
Rumpus: Like how Pony references a few times that she seems to have no concept about the world outside where she lives. She wishes that her parents would talk to her about it. It’s this fairy tale feeling because on the one hand she’s connected by all these cultural references but still apart—and the album covers that don’t have albums in them, which is like a metaphor for how she’s connected but disconnected.
I really liked that feeling you were able to create. You blended reality and fantasy and that’s what you want from a novel; you created a whole world that is new.
Dey: I’m so glad. I wanted it to feel like two thousand miles away. I wanted it to feel like not a dystopia. To me it feels so close to the time we are in, like these rules around women’s bodies and girl’s bodies, the worship of an absent leader, the identical bungalows, the identical trucks, all of the sameness even in their dogs, the pressure of conformity—all of that felt so close.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit more about your development of voice, because it’s so distinct. Your sentences are very short, and even when I was reading your other work, I found that your voice is like that, very gripping and unique. Do you feel that came naturally to you? Have you always written that way?
Dey: Thank you, first of all. I think I wrote a novel ten years ago, and it was a much more romantic animal. This book has a lot of love and sex and, I hope, hope, in it, and redemption and elements of romance, certainly, but in terms of the language, I wanted this book to be fast. That was the quality I wanted. I wanted a velocity from sentence to sentence, and I think that’s also because of the feeling I had when I was writing it, like I was in a chase scene, and the urgency entered the sentences, given what we were talking about as writing mothers. I think that explains the speed.
I am obsessive. I am such a worker. It doesn’t mean I am tampering things, because I think you can correct the life out of a novel, and I knew I wanted something vital, that unevenness we were talking about, showing the humanity, but I will make sure that I have chosen the precise word.
Rumpus: I don’t know if you want to talk about this, because as I mentioned earlier some novelists have a strong feeling one way or another, but I was wondering if you would talk more about your experience as a mother in relation to being a writer. For instance, you said you didn’t write for ten years.
Dey: I have two sons. The eldest is lanky and mysterious, kind of like Clint Eastwood, and the youngest is this bombastic, charismatic storm—he’s mercurial like Nina Simone.
I’m happy to talk about it. I see the opposite point; I know Lauren Groff made that point and it’s super valid. I guess I said this in the Paris Review piece, that feeling that children give you new information, like you just have a new view, a sharper view, a deeper take on the kind of heaven and hell of this life. And then, strangely, the logistics of writing this book I think actually helped the book, were native to the book in that the sprints in which I wrote determined the quality of the sentences.
My life is busy and it’s in the service of others in the sense of my children, and we go up north whenever we can. I’m a nerd, I just try to make room for reading and making notes and that dreaming that I was talking about. Now that the children are older and sleeping through the night, just as you want your autonomy they want theirs; it’s a concurrent thing, so that’s happening. I have more aloneness in my mind.
I’m starting to think about the next book, too. I know I won’t be able to write it properly until I’ve stopped touring.
Rumpus: Is this publishing experience new for you?
Dey: This is much bigger. My first book was published by this beautiful press in Toronto that is in an alleyway called Coach House Books. I got to do a tour in Canada, but there was no Twitter, I think Facebook existed then. But to promote the book we took over a store window and my husband played music outside, which sounds like it’s from the nineteenth century. [Laughter]
This is my American debut, which feels new. I’m different; I’m different inside of time. The books are different because I’m different.
Rumpus: The relationships between men and women in Heartbreaker were fraught. There are many examples—obviously what happened to Billie Jean, Billie Jean’s decision to leave, and the things that happen with Billie Jean and the teenagers. Were you conscious of that when you were writing the book? Or did the theme emerge later?
Dey: I think it’s the latter, that the themes emerged later for me. I was definitely interested in that place where secrecy and closeness interface between men and women. Like how many secrets you can guard in a marriage that is very close. I find that so tense. There is a lot of transactional stuff in the book, too, between Pony and Traps, and Pony and the delivery man, and even in a way between Pony and Supes.
I guess I really wanted to see the darker corners of people, like I keep thinking about Billie—in a way Billie would be what we consider to be a bad women because she lies, she cheats, she kills, she abandons her life. For me, when I’m reading something or watching something, the character begins to get very real once I see them do something bad and experience something bad. But I find that the way woman are portrayed—and this is super general—there is a pressure to be noble, pure and good, and I’m so tired of that. Because fiction changes us, fiction gives us examples to live, and so I’m tired of that example. Pony has good qualities, too—she’s smart, she’s captivating she’s electric—but she’s also these other things; she’s criminal, she’s immoral.
Rumpus: As you are reading the novel you definitely sense the care taken, the compassion for each character, even the dog. Even there, there is such a sense of care for the wholeness of the character that is presented. Did you know you were going to include the dog? Was that an intuitive leap?
Dey: I had that structure, girl/dog/boy, immediately. I wrote about that moment when I was reading Anna Karenina and all the sudden, in this vast peasant scene, we are suddenly inside the dogs point of view, and how much that surprised me as a reader, and how much I value surprise as a reader. And I want to create that as much as I can as a writer.
Rumpus: How did you come up with the dog’s name?
Dey: I think I just have crush on Gena Rowlands, the actress—she’s so brilliant and glamorous. It felt like this aristocratic, lesbian, killer dog would know who she was.
Rumpus: Is the character Billie Jean taken from Michael Jackson?
Rumpus: Pony is the perfect name for a teenager.
Dey: I was so obsessed with teenagers. My husband thinks the novel is about puberty. It’s about people in transition, and there is no more in a way violent transition than puberty because you are separating yourself so keenly from your childhood self.
I was so obsessed with this Dutch photographer who shoots teenagers; she think of them as abstract because they are growing at such an astronomical rate that they can’t be captured in the quick click of a shutter. They can’t be framed.
Rumpus: Yes. So your process of editing: you finished the rough draft, you have the concept whole, and then what did your process look like?
Dey: I found a lot as I was writing, which is how I like to work. I never work from a map or schemata. I’m not that kind of writer; I find it as I’m working. For me, I tend to start with that kind of mania draft, and protect the mania draft as much as I can but just sharpen it and throw my craft at it, and throw time at it. Just try to make the fine choices. For me editing is so much about deepening, as I was saying, eliminating or adding, making something more alive. And being so careful to not overcorrect, to preserve that aliveness.
And knowing when to step away. It’s so dangerous to work on a book for too long, because then it can become a book-and-a-half or a book-and-three-quarters.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people are interested to know how writers know when they are done, when it’s time to stop. Did you have a strong feeling when you were done, that it was time to send it to your agent?
Dey: I’m very careful with that, too. I did send along that first draft so I could get a conversation going, but I stayed in conversation with those few people as long as I could. By the time it went into ARC form, very few people had read it; I was very selective about who’s feedback I wanted, and at what point. That’s also my training from theater, because you do a lot of workshopping in theater and you have to create strong fencing about what you accept as a note and what you don’t. With a novel you can keep it much more private. It’s a very private thing when it’s made, and a social thing once it’s being read.