When I first picked up Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey had no idea that I would actually be getting my heartbroken. I felt a sense of loss when I finished this novel, as I desperately wanted to get back inside The Territory, to spend more time with her eccentric, lovable, flawed and whimsical characters.
Dey has a talent that is pure and honest and that is writing. Her unique and gorgeous writing style is one that kept my eyes glued to the page, hungry for every sentence she fed me. Throughout this novel, she explores the love, devotion, and confusion within a mother-daughter relationship with vivid, colorful and honest prose, as fifteen-year-old Pony and the rest of this cult-like community searches for Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, a woman they realize they knew very little about. Pony desperately seeks to understand her mother while trying not to lose hope they she will ever return. Mixed with 1980’s references, puffy pastel dresses, cultish gender roles, feathered hair and camouflage, Heartbreaker is a novel to get lost in, to transport you to another world with heavy atmosphere and a dreamy, sensual tone.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the lovely Claudia Dey via email where she thoughtfully and honestly answered my questions. Check out our interview below where Dey talks creating mood, writing about cults, the glory of the 1980s, the multiplicity of women and imposter syndrome.
I loved the way this novel had a very specific tone to it, one that I felt fully immersed in while reading. Your writing is so beautifully evocative with a sensual feel to it.
When writing, were you very aware of the mood you wanted to create or did this happen naturally within the nature of the story?
Thank you so much. It’s strange to decipher––like diagnosing your own malady––but I’m a voice-driven writer. I know that once I have the voice of the character, I have the momentum. The story shows itself––almost aggressively. This book was filmic to write. Sonic. I could see it and I could hear it. It had something of the miracle to it. And so while it happened naturally, to use your words, there is also the sheer work and time of drafting––which is mostly about elimination. I wanted this book to be fast––fast as a panther. I wanted the reader to feel dropped into the world––the mood as you’ve described it. I wanted the reader to feel the cold of the west wind, mud heavy on the cuffs of their jeans, their heart in their throat. I wanted the book to feel alive. You go into a book with many things––your most unsettled feelings––but without aesthetic rules in your mind––or at least, for me, these come as I am working––I did whatever I could for velocity, for urgency, for vividness.
What was the inspiration for creating this cultish community? What is it about the 1980’s interested you?
I have always been fascinated by cults––what remains of a person when they forfeit their moral, physical and spiritual autonomy? I read countless FLDS survivor accounts. Teenage girls married off to elders in roadside motels, and raising children as children themselves, barred from the culture, from critical thought, from the colour red, from their own internal mechanisms, their sexuality, their intellect––in the service of their husband, their faith––with the dark promise of an Armageddon as the backdrop––this beautiful glimmer that only they, the believers, will survive while all other souls are scorched and forever damned. How can something so totally fictional be dutifully followed––and replace a life?
I was inspired by the women’s stories of escape. I never use the word cult in the novel. I wanted the reader to be parachuted into the world without orientation, to look at it from within––without assessment, without context––the way an inhabitant would. I also could not resist the puff-sleeve, ankle-length prairie dresses and the elaborate hair designs of the FLDS; they too entered Heartbreaker.
…The 1980s: I am drawn to the aesthetics. The music, the glitter and scale of the clothing, and that it is pre-internet. I could never have written a novel about a missing woman in this age––GPS is such a buzzkill.
I read somewhere that you were inspired by The Virgin Suicides. I would love to hear more about this! (I’m completely obsessed with the book and the film)
I am also obsessed. I loved the “choral” narrator––and those girls. I felt their teenage melancholia and inner worlds so deeply. I felt like their last, undeclared sister. Like I should also be transiting those ghostly rooms in my nightgown with my unquiet brain and heart. I chose the last name Fontaine for the central family in Heartbreaker as a tribute to the book.
I absolutely loved Pony. She is unapologetically herself, yet so self-aware. I want to be more like her. Adolescence is such a strange yet beautiful time in our lives. Do you think we ever grow out of our teenage selves? Do you think these are the years that truly shape us as human beings?
I do. We are such fierce versions of ourselves–– and then that animal within gets civilized. It is one of our most unruly times––when we are consciously forming ourselves––off our peers, off the culture. I was very influenced by this Dutch photographer, Rineke Djikstra, who shoots portraits of teenagers. She considers them to be abstracts as her subjects are in such flux they cannot be contained in a frame.
In the territory, there are so many gender-based societal rules that everyone follows blindly. Women must wear specific clothing for certain tasks and keep their homes a certain way; men drive trucks and receive nicknames that carry them into adulthood. What about an oppressive system such as this interested you?
I don’t feel it’s that far off the systemic sexism of the current world. To me, the novel is not a dystopia. The Territory is real and it is only a 2000-mile drive away––there are hidden societies like it all over––just out of view, out of the news cycle. I know that I was heavily influenced by the summers I spent up North working as a cook in bush camps. Those were happy summers, but the campsites were heavily gendered and so many details from that time entered the novel. It was like Wild, Wild Country, but in steel toe boots and duct-taped knuckles rather than saffron robes. The nicknames, the bonfires, big dogs and big trucks, the wish for ease and warmth––the profound isolation and merciless landscape of that part of Canada––formed the Territory. I still dream about it.
The idea of duality is questioned a lot in this novel. Questions like: Why can’t a woman be more than one person in her lifetime? Why can’t she be multiple versions of herself?
Do you think you struggled with this frustration in your own life?
I love this idea and want to live it out. The people I am most drawn to––they don’t necessarily lie, cheat, beg and kill, but they do have the will and the fight within to reinvent themselves. For Billie, this was a form of survival––a strategy, a resourcefulness. I think we often mistake this quality––the quality of multiplicity––in women to be deceitfulness when in fact it’s strength. I live it out by writing.
What did your writing process look like for Heartbreaker? How long did it take you?
It took about three years from start to finish. I tend to think long and write fast. I wrote the first draft in a ten-day mania during a heat wave in August of 2015. That draft was fairly skeletal but gave me a sure direction––the structure, the world of the book, the beginnings of the voices. I then wrote early drafts away from home. I would go to a cabin in the woods, an apartment in Chinatown––whatever empty space I could find with a door behind me I could lock. My friends pressed their keys into my hands. I shut off my phone. I would go into a very productive trance. I then drafted and drafted––which at times looks like simply sitting with a thick stack of paper. It’s important to know when to lay off––not to tamper because you are restless––this is like adding a filter to a photograph. When you over-correct, you lose the life. You want to preserve the unevenness in a book––it gives it its electricity––while placing enticements so your reader cannot help but turn the page.
The novel is broken up into three sections where we hear the perspective of Pony, Gena the dog and Pony’s crush, Supernatural. Did this choice come easy? What were the challenges, if any, when creating multiple perspectives within this story for you?
I knew from that first manic draft that I wanted the book to be in three voices: Girl, Dog, Boy––very consciously placing the animal at the centre. It was a relief for me to move between the voices. Bombastic Pony––her crushes, her anguishes, her dreams, her storms. And then, by contrast, Gena Rowlands–– so measured and erudite, her long lens––and yet a killer dog with a broken heart, Billie’s guard and her confessional. And then Supes, our human watch tower (I always picture Leonardo DiCaprio circa 2000)––only he could get us to the end of the story.
A note here: I studied crime scenes––we needed all three perspectives in combination––their histories, their secrets, their views––to solve the disappearance of Billie Jean.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? What has kept you going through moments of doubt or self-sabotage or imposter syndrome?
Read voraciously. Put your time in. Doubt is a form of intelligence, humility––hold each sentence up to the light and determine whether it is real or fraudulent. Whether it gets to stay or has to go. I write to fix life, to settle the debates within myself––I don’t get imposter syndrome. All my doubt goes toward deepening what I’m making. I force the outer world to disappear; if you are measuring yourself against perceived, even projected, opinion, you will whither. It’s as dangerous as asking the internet whether you matter.
Are you working on any new projects?
I have an image I can’t shake for my next book. I’m taking notes. I’m reading. I’m paying attention to my dreams. I’m rebuilding myself for that grand marathon through the wilderness.
CLAUDIA DEY is the author of the novels, HEARTBREAKER––a Paris Review Staff Pick, a GOOP Book Club Pick, a Buzzfeed Book of the Year, and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award––and STUNT, a finalist for the Amazon First Novel Award. Her plays have been produced internationally and nominated for the Governor General’s and Trillium Book Awards.
Dey’s writing has appeared in many publications including The Believer, Lit Hub and The Paris Review, where Dey's essay, Mothers As Makers of Death, went viral. Dey has also worked as a horror film actress, a cook in lumber camps across northern Canada, and is co-designer of Horses Atelier.
Called “one of the city’s most cherished writers” by VOGUE, Dey lives in Toronto.
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