We loved our November book, Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey so much that it broke our hearts when it was over. So, thank you Claudia for taking the time to answer our burning questions, extending our time with this gorgeous story and characters.
Cults and communes are so endlessly fascinating. How did you research the area, and was the territory based on anywhere you read about?
I read a lot of FLDS survivor autobiographies––these girls, as young as twelve, being piled into vans in their prairie dresses, and driven across borders to be illicitly married in roadside motels to men many times their age while their mothers stood by. I found these narratives to be gutting; who are you when you forfeit your moral authority? What remains when you mindlessly follow codes for how to live, how to be, how to think?
While these accounts were a central point of influence (right down to the ankle-length pastel dresses and elaborate hair designs), I think the Territory was mostly a result of the eight summers I spent working as a bush cook in tree planting camps. We would follow these hand drawn maps of unnamed logging roads into the vast wilderness, and set up camp many miles from the nearest small town. The camps were out of view and so far away from the culture, the economy. They were so remote that they were nationless. You could not pin them to a country, to a continent. Those sites felt untraceable to me. I got the sharpest sense of what it might be like to disappear. The weather and isolation felt relentless. To quote George Saunders––the ice pelting the roof of my cook shack, mud caked to the cuffs of my jeans––those sites were a “hostile dreamscape.” Many visceral details from that time entered the novel: the wish for heat, ease, comfort, the sense of scarcity, the longing for elsewhere––also the big trucks, dogs, duct tape, bonfires, nicknames, DIY punk rock survival outfits, and that Wild Wild Country-esque sense of dread, elation and volatility that lurks in any private society.
We were captivated by Billie Jean, by the way those who loved her described her. What kept her living on the territory for as long as she did?
Thank you. This is a beautiful question––I have not yet been asked it! I think the force or spell that bound her to the Territory was her love for The Heavy, her love for Pony, her love for Gena Rowlands (the dog)––and to a lesser extend, but the ghost that would creep into her mind at night: her fear of being caught and returned to her former life. Billie needed to create as much distance as she could between her current and past selves––the present self and the younger self that survived violence as well as a cold and loveless upbringing. She holds so many secrets, and lives by the belief that a woman carries and can express multitudes; I think this comes from a sense of ingenuity as well as a capacity for love.
Despite Billie’s loneliness in the territory, I think she can lean on loneliness as familiar, which makes it a soft and natural state.
How did you know who's perspective the story would be told through?
I don’t work from a schemata. I work from the circuitry of my intuition. I knew in the earliest hours of writing Heartbreaker that I wanted it to be told in three voices: GIRL, DOG, BOY. I placed an animal in the centre of the novel very deliberately. I understood as I drafted the novel––sharpening, deepening, eliminating, mostly––that the book depended on each voice being as distinct and independent as a chamber or theatre––a room the reader could enter and then exit when the Part began, ran and then concluded––with its own rules and cadences and lens.
We know all great writers are readers. Do you have favourite Canadian authors?
Alice Munro is masterful as Chekhov. Her writing has a near plainness to it while holding every human emotion; it’s so volatile and tense––she writes that place inside and between people: where secrecy and closeness intersect––I am so drawn to that place. I love to feel but not see the effort in writing. Her writing has a humility that moved me and formed me––the absence of pyrotechnics in the face of people; they are large scale explosives in themselves.
Also: Michael Ondaatje for his combination of wildness and rigour––the sheer beauty of his sentences, the way he always chooses the most precise word. Miriam Toews thrills my heart; reading her feels like a sistership––as if she invites you into her dark, troubled world and then gets you, somehow, laughing. She is a quiet miracle of a writer. Also: Joshua Whitehead; the playwrights, Daniel Danis and Judith Thompson; and poets, Anne Carson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Damian Rogers, and Dionne Brand.
Why do you think reading and storytelling is so special?
I think it is vital as an experience that binds us to each other and generates empathy for those whose lives are different from our own. Storytelling advances this essential conversation about what it means to be human. Reading appears to be anti-social and yet it is the most social action––you are alongside the writer and the hundreds of other readers, as well as those written about: their particular view and experience. I believe books are sentient; we can be in conversation with them. They give us examples of how to live.