Claire Tacon’s first novel, In the Field, was the winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her second book, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, was published in 2018 by Wolsak and Wynn. Claire’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Bronwen Wallace Award, the CBC Literary Prizes and has appeared in journals and anthologies such as the New Quarterly, SubTerrain, and Best Canadian Short Stories. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and is a lecturer at St. Jerome’s University.
Kate Finegan: What was the spark for your second novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo?
Claire Tacon: First, I stumbled upon a Chuck E. Cheese training video from the 1980s when I was procrastinating on my master’s thesis. Around the same time, I saw a New York Times article about Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Although there’s a common genetic basis for Williams Syndrome, people experience it very different ways and there is a wide spectrum of abilities and challenges within the community. A couple of things that do commonly come up are increased social drive and reduced social boundaries. The interview profiled a young woman who had a particular desire to talk with men. She came up with an ingenious way of facilitating those conversations: she was interested in sports, so she watched a lot of sports on television and learned a lot of sports trivia. She banked this huge foundation of conversation starters, which allowed her to interact with a majority of men, even just for a few minutes at a time. When I read the article, I was also struck by the parenting that supported that. If you have higher social motivation and lower social boundaries, there’s a potential to be vulnerable to unscrupulous people. But whatever concerns her parents had, they trusted their daughter to navigate the situation, and they really listened to what she wanted, which I think doesn’t always happen—with any parent, but especially with parents of kids with disabilities.
KF: What do you find important and/or challenging in listening to people’s lived experiences as a basis for fiction?
CT: I started talking with the president of the Canadian Association for Williams Syndrome. She was kind enough to put a notice in the newsletter, and families started contacting me. I met with a number of families and individuals and became quite close to one family in particular. They were instrumental throughout the whole research process, even reviewing multiple drafts of the book. My intention with the book was to have it really grounded in a specific family at a specific time in a specific place. I wanted to accurately represent a possible experience, not a “universal” experience. Because that doesn’t exist. But the details from the people in the Williams Syndrome community who generously spoke with me made a big impact in terms of how I shaped Starr’s life and the family’s life.
KF: I like what you said about how you were trying to tell a story that’s of this family, this one experience, but it’s not the singular Williams Syndrome experience book. That reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which is really important to keep in mind when working with marginalized communities. As I was reading your novel, I was thinking that I have not read very many novels that deal with adults with developmental disabilities.
CT: I think a lot of the focus in literature has been on children. One of the reasons I was interested in writing the book is that I’m close to a relative who is disabled and grew up in the 1950s, with a typical sibling. They were raised in very different ways and had different expectations put on them, and I see how that parenting strategy has had an impact on not only their individual trajectories, but also their sibling dynamic, even sixty years later. I was really hoping that some of the things that my relative told me about—like appalling treatment at school, for instance—might be different. I feel like there’s a sort of gloss where we think things are better, or different.
Before the book came out, I went back to some contacts in the Williams Syndrome community and asked, “If I could speak to a couple things while promoting this book, what would you want me to speak to?” A lot of the feedback I got was frustration that we haven’t reached a point where true inclusion is being supported, particularly in adulthood. The employment rates are abysmal in Ontario. 25% of adults with intellectual disabilities are employed compared to about 86% of the general population. It can also take years for Passport funding—which pays for things like job readiness training and support workers—to come through. So, with the book, I did want to focus on what happens after high school, when Starr is trying to make a meaningful life for herself in a society that is still very ableist.
KF: Starr’s father, Henry, repairs animatronics at Frankie’s Funhouse. What kind of research did you do for Frankie’s Funhouse?
CT: For most of the first draft, I was just writing, “Insert x here.” I was pregnant with my first son, and I knew I wanted to get the initial draft done before he arrived. I’d done some research online because there are huge forums for Chuck E. Cheese that release old manuals and videos. There are people who will actually go to Chuck E. Cheese and film the animatronics and critique them. They’ll notice whose wrist isn’t working properly or where the song wasn’t in sync with the animatronic motions. But to get the level of technical knowledge I needed, I had to talk with someone in person. So, I finally just walked into a Chuck E. Cheese—super pregnant—and asked, “Can I speak to your technical manager?” It ended up working out really well because the technical manager was the sweetest, kindest young man. We met many times, and he would show me how the valves worked and talk me through common vandalism that happens at Chuck E. Cheese. There’s a part in the book where a tray gets wedged under the basketball machine, which was purely from his life experience. The technicians at Chuck E. Cheese have to have so much knowledge: they fix the dishwasher, they fix the arcade games, they fix so many different things.
KF: I feel like if I were researching this novel, I wouldn’t know when to stop. So how did you? In a novel that’s so deeply researched, what is the interplay between research and writing?
CT: The Williams Syndrome research started very early on in the process because that was really important to me, as someone who doesn’t have lived experience of Williams Syndrome, to have that alongside the writing process. And I would say that research doesn’t necessarily stop. Because people still ask me about the book, I think doing ongoing research about Disability Justice is really important.
KF: In my mind, this is very much a story about family dynamics. But one of the POV characters is quite tangential to the family, from an outsider perspective, but he’s instrumental to the story. I’m wondering when Henry’s coworker, Darren, came into the story. Do you think that adding an outsider perspective on family dynamics and simmering tensions can bring those to the fore in fiction?
CT: Darren was always in the book right from the very beginning. Pretty much as soon as I saw the mascot video, Darren was there. I wanted Darren to have his own arc, and I think a lot of people can relate to loss of first love. But I also liked the idea that Henry’s working in a place that has a huge employment turnover, so Darren and Henry are in juxtaposition to each other in the sense that Darren’s trajectory is he’s outgrown his friend group, he’s struggling with his family, he doesn’t particularly like his job, and he’s moving on to the promise of a better fit in all those areas, whereas Henry is stuck in this place where his friend group is going to keep shuffling through every three years. I also wanted Darren to be in parallel with Starr in the sense that both of them are looking for what it means to have a friend group, a community, a job you like, and independence from your parents.
KF: When did this become a multiple point-of-view narrative?
CT: That came pretty early on. I’m really bad with writing with outlines, so I definitely do more exploratory writing in the first draft. Those were the voices that came out during that time, and then it just took a ton of drafts. A lot of the writing process was being really intentional about ratios of voice. Henry has about 50% of the word count. Darren has 25%, and then Melanie and Starr split the difference. I tried to put in a structure where we always flip back to Henry or mostly flip back to Henry after listening to a different voice. I looked at who’s most emotionally invested in each scene and tried to give the scene in their voice.
KF: I think for any writer working on a multi-POV work, finding the emotional investment must be key.
CT: Yeah, definitely some scenes flipped. I think I had it wrong in a couple of the early drafts, where I realized this actually shouldn’t be this person’s scene.
KF: Do you have a favorite way to get into the narrative voice?
CT: My first love with writing was theater. Because the first-person present is closest to monologue, it’s what comes to me first. In some short fiction, I have used more a range of point of view, like third-person limited. But when a project first comes, it’s always first person.
KF: If you were an animatronic funhouse character, what would you be and why?
CT: I’m such a terrible singer. The only successful karaoke that I’ve done was Blur’s “Parklife,” which is mostly speaking. But if we could hire some voice talent, I would like to sing “Party for One” by Carly Rae Jepsen, but they can change the words to “Party for Fun” so that it’s family-friendly. As for animatronics, they’re so grounded in the eighties that there’s only one girl in any band, so I’d probably be forced into the role of dancing chicken. My main thing is that I would definitely want to be one of the sixteen- or thirty-two-motion animatronics so that I could actually dance, versus just nodding my head.
KF: Would you want to get Carly Rae Jepsen to cover her own song? Or would you have another singer in mind, or an unknown?
CT: I feel like the budget would only cover an unknown singer.
KF: Probably depends on the quality of your chicken dancing. If we can get a really good dance, she’ll be like, “All right. I’m on this.”
CT: “Let’s do this. Yeah.”