Claudia Dey is the author of the novels, Heartbreaker—a Paris Review Staff Pick and Buzzfeed Book of the Year—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 served as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of English at U of T and the Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School, 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.
Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker is about the ties that bind—the ongoing, sometimes tenuous, relationships to community, the private intimacies between family and lovers, and the connections that can be made outside of the confines of conformity. How do we present or obscure ourselves to the world and how can our private interiors bring us closer? These questions become more confining in the world of the novel: an erstwhile cult living in an unplaceable backwoods called The Territory that is set in their strange ways and uses an endless stream of blood donations from the community’s teenagers to still solvent. Its pivotal figure is Billie Jean Fontaine who drives off in the Fontaine family truck, leaving behind her daughter Pony, her husband The Heavy, and fiercely loyal dog Gena Rowlands. Through three different perspectives, the Billie’s plurality is revealed to the reader, not just as a meditation of the multiplicity of one’s personality but how a woman’s desires and faults don’t just untangle once she becomes a mother.
Dey’s exploration of a who-do-I-want-to-be-today philosophy can also be found in her work as a designer for the label Horses Atelier and in her own interest in clothes and style. At the end of our correspondence, I send her one of drag superstar RuPaul’s favorite sayings, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” She wrote back, “I wrote most of my answers to you in a Trampoline park (while my son attended a birthday party.) I wore noise cancelling headphones, an oversize black satin hoodie and many fake gold chains to frighten off any casual conversationalists.” It’s this kind of attention to one’s sense of presentation that makes the world of Heartbreaker feel bigger than its pages.
Claire Lobenfield: Love is categorized so many ways in Heartbreaker: it’s telepathy, the highest form of humiliation, uneasy. The story is told by three narrators who love the missing Billie Jean endlessly. What were you thinking about love while you were working on this book?
Claudia Dey: I wanted to go as deeply as I could into love in all of its configurations. The characters lie, cheat, trick, murder, circle a house at night, weep into their black bed sheets, catch fire. It is love that compels them. Gena Rowlands, the dog, says: Love is dumb. Dumb as muscle.
Once I found the epigraph of the novel, a line by Alice Notley (also, appropriately, Anaïs Nin)—“In love there is no because”—it was as if I had found the directional arrow into the book. It tells the reader: this is a book about how love makes us senseless; love corrupts and elevates us. Love makes us mothers while making us criminals.
Lobenfield: One of the most striking lines comes early in the book (and is then repeated later): “Why can’t a woman be more than one person in a lifetime? Why can’t she be two or three?” Billie Jean’s plurality is central to the novel—she has been at least three people in her lifetime, that we know of, and the three perspectives that narrate the book know three different versions of Billie Jean. Gender roles are extremely rigid in The Territory but a lot of the women, I think, have secret identities that few or no one else knows about. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings on women’s multitudes?
Dey: In Billie, I had the lone wolf who separates herself from the pack. While the women of The Territory conform to the rules of the place, worship an absent leader, mine their children of their blood, Billie lives by an opposite mechanism––the wish not to belong. She lives radically—guided only by what she loves. Billie stares right into the heart of God’s dark psychodrama.
I am so exasperated by the “noble mother.” It’s so sexist! I see her hollow grace in so many books and films—how she, in her actions, only gets to be one thing. This version of a mother is a falsehood—she does not exist. I wanted to construct a woman who could hold all of our contradictions. Billie is a survivor; she reinvents herself—again and again and again—because if she doesn’t, she will die.
Lobenfield: A lot of teen culture, so to speak, is about making due with what’s around—especially pre-internet—because there are usually limited places to go and no one has any money to do anything anyway. Pony and her peers are the town’s greatest resource but they are sort of left to their own devices. How much of the world-building you did rely on building this specific teen culture?
Dey: Writing Heartbreaker, I was obsessed by this notion of the Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra; she considers her portraits of teenagers to be abstracts. Her subjects are growing and transforming at such an accelerated rate, they can’t be contained in a frame.
As a teenager, you are separating your evolving self from your childhood self in a way that is almost violent––reckless, at the very least. I still feel so close to my teenage self—all of those hours spent roaming ravines, bridges, railway yards; you are placeless—or what you want to be doing is placeless. You are trying everything, hiding everything, and yet, so desperately want to be seen. You wear pins through your coat collars, and like the teens of The Territory, you put a banner in your window. You are blasting messages however you can in the hopes of being noticed, being loved, being left alone.
I also remember that feeling of books and music being sentient, a lifeline. As a teenager, you use the culture to form yourself. Ian Curtis knew me more deeply than my closest friends. He knew precisely how I was feeling. We were in conversation. In solidarity.
The writer, Heather O’Neill, after reading Heartbreaker, said I was a collector—and the book was my shrine, the kind of shrine you would find in a teenager’s bedroom. The book was what was allowed to remain.
Lobenfield: The Fontaine family dog is such a ballast for the novel. She has so much knowledge of their past, imparted to her by both her birth mother and, seemingly, Billie Jean. You’ve said in previous interviews that Anna Kareninawas the inspiration for having a dog as one of the narrators in Heartbreaker. How did you push that inspiration further?
Dey: A ballast. Yes! No one has used that word yet. They have used words like crucifix and exorcism. [Laughs] Gena’s voice was the first that came to me when Heartbreaker started in my head––not unlike a possession. Gena was initially a cat, and still exhibits some of a cat’s natural aloofness—her cold, changeable love.
Writing that section was agonizing at times. Gena is the archive for the characters of the novel. And, it is a heavy archive. She holds all of their pasts. There is so much brutality in that section, so much death and grief and violence—an emotional gore—but also secret love and hot sex and physical stunts—pleasures. I gave Gena a long and controlled lens for self-preservation—both hers and mine. I know how strange that sounds—and I don’t mind that at all! Gena was in the room with me as I worked—in the corner, attentive, with her dancer’s posture, not panting.
Tracking Gena back to Anna Karenina was something I could only do in retrospect once I had some distance from it all. It was the feeling of surprise that Tolstoy achieved in that moment of quietly swiveling the reader’s view to be inside the eyes of a dog—as if it were the most natural thing. I loved the unevenness I felt in that moment, the jolt.
I guess I extended the Tolstoy inspiration by giving her an interior life. Gena has a formality to her, a stateliness. She is erudite, and has an immovable sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. She is critical of everything, and yet her love for Billie makes her soft, submissive, ready to kill.
I very deliberately made her, the animal, the centre of the novel.
Lobenfield: Gena Rowlands is such a perfect name for a dog in a story about women and our messy interiors. What is your interest in Gena Rowlands, the actress?
Dey: No one expresses women’s multiplicity, and all of the selves that we carry within—flashy, sad, all-seeing, bombshell, demon—more brilliantly than Gena Rowlands. She has something of the miracle to her. I also love her sheer intelligence and candor off screen, her personal style, the way her name feels in my mouth. How she holds a cigarette, a gun, a telephone. Her smudged eyeliner, lips parted. The glamour, the danger, the mastery—her beauty only when needed and never as a stand-in.
Lobenfield: Speaking of names, the people of The Territory have many attachments to names and phrases. Boys shed their birth names and are given hyperbolic nicknames when they “become men”; girls are given nameplate necklaces when they are chosen as a wife. Pony duct tapes the phrase BEYOND on her bedroom window curtain; a man wears a belt buckle that reads FULLY LOADED; Billie Jean wears a sweatshirt with DAY OFF printed on it. What was your process for building the taxonomy of this world? It must have been really satisfying to create.
Dey: Yes, really satisfying. The book has a dark and sorrowful heart, and this part of writing it was playful for me. I never use the word cult in the book, but The Territory is a cult—or at the very least, the remnants of one. I love the starkness of script saying what cannot be said—a yearning, a slice of dirtiness. The teenager Sharpie-ing her jean jacket to howl what she cannot howl otherwise.
For the men—this rite of passage allowed me to examine the idea of being chained to your biography. I used to work as a cook in lumber camps across Northern Canada, and many of the elements from those eight summers entered the novel. The naming exalted some and defeated others. Over time, they would bend themselves to suit their name. I found this conformity devastating.
Lobenfield: The physical space taken up in the story is vast. How did creating this kind of world contrast with your playwriting?
Dey: When I went to the National Theatre School, I overheard one of my professors say: Well, she really is a prose writer, as if my ailment had been misdiagnosed all along. I would write these extensive stage directions to construct a place. Pages’ long. I loved that part of playwriting—the world-building. Two of my plays were set in the remote north. Heartbreaker feels like an accumulation of that enduring obsession with faraway, merciless dreamscapes.
My first full length play was called Beaver, and the teenage heroine gets lost in the town graveyard on a January night—the night her mother is to be buried, but cannot because the ground is frozen. The set designer interpreted my stage directions in such a genius way. He built the set out of mattresses—mattresses piled high and angled. The way the actress had to sink and then exhaustively lift her legs—in her cowboy boots—perfectly mimicked traversing the trenches and drifts of a snowfield.
I guess to answer your question more closely: for me, theatre can be just as vast as any world built in a book. Its limitless. The expansion occurs in the audience’s brain.
Lobenfield: Many writers play in different genres. What’s your process for toggling between form?
Dey: Forms are like different rooms and it’s a relief for me to exit one and enter another. Whatever form I am working in, the only consistency is that I am voice-driven. I talk to myself as I write. I know, sonically, when something works and when something feels manufactured.
In the end, whatever the form, it comes down to the thousands of hours in the hard chair, the monkish devotion that allows me to feel I can stand beside the thing, the intelligent alien thing I have made. With Heartbreaker, I knew that I wanted it to be fast. A fast book in three voices. I wrote it in sprints—like with a wolf at my back (time)—and I trusted that sense of urgency was entering the sentences. I labored over it properly, and I knew when to leave it alone. I was careful not to work the life out of it—to Photoshop it. The book let me contend with, answer and eventually repair hard and dark questions inside myself.
Now, I want to do the opposite of what I just did! So again, for me, it is less toggling, and more assuming a new identity.
Lobenfield: You also are clothing designer. How does that influence and how is it influenced by your writing?
Dey: I think fashion is autobiography. When I wake up, I ask myself whether I am a girl or a boy that day. I’m typically both. I dress for the book that I am writing. Writing Heartbreaker, I was Pat Benatar mixed with a Laura Ashley catalogue from the 1980s mixed with a teen skateboarder, Mr. Leather and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Also: morning after Prom. Plus, infrequently, but in rotation, and unimaginable now: camo.
Dressing is a creative act for me so I take it very seriously with my characters. It gives the reader crucial information about a character’s tender interiors. Lana pulls her socks over her knees because it’s the closest she can get to lingerie. Pallas re-configures a coyote throw into a bomber. The night her mother vanishes, Pony wears her mother’s hoop earrings and glues her mother’s rhinestones around her eyes as if she is preserving her mother’s vital organs. I was inspired by the look of certain films: The Virgin Suicides, Mustang, Fish Tank, Pulp Fiction, and the music videos for the power ballads of the 1980s––like Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” The gloss and high drama. Costuming to the max. but without irony. Irony is the enemy.
The design process is similar to the writing process. You go into a mental cave with your obsessions, and you build, kill, rebuild, draft and edit them until you know they are ready to face outward. My design work is so visual and tactile; it gives me a respite from the constant ticker tape of my mind. Like writing, it lets me be both bound to and utterly apart from the world.