Coach House Books asks Claudia Dey a few things about Stunt
CH: Where does the title come from?
CD: A process of distillation aided mightily by friends and overlords. The book had three titles before it became Stunt – all of which were oddly beside the point. I remember Michael Redhill telling me one was ‘about fifteen percent too weird.’ These early titles were poetic suggestions, reflecting the state of the book as one that was still being made. Halfway through the editorial process, my editor, Alana Wilcox, in her spare, Yoda-esque way, suggested the title be short, i.e., one or two words. I immediately responded with ‘Stunt.’ This is Sheb’s nickname for Eugenia evoking images of both daring and diminutiveness. We discussed the word – its efficient, provocative sound and its thematic presentation throughout the book. It was clear that ‘Stunt’ was the title, and had been waiting to be declared all this time.
CH: What is the significance of the rope on the cover?
CD: Literally, it is both the tightrope and the hanging rope – the twin features of Eugenia’s elusive ancestry. The central question of the book is: which will she choose? Early in Stunt, Eugenia is introduced to the story of a girl on a rope hovering above her flooded village. Eugenia’s bibliophile neighbour, the sensuous Marta, means to inspire Eugenia towards bravery when faced with calamity. Marta’s last gift to her is a rope. It becomes Eugenia’s first training ground for funambulism (tightrope walking). While a rope can be a point of departure, it can also be binding: the ties of family, the encumbrance of secrets, the persistence of sorrow. Centered and knotted on the page, the shape is reminiscent of a fist, a heart. Eugenia’s ancestry is a riddle, one she must unravel and lay straight to understand her father’s devastating act and to accomplish her own final stunt.
CH: Stunt is set in Toronto, from Parkdale to the Island to the Scarborough Bluffs. What made you decide to set it there? Is your version of the city different than the other ones we’ve read?
CD: Eugenia has never travelled, save for the brief and doomed camping trip to Darlington. I wanted to keep her in a world that was physically compressed, but at the same time could be epic in scope. Toronto has that possibility. I had countless adventures plotting the geography of this book. Most notably, Eugenia lives in Parkdale. Directly south of my neighbourhood, Parkdale is one I know very well. The carved-up Victorian mansions, the transience of its inhabitants, its urgencies and exigencies, were the right location for Eugenia’s synaesthetic world. I particularly liked Dunn Avenue because it had that irresistible combination of prostitutes and glassed-in saints. I chose Eugenia’s address because of the sound of the number paired with the street. When I walked by it to confirm my choice, I could not find 101 Dunn Avenue. The space where it should have been was a tangle of trees between two houses. Every writer’s version of the city is different; we see and experience it differently as we would any enduring relationship. Like my own visceral response to In the Skin of a Lion or Fugitive Pieces, my hope is that I reintroduce the reader to his or her surroundings.
CH: You’re known primarily as a playwright. What made you try your hand at fiction? What’s different about writing fiction and drama?
CD: This book began, as my work always does, with an image: a girl on a tightrope walking above Kensington Market. That was five years ago. The image persisted and the story grew. Rather than writing dialogue, I was writing prose. It was immediately clear that this project was a novel rather than a play. Playwriting was an excellent education in that it demanded I be both structural and inventive. I found my voice and my obsessions through this form. In many ways, it was a decade-long apprenticeship. My teachers at the theatre school used to confide excitedly that I should write a novel, that I was really a‘prose writer.’ Even though this was exactly what I wanted to be, at the time, when I was immersed in Sam Shepard and Dylan Thomas, it sounded like an insult. Though I don’t have any formal plan to abandon playwriting, I see now that they were right. My second novel is currently taking shape. I think of writing as the invisible profession; you disappear behind a door for years and re-emerge with a letter to the world. Fiction is even more invisible than theatre. It is never lifted from the page, and you cannot sit with your audience in a blackened hall. But I loved this monkish process, and felt a sense of belonging akin to déjà vu. It was so private, so quiet, and so long in coming.
CH: At the very beginning of the book, our heroine, Eugenia, awakes to find her father gone – he’s left a note saying he’s leaving to save the world. The novel, then, has a strong vein of grief running through it. How did you manage to so poignantly convey this grief and yet keep the story warm and funny and lively?
CD: To me, funny is crucial. It is an invitation. Grief leaves us in the most exhaustive and ridiculous circumstances. As such, it is a natural precursor to dark comedy. One begs for the other. Certainly, my tendency is towards this worldview rather than the Greek tragedy model of stabbing your eyes and murdering your children. For instance, the scene of Eugenia, faint with grief, at a funeral staged by her mother includes her twin neighbours practicing their dance routine. This punctuates her sorrow rather than diminishes it. The world does not take notice of our losses – instead, it becomes heightened, and it asks us to do the same. Chekhov is one of my writing heroes. He called The Seagull a comedy. It ends in a brutal suicide. In his investigation of what it is to be human, I find Chekhov’s approach so moving. He combs our interiors and always apprehends the difficult truths.
CH: You have a muscular imagination, and you use a lot of surprising yet perfect images. It’s very difficult to do this without going too far over the top – how did you walk that tightrope so well?
CD: My editor’s strong cuffs (she is trained as a boxer.) The drafts alternated between rapture and drudgery; I was the pioneer discovering land for the first time, and then I was the meticulous draftsperson mapping this discovery. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is always a source of inspiration. I admire work that is poetic and miniaturized, voluptuous and efficient. I wanted the reader’s experience of this story to be like a solitary trip into the woods: ecstatic, haunting, and without too much to carry. (I am trying not to take this personally, but while editing Stunt Alana also took up Thai kickboxing.)
CH: After their mother, Mink, leaves too, Eugenia and her sister, Immaculata, double in age overnight,from nine to eighteen. Somehow, within the world of the book, this seems entirely plausible. And yet we wouldn’t call your book ‘magic realism.’ Can you talk about how you created this world where the impossible seems not only plausible but maybe even inevitable?
CD: I remember my mother in her macabre half-whisper telling me about a woman hospitalized for a disease they could not name. The doctors knew she was dying – but of what, they were unsure. Finally, they diagnosed it as grief. She had recently been widowed. Mourning leads to transformation; this can manifest itself physically. When I see someone with a streak of white in their otherwise dark hair, I immediately wonder what shocked them, what made them afraid? In Stunt, whenever a parent leaves or dies, the children grow. I believe that in an exaggerated universe, everyday truths can be made more apparent. It can act as a microscope exploding our common details. I used the backdrop of a very real world – i.e., dates tethering us in place – so that these canted views read as part of the grid wherein we all live.
CH: You’ve made the Island seem like an even more magical place than it already is. Have you spent time there? What do you like about it?
CD: I lived on the island at the Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts for month-long residencies during the writing of this book. In that time, I became close to many islanders: a treasure hunter, a bicycle builder, a Tarot card reader, but especially a man named Jimmy Jones. He was born on the island and lived on Hanlan’s Point, recounting its history as though his house and the others around it still stood. His brain was brilliantly archival. His father was the carnival clown. He introduced me to my husband during a blizzard. We later married there (in a rainstorm). I initially went to the island when I was researching Gwendolyn MacEwen for my play The Gwendolyn Poems. If there was a perfect habitat for a poet like Gwendolyn, it was the island. Living there, I would wake up to old horses grazing in front of my window, a parade of children on stilts, the expanse of the water. There was never the noise of traffic nor the examination-room brightness of the city. The island formed the idyllic contrast to the howl of Eugenia’s Parkdale. Where else might a girl teach herself to tightrope walk and have apocalyptic underwater sex above a shipwreck?
CH: You write an advice column called Group Therapy for the Globe. Do you ever give yourself advice? What advice would you give to Eugenia?
CD: The advice to myself tends to arrive surreptitiously through conversation with my intimates. To Eugenia, I would say that grief can never be banished; so, instead, to make it livable – even alchemical.
CH: Have you ever walked a tightrope? Did you fall?
CD: Yes. Yes.