Winning contests, writing sex scenes & small towns: A gchat interview with Claire Tacon

Just a few short weeks ago Claire Tacon had the pleasure of doing what so many writers dream, and stay up nights singing into their hairbrushes, about: she held her first novel in her hands. In the Field (Biblioasis, September 2011) centers on Ellie Lucan, a soil scientist who’s at a strained place in her marriage, has recently lost her teaching job and isn’t quite sure what comes next.  With her children out of school for the summer and her career up in the air Ellie heads to Nova Scotia to stay with her mother, a woman she’s struggled to achieve intimacy with.  Her hometown is a place she has complicated feelings about. Once there her sons, Steven and Luke, don’t quite settle into small town living, her husband, Richard, feels left behind and her mother, Lynne, is suffering from dementia. She also runs into Bernie, her former best friend with whom she had a falling out and his new, younger, girlfriend, Linda and you can probably imagine that the soil scientist ends up in some messy situations.

Though In the Field was formed while Tacon completed her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, it came to be printed and bound when she won the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award. The book was launched last night at the Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto.

Since she lives in far away Guelph, Ontario I got on the old gchat to interview her and talk about winning contests, writing sex scenes, small towns and (fictional) relationships.

The lovely author, Claire Tacon.

me: Tell me about the Metcalf-Rooke Award?

Claire: The Metcalf-Rooke is a contest put on by Biblioasis–anyone with a manuscript can submit. The winner is selected by John Metcalf and Leon Rooke and receives a publishing contract and a cash prize sponsored by Steven Temple Books. Winners include Patricia Young and Kathleen Winter, so it’s pretty exciting to be following their footsteps that way.

me: You’ve also been shortlisted for other awards. Do you think these kinds of competitions are helpful to writers, whether veterans or newbies?

Claire: While being shortlisted can be really encouraging and add to a writer’s CV, at a certain point it can get frustrating if it doesn’t result in publication. Contest can be really helpful to emerging writers as they are usually open to anyone and are judged blind, but consistently not winning can also be discouraging. In an ideal world, there would be more points of entry for emerging writers (although with web publishing gaining more cred, this is opening up) so there would be less dependence on contests. On the other hand, contests also help to pad the subscription rates of literary journals that I care about and it can expose entrants to new and interesting work.

me: as someone who grew up in a small town i’m constantly fascinated by other ones, and somewhat horrified too. often small towns become these mythical oases from urban life, but that’s not the case here. was it difficult to create a place that didn’t have the beautiful dream of small town living, or conversely the redneck attitude, as the driving force?

Claire: good question. A lot of the world is taken from my perception of Wolfville, which might be more representative of a small university town, rather than just a small town. Growing up on a farm outside of a really small town I never saw that allure of small-town living.

Since I went to school in the city, only a few of my friends had much reference of life outside of Toronto. They’d come up for a sleepover and call it Tweedleville. It wasn’t until I got older, probably in my early twenties that I became aware of people fetishising rural and small town culture.

me: when you’re living in it you don’t see that side, because you’re experience has instilled in you certain feelings. good and bad.

Claire: Yes, exactly. I was living in Toronto then and people would start talking about these weekend outings to St. Jacobs or Creemore. The word quaint was always used.

me: and to a small town dweller the city becomes either an exciting escape, or a terrifying concrete jungle.

Claire: Exactly. to me (and I’m guessing to you) it was a huge draw–culture! sex! excitement!  It’s still surprising when I encounter friends or family that are afraid of the city. there’s this dream of small-town communities being so tight knit, but in urban communities it’s sometimes easier to meet people because you’re always confronted with people.

Going back to your original question, I found the bigger challenge was wanting to fairly represent the “townie” or more rural experience. and I felt I didn’t have to be as gentle with the academics/urbanites.

me: you manage to balance the different attitudes though. ellie’s, husband is not charmed by her small town, her high school best friend is very at home in the place he’s always lived and not into urban life and she finds herself grappling with her feelings for both areas, both parts of who she is.

Claire: Yes, I guess a lot of people come down on one side of the fence with urban/rural–it’s hard to convince people that both are great ways to live. I feel like I’ve always been lucky to have a bit of both.

me: I think there’s often a desire as writers or artists to protect rural people as though they are fragile, when in fact they’re  tough.

Claire: Yeah, I guess I wanted that toughness to come through, versus more expected ideas.

me: i think you were successful. it’s a challenge for sure.

now ok. next up. weird transition. there are also a lot of racy bits in your book.

Claire: ha!

me: i know. weird. the transition, not the racy bits.

Claire: I find people having sex to be really interesting.

me: Me too!

Claire: So it’s a good place for character reveal to me. Also, we see so much sex in our culture. in movies, ads, books, etc. that is set up to create this idea of what sex is that is so far from the reality. So I like to play with what sex between characters is really like, versus the happily-ever-after we usually get.

me: well, you don’t glamorize it.

another awkward transition. what brought in the multi-racial aspect?

Claire: two things–one was a conversation I had about how few books there are with multi-racial families where that doesn’t become the central “issue”. And two, because part of my family is multi-racial.

me: you’re right. often multi-racial families become THE multi-racial family and all their issues are focused around that and they don’t have other aspects to their lives or characters.

Claire: So Ellie is one way I can work out my feelings that way. I said this in a different interview, but I think only seeing interracial relationships as issues is problematic. Race does complicate the family dynamic in the book, but it’s not the source of the conflict.

me: it is. okay, to change gears again. you play with ideas of love, motherhood and career and your protagonist has choices to make and gets in conflicts over her feelings on family and career. do you find that women in novels are often put in predicaments where they must make these choices, whereas male characters don’t have to struggle with the juggle?

Claire: Yes, women in novels are put in these predicaments pretty regularly and male characters are, for the most part, off scot-free. I’ve been reading a lot of Richler lately and his protagonists love their families but certainly aren’t agonizing over kids vs careers.

me: more time for their careers and man-feelings.

Claire: I tried to make sure that Ellie was committed to a career no matter what, and committed to her kids no matter what. I think her big choice is really whether to focus on caring for her children or her mother. But her husband isn’t always understanding about the fact that she has as much ambition for her career as he does. I don’t think Richard’s a boor, he’s just blinded by practicality. If her career took off, he wouldn’t stop her, but he doesn’t think relocating the family to facilitate that is feasible.

me: It certainly isn’t an I don’t know how she does it story.

Claire: I got dragged to that movie and left wanting to bleach my eyes. The fact is, having kids usually takes a woman out of the workforce for a year per kid, at minimum. In many industries, it can be hard to make up that ground, especially with a young kid. Even with the most supportive partner. In my group of friends, a lot of women who are very career-driven have decided to stay home with the kids for extended stretches of time because they’ve decided it’s the best plan for their family; I only know one man who’s made the same choice. Unfortunately, the juggle is still a reality for a lot of women.

me: another thing that interested me was the dynamic between different female characters in the book. female relationships are complicated and here you’ve got mother-daughter, old friend and current girlfriend, loaded stuff. how did you decide to navigate these relationships and explore these dynamics? because sometimes women can be so awful to each other and other times there’s a real sorority feeling.

Claire: Yeah, that’s a tough one. With the mom, I wanted to see what it’s like when two people love each other but just have no connection, or at least that connection has just eroded. Beyond women vs. women, it’s expected that every woman is close with her mother, but real closeness is pretty rare.

me: and it can be difficult. life isn’t gilmore girls

Claire: So I wanted Ellie and Linda to be competing not just with Bernie’s affection but with Lynne’s. I also wanted Ellie to grow to see the softer side of Sears by the end.

me: yeah, you really played with how ellie sees her mother through the eyes of another woman.

Claire: I mean, once she’s on side, Linda’s a pretty fun person to hang out with.

me: i enjoyed linda a lot.

Claire: Yeah, I often liked her more than Ellie.

me: she made me want to have a cigarette real bad.

Claire: ooh, sorry. don’t watch mad men:)

me: too late on the mad men front. it’s the best! i even had a dream about smoking after i finished the book! Good, vivid smoking. And people using their cigarettes to gesture or point, trace images.

The lovely cover of Tacon’s novel. The trees lure you into a false sense of there being no racy bits. Don’t be fooled.

Claire: Probably a lot of it comes from the fact that I have a hard time with dialogue tags. So I was like, oh, poke that cigarette around more. are you a Richard Price fan?

me: i’ve only read one of his books, Lush Life.

Claire: he always makes the dialogue and tags work. i shake the books with envy.

me: and of course, he wrote many episodes of the wire, so he has lots of dialogue practice. 

thanks for talking/typing with me.

Claire: my pleasure. also–thanks for reading the damn thing and being interested.

me: you’re so welcome. you know it’s got me written all over it. small town girl, lonely world, sex, scandals.

Claire: I thought you might like the beer specials too.