Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In the Field: An Interview with Claire Tacon

In anticipation of the official launch of Claire Tacon's Metcalf-Rooke Award winning In the Field this Sunday at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, we thought we'd run this interview with Claire. If you're at Eden Mills please drop by the booth (we'll all be there) where you'll be able to pick up freshly printed copies (off of the truck today!) of Claire's novel (& six other fall '11 releases besides).

Here's the interview:

1. In the Field touches on a lot of what you might call ‘timely’ issues. Our population

is aging and one of your themes is geriatric care; interculturalism has been a

vital part of social policy over the past ten years, and your novel addresses mixed

marriage straight-on. You also explore the values differences that some say divide

urban from rural communities across North America. Did you have a sense for the

social relevance of your book as you were writing it? What drew you to these issues

in particular?

With the novel, I really wanted to ask what divides us and what connects us. I wasn’t so much consciously striving for social relevance as I was trying to explore which divisions are possible for us to bridge.

The urban/rural split is central to that question. Having grown up on a farm but gone to school in the city, it was a disconnect that I was aware of early on. My family didn’t work the land, but we regularly raised animals for our own consumption. Shoveling out the chicken coop or helping my brother skin rabbits were normal parts of my life, but they weren’t something I could bring up with my urban friends. Wolfville felt like a natural setting to highlight that divide because it’s a university town surrounded by a large agricultural industry. There’s a real gulf between town and gown.

Race or ethnicity isn’t set up in the novel as quite so clear a divide. Before writing the novel, I had a conversation with a friend about how interracial or interethnic families are rarely presented without that becoming the central issue of the book. There are a lot of great books in this genre, such as Gish Jen’s The Love Wife, but I think it’s problematic if we only see diverse families presented as an “issue.” While race complicates the Bascom family’s experience, it’s not the focus of the book or the main source of their discord.

That being said, I did want to explore how Ellie, a white woman married to a black man, has a different reaction to the same situation than her husband or sons. She assumes that because they are family, they will perceive and be perceived the same way, but the reality often differs.

Finally, in terms of aging and geriatric care, a number of my friends are starting to enter the so-called “sandwich generation.” By the end of the novel, Ellie is forced to ask herself whether it’s better to be a good mother or a good daughter. It’s a hard decision—we owe allegiances to both sides, but don’t always have the resources to fulfill both obligations.

2. In a recent interview you said that your first glimpse of a character is like ”hitting

it off with a friend of a friend at a cocktail party. On the one hand, it feels as if you’ve

known them all your life, but then you hit a point where you really need to sit them

down and ask them some questions.”

What were the questions you had to ask of your protagonist, Ellie Lucan?

One of my professors at UBC, Keith Maillard, spends a lot of time writing biographies for each character before starting any project. That was something I found really useful going into the second draft; I took about a month and wrote out Ellie and Richard’s lives from grade school to the present. Most of it got trashed, but it helped clarify their motivation and past experience going into the re-write. Since they’re fighting for most of the novel, asking each of them how they met and why they fell for each other was one of the central questions in that exercise.

3. Later in the same interview you said that by the time you’ve finished your first

draft, “the characters seem like family—I don’t always like them, but I always love

them.” It’s true that many characters in In the Field go on to make less-than-likeable

decisions. Which of your characters do you struggle to “like” the most?

Mordecai Richler is one of my favourite authors, partly because he manages to create deeply flawed characters that you still care about. I doubt many people would say they want Duddy Kravitz or Barney Panofsky as friends, but the books succeed because readers still understand them and care about them.

My protagonist Ellie and her husband Richard are certainly not at their best in the novel. At any other time in their life, they’d probably be as likable as anyone else, but we see them, particularly Ellie, at a time of crisis. I think that’s pretty human, to be self-centred or wrong-headed or even a bit of an asshole during a difficult time. The tension lies in how far you can go and still expect your loved ones to stand by you. While writing the book, I asked myself the same question—how far can I push these characters while keeping the audience on board?

4. First novels are always a rite of passage, and you’ve done significant rewrites of

In the Field since it was first conceived. Do you have plans for a second? What, if

anything, will you do differently?

Right now I’m working on a second novel. Like In the Field, it tackles family dynamics, but this time with parents of a special needs adult. The main difference is that I have a stronger idea of the narrative arc going into this writing process than I did the last one. In the Field started as an image—a woman driving down the road in the rain, her wipers not really working. As I wrote, I realized I knew that road and the plot spun off from there—where was she going? who was she meeting?, etc. It was a bit like being dropped off in an unknown location, mapping the terrain and then plotting the best route through. This time I’m at least packing a map and have a general idea of how to get from A to B.

5. What (other) work of fiction has meant the most to you as you were writing In the


I started writing the novel while I was doing my MFA at the University of British Columbia. During that time, I was turned on to so many different books and authors that it’s hard to pick just one. Books I prized most, but which I don’t presume to have emulated, are ones that maintain a sense of humour through the bleak moments. For that reason, Lorrie Moore’s short story People Like That Are the Only People Here… and Martin McDonagh’s play The Beauty Queen of Leenane have stuck with me for years.

6. Who is your ideal reader? Who would you like to reach the most with this story?

Honestly? Anyone who wants to start on page one and finish on page 278 and have an opinion about it.

One of the most moving book reviews I’ve ever heard was by a young woman in inner-city New York discussing Anne Frank’s diary. Her connection to the material went against a lot of current thinking about pairing books with readers who share a similar experience. I think that unpredictability of reader response is part of the beauty of literature.

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