Books·How I Wrote It

The uneven heartbeat of Claudia Dey's haunting new novel Heartbreaker

Claudia Dey describes how she wrote the novel Heartbreaker, which is told from the perspective of a missing woman's daughter, dog and local boy.
Claudia Dey's latest novel is Heartbreaker. (Norman Wong, HarperCollins Canada)

Claudia Dey's new novel Heartbreaker begins as the ethereal Billie Jean vanishes from "the territory" and becomes the first person to ever leave the commune. Her story unfolds through the perspectives of Billie's teenage daughter Pony, loyal dog Gena Rowlands and Pony's crush, a boy nicknamed Supernatural. All they've ever known is "the territory" — a town stunted in 1985 with strict rules and limited contact with the outside world. But unlike the rest of its 391 residents, Billie Jean came from elsewhere and her mysterious past unfurls as Pony, Gena Rowlands and Supernatural put the pieces of her disappearance together. 

Below, Dey talks about the process of writing Heartbreaker.

Three points of origin

​"It started with an image of a woman in a white, three-piece suit falling from the open door of a slowly moving Mercedes sedan. I could see it the way that I can see a film. She was lying, kind of sprawled, on this highway with her hair loose and her long limbs. When I looked up from her figure, there was nothing. It was the middle of nowhere. Once I had that image, this storm of Pony's voice came to me describing the territory. I also had this allegiance to a concept that I really wanted to explore, which is the three-part structure of girl, dog, boy. When I had my son, he was asleep on my chest at about four months old and I was reading Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was describing this vast peasant scene and then suddenly we were inside a dog's point of view. It was such an unsettling and surprising moment and it really struck me, so I think that kind of conceptual idea originated then.

"The last real point of beginning, which I can only really articulate now that I have some distance from the book, is this commotion inside of me about motherhood and death. When I got pregnant with my first son, death entered the pregnancy too. I wrote about it for The Paris Review as this novel-sized shock. I think that's the underpinning for the book... A book starts with something inside you that you can't settle. Some kind of a debate or dangerous uneasiness that preoccupies you. I tried to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way."

Whirlwind first draft

"When the book started to take shape, it did so very quickly, like a tornado. It came to me both sonically and visually, the way that a film reel plays. I could see my book and I could hear the voices. I wrote that first draft in a 10-day mania when I was alone at my house. My husband had taken our two young children to a cabin on the East Coast. I had a supernatural absorption for what I was doing. Nothing could pull me from it. And then that draft was deepened and sharpened over the course of the next two and a half years. I had the crucial participation of my editors, who have rare brains and rare talent and elevate it so much because they can see things that you can't. They save you from yourself.

"Over those two and a half years that I was actively writing and drafting, I would leave my life. Friends would hand over their keys and I lived in an apartment in the club district, an apartment in Chinatown, a cabin up north, a historic house in Stratford. Wherever there was an empty home with a door that I could lock behind me is where I went. I would go for six days, eight days, 12 days — whatever time I could rob from my life. I wouldn't go on the internet and I wouldn't have my phone, so I was outside of that noise as well."

Women behaving badly

"The book is definitely about being an insider and being an outsider. I've definitely experienced both of those states in my life in terms of my relationships to others and how I'm perceived. I will always prefer to be the lone wolf over being a wolf in a wolf pack. I think that real fire for me throughout my life informed writing Billie, who in the end takes every risk to lead a truthful life and is, we could say, a woman who behaves badly, which I don't think we see enough of in books. For me, when someone behaves badly they become real. She's also electric and mercurial and charismatic and someone you want to be near, but she cheats and kills and abandons and lies too. We get to see men behaving badly all the time and it's just supposed to be the most charming thing, whereas women have to be noble and heroic and suffer in silence. I just really wanted to blow the whistle on that."

Uneven heartbeat

"Even in those final hours, you can still sharpen and deepen by cutting one word or adding one tiny thing. At the same time, what you have to be really careful of is not 'photoshopping' — because you can kick the life out of a book by perfecting it too much. Also, you change over time, so you actually want to know when to step away. I'm quite obsessed with this idea I put in the book around what kind of art I want to make and what kind of art I want to be around, which is that a healthy human heartbeat has an irregular beat and an unhealthy human heartbeat has a regular beat. I want to make the kind of art that has a healthy beat, meaning that it's irregular and uneven because then you can feel the humanity in it. It carries a vitality. I think that's what I felt most sharply with this book, protecting it's unevenness."

Claudia Dey's comments have been edited and condensed.

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