Lights, Smoke, and Spectres: An Interview with Claudia Dey

A daughter’s bond to her father is a singular one; it is irreplaceable, and she is rendered vulnerable by it.

A daughter’s bond to her father is a singular one; it is irreplaceable, and she is rendered vulnerable by it. In her novel Daughter, Claudia Dey depicts this dynamic to reveal its potent resonances; the protagonist, playwright and actress Mona Dean, recognizes that the relationship she has with her father, the successful novelist Paul Dean, is parasitic—yet, she repeatedly heeds his call, and in the process, compromises her relationships with other women in the Dean family, and with herself. “But he is my father,” Mona rationalizes in the opening paragraphs, and this sentiment follows her as if the utterance were a spell or a curse running through the book. It’s no wonder Mona struggles with her allegiances throughout the novel, and readers across Canada—where Daughter is an instant national bestseller—are drawn to its subject matter and feel themselves reflected in its heroine.

Dey and I write to each other over email—on a morning that slowly burns into the afternoon— and when I ask where she’s writing from, Dey sets the scene, admitting that she is in bed, soft and jet-lagged in Toronto after returning from touring the book on the West Coast. Her emails arrive in my inbox crafted in a considered poetic mode, dripping with magnetism. Dey has assembled a distinct vocabulary for discussing Daughter that extends the novel beyond the book-object and facilitates a book-atmosphere. I could feel the pull of this atmosphere—its fever and seriousness—as each of her notes arrived onto my screen.

Dey emphasizes that it is the confluence of fame and tragedy in American celebrity culture that she has set out to depict with the Dean family. Paul Dean possesses almost formulaic characteristics for a seductive patriarch—charm, talent, and influence. And though Mona starts as an accomplice to her father, Dey pushes her to the brink of devotion. The novel unfolds, and Mona begins to claim life as her own.

Though not autobiographical, the novel bears some similarities to Dey’s own life, and like the actors and authors that live inside Daughter, Dey’s own celebrity is also on the rise. Even Margaret Atwood is making predictions. So if Daughter is a book about seduction, then it must be said that Dey, too, has captured an audience and brought them along for an experience that stretches beyond the literary.

Maria Isabel Martinez: First, I want to say congratulations on Daughter being an instant national bestseller. I'd love it if you could take us through a notable moment you've had as you've toured the book.

Claudia Dey: There have been so many wild moments. The act of writing is so monkish and devotional—it is easy to forget the outward-facing part of releasing a book—that the object of the book will have its own magnetism. I am thinking in flash cuts: signing a copy of Daughter for Margaret Atwood at my launch, keeping my hand still while we spoke about the time she read my palm and told me I’d get rich—“Now would be the time.” Flying through Cyclone Ophelia to get to New York (as you know, Ophelia is one of the novel’s ghosts). Performing at Wordfest before a projection of a full moon, then waking up the next morning to be in conversation with Alex Auder, daughter of Warhol’s muse, Viva Superstar. In Vancouver, meeting the brilliant Mexican writer, Carmen Boullosa—comparing our childhoods and mythologies—declaring ourselves sisters by the end of the night. Airports, cars, hotel keys, books, books, books. One last detail: with Daughter, signing has been closer to being in a confessional—very Scorpionic, secretive, micro-conversations with strangers who do not feel like strangers at all.

Maria Isabel Martinez: You're right about a book having its own magnetism—the act of reading itself is private and intimate, and we form (sometimes secret) attachments to the character's emotions and tensions in the story. Who better to confess these to than the author herself? I love that you've listed these flash cuts. Very cinematic. I'm reminded of the line in the book: "The speeding train made my reflection a filmstrip."

On the topic of palm readings, ghosts, and a full moon: to me, Daughter has a mystic quality to it—in the sense of reaching beyond the intellect towards some other sense. The book’s narrative voice and form is sharp and tight, but sentences are repetitive like echoes, and we often leave Mona’s first person point of view abruptly, like leaving her body. The moon is nearly a tertiary character. How important is the unseen or unknown to how you think of this book?

The unseen and unknown—on a technical level, this is critical to me. I was after reduction as much as I was after beauty and closeness for this novel, what could be omitted.

Claudia Dey: What a beautifully phrased question. I keep thinking about this idea: making art is making selfhood, and that this is not only true for the artist but for the one who is engaging with the art—the reader, the viewer, the listener is constructing personhood inside that “private and intimate” act—the “attachment” as you put it (and I love the bodily implication here).

The unseen and unknown—on a technical level, this is critical to me. I was after reduction as much as I was after beauty and closeness for this novel, what could be omitted. I was steered by Celine Sciamma’s concept and approach of “only desired scenes.” What gets to stay. Writing during the pandemic—being outside of my socially legible, dutiful self, gave me a strange permission—my paragraphs are pages long; I don’t use quotation marks. In a spectral way, I transit between points of view. I wanted velocity and trusted that if the structure had its own confident intelligence, the reader would follow.

I consulted the Tarot via my genius artist friend, Damian Rogers, throughout the writing process. Whenever I was at a hinge moment, we spoke and she read for me, giving me insight and direction I hardly know how to qualify—“unseen,” “unknown” as you put it, yet critical to the life and sentience of this book—that “other sense” activated. I don’t want to overly romanticize the process, but when I wrote, it did feel like channelling—when it is working, we are in conversation with something unearthly.

MIM: This notion of feeling like you had a "strange permission" radiates throughout the book; it has a unique signature, which is sometimes Mona, but at other points is simply the structuring feeling of the book.

I'm glad we're here at this process of "channelling," as you say. You've mentioned this about your process before, and what happens as a writer works is ultimately quite enigmatic. Toni Morrison once said [in The Paris Review] that she could only call the space one enters "nonsecular"—where a writer makes "the contact." How do you balance that experience of channelling or transmitting with the more deliberate process of revision? What were you aiming for as you revised this work?

CD: Thank you. For Daughter, I preserved the first draft—I think a first draft holds a special power, a mystery—it is pre-analysis, pre-scrutiny—it is the most concentrated formula of the novel. It holds a precision and aliveness that cannot be engineered or reproduced. It is “of” your truest state. The first draft gave me the voice of the book—its “unique signature” as you put it.

Then, I worked with brilliant editors, and they asked provocative questions and, with their prompts, I pushed the book into territory that was “desired.” I built around and beneath that first draft—more heat, more life, more matter. I work obsessively—for me, that does not mean making a thousand kinetic changes and revisions; it means spending time with the work, reading it aloud, testing it, ensuring the sonic qualities are right and valid, that the line is the right line, that the line gets to stay, that the line could only be in this book, no other book, that the book is intact, the book is the highest expression of itself.

MIM: I'm curious about "more heat" and "more matter"—what does that look like here?

CD: It’s Mona. Mona is the matter and heat of the book. As he does in her life, her famous and charismatic father, the writer, Paul Dean, threatened to overshadow Mona in the earliest iteration of the novel. I write for closeness, closeness to the reader—a play on Toni Morrison’s concept of “contact”—for Daughter, that closeness or contact is achieved through Mona. I drafted for a more granular, prismatic, revolutionary Mona (which was then distilled into a perfume by Universal Flowering).

MIM: I've smelled the perfume and it is smoky, smoldering, quite bold. There is a point in the novel, when Mona is sitting with Paul in his favourite restaurant where they meet often, and though she appears to be coming undone, it is really a turning point for her. When he finally asks her what she's up to—after taking up space with his own concerns—she replies "Nothing," which is both true and defiant. In that moment she is emptied of something.

It makes me think about how daughterhood and motherhood are linked in this book, not only in the way Natasha and Cherry act on their daughters, but as existential categories the women negotiate. At one point Mona looks to her sister Juliet, who has a son, and thinks, “I wanted that. I wanted to be a mother.” The ending makes me think this too. Does Mona long for motherhood, does she see it as a way of unlatching herself from the confines of being a daughter?

CD: Again, beautifully phrased. I don’t know that Mona consciously sees motherhood as the way of surpassing and exiting daughterhood until she experiences the state, and it has that transformative effect on her—what my friend, Carmen, the writer and artist I mentioned earlier, called an act of liberation.

Your description of the perfume is just right. Like Mona’s “Nothing,” Courtney, the parfumière, said, after reading the novel and before drafting the formula, “It won’t be pretty.”

MIM: Mona's journey is not very pretty: she loses and endures quite a bit. To use your heat metaphor, it's a molten process. On the surface, it seems contrary to what one would imagine for the daughter of a famous novelist. The story is situated within a sort of Hollywood, middle-to-upper class American context—figures like Marilyn Monroe, Bill Clinton, Margaux Hemingway and Rihanna are referenced or appear at various points in the novel, in addition to Paul Dean’s own celebrity. We're never told explicitly that the Dean family is American, but does this kind of American culture—one with fame and influence—hold an allure or a gravity that you find compelling to explore?

CD: That is the draw exactly—the moodboard in my study is a panorama of your comment: River Phoenix with his mother, both in black tie; Margaret Qualley studying herself in a dressing room mirror; Keanu, skull in hand, playing Hamlet; Hemingway, shirtless, wielding his shotgun. I did not want to be explicit about the Deans being American. I avoided any sort of description in the novel—description felt beside the point (other than the moon, as you noted—laughing). I wanted the novel to be one of interiors and relationships—direct and deliberate.

In my reading before writing Daughter, around writing Daughter, I did think a lot about the confluence of fame and tragedy—Joan Didion—iconic families like the Kennedys—crashes and assassinations—what it is to be unprotected on a scale that appears Godly and cursed. In addition to Hamlet, I mention Medea and King Lear; I wanted to refract this major and minor gore throughout the book—Eros, lurking death, the losing of self to the scrutiny of strangers. The transiting POVs make Mona the celebrity in the novel—doomed or not—she is alone inside the glare of the flashbulb, inside the glare of the others' view of her.

MIM: I want to ask you about your reference to Celine Sciamma and "desired scenes”—this idea of foregoing description. The structure of the novel, particularly the vignettes and recurrent settings, mimics the experience of watching a play. You, like Mona, are also a playwright, and as we've discussed, visual culture is crucial to the work. Was there ever a negotiation between the two genres? How did you know a novel was the ideal form for this story to take shape?

There is a privacy to the novel form. It has an antechamber quality, that confessional or deathbed quality—critical and intimate and hermetic, a bodily experience—the exchange with the reader is so sensuous and altering, it’s like having an affair on your life.

CD: It was Celine Sciamma’s BAFTA lecture about making Portrait of a Woman on Fire that gave me the directive to work from “desire”—to consider the scene a “unit of desire.” It is about being sharp and uncompromising. It is about the construction and being radical with yourself. Resisting easy pleasures, resisting the temptation of belonging. I could have painted these phrases of Sciamma’s on my walls. They were so accurately the psychic company I needed as I worked on this project.

Regarding theatre, I did want the book to have that pressurized atmosphere of a play—the perceived constraints of the form—a limited number of characters inside a limited number of settings, all in relationship to one another, each speaking in the voice specific to their experience, to their corporeality—but I needed and wanted the novel’s ability to get directly into the reader’s bloodstream, to be the hot voice in your ear. There is a privacy to the novel form. It has an antechamber quality, that confessional or deathbed quality—critical and intimate and hermetic, a bodily experience—the exchange with the reader is so sensuous and altering, it’s like having an affair on your life.

MIM: "Deathbed quality" is such a Scorpionic way to put it. As we speak today, the Sun officially enters the sign of Scorpio—your zodiac sign. What do you most want for this new season?

CD: Peace.

About the authors

Maria Isabel Martinez is a writer based between Toronto and Montreal. She is the inaugural Susan Jeanne Briscoe Fellow in creative writing at Concordia University. She is working on her first novel.

Claudia Dey is a bestselling novelist, playwright and essayist. Dey’s third novel, DAUGHTER, out now (FSG and Doubleday), is an Instant National Bestseller, named a New York Times Fall Fiction pick, an Elle Magazine Book of the Year, a Lit Hub Unmissable Fall Book, and a Globe and Mail Autumn Best read. Claudia and the novel have been featured in Interview Magazine, NYLON, BOMB, Document Journal, Hazlitt, The Walrus, and more. The New York Times calls DAUGHTER, “A darkly glittering tale … beautiful and piercing.” Heartbreaker, Dey’s second novel, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book and Northern Lit Awards, named a best book of the year by multiple publications, and is being adapted for television. Her debut, Stunt, was a finalist for the Amazon First Novel Award. Her plays have been produced internationally, and nominated for the Governor General’s, Dora and Trillium Book Awards. Dey has worked as a horror film actress, a guest artist at the National Theatre School, and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. Her fiction, interviews, and essays have appeared in The Paris Review (“Mothers As Makers of Death”), McSweeney’s, Lit Hub, Hazlitt, The Believer, and elsewhere.