'heartbreaker' explores adolescence and desire in a sinister 80s cult
Underneath the crimped hair and Billy Joel posters, the isolated community at the center of Claudia Dey's new novel has a dark secret.
Photography Norman Wong
“It’s a bit like watching my soul cross an eight lane highway,” explains Toronto-based author Claudia Dey when asked about the release of her new novel. Heartbreaker — the disturbed, seductive, and thrilling story about a mother and daughter’s relationship in a secluded, cult-like community — has been a novel forming in her soul since she gave birth to her first son a decade ago. “A book is a commotion,” she says. “The only way that I could settle it was to write it, so I needed to go through that whole sequence of feeling and thinking around motherhood and death.”
Heartbreaker is set in a cold, Northern settlement called the territory. Led by the ideas of a long-dead cult leader, 391 people live in total seclusion from the outside world — they inhabit identical concrete bungalows, follow strange, strict gender roles, and blast Van Halen and Whitesnake in their trucks because they think it’s still 1985. The story begins with the abrupt escape of Billie Jean Fontaine, who is the mother of rebellious 15-year-old Pony, the wife of “The Heavy,” and the owner of a fierce, intelligent dog named Gena. In an attempt to understand Billie’s secret motives, her absence is investigated by the compelling, corporeal voices of Pony, Gena (yep, the dog can talk), and Pony’s teenage crush, Supernatural.
With the life Dey has led, Heartbreaker’s dark brilliance shouldn’t come as a surprise. A studied playwright, she began her career as a resident at the Factory Theat writing award-winning plays that would go one to be produced internationally. To support herself throughout school, she spent eight summers working as a tree planter and cook in remote lumber camps across Northern Canada. She’s also a mother of two and designs clothes for Horses Atelier, a studio she co-founded in Toronto.
With the release of her novel, Dey and i-D discuss the animalistic desires underneath our manners, the process of storytelling, and the unexpected rawness of motherhood.
Your writing is so sensual, well-paced, and cinematically lit. The three distinct parts also read like a play. As a writer versed in various mediums, what was your process in creating this story?
It began with the image of a woman in a white three-piece suit tumbling from the open door of a slowly moving Mercedes Sedan. Now that I have some distance from it, I can say that the book is really built out of voices. I’m a sonic thinker, I’m a sonic writer. So, once I have a voice, the book starts to lock into place.
I tend to think long and write fast. I wrote the book in these compressed time frames. I would go to an empty apartment or cabin up north and I would work for six days, eight days, 12 days. It always felt like a chase scene when I was writing it because I was outside of my life and I had this moment with it. I really wanted that velocity to enter the book at a sentence level. I wanted it to be a fast book. I wanted the reader to have that same sense of urgency that I felt when I was writing it.
And then, of course, the editing comes through. Attending to every detail, being as rigorous as you can be without photoshopping it. I really believe you can photoshop the lights out of a novel. I love this idea of “a healthy heartbeat is irregular.” I know that, for me, any art I want to make, see, read, or feel has to have that irregular quality because it tells me that it’s alive.
Heartbreaker is first and foremost a novel about devotion — a daughter’s devotion to her mother, an animal’s devotion to her owner, a people’s devotion to their leader. Where did Billie Jean, the central figure in the book and ultimate object of allegiance, come from in you?
I really wanted to look into the senselessness of love. You can’t throw reason at love. I mean, [Heartbreaker’s] epitaph — “In love there’s no because” — leads us there. I wanted to see in Billie a woman who’s the wolf verses the wolf pack, someone who broke the rules, and recklessly led her own life, which would include cheating, murdering, lying, birthing, vanishing, and briefly conforming. I was also in love with the idea of writing a book around an absent character.
Pony is such a badass — I definitely wish I was as fearless and self-aware at 15. But as independent as she is, she doesn’t rebel against her mother, and is instead driven by the need for her attention. What does she show us about the complex mother-daughter relationship?
I think you see it in movies like Lady Bird, Donnie Darko, or any of the John Hughes movies from the 80s. Or like [the Turkish film] Mustang. I think that unsettled part of the relationship is the unsettled part of Pony. What we don't realize is that her mother is going through a transition that is kind of as extreme as adolescence.
I remember being so struck by this quote by this Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. She takes portraits of teenagers and she considers them abstract because they’re growing at such a rapid rate. For me, I’m so drawn to that kind of flex and changeability of the self in literature. I really wanted to turn that up as loudly as I could in both Pony and Billie. I think in adolescence, you’re violently separating yourself from who you were as a child. You’re marking yourself and every night is the night that could change your life. The feeling of adolescence is the feeling of excitement.
In the territory, there are so many mysterious, often gender-based societal rules that everyone follows blindly. Why is it important for your characters to contend with this oppressive system, this invisible villain?
I guess that’s my own obsession. I feel like a character becomes real for me as a reader and a writer when I see them do something that we might consider bad. Pony gives blow jobs and takes pills and lies and comes home at dawn, [Supernatural] is lying and cheating — everyone is doing something that we would consider morally bad. To me, it makes them real and it makes them stronger. Billie’s vanishing actually leads them to the reckoning and the admission of what this place is.
I’m also so interested in this question of what remains when you forfeit your moral authority. Before I was working on this book, I read so many biographies written by women who had survived the [infamous polygamist community Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints]. And I was like, who are these mothers who are putting their 13-year-old daughters in a van in a wedding dress and driving them across the border to marry a 75-year-old man? And that’s all still happening. That’s why, for me, I don't think of the territory as a dystopia. It just feels like it's outside of the news cycle, but it’s only 2,000 miles away.
As a story told strictly through the eyes of teenagers (and, of course, a dog), sex, sexuality and uninhibited desire are cardinal forces behind their actions. How does this help or hurt them?
I wanted the place and the relationships to feel as alive as possible. Hostile, sultry. How different are human urges from animal urges? Not different at all, actually. That's what we come to understand as we look at these people navigating their lives and navigating their desires. I really wanted to look at how close we are to being animals. I think [their sexuality] does help them, and it certainly does hurt them, too. Sex is the height of senseless love, the thing that’s going to let all the multitudes come out. I wanted the book to feel really bodily.
Though it deals with intense pain and loss, the book is also so alive and hilarious in its details. It’s an undeniably fun read. What inspired you to pair the cold, isolation of a cult-like settlement with colorful 80s references and goofy teenage dialogue?
I guess that’s a survival mechanism. I knew that I was doing something really morbid and that I was doing something deeply incredibly sad. In a way, through Billie and Debra Marie I was holding up two different models of how to grieve. Debra Marie was obviously the correct way. She was so noble and internal and unchanged. Whereas Billie closes the door and vanishes. Essentially drives into a tree, loses her mind, becomes unhinged.
I keep thinking that I wanted to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way. When I got pregnant with my first son, I felt like death entered the pregnancy. It was such an unsettling feeling—the most unsettling feeling. I wondered why no one had warned me that this would happen, not even my own dark-minded mother. Every book on pregnancy has a pastel book cover and from all the conversations, you think you’re going to be bathed in some kind of God light. But really, those books should have scythes on them. There's this whole other black force that enters your state of being. I think that was the feeling that I needed to understand. I needed to go deeply as I could into that feeling.
Heartbreaker is as much a coming-of-age narrative as it is a retrospective healing. What do you hope this story will become now that it’s out in the world?
I've thought about my reader so much as I was writing. I wanted to do what was closest for me, most dangerous for me. But I also wanted it to be as sharp and it’s most gem-like iteration. I do think writing fiction and reading fiction can change you. It can enter your bloodstream and rearrange your brain chemistry and give you examples of how to live and how to be. So, I hope it contains that power for people. I really do.