Author of Daughter
I’ve been struggling with how to describe Daughter, the new novel by Claudia Dey, because it is so many things.
It’s insular. Tightly woven. Beguiling. Charged with an energy that would seem almost frenetic if it wasn’t so controlled. The control is deliberate: Dey speaks of writing with a diamond-cut celerity. As a reader you can feel it—the immersion is total. The words do not employ her, she is not at their mercy (instead it is the other way around). She chisels scenes and dialogue until they achieve the exactness of a crystal figurine. It is a pleasure spending time within her pages.
The novel is about a daughter, Mona, and her father Paul, a dissatisfied writer who hasn't published anything since his twenty-year-old debut, Daughter.
Image: Norm Wong
We watch the dance of her characters—Mona and Paul, along with Paul's other daughters, ex-and-current wives, former best friend and lovers—as they morph like cells, never one thing.
In a recent interview with Lizzy Caplan for Books are Magic, Dey spoke of wanting to approach each character in a completely dimensional way; she was uninterested in writing a villain into the novel.
“I wanted to understand why destroyed people continue to destroy.”
Girls on the Page
You’ve mentioned that the image that first sparked Daughter was of a father and daughter sitting at the back of a restaurant, the aura of a bad romance between them. What did it feel like—the initial days of getting acquainted with this image? Can you speak to that very early stage of writing?
I was spooked by that first image, by the sheer provenance of the novel. It felt dangerous and re-ordering like holding a ticking bomb. I put the image in a drawer for a couple of months and gathered my nerve. I knew that I had found what would obsess and consume me—the shadow side of a conventional relationship—as morbid as it is life-giving, erotic, addictive, tangled, parasitic, monstrous, and seductive—but needed more time before confronting it.
You wrote the first draft of Daughter during the pandemic. What influence did isolation have on your writing?
I was outside of my socially constructed self and felt the world might be ending (reluctant laughter) so I wrote from this lonesome, urgent psychology which gave me an immense sense of permission and daring to write however and whatever I wanted. I had this razor-sharp desire. I love this Celine Sciamma quote, “To know your desire is to know your project”—this quote guided me and charged the atmosphere. Because of the isolation, I was liberated from the interference of any external view, any self-doubt—as an artist, I was legible to myself only from my own isolated lens. In terms of influence, this isolation and its attendant mindset gave the book an autonomy in its structure and approach that mirrors its heroine; it also gave the novel a velocity—I didn’t know if I would run out of time, life. A deathbed velocity and absence of caution (more reluctant laughter.)
“When your father exits the frame, you start to think, I must not be enough.”
—Mona Dean, from Daughter
What is the atmosphere like when you’re writing? You've referenced Annie Ernaux's "channeling".
The atmosphere is electric and very focused! Very deliberate. I work in a devotional way, like a monk, for compressed and intense windows of time—usually around two weeks—and then I’ll go home to reset, kiss my sons, my husband and do regular things, the minor labours of motherhood, my job as a designer. I write on a laptop but I always have a notebook beside me because there’s something so right about the directness of that transcription. I wrote the first draft of Daughter in a two-month period. The first line of the novel came with that inciting image (the one that felt like napalm)—I’m such a sonic writer—I knew, in many ways, that first line held the book, it promised the book. I just had to keep up with the voice in my head.
I don’t want to convey this though in an overly romantic way, as if there was no will, as if I was struck by some kind of lightning and the novel just happened. I was only struck because I had been writing in a searching way for a couple of years. I believe a writer must write badly in order to write well—they earn the “channeling.”
From what I’ve seen of your writing studio online, it seems you’re a physical writer: the photos and pages pinned up as inspiration, dried flowers, your son's ponytail. Can you talk about what makes your writing space special, why it works for you, what is your favorite time of day to be writing there? Does your writing require total privacy—does your family know not to knock on the door?
I am a physical writer. I love to hold a book and feel it as sentient. I believe a book, like a song, should be a bodily experience. It should enter your blood stream and rearrange you. I build a world; for Daughter, I collected imagery to inform and structure and elevate my thinking—the daughters of famous men, Hemingway wielding a shotgun, Keanu playing Hamlet, Virginia Woolf quotes, anything that gives me life and advances the project, even in a refractory way. I write in the morning with strong black coffee and silence. By early afternoon, I need to move—a walk or an online dance class depending on how hermetic my state is. And yes, I need privacy. I’m a Scorpio and typically Scorpionic in my character; I need my contact highs to be intense, but of my own scripting and initiative. I love and am passionate for my aloneness.
Centre image by Norm Wong / Dey's writing studio
How did it feel to spend time with these characters while you were writing them and they existed only to you?
On this Scorpionic note, I love a secret, and I do feel that a first draft holds a special power in that it is pre-scrutiny, pre-analysis, and so you are in an uninterrupted relationship with these characters, and the relationships are new so they are intoxicating; they are discoveries. I build their corporeality. I know how they would hold a glass, cough, yell, undress, fumble for a key. I know that technically and practically, I give them their existence, but in the way of children, they arrive with their own unique souls and compositions—you take their lead (I know that sounds weird but it’s of this “channeling” mentality.)
How connected (or separate) is your “writer self” from your “everyday self”?
Are you able to turn it off—that ability to observe and glean inspiration—or are you always tuned in? How does your writer-self behave when away from the desk?
When I’m inside a project, that is my lens and it cannot be removed. It is always on and watching, listening attentively—I am awake to sensation, attached to life in a different and keen way. Those selves are very much tangled. But this is not something that can be sustained, hence the strange hinterland between projects when I am reading and noting and looking; a duller state to be sure, but I think we assume there is a hierarchy of emotion and that that ecstatic state is the highest state, the one to strive for, but it requires the plainer, studious state to occur; they need each other.
“Writing allowed me to re-sequence my life, what moved me, what made me uneasy, and to give it all a form separate from my psyche and my body. It let me re-describe and rewrite my experiences—and fantasize, play with time, invent people.”
I loved what you said in a previous interview—“I did not include an epigraph, a dedication, acknowledgments; I wanted the curtain to rise, the novel to play, the curtain to fall.” What is your relationship to the characters once the curtain falls—are you able to let them be, or do you find that the narrative continues in your head even with the book published?
The narrative does not continue and I fall into a very blue state as I exit a world. I think of the characters constantly, but we are no longer in conversation. They are in conversation with other people, readers, and the readers are my messengers—I have had the most fascinating and moving conversations and messages about Daughter. I wanted it to strike a live nerve and it has done that.
It seems that you had the audience in mind while writing—you've talked about including only desired scenes, delivering velocity, deft Didion-like sentences: I find this so interesting because many authors insist that they’re not thinking of a larger audience as the novel composes itself. What is your relationship to and how important is having the reader in mind as you write?
The reader is critical; she gives the book life. I think of her constantly; she is who I write for, why I write. I write for contact; I write for closeness, closeness to life, and that is through my work which is then animated by my reader. She is the one turning the pages, speaking about it, proliferating it, reading it back to me, how it made her feel. I want the book to be like a diamond—cut, disciplined, radiant. I love this idea that a book is a mechanism and it only works if your reader turns the page; this is what inspires my pursuit of beauty, but also reduction, momentum, heat.
When did you first fall in love with fiction? Can you share what made you want to write?
Writing was my way of navigating what I observed, my most painful and ecstatic feelings—from the moment I could write, I was writing. I had diaries, made chapbooks. I wrote my first play when I was twelve. Writing allowed me to re-sequence my life, what moved me, what made me uneasy, and to give it all a form separate from my psyche and my body. It let me re-describe and rewrite my experiences—and fantasize, play with time, invent people. I felt and continue to feel so much liberty and redemption in the act. I fell in love at first sight with fiction—I read constantly and voraciously (very Scorpionic as it is like a soundtrack in your mind that transports you, one only you can hear—a secretive, lonesome, seductive, somatic experience.)
I’m always interested in hearing about a writer’s reading habits. How do you choose what to read when you’re reading for pleasure? What about the physical aspect of books—do you enjoy having mountains of them around you, or do you prefer to keep only one or two on the nightstand?
I have mountains of books, I’ll cull—almost seasonally, and curate—I have a shelf of books that is like a shrine to writing, the books that have most formed me as a writer. I read fairly omnivorously—when I’m writing, I am careful to read books that have a near opposite cadence or construction from what I want to make. I’ll also watch excellent television; I learn a lot from well-written television—in terms of how to invite and steer a viewer’s experience and make it dimensional.
“When you put something into the world, it is astonishing how much you get back—new relationships, kindred ones, the conversations and interfaces—all of that has astonished me. Like walking into a surprise party.”
What has surprised you most about the reception of Daughter?
The magnetism of the object. You spend so long writing the novel in solitude—preserving that private state of mind—that you forget about the turning outward part. When you put something into the world, it is astonishing how much you get back—new relationships, kindred ones, the conversations and interfaces—all of that has astonished me. Like walking into a surprise party.
Can you recommend three books that a reader might enjoy (influences or sisters in style/subject) for when they are done reading Daughter?
Her fiction, essays and interviews have been widely published, notably,
“Mothers As Makers of Death”, for The Paris Review.
To buy a copy of Daughter, consider supporting one of Claudia's favourite book stores:
Interview by Emma Leokadia Walkiewicz
© Girls on the Page 2023