From King Lear to Succession, the sad, mad, and pretty bad dad remains a captivating, if polarizing character in art. What makes a flawed patriarch so transfixing? The more they push us away, the closer we want to get.
In Claudia Dey’s third novel, Daughter, “To be loved by your father is to be loved by God,” or so claims her protagonist Mona Dean in the first line of her play, a biographical study of Margaux Hemingway. A recent graduate from theatre school, Mona is a reluctant daddy’s girl in thrall to her novelist father Paul, who only turns to her for dispensation when, as Mona puts it, he is betraying his life. These betrayals relate to the three daughters, two wives, and multiple lovers that the feckless Paul retains in constant, if meandering orbit.
But Daughter belongs to Mona, a self-professed minor character, working towards centrality. From the very first page, Mona traverses the frightening space between being her father’s daughter and belonging entirely to herself: woman, artist, lover, partner. Dey mixes theatrical drama with epistolary directness, staying close to Mona while occasionally inhabiting other limited points-of-view. The conditions are intimate—nearly every character is family—luxuriating in vivid imagery while remaining urgent in its landscape of feeling.
I spoke with Dey, a playwright, novelist, and co-designer with her best friend, the writer Heidi Sopinka, of the cult fashion brand Horses Atelier, a few days after she launched Daughter into the world, surrounded by friends and family. “I feel a fundamental relief that it is no longer mine,” she tells me. Dey answered my questions from the comfort of her Toronto home, patiently illuminating some of what went into this deeply personal novel.
Naomi Skwarna: You’ve previously described writing Daughter as a process of transmitting. One of the ways I felt that more instinct-driven narrative path was how the first-person narration will switch into the third-person perspective of a character who is not Mona, but is, in some cases, observing her. It struck me most intensely in the scene where Cherry is watching her in the sculpture garden—the way she’s staring daggers into her bare back. I could feel that gaze on my own back, since I still felt myself to be in Mona’s place.
Claudia Dey: I went into the novel with direction—a list of constraints—but was open to disruption. The transiting points of view fall into that classification of disruption (laughing), but I knew on some level they were critical to the book—to its forward-motion and to its balance or even, realism.
A novel should be a bodily experience.
I loathe a hero-villain set-up. It thinks it is dramatic when it’s anti-dramatic. Life is far more tangled, far closer to soap opera. The transiting POVs did show up immediately. My friend called it “the ghostly writing” and my editors referred to these moments as “cameos.” The fact that you felt Cherry gazing into your own back thrills me.
NS:If it’s possible to answer outside of “that’s just how it came out,” I’d love to hear how you handled [the cameos] on a craft level, because it’s very deft. It has an eerie, almost dissociative feeling, like Mona is watching herself. How does it feel for you?
CD: A novel should be a bodily experience. It would be an understatement to say that I wanted to get into the “matter” of Daughter—for the novel, for the reader. I wanted to create closeness with the reader by “transmitting” Mona’s imperfect, smoky, fortified soul—but I also wanted to create dimensionality for the characters in her orbit—how they saw Mona, but also the inner debates, lusts, fears, jokes—how each character translated the world back to themselves.
Practically, it made the title reflect and resonate in a more profound way. Naomi, I could not help myself. I’m a vessel. “That’s just how it came out.” (Laughter.)
I also carried around this quote from The Odes to Solomon: “For the swiftness of the word is inexpressible, and like its expression is its swiftness and force; and it knows no limit. Never doth it fail, but it stands sure, and knows not descent nor the way of it.” This worked on me as an instruction.
NS: Mona, an actor and writer, at different points in the novel, remarks that she was “[r]eordered by the act of performance” and “a minor character in [her] own minor life.” I’m interested in how you think of performance in Mona’s life. Performance—of self, and as an art form—seems like ways of making herself legible in a world that is not very good at seeing who she is or what she needs. Another character, her husband Wes, describes his discomfort around being an actor as a crisis of “being a man playing other men.”
There is a lot of tension around being versus performing! Did writing a novel about different types of performers and performances inform or update any beliefs that you have on the subject?
CD: Is performance an act of deflection, confrontation, elucidation? Escape?
Where to begin? Yes, exactly, I read and I write for new feeling—and echoing back: what is the new feeling generated by Daughter about performers and performance specifically? I think for me the most volatile or sexy insight was in discovering the odd twinship between writing and acting.
I went to theatre school as a playwright, not as a performer. I was surrounded by actors, and felt they possessed a gift that was alien to me. They could, to my eye, just turn on for the world (when I just wanted to turn off and be alone with my mind, I hated to be interrupted and wanted to sit in darkness with my thoughts.) They were like solar eclipses or something phenomenal and bright that you stand in awe of, but feel peripherally frightened by too. Of course, I was in love with all of them. They were so magnetic.
NS: You are a novelist, a playwright, an occasional actor, a designer of clothes. Much of your work engages with more benign, artistic expressions of performance. Daughter embraces the act of performance, but it also seems skeptical, or aware of the skepticism that performance cues—the possibility of duplicity, manipulation of others. How does Mona navigate the differences between the performing self and the writing self?
CD: In Daughter, by writing Mona, I saw in fact that these [acting and writing] are not oppositional but entwined—one feeds the other—I got to combine the forms in Mona alone, and then of course could see how they combined in myself, how when I write I am speaking my writing as lines, testing their validity, how when I build a scene, I am inside the scene, again to test its solidity. Mona is the only character who practices both forms—Wes, her boyfriend, and Paul, her father, occupy the poles of acting and writing, and are, in their way, stranded by this, tormented.
In Daughter, by writing Mona, I saw in fact that these [acting and writing] are not oppositional but entwined—one feeds the other.
I write women who have more nerve than me. My own panic dream is in the novel—it is about being sent out on stage to play an elderly king; of course, I feel miscast and like a fraud, and then I remember that I have the script in my hand, and think I might save this after all, so I look down to prompt myself, but the script is in comic strips, alphabets I don’t speak, indecipherable. I have a subterranean fear of performance when there is a huge component of performance in writing—going for what is precisely true and alive without adorning it.
Mona describes the electricity she feels when her work is working, the seduction of it, the immersion. This is writing exactly for me. I’m awake to sensation. The act of performance is functioning on so many levels in the book—for others, for ourselves, for fame, for invisibility, for self-protection, for self-construction—each character, in a way, breaks their own fourth wall in the course of the novel.
An aside, maybe. I did act in a horror film months after my second son was born. The state of new motherhood set off a fearlessness in me, a hunger. I played the lead in the film and it was intensely liberating for me. It was a love story—between myself, a lone woman in an isolated cabin, and a lake creature. Daughter is, in that way that all novels are, an accumulation of these experiences—lived and performed (which is also, I see now, lived.)
NS: I appreciate your point about Paul being stranded in his role as a writer. It makes his desperation more urgent, his transgressions more worth the risk, especially around authorship. I’m thinking about how you write on a few occasions of Mona’s awareness that her words will end up in her father’s novels, something she resigns herself to at the beginning of the novel, but then expresses with a little more wryness later on: “I knew someday I would read the detail I’d told Paul at the restaurant, about smelling the glue binding the slats of wood, in a novel of his, as if he had pulled that detail from the sensitive sprawl of his brain.”
To be a bit gendered about it, do women writers in particular have to be more judicious of what they share, lest it become consumed into a man’s story?
CD: Writing Daughter, I thought a lot about how little men have had to do to be worshipped, to be canonized, and how much women have had to do just to be seen—to be seen as equals and equally sublime at the writer’s table. To be gendered about it. I built Paul out of the matter and junk and heat of the writers of my youth—my reading lists were of course patriarchal and so male writers were mentally central, important. Sam Shepard, Leonard Cohen and then Henry Miller—Miller was a massive influence on me; I wrote my undergraduate thesis about Tropic of Cancer arguing that Miller was a feminist writer—in form.
I read a ton of women writers, but I had to seek them out in a different way—like a subculture. Why didn’t I write my thesis about Anaïs Nin? She was my true obsession. Decades later, I still read reviews of women’s work—work that has reordered me, been a revelation—criticism that competes against the work, needs to win against the work rather than engage with it. To be gendered about it. Some of Daughter came from this fury, this fury of women artists being distrusted on a foundational level.
NS: What are your thoughts on approaching biographical writing, or any writing in fact, with the awareness of how casual the human mind—and ego—can be around information and its provenance?
CD: On this note of provenance, originality—is it thieving? Parasitism? In Paul’s case, it is. His talent is not germane, it is borrowed, and he knows this and it undoes him. He is at war with himself. He deceptively presents his work as his own when it relies critically (I mean this on the life-death art scale) on Natasha, his first wife, and Mona, his middle daughter.
Writing Daughter, I thought a lot about how little men have had to do to be worshipped, to be canonized, and how much women have had to do just to be seen—to be seen as equals and equally sublime at the writer’s table.
I wanted to understand the unguardedness of daughters and why Mona, who perceives with total clarity her father’s insatiability continually reveals herself. What is this addiction we have to our fathers? Why do we fall into a trance with them, a trance of handing over?
She has far more privacy in her love relationship with Wes—he never asks to occupy her psyche, her soul, whereas for Paul, this appears to be his ultimate goal, to consume his daughter. That Goya painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, with the gender of the child inverted. Though Mona, of course, is possessed by her own insatiability—a drive that cannot be explained other than to say that making art is making personhood—what is the effect when the art is not your own? What does that do to a person?
I did write a biographical play about the poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and in order to do that—to feel squared with her ghost—I spent years immersing myself in her world, those who populated it—her writing, her writing, her writing. So much so that I went to view an apartment and realized as I toured the rooms that it was one of her former apartments.
The whole project took on this porosity. She would visit me in my dreams. (Laughter, she was like: get on with it.) I felt the weight of the responsibility—writing this genius—this sensuous, funny, avant-garde genius who could speak Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, who published prolifically in every form, who died badly and alone. I understood that I needed to write my version of her rather than try to imitate her life.
Daughter by Claudia Dey is available via FSG.