T.O. artist Claudia Dey on the striking image that inspired her new novel

A horror film actor, an acclaimed playwright, a fashion designer, a columnist and a novelist — Claudia Dey has done it all. And she’s got the awards and nominations to show for it: her first novel, Stunt, was named to the Globe and Mail’s 2008 “Globe 100” list; her second novel, Heartbreaker, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; her play, The Gwendolyn Poems, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; and her fashion label, Horses Atelier, was featured on HBO’s Girls and has been spotted on many a celebrity. 

And with her new book, Daughter, set to be released on Sept. 12, Dey is stepping back into the role of the novelist.

“I’ve always been in touch with some unruly vein,” Dey says with reference to her prolific career. It was something that was fostered and encouraged during her time at St. Clement’s School — she excelled in English there, writing poetry, co-writing a play and exploring any creative venue that appealed to her. She went on to study English at McGill University, then playwriting at the National Theatre School. 

Dey drew from her experience of playwriting to add kinetic energy to the novel but notes that she’s a novelist first — then backtracks: “The two forms are actually in conversation for me. This novel particularly obviously has a lot of theatre in its story, but I also wanted it to have a black box theatre feeling to it,” she says. “A limited number of characters, all in relation to each other in a limited number of settings. I didn’t do an acknowledgement or epigraph or a dedication — I wanted the curtain to rise, the novel to play out and the curtain to fall.” 

For her latest novel, it begins with an image: “A father and daughter sitting in the back of the father’s favourite restaurant. And I just wanted to understand why it happened, why the relationship had such a  dangerous, addictive feel to it,” she says.  

Her novel explores the fraught bond between Mona, a playwright with a burgeoning career, and her father Paul, an author who has not published since his bestseller over a decade prior. “The love between them is so fraught, so oppositional, so parasitic, but it is suffused with love, however broken the expression, however self-serving.” 

Through their story, Dey offers a fresh perspective on “the shadow side of a conventional relationship.” In culture, we have exhausted the tired theme of mothers and daughters competing for youth and beauty; it has become cliché. “We might obsess over our fathers, but we tend to save our scrutiny and art for our mothers,” Dey says. Daughter, on the other hand, asks us to forgo the commonplace to instead mine the unexplored.

At the novel’s start, Mona is Paul’s confidante: he is having an affair with his publicist. Decades after he has left Mona’s mother, Paul is remarried to a cool tyrant named Cherry and has a daughter Eva. Paul confesses his affair to Cherry. Paul also confesses that Mona knew. Thus the plot begins, as we are thrust into a propulsive ride that is difficult to put down. 

As a lifelong voracious reader, Dey pulled from the men of letters of the last century to characterize Paul’s magnetism. “For Paul, I really drew on the kind of sultry men of the canon like the Leonard Cohens and the Sam Shepards and the Philip Roths or Norman Mailers,” she says. “These men who [you ask] do they have all the power, [or do] they have no power at all? These kinds of tormented men who, in a way, were like literary fathers to me as I grew up because the canon was so patriarchal. I loved writing him. He was so seductive to write.” 

But Dey is also a lifelong writer, and she says that it’s a very “monkish” pursuit. “You need to want that aloneness. I think of myself as a very private person but a very social writer in the sense that you do write for contact,” she says. 

Dey says she’s lucky to have so much support in her life, including people who don’t constantly ask her whether she’s writing about them in her next novel and a partner who understands her process. 

“I married a musician, someone who understood totally what it is to have to disappear for months at a time to be in conversation with something,” she says. 

For us readers, Dey’s curtain rises and then it falls. What we are left with is a novel that feels at once destructive and restorative. Daughter understands the complexity of family, our inability to choose who we love and the inextricable links that bind us together and make us feel whole. Dey’s prose is a livewire, waiting for a spark that could be set off with a flick of the page.

“To write imperfect dimensional people who are in extremely close proximity in a way that’s dangerous or that blurs the moral code or the social code will always be interesting. I’ll always be drawn to that,” she says. 

If this means we’ll get more novels of Dey’s like this one, then thank god.

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