For novelist Claudia Dey, literary idols get a 'devotional shelf'
Claudia Dey has been everything from a horror-film actor and lumber-camp cook to a Governor General’s Award-nominated playwright and, most recently, an equally acclaimed novelist. Her second novel, the hotly anticipated Heartbreaker, landed on the 2018 best-book lists of The Globe and Mail, the CBC and BuzzFeed.
Through it all, the Toronto native has been, in her words, “an incredibly hungry reader.” It’s a hunger she shares with her husband, musician Don Kerr, and their two young sons. The family’s home in the city’s west end is crammed with books. There are packed bookshelves in her office, the living room, the kids’ bedrooms and a spare room. “We’re at maximum capacity,” Dey says, laughing.
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Dey’s reading diet ranges from the classics to the latest CanLit trailblazers – with a little junk food (i.e. mass-market thrillers) thrown in as a guilty pleasure. “I read those like a shut-in, in a single sitting,” she says. “They’re the absolute opposite of everything I look for and want to do, and yet I find that I learn something from them – planting enticements so your reader turns the page.”
Among her favourite recent books is Nova Scotia author Sara Peters’s I Become a Delight to My Enemies – “a brilliant, unnerving, disturbed read. I am pressing it into the hands of everyone I can” – and Guest Book: Ghost Stories by Canadian expat Leanne Shapton. “I read this a few months ago and I am still thinking about it,” she says. “Its spare prose and imagery, no pyrotechnics, so measured, melancholic and beautiful – hers is a complete and very lasting enchantment.”
I adore her brain and her profound talent and where she is willing to go. — Claudia Dey on Sheila Heti
She also gives shout outs to Miriam Toewes’s Women Talking (“an astonishment”) and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. “She is one of the most essential voices at work today,” Dey says. “I adore her brain and her profound talent and where she is willing to go.”
Motherhood is a major theme in Heartbreaker, a lyrical mystery about a woman who abruptly flees a strange, isolated northern community that is permanently stuck in the 1980s, leaving behind her baffled 15-year-old daughter. Writing the novel, Dey was wary of reading anything too close to what she was trying to do. Instead, she says she drew indirect inspiration from a small pile of books, among them Zadie Smith’s NW (“for its bombastic form”) and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (for “the compulsion of the prose”). “And for doses of courage,” she says, “I read anything written by my queen, Jean Rhys.”
Dey’s tastes and influences are on proud display in the two carefully curated bookshelves of her study. “I only keep out the spines that I admire, that move me or that I can learn from,” she says. They include a “devotional shelf” of her literary idols, where Anton Chekhov and Virginia Woolf rub shoulders with Miranda July and Lucia Berlin.
Dey’s passion for reading began in childhood – C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales – and she literally has the marks to prove it. “I have a scar above my right eye,” she says. “I somehow fell out of bed onto my side table while reading as a child.”
As a teenager she pored over Margaret Laurence, Dylan Thomas, Zora Neale Hurston and the diaries of Anaïs Nin. At 15, Michael Ondaatje’s seminal hybrid of poetry and theatre, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, rocked her world. “I remember thinking: I want to do that. I am going to do that.”
Although she eventually switched her focus from playwriting to novels, Dey remains plugged into the theatre. Her most popular play, Trout Stanley, is receiving a major revival this fall at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Among recent plays she’s read, she’s especially jazzed by local playwright Jill Connell’s The Supine Cobbler: “It is the most unique and genius slice of theatre I’ve encountered in a long, long time.”
As a mom, Dey has spent hours reading to her sons. Favourites of late include two award winners by Indigenous authors – David A. Robertson’s When We Were Alone and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves. But when it comes to bonding together over a book, she says, there’s nothing like Fantastic Mr. Fox and the other kids’ novels of Roald Dahl. “You feel as if you are in a tent together, reading by flashlight, far away from all that you know.”
Dey’s own favourite place to read during the day is her front porch. “I always look like I’ve been locked out,” she says. Her reading list this summer is a mix of classics – Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – and new releases, including American short-story writer Amy Hempel’s latest collection, Sing to It, and British novelist Max Porter’s sophomore effort, Lanny. “I have one dirty thriller lined up as well,” she adds with a laugh: Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. She’s a fan of the HBO miniseries “and I wanted to see how the prose matches it.”
CREDITS: Photography by BRODY WHITE; Editing by KIRAN RANA; Creative direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI; Art direction, design and development by JEANINE BRITO
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.