Claudia Dey was an actress and playwright before she was a novelist. And that sensibility seeps through in her latest book, Daughter, the follow-up to her much-admired Heartbreaker. Despite its cool interiority and absence of direct dialogue, Daughter has the feel of an ensemble piece where minimal backdrops highlight the emotionally astute drama unfolding against them.
The novel’s protagonist, Mona Dean, also happens to be an actress and playwright, one whose artistic development has often been affected by her complex relationship with her father, Paul. He basks in women’s attention, and in the waning glow of his one great novel, Daughter. Treating Mona by turns as confidante and muse, Paul’s well-worn pattern is to extract from his daughter what he needs, then quickly retreat: “He shunned Mona because Mona was filled with a disease. It was the disease of her gaping love for him.”
Dey talked to The Globe from her home in Toronto.
Your last novel focused on a mother-daughter relationship. This one on a father-daughter relationship. Was that shift a self-conscious one?
No. My shifts become self-conscious only once I am in the drafting stage [laughs]. I never plan out my novels. I follow a debate, an uneasiness, an obsession inside myself that I need to unlock.
I read a quote of Annie Ernaux’s after I had finished Daughter – she spoke about writing as transmissions. When she writes, she is transmitting. This is how writing feels for me.
The novel started with an image – the image of a father meeting his daughter in the back of the father’s favourite restaurant. Why so secretive? Why did the relationship have such a dangerous and addictive feel to it?
When I wrote the opening line, I knew, on some level, that I had the book. I’m a sonic writer, voice-driven. I knew from that first line that I wanted to write out-of-control states in the most controlled way. Direct and unadorned, no artifice.
Reading Daughter made me think about how father-daughter relationships have, or more to the point haven’t been portrayed in literature. The classic dynamic – in Shakespeare or in Austen, say – often involves distance, protection or husband-screening. Then there’s the Lear model of auditioning your daughters for their future role as caregivers (to you). Paul’s relationship with Mona feels unusually manipulative and parasitic.
Exactly. Their connection is fraught, oppositional, punishing, competitive – and yet it is suffused with love, driven by love, however broken its expression, however self-serving. In the mind games you describe, it is closer to a bad romance. I wanted to disrupt the way this traditional relationship is portrayed. I wanted to get as close to it as I could. In terms of their dimensionality, fathers are underexplored in literature. We tend to save our scrutiny for our mothers. As you stated, fathers are written for their authority, their final say – as figureheads. I wanted to get into the guts and desires and demons of a famous writer – a man with all the power and no power at all. In Paul, I wanted to draw on the sultry, notorious men of the canon – the Leonard Cohens, Norman Mailers, Philip Roths, Ernest Hemingways – how little they have to do to be worshipped versus how much women have to do to be seen.
I picture Mona and Paul Dean more like Shiv and Logan Roy from Succession. And while Paul Dean is undeniably charismatic, it’s the women of the novel who motor it. I was so drawn to this orbit of women revolving around this famous, powerful man – how families organize themselves in this way – when the women are, in fact, far more interesting and possessed by a deeper talent. I think of the wives and mistress sitting together at Logan Roy’s funeral, and Shiv’s line: He couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head.
“Bad romance” certainly resonates. The kind of simmering taboo of it. Were you looking to create some friction and discomfort in that regard?
I was. Daughter is a novel of interiors whereas before I think I was far more of a language-led writer. The pandemic made me want to reinvent because my usual mechanism felt broken. In isolation, I had a new impatience, a new view, I needed a new way to work.
Talk about that broken mechanism. What was it? And, maybe more importantly, what did you replace it with?
I distrusted fiction as I had come to understand it. Essentially, when I hit that originating image and first line of Daughter, I knew it was the antidote. I made a list of constraints for myself. Bare sentences. No mythologizing. A friend sent over the Céline Sciamma BAFTA lecture in which she talked about desired scenes versus needed scenes and how her objective for Portrait of a Lady on Fire was all desired scenes. She essentially had two lists – and if a scene did not qualify as desired, it was not shot. The literary equivalent is Didion’s flash cuts.
I also loved this idea of Helen Garner’s – writing in language that is closer to spoken language, but with some formality to it, a touch of starch. This too has the effect of eliminating the distance between a reader and your text, creating a velocity. I also totally believe that a book is a mechanism and it only works if the reader wants to turn the page.
Because I worked mostly through the pandemic, I was outside of my socially constructed self, outside of my routines. I know this psychology affected my approach and entered the novel.
Lastly, I came up as a writer through theatre. I wanted this book to have a black box theatre feeling to it. A limited number of characters all in relationship to each other in a limited number of settings – that table in the back of the restaurant figures largely. I did not include an epigraph, a dedication, acknowledgments; I wanted the curtain to rise, the novel to play, the curtain to fall. I love the electricity of live theatre, strangers sharing a common experience in the dark, and I wanted to transmit that kind of transporting, urgent energy in the novel.
Rachel Cusk, who I also see shades of in this novel, has talked about the difference between synthetic books – in a nutshell: overly invented ones – and “true” books. She says she’s written both, and that the moment she understood “that my life and my state of being had to be offered to the writing project for the true book to come out of it.” Does that resonate with you? Does Daughter feel like a “true” book?
That’s it exactly. This feels like a true book.
This interview has been condensed and edited.