‘Heartbreaker’ is a Haunting ‘80s Cult Novel about Love

Claudia Dey on bad mothers and the toxicity of gender roles

Claudia Dey had me at the title of her Paris Review piece, “Mothers as Makers of Death,” which came out earlier this year. Then I learned more about the author — who has written plays, worked as a cook in a lumber camp, acted in horror films, and is also co-designer of Horses Atelier. My heart skipped a beat. Then I read her novel Heartbreaker. I was smitten.

Heartbreaker is the most original novel I’ve read in some time. The novel is set in 1985 in “the territory,” the residual community of a cult somewhere north of nowhere. We learn immediately that Billie Jean has gone missing. The novel is structured into three different accounts, or sections — “Girl” “Dog” “Boy” — each section powered by one character who loves Billie Jean: her daughter, Pony Darlene, her dog, Gena Rowlands, and a teenage boy named Supernatural, each bearing witness to Billie Jean’s absence. Pony Darlene, Gena Rowlands, and Supernatural have lived their entire lives in the territory, but Billie Jean — the only outsider in the territory — appeared seventeen years ago when she fell from the mouth of a car she stole. She has never spoken of where she came from, or where she might be headed now.

Heartbreaker is lyrical on the line level, but the questions at the center of the book — about women’s struggle for multiplicity and messiness, about the way love can carve losers out of all of us — make the novel sing. Dey creates a cinematic landscape filled with vivid neon jumpsuits and duct tape and DIY and Air Supply. It’s a dark world where men are given another chance in another name, and women are assumed to be happy to stay home, to stay in the same story. And the town’s greatest resource? The literal blood of teenagers, sold at a premium. It is a world you know you should leave, and yet, there is an acute sense of the beauty there, too.

Dey and I spoke over the phone about the case for more “bad” moms in literature the desire to be “more than one thing,” the additive and subtractive nature of love, and why good art needs to be a little wild.

Erin Bartnett: I wanted to start by talking about the genesis of this book. I was so captivated by the dreamlike, near-dystopian atmosphere of the territory. What about that bleak setting was so fruitful for you?

Claudia Dey: I wanted to create a place that could not be pinned to a country, could not be pinned to a continent. I wanted it to be so remote that it was nationless. When I was researching the book I was completely consumed by images of places that I’d never been to but I could feel in my bones — the snowfields, dense woods, endless skies of Siberia, Iceland, Finland.

I used to work as a cook in lumber camps across Northern Canada. We would follow these hand-drawn maps, these unnamed logging roads, and miles into the bush, set up camp. I would be hours away from the nearest, smallest town. Let alone my life. I was so separate from the culture, so separate from the economy. And this was the 1990s — pre-cell phone. So there was this profound un-traceability and unreachability. When the planters were in camp, it had this Wild Wild Country feeling. The elation and dread of a private society, hidden from view. I was so struck by the wish for ease, for comfort, for heat, for closeness, the sense of scarcity, the longing for elsewhere — all of those details entered Heartbreaker. As did the duct tape, big trucks, big dogs, nicknames and bonfires. The moment the planters left, and the camp was vacated for the work day, I was so isolated. I love this George Saunders’ phrase “a hostile dreamscape”; this is how those empty campsites felt — my ears keen to the approach of a truck, an animal. Mud caked on my jeans, ice pelting the roof of my cook shack. And then looking out at this endless wilderness all around me and feeling that sharp sense of what it would be like to disappear. It was those years in those untraceable places that I think were the genesis for writing the Territory.

EB: In your Paris Review essay on motherhood, you talk about how a mother is never alone. And in order to finish this book, you needed to isolate yourself. Is there something productive about loneliness, too? Is there something you long for in that loneliness?

CD: Yeah, definitely. For me loneliness is a soft and familiar place. It’s a natural state. It’s something that I seek out. It’s like a very productive trance; it’s where the writing happens.

EB: Why did you choose to set this book in 1985? And then how did you situate yourself back into 1985 to write this book — what were you watching, listening to, reading?

CD: Now that I have some distance, I think I chose 1985 initially for the aesthetics — they were pleasing to me. I was aware that the novel had a dark and sorrowful heart — it holds a terrible pain — and so I wanted there to be redemptive elements — both for the reader and for myself. Those details can be a salvation. White Snake, Air Supply, The Eurhythmics, Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”, feathered hair, press-on nails, leopard print and hoop earrings — this is the sonic and visual world of the book and it is accompanies the grief at its center. It’s fantasy — fantasy is critical — it’s like a private source of oxygen. It’s also hopeful.

I would have been 13 in 1985. This was the beginning of the most riotous stage of my life — you are swapping out selves in grand, dangerous gestures. I was so inspired by this Dutch photographer who considers her portraits of teenagers to be “abstracts” — given the flux and changeability of the self inside the chaos upon chaos of that time. When you are a teenager, you are forming yourself and you use the culture to do that — another reason why the music and clothing were so important to me.

Lastly I am not sure I will ever write something contemporary because I don’t like what cell phones have done to us. We are like stunned gamblers curved over slot machines waiting for a blink of light rather than inside and attentive to observable life. I also knew that technically it would be very difficult to write a woman who disappears with the tracking hardware available to us now. So the reasoning was initially romantic but then, as I examine it, technical too.

I am not sure I will ever write something contemporary because I don’t like what cell phones have done to us. We are like stunned gamblers curved over slot machines waiting for a blink of light rather than inside and attentive to observable life.

EB: I feel like that’s so often the birth of the things we write — the marriage between some romantic idea and the reality of some technical challenge.

CD: It’s so true!

EB: I was really interested in the way you make love a kind of equation in Heartbreaker. Love can’t be Love without Loss. There’s an additive and subtractive nature at the heart of love for the characters in the book. Which makes sense, given that the book is about the loss of one person three characters love very much. I wanted to talk about how you structured the book around these three characters who love a missing person. But Billie Jean doesn’t share her story directly. Could you talk about the decision to structure the novel around the experiences of those who love Billie Jean rather than the beloved herself?

CD: I love your summation of the love mathematics that form the heart of the book. Truly, the decision to structure it the way that I did was intuitive. I don’t map out novels; I work from some kind of private circuitry. I knew in the earliest hours of writing Heartbreaker that I wanted it to be told by: Girl, Dog, Boy. I very consciously placed an animal at its center. I knew that the book would be built out of the voices and I wanted the voices to work in the way of chambers. Similar to how a theater works — you enter the chamber, the lights dim, they rise, and you’re with the storm of Pony Darlene. The lights dim, you exit the chamber you enter a new one, the lights rise, you’re with loyal, murderous Gena. They dim, you exit, lights rise, you’re across from watchful, beautiful Supes. Each chamber had to be its own dominion.

And I wanted to fulfill that Joan Didion maxim of writing a book that is read in a single sitting. That was from an interview that Didion did with the Paris Review in 1977. I read that interview recently and that line, her casual, never sentimental delivery of this clean and brilliant truth really struck me. Returning to your question of love: what intrigues me — and it’s in the epigraph of the book, ‘In love there’s no because’ — are the darker corners of ourselves that we cannot explain to others, let alone to ourselves, when we lose all logic, all morality, and become kind of rudderless inside a spell of love — that’s what I wanted to go into as deeply as I could. And I wanted Billie to be the center of that.

What intrigues me are the darker corners of ourselves that we cannot explain to others, let alone to ourselves, when we lose all logic, all morality, and become kind of rudderless inside a spell of love.

EB: Can we talk about naming in this book? The names in this book are amazing — Pony Darlene, Neon Dean, Supernatural…but then there’s Billie Jean and her dog Gena, who are the only two characters I noticed that get to name themselves. The others are named or renamed. Can you talk about how naming informs the identities these characters take on and struggle with?

CD: The names indicate the gap between how the characters experience their own interiors and how their interiors are perceived by others. There’s this tradition in The Territory — The Territory is the remains of a cult; you can see the sexism in the tradition — that the men receive these special nicknames and their birth names are eviscerated. This is a moment of ceremony and it marks a man as having progressed from boy to man. The women aren’t assigned any kind of obvious power in that way. As a writer, of course, it’s an opportunity to give the reader clues to a character’s history or true nature. Some of the choices were playful ones. I took a lot of delight in the naming. For the reader but also as a buoy for myself — some of the writing was agonizing.

EB: You mentioned that you wanted the animal narrator for this novel — why did you want to go in that direction?

CD: I think that, autobiographically, I had this moment that struck me so deeply: this was when I first became a mother and my son was about four months old and he was asleep on my chest. I could feel him dreaming. I was reading Anna Karenina, and I was inside this vast peasant scene when suddenly the narrative swerved and I was behind a dog’s eyes, his point of view. It surprised me, rearranged my brain chemistry. It really marked me as a writer. I think the element of surprise is at times underrated in art or misused, and this was employed with such grace.

I put this idea in the novel, but I will say it now because I love it: a healthy human heart has an irregular beat, and an unhealthy human heart a regular beat. And that sleight of hand in Anna Karenina — where we’re suddenly behind the dog’s eyes — showed me how much we need that irregular beat, that unevenness in our art. It’s a form of vitality, of wildness. It’s so easy to overcorrect, to discourage yourself from stylistic and intellectual risk, to, in the editing process, photo-shop a novel — glaze the life right out of it. I also needed Gena in order to further the story. So much of the book is about where secrecy and closeness intersect. All of the unspokens, all that we guard. And yet with the dog, a judgeless, ever loyal dog, who is homicidal on our behalf, we can confess everything.

EB: So that irregular beat — our desire for that, and the frustrated attempt to find that — I wonder too if that’s related to the refrain I found in every section, almost verbatim — that a person is more than one thing, a person is many things. As Billy Jean and Debra Marie both say: “Why can’t a woman be more than one person in a lifetime, why can’t she be two or three?”

CD: Yeah, I love that you note that. That is one of the central questions of the book. I feel if you parse it, you can see that question at work in each character — the adults’ past identities and the teenager’s ever-changing ones.

One point of sinister inspiration was the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints]. I have been obsessed by and have read countless survivor accounts — these teenage girls changing into wedding dresses in the backs of vans as they’re being driven over borders to be illicitly married in a roadside hotel to a man five times their age as their mother stands witness. I wanted to look at moral authority; what remains when you forfeit your moral authority? And so in the book you have the wolf pack — all of the initiations, the feeling of being accepted and not accepted, those marks of belonging at work between the women of The Territory. And then you have the lone wolf — Billie. For me, the construction of Billie was to examine the opposite of that wish to belong. In the end, she lived radically — guided only by what she loved. However dangerous, however haunting. Again, the epigraph points to that — that love is senseless.

EB: I wonder if Billie is able to be more than one woman in a lifetime because of her capacity to love. She is okay with loving more than one person in a lifetime — even at the same time — but she also understands, can quantify, how big and dangerous and beautiful her love for her daughter is.

CD: That is a beautiful, beautiful comment. Thank you. I think you are right — we look at multitudes within as a deceptiveness, but it can actually be something much more sublime, productive.

EB: Could you talk about how motherhood functions in Heartbreaker? I think you construct motherhood in a really nuanced way that illuminates the multiplicity in motherhood while pointing out the patriarchal column — a kind of singularity — placed on top of women in general, but especially women who are mothers.

CD: I am so tired of seeing the noble mother in books. We don’t see mothers being bad in novels. For me, motherhood contains all of my most settled and unsettled feelings. Billie talks about the love she feels for her daughter as an injury, a permanent injury. And that is the truth of it for me, your deepest and most vulnerable tenderness exposed to the open air. I wanted to write this version of motherhood — the one that felt closest to me. Essentially, with Heartbreaker, I tried to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way. In Billie, I got to write a woman who is a mother and also cheats, kills, lies, grieves, loves.

I am so tired of seeing the noble mother in books. We don’t see mothers being bad in novels. I got to write a woman who is a mother and also cheats, kills, lies, grieves, loves.

EB: You are a living example of what it means to be multiple selves: you’ve been a horror film actress, a cook in lumber camps across northern Canada, and co-designer of Horses Atelier (which has my dream jumpsuit). I often feel so pressured to be branded, to be one thing (which is another reason why this novel really spoke to me). How do you embrace the plural passions?

CD: Thank you, Erin! I guess I am restless. My experience has been that each form feeds the other forms. Also, identifying that whatever my current obsession might be — it has a form that fits it most precisely — whether it’s fiction or a horror film. I learn so much when I am doing something new. When I am slightly terrified and out of my depth and have to call up a different kind of courage or sharpness. I hate casualness! Or ease around work. I feel it all accumulates somehow — all of this traveling — for Heartbreaker for instance, those hours on set being stalked by a sea creature, trudging through hip-deep snowbanks, as well as the thousands of hours in a theatre, designing costumes — all of it entered the book. Work is work. Work is devotional.

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