Monica Drake is the author of the award-winning indie novel, Clown Girl, and The Stud Book, also a novel. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Paris Review Daily, Oregon Humanities Magazine, and other publications. She designed and runs the newly launched BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Kira Assad. Of the process, she said, “It truly has been a blast reading Monica Drake’s works. There were so many emotions that her novels brought out of me, and it was refreshing being able to have a good laugh here and there.” In this interview, Monica discusses her experiences in a writer’s workshop, her use of comedy in her work, and the “false friend.”
Superstition Review: Your main character Nita in Clown Girl creates religious balloon art with images of Christ and Mary. You use religious imagery in an intentionally unconventional, surprising way. Could you comment on these choices?
Monica Drake: As an undergraduate I studied Art History. A lot of highly acclaimed Western art is religious, to a certain extent. Even work that's possibly anti-Christian, like the famous "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, is still reliant on religion for any power or controversy. And then when you turn to the world of clowning, there really is an entire contingent of evangelical clowns. There are clown ministries. In Portland there's a Catholic church that offers an annual clown mass. There's an idea that clowns, some of them, are here to do God's work. It's a calling.
My friend Jusby the Clown, (Justin Barnabas Wright) is an ordained minister. He's a "Holy Fool," who can legally perform marriage ceremonies. If I'd known him when we got married, I absolutely would have employed a clown in that role. I love that he's taken that on, chosen to navigate a fine line between the intensely serious and a reminder of life's follies.
I'm interested in the intersection of religion, art and clown work, including where it's taken seriously and where it works for laughs. Evangelical clowns usually tie the same balloon dogs and elaborate hats as secular clowns, but I liked translating religious scenes and figures into balloon art. When a clown tries to recreate something like da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks (or Madonna of the Rocks) it's the perfect mix of high and low, timeless and ephemeral.
SR: The main character in Clown Girl is a female clown and the novel follows her life as she deals with strange men, missing items (such as her rubber chicken), and dealing with a miscarriage. What motivated your choices for this character?
MD: I'm pretty identified with this character. My art isn't clown work these days, but it's writing. I worked as a clown briefly a very long time ago. Now over the years whenever I find myself in certain kinds of situations, the clown impulse comes back. And this character, while she struggles, always returns to her art, because that's how she holds on to her humanity. When clown work lets her down, her big plan is to come up with a new show. Her big plan is the same thing that isn't working—more clown work. Bigger, better, faster, more! When I wrote it, I felt that way about writing. When one novel didn't sell, my big plan was to write the next one. That was it. That's still it—to do what I love, and hope it works out.
SR: Clown Girl starts with an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. In it he talks about how your stories in a beginner writer’s workshop entranced people. Can you discuss more about these early days of composing?
MD: Chuck Palahniuk is an amazing guy. We met in Tom Spanbauer's workshop, when we were both just starting out. Chuck was the first person to laugh at my jokes in a writing group, so how could I not follow him anywhere? He got it. And his stories were crazy and intense—they still are—and with great titles. The titles alone make me happy, to see them on the page. Last night I got a sneak peek at a new story Chuck just wrote. He read it to us, in our workshop. I woke up this morning feeling like I'd had the strangest dream...I had a surreal, disturbing memory clinging to me, but not in a bad way. In a good way. It wasn't a dream, it was Chuck's crazy and intense story. I can't wait to see that one get out into the world.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
MD: When I first started writing Tom Spanbauer introduced himself to the small group of writing students he'd drawn together, and he told us he was HIV positive, and he wanted to make his work, write his stories, before he died. He said it was passion and conviction, and I felt how short and precious life is. He made me want to do my work, immediately and well. That was over twenty years ago, and Tom is still alive, still taking care of his health, and many of us who met him at that time. We're all still writing, riding the wave of his conviction, his dedication.
I love the writing of Joy Williams, too. I moved to Tucson to study with her, for grad school. Her work makes me want to write, in response. In workshop she dropped a lot of crystal clear good advice. Sometimes she made people cry, but most of the time, her comments were really helpful. One thing I always remember is when she called white space, "the writer's false friend." She was commenting on how student writers might drop into white space when the real action of a story started up, and then they'd jump forward in time. Now, I can't leave a white space, moving forward in time and place within a story, without hearing Joy Williams' voice, "the writer's false friend..." and I think twice.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
MD: Probably Tom Spanbauer, and his words, and also Chuck Palahniuk, and his inspiration and support. My parents are writers, and I grew up watching them work as "Poets in the Schools," in Detroit and other places, and they're published, so I've been around writing my entire life, but it wasn't until I fell in with Tom and Chuck that I dedicated myself. Those guys? Tom made it sound so real and important, and Chuck made it thrilling, and then when he broke out with Fight Club and his success, he gave a lot of us a new sense of possibility.
SR: Your novel The Stud Book jumps to a different character's perspective each chapter. What technical accommodations or practical considerations did you have to address to create these shifting perspectives?
MD: The Stud Book is a book about, among other things, questions of population, so it had to be a story that takes place between a wide cast of characters. It's not one person's story, but the story of how we, humans, might struggle to live and how our lives bump up against the lives of so many other people. Once I started with the ensemble cast, I had to find a balance between characters. There's one character in particular who perhaps represents the heart of the story, the essential question, but the story needs to be divided over all the characters. They're all supporting the narrative propulsion. That was tricky, because sometimes I did want to let one character dominate. Also, when I started writing it I had this idea I wanted them all to mostly brush up against each other—to show how absorbed we can be in our own lives, and yet how our lives affect other people. In the end, I brought the stories a little closer together, tightened it down.
SR: Could you talk more about how The Stud Book approaches issues of population?
MD: The Stud Book is an environmental novel, set in a city. Portland. If the personal is political (and it is, of course) the choice of creating a new person, contributing to population, might be the biggest political choice possible. Huge. And the political is environmental. Thoreau famously wrote, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." I love that quote. Let's hope there's a little preservation of the world in cities, too, now.
Babies are phenomenal. Every baby really is a miracle. So why do we celebrate the birth of a baby with made-in-China plastic, smog-inducing, climate-change-accelerating trinkets? We have "reality" TV based on a family that turns out babies with puppy mill efficiency. All over the place kids are neglected, education is sub-par, corporate farms are ruining nutritional elements of food and increasing antibiotic resistant strains of serious illness.
When people talk about population, soothing conversations tend to be regional, or consider portions of the planet. But there are no real borders when you're talking about population and ecosystems. We're all bumping into each other. Fukushima's waste finds its way to Oregon beaches. China's smog drifts over the U.S. Humans are covering the planet, and other species are rapidly losing ground.
Nobody wants to be told how many children they can or can't have, to be forced to bear children or to be forced to forgo the experience, to be sterilized or penalized. We want freedom. How can we find a balance, with all of this? The decision to have children isn't solely a personal one. There's a sociological, political and environmental element to it. I hoped to raise those questions, in The Stud Book. That's why it had to be a novel that takes place between characters, who get along, but not always all that well.
This is not a "biological clock" book. It's an environmental clock book. The clock is ticking, and the answer is probably not more babies.
SR: Your short story “Georgie's Big Break” published in The Sun became a scene in your book The Stud Book. When did it become apparent to you that this short story could become a chapter in a novel?
MD: I wrote that one, and then a few other short pieces, and almost right away started to see them as parts of a whole. Hugo House invited me in to read in Seattle. They asked that I write an original piece. I wrote a short story about a man in a public restroom. That became another piece of the initial puzzle, and I knew there was a connection between “Georgie's Big Break”—a woman with a baby—and the man in the bathroom. I kept writing, until I'd filled in their world, populated it.
SR: Your novels explore personal tragedies like failing relationships and loss; however, you use humor to offset those experiences. How do you decide how much humor to use and where it is appropriate?
MD: A long time ago a beautiful woman named Cybele threw her head back and laughed and said, "You can never have too many jokes!" She was a Marilyn Monroe impersonator who crossed Marilyn with Elvis, for an amazing act, Cybelvis. She was a blast. Now, I remember her saying that when I read over my work, and I always want to throw in another joke or two, a one-liner, a moment, a comedic beat. At the same time, my idea of comedy isn't necessarily the standard view of comedy. I've been told it isn't, and I'll accept that. All I know is that life is hard, and sometimes it’s a mess. But there's a kind of comedy that comes through in the absurdity of living. We're all struggling forward, trying to build lives. Sartre is famous for saying "Hell is other people." I won't argue with old Sartre, but maybe this Hell of other people is also kind of a charming and absurd place, too.
SR: The themes of motherhood, birth, and loss recur throughout your work—is there a particular author whose writing on these issues helped shape yours?
MD: It wasn't a particular author. I have a child. When she was born, my worldview shifted. It's possible that I became another character, myself. I had a new vision, new motivations, new concerns. Of course I was and still am me, the same person, but so many things changed, including the kinds of conversations I'd have with friends and strangers. Everything around babies can be highly emotional, raising questions of identity and destiny, and the environment and obligations and most of all of course love. That's what The Stud Book is about—that shifting terrain, when two people bring another human to this crowded, troubled planet, and how it shifts the lives of everyone else, everyone already here.
SR: What is your next project?
MD: I have a new novel in progress. It's set down along the Mexican border, in the Sonoran desert. I'll tell you more, in the near future.
SR: I’m very interested in learning more about this concept of white space, "the writer's false friend," taught to you by Joy Williams. How do you stay away from the “false friend?” What do new writers need to do to make sure they do not fall into the trap of the white space?
MD: The danger is in using whitespace as a way to duck, to imply and avoid scenes that might be hard to put on the page. Maybe it's a reflex, part of the way we consume visual media, an internal extension or variation on FCC ratings. Everyone who grew up on network television has absorbed the unspoken rules of when a show cuts a scene. Things are implied—mostly sex, sometimes violence, or confessions, intimacy—held offscreen either to keep the work rated for a general audience, or make the storyline fit in a commercial time frame. Writers don't need to think that way. When a writer is tempted to drop a scene and pick up elsewhere, it's always worth asking if that isn't the scene which needs to be written.
SR: Going back to those early days of writing in the beginner writer’s workshop, what was the most memorable experience you had?
MD: The most memorable aspect of it was the way Tom Spanbauer held writing as an act that is crucial, nearly sacred and yet entirely possible at the same time. He let us know that words are powerful, and in reach. He also showed us all how to be brave, despite the high probability of rejection. One night, around his old wooden table, somebody had brought in a rejection slip. A single page, words saying, basically, that somebody's work wasn't good enough to get in a little lit magazine. That kind of thing can dishearten anyone. Tom said, "Let's just bring in all our rejections. We'll pile'em up. Make a big pile, right here," and he held his hand about a foot over the tabletop, about as high as the flame flickering on a little candle he had burning, and I think we all saw the pile of rejection we'd amass on our way to success. We never actually gathered our rejections together, in the physical, material way, but any time my work came back to me, I'd remember that moment and know I wasn't in it alone, and I'd just keep going.
SR: Was there a specific instance when you worked as a clown that translated over to Clown Girl?
MD: The whole act of working as a clown and taking risks translates to the goals of writing, to my mind. The kind of clown work I did was pretty self directed and improvisational. It wasn't the high and beautiful art of Cirque du Soleil. It was a variation on street theater. I had to catch people's attention and try to hold it. I had to anticipate my audience. Mostly, I had refuse to worry about looking foolish, and be willing to take risks, see how it worked out.
But one moment which may have informed Clown Girl more than others was the last gig I worked. My two clown buddies had both turned it down, so I was on my own. That took at least half the fun away from the job right there. I was a solo clown. And that day, I woke up with horrible menstrual cramps. But I went on with the show! I did the gig. The problem is, in clown makeup you never get a break. Unless there's an actual backstage, you're always on. You're always in clown gear. After a few hours, I needed a break. I sat down on a curb, and I heard somebody yell, "The clown's sitting down!" I looked, and an employee was pointing at me, and he yelled it again, and other people started looking my way. There was a crowd, my boss-of-the-moment was heading over, pushing his way through people downtown. I got up and had to get out of there.
That scene didn't make into Clown Girl, but the spirit of it did.
SR: You said, “There's one character in particular who perhaps represents the heart of the story, the essential question” in The Stud Book. Which character were you referring to and why?
MD: The character Sarah wants to have a baby, but she's always deeply aware of competition for space and resources between humans, who are multiplying all over the planet, and endangered animals, who are dwindling. She cares about biological diversity, she works in a zoo, she'd like to see all the animals thrive. She represents a question—add to human population, or forgo that urge?—while others are more decided, and either have kids or never will.
SR: Could you describe living in the Sonoran desert and how it compares with living in the Pacific Northwest?
MD: The Sonoran desert is amazing. But it's also rugged, and everything is sharp and full of toxins, ready to pierce your skin and make it swell. You could commit a slow suicide by lying on the ground on a summer day, letting the sun dehydrate you and drain your electrolytes until your heart lost its rhythm. In Oregon, everything is much more gentle, even during the months when it's darker, colder and more rainy.
SR: Did you look at other highly populated novels to help guide your writing in The Stud Book?
MD: No, but I had a few films in mind, like Magnolia and Nashville. I was also thinking a little bit about Dickens, in general terms.
SR: Your short story “Georgie’s Big Break” was made into a short film. Can you describe your experience working with the filmmaker and the actors? Were you on set? Did you work with a screen play?
MD: Once I passed that over to filmmaker Andy Mingo, I didn't have a strong hand in it. I do appear onscreen. It was pretty fun, all around. The story was inspired by events that happened at a literary festival in Portland called Wordstock. But it's fiction, and I worked hard to make sure the story read as a fictional setting, not Wordstock. Andy moved it right back to the actual festival, and got a permit to film in that setting, and turned it into a mockumentary. He involved Wordstock staff and booksellers. He brought in Chelsea Cain, author of the "Gretchen and Archie series," among other things. He brought in our mutual friend Chuck Palahniuk. We also brought in Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols, and author Willy Vlautin, and others. Super fun. I love how writing—a solitary act—gave birth to this collaborative work, a party. So fantastic.
SR: The cover to both of your books really intrigued me. On Clown Girl it is a simple white cover with a rubber chicken and on The Stud Book again we get a white cover covered in white rabbits. Did you get any say in the covers, and if so, why did you choose these specific covers?
MD: I like those covers too, and I can say that without shame because I didn't design them. Adam McIssack designed the Clown Girl cover, and I think it gets to the emotional heart of the novel perfectly. I saw it before it was made public, and I kept telling people it was "beautiful." That was the word I'd use: "So beautiful!" Then when it came out, at least one friend pulled me aside, and said, 'I wouldn't exactly call that beautiful?" She liked it, but saw the grotesque more than the beauty. I think it's both at once, and that's exactly the note I'd want it to hit.
The Stud Book, I feel very lucky about that one. I love it. But again, I had no say in it.
SR: You’ve had a lot of really good advice given to you from Chuck Palahniuk, Joy Williams, and Tom Spanbauer that have helped you become the successful author that you are today. What is some advice you give to new and aspiring writers?
MD: The best advice I got was to be tenacious. That was the word. I wrote that word down and kept it next to my few dollar bills, in a billfold. Be tenacious. That's the advice I'd pass along.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
MD: There's a giant. bare-breasted carved wooden butterfly woman on the wall, from Mexico, and a few ancient books with crazy covers that make me happy on the walls. I have a standing desk, an old Mac, and a stack of papers up to my knees right now. I'm going to tackle that stack after this semester is over.