Elaine McCluskey is a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based author of three short story collections and one previous novel, Going Fast. Her latest novel, published by Anvil Press, is The Most Heartless Town in Canada, which looks at media agendas, amateur sport, family dynamics, and the divide between rural and urban life.
Narrators Rita Van Loon and Hubert Hansen, two former residents of Myrtle (a made up small town on Canada’s east coast), take turns describing the pent-up frustration and backstory of being immortalized in a viral photograph as teenagers that ran in a tear-down article about their once beloved town.
When did you start working on The Most Heartless Town in Canada?
The novel grew out of a short story entitled “The Houdini,” first published in 2006. The story appeared in The Dalhousie Review and it was about a hapless swim team in small-town Nova Scotia. At one meet — and this is based on a true story — coaches decide to tie young swimmers together and throw them into the pool as “The Fun Event.” Of course, the kids are terrified, and older swimmers dub the fiasco The Houdini.
About four years ago, I decided to use those characters for a novel, adding themes and issues. I worked on the book while publishing my third short story collection, Hello, Sweetheart.
Do you think all small towns are weird? Or do you think that city folks just think they are weird?
Some small towns are weird, and you can feel it the moment you arrive. My husband and I drove to a Nova Scotia town full of artists, fair-trade coffee, and craft shops, and I said, “Hmmm, something is not right here.” Turns out that bikers hide out down there and do all sorts of shady things. We went to another coastal town where there had been a brutal murder, and the national media had written stories asking, “Who would have thought this could happen in a place like this?” And we said, “This is exactly where it happens. This is where they burn you out and kill you. Did you not notice the black, lifted pickups and the shifty eyes?”
Most towns, like the one in my novel, are completely benign, completely normal. Nothing bad ever happens there. They are like P.E.I., where the provincial pastime seems to be taking photos of foxes. That and going to splendid beaches.
Sometimes city folk — especially the ones in the media — get it backwards. They think the scary towns are quaint, and the nice ones are hiding something. I suspect small towns all across Canada are the same, mostly innocent and occasionally strange. Although I am suspicious of Saskatchewan.
How does your novel deal with the theme of identity in the age of technology?
One of my characters is terribly affected by technology, and her sense of self is threatened. She appears in a newspaper photo that goes viral, and she is then subjected to cruel comments from the online mob. The photo will not die and even shows up on one of those lists.
Most of the events in my book take place almost a decade earlier, so the effects of technology are not as pronounced. That said, I am disturbed by the level of vitriol one sees online in a country rightfully known for being polite.
How did your time working at The Canadian Press influence your writing?
My time at The Canadian Press made me an economical writer. The wire has tight word limits, and you have to be concise. One description, not two or three. No wasted words.
I also learned to observe at CP; I would, much like the reporter in my book, go places and then be required to sum it up with telling details and anecdotes. I learned what to look for. Signs. Clothing. Clues about what people valued. How they spoke. CP is all about deadlines, so the wire made me fast.
This is my fifth book since 2006. After I began writing fiction, I did let my writing breathe more. I could write longer sentences, I could use unusual words, I could be funny. I enjoyed the tremendous freedom of making things up.
As a mother, do you find that you have a better ear for realistic youth dialogue? Your writing certainly suggests that.
Having children is a huge part of who I am as a writer. It gives me empathy, and it gives me insight into young minds. Both of my kids were heavily involved in swimming and kayak racing, so we lived in a bubble. My son raced for Canada at Junior Worlds in kayak, and my daughter raced at several Senior (kayak) Worlds and Pan Ams, so we were a sports family. In sports, there is euphoria and heartbreak, and we’ve experienced both.
When writing about young people, I sometimes run things by my children. My son suggested the book’s Captains of Crush Hand Gripper detail for Drew, the arm-wrestler in my book. My daughter, who swam varsity for Dalhousie University, gave me swim details. What’s a hard practice? What does it feel like on the blocks?
I am not sure how comfortable I would be with young characters if I hadn’t lived with children, and absorbed the way they speak and think. I generally take the side of children in my writing, and that, too, comes from having my own. In my book, one of my characters says she remembers every bad thing every adult ever did to her; another says he remembers every act of adult kindness. I tend to be more like the former.
Can you discuss the evolution of your themes in all your books and how or why they might have changed over time?
The consistent theme in all of my books is to find a way to laugh at life before it crushes you. See, for example, how absurd it is to judge one person for being overweight, and then be mortally offended when he strikes back and calls you “a cross-eye” or “bugger-eyed. Minimize the indignities by making them ridiculous.
Most of my characters are outsiders, the people I find most interesting and sympathetic. Underdogs, oddballs. The folks who drive gas-powered bicycles and wear hockey helmets. My settings have evolved. My first book, a short story collection, was characterized by reviewers as “suburban angst,” and my first novel was a darkly humorous boxing book set in the city of Halifax.
The Most Heartless Town in Canada is a departure, giving voice to rural Nova Scotia, which I have come to appreciate more. When I started writing 15 years ago, nothing truly terrible had ever happened to me. Then, like most people, I began to suffer losses: my dad died; some of my friends lost children; people got sick. So, I explored some of those emotions, and I became, I believe, more empathetic and more questioning of why things happen.
Hello, Sweetheart was probably the most poignant book I have written, funny but with an undercurrent of sadness. Because of that, I consciously made parts of The Most Heartless Town in Canada humorous. How much I can mess with readers and still have them enjoy it? A fat boy who turns the tables by becoming an international arm-wrestling champion? Sure. A petty criminal who watches the History Channel and learns for the first time about the Civil War and the Titanic? Why not? A fake masseuse who slips into a big meet and massages swimmers for three days. Actually happened.
So far, the reaction has been good; one reader tweeted that she was laughing so hard that she was choking, so that’s good. That’s what I want: people choking.