“Nuanced, like life is.” An interview with Chelsea Rooney


By Shawn Syms

Chelsea RooneyIt’s not everyday that you read a powerful debut novel about the thorny topic of childhood sexual abuse. And I doubt I’ve ever read one quite like Pedal by Chelsea Rooney. Combining her personal experience with the subject matter with a profound sense of empathy, Rooney challenges orthodoxies surrounding sexual abuse and childhood sexuality. A complicated narrative that confounds the standard victim/perpetrator paradigm, Pedal (Caitlin Press) is one of the most daring Canadian fiction debuts in years.

Rooney and I had a wide-ranging conversation about road novels, sexual abuse in Canlit, how to research a book about pedophilia, and the power of sharing personal stories. We corresponded by email between Vancouver and Toronto—meeting in the middle on the page at the Winnipeg Review.

In many ways, this book is about the nuanced nature of human agency and self-determination. Pedal chronicles a journey of personal discovery for a young woman who experienced sexual touching from her father as a little girl. I understand you engaged in significant research while working on the book—could you describe your research focus and some of your sources?

I started with papers in psychiatric, medical, social work and academic journals that surveyed the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. I found these frustrating, mostly, because they rarely called attention to the differences between physically painful abuse and non-painful sexual touching. I knew that since my abuse hadn’t been painful or scary, the impact would be drastically different than if it had.

From here, I found my way to a book that changed my life. The Trauma Myth by Dr. Susan Clancy documents nine years of full-time research at Harvard University with people like me: adults confused, not traumatized, by their molestation. The blurb reads, “Clancy argues that the reactions of society and the healing professions—however well-meaning—in fact shackle the victims of abuse in chains of guilt, secrecy and shame.” I literally danced in the aisle at Chapters and cried, “Yes!” when I read that line. It’s what I’d been trying to say for years. (I’ve been in touch with Clancy over the years. She says she took a professional hit after the book came out. The comments under online reviews of her book show outrage over her ideas. I don’t think she’s at Harvard anymore.)

At this time I was also reading second-wave feminists. Louise Armstrong, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin… these women gave my anger context. The idea that taboo and stigma were tools of the patriarchy—that an “over-share” is a misogynist invention—was totally new to me. From there, Florence Rush’s book The Freudian Cover-up (about Freud’s doubling back on his theory that childhood sexual abuse caused mental unease in women) led me to early nineteenth century court transcripts and orphanage logbooks that showed judges and doctors blaming little girls—especially pretty ones—for flirting with adults and provoking abuse. Here lies one robust stem of Rape Culture, and I could have kept following its root back to the seed but at this point I started writing Pedal. (I also spent months on pedophile forums, which I discuss in a later answer.)

Let’s talk a bit about where the book sits in the context of Canlit or literary fiction more generally. What novels or short stories inspired or influenced you as you were working on the novel? Are there any books that—in terms of either content or approach—you would see as foremothers or antecedents to Pedal?

Before I read Fall on Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald when I was in grade eight, I was obsessed with the idea of moving to Los Angeles and writing for film. Living in a rural agricultural community in Nova Scotia, I had absolutely zero idea of what that would look like. Berwick couldn’t be farther nor further away from Los Angeles. I was a Buffy fanatic—of both the film and the television series—and I fantasized in great detail about working with Joss Whedon, writing movie scripts for Sarah Michelle Gellar, and marrying Ryan Phillipe. You know. The usual thirteen-year-old stuff.

But then that summer I read Fall on Your Knees, and I felt so much. And I remember thinking: these are grown-up feelings. (Not the same as when Buffy kills Angel to close the Hellmouth.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was feeling empathy. Empathy for Kathleen, whose father sexualizes her at a very young age, like mine had. The story takes place in Nova Scotia, making it feel even closer to home. When I finished the book, I gave up the dream of screenwriting and decided to write novels instead.

The other novel that made me want to write Pedal is Helpless by Barbara Gowdy, which I read fifteen years later while riding my bicycle across Canada. I remember lying on the lawn of Moose Jaw’s beautiful public library and wondering, who is this novel for? It’s the story of a male predator who kidnaps a preternaturally beautiful mixed-race nine-year-old girl. He abducts her, keeps her in his basement for the duration of the novel, wants to molest her so intensely, and then lets her go without touching her. The only character with any agency is the kidnapper. The little girl is abducted, her mother is completely passive, and the kidnapper’s girlfriend just does what he says. It seemed to me like the whole story hinged solely on the will-he-or-won’t-he-touch-her question, which felt exploitative to me. Our thinking around pedophilia is so black and white, so knee-jerk. I wanted Pedal to contain nuance, like life does.

Pedal centres on a highly emotionally charged road trip—your protagonist Julia Hoop cycles across the country in a search for her abusive father Dirtbag. In its candour about topics and ideas rarely explored in mainstream media, Pedal adds a new twist to a time-honoured story vehicle—the road trip, or more broadly, the quest. Did your choice of this device or formal constraint specifically facilitate anything you were trying to accomplish in terms of character or theme? Did it make it anything harder to do?

The shape of a road novel gives—and the shape of the road novel takes away.

There’s an inherent arc in a physical journey that helps with pacing. In Pedal, Julia rides her bicycle across Canada. People say it’s a page-turner, and I think that’s why. As humans we have the sense that time is up ahead, waiting for us. We want to see what’s around the next corner and at the top of the mountain. Also, Julia’s looking for someone (her father) and approaching a destination (her childhood home in Nova Scotia). All built-in suspense mechanisms.

And the road novel taketh away. Novels set in homes have so much work already done for them. Just one line of text—The women had been best friends for twenty-seven years—tells a story in and of itself. I wrote the second draft of Pedal while reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. It’s an intimately drawn portrait of two feuding families headed by academics, one Democrat and one Republican. I basically drank that story like wine; it was so intoxicating, the heady domestic dynamics fermenting on every page. At that point, I cursed myself for writing a road novel. My protagonist Julia kept meeting new people and then biking away from them. I didn’t feel like I was a good enough writer with the skill to create rich, real characters in so few pages. But I imagine every novel presents us with a new challenge we struggle to meet.

One of the more interesting moments in Pedal is the Vancouver meeting of Minor-Attracted Adults or MAA. Did you ever attend such a meeting—if not, what combination of imagination and research helped you depict it?

No, I was not able to attend an MAA meeting, and I had to guess at how a meeting would be structured. Since Pedal was published, two reviews have come out of the MAA community. Neither mentions the structure of the MAA meeting nor calls into question what happens there, so I have to assume I did an okay job of making educated guesses. I read as much as I could about the MAAs, a more inclusive organization than its predecessor, the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). I also studied the IPCE—the International Pedophile and Child Emancipation—a group engaged in scholarly discussion about the understanding and emancipation of mutual relationships between children or adolescents and adults. This is all research my protagonist Julia also did and discusses in Pedal.

I spent several months on a forum for pedophiles, and I privately corresponded with one man who claimed to be a non-offending pedophile. He did not want to hurt children and was considering chemical castration. I sought him out because his posts were never emotional or angry, and were often written with the intention of either helping someone refrain from offending. It was clear he’d been thoughtfully analyzing his situation for a long time. He provided me with a lot of insight, much of which I used in Pedal.

Due to the very real barriers to information, the stigmatization, and the hate felt for adults attracted to minors, these people—many of whom claim to have never offended and to want to never offend—have hardly any community or support. They live a life of self-loathing, and much discussion on these forums relates to their contemplating suicide.

At the MAA meeting, the group facilitator, Bird, says “I do believe, and research supports, that pedophilia is like any other sexual orientation. You are born with it, or not.” This is an interesting question—and a politically loaded one. From my own perspective for example, I do not believe that people are born straight or gay and I have experienced fluctuations in my own sexual desire and identity over time. That’s not to say I think sexual identities or desires are “chosen” either—I just think the reality is more complicated. Based on your experience and research, what are your thoughts on the argument your character makes?

To be primarily attracted to children in our culture in 2015 basically ensures a life of secrecy, shame, and potential criminal charges and conviction. Based on the conversations I’ve had with alleged pedophiles, I think some say that pedophilia is either a birth defect or a genetic sexual orientation in an attempt to explain a situation that otherwise feels like a curse.

Writing Pedal allowed me to investigate many aspects of my identity I’d avoided since my childhood abuse. Shame and stigma around my molestation made contemplating my gender and sexual attractions somewhat triggering. After I wrote Pedal, I’ve been much more aware of certain aspects of my gender as performance and my sexual attractions as shifting over time. But that’s my experience as cisgender and mostly straight; my proclivities are never called into question and therefore I never have to defend them. I can’t say what I would think about sexual identity if I were gay or transgender.

Since Pedal came out, two peers from high school who’ve since transitioned have been in touch with me. Neither of their transitions was a shock nor a surprise, just as aspects of my current identity didn’t seem to shock or surprise either of them. One’s a writer and public figure and the other is a proud hockey dad. After we’d caught up, he said, “Thanks for not being a jerk about my transition,” which led to a conversation about how curious (and horrifying) it is when people—who actually couldn’t be affected less by the lives of trans folks—concern themselves with the sexual identities of others. As a writer, I try hard every day to understand the motivation to insert oneself in other communities and propagate intolerance, and I’ve failed. In this sense, I guess I will forever remain naïve—easily shocked by people who’d rather propagate intolerance they know hurts and kills than accept everyone with love.

Your characters in Pedal eschew good/evil archetypes, exhibiting complexity. For instance, Julia claims intellectually to be more or less unaffected by early childhood sex experiences that crossed power boundaries—but she eats away pain and drinks voraciously and hits people. Working with teachers or agents or publishers, did you ever get an advice to tone down or simplify your characters to make them more easily digestible?

None of my early readers—fashion writer Christine Ama, thesis advisor Keith Maillard, agent John Pearce, Caitlin Press publishers Vici Johnstone and Andrea Routley—suggested toning down or simplifying characters, at least not in those words. They asked questions, certainly, about the emotional journeys within each scene, and encouraged me to look at what’s happening moment to moment (as opposed to the feeling or message that’s trying to be communicated). This helped focus my characters, drawing their features more clearly. Caitlin Press was ready to make Pedal’s galley proofs, but I wanted one more go at tone. It had been over two years since I finished the first draft, and I knew my protagonist much better at this point. I could see the reasons for her anger more clearly; I saw them as entirely rooted in fear. She steals a truck driver’s keys because she is afraid he will beat her. She hits her partner across the face because she is afraid he’s betrayed her. I was paired with author John Gould, who helped me pinpoint the moments where the levels or expression of Julia’s anger were out of balance with the rest of the scene.

Since publication, so far just one reviewer has suggested the novel would have benefited from a more substantive edit. Perhaps the mother didn’t have to also be sick. Perhaps the father didn’t have to be both a pedophile and a rapist. And maybe that reviewer is right. I’m not sure, because I didn’t write that book.

Pedal is in many ways a sort of meta commentary on the role of creativity in coping with conflict, trauma, shame or moral ambivalence—Dirtbag, as only one example, wrote a book of poetry. You have mentioned that some elements of your personal experience are reflected in Pedal—what impact has writing the book and putting it out into the world had upon you?

I recently attended a talk by Margaret Jones Callahan, a talented mindfulness instructor and art therapist. She spoke on the connection between creativity and healing from trauma. Afterward, I asked her what it is, exactly, about making art that helps people who’ve been abused. She said something so beautiful, which I’ll try to paraphrase. The artist develops a safe relationship between herself and the art tool—paintbrush, pencil, clay. If she makes a mistake, the tool remains inert. The relationship is tacit—she does not have to speak, and because she does not have to speak, she is not in constant fear of saying something wrong. Because she is not worrying about saying something wrong—a word that could inspire any form of violence—she gets further and further away from her shame. Other feelings have space to arrive—comfort, peace, pride.

Sharing my story made me physically healthier. I finished the first draft of Pedal on April 27, 2012. Two months before that day, I smoked my last cigarette, ending a ten-year, one-pack+/day habit. One month before that day, I had my last drink of alcohol, ending a ten-year binge-drinking habit. Since finishing Pedal, I’ve become close friends with more women than at any other point in my life. Though I can’t necessarily connect the dots, all of these events feel connected to my writing Pedal. For these reasons, I have so much gratitude for my advisor Keith, for the team at Caitlin Press, and for the people who read Pedal and find something in it worth sharing. Thank you.

Shawn Syms is a Contributing Editor to the Winnipeg Review, editor of Friend. Follow.Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, and author of Nothing Looks Familiar.

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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.