‘Let pain get cold’: An Interview with Nadia Bozak


Nadia BozakBy Julienne Isaacs

Nadia Bozak has a deft hand for the unexpected: the author of two critically acclaimed novels in “the Border Trilogy”—Orphan Love and El Nino, which have been compared to the works of J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy—and was set to write the third when she instead produced Thirteen Shells, a short-story cycle in 13 parts set in quiet southern Ontario. Bozak is an instructor at Carleton University, so it might not surprise readers to learn that of her published works, a scholarly volume is actually her favourite, as she told Ifpress. Thirteen Shells isn’t scholarly, but it’s an emotional story told with a scholar’s restraint.

What was the start of Thirteen Shells for you? Several of these stories have been published as short stories in various literary magazines. Which story was written first, and at what point did you realize you had a novel’s worth of stories about a girl called Shell?

The first story I wrote was the first to be published and the first that appears in the book, “Greener Grass.”

These stories were very much an accident. I went to live and write for three months in a little house in a little village in County Clare, Ireland. It was my friend’s house, and he rented it to me for a song. I had just signed a contract for my second novel, El Niño, and so was very much between projects. Before I went, I had been writing down stories from my childhood, simply because a friend had suggested it after listening to some random anecdotes I told over coffees and dinners and declaring them pretty funny.

So, anyway, I was all alone in this funny old house on the main street of this sleepy village, with no phone or internet or television – just me and a clunky old netbook, drinking strong tea, eating Jaffa Cakes, writing. Under these hermetic conditions, the stories flowed. It was like giving birth to a litter of kittens, one popped out after the other. By the end of that Irish summer, I knew I had the shape of a book. I was so lucky to have had that experience of uninterrupted, guilt-free writing. Those months alone in Ireland were one of the happiest periods of my life.

While the development of Shell herself is very much the focus of these stories, Thirteen Shells’ unifying theme is the breakdown in the relationship—and ultimate divorce—of Shell’s parents. As Shell grows up, her parents are growing apart; her development happens in tension with the unraveling of their marriage. How did you avoid “taking a side” in Shell’s parents’ conflict? Did you find yourself becoming dispassionate, compassionate—or simply passionate—while writing about its impact on Shell?

Remaining impartial when it came to representing the interests of both Mum and Dad was certainly a challenge. This required some revising to achieve, as, to be honest, the character of Dad was always a little more blameworthy than Mum for the end of the marriage – after all, it is Dad who leaves the family in pursuit of personal and artistic growth in Toronto. How was it possible to get the reader to understand his decision? It took some degree of nuanced finessing to achieve that – or, at least, it was my intention to achieve that. But, ultimately, I wanted all the characters in the book, including Shell herself, to be equally flawed, equally human, and therefore equally sympathetic to the reader. That overarching desire tempered the impassioned feelings I may have brought to the representation of this family’s story.

Related to this, an even greater challenge was for Mum to be as strong as character as Dad. In early drafts, the major critique of my editor was that Mum was more of an apparition than a character; semi-formed lingering in Dad’s shadow. This insight was totally accurate; of course, Mum, like so many women, gets lost in the personality of a dominant spouse, relinquishing her own voice and personality as she labours to keep the domestic peace. To capture this, I wanted Mum to be defined by her quiet reserve, but without sacrificing the reader’s interest in her. Ultimately, this was the greatest challenge I faced in balancing out the representation of this marriage’s breakdown.

I was struck by Shell’s evolving relationship to food. She is raised on healthy, homemade or local foods that her ‘hippy’ parents prepare themselves. Her first girlfriend, Vicki, introduces her to a range of ‘forbidden’, processed foods (Cadbury Easter Crème eggs, Pop-Tarts, Popsicles) that seem to offer the heights of sophistication and experience. Shell’s first taste of Corn Flakes, in the story “Children of the Corn,” is stolen, illicit, but it “really does taste like corn, sweet and earthy.” Following her parents’ separation, Shell’s relationship with food takes a darker turn: “what’s left is a hunger, ever deepening, for salty, oil-slicked, oven-warmed food; processed, preserved, store-bought.” These stories tap into the richness and importance food has for all children, but they also highlight Shell’s sensitivity. Did you consciously set out to make food a driving theme for these stories? What intrigues you about Shell’s hunger?

Food is just such a huge social and psychological part of our lives and I really wanted the book to capture that. When I was studying literature in university, it always annoyed me that writers, scholars, and readers would ignore the presence or absence of food in fiction. Not writing about a character’s relationship to eating seems false somehow. I think I set out to counter that, to bring food to the fore. It was such a pleasure developing themes around food in this book. In fact, if I look back at my two novels, Orphan Love and El Niño, they are also hugely preoccupied with food, though because food is scarce rather than abundant as it is in Shells.

In the earlier stories, I set out to use food as a way to gauge the class differences between Shell and her neighborhood friends. While the narrator, looking through Shell’s eyes, never tells the reader that Vicki, for example, belongs to a different social class, the food that she eats signals such differences to the reader. Food helped me narrate what happens when children negotiate differences of class, race, and gender, when the daughters of factory workers and starving artists are friends. I loved playing out these tensions, which I did using food (and Shell’s obsession with taboo processed food) as a shorthand.

As the stories progress and Shell grows, she develops a rather unhealthy emotional relationship with food. Here, I wanted to use food as a lexicon for the deep, complicated pain that Shell experiences when her dad leaves the family home. As the stories move through her adolescence and then teenage years, I feel her relationship with food improves, signaling the beginning of her own healing.

Joan Jett—or someone very like her—makes a lengthy cameo appearance in one story, as does a Bruce Cockburn lookalike in another. Music weaves through the stories in Thirteen Shells, but references to songs and songwriters are reverent rather than nostalgic; tape decks and special-ordered posters are more than just set pieces for Shell’s development. Can you talk about the role of music and musicians in forming Shell’s self-image? Why is it Joan Jett who drops into Shell’s life, rather than Patti Smith, Shell’s obsession?

Like food, the music of Shell’s time acts as shorthand for Shell, and the reader, by extension, to understand a particular feeling or the physical quality certain person might have. To describe a person as looking like Bruce Cockburn puts an image in the reader’s mind that is so rooted in a particular time and place as to be almost tangible. Using music as a reference point also makes the narrative voice believable, for it uses the very textures of Shell’s time to create her world for the reader.

There is no deliberate reason for why Patti Smith doesn’t populate Shell’s world in the same physical way this “Joan Jett” character does. They are both part of an overarching exploration of how music (popular music including rock, punk, folk, hip hop) has the power to save, reshape, and inspire the souls of alienated adolescents. This happened to me. I was an extremely lonely, sad, insecure kid, with few friends, no talent or affinity for anything. I will never forget hearing The Clash for the first time when snooping through my older brother’s records. By the time “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was over, I realized I had a reason for living: to find out where that music came from and why. I gave Shell Joan and Patti as guiding lights, touchstones for her as she transforms from a girl into a young woman. Patti eclipses Joan, though, informing Shell’s love for poetry and existentialist literature that sets her apart from her friends and her town and suggests that her love for rock and roll and punk will grow with her beyond her teenage years.

There is a lot of pain in Thirteen Shells, but Shell is more than a character who endures; “like Meursault… she is happy and has been happy all along.” Thirteen Shells is not autobiography, but it references some of your own experiences. How did you avoid the ‘misery memoir’ obsession with triumph over tragedy, given that Thirteen Shells’ driving theme is a sad one?

I am happy to hear that I avoided falling into conventional approaches to writing about pain. Yes, Shells does reference personal experience as my parents, like Shell’s, separated when I was about ten years old. I suppose if I had set out to write these stories when I was younger, it would have been a weepy and even angry affair.

Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers, said something about waiting to write about experience only when it gets “cold.” Without intending to, I let the pain of family breakdown get as cold as I could before delving into it. As a result, I could see the humour in some of the situations, such as Shell’s struggles with eating and weight gain and Dad’s well-intended left-wing idealism. Also, as I am now about the same age as my parents in these stories (and am a parent myself), I see Mum and Dad as complicated people trying to manage the disappointment that can come with sacrificing one’s professional desires for a family.

So, yes, time allowed me to see the big picture of these stories and this family. In the past I have written about hurt and pain when it is too recent, too raw. This kind of revenge writing, fueled by anger or remorse, can be great as a way to understand and then exorcise the pain – but it’s not always fit for anyone’s eyes but one’s own. I learned that the hard way. Let pain get cold before you write about it. You might find it gets cold enough, distant enough you don’t really want to write about it anymore.

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Isaacs Julienne

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and an associate editor at the Winnipeg Review.