Nancy Jo Cullen is the winner of the metcalf-rooke award for Canary, her debut short story collection from Biblioasis, which is chock full of gritty, somewhat cheeky tales about characters who operate close to the surface, who speak off the cuff, and who are not above operating a vehicle with open liquor in the car.
There is nowhere for the characters to hide in these stories and so they are left exposed: to children who mock them, parents who embarrass them, lovers who leave them. It is through the actions of these characters that we see their spark, a clue to something more going on. Fathers appear as long suffering, or insufferable, the children all-knowing neophytes. The women, eccentric, breaking out of the mold— seeking Jesus, lovers, the open road. For better or worse, the people who populate this world are getting by. Just.
I met Nancy Jo Cullen across the digital divide in an email conversation that took place in January. I’d taken her collection home for the holidays with the intention of reading it over Christmas, ever hopeful of quiet time among a few dozen family members loitering about my parents’ home in New Brunswick. I didn’t read the book until I returned to Ontario but while down east I did have a conversation with my aunts on a topic that segues into the world of Nancy Jo. Ceramics. The eighteen-inch ceramic Christmas tree that my mother hauls out every year is now apparently worth something. It seems that the tree, with versions made in dozens of ceramics classes in dozens of cities back in the 70s, is now valued at over $100.
When I finally sat down and read these vibrant stories I had a real sense of where she was coming from; as with the character in “Ashes,” my mother did ceramics and my father taught me to drive, though thankfully he didn’t drink beer while he was at it, preferring to wait until we returned home. But ceramics or questionable driving lessons aside, this is a collection that’s upfront about life’s foibles and makes truth of the book’s epigraph, “Gas, grass or ass, no one rides for free.”
Pamela Mulloy: These stories contain great markers of a particular era and speak to irreverent behaviour that seems typical of that time. In “Ashes” the parents smoke, drink coffee laced with Kahlua, and the father sips a beer while teaching his daughter how to drive. Yet there is an innocence as well; this was a time when it seemed every- one did ceramics. This combination of recklessness and innocence sets up the eventual turn of events when the mother leaves the family. Can you speak to this?
Nancy Jo Cullen: I wanted to make “Ashes” a period piece. I wanted to deal with the explosion of Mount St. Helens and use it as a kind of parallel to the life of the family in the story. In the late 70s my mom and I used to go to a ceramics studio in the basement of a house. (That was my mom’s Mother of Pearl Madonna phase.) I guess I just wanted to remember it, to report it in a sense. And to memorialize Harry Truman, this crazy old cat lover who managed what once had been a beautiful summer camp on Mount St. Helens for a great deal of his life. My folks watched the news every night and so from Kelowna we waited for the eruption along with all of the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t know that it was a more innocent time. I sup- pose ceramics do seem naïve in our current digital age where 13-14 year old girls are flashing their breasts across the internet, but I hope that while I have writ- ten something that captures a specific point in time, I’ve debunked the idea that it was a better time, safer or more innocent than now. That recklessness, the coffee-laced Kahlua, is about trying really hard to not feel what you’re feeling.
PM: I really liked the parallel of the disintegrating family and impending explosion of Mount St. Helens, along with the ongoing drama with Harry Truman, which provided a distraction for the father, who in his bourbon and beer-fuelled state is completely tuned into this major event while oblivious to the fact that his wife is about to leave.
NJC: Ed’s a nice guy but he’s helpless. I think he knows what’s going on but rather than address the problem he avoids it and hopes it will go away. I think many people still approach problems this way but maybe they don’t drink so much in the car these days. I hope they don’t.
PM: This was also a time when children were not fret- ted over, when parents were just human beings and not parents. In “Ashes” the narrator says, “It was kind of creepy actually, to think of my parents as young teenyboppers, before she was cranky and he was a salesman.”
NJC: I distinctly remember the time I realized my parents had actually had intercourse. And I’m the youngest of seven kids, so along with that realization came the recognition that they’d done it at least seven times. I was stunned by the idea and totally weirded out. My kids (16 & 13) are equally bothered by the idea of me as a person with drives and feelings beyond making them supper and bossing them around. They kind of think I’m stupid and embarrassing. I think that’s a pretty universal thing—to be freaked out by the idea that your parents might have climbed into the back of a car and got it on. It’s kind of terrible to realize your parents are just human beings.
PM: Okay, let’s talk mothers. In many of these stories the mothers are unhappy, saucy, restless, while fathers (and children) are bewildered, sometimes naively sanguine. In “Ashes” the discussion between father and daughter during a driving lesson speaks to the growing discontent in the family: “No one’s happy if mommy’s not happy.
NJC: I grew up with a very strong-willed mom. We all loved our mom and we were all very close to her as adults. She was funny and she adapted pretty well to the kinds of adults we turned out to be. But she had seven kids when she should probably have had two. Mothering can often be unhappy while we put all our needs and desires on a back burner. And certainly today, younger men are taking on more of the blindly dull labour of parenting but men can be kind of naively sanguine. It may be changing for the better but the wheels of change grind at a snail’s pace. And, honestly, I think angry women are more interesting to write about.
PM: These women are not just strong-willed, they’re feisty. They are not completely submitting to their role as mother, lover, wife, hanging on with bitterness. They’re running away, getting a lover, exploring their sexuality. These women are tapping into desire, searching for freedom. Going to ceramics class is not radical but in the end it becomes so.
NJC: Yes. Well, the 70s were the bridge when some women were able to change their lives, sometimes at great cost. Many of my female characters are working to escape their situation, I suppose, but just as many of them are holding on to their past in a kind of stubborn refusal to forgive their past. I think that dysfunction makes for a more interesting story, so my characters aren’t necessarily successful at their attempts to change. Or certainly, they’re not living the easy happy ending.
PM: Teenage angst and confusion over burgeoning sexuality looms large in some of the stories. In “Big Fat Beautiful You” the narrator and her friend, Malcolm Cameron, are “united by the unspeakable strangeness” they felt.
NJC: I think there is a point in our teenage years when our bodies begin to betray us in a sense; we menstruate, get random erections, feel all this distracting desire. Our parents are suddenly disappointing nobs in the other room. Not very many people say they’d like to re-live their teenage years because teenage years are just awkward. And uncomfortable. And suddenly we realize the adult world is populated by idiots and we’re related to them. It’s mighty uncomfortable shedding the child and becoming the adult. I wanted to explore that.
PM: The scenes with Kyle and his mother, Judi, in “Canary” are rife with examples of a discomfited relationship. Her behaviour is embarrassing to Kyle and I wonder whether she is self-aware enough to know that she’s not helping. Kyle seems the steady one here.
NJC: Judi is definitely not self-aware. She’s just bum- bling through her anxiety and embarrassing her son in the process. The genesis of the story was a conversation with my son and daughter about how funny it would be to make a kids’ movie where the mom went on a date with her kid. But then I thought about it and decided to make the tale a little lonelier than Disney might. In some ways, I’m making fun of myself in this story. I’m no Judi but sometimes just answering the door and saying “hello, how are you?” to one of my kid’s friends makes me embarrassing. Apparently, I’m not supposed to talk at all.
PM: Despite all the angst of the teenage years, the experiments with pot, alcohol or sex while dealing with drunken or deserting parents, they all have some- thing, a kind of inner wisdom that allows them to see through what’s going on and gives hope that they will turn out just fine.
NJC: Well, I think that, for the most part, teenagers believe they’ll come out of whatever situation alive/ fine. And most of them do. Of course I’m speaking to a certain kind of privileged adolescent who is largely economically secure, has a pink tone to their skin. So yes, the kids in those stories expect things to go their way to a certain extent.
PM: Jesus figures regularly in these stories as many of the characters get religion. In “Passenger” Harvey’s wife and daughter “took to Jesus” while Harvey seems to be trying to figure it out. There is religion here, not exactly spiritual awakening but a good old-fashioned God-or-nothing belief system. Do these people need Jesus in their lives or do they just the need to believe in something?
NJC: I don’t think these characters need to believe in something. I wanted to look at dysfunction in the characters’ lives through the lens of a human-described God. The biblical God is mean-spirited and vengeful and dominates through terror. I like to talk about that in my writing, I suppose. But, despite God being rather terrifying, I think that people are looking for salvation, my characters are at least, although I’m not necessarily talking about salvation in the church-tent revival way. Many of my characters want to be rescued, their ideas about religion sometimes plays a part in this.
PM: The mean-spirited side of religion is evident in Rayanne’s experience in “The Passenger,” where her knowledge of religion comes from her grandfather who explained thunder as God “throwing bombs at us for being lazy and not cleaning our rooms.” No wonder she chooses to run away! In this story Rayanne is described as someone full of “piss and vinegar.” This could be said of a lot of the characters; a bluntness in the way they interact, in the way they move through the world. Blunt in a way that is refreshing, disarming but not offensive, and often with humour. This bluntness is part of the style but it’s also part of their story. These are not people consumed by quiet reflection but rather people who deal with their issues head on.
NJC: The character Rayanne is at war with her world because it’s not a world that’s particularly valued her. So she’s acting out. Harvey, her companion, hasn’t been especially appreciated either but he has a different way of going about things, motivated more by guilt and sorrow than anger. But if my characters thought too much about what they were doing they wouldn’t do it, so there is a bluntness to their interactions, as they tend to react, rather than reflect.
PM: Yes, you get the feeling they act first and think later. Many of these are people operating without a filter. So it seems natural in the title story for Judi to ask her fourteen year old son who is about to go on a date whether he’d like her to buy him condoms, to tell his date that she didn’t mean to imply the girl was “slutty.”
NJC: I think many of my characters have trouble seeing a larger picture. They’re immature, really. And maybe struggling with the surprise that the world doesn’t really have their backs.
PM: The characters are often adrift in their mismatched families struggling with their own identities, and sometimes their own sexualities. When the narrator in “Big Fat Beautiful You” goes to the therapist and is asked questions that seem to illustrate a blatant lack of understanding, she appears sardonic and self- aware while still working out her place in the family.
NJC: The narrator in “Big Fat Beautiful You” is a lonely character, I suppose. I don’t think of her so much as struggling with her place in her family—she’s very attached to her sister—but as rather not being able to separate from her family in order to lead her own full life. She acts as a kind of dependable anchor to the dysfunction in her sister’s life and works as a buffer between her sister and her parents. She’s trapped in that place, although she doesn’t really want to leave that place either. It’s lonely but comfortable.
PM: While she remains trapped, a lot of people are running away. The narrator in “Big Fat Beautiful You” speaks of comets being like celestial outsiders that are sometimes “pulled into a gravitational force.” Many of the characters are trying to break away from their own “gravitational force.”
NJC: Running away is a way of dealing with problems without really dealing with problems. Like stuffing everything into a cupboard that never gets organized. My characters are resisting the force of their lives imposed on them, mostly by family. I’m interested in how those intimate relationships nurture and harm us.
PM: Nurture and harm us. That does sound like the stuff of families. And because the characters are constantly pulled back into their orbit, their experiences are not necessarily transformative. They don’t always get to a better place.
NJC: I’m not a fan of the pretty ending. We don’t always get to a better place. It’s a matter of taste, really. To misquote Auden, suffering—or stories—takes place while someone else is just walking dully along. So while the boy falls from the sky into the ocean the ship sails calmly on as it has business to conduct. Even if some- thing big has happened very little in the world actually changes. I guess the endings of my stories reflect that.
PM: Is this the case with Caroline in “Big Fat Beautiful You,” who is “like one of those comets that travel fast enough to enter and leave the solar system with almost no attention?”
NJC: Yes. Caroline’s resistance to the status quo is broken down by giving birth to children. Parenting is a great normalizer. So all that rebellion gives way to rearing two kids alone. She’s left nothing significant behind. She’s essentially assimilated into suburbia, looking, in so many ways, just like her own folks.
PM: Then there is the side of these characters that just wants to have fun. In “Big Fat Beautiful You” a defeated Caroline confesses dolefully that, “I used to know how to have fun.” And similarly in “Canary” Judi mourns the past. “The puritans have taken over, if those kids had a clue what went on in the discotheques they’d be crying over their spilt milk.”
NJC: There is a point in life, I think, when most of us realize we have to tow some kind of line. That we’re going to get old, that, if we have children we have many years of financial penury left and this sometimes comes as a surprise. There is a kind of person who doesn’t start young and do the things adults are sup- posed to do like get a straight job or buy a house. Then you have characters like Caroline and Judi who are left holding the bag, rearing children and managing housing and work and food, and so fun is pretty much a thing of the past.
PM: Well then we should rejoice with Judi when she “closes her eyes and lets her youth wash over her. Celebrate good times, she hums, Come on! We’re going to have a celebration.”