Chelsea Rooney: Ex­plor­ing Hope and Truth in Pedal

NAV NAGRA

Room Magazine - - NAGRA -

Upon read­ing Pedal and through­out our thread by thread in­ter­view, I be­gan to feel closer to Chelsea Rooney as an artist. When we fi­nally did meet in per­son at Room’s 40th an­niver­sary an­thol­ogy launch in March, I was tempted to blurt this fact out loud but thought against it in or­der to not ap­pear too swoon-ish. Though, I sup­pose she knows now.

Rooney is a host for The Sto­ry­telling Show on Vancouver Co-op Ra­dio. Her first novel, Pedal, was pub­lished by Caitlin Press in 2014. Pedal was nom­i­nated for the 2015 ReLit Award for Best In­de­pen­dent Fic­tion, and was a fi­nal­ist for the 2015 Ama­zon.ca First Novel Award, co-pre­sented with The Wal­rus. In her re­view for The Globe and Mail, Stacey May Fowles de­scribed Pedal as “A de­but novel sure to spark de­bate . . . Be­yond any­thing, the novel wisely as­serts that sex­ual abuse and trauma are not prob­lems as sim­plis­tic and eas­ily solved as we want them to be. Un­til we are able to have the hard con­ver­sa­tions about their com­plex­ity we will be no closer to pre­vent­ing their per­va­sive­ness.”

In the fol­low­ing in­ter­view, Rooney dis­cusses some of the in­spi­ra­tions for her work, the need for com­plex­ity in con­ver­sa­tions about trauma, and how fic­tion can set us free.

ROOM: What drew you to the craft of writ­ing?

CR: I have writ­ten sto­ries since I was a child, five or six years old. My fa­ther read to me ev­ery night dur­ing the first few years of my life. Early teach­ers praised my skills and gave me op­por­tu­ni­ties to show­case my writ­ing. I loved read­ing more than I loved do­ing any­thing else, and al­ways ex­pe­ri­enced writ­ing as the im­print of read­ing, or as a giv­ing back to the au­thors from whom I’d taken.

ROOM: Was Pedal a story you knew you were go­ing to tell or did it grow within you through­out your ex­plo­ration of writ­ing?

CR: I didn’t know I was go­ing to tell Pedal un­til it ap­peared one day in my head and out onto the page. I’ve never heard the same story told twice about how an au­thor ar­rives at their novel, poem, or screen­play. Show­ing up to the lap­top or note­book day af­ter day seems to be the only com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in how we craft sto­ries.

ROOM: How much of a role did the old adage “write what you know” come into play while you were writ­ing Pedal?

CR: Be­fore Pedal was pub­lished, my the­sis ad­vi­sor Keith Mail­lard told me to with­hold the fact that some of the ex­pe­ri­ences in it—namely, the kind of mo­lesta­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by Ju­lia the pro­tag­o­nist—were au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Naively, I thought: Why would I with­hold this fact? I write to find truth, and the truth is, these are my ex­pe­ri­ences. Doesn’t the truth set us free?

No, it does not. Ev­ery­one’s truth is dif­fer­ent, and so the truth ac­tu­ally ends up di­vid­ing us and set­ting us against one another. It’s fic­tion that sets us free. In an at­tempt to learn some­thing new, I write what I don’t un­der­stand.

ROOM: I love that you re­fer to fic­tion as set­ting us free. I agree com­pletely. When writ­ing what you don’t un­der­stand, how do you ap­proach such a con­cept?

CR: I put char­ac­ters with sin­gu­lar ques­tions—like: What is abuse? How do we talk about it?—into sit­u­a­tions I’ve never per­son­ally been in be­fore. In Pedal, a psy­chol­ogy grad stu­dent cy­cles across Canada

with a non-of­fend­ing pe­dophile. Plot­ting a time­line hasn’t worked for me. I fol­low the thing I know noth­ing about, and so keep learn­ing new things, but the ques­tions I have stay the same: What is abuse? How do we talk about it?

ROOM: In fol­low­ing the thing you know noth­ing about, you men­tion that this shifts and me­an­ders things as you en­counter them, does this in turn af­fect the path that you have ini­tially set your char­ac­ter on? Have you found that the nar­ra­tive has taken a dras­tic shift from what you ex­pected?

CR: Yes, ab­so­lutely! I never know how a story will un­fold. The an­swers to your ques­tions change de­pend­ing on whom you ask. From a fam­ily to a pedes­trian to a teacher to a col­league, abuse is car­ried out dif­fer­ently. But the one thing I count on is that hu­mans abuse. We al­ways have. No deny­ing that.

To know what abuse is and how we talk about it at dif­fer­ent in­ter­sec­tions, I have to look at my own. How have I abused oth­ers? How have I been abused? It’s easy for me to see the harm caused to me by abuse, but harder to see the harm I have caused oth­ers. There’s also the fear that, if I look for this harm and find it, then I’ll fi­nally be pun­ished for it. These ques­tions are real fears. It’s why we deny abuse. But the best sto­ries delve deep into the im­pacts of our ac­tions, abu­sive or not. So that’s where I go in my writ­ing.

ROOM: Ab­so­lutely. In Pedal, we see the im­pact of events and abuse form into com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships, thoughts and feel­ings for all of the char­ac­ters within Pedal. How­ever, I found that you merely touched upon these el­e­ments and al­lowed the reader to fold into the story and find out for them­selves. You don’t re­veal the whole pic­ture but rather lift the veil. Was that an in­ten­tional el­e­ment to your story?

CR: Elena Fer­rante said, “We be­tray our sto­ries out of lazi­ness, out of ac­qui­es­cence, out of con­ve­nience, out of fear.” Lazi­ness to in­ves­ti­gate more com­pli­cated truths, ac­qui­es­cence in bend­ing to so­cial pres­sure to tell ac­cept­able sto­ries, con­ve­nience—the path al­ready beaten down for us! And fear of re­jec­tion: If I tell this story, will I be ban­ished from so­ci­ety? Will I die? The only emo­tion I’m ever one hun­dred per­cent cer­tain of when I’m writ­ing is anger. Fer­rante writes such pre­cise and sub­dued

anger. Her pro­tag­o­nist isn’t an­gry about the things you’d think she’d be an­gry about. Anger, on its own, tells us noth­ing. Only that some­thing else is there. It’s a metal de­tec­tor for what lies be­neath, the thing that we’re try­ing to fig­ure out, the rea­son we write, the rea­son we tell sto­ries.

ROOM: Amaz­ing. So what would you tell some­one who is worried by these no­tions of re­jec­tion, dis­grace or be­ing ban­ished through the ex­plo­ration of their craft?

CR: At sev­eral times through­out a day the ques­tion, “How should a per­son be?” comes to mind. Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel is a mem­o­rable book for me be­cause of how closely it looks at this ques­tion. How should a per­son be a friend? How should a per­son be an artist? How should a per­son write?

I was go­ing to say that as writ­ers we shouldn’t cling to “right” or “wrong” but of course we do. We all write with moral com­passes. And all moral com­passes have been up al­ways for de­bate. I aim to be kind in both life and in fic­tion, giv­ing my char­ac­ters op­por­tu­nity to fuck up, be hu­man, feel pain, cause harm, see them­selves, be for­given. But they have to see them­selves to be for­given; they have to wit­ness their own abuse. If you can’t ad­mit how you’ve hurt some­one, it’s dif­fi­cult to move in any di­rec­tion. That’s why sto­ries of­ten hinge on dis­hon­esty, or where one per­son’s truth stops match­ing some­one else’s.

ROOM: It’s in­ter­est­ing that you say, “Dis­hon­esty is where the story is,” in many ways it re­ally is how fic­tion is cre­ated. That be­ing said, Pedal has many truths within it un­der­neath the dis­hon­esty of the char­ac­ters and their mo­tives. Do you think truth can ever dic­tate a story as well as dis­hon­esty? In your sec­ond novel, will truth dic­tate the nar­ra­tive?

CR: Truth is a weird one. I’ve been called a liar so many times in the past year and a half that I now have a hard time un­der­stand­ing how we de­ter­mine over­re­ac­tion or straight-up lies. It seems that un­less some­thing is caught on film, a fact of vi­o­lence or ha­rass­ment can be dis­puted or held up as dis­hon­est. I used to think that I could show peo­ple the truth by giv­ing them in­for­ma­tion. I no longer think that.

There’s a vis­ual artist, Al­berto Gi­a­cometti, who made these long, weird sculp­tures of ex­ag­ger­ated hu­man forms and when I saw one in

real life (at MOCA in 2013) I felt this in­stant sad fa­mil­iar­ity in my belly. The tall skinny bronze ob­ject, stretched thin and crack­ing, looked noth­ing like a real hu­man and yet some­how felt more real. Gi­a­cometti said, “The ob­ject of art is not to re­pro­duce re­al­ity, but to cre­ate a re­al­ity of the same in­ten­sity.” The goal of pre­sent­ing truth is to move peo­ple with it. But it seems we have to show peo­ple some­thing they al­ready in­her­ently un­der­stand to get them to see a truth. I don’t know if this an­swers your ques­tion.

ROOM: Ab­so­lutely, it does. As we see a world emerg­ing that has the po­ten­tial to blur the line be­tween re­al­ity and truth per­haps this is where again the artist will have to step up and through their cre­ative medium to dis­play re­al­ity as it is. Truth and all. As an artist cre­at­ing in this land­scape, have you found that what is hap­pen­ing in the po­lit­i­cal and global arena is al­ter­ing the draft of your sec­ond novel?

CR: Var­i­ous hap­pen­ings in the po­lit­i­cal and global arena have made my sec­ond novel seem re­dun­dant! Which is some­thing I’ve heard from a few peo­ple . . . Again, I thought the line for Trump would be the “grab their pussies” comment. I don’t know why I thought that. If you needed a rea­son not to vote for Trump af­ter racism, big­otry, tax fraud, then why would it be sex­ual as­sault? Fin­ish­ing my novel seems less im­por­tant now than lis­ten­ing and learn­ing about where vi­o­lence is ac­cepted and where it isn’t and why.

ROOM: In Pedal, Ju­lia of­ten has to jus­tify ei­ther to her­self or those around her the rea­sons be­hind her re­search­ing sex­ual abuse sur­vivors and also her de­ci­sion to change the di­rec­tion of the abuse el­e­ment of the events ex­pe­ri­enced by these sur­vivors. Did you ex­pe­ri­ence any of this same push­back when writ­ing Pedal?

CR: Not from ex­ter­nal sources, no. I kept my writ­ing very pri­vate, shar­ing my drafts only with a best friend and my the­sis ad­vi­sor; both were sup­port­ive. The push­back I ex­pe­ri­enced was from within: Can I write about some­one who isn’t sure that sex­ual touch­ing be­tween adults and chil­dren is in­her­ently im­moral or abu­sive? I didn’t know if I could do it. I still don’t know if I can. That fris­son, that con­tin­u­ous tip­ping over, I think that’s art.

ROOM: In Ju­lia’s de­ci­sion to look at her cases not from an abuse stand­point but rather from a di­rec­tion of sur­vival­ism or learn­ing, do you think she is truly try­ing to change the stigma around these events or is she sim­ply try­ing to jus­tify what hap­pened to her?

CR: Great, great, great ques­tion. Is Ju­lia ac­tu­ally try­ing to elim­i­nate stigma or is she just try­ing to jus­tify what hap­pened to her? Be­cause it can­not be both at once. You’re right, Nav, these op­tions are in op­po­si­tion. Ju­lia is try­ing to change the rules. She’s a rule breaker on the verge of learn­ing that rule break­ing can be its own form of abuse. Maybe she gets there on the last page of Pedal. Maybe not. But I have hope for her. I think if one can have hope then one must.

ROOM: You’re com­pletely right on the no­tion of hope which I found re­ally flowed through Pedal. With Lark’s rapid move­ments through her friend­ship with Ju­lia and Smirks, she seems like both an aloof friend but also one that is deep within her de­vo­tion to her re­la­tion­ships and within her ac­tions there is a kind of hope. How­ever, in no one more did I find hope than in Smirks. He is both pri­vate and open and while he is try­ing to find his way like Lark and Ju­lia, he seems to know his path much bet­ter than the oth­ers. How did you ap­proach Smirks’s char­ac­ter when writ­ing? I found I came to fall in love with him like Ju­lia. Did you want to il­licit this feel­ing in the reader?

As Smirks is such a com­plex char­ac­ter (and some could ar­gue con­tro­ver­sial) did you find that the char­ac­ter cre­ated him­self or was he a map you could al­ready see?

CR: Ahhh, another fab­u­lous ques­tion!

You are dead on when you say that Smirks has more hope than any­one else in the book. I think that is be­cause he has ex­pe­ri­enced more ad­ver­sity. To a ca­sual ob­server, Smirks is the most priv­i­leged ex­am­ple of a hu­man—a hand­some white male af­forded all the ad­van­tages of an up­per mid­dle class up­bring­ing. In to­day’s po­lit­i­cal cli­mate I think that not hav­ing hope is a sign of in­tense priv­i­lege. I’ve heard ar­gu­ments that hope is dan­ger­ous be­cause it is pas­sive, empty, or re­duc­tive. Not the kind of hope I know! My mother, years deep in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, dragged her chil­dren across the coun­try be­cause she hoped it would re­sult in her vi­o­lent hus­band leav­ing her. It did. Hope is badass as hell. Smirks is badass too. His only hope is to never cause harm, and

ev­ery ac­tion he takes com­mits him­self to that goal. Be­cause he was by far the most dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter to write, I kept two qual­i­ties in mind ev­ery sec­ond I wrote him: his hu­man­ity and his good­ness.

ROOM: Hope re­ally is badass as hell and I think that in are­nas like this in­creas­ingly dystopian world we are liv­ing in, hope is re­ally the most badass thing any of us can do. In Smirks, his hope lit­er­ally takes him across the coun­try in the hopes of help­ing Ju­lia find what she is look­ing for. His hu­man­ity and good­ness while truly ev­i­dent to the reader also al­low for him to hide his hopes for him­self, some­thing I found the reader didn’t truly un­der­stand un­til the end. For me, both Ju­lia and Smirks seemed to have the same end goal but they both got to their des­ti­na­tions in dif­fer­ent ways (both in the lit­eral sense and in the fig­u­ra­tive sense). We see Ju­lia come to a breath­less re­al­iza­tion about her­self once she reaches her un­in­tended (so she wants you to be­lieve) des­ti­na­tion but the reader is left won­der­ing a bit for Smirks. Do you think he ul­ti­mately came to his wanted des­ti­na­tion or per­haps does he still have an in­com­plete jour­ney wait­ing to be fin­ished?

CR: Ah, the ques­tion of what hap­pens to Smirks. Maybe I’ll re­veal my­self to be a hyp­ocrite here but un­for­tu­nately my hope for Smirks does run out. I think that folks who must deny an in­te­gral part of their iden­tity have a dif­fi­cult time be­ing in the world.

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