One of the most important motivations behind my move to Portland was literature.
Before I even made my first trip to visit I’d wandered it’s streets with Katherine Dunn in Geek Love, learned its secrets with Chuck Palaniuk in Fugitives and Refugees and the legend of Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing Program has guided me in my own attempts at storytelling. My new home has proven to be the best literary love affair, a town full of talent and quirks that continues to produce amazing and groundbreaking books. Living here immerses me in a community of writers I’ve found to be as generous as they are inspiring.
I stumbled upon my guest this month at the Wordstock Festival. A friend had sent me to see another writer read. That writer was sharing the stage with Monica Drake.
I sat and listened to Monica’s reading from her debut novel Clown Girl. You guys know by now that I don’t like to give spoilers on the books I bring to the park. All I’m going to say about Clown Girl is that it’s as fascinating a read and as quirky a world as Geek Love. The humour and sensitivity it takes to create Sniffles, the high art clown, is something that I’d say is an artist working craft brilliantly.
As I’ve learned more about Monica and taken time to talk to her she has dazzled me with her wit and generosity. She makes some pretty amazing balloon animals while wrangling an adorable three year old through a reading at Portland’s Central Library. She also travels with a hidden cache of foam noses for photos; what’s not to love about that?
Litpark Pals, Let’s welcome Monica Drake.
LR: As far as clowns go, Sniffles and Company are a bit tragi-comic. Where did you find the inspiration for Coulrophilia run amuck?
MD: I worked as a clown years ago. That’s the real-life thread behind the novel, although the final form this story has taken is fiction. Ever since those days of clown work I’ve had moments when it all comes back, when I feel like a clown again, for better or worse. It’s good to feel like a clown in the best sort of way – willing to take risks, to stick one’s neck out. In the novel clowning is the central character’s art, but in many ways it could be any art. She’s an artist and has her own vision, and the world isn’t readily accepting of the value she sees in her work. That could be any of us, couldn’t it? I mean, anyone pioneering his or her own creative path.
LR: Under the greasepaint Nita is a philosopher at heart, her quips a keen mirror of the world around her. Clearly, she isn’t a clown in the tradition of Ronald or Bozo. Who would Nita see as the clowns in our world?
MD: Man, that’s a hard one. In some ways perhaps everybody could be on the list. Clowning takes so many different forms. But if you’re looking for specifics, Britney Spears is definitely there, and so is Courtney Love, and of course Tammy Faye Baker. Then there’s Rush Limbaugh. Should I consider the current president? This isn’t to say that these people are “clowns,” exactly, but only that they’re people playing a certain type of societal role, magnifying and simplifying aspects of human nature, showing humanity on the metaphoric big screen in an exaggerated way.
And then there are ordinary people, not celebrities, who are clearly clown-identified, and allow themselves to play the fool for a greater good, or as a social thing. For a while, there was a young woman around town who wore a pale green satin clown collar over her clothes. She had sort of a pixie haircut, and wore mismatched Converse. She was clearly taking the clown image and making it her own.
LR: You found an imprint for this debut without an agent. A DIY approach to getting a beautiful debut to the reader. Can you share a bit about that journey?
MD: I’ve had three agents over the years, all good agents and all in New York. But these agents didn’t seem to have the conviction to market my work. I’ve heard that major publishing houses now have “slots” to fill, and so are looking for work in particular and easily recognizable categories like “chick-lit,” “memoir” or “mystery.” That’s according to Lance Olsen, author of Rebel Yell, (a how-to-write book) and a few alternative novels.
Hawthorne Books is a smaller press. They asked if I had anything, and I handed them Clown Girl. Hawthorne has been great. I’ve had all the support a debut novelist could possibly want, and the book is doing well. They did a beautiful job with everything from the cover art to the quality of the book design, distribution and promotion.
LR: You have a teaching gig, a beautiful three year old, reviews and articles you contribute here and there; I’m guessing you don’t have so much a writing schedule, per se. How do you fit your writing into the rest of life happening around you?
MD: I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, turning over ideas. I have to be able to hold an idea in my head for a while, because I’m not always able to get to the keyboard. Sometimes I’ll scribble down a few rough notes, but I’m good at handwriting things. My handwriting is so poor, it actually gets in the way of my ability to write, so I only jot down key words to jog my memory until I can find a keyboard. Then, when I do have time to sit down and write, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I want to go with it, what I hope to sketch out.
I meet with a workshop group once a week, and I’m lucky because the writers in the group are fantastic. Workshop keeps me on track in so many ways. It offers a smart and engaged audience, which is invaluable, and also offers a chance to see what other people are doing, and that’s inspiring. Equally important, it’s a self-imposed weekly deadline. Every week we ask, “Who has pages?” I always like to be able to say yes, I have pages, and to know I’ve done a little writing since seeing the group the previous. It’s a way to stay accountable.
LR: Where do we get to see you next?
MD: I’ll have a story on the Hugo House website in February. It’s a wild story. I’m interested to see what kind of reception it finds. I’ll be reading at Hugo House in Seattle on February 15th, along with Rick Moody. I’m a fan of Moody’s work, so I’m thrilled for the reading. I’ve also been working on an essay which will hopefully find its way into an anthology put together by Matt Love, author of The Vortex and Red, Hot and Rolling. (That second book might have a little more to the title…not sure. It’s about the Trail Blazers.) Mostly, I’m working on another novel, but it’ll be a while before it’s ready to send out. Thanks for asking!
MONICA DRAKE has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches at the Pacific NW College of Art. She is a contributor of reviews and articles to The Oregonian, The Stranger, and the Portland Mercury and her fiction has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Review, Threepenny Review, The Insomniac Reader, and others. She has been the recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts Award, the Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, and a Millay Colony Fellowship, and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop. Her debut novel, Clown Girl, is published by Hawthorne Books.
LANCE REYNALD is the author of Pop Salvation (Harper Perennial, release date forthcoming), the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. In addition to The Reynald’s Rap you can read him over at TheNervousBreakdown.com. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he is developing a serious Bacon Maple Bar addiction and can usually be found lost in the stacks at Powell’s still in awe of it all or passing the hours in one comic book shop or another. You can friend him at Myspace. You can also friend Pop Salvation at Myspace.