I’m not talking about Sting, but Chad Pelley who seems to be rocking the literary world like no one else. It seems like I hear of another award or accolade, a new story, or the next project every few days. His popular literary blog Salty Ink is enough to keep anyone busy. Now releasing his second novel, which I will review in an upcoming vlog, Pelley will undoubtedly have an eventful literary year ahead of him.
There are a few similarities between Away From Everywhere and Every Little Thing, one of which is mental illness. How has that topic made its way into both novels? Is it something you decided to do or did the characters just bring you there?
Well, in my first novel, I simply needed the brothers to lose their father, and I felt a heart attack or being hit by a bus was an uninteresting way to lose a father, as far as a reader’s perspective goes. By having them lose their father to schizophrenia, it let me have both brothers react to it differently, in a way that not only revealed character, but added another layer of complexity to the brothers’ relationship. The more I explored that, the more my page count went up. I think a lot of Away from Everywhere’s most pivotal scenes involved the father. It was a sad, powerful loss to explore. And I loved Owen’s relationship with his father as much as any relationship I’ve written.
In my new novel, I had no plans to introduce mental illness, but it worked so perfectly it set off a chain reaction of plot twists in a way no other scenario could have. I can’t get into that much here without spoiling the whole novel.
In any case, I’m fascinated by mental illness: a person’s still there but not. It’s horrible, and grounds for much thematic exploration and story-line unpredictability. Not to mention complicated heartbreak and narrative arc leeway.
If Cohen could “take just one thing back” what would it be?
That’s the thing I like about the book: how the one thing we’d all take back in our lives might be tangled up and inseparable from the things we wouldn’t take back. As was the case for Cohen in Every Little Thing. The novel is conceptually about how our whole lives cascade from a single decision or two we make at some point. In Cohen’s case, his life goes horribly wrong from a few poor decisions, but these decisions were made with the right intentions – to help others, as a rule. My intention there was to give book clubs something to talk about. Did he do the right thing in all these scenarios, or did he overstep his bounds? Should he have been jailed or not? Is he a great guy or a bit intense? That’s my real goal when writing these days: put a character in a position that every reader will react to differently, in accordance with who they are as people, and what their own beliefs are. It makes for good book club fodder, and I want my books to be book club-able, because I have a blast visiting bookclubs.
Anyway, to answer your question, there’s more than a dozen interconnected choices Cohen made that affect his life and the lives of others, most notably, the confrontation that led to the jail sentence. But ultimately, it all traces back to falling in love with Allie at a time he was feeling lost and alone. And that’s the real kicker – no man loves a woman the way he loves her. Yet she undoes him. Would he take that back? I dunno. I left that up to the reader. As any confident ending should.
Without giving too much away, there are quite a few deaths in the novel, and the aftermath of these deaths is what catapults Cohen’s and Allie’s relationship into new territory for better or worse. Did you make a conscious decision to use death to move the story or did it write itself?
Well, death is more common than most novels would have you believe. But, in terms of why I use death in fiction, I do have a reason. It’s simply this: death rattles characters in an important way. Nothing shows your reader who your characters are more than letting them watch your character come undone, and see how they came back together. I made the conscious decision to have Allie and Cohen connect through shared grief, after family tragedies. It was a way to have them need each other, in a profound and meaningful manner. Cohen was devastated, guilty, and in a tailspin, when Allie, grieving too, waltzed into his life as an escape route from his own sorrow. But his intensified, accelerated affection for her was arguably his undoing. And to some degree, it’s a novel about fate’s role in our lives: would they have ended up together, had their relatives not died in a way that brought them together? The answer’s no, as Allie wouldn’t have moved in next door. The circumstances of their union, being based in death, is also fitting, if not metaphoric.
You write about some pretty dark stuff. Stuff that goes beyond the darkness of a lot of contemporary fiction. Why? What’s the draw?
I prefer to call the dark subject matter honest, not sad, and human, not dark. And the draw, quite simply, is I don’t want to bore readers, so I have a lot of stuff happen. I want readers to relate to some aspect of the novel, so I make it very human. I believe we feel sorrow, regret, and heartbreak not only harder than emotions like happiness and humour, but that we experience those former emotions in the same way. In other words, what we all find funny or interesting differs, but we all feel sadness the same way. So I anchor my stories with baseline moods and emotions we can all connect to, to help facilitate a connection between my readers and characters. I don’t think my books are much sadder than others, I think I just shape the language to be a little harder on a reader’s heartstrings. And that takes about 50 diligent rewrites of every paragraph. I mean, picture yourself on a date, and the guy is rambling on and on about the story of his life. You only care if you feel a connection to the guy and his story. So, I dig really deep to make the language sharp enough to hook a reader and reel them in so close they’re feeling my characters’ emotions, instead of reading about their emotions. If I have a goal as a writer, it’s to provide readers with a vicarious reading experience. Every time they lay the book down between readings, I want them feeling like they’ve just been in love, or arrested, or horribly, shockingly betrayed. Otherwise, I’ve failed, and they’ve read just another book.
The way Cohen loves Allie is so perfect. It’s the way we want to love and be loved. Even now, after all is over, do you think Cohen still loves Allie?
I think the way Cohen loves Allie is the only way to love someone. I mean, if you’re not 100% in love with someone, the fact is, you could be 100% in love with someone else. That’s one of the provocative themes in the novel: what is wrong in love? The degree of Cohen’s affection for Allie is something numerous female media personalities have already commented on, and that’s great, as it’s one of the questions the novel was intended to raise – is love devotion, or a feeling? There’s a difference.
Does Cohen still love Allie?
I dunno. Honestly. I do believe that a good book never ends. I leave things so readers can write their own ending, and I do that on purpose. I left you with three options, choose your own adventure 😉
Some of the most memorable parts of the novel are when Cohen becomes unravelled. It’s these points where we see what he’s made of. What do you think is so attractive about this part of a character, how he deals with his own unraveling?
It’s how we get to know anyone, be it a loved one or a fictional character. You don’t know who you are and what you want until you’re stripped of everything. For example: You won’t know how much you love your mother until she is dying.
It all comes back to the one basic mantra of writing fiction: don’t tell the reader, show the reader. Does Cohen need Allie? I could talk about how much he loves her for 50 pages, and bore you, or I could have him come unravelled from a family tragedy he feels responsible for, show him unraveling on the page (instead of saying, Cohen is feeling sad today), and then show Allie as the spool that reels him in when he’s lost on that rooftop in chapter 4, where you see them crying together, their conversations, the core of who they are and why they need each other. We all walk away knowing what kind of guy Cohen is, and how important Allie is to him, and why. “Why,” is the ultimate question that fiction needs to answer, constantly: Why are these two together. Why shouldn’t they be? Why does she miss him when he’s gone?
You’re the Salty Ink guy, a writer, a freelancer, President of WANL, a musician, how do you make time for all that and still do other things like laundry and hang out with friends?
Truthfully, there was a day in February I wore the same pair of socks two days in a row. I promise that doesn’t happen often. But, it’s honestly not discipline that keeps me in front of a computer 12 hours a day. It’s wanting to be here, 12 hours a day, doing things I love. It blows my mind people get bored. The second I feel idle I write a song or revise a story, and it’s not only zen-like calming, but fun and rewarding. In February, I won 2 short story awards and got published in 2 journals, and I’m positive nothing in the world feels better than that. As far as Salty Ink or WANL go, I know how much heart and time go into peoples’ writing, so I blog or sit on boards or whatever. Salty Ink’s my way to offset the gaps or flaws in traditional media’s coverage of Canadian Books, and, talk about books I think are making Canadian literature a rich and vivacious thing, irregardless of bios and buzz that traditional media gravitates towards, or the utterly flawed logic publishers use these days in acquiring a book. Namely, false assumptions on what readers want. As for finding time to socialize, I have enough fun on a Friday night to last me a week; the key is extended happy hour, from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.. That’s been going well lately. And I own a lot of dishes and clothes, so I can go a while between chores.
Tell us a little about what you are reading?
I’m half a story into Theodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility. She’s a short fiction champ, if you read her vibrant bio, and I can see why so far. It’s the first book of shorts to come out on Anansi’s brand new short fiction imprint, Astoria. I recently finished another super-ultra-good book of shorts, The Cloaca, by Andrew Hood.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the process of digging through the folder-full of short stories on my computer. I’m settling on a dozen or so that fit a shared theme of people longing for something they’ll never have. Some are funny, most are sad. It’ll be called Big Red Hearts, or, Four Letter Words. Many of the stories have won awards or been published in journals, textbooks, and anthologies, but I’m finding they feel like Old Chad, and excluding them. What a waste. I’ve also started a third novel. Here’s the nutshell one-line pitch: A recently divorced man’s daughter is gone missing, it’s his fault, he’s looking for her in a snowstorm. That snowstorm lasts 5 weeks, isolating his community from the world, and they start to turn on each other for food and supplies, HBO style.