Fear Can Be Fuel: An Interview with Erica McKeen
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
On exploring a feminist consciousness, writing gothic horror, and embracing the novel form in her debut Tear.
“Tear” as in ripping a page from a book, rejecting a storyline. “Tear” as in a tear-stained face, letting out a scream. Tear, a haunting homonym, and the title of Erica McKeen’s horrifying debut from Invisible Publishing, will leave you questioning what is real and what is imagined. A gothic Bildungsroman that deforms as we follow Frances, a reclusive female student in search of a reality and a self. Readers will feel the prose simmering on their skin as they witness a surreal journey in a musty basement in London, Ontario.
Read author Erica McKeen's full conversation with Rachel Shabalin below. Please note, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RS: The setting felt so gothic and present in the novel. The prologue sets the tone as it places the reader directly in this uncanny residential setting in Southwestern Ontario. Were there any specific elements of the gothic or horror genre you wanted to capture or challenge in Tear?
EM: The setting was a huge aspect of my writing of Tear, especially when considering the classic gothic elements of the house. When I first started writing the book, I tried to imagine the house as having as much agency as Frances or the other roommates living in that space. I wanted to show how the house could have its own influence on the characters. While I was writing, I was considering the role of the setting in classic gothic texts like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and even Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
I also wanted to change up the gothic idea of women in the domestic space. For women in literature the domestic space is often claustrophobic and can be like a trap. I wanted to expand this idea further and show how the domestic space can be like the interior space of the brain or mind. This space can be as limiting, but it can also be as freeing. It can be a space of ideas, and self-discovery. I wanted to show Frances’s haunted interior space as she goes on her strange journey in the basement. I wanted to take that classic horror feel of fear in the story, and show how fear can be fuel. Frances can use that fear and turn it into something powerful, even as it is damaging her.
I was also thinking about the gothic element of the uncanny and how it plays with doubling. The idea of twins is reflected in both the characters and in the setting of London, Ontario. I grew up in London, Ontario, and I felt like it was so difficult to write about that space because there's this bigger London, England that's always looming overhead. There’s that looming historical context as to where the name comes from. I wanted to incorporate the uncanny as a way to explore that doubling of an unsettling history.
RS: The opening quote of Tear is from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I absolutely love how you frame the novel with this quote. Did Shelley's Frankenstein (or any other author's work) serve as a kind of companion while you were working on this novel?
EM: I have studied Frankenstein in school so many times and you would think by now that I would be sick of it, but I actually love that book so much. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be the closest thing to a companion piece for Tear. I had it in my mind throughout my entire writing process and while I was constructing the plot. I've always been fascinated by the creature in her text and how it's birthed from the isolated and seemingly impossible ideas of the protagonist. The creature shouldn’t be able to exist, yet it does. I also love how the creature in Shelley’s text grows and acquires knowledge, but is also anguished, lonely, and enraged.
It’s also interesting to me how Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (an outright feminist), and yet, Frankenstein is all male protagonists and the female characters are agonizingly passive and stereotypical. There’re lots of different ways to interpret this, but for me I feel like Mary Shelley is bursting through the creature (even though the creature is male). Although Shelley is writing all these male characters, there is a lot going on in the background that she can’t fully express or say. The creature becomes the vehicle for her repressed rage. This repressed anguish and female rage was something I wanted to capture with Frances. This feeling of being thwarted and anguished.
RS: The feminist themes of gaslighting, false narrative, and mental illness play an important role in Tear. Frances is haunted by the question: “Do you know how to tell a story? Do you know how to make it good?” Storytelling and narrative are depicted as this patriarchal force that felt very connected to three male characters (Frances’s grandfather, her father, and Jasper, her childhood friend). I find it interesting that these characters span generations. Was this intentional? Was there something in each of these relationships you specifically wanted to interrogate and explore? Was it important to show this connection over three generations of men?
EM: I don't think I really intended to show that intergenerational patriarchal connection of narrative, but as I was reflecting on this question more, I think the male characters closest to Frances can represent a progression of male behaviour toward women over time. When I was looking deeper into the characters and their stories, I was thinking of the grandfather. He is the oldest. He's fun. He's loving. He has these cute but scary horror stories that he likes to share with Frances, but he’s detached and disconnected in his storytelling. He’s aloof and has a difficult time understanding the impact of his stories on his granddaughter. It’s only Frances’s grandmother that can understand the impact that these stories are having. The grandfather is living in his own “fun” space. He can tell whatever stories he wants without comprehending their impact.
RS: Yeah, I agree. I found that one scary story the grandfather tells to Frances especially chilling. The story he shares about a woman who cuts out her own tongue and commits these other acts of self-harm. It’s like he’s appropriating this woman’s story in a way. He’s telling her story, but he doesn’t comprehend the pain of it. And then with the father, Peter. I really noticed that focus on Frances having to learn and indoctrinate herself with this patriarchal system of communication.
EM: Yeah, and I think the father character, Peter, is maybe the most enraging of the three. Peter is educated. He's an academic and he knows how the world works. He’s very conscious of all the power structures at play, and is very capable of starting to dismantle them, but he has no interest in doing that. He was always a very frustrating character for me to write. Then you go down the line to Jasper, Frances’s childhood friend. Where Peter is the most enraging, Jasper is the most dangerous (or his stories can be the most dangerous), and I think this is because Jasper and Frances really love each other as children. This makes their dynamic complicated and messy. Jasper also has his own trauma that he’s trying to deal with, but keeps channeling it into all the wrong places.
RS: I interpreted the relationship between Jasper and Frances as maybe a representation of how power and patriarchy can manifest in childhood relationships. They are children that don’t comprehend the systems in place, but Jasper is like testing the waters, whether he is fully conscious of it or not. Jasper doesn’t know what to do with his power besides channel it into the wrong things, but he has no real direction to do otherwise. Frances is questioning how and if Jasper knows better, but there’s this trust between them because of their friendship.
EM: Yeah and I guess it can be more insidious that way. I think the three characters were a way to show how the behaviour of men towards women and the different stories that they tell trickle down through time. These stories and narratives can look very different, but they can be just as damaging or even more so, because it's hard to see them for what they are.
RS: Tear is split into three distinctive parts that shift dramatically in perspective. I found these stark transitions shocking and terrifying, and admired the way the structure of the novel added so much energy to the horror and the disorienting mood. Did you know Tear was going to have three sections when you began writing it? Did it begin with Frances for you or a different character?
EM: I first started with just Frances in the basement and that story arc on its own. I originally thought it was going to be a novella, but then as I was working on it with my then professor (now mentor and friend) Aaron Schneider, he pushed me into thinking about it as a novel. I then began considering the different ways I could possibly make it a novel. I went back to the drawing board and thought of these other sections and how I could expand it. I had worked for so long on shorter fiction and shorter pieces, it was hard for me to imagine how to go about writing something that long. It became much more manageable in these three sections. It seems more possible because you do one section at a time, and then it all hopefully comes together.
RS: You've had short fiction published by numerous lit magazines. Tear is your first larger work. What was the process like for a large project like this? How does it differ from your shorter fiction? Did the project challenge you in unexpected ways?
EM: I will say a difference between writing shorter fiction and writing a novel is the amount of backstory and character history. For example, I would be working on the section with Frances, and I would hand it off to Aaron and say, you know, how do you think it’s going? What do you think? And he would say, you need more. You need more backstory. You need more history of Frances. There was a lot of back and forth and it was frustrating at times. With short story writing it’s more glimpses into the characters’ lives, and the reader fills in a lot of sub-text. In a novel, there’s a lot more going on, more you need to fill in. There is more you need to take into consideration. You really need to know your character and those specific details. You can’t just let things slide. It was more challenging at times, but I think ultimately more rewarding. In the end, I love digging into characters.
RS: While I was reading some of your other recent work, I noticed this theme of structure and perspective play. “Anne, Cassandra, and the Sleep House,” your short story published in PRISM 60.3, is also split into sections and changes character perspectives. Even your non-fiction piece in filling Station Issue 75, “Circumspective Limbs,” follows a kind of form. I love that these pieces feel organized, but also experimental at the same time. How do you consider structure and perspective when you’re working on a piece?
EM: For me, I think that every story needs to have some kind of organization or I would become lost in my own work. The reason why I write stories is to take experiences that I’ve had, or that other people have had, and to frame them in some way so that they’re less chaotic and more comprehensible. When I go about my writing, I try to ask myself, how does this story want to be told, rather than how do I feel that it should be told (because of what I’ve seen in pop culture and media). We have all these conventions that we can draw from and that’s the first thing our mind wants to go to because it’s easy and it’s what we’re used to. I try to remember when I get stuck, and I’m asking myself, like how do I write this character? Why isn’t this working? And it’s often because I’m trying to write it through somebody else’s structure, somebody else’s kind of perspective, in a sense. But I have to ask myself, like how does this character want to be presented on the page? How can I actually do this? Because I think characters and stories speak for themselves in a way. You have to allow room for them to breathe or they’re restrained and they don’t come out properly.
RS: Do you have any projects you’re working on right now?
EM: I just finished up a second manuscript, which is hopefully heading out to editors soon. It’s not a novel and it's not quite a short story collection, it’s somewhere in the middle. It has three characters who are isolating together during the beginning of the pandemic and reading through a story collection written by one of the character’s recently deceased mother, and the stories kind of start to weave into their collective consciousness. That’s what I just finished working on, but still lots of editing to come. And then I just received news that my third book idea is going to be supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. It’s in the baby stages and is about Vancouver, private schools, mental illness, and octopuses.
RS: That is such incredible news! The pandemic novel also sounds super fascinating. I’m excited to continue following your work. Is there anything you’ve been reading lately that has been uniquely inspiring?
EM: Daisy Johnson’s, Everything Under was one that really got to me this year. The dark lyrical writing style. I’m also reading Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows. I love the way she deals with characters and conversation, and mixes comedy and sorrow together.
RS: Our final question. Care and self-care are often forgotten when we discuss the writing process, especially when your creativity leads you to writing on heavy themes, like female rage, mental illness, grief and trauma. Do you have any advice to writers on ways to stay nourished during a long-term project?
EM: Yeah. Great question. I feel like I can always work on self-care and having proper healthy routines, like most people. I know that writing itself is not therapy, but when I'm writing about difficult topics and trauma and violent scenes in particular, I remember I already have these things in my mind. I'm already thinking about them on a day-to-day basis, so writing can be a nourishing practice by bringing a shape to these ideas. When I put these awful and sad things that are already in my mind on the page, I release them in a way.
But I would say that especially with a longer project, community is the biggest thing. No matter what kind of artistic work you're doing, if it's internal, you need to go out into the world, and connect with people. You cannot write a novel on your own. Your brain is just not sufficient. You need community and you need conversation and you need that like external stimulation in order to keep you grounded and to realize when you need some help, and also just to keep you hopeful, right? To have people who say, this is working in this way, and you should keep at it. It’s so easy to feel defeated when it's a year or more and you're working on something and you don't even know what it is anymore. You need to rediscover your love of it over and over again. And people can help you do that.
A bit about Erica: Erica McKeen (she/her) is a Canadian fiction writer. She is the author of Tear (Invisible Publishing, 2022), a novel. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the 2020 Guernica Prize, and shortlisted for the The Malahat Review 2021 Open Season Awards. Her stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including PRISM international, filling Station, and The Dalhousie Review, among others. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Find a copy of her brand new book Tear here.