The author speaks on her latest novel, centering the pleasures, pains, and universalities of the family drama

When I met with Claudia Dey in the afternoon, following our morning of email correspondence, we were both wearing all-white. It was hot; the white was a protection against the heat and a celebration of it. Dey, I know from her writing, is cognizant of these things: dressing, symbols, honoring exaltant forces, and how the three relate to one another.

I brought her a handful of sea glass, broken bottle shards lapped by waves so as to become softened and smoothed over time. The shapes of the glass looked similar to the cosmic shard on the cover of her newest novel Daughter, which is why I’d brought them. But there’s also the symbolic parallel to Daughter’s narrative, impossible to resist: something man-made, dangerous, sharp, able to draw blood, smoothed out eventually by elemental forces.

Daughter is the story of an actress and playwright, Mona, her charismatic novelist father, Paul, and the ways they create and unravel one another, as well as the system, or constellation, of their artistic and personal lives. As Claudia notes in our conversation, the book is like a black box theater show: a limited cast, a feeling of hot, clear immediacy. There’s Mona, her sister and half-sister, her best friend, her partner Wes, her mother, stepmother, the magnetic black hole that is her father.

In the last pages of the novel, seated at the back of Paul’s favorite red-wine-soaked restaurant, Mona speaks of theater acting. She tells Paul, “Making an entrance from the side stage is like climbing onto the back of an animal many times your size.” That side stage and that animal’s back appear time and again in the novel—the threshold, and the mysterious new platform upon which one will be carried. Each character (but especially Mona) goes through many transformations, often triggered by entering and exiting roles, willingly or not. Crossing over from that side stage, mounting that animal’s back. Mother, daughter, artist, playwright, lover, ex-lover, famous, irrelevant, wealthy, reliant, adulterer, victim, aggressor, Hamlet, King Lear, Ophelia.

Dey herself has held many roles. She’s been a northern bush-camp cook, sex columnist, horror film actor, playwright, co-owner of the clothing line Horses, and mother (or, maker of death, as her viral essay posits).

In the same conversation at the restaurant, Paul says to Mona, “When people know you well, you perform within the confines of their view of you.” Daughter traces the pleasure and pain of knowing someone well, the bounty and ramifications of the performance. There’s the question, too, of what one might do to exit those confines, to slip out of being known altogether.

“This novel is a novel of interiors. I stayed inside my characters’ desires and conflicts and fears.”

Emma Cohen: I wanted to begin by asking you to situate us in your atmosphere this morning.

Claudia Dey: I’m in my study, the top floor of our house, with its good bones and its mess. My friend, who is an installation and performance artist, has a framed needlepoint that reads: An immaculate home is a sign of a wasted life. I hold that idea close.

I’m thinking about Jane Birkin, just dead and between worlds, reframed peril. She turned what might unsettle into insight—the marking of a true artist. This approach is more magnetic than style. I love this quote of hers: ‘I think we can change everything all the time. Accidents are the best things in existence. They force you to leave a route that seemed mapped out… It’s often when things aren’t going well that we are forced into doing them differently and they suddenly become interesting.’ She was not interested in the immaculate house, but the life.

Emma: I asked you for today’s description like a forecast for this conversation, because I’m compelled by your description of environments, the detail selection in your writing.

I find there to be something very touchable about your writing. Details feel like they can be carried around from page to page, like as a reader I’m gathering treasure. And they’re often physical, but not only physical. To me, these details share a frequency, building something. Do you view them as relational to one another—and if you do, what do you think they’re doing in your novels?

Claudia: The frequency is me, my voice. I find a book when I find its voice. I’m a sonic writer. If I had been a nun, I would have been a nun in a stone room who heard the voices of the dark angels. I love to be alone with an urgent voice. Annie Ernaux once described herself as a channeller. With Daughter, I was transmitting, I was in touch with some secret, unruly nerve—it ran through me. The details come from that nerve, that source. What I’m after is closeness. Creating closeness between my reader and my world. I think of myself as a private, almost reclusive person, but a public writer. I want connection. I want art that lingers. I want to make art that lingers. The details are there to keep my reader hooked, no opportunity for detachment, prose that is direct to the bloodstream. I am describing a drug—fiction as a drug.

I was very resistant to description in this novel. Description felt like a dead weight, a burden, beside the point, an obedient exercise my former self would have entered. This novel is a novel of interiors. I stayed inside my characters’ desires and conflicts and fears. I did not want to describe a room or a sky or a hairstyle unless it was critical to the scene. I wanted spare, plain prose that was all about velocity and momentum. Something closer to spoken language, something closer to life. I love this idea that a book is a mechanism, and it only works if you plant something on each page so the reader wants to turn it. I plant these details so the mechanism works, so the pages are turned.

Emma: On the wavelength of velocity and closeness, I’m curious about your relationship to realism. What I mean by realism might also be something like contemporary context: the inserting and withholding of details that place us in time and space, and what the lack of those details allows us. For example, in Daughter, the city everyone lives in isn’t named, and there is no mention of current pop culture, really, except for a close encounter with Rihanna. I almost wonder—since it was so surprising to me—if that’s a spoiler. How did Daughter’s aura come to you?

“I have always been drawn to iconic families, familiar doom. The weddings, the fame, the paparazzi, the plane crash, the assassination, the overdose.”

Claudia: Mysterious gravitas. I’m a Scorpio novelist. This is a category, is it not? [Laughs] I don’t think Rihanna is a spoiler. Keanu is there. Kathleen Turner is there. The Kennedys. I am writing to you, and beside me, I have a wall covered in images, a moodboard—the Hemingway sisters, River Phoenix, Woolf, The Odes of Solomon. My son’s ponytail is nailed to that wall.

I have always been drawn to iconic families, familiar doom. The weddings, the fame, the paparazzi, the plane crash, the assassination, the overdose. The novel came to me in an image, the image of a daughter meeting her father in the back of his favorite restaurant. Why so secretive? Why did the relationship look so much like an affair? Why did it have such a compulsive, addictive, dangerous feel to it? Once I had the first line, I had the voice. That unlocked the book for me.

This book is in conversation with many contemporary writers who are combining the physical and mental act of making fiction with the demands and beauties and central questions of life—sequencing them to make sense of them, to give them a form separate from yourself so you are no longer possessed or weakened by them. I kept Rachel Cusk, Annie Ernaux, Tove Ditlevsen, Elena Ferrante close. I kept Didion close—her concept of flash cuts—so that the novel is a novel but more visceral. More filmic. I think of Celine Sciamma’s concept of desired scenes versus needed scenes from her BAFTA lecture about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I wanted Daughter to be only ‘desired scenes.’ I trusted the reader to follow.

It observes realism in a fundamental way. Events and feelings are recorded without framework or obfuscation. But it also has its own intelligence or formal deviation—most markedly, I transit between POVs. What my friend calls, ‘the ghostly writing.’ I was tired of quote marks, paragraph breaks, all the flags we plant in books, to my eye, created resistance, a slowing-down. I wrote the first draft in two months. I have built around, beneath and above it. But I always trust a first draft. There is something special to it, it is pre-analysis, pre-dissection—it has an uncivilized energy.

Emma: There is a lot of unsettling in this novel—so much birth and death, perhaps the ultimate disruptors. But much of it is also about more covert unsettling: the tangle of life between the two poles.

There is a particular section where the family isn’t speaking, but is corresponding over email over a long period, making their cases to each other. The nuances of the hurt are so tender and particular—dizzying and hard to keep straight in real life, but articulated so precisely here that you feel a part of the thread. Do you believe there is an ultimate truth to an interpersonal conflict like this, when each person has their own story they tell?

Claudia: I think the ultimate truth is the one we believe to be true—we feel most keenly the rightness of ourselves, the rightness of our own story as we see it. It is existential. When our story is punctured or challenged, we enter a crisis state and immediately take up our defenses. We see ourselves as good people. We insist on this view. This insulates us from difficult feelings—something that does not interest me in terms of my life, but does in terms of a character’s emotional defense system.

In the culture, we’ve seen the compulsive and voyeuristic effect of celebrities’ private messages being leaked to the media. Who can look away? Ernaux said that reading a novel should feel like watching an X-rated film; it should generate a state of ‘anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.’ This articulates exactly what I was after in that section. While in form and in fact, that section is the very constructive act of communicating—it’s an email and text exchange—it is never listening, never acquiescing, never atoning. The family’s story is a tragic love story. Everyone is stubbornly, hubristically charging at each other with their own version of, in this case, accusations of hurt and betrayal—of how they are the most wronged. It is a pain contest.

The novel mentions Medea, it mentions King Lear, it mentions Hamlet—I wanted this section to be like the primordial, verbal gunfire you might find in Shakespearean or in Greek tragedies. We erect these silos around ourselves. It is survivalist. To soften or to pause on the build threatens our very existence, how we see and experience ourselves. It is easier to be angry. Eva, Mona’s righteous half-sister, describes herself as being organized by her anger. The shadow side of that is to be disorganized—the immaculate house is ransacked.

I sometimes compare the novel to Succession, but that the empire at stake is not media—it’s art. Daughter has the magnetic patriarch, the viciously competitive siblings, the embittered stepmother—it has all of that emotional gore; it even has a scene built around a backless dress. We watched as the siblings tried to come together, tried for love with their father, their mother, but in the end, the relationships were anti-magnetic, doomed—Daughter has a different outcome, but those same broken expressions of love.

“I am not interested in heroes and villains. I want everyone to have their say.”

Emma: How did you manage to write from so many competing angles, keeping it all straight?

Claudia: To write a world is to live in it for years. I am a big believer in funny, in where funny intersects with grief. I have to mention this because humor has such a leavening effect—I also think the culture focuses on women writers’ emotionality and wildness, and rarely credits us with craft and humor. We know funny because we know pain.

I wanted Mona to be the sun, the spine of the novel. Her revolution had to be from within, not just in response to Paul—but summoned and activated within herself. Moving between the perspectives allowed me to feel closer to Mona, which gets the reader closer to Mona. And it makes the novel less solipsistic—I am not interested in heroes and villains. I want everyone to have their say. My favorite art comes from irresistible people ‘behaving badly’—never writing out of vanity, but always to settle a fundamental conflict or debate within.

Emma: There is a little bit of divination and coincidence to the book. Mona unlocks her play when she finds the first line, To be loved by your father is to be loved by God, and, as you said earlier, you had the same experience with the first line of this book. The novel that made Paul famous is called Daughter. You yourself are a playwright, and now have a novel called Daughter.

Do you believe, or wish to believe, in any sort of spiritual correspondence with books you read, or how they come into your life? Do you ever feel protected when reading a book?

Claudia: I’ll answer sideways. I consulted the Tarot while I wrote Daughter. At every hinge moment, or at any moment that felt trying or grinding, when I would walk my neighborhood like a one-woman funeral procession, I consulted my brilliant friend, the poet and memoirist Damian Rogers. She is tapped into something powerful that I don’t need or want to understand—she gave me critical information and insight as I worked. We talked over the phone, I took note of everything she said. These notes—via the high priestess, the death card—are like a making of story. This book reordered me. You have to be in conversation with your ghosts.

I am a deep believer in the porousness you write about, in what you describe—life entering novels and novels entering life. I had so many uncanny moments as I wrote Daughter that felt like confirmations, coded messages to continue. I know and trust these messages because I wrote badly for a couple of years. You have to write badly before you write well—before you write what only you could write inside that time, inside that trial of being you with whatever craft you have accumulated.

I wanted to excise the human or biographical element from Daughter. I wanted it to have a black box theater feeling—a limited number of characters all in relationship to each other, in a limited number of settings. This is why I did not include an epigraph, a dedication, acknowledgements. I wanted the curtain to rise, the novel to play, the curtain to fall. I love the electricity of live theater, strangers sharing a common experience in the dark, and I wanted to transmit that kind of energy in the novel. The protection you write about.