If you checked out our
ALU book club discussion on
Bad Ideas, you know that we had a lot to say about the book's vivid cast of characters and setting, which we felt perfectly captured life in small-town Ontario. Now, we're taking it straight to the source in this interview with author Missy Marston to discuss the influences and inspirations that helped her to get these small details just right.
All Lit Up: For anyone who has grown up in or lived in a small town for any significant period of time, Preston Mills feels incredibly real—both in setting and in the character of it's community. Was there a particular experience or memory you drew from when bringing the town to life in your writing?
Missy Marston: Preston Mills feels real to me, too! But it isn’t. I made it up.
I grew up on the banks of the St. Lawrence between the towns of Morrisburg and Iroquois, both of which were dismantled and moved when the Seaway went through in the 1950’s. I wanted to write about the history of those places, which is fascinating, but I also wanted the freedom to make things up. A fictional town seemed like the best strategy.
It allowed me to bring in a lot of the physical reality of the place – the old highway coming up out of the river like an island, the locks at Iroquois – and anchor it there. In my mind, Preston Mills is East of Iroquois and West of Morrisburg, which is where my house was. It is also where Ken Carter built his ramp to jump the river in the 1970’s.
ALU: Although the novel is broken up with perspectives from all of the characters, Trudy seems to be the most complex and connected of all the characters in Bad Ideas. Can you tell us a bit more about Trudy and share any of the challenges or considerations that went into creating this character?
MM: I have always been impressed by people who take on a lot of responsibility at a very young age, people who just rise to the challenges before them. Trudy is barely out of her teens and working full time, raising a kid, looking out for her mother who is kind of going off the rails, taking all kinds of flak from people around her, and she carries on with a beautiful – if not uncomplaining – stoicism. I have a lot of respect for that. You want to see a character like that get their just reward.
ALU: Trudy’s boyfriend Jules, the daredevil, is said to be loosely based on the real life "Crazy Canuck." Can you tell us about the connection between the two?
MM: The Mad Canadian! In 1976, Ken Carter built a ramp on my street, an easy bike ride away from my house, when I was about eight years old. It was enormous. It made an impression. Like Jules, he planned to jump the river (or at least the part of it between Lakeshore Drive and Ogden Island) in a rocket-powered Lincoln. It was pretty clear to everyone, I think, that this was impossible.
Every year for about four years, the jump got planned, promoted and cancelled, to the great irritation of the locals. There is a great NFB film about this project called The Devil at Your Heels. I won’t ruin the ending for you. But what moved me to create the Jules character, I guess, was that there is this whole class of people (bull riders, daredevils, boxers) out there that other people are willing to see risk death or terrible injury for their entertainment. It isn’t new. But it is interesting to dig into.
I also liked the idea of the battered, late-career daredevil, in the middle of taking on his last great do-or-die stunt, falling in love. Now that he has something to live for, what should he do?
ALU: Did you find it difficult to get into the headspace of the book's only child character, Mercy, and write about her perspective and experience of being abandoned by a parent? Tell us a bit about what it was like to write Mercy's feelings about her mother Tammy.
MM: I had a pretty direct line to Mercy. We have some things in common -- being a little kid in the seventies and growing up in a small town along the river. But I also think that childhood – everyone’s childhood – is full of pain (and joy and wonder). We all have that to call on, I think.
From a narrative perspective, you can use a child in fiction to look at the adult world the way an alien would look at the human world, if you know what I mean. Children take nothing for granted and can puncture some of the artifice that adults create to get through their irritating lives. But Tammy is a pretty tough nut to crack, even for Mercy. And the guarded hope they both have for a deep mother and child reunion is terribly sad.
ALU: In your acknowledgements for the book, you thank Michael V. Smith for the use of the book’s title, borrowed from his collection of poetry. Did that collection inspire the book in any way?
MM: Is Michael V. Smith the nicest person in CanLit? Maybe! I had written the book (with the title, Bad Ideas), signed a contract, completed most of the editing process and then Michael’s book came out. Damn! It was such a good-looking book, too. That cover with the cat smoking is priceless. Anyway, I tried in vain to come up with a new title that I liked as much, that I thought represented the story as well, but to no avail.
I bought the book. I read the book. It was great. I mean really great. Beautiful. I am not sure what difference it would have made if I hadn’t liked the book but for some reason this made it worse. It also turned out that we had another thing in common: he grew up in the Seaway Valley, too. Crazy.
So, I decided to contact Michael and just ask him what he thought of me publishing a book with the same title. Ah, the wonder of modern technology! Two clicks of the mouse and I had his e-mail address. I explained my predicament and received the kindest, most thoughtful response. He told me that he didn’t mind, that he would happily promote the book through his channels, and wished me all the best. Charming, lovely, generous. I hope I get to meet him one day.
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A special thank you to ECW Press and Missy Marston for sharing this up-close and personal look beneath the cover of Bad Ideas.
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