Profile: Stacey Madden
Author of Poison Shy
By Meghan Gribben
Stacey Madden is a writer currently residing in The Beach. His stories, poems, reviews, and essays have been published in places such as The Globe and Mail, Open Book: Toronto, Encore Literary Magazine, Quill & Quire, and Broken Pencil. His first novel, Poison Shy, was published by ECW Press in Fall 2012. He owns a cat and is a bit of a hypochondriac. He enjoys beer, British comedy, and quiet reading time.
Stacey was born and raised in the east end of Toronto. Despite his father’s wish that he’d grow up to be a hockey star, Stacey nurtured a passion for reading and writing, which eventually led to an Honours B.A. in English Literature at the University of Toronto, followed by an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.
When/why did you decide to write a novel?
“I’ve wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember,” says Madden. “As the oldest of four kids, I was often forced into the role of ‘entertainer,’ and would accomplish that by making up stories and telling them to my younger siblings. Then, as I got older, I started telling stories to myself—not out loud, don’t worry, I’m not that crazy!—and eventually started writing them down. Before long, I was being accepted into exclusive creative writing courses at University. I attempted to write two novels and failed before I finally finished one, and that third attempt was the manuscript that eventually become Poison Shy.”
What inspired this novel?
“I think being an avid reader and wanting to be part of the literary tradition is what inspired my novel, in a general sense. All of the dark, provocative, and controversial novels I’d read inspired me to want to write one myself. In a more specific sense, it occurred to me that I’d never read or even heard of a novel in which the protagonist worked in pest control, and it seemed to be a career with a lot of untapped potential for dark material. So, I decided to take it upon myself to write one.”
How much of yourself is in your novel? How much did you, “Write what you know?”
I don’t think there’s too much of myself in Poison Shy, but there’s always going to be a bit of the author in any work of fiction. My family comes from a blue-collar background, and I spent seven years total as a university student, so I mined both of those things for material. Frayne, the fictional small town in which Poison Shy is set, is both a grimy, working-class hell-hole and a university town. But in terms of plot, almost nothing in the book was taken from my real life. For example, the book’s narrator, Brandon, is an only child, whereas I’m the eldest of four. Brandon’s father is was a dead-beat dad who has died, and his mother is schizophrenic; my dad is a great guy who is very much alive, and my mother is perfectly sane. Brandon falls for a crazy girl who leads him into a world of criminals and danger. I may have fallen for my share of crazy girls, but I’ve never even gotten a traffic ticket.
Tell me about your life at Book City.
I’ve worked at Book City for over ten years. I love it. Back before I started publishing things, working at a neighbourhood book shop made me feel like I was part of the literary scene, at least on the fringes. It also helps satisfy my voracious reading appetite. I don’t know if I ever would have been able to write a novel, let alone publish one, if I hadn’t been exposed to so many books on an almost daily basis.
I sent Poison Shy to ECW because I love the books they publish, plain and simple. When I finished my novel, and could take a step back and actually get a sense of the type of book I’d created, I knew I had to send it to Michael Holmes—my editor and one of the best in the business—because I knew it was the kind of thing he’d like. Michael’s imprint at ECW, MisFit, publishes books that take risks, challenge norms, and venture into the darker, weirder corners of life. And I knew I’d made the right choice when I got the call from him saying, “Let’s do it.”
What was the editing process like? As a writer, was it hard to acknowledge and implement changes to your project?
The editing process for Poison Shy was actually quite painless and quick. Michael and I made only very minor changes along the way. There was one debate over whether to keep my character in handcuffs during one of the final, climactic scenes, or to have the detective remove them, so he could get around more easily and actually do some of the things he does. I argued a bit for the handcuffs to remain, mostly for slapstick comedic reasons, but Michael rightly convinced me that they had to go or the scene just wouldn’t be realistic. But that’s really the only blip we encountered, and it was a minor one at that.
Favourite place to write, and why?
I write at a small, independent coffee shop with wobbly tables and hard, uncomfortable chairs. I treat it like my office. I’m used to writing with noise in the background—as I said, I’m the oldest of four kids—and leaving home helps me to treat writing like a job.
How did you approach the sex scenes? How much of it was based on experiences?
I approached the sex scenes with great enthusiasm. I love sex—who doesn’t?— but for some reason the sex scenes in Poison Shy ended up being quite dirty and raunchy, which I think was the result of the atmosphere of the book as a whole. It takes place in a grimy town full of prostitutes, blue-collar slobs, and party-animal university students, and the sex scenes ended up reflecting that. Despite that, however, they were still fun to write. It was almost like challenging myself to put these dirty acts down on paper for anyone to read, then being brave (or maybe stupid?) enough to slap my name on the front cover.
How do you write characters? Do you draw from people you know, or are they based in a world of imagination?
It’s a mix. Sometimes I’ll take bits and pieces from different people I know then toss those qualities together to make one totally unique character. Others are invented based on genre tropes: the dogged detective, the crazy cat lady, the dumb-jock best friend, etc. Then you give those stock characters a bit of a twist, like making the crazy cat lady a woman who has potentially had an incestuous relationship with her own son—and I certainly don’t know anyone like that, thank goodness. You never want to make anything too obvious. The art of characterization is a sly and subtle one.
As a new and emerging writer, what advice would you give to writers just starting out?
If you’re serious about writing—and I mean actually serious—develop a thick skin, get used to failure, and devote all of your non-writing free time to reading.
Recommend a few books to the readers of On the Danforth with a sentence on why it’s worth reading.
- The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. As I said above, I like controversial books, and this novel, about a man who smacks a child who’s not his own at a family barbecue, is told from eight different characters’ perspectives, offering a rich and layered take on a troubling event.
- The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson. This book, about a man with a cuckold fetish, who secretly arranges for his wife and a man of his choosing to meet, fall in lust, and have an affair, is one of the strangest, funniest, and weirdly erotic books I’ve ever read.
- Anything by Flannery O’Connor. The master of ‘The Grotesque’ with an excellent ear for dialogue and tough yet vivid prose will shock any reader out of their comfort zone, and as David Foster Wallace said, it is literature’s job to “disturb the comforted, and comfort the disturbed”, and that is exactly what Flannery O’Connor’s fiction does.
- The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe. Not only is this a novel about a series of characters who have various types of sleep disorders, it is also funny, sad, masterfully plotted. One of the best novels I’ve read in years.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I hope to be able to keep writing books until I croak. I am currently working on a novel, set in Toronto, about a young couple in their twenties, both of whom are severe hypochondriacs and germophobes, who must face their worst fears dead-on when the city is struck by a lethal epidemic that originates in their apartment building. I hope to have a finished manuscript to send to my publisher by the summer.
Visit ECW’s site to learn more about Madden and purchase his book.