Ottawa-based author Missy Marston's second novel Bad Ideas (ECW Presss), is all heart, packed with humour, vivid and memorable writing, and unforgettable characters. Not to mention it has a rocket car, an Evel Knievel-style daredevil, and a drowned town.
In Bad Ideas, mother and daughter Claire and Trudy live together in a 1970s eastern Ontario town. Claire is a dreamer still missing Trudy's long-gone father, while Trudy is a practical, hard-working young woman who is determined to stay out of trouble and take of herself. When she meets daredevil Jules Tremblay though, her practical ways abandon her and she finds herself caught up in Jules' scheme to jump the St. Lawrence in the rocket car.
Witty and gorgeous, Bad Ideas is a story of romance, family, ambition, and the desire for something better. We're very excited to have Missy on Open Book today as part of our Long Story novel interview to talk about the book.
She tells us about the very first sentence she wrote for Bad Ideas, the fictional town she created (and its inspiration, complete with underwater sidewalks), and the historic and socially complicated feat of engineering that informed the novel.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
The first sentence I wrote was the first sentence of the prologue: Why do they do it? As a writer, I love a prologue. With a prologue, you set yourself a challenge and then you try to write a book that lives up to it. In this case, there is a very basic connection: the prologue asks why and the book answers: Because, Because, Because.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
This could be a long answer.
The setting for Bad Ideas is a fictional Ontario town called Preston Mills. Like the house I grew up in, it is located between the towns of Iroquois and Morrisburg and, like those towns, most of it was moved and flooded when the St. Lawrence Seaway was widened in the 1950s. When I was a kid, I could go across the street from my house, to the bank of the river and see sidewalks from the old town under the water. My brothers and I would swim out to an “island” that was a hump of the old highway breaking the surface. It was a weirdly physical way of experiencing local history. There it is, over there, looming up out of the water.
The road I grew up on was also the place where Ken Carter, the Mad Canadian, built a massive ramp so that he could jump the St. Lawrence River in a rocket car. This made a huge impression on me as a kid, as you can imagine, on our whole town. Naturally, this is more or less the site of the ramp being built by Jules Tremblay, the daredevil in Bad Ideas.
So, that’s a long way of saying I am deeply connected to the setting of the book. But I also had to create some distance in order to get the writing done. Creating a new town in that specific place allowed me to bring in much of what was magical and frightening about my own childhood, and the history of my hometown, without giving up the freedom of wild invention.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
I knew how this book would end before I wrote a single word. It was like that with my first novel, too. I knew where I would start and how things would end. The hard part is figuring out how to get there, one infuriating page at a time.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
I love all the characters in this book. Even the scrappy, nasty ones. Even the deluded ones. You know that saying, “The Lord loves a tryer”? Well, I love a tryer. And everyone in this story is trying. If I had to narrow it down, my heart is with Trudy, the main character, and Jules, the daredevil. She is barely into her twenties, working full time and single-handedly holding her family together. He is hustling tirelessly to carry out a ridiculously ambitious stunt. And neither is getting much help from anyone.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Bad Ideas is like a Marilynne Robinson book in a spangly jumpsuit. Or it wishes it was.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I read books about the Seaway Project from a number of perspectives and from different times. From one side it was an engineering and commercial triumph, the biggest single construction project in history, a historic feat of cooperation between Canada and the U.S. From the other side, people lost land they had had in their families for generations, had their dead dug up and moved, their towns taken apart and reassembled, made unrecognizable. Some villages were erased completely, flooded and amalgamated into new towns. It was a lot to recover from.
I also read books about Evel Knievel and watched a lot of rodeo. And I watched the NFB film about Ken Carter, The Devil at Your Heels, about a thousand times.
Did you celebrate finishing your final draft or any other milestones during the writing process? If so, how?
Prosecco for getting a book deal; Champagne on publication day. I am superstitious about celebrating prematurely when it comes to writing. It seems like such a longshot to actually finish a novel and get it out there into the world. I’m afraid to jinx it.
Missy Marston’s first novel, The Love Monster, was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa Book Award, a finalist for the CBC Bookie Awards, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario.