Margaret Gracie's Plastic (Porcupine's Quill) dives into the dark side of the American dream. Following a former Miss America whose quest to "have it all" becomes a twisted obsession, the connected stories in Plastic are an insightful and memorable. Interrogating ideas around validation, admiration, perception, anxiety, and self-worth, it's a smart, page-turning question levelled at the voices who have told women they can easily have it all.
We're pleased to welcome Margaret to Open Book today to talk about her troubled protagonist, Debbie Pearce, as part of our In Character interview series.
Margaret tells us about the important process of learning to trust her characters, the value of eavesdropping, and iconic characters who have made an impression on her as a writer.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
Debbie Pearce has fulfilled the American dream. She has money, beauty, fame, a happy marriage and a tidy nuclear family. She is the image of success, surrounded by people who adore her. Debbie feeds on this adoration. The more people admire her, the kinder and more generous she becomes, lavishing gifts and attention on them.
From the outside, her life is perfect. And Debbie wants nothing more than for this to be reality. But there is a dark side to her need for admiration: it makes her vulnerable to people’s perceptions of her. Her own children do not see a beauty icon; they see a mother more concerned with appearances than their happiness. Debbie’s quest for perfection drives a wedge between her and her less-than-perfect children. Whenever things, or people, don’t live up to her ideals, it threatens her self-esteem. So Debbie chooses to ignore what doesn’t fit her picture of the perfect life.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
The characters can surprise me. I have a good sense of who they are and what they believe, but if I try to impose my idea of what they should do or say in a certain scene, it might not work. In the rewriting stage, I sometimes have to let go of my preconceived idea and trust the character to fill in the blanks. This is when he or she can take on a life of their own, guiding me in the right direction.
How do you choose names for your characters?
Sometimes the name comes first. One day a character will start crowding my brain with a strong narrative voice. She monologues in my ear until I write her story down. In these character-driven stories, the name usually comes first.
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In other stories, I may choose a simple name as a placeholder while I work out who a character is. Depending on when and where he was born, his social status, level of education and personality, there are usually a handful of names that could work but only one that conjures the right image of my character. That name just seems to “fit” him.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
I think about how talkative a character would be. Would she love to hear her own voice, or would she censor her words? That gives me a place to start in the first draft. What does she want to say in this scene and how would she do it? In subsequent drafts, I edit the back and forth to get the dialogue down to its core.
I love listening in on conversations in coffee shops or other public spaces. I watch how people move when they speak and I sometimes jot down notes if there is a particular expression that is new to me. This can be useful when I’m writing dialogue for teens since each generation has its own slang.
My tip is that less is more when it comes to dialogue. I think about one key word a certain character would use and which words that character would never say.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
I feel immense empathy for Debbie. Like her, I struggle with what it means to be a success as a woman. Growing up, I heard over and over again that women can have it all. But something has to take a back seat. I see a bit of my own evolution in Debbie: how I believed in my twenties that I could have everything and then realized we all have to make choices about where we focus our attention.
The biggest difference between me and Debbie is her self-delusion. She keeps trying to uphold this image of perfection, even after she witnesses its damaging effects on her family.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
A character that stands out for me is Jakob Beer in Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces. The opening scene is a masterpiece where the reader feels immediate connection with this young boy. We ache for his loss and share his grief.
When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I immediately recognized the similarities between our two books, both in the structure and the difficult main character. Olive is hard to love yet completely relatable. The reader may judge her harshly at first, yet as the book unfolds, we empathize with this complicated and very human character.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about a refugee family who flee to Canada to protect their daughters. I see a parallel with Plastic in that the main characters are very vulnerable females. But this time it comes from a completely different perspective. They are concerned for their very survival.
Margaret Gracie has worked as an ESL instructor, translator, communications consultant and as a writer and editor for the federal government. Her short stories have been published in Canadian and American journals as well as in a British anthology. Plastic is her first published book of fiction. She currently lives in Victoria, BC in her dream home overlooking the harbour.