Nancy Jo Cullen, whose gorgeous THE WESTERN ALIENATION MERIT BADGE was one of our favourite books of 2019, shares her three essential books, the titles that immediately come to mind when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read.
This book was very useful to me when I first read it and I still read parts of it when I’m stuck. The stories he uses as examples are all so good.
Like a Beggar, by Ellen Bass
This is a poetry collection that I like to pick up and read again and again. It’s beautiful and never fails to soothe me.
Each year I really look forward to the new edition of The Journey Prize. It’s always exciting to read through the anthology to get a sense of what is going on in short fiction in Canada. I love it and I wait until Christmas to read it because it comes in my stocking because Santa knows me very well.
Set in Calgary in 1982, during the recession that arrived on the heels of Canada’s National Energy Program, The Western Alienation Merit Badge follows the Murray family as they struggle with grief and find themselves on the brink of financial ruin. After the death of her stepmother, Frances “Frankie” Murray returns to Calgary to help her father, Jimmy, and her sister, Bernadette, pay the mortgage on the family home. When Robyn, a long-lost friend, becomes their house guest old tensions are reignited and Jimmy, Bernadette and Frances find themselves increasingly alienated from one another.
Part family drama, part queer coming-of-age story, The Western Alienation Merit Badge explores the complex dynamics of a small family falling apart.
The Western Alienation Merit Badge may be Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut novel, but she’s already an award-winning author of short fiction, poetry and plays. Casey Plett calls her latest book, “A queer prairie novel of my dreams—electric, funny, hot, heartbreaking, scathing…”
Briny Books: What’s the part of your book that you’re most proud of—the scene you can’t believe you pulled off, the part you most want to highlight, the passage you’d like to enclose in brackets with a note underlined: I WROTE THIS?
Nancy Jo Cullen: Honestly, the fact that I actually finished a novel is the thing I can’t believe I pulled off. It was really a struggle for me sometimes to believe that I could actually write a novel that is any good. So now I read it and I think that I managed to write a decent, entertaining novel. There were times during the process that I really didn’t believe I could pull it off. Novels are so big and unwieldy.
I also really like Robyn’s last scene in the book that jumps forward and backward in time so we see how she is in the current day while we watch the havoc she wreaks on the Murrays.
Briny Books: Was there a part of your narrative that surprised you as your book came together, suggesting that the author isn’t always completely in charge of her work and something deeper and weirder is going on?
Nancy Jo Cullen: I always thought I was writing a happy ending story. A few problems that a family overcomes and then they love each other again and all’s well. I definitely didn’t want to write a story where Frances’s sexuality would be an issue that the family couldn’t manage. And I thought Robyn was a better person too. Initially when I imagined the story it would all come back to happiness. But the story, to stay true to the characters, just refused it. Trying to shoehorn the idea that the characters would all forgive each other weakened the novel and when I let go of it the story picked up steam.
Briny Books: Public readings (and learning to do them) are a big part of an author’s experience. But is there a part of your book that you know you’ll never have the nerve to read out loud?
Nancy Jo Cullen: Yes! There’s a sex scene near the beginning of the book that I’m very unlikely to ever read in public.
Briny Books: What has been your favourite reader response to your book so far?
Nancy Jo Cullen: One of my very favourite places to eat in Kingston is a place called the Northside Café. I really like the two women who own it and I love the food, and the vibe, and the staff at their place. And we were friendly but they didn’t know I was a writer. Anyway, one of them found my book at our local bookstore, Novel Idea—the design (thank you Michel Vrana!) caught her eye. She looked over the book and realized it was me (most people know me as Nancy not Nancy Jo) took it home and read and she really liked it and she made the point of telling me. I was so thrilled! The cool woman from the funkiest joint in Kingston loved my book?!!! If the work of a book is to find a writer’s audience then this was one of those moments.
Briny Books: What book(s) is/are you reading at the moment?
Nancy Jo Cullen: I’ve just picked up Kai Cheng Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love. I am drawn to her idea of love as radical action and when she talks about it she makes so much sense. Love is radical these days and that’s the kind of thinking I want to engage with.
I’m also reading Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I’m dubious, but it was a book my mom loved so I thought I’d pick it up. I’m travelling for the next couple of weeks so why not lean on a little gothic romance? Is it romance? I’m actually waiting to crack it when I’m on the plane.
And, I like to have a poetry collection on the go, my current poetry read is Panicle by Gillian Sze.
This might make it sound like I read a ton but I’m a slow reader and will linger over all of the above books.