Q: Claire’s Head leads the main character, Claire Barber, on a physical journey that crosses oceans and continents in search of her sister, Rachel. What is the connection you are drawing between physical and emotional dislocation?
Claire’s journey takes her both to different parts of the world and through different parts of her own psyche — different parts of her own head, as it were. Any journey is both an outer journey and a journey into the interior. Any new place forces you to encounter yourself in some new way. Claire is a character who is particularly responsive to place. She’s a mapmaker who has concentrated on mapping a single city, Toronto. Her search for Rachel throws her out into the world and sets her off on a new kind of exploration. The places Claire travels to are all places where I have found myself over the last few years or felt compelled to travel to — like Las Vegas — without quite knowing why. The book’s epigraph comes from the 19th-century writer, Alphonse Daudet, who wrote of his own suffering from syphilis. He talks of pain as a country, countries, a whole geography. Claire’s journey offers her an increasingly fierce encounter with her own pain, both physical and emotional. I wanted pain to be Claire’s catalyst for exploration because an intense experience of physical pain — let’s just talk about physical pain for a moment — really does change how you see and experience the world.
Q: Claire suffers acutely from migraines, as does her missing sister, Rachel. You paint astutely both the physical sensation and the emotional toll pain takes on migraineurs. Can you describe how you see pain affecting the lives and choices of your characters?
I wanted to write a novel in which migraines were not only an aspect of character but also were integral to the plot and to the actions of the characters at many levels. Claire thinks Rachel has run off, trying to find an escape from her worsening migraines. Claire’s own headaches increase in intensity as she searches for her sister. At one point, Claire talks about feeling distorted by her migraines, and I do think living with such a condition, and it need not be migraines but any kind of chronic or recurring pain, changes who you are. You are always aware of the potential for pain, even when it’s not present. It affects how you make choices from the micro level — what shall I eat for lunch? — to the macro — should I have children?
Migraine is a neurological condition, and I am interested in the ways we use neurological models to help explain ourselves. We don’t lean as heavily on the Freudian notion of the unconscious any more, although I don’t think we’ve dropped the idea of the unconscious either. Pain forces you into a particularly intense encounter with yourself. The inevitable risk is that pain cuts you off from the rest of the world, including other people, something that Claire is struggling to move beyond even as Rachel, her sister, moves in the opposite direction.
Q: Often in your novels, you have explored family relationships. What fascinates you about this particular dynamic?
I am drawn to sibling relationships, and one of the starting points of this novel was thinking about my relationship to one of my sisters, the one who, like me, gets migraines. When the pain makes you feel a little mad, it is reassuring to know there’s someone out there whose experience, and neurochemistry, is so similar to yours.
Q: How do you see the novel as a progression of Claire’s loss of control, both internal and external, and what do you see that ultimately meaning for Claire?
Claire loves order. She measures and counts things as a way to gain some control over the disordered world of pain inside her, and the disorder of the world that impinges from the outside. I don’t want her love of order and of mapping to be viewed as a sterile condition — mapping something as complex as the city of Toronto (Claire works in the city’s map department) is a dynamic and complicated task, which I learned about first-hand while touring the city’s actual map department — but like any obsession, a love of order has its limitations. In Claire’s case, her need for order masks a fear of disorder. As she lets go of her known world to search for Rachel, she lets more and more disorder into her life. She jettisons her job and puts her relationship in jeopardy. She takes off for Europe, then Las Vegas, then Mexico on little more than a moment’s notice. She wants to find Rachel but, like Rachel, she also wants to escape her own pain and find a cure for her headaches. Ultimately she has to find a way to accept the world’s disorder, and her own, as part of herself, part of the price of being alive — not disorder to the exclusion of order, but the possibility of some dynamic balance between them. Part of this acceptance is surrendering the search for a cure, the belief that pain is something you can escape.
Q: What other writers’ work has influenced your writing?
Claire’s Head is a novel profoundly influenced, or inspired by, two very different movies, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, about a young Italian woman who vanishes from an island and whose best friend and lover go in search of her, and Todd Haynes’ Safe, about a woman in California beset by a mysterious environmental illness that upturns her life. I went looking for headaches in Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Woolf has written poignantly and profoundly about illness and internal disorder. Other points of reference — Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s extraordinary novel, The Ruined Map, about a detective’s increasingly hallucinatory search for a missing man and his relationship with the missing man’s wife; Joan Didion’s essay, “In Bed,” from The White Album, about suffering migraines. Oliver Sacks’ book Migraines. I spent the latter part of the time I was writing Claire’s Head reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s influence is probably nowhere in evidence but his extraordinary insight into obsession and his capacity for articulating complex mental processes was inspirational.
Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay."
- Flannery O’Connor
“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”
- Randall Jarrell