Register Sunday | September 19 | 2021

Once More, With Feeling

A few weeks before the publication of her debut novel, Toronto-based writer Sophie McCreesh is musing about the appetite audiences will have for a “sad story”—if having undergone long bouts of isolation and trials of mental endurance, readers will have the stomach for a recapitulation of certain pandemic-driven realities. “It’s not an actual worry I have,” she clarifies. “In the end, it’ll connect with who it connects with, but I often find myself surprised with how the book turned out.” 

Once More, With Feeling (Doubleday Canada) will be released this month and was written during McCreesh’s time at the University of Guelph in the Creative Writing program. The book’s title wryly hints at the fact that none of its characters are in touch with their emotions, preferring the sybaritic oblivion that drugs, alcohol, and sex provide. Twenty-something Jane Berkeley is the picture of health on the outside, but down in the core of her being lies an emptiness of elephant-sized proportions. 

“Jane is spiritually and emotionally dead,” McCreesh deadpans. “That’s not a moralistic statement though, and I wanted to avoid the recovery narrative.” With thoughts of rehabilitation in the distance, Jane’s inadequacies and worst fears are showcased with alarming frankness. After being awarded a prestigious art grant to study abroad in England, Jane’s sense of equilibrium is soon tested by her aloof boyfriend Richard, her confidante and rival Kitty, and her therapist Anna. The novel is largely experienced through the prism of Jane’s vampiric relationships with others, and does not culminate until she has hit rock bottom at least a handful of times. 

McCreesh is aware of the books that have come before hers offering similarly bleak glimpses into the world of addiction and dependency, but as we begin discussing the origins of the novel, it becomes clear that presenting Jane’s life without judgment or censure is an important, maybe even central, feature of the novel. “Every story about substance abuse is going to be clichéd obviously,” she adds. “All you can really do is try to make it as interesting as possible.” 

I corresponded with Sophie to talk about the community of writers that has supported her, the recurring themes in her work, and how the fabled province of the novelist does not always make room for autofictive writing. 

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Once More, With Feeling is an unflinching look into substance abuse, loneliness, vanity, and the follies of youth. How did work begin on the novel? Were these subjects that you wanted to tackle beforehand, or did they grow out of the characters you were developing?

Sophie McCreesh: Since I first sat down to write the novel a long time ago, it’s difficult to recall my thought process as I feel I have changed as a writer since then. I remember I would write long stretches of dialogue with no tags and eventually expand on them. I don’t think I had any idea where it would go and how dark it would get. When I started writing, I was too young to write about the “follies of youth,” but when I finished it, maybe, I was old enough? 

I remember spending a significant amount of time staring at the screen, simply cutting words and lines from the novel, as if it were a poem. Even though I’m sure everyone does this, it still felt like I spent a long time on it. 

Like I said, I started the novel when I was younger. There were a couple years when I eventually decided to leave it alone. When I started writing it again, I had a different perspective, and I don’t think it would be the way it is if I had published it before now. 

JMA: Your novel pairs the ennui of literary realism with the hedonism of a rock memoir—it’s what a drug comedown after a rave-up might look like in book form. Are these the traditions you would say your novel participates in? Who were your main influences writing it? 

SM: I really enjoy Mary Gaitskill’s writing, which is sometimes described as “devastating” and “cold.” I just think she’s being honest. It’s hard to explain, but once I read her stuff, I felt like I could give myself permission to take the story where it went. Her writing has both taught and provided me with comfort. I am a humble fan.

While writing this book, I read the first three Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, an author known for his deadpan humour. There are scenes in Bad News where Patrick takes cabs around New York City searching for drugs. This storyline introduced the idea that I could frame more of a narrative around the general preoccupation that Jane has with substances. Even while she’s fucked up, she still plans the details of where and when she’ll get them next. 

I also think it’s kind of cool that you put it in terms of a rock memoir. Often when these types of stories involve women, people just see it as sad. The story of Jane is very sad (as are most rock memoir stories), but I do like the idea of it being categorized the way you put it. Jane can be a dejected rock star.

JMA: The exact reasons for Jane’s downward spiral are never shared with a reader. Events that shape her outlook are presented in glimpses—the rescue of her therapist’s daughter from drowning perhaps being the most monumental—but I’m wondering if that was a comment on the generation she was born into and how the world millennials have inherited might drive them to despair?

SM: Yes, it was.

JMA: The relationship between Jane and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Richard is very complicated. What begins as a relationship of convenience, evolves into a situation where Richard is plying her with drugs and pushing her to sleep with other couples before returning to him. Is their dynamic representative of a power imbalance, the upper limits of free love, or something else entirely? 

SM: I would say that Richard has an awareness that Jane is in a bad situation, and that her circumstance is a factor in her consistent return to him. I never set out to write about a specific power imbalance in the sense that, in my novel, there is no profound asymmetry between them. He doesn’t really have knowledge or a career that Jane wants. He is not manipulating any situation like that. He can simply offer more information about life because he is older. Richard doesn’t really do anything for her other than provide literal companionship and act as a confidant in a world where Jane feels isolated and unable to relate to anyone. In a functional sense, he provides her with drugs and is a person she can do those things with. Jane isn’t the most self-aware character, so Richard is someone who can point things out to her, something he does in a way that can be callous.  

JMA: You’ve been publishing your short fiction for some time now at independent outlets like Bad Nudes, Peach Mag, and No Tokens. Your debut novel with Doubleday Canada sees you make the leap into the mainstream. There’s an old saw about how no success is truly overnight, and that behind every impressive debut is a practical lifetime of dedication. How important has it been to your process to publish at a steady clip, and keep a disciplined momentum going with your writing? 

SM: My work was rejected a lot, which is fine. Everyone gets rejected. I got to a point where I decided that I simply enjoy writing, and I didn’t know if I’m very good or if anyone would ever care about it. All that aside, I am very grateful to a few people who encouraged me early on.

JMA: Your characters tend to be maladjusted, struggling with the immense weight of social and romantic obligations. What is it about alienation—from labour, from romance, or from ambition even—that has made the subject something of a hobbyhorse?

SM: This is a hard question to answer because it seems everything about the alienation of a generation has already been said. 

Many of my characters start out from a place of solitude. One of the things I am interested in showing is how that general state— a withdrawn, cold one— is learned, and how this way of interacting with the world is something that can make a person feel safe. I wanted this to come across with someone like Jane, who views every social interaction as potential for disaster and humiliation. She’s an extreme example.

The condition of feeling lonely around other people, but also desperate to connect, isn’t a new concept in literature, but it is a narrative I find compelling. I think a common theme in my stories and my novel is a yearning to be a part of something, but also a hope for a chance to rest from thoughts and anxieties. Again, none of this is groundbreaking. In the end, it’s simply an attempt to write a piece that I would want to read personally.

JMA: Electronic music, but Techno in particular, features prominently in your fiction as well. It’s usually an emotional anchor or a subject of intense conversation and debate among characters. Can you talk about your fascination with it that you don’t get from other musical genres or artistic mediums? 

SM: It’s hard for me to speak directly about how I relate to this music, so I think my attempts at writing about it are the best way I can examine how music can comfort a person. Personally, I feel emotionally connected to whatever music I’m listening to, and for that reason, it’s become intensely private. I would feel very uncomfortable if someone walked in while I was listening to music alone. I don’t know why that is. 

Many years ago, I was walking with headphones on. I remember dramatically thinking, “there are no words;” meaning that, in that moment, I felt that nothing was matching whatever common, emotional pain I was feeling. Then I stopped listening to music with words. The only music I could tolerate for a couple of years was classical, ambient, and techno. 

It might be worth noting that I usually write at night after work, and electronic music helps me concentrate while staying awake. I also like to dance from time to time. 

JMA: Do you consider yourself a humourist? The focus of your short stories has been the portrayal of psychological complexity and the interiority of self-doubt in characters, but it’s also notable for its deadpan humour, detonating with the force of a socially disruptive shockwave. 

SM: I guess I relate the most to this type of comedy. I have a deadpan delivery for most of my jokes, and sometimes people say they can’t tell if I’m being serious or not. I tend to feel alienated when people don’t get my sense of humour, so I try and surround myself with people who do. 

I feel like it’s only natural for me to relay my own impulse to make jokes onto my characters, whether I mean to or not. Something I look for when I’m editing is my inclination to rely too heavily on jokes. If that happens, I try to dig deeper to find what I’m really trying to say—what emotion I’m trying to get at. 

I also have a great time laughing at my own jokes while I’m working on a piece, if I’m being honest. It can make writing more fun.

JMA: I think one of the most challenging things for writers must be how they navigate the perceived desirability in their work—this pressure to be topical, or anticipate what might be commercially viable in a crowded marketplace when a book is released years after you’ve turned in a manuscript. Do you put stock into those kinds of considerations, or do you follow other creative motivations? 

SM: My first thought is to mention social media, as I have been reading novels that are heavily centred around the topic, and it is mentioned briefly in Once More, With Feeling as well. I feel like it’s difficult to pin down a specific moment, considering how quickly technology changes, especially in the realm of social media with new platforms popping up every month. Is it a detriment that my book never mentions TikTok? I don’t know. 

I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what people will be into years from now, or however long it takes for a novel to go through the editing process and be published. Although this may seem obvious, the personal growth that can happen during any amount of time feels like something worth noting—how that can affect the way you relate to your own work. 

Anyway, my short answer would be that I think it’s too limiting to think of writing in terms of perceived desirability. I hope to avoid that.

JMA: The act of composition is a mostly solitary endeavour, but the flip of that is that some novelists hunger for a sense of community. How important is a sense of collective belonging with your peers? 

SM: Some time ago, a friend and I were hosting a reading series. I had fun helping put that together because I weirdly enjoy planning and logistics. It was nice to know I would see everyone together every so often. I also used to have people over to my house for dinner parties, an excuse to try and improve my cooking skills. Hopefully, I can get back to that soon. 

In addition to the emotional support and friendship, a community is helpful when it comes to practical things like applying for grants, submissions, events, anything really. Many friends have helped me figure out tiny logistical things that were otherwise confusing to me. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to talk to about how being a writer is embarrassing, like: do I make a website? Do I put this on social media? Who do I think I am? Stuff like that.

JMA: What new projects are you currently working on? Will they follow the same trajectory as OMWF, or move in a new direction?

SM: I am working on another novel right now, as well as a book of short stories. I think the narrative of the new work will be less internal and paranoid than Jane’s trajectory in Once More, With Feeling. They might be different in the simple sense that I don’t want to write in third person present tense for a while. I’m happy with the way the novel turned out, but there were times when it felt frustrating, technically. 

There’s this vague idea I have about writing a series of essays on music that I’m interested in—what that could maybe look like. I have been looking into how I can write about music in a different way, if I can blend the genre of a music review with an essay about something else entirely. 

JMA: You mentioned something about OMWF earlier that I want to return to, which is how the book is not a work of autofiction. Was writing outside of your sphere of knowledge or experience a conscious decision? Do you have certain “philosophical reservations” to incorporating aspects of your life into your fiction?

SM: It’s not a philosophical opposition that I have to it. I just think when I was younger and started writing the novel, I was a bit eager to write about aspects of my own life. I soon realized I wasn’t very interesting.