I first met Ashley Little at the Toronto book launch of her dark debut novel, Prick: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist (Tightrope Books, 2011). She has since written the excellent Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal Pulp, 2013), which won the Ethel Wilson fiction prize, and was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Awards. She’s also written The New Normal (Orca Book Publishers, 2013), a young adult novel which won the Sheila A. Egoff’s Children’s Literature Prize, and last year’s Niagara Motel (Arsenal Pulp).
For my first column for The Town Crier, I had the chance to talk to Ashley about her characters, her inspirations, and the fascinating book she’s working on right now.
Danila Botha: Although Niagara Motel is full of your characteristic realism and grit, I would say the novel is optimistic and open-hearted. Your main character, Tucker Malone is incredibly emotionally generous. Tell me about the shift in approach. Was it conscious or did it just develop that way as you were writing him and the story? What inspired it?
Ashley Little: It was definitely a conscious choice. I had a really hard time emotionally while I was writing my previous novel, Anatomy of a Girl Gang. Just being in that world and that mindset all the time got pretty bleak, so I wanted this one to be a little lighter in tone and, for lack of a better term, sunnier.
DB: I know what you mean. I felt the same way after I finished Got No Secrets.
AL: I think that comedy is the most difficult thing to write, so I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write something funny. When I was creating Tucker, I wanted him to be just completely non-judgemental and always think the best of everyone, so I’m glad he came across that way to you.
DB: I was just looking at the cover of Niagara Motel, and I noticed Alix Hawley’s great blurb: “Catcher in the Rye crashes into the ’90s.” Something I love about Tucker is how you retained his inherent sweetness and innocence so convincingly, despite his mom’s line of work, her accident, and his foster home experiences. Can you tell me about the challenges of writing a character at that age, not a child and not quite a teenager? Were there moments as the author where you struggled with writing his reactions and his perception of events as they unfolded? How did you overcome that?
AL: I’m interested in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, so that’s why Tucker is 11 years old. No one has disappointed him yet, so he still believes in everyone. In 1992, I would have been around the same age as Tucker and I found I could draw on a lot of my own memories for music, fashion, television, and media. His character came nearly fully formed to me so there wasn’t a lot of “character building” that I had to do with Tucker; he started talking to me one day and I could hear his voice very clearly as I wrote.
I think that comedy is the most difficult thing to write so I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write something funny.
To research, I would go to the food court in the mall a few weekends and I would sit near kids around Tucker’s age and write down what they were saying verbatim. That way I could get a sense of the things they talked about, the way they said them, and the rhythms of their language. I also have a male cousin who was 11 at the time I started writing Niagara Motel. Sometimes I would ask him, “Do kids still say this?” or, “Would a kid do this?” He was a valuable source.
Niagara Motel by Ashley Little
DB: There’s a sense of levity in this book that manages to endear the reader to the characters so much. For example, Tucker’s search for fictional TV character Sam Malone, as his dad, and that scene in Li’l Red’s really made me laugh. Where did the Sam Malone idea come from? Were you a big fan of Cheers?
AL: I watched Cheers regularly as a kid and still like to catch an episode now and then. I had originally thought this novel would be Gina’s story because I wanted to write about sex work and I knew that her name was Gina Malone. Then one day I was cleaning my house in Medicine Hat and the sunlight fell across the floor where I had just mopped and the whole floor kind of lit up, like it was glowing, and I heard this voice in my head, just as clear as if someone were in the room speaking to me. The voice said, “I was born in a laundromat in Paris, Ontario.” I knew that was the first line of my novel—but I also knew that it wasn’t Gina’s voice, it was her son’s. And that’s how Tucker first appeared to me.
As I began writing and continuing my research, I discovered that Sam Malone from Cheers was considered to be the epitome of masculinity at the time (1992) and that’s what Tucker was missing in his life, a masculine presence. He already had the last name and I figured, why not have Sam Malone be his fantasy father? I once went to summer camp with a girl who was convinced that her birth-mother was Oprah, so I knew it was possible to convince one’s self of something like this.
DB: The Rodney King riots were such an important part of the story, too, and the descriptions you wrote were compelling (and frightening). Do you remember where you were when you heard about it? Was it always something you wanted to write about?
AL: Yes, I remember vividly watching the LA riots as a kid and being scared that the looters would come to where I was living (Ontario). I remember asking my parents, “Why are they doing that? Why are they wrecking their own city?” I forget what they said now, but I remember I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. The LA riot scenes in the book aren’t really fictionalized. They’re pretty much, scene for scene, exactly what happened. I watched tons of documentaries, looked at a lot of photos and news reports, and got hold of some raw footage shot with an old handheld camcorder.
I’m interested in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, so that’s why Tucker is 11 years old. No one has disappointed him yet, so he still believes in everyone.
I went to LA and toured the neighbourhood where the riots began. I tried to recreate the riots as accurately as I could. It was especially difficult to watch (and re-watch) and re-imagine the Reginald Denny beating and the Fidel Lopez beating.
I started thinking about riots again in June 2011, the night of the Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver, seeing it on the news and feeling so upset, and then later, wondering if I could write a riot scene and what that might look like.
DB: I also want to ask you about the women in this story. The women in your books are all complex, three-dimensional characters. I love Gina and I love Meredith. They’re both wry, funny, and kind, and in different ways they’re both caring and attentive to Tucker. I also found their attitudes toward sex work very honest and self aware. I was wondering what inspired them and who some of your favourite female characters in literary fiction are.
AL: I wrote Niagara Motel for my MFA thesis and my primary research question was: is sex work a valid profession that should be respected and admired? I began researching sex work in the fall of 2011. Eventually I came to my own conclusion to my question and I tried to reflect that conclusion in the attitudes toward sex work in the novel. Admittedly, after a certain point, the sex work kind of took a backseat to the other things going on in the book. But that was my starting point.
Some of my favourite female characters from literary fiction are Nancy Drew, Alice/the narrator from Go Ask Alice, Baby from Lullabies for Little Criminals, Shug from The Color Purple, and this is a movie but I’m throwing it in anyway, Annie Wilkes, Kathy Bates’ character from Misery. She haunts me.
DB: Lullabies for Little Criminals is one of my favourites, too. Heather O’Neill’s books are incredible. After rereading Anatomy of a Girl Gang recently and loving Niagara Motel and Prick, I have to know, what are you writing these days?
AL: Right now, I’m working on a young adult novel about a 17-year-old Texan cheerleader who contracts leprosy from an armadillo (yes, that can really happen). It’s coming out with Penguin Random House in Fall 2018.
I’m also currently serving as the Edna Staebler Writer in Residence for Wilfrid Laurier University. I moved my partner and our five-month-old baby out here from Kelowna for three months; it’s a grand adventure!
Ashley Little received a BFA in Creative Writing and Film Studies from the University of Victoria and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her first novel, Prick: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist (Tightrope Books, 2011) was a finalist for the ReLit award and optioned for film. The New Normal (Orca Book Publishers, 2013) won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize. Ashley’s third novel, Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013), won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and has been optioned for television. Her fourth novel, Niagara Motel, was published with Arsenal Pulp Press in Fall 2016. Ashley lives in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley