This week, we’re in conversation with Ashley Little. Her new novel, Niagara Motel, tells the story of Tucker Malone, an eleven-year-old boy who sets out on a journey across North American in search of his birth father, whom he believes to be Sam Malone from Cheers.
The Winnipeg Review called Niagara Motel “a strange, absorbing tale." Brett Josef Grubisic, writing in the Vancouver Sun, says Tucker is “an innocent in a tough and corrupt world .... He’s plucky and determined and, despite circumstances, refreshingly unmarred.”
Ashley Little is the author of four books including Niagara Motel. Her novel Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal, 2013) won the Ethel Wilson fiction prize, was shortlisted for the city of Vancouver Book Award, a finalist for the In the Margins Book Award for youth in custody, and was long-listed for the IMPAC Award. She lives in Kelowna, BC with her partner, Warren, and their toy poodle, Huxley. She teaches Creative Writing at UBC’s Okanagan campus.
THE CHAT WITH ASHLEY LITTLE
Trevor Corkum: Your latest novel, Niagara Motel, follows eleven-year-old Tucker Malone, son of an itinerant stripper, as he hitchhikes across North America with a pregnant 16-year-old, Meredith, in search of his biological father. How was the novel born?
Ashley Little: I went to Niagara Falls on New Year’s Eve—the end of 2010—my first time there as an adult (I had been several times as a child) and I was struck by the majestic natural beauty of the falls smushed right up against the tacky gawdiness of “the strip” (Clifton Hill). I think in Niagara Falls, we have an instance of the sacred meeting the profane. This juxtaposition really sparked something in me and I turned to my partner as we were walking down Clifton Hill and said, “My next novel is going to be set in Niagara Falls.”
I was also interested in finding out more about sex-work and originally I had thought it would be Gina’s story. Then one day in the spring of 2012 (while I was still researching but hadn’t begun writing yet) I was cleaning my house 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, and the voice said, “I was born in a laundromat in Paris, Ontario.” And 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.
I heard this voice in my head, just as clear as if someone were in the room speaking to me, and the voice said, “I was born in a laundromat in Paris, Ontario.”"
And that’s how Tucker first appeared to me.
TC: One of the things I love most in the book is Tucker’s precocious, eternally optimistic view of the world. No matter what goes down, he’s resilient enough to keep on trucking. What challenges did you face, entering the mind of an eleven-year-old boy and writing his first-person narrative?
AL: Thanks. In 1992 I would have been around the same age as Tucker so I found I could draw on a lot of my own memories for music, fashion, television, media, things I would have liked or wanted to do, things I wondered about. His character really 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 that day and I could hear his voice very clearly as I wrote.
Something I did for research was go to the food court in the mall a few weekends and I would sit near kids who I thought were around Tucker’s age and write down what they were saying verbatim so I could get a sense of the things they talked about, the way they said them, the rhythms of their language. Some people might think that’s creepy but I just think of it as research. I have a male cousin who was eleven at the time I started writing Niagara Motel so sometimes I would ask him, “Do kids still say this?” “Would a kid do this?” and he was a valuable source.
Something I did for research was go to the food court in the mall a few weekends and I would sit near kids who I thought were around Tucker’s age and write down what they were saying verbatim so I could get a sense of the things they talked about, the way they said them, the rhythms of their language."
I watched a lot of movies with kids around Tucker’s age: Stand By Me, My Girl, E.T. And I read a lot of books intended for adults with child narrators to see how I might create a child narrator that would appeal to adults.
TC: Along Tucker and Meredith’s journey, they come into contact with Timothy McVeigh (The Oklahoma Bomber) and Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, among others. Each of these notorious criminals has a cameo in the book. Why did you decide to include these figures? What liberties did you take by including them into the plot?
AL: Through the writing of this novel, I was exploring how the media and popular culture shape us as individuals and as a society; and the massive influence media and pop-culture have—especially on young people—in forming views of the world.
I am fascinated by the phenomenon of celebrity criminals; the fact that a person with no discernible talent is able to achieve celebrity status through an act of violence (or alleged violence). As I recall, celebrity criminals were especially popular in the early 1990s, and some of them dominated headlines and mass media so much that, I think, they made their way into our collective consciousness. To acknowledge that shared experience, I incorporated some of the most prominent celebrity criminals from that time period into the novel. Namely, Timothy McVeigh, Lorena Bobbitt, O.J. Simpson, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the boys responsible for the Columbine High School massacre. Reginald Denny, who was filmed being beaten in the first few hours of the riots, and Fidel Lopez who was nearly burned alive are also "real life" people who appear in the novel.
Each of these characters represent themselves in the novel, but they also serve to symbolize evil, violence, brutality, loss, and pain; things Tucker has yet to learn about as he and Meredith embark for L.A.
I think part of what I was doing in the writing of this novel was trying to make sense of a formative time in my life when the acts of violence that were going on, both close to home and in other parts of the world, felt bizarre, threatening, and overwhelming. If you remember the Jamie Bulger case in Liverpool in 1993; I was the same age at the time as the boys who murdered him. I didn’t understand how ten-year-old kids were capable of torturing and murdering a toddler. Then, six years later, in April 1999, I was the same age as the boys responsible for the Columbine High School massacre. Again, I was deeply disturbed by the knowledge that kids the same age as me could commit these staggering acts of violence. To add further horror to that situation, my own high school in Calgary received a bomb threat the following day citing Columbine and classes were cancelled for the rest of the week.
I also remember watching the L.A. riots on TV as a kid, asking my parents, “Why are they wrecking their own city?” “Why are they stealing all that stuff? Won’t they get caught?” I remember watching the OJ Simpson Bronco Chase live, and jumping around the living room, because up to that point that was the most exciting thing I had ever seen on television.
And I remember being a girl growing up in Southern Ontario with the specter of the Scarborough Rapist lurking in every parking lot and every back alley. And I remember passing the newspaper stand on my way to school and seeing the faces of Leslie Mahoffy and Kristen French staring back at me, Every. Single. Day. For years.
I wonder, what are the cultural effects of these crimes? What is their legacy? Like Tucker, I was a child, and it was impossible for me to comprehend how people could do these things to each other. Now, I ask, how do we cultivate human compassion for these criminals? Because even if they are monsters, they are still, ultimately, human. And while Niagara Motel does not purport to answer this question, I think that Tucker’s way of being in the world might give us a clue as to how to face this dilemma with integrity.
Now, I ask, how do we cultivate human compassion for these criminals? Because even if they are monsters, they are still, ultimately, human."
TC: I love that you include a Mix-Tape for Tucker at the end of the book. In many ways, the novel pays homage to the early 1990s, complete with Nirvana t-shirts, mobile phones the size of bricks, and descriptions of the Rodney King trial and the L.A. riots. There’s a kind of innocent naiveté to Tucker’s journey, back in a world where photo ID was not required to fly or even to cross borders. How different do you think Tucker’s trip might be if it took place in 2017 America?
I think it would be a completely different novel. Probably one that I wasn’t able to write.
TC: Finally, Tucker’s mother, Gina, is rendered with compassion and grace. It’s clear that mother and son love each other fiercely. Do you ever imagine Tucker and Gina in the present moment, 25 years later? Where do they each end up?
AL: That’s kind of a nice thing about writing a novel for me; I can freeze time. No one gets older. Tucker can stay just as sweet and pure as he is for all time. I don’t know what happens to them afterwards (or any of my characters in any of my books after the last page) because they’re really just on their own after that. I’ve taken them as far as I could and I think it’s kind of up to the reader (if the reader wants) to imagine what happens to them after. For me, they’re still stepping off the Greyhound, making their way home to the Niagara Motel.
Excerpt from Niagara Motel
These are the reasons I think that Sam Malone might be my real father:
1. My father was a bartender. Sam Malone is a bartender.
2. My father had brown hair. Sam Malone has brown hair.
3. My father was a womanizer. Sam Malone is a womanizer.
4. My father was a recovering alcoholic. Sam Malone is a recovering alcoholic.
5. Our last name is Malone. His last name is Malone.
I know last names don’t usually work that way, and I know they weren’t married or anything, but still, it’s a pretty big coincidence. Also, just because something’s on TV doesn’t mean it’s not real. When I’m old enough to get a job and I can save up enough money, I’m going to take the bus to Boston and go to Sam’s bar. I’ll walk in and Norm and Woody and Coach will grin their droopy barfly grins at me and Coach will say, “Aren’t you a little young to be in here, kid?” And Sam will turn around and he’ll be polishing a wine glass with his white bar towel, and when he sees me and realizes who I am, the glass will drop right out of his hand and shatter into a million pieces, but he won’t even care, he’ll just keep staring at me and his mouth will fall open a little bit. His eyes will start to water, and he’ll come out from behind the bar—he’ll be trying to talk but he won’t be able to say anything because he’ll be too emotional—and then he’ll kneel down in front of me to look into my eyes and he’ll see that they’re the very same eyes as his. Then I’ll throw my arms around his neck and hug him, real tight, and he’ll hug me back. Then we’ll slide into a booth and Carla will bring Sam a coffee and me a glass of chocolate milk and she’ll be crying too because everyone will be able to see that I’m Sam’s son. Norm will drop a little tear in his beer and Coach will get all snuffled up and wipe his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket. Woody will ask, “What’s everyone so upset about all of a sudden?” And they’ll have to explain it to Woody. They’ll have to tell him that I’m Sam’s kid and that he’s never met me until right now. It might not go exactly like that but it will be some variation of that. They say you never know what’s going to happen, but sometimes you have a pretty good idea.
Niagara Motel by Ashley Little. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. Excerpt appears with permission from the publisher.