Toronto-based writer Marta Balcewicz talks to Lucy Black about her debut novel.
Lucy Black (LB): Congratulations on the release of BIG SHADOW. It’s a very powerful coming-of-age story. I know our readers will be very interested in learning more about your creative process. I felt that there was a deliberate shift in focus from Alex and his luxurious empty house to Maurice and his shabby New York apartment. Both locations play an important role in the story and I was hoping you would comment on the significance of setting to the novel’s trajectory.
Marta Balcewicz (MB) These two locations – a country home in an undeveloped area about 40 minutes by car outside of an unnamed city and a cramped artist’s apartment in the East Village – are seeming opposites, but I like to think of how they’re alike. The narrator, Judy, ends up feeling similarly lonely and isolated in both despite her being in the presence of supposed good friends – and in the case of New York, being in the city supposedly everyone dreams of going to. In both locations, she is made to do things that are against her wishes. I like to think about how she actively wants to the be in the latter and very much wants to escape the former, when perhaps a reader would think neither is a good place for her and there is likely a third option she is not considering.
LB: The characters in your book are fully developed and seem to walk off the page. Maurice, in particular, is very well described. Please share with us some of your challenges in writing a character that could be described as so utterly dislikeable.
MB: Maurice does problematic things and has a ridiculous ego – but he is also someone who manages to attract the attention and secure the allegiance of a very intelligent 17-year-old woman. So at least in the way he is presented to us by her – since this is a first-person narration – there have to be aspects to him that make him likeable. But I think this is just the standard fare of creating a rounded character – someone human, with some spectrum of positive to negative attributes. I didn’t feel any particular challenge in writing him beyond the general challenge of creating a rounded character. All our lives, we are surrounded by people with significant flaws and problematic attitudes, so models for such characters are readily available.
LB: Judy’s vulnerability stems, in part, from her creative self-definition. The heart of your story seems to be grounded in an exploration of artistic ambition. How important was this concept to you when you first envisioned the book and did it change at all as you developed your characters?
MB: Judy comes to think of herself as a burgeoning video artist – though I don’t think she fully grasps what that is. In earlier drafts, I was focused on a young woman in that stage of life that creative people go through where they ecstatically envision themselves becoming all sorts of things all at once: film maker, fashion designer, painter, musician, photographer, writer, music critic, etc. with everything feeling achievable and also merited. But in terms of the plot, I only planned to have her and Maurice revel in their shared interests and engage in a type of snobbish reverie of niche appreciation, i.e., hanging out on the couch and listening to obscure music. The idea that she’d become invested in a video artist plan was accidental – I merely wanted to add a scene in which Maurice comes off as egotistical and asks her to film him, and things mushroomed from there. But I think it ended up being an important part of the novel. It added a bit of Künstlerroman’ishness, but also dramatic irony, since we, the reader, can tell that this plan of Judy-as-famous-videographer will likely not pan out.
LB: During the course of your research, did you participate in any type of literary pilgrimage or research trip? If so, please elaborate where you went and how that informed your project.
MB: In researching the cult aspects of the novel – Judy’s friends’ belief in the coming of the Big Shadow – I did an independent study class in my MFA program and delved into the Alternative Religions collection in San Diego State University Library’s Special Collections. Their collection has a ton of fascinating primary source material from all sorts of cults and alternative religious groups. I read the booklets and pamphlets and comics that these leaders created to convey their ideologies and rules and musings. I ended up giving the character Alex a few of their tactics, though I also ultimately scaled those down in my later drafts since I didn’t want the cult plot to overwhelm the primary plot of Judy’s relationship with Maurice.
LB: If you had to choose one book that has influenced your writing life, what would that book be and how did it influence you?
MB: Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies is an important book for me and was introduced to me by my father. It was the first book I read where oddity was unapologetically embraced but not in a way that felt preciously self-aware and egotistical. It is also a novel with a fairly unrestrained concept of plot and I had not been reading a lot of those at the time I was introduced to Bowles.
LB: If you could spend a full day with a famous writer or a famous character who would that be and why?
MB: I’d like to spend a day with the Swedish writer Lina Wolff. I’m a big fan of her last two novels – Carnality and The Polyglot Lovers – which go to strange, unpredictable places, figuratively speaking, and I can only imagine that her brain is a very cool place, too. She’s also someone who spent part of her life in Spain, like I did as a child. And she was born in Lund, Sweden, which is a mere 300 kilometres north of where I was born, Szczecin, with the requirement that one must take a ferry to cross the Baltic Sea.
LB: What is the biggest challenge or hurdle you have had to work through as a writer?
Something that I’ve learned is crucial and that I haven’t fully internalized yet is that drafts can be imperfect. I believe this is fairly common – that writers spend an inordinate amount of time rewriting early parts and not moving forward. It can start to feel like a car absurdly spinning its wheels in a puddle of muck. I still feel like a sentence has to sound perfect before I can move on to the next one, but I’ve become better at not second-guessing things and generally being able to achieve forward momentum.
MB: Are you aware of having taken some deliberate risks in the preparation of this book? Please explain.
I imagine that writing about a relationship between a man nearing 50 and a 17-year-old girl who appears to not recognize the potential danger of her situation could be seen as risky, particularly because it’s not framed as a clear-cut cautionary tale or presented in the form of an unambiguous victim-villain binary. But it would also be highly patronizing to think readers don’t appreciate that human brains – and so human interactions and relationships – don’t present themselves in a basic, cookie-cutter style that conveniently maps itself onto societal mores. And it would also be patronizing to think readers wouldn’t appreciate that in a first-person narration there is editorializing by the narrator that makes the novel more so about the psychology of how we interact with others and interpret who they are to us at a particular moment in our development.
LB: Please tell us a little about the writing spaces or environments that work best for you. Are there particular items that you like to have in place?
MB: I seem to really need quiet, and to be in my own personal and private space, so I could never be someone who writes in coffee shops or a park. I write at my desk, and need Word to be on the “focus” setting that makes the background around the page a flat black.
LB: Was there anything edited out of this book that you wish you could have included? Why was it cut?
MB: Like I mentioned earlier, some of the more cult-themed elements were cut, in an attempt to balance the competing two plots of friends’-cult and Judy-Maurice-relationship. The cult details were fun for me in that there’s obviously a liberty there and one can go to weird places. At one point, I had Judy’s friends at the country house order a huge Italian greenhouse, a kind of glass bubble that they set up in the back yard and that starts to sprout uncommon types of very beautiful plants. Judy and her two friends would go into the bubble and her friends would have visions of the impending Big Shadow. I also had the friends adopt a restricted and peculiar diet so that Judy began to see (or thought she saw) a green sheen develop on their skin. While they’re fun, I can see how editors’ suggestions to cut back on the cult details were ultimately in the book’s best interest.
Marta Balcewicz lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Tin House online, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Washington Square Review, and The Rumpus, amongst other publications. Her fiction was anthologized in Tiny Crimes (Catapult, 2018). She received a fellowship from Tin House Workshops in 2022. Big Shadow is her first novel.