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Getting serious with Erica McKeen, author of Tear

By Kobo • June 22, 2023Author Interviews

Erica McKeen is the winner of the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Literary Fiction for Tear. 

Kobo in Conversation host Michael Tamblyn spoke with Erica and her partner Toby about writing the book and winning this prize.

Kobo: How did writing Tear—I should ask first, how is it pronounced?

Erica McKeen: “Tear” or “tear”: both are correct.

Kobo: How did it differ from the kind of writing you’d done before?

EM: When I started it, it was the first serious thing I set out to write. It was the end of 2018 and I was living and working in Japan. I was very young. Everything felt very up in the air for me. At that point, I didn’t think it was something that could be published at all. I thought it would be a novella because I was focused on just that first part of what turned out to be the novel.

At the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Western University and one of my professors there, Aaron Schneider said, “You know, you could write a novel if you wanted to.” And I thought, “Really? Could I do it?” And I decided I could.

Before then, I didn’t think it could be a serious project. Not until someone told me. It just seemed so impossible.

Kobo: Now I see you’re joined by Toby, and I want to hear about his role in this experience.

EM: Do you want mine or Toby’s perspective?

Kobo: I’ll ask him in a minute, but first I’d like to hear what his role was for you.

EM: He actually wasn’t there during the writing of this book. But he was there for the final stages of it and sending it out in the world, the editing and revision process, publicity, and touring to promote the book.

I didn’t think it could be a serious project. Not until someone told me. It just seemed so impossible.

He’s provided a lot of emotional support. He’s really good at making me take myself less seriously. When I get too worried about something, he’s there to tell me it’s okay.

Kobo: Toby, do you have any advice for partners of new authors?

Toby: Yes.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to communicate that they have time to do their work, to go into their place and work on their weird thing. I made sure Erica knew she had time all day to work, and that she doesn’t need to take care of me. And also, when a writer comes out of a working session after a couple of hours, they might be a little bit hazy for an hour or so. So be prepared.

Kobo: Have you noticed a change in Erica through the course of bringing this book out into the world?

Toby: I think it took her a long time to realize it’s official. But when we’ve been walking in Vancouver, several times now we’ve seen her book in a shop window, and Erica’s like, “Wow, that’s my book.” And I look at her and say, “Yes. That’s you.”

The weeks before the book was published, and especially because there were some delays in that process, there was a feeling of, “Will it happen?” There was uncertainty. But having it out there, that’s made a big change.

Kobo: Erica, is that a weight lifted? A rocket launched?

EM: I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work on other writing projects. In a sense, it does feel like a weight has been lifted. There’s proof out there that it’s happened, I can do this. But in another sense, there’s pressure. I was writing in a free space before with no expectation that anything would happen. But now I’m supposed to be this professional person, I’m supposed to be good at this. I feel like I need to make it happen again—to prove myself and make it better than the last thing.

Kobo: Now that you’ve won the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, what does tomorrow look like for you?

EM: Well, I’m working on the Queer Arts Festival, so in a practical sense, tomorrow I’ll be there helping with the volunteers. [laughs]

I was writing in a free space before with no expectation that anything would happen.

But someone sent me a bottle of champagne and we were going to pop it tonight, but I guess we’ll be popping it for multiple reasons now.

Kobo: If you could offer yourself some advice in the past, from this position in the present as an award-winning novelist, what would you say?

EM: I think I’d just encourage myself to keep going. I was delusional in a way, and brave. I just wanted to go for it. I think you have to be somewhat disconnected from reality in order to do something as strange as writing with all your free time. I sacrificed a lot of hours, so I’d tell myself it’s worth it. But even if I didn’t win this prize, I still think time spent writing would have been worthwhile.

Kobo: What effect did you want to have on a reader of Tear?

EM: The book was such a personal project for me I almost didn’t think about the reader’s experience—which is maybe a good way to go about something like this at first, to have it be your own thing. But a lot of the comments from people who liked the book, especially people who liked the first part of the book where Frances is in the basement, say it made them feel seen. Frances is a character who’s invisible to so many people, her family, the school she’s attending, her roommates—she’s alone and unprotected. And that’s something I want for the reader who understands that feeling, to feel seen.

Kobo: Somewhere right now there’s an author working away at their book, and they’re going to win some future Emerging Writer Prize: what would you tell them right now?

EM: Keep working. We need our basements, those parts of our mind where we can make these things happen.

I think you have to be somewhat disconnected from reality in order to do something as strange as writing with all your free time.

But also get out of the basement once in a while. Frances’ story is not a happy story, it’s not a victory. Writing is a space where you can put these things on the page, but in your actual life, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Find balance in your life. ◼

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tear by Erica McKeen

With the thematic considerations of Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson’s work, and in the style of Herta Müller and Daisy Johnson, Tear is both a horrifyingly deformed Bildungsroman and a bristling reclamation of female rage. Blurring the real and the imagined, this lyric debut novel unflinchingly engages with contemporary feminist issues and explores the detrimental effects of false narratives, gaslighting, and manipulation on young women.

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