“The things we can get up to when no one is watching”: In Conversation with Marta Balcewicz | Book*hug Press

“The things we can get up to when no one is watching”: In Conversation with Marta Balcewicz

Today, we’re delighted to be in conversation with Marta Balcewicz, author of Big Shadow. An affecting novel of psychological nuance and dark humour, Big Shadow explores the costs of self-deceit, fandom, and tenuous ambitions, exposing the lies we’ll tell ourselves and the promises we’ll make to edge closer to what we want… or what we think we want.

We talked to Balcewicz about the trials of writing a young narrator, her interest in solitude, and the novels and films that inspired her writing.

Book*hug: As a character, Judy is dreamy and a little callow, impetuous but at times genuinely insightful, really on the mark. In other words, she’s a perfect depiction of someone transitioning out of childhood and into adulthood. Was it difficult to write back to this time in life? Were you tempted to make Judy either too childish or too wise?

Marta Balcewicz: There was a balancing act in writing a relatively young narrator. The novel took quite a few years to write and as years passed, the impulse to make Judy less prone to saying and thinking younger-person-like things grew. But I think this is where the blessing that is outside editors comes in, meaning, writing friends who have a more objective, distant lens. Friends who were familiar with the character said things like, “Don’t you dare remove that line where Judy says [here would be something I had come to find embarrassing and childlike]. You have to respect your characters!”

But I also worried about making Judy too precocious. I remember removing a scene where Judy put on an outfit she felt looked like what Susan Sontag would wear while writing in her journal. I think it was a black turtleneck and black wool skirt.

As for her balance of insight and cluelessness, I think that’s something that carries through to adulthood, or at least for some people it does. I find myself completely off-the-mark regarding lots of things and then have moments of wisdom.

Judy’s relationships exist at the border of tenderness and hostility. She loves her mom, but also pities her. She falls in easily with Alex and Christopher, but finds them a little ridiculous. She loves what Maurice represents, but also seems to be fighting against her own better judgement. This ambivalence creates a level of emotional isolation. Is Big Shadow an exploration of solitude?

I think that Judy’s flip-flopping is related to the moment in her maturation, being a moment when people are obsessed with their identity and with presenting themselves as one thing or another to an audience they believe is closely watching and cares. It’s a weird time when we’re hyperconscious of everything that might be read as a reflection of who we are. We distance ourselves from certain familiar things, and form new, very strong allegiances: ditching certain friends for others, believing our parents are the devil. Unfortunately for Judy, her friend and family circle is extremely small, and I think there aren’t that many options for her to go to, which results in her being alone (with her thoughts) for most of the novel.

The countrystead has a powerful ambience—remote, buzzing with natural life. Why did you choose to locate Alex and Christopher here?

In the first iterations of this novel, I was very focused on the city-country divide and how misanthropy and self-aggrandizing behaviour, fed by a lack of adult supervision, could thrive in a place where it’s easier to be physically removed from others. The removal makes you feel a licence to create your own version of reality and world-rules; it’s both fun and potentially horrific. When I was a kid, Lord of the Flies and Jules Vernes’s Two Years’ Vacation, which is the first novel I remember owning, felt very cool, like they really “explored human nature” or something. I definitely had a “boys gone wild” idea in my head when writing about the countrystead. At one point I thought I should try to really understand all the arguments in Raymond Williams’s The City and the Country and write a novel version of his ideas. But I didn’t finish that book—I grew bored of it very quickly—and I was left with three youths on the verge of turning eighteen who hang out in a rural area and believe in weird stuff without much movement to it. Quite a bit later, I thought to introduce Maurice—a character who draws the protagonist away from that countrystead, to the most urban location of them all, New York City. But in New York, she is often also left physically alone in an apartment. Basically, I like the idea of isolation and the things we can get up to when no one is watching.

We frequently find Judy running a bath. The tub is less a place to become clean, and more a place to soak and let ideas and feelings bubble up. Why this chosen pastime?

There’s a lot of boredom and oppressive stagnation in the novel. It’s summertime and the narrator is often waiting for something to happen, usually waiting for a phone call. I think lying in a bath is an activity that’s very passive and yet still feels like something more active than lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling, and so it’s less demoralizing than merely lying on a bed. Really though, a bath for Judy is a water-filled version of a bed. If Judy were of a different social class, she’d be on a mattress in a backyard swimming pool, wearing sunglasses, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, whose father confronts him about why he’s always “just floating.”

In many ways, Big Shadow is a novel about reality construction. In the beginning Judy buys into Alex and Christopher’s cloud-based ontology. Weekends in New York with Maurice are time spent in “Mauriceland.” Can you speak a little about the connection between relationships and reality. How does Big Shadow wrestle with that?

Judy bounces between two unreal (and unrealistic) worlds: one characterized by her friends’ cloud-shadow religion and the other characterized by a belief that she’s now an East Village artist and a member of Maurice’s inner circle, about to start making films. The first is obviously ridiculous—on its face, it is irrational to believe that a shadow cast by a cloud will transmute you to another dimension. But the second world is just as ridiculous, in terms of how improbable it is, how much Maurice is pulling the wool over Judy’s eyes, likely without fully appreciating what he’s doing.

I like seeing Judy try to argue that the former world (and its creators) is stupid while the latter (and its creator) is the real deal, when we know that she’s intelligent enough to appreciate that the two are equally unrealistic.

As time goes on, Judy experiences more of her life as fodder for art—especially Alex and Christopher’s eccentric beliefs and activities. Is this artist-muse relationship a deepening of love for people or a distancing?

Judy starts to think of situations as material for film as her sense of being a Maurice-approved, New York-bound artist grows. For the most part, I think of it as an occasion of dramatic irony: the way she has switched to doing this very quickly and how we might find that funny, or sad, at least noteworthy. The first time she does this, she is scanning a backyard scene as a director or cinematographer would. I thought of how the protagonist in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff, one of my favourite films, begins doing this. He’s a factory worker who happens upon an 8 mm camera and is soon a veritable filmmaker, kind of. He films the common, everyday things around his housing complex, and he starts to regard his subjects with a distance that contains some elements of dehumanization. My sense is that Judy is similarly both appreciating and showing her elevated status over her subjects. The feeling of being blessed with sudden “chosen artist” status is dangerous for her.

Were there any books that inspired you to write Big Shadow? Or ones you found yourself reading during the process that altered its course?

The book was written in a few drawn out stages, with long gaps in between, making it difficult to pinpoint or remember references. I suppose the childhood books I mentioned above, involving boys on islands are technically an influence for the boys-being-unruly elements. More often, I think of films as sources of influence. I’ve mentioned Camera Buff. Also Stranger Than Paradise, my favourite movie, made me want to write something about antisocial outsiders with a three-character set up, two men and a woman who is a cousin of one of the men and a bit of a third-wheel.

To wrap up, we’ve got to ask… what is your favourite cloud type?

Mammatus clouds, which I’ve never witnessed in real life. They look like what you see when you open an egg carton: neat rows of identical ovals. I put Mammatus clouds in a scene toward the end of the novel. I imagine a nephologist would tell me that that kind of cloud could not have appeared in those weather conditions, in that environment, at that time of day, etc., but it’s nice that fiction can do whatever it wants to.

Marta Balcewicz spent her early childhood in Pomerania and Madrid, and now lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in CatapultTin House online, Vol. 1. BrooklynWashington Square ReviewThe Rumpus, and Passages North 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.

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