What happens when a young woman with Williams syndrome, her doting father, and her father’s teenaged co-worker head to Chicago in search of a piece of amusement park history? That’s the premise of Claire Tacon’s superb new novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo(Poplar Press/Wolsak and Wynn).
What happens when a young woman with Williams syndrome, her doting father, and her father’s teenaged co-worker head to Chicago in search of a piece of amusement park history? That’s the premise of Claire Tacon’s superb new novel, In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo (Poplar Press/Wolsak and Wynn).
Claire Tacon’s first novel, In the Field, was the winner of the 2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Bronwen Wallace Award, the CBC Literary Prizes and the Playboy College Fiction Contest, and has appeared in journals and anthologies such as The New Quarterly, SubTerrain and Best Canadian Short Stories. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and is a past fiction editor of PRISM international. Claire is a lecturer at St. Jerome’s University and runs the fiction podcast The Oddments Tray with Chioke I’Anson.
THE CHAT WITH CLAIRE TACON
Trevor Corkum:In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo follows the tradition of great road trip novels. In an alternate world, which of the characters would you choose to road trip with? What would you talk about and what would you learn?
Claire Tacon: I would love to road trip with Darren. Probably somewhere in the States where there would be a dilapidated amusement park to stop at and also a few art galleries. Mostly I’d just like to listen to him talk. About ideas he’s been grappling with, gossip about his friends, his various future plans. That transition out of high school, and adolescence in general, really fascinates me. I think of it like a volcanic eruption—you’re just growing at such an explosive rate, trying out all these different shapes and ways of being. Figuring out what you want to reject from the world and family you came into and what you want to model.
That transition out of high school, and adolescence in general, really fascinates me. I think of it like a volcanic eruption—you’re just growing at such an explosive rate, trying out all these different shapes and ways of being. Figuring out what you want to reject from the world and family you came into and what you want to model.
There are a lot of opposites in that time. You can feel very adult and also still like a child. I remember The Lion King with a nostalgic wash, as a movie that came out when I was a kid, but that same year, I also remember sneaking into the Yorkdale cinemas with a boyfriend to watch Pulp Fiction and feeling totally grown-up.
I’d also hope to pick up a few recommendations from Darren for horror movies and podcasts.
TC:Each character is so complex and compelling, but Starr is a knockout and won my heart. It’s so rare that we read about leading characters with special needs or developmental disabilities who are not clichéd or one-dimensional. What drew you to her story?
CT: About a decade ago, I came across an article about Williams syndrome in The New York Times. It was the first time I’d heard of the condition and I was struck by the resourcefulness of the young woman they profiled. People experience Williams syndrome in very individual ways, but one thing that commonly comes up is an increased social drive combined with reduced social boundaries. This young woman had a particularly strong desire to speak with men and, to facilitate that, she started reading the sports page and watching sports on television. She built up this foundation of knowledge that she could draw on to strike up a conversation with a majority of men, even for just a brief chat. It was such an inventive, individual solution. I also thought about the parenting that must have supported that. Whatever worries her parents might have had about their daughter being vulnerable to new acquaintances, they listened to what she wanted and trusted her to navigate the situation.
At the same time, I was thinking a lot about how siblings can experience the same parents in very different ways. A relative who I am close with is disabled and she was raised with a typical sibling. They grew up in the 1950s, and their parents tended to overestimate the typical sibling and underestimate the disabled one. It wasn’t a healthy dynamic for either of them and, more than sixty years later, that experience still shapes their lives and sibling interaction.
TC:It’s also a novel about family ties, and the delicate dance between sacrifice and boundaries within family dynamics. Henry is understandably protective of his daughter, while his wife Kath wants to honour Starr’s growing independence. Were any of the characters particularly challenging to develop?
CT: Kathleen was a difficult character to write. We have so many negative stereotypes in our society about motherhood. It was hard to make sure it was clear that Kath loved Starr just as much as Henry without her being the softer parent. Her love comes through in other ways, in trusting Starr to chart her own life course and in helping her develop the skills needed for independence.
We have so many negative stereotypes in our society about motherhood. It was hard to make sure it was clear that Kath loved Starr just as much as Henry without her being the softer parent. Her love comes through in other ways, in trusting Starr to chart her own life course and in helping her develop the skills needed for independence.
Emotional labour wasn’t a common term when I started writing this book, but it’s something I was thinking about. One parent I’ve met who has a daughter with Williams syndrome had twenty-two medical professionals and other therapists on her daughter’s team in her first year of life. For parents of kids with special needs, there is a huge amount of energy that goes into managing appointment schedules, investigating medical protocols, meeting with school staff and supports, meeting with community agencies, and applying for funding supports. Let alone the day-to-day parenting of making sure your kids are clothed, fed and loved.
Kathleen is actually quite excellent at this, as were the parents I interviewed. But when it’s a woman doing this work, we often think it’s just “her job” and fail to see how extraordinary an accomplishment it is. As an aside, I’d like to mention that as hard as navigating the system is for someone like Kathleen, I often think about how many additional barriers there are for more marginalized families.
So, it was a balance, trying to make Kathleen’s life realistic and show some of her exhaustion and exasperation without making her seem cold.
TC:Frankie’s Funhouse—the themed amusement park where Henry and Darren work—offers so much fun weirdness and texture to the story. Where did the inspiration for Frankie’s come from?
CT: In Grade 3, I got an invitation to a friend’s birthday party at The Mad Hatter in Toronto. There was a strobe-light pillow fight and then we were moved into an eating area where we mushed up marshmallows and threw hot dogs at each other. Around the same time, another friend had a birthday at Chuck E. Cheese and I remember being awed by the Skeeball lanes, the arcade consoles with tickets snaking out of them, and the moment when the animatronics started playing. Both of those places were such products of their time and I loved how cheesy and bizarre they were.
Frankie’s Funhouse has an origin story that’s only a bit more extreme than Chuck E. Cheese’s. The look of the Chuck E. mascot has also shifted over time from a creepy, stand-up comedian rat to an athletic, juvenile mouse. There is an amazing documentary called The Rock-a-fire Explosion, which traces the origin of Showbiz Pizza, a rival that was later merged into Chuck E. Cheese. To get a sense of peak 80s extravagance, Showbizz Pizza celebrated the opening of their 100th restaurant by having the animatronics inventor jump out of a helicopter in a “Billy Bob” bear costume. There was also a heavy helping of racist stereotypes in some of the characters, and I wanted to show that uglier history too in the way the Frankie’s band changed over time.
TC:One of Starr’s many loves is karaoke. Give us an idea of a couple of songs you’d add to a soundtrack for the novel.
Dënver is a Chilean band whose 2010 album Música, Gramática, Gimnasía has the same mix of longing and nostalgia. The song “Lo Que Quieras” actually incorporates the Jurassic Park Theme to beautiful effect.
Excerpt from In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo
My first time at a Frankie’s was a birthday party for Starr’s classmate. When your kid is the only one in the grade with special needs, those invitations are gold. Starr hadn’t done well at restaurants before then – Williams syndrome made her wary of their unexpected noises. If I’d known it was an arcade, I wouldn’t have gone, but Kath needed some time to herself. When we got in the door, I saw Starr tense up. The whole place was jangling, beeping. Tickets were spitting out of machines, everything was painted neon and there were enough whirring sirens and lights to fill a fire hall. Kids swarmed every surface. I started pointing out the sources of each noise, hoping it would keep my daughter calm. Then she saw her classmates. The birthday girl waved Starr over and gave her a hug. That’s the other thing about Williams, Starr’s got an incredible social drive. If it means getting to spend time with people she likes, who make her feel good, Starr can rally against a lot of fears.
Half an hour into the party, the kids were herded to a separate section of the restaurant. They got served pizza, one of the few foods Starr would reliably eat, and then the lights dimmed. I was by the back wall with one of the other parents and, again, I feared that my girl wouldn’t be able to handle it. I thought I could hear her start to whimper, protesting the darkness. But then the spotlights snapped on and a curtain spread open, revealing a band of stuffed animals. The tune that month was a “Hound Dog” parody. The animals nodded, jerked and gyrated to the beat. I looked back and forth between this weird spectacle and my daughter. Starr had already figured out the words to the chorus and was singing along, her face bright orange with reflected light.
I knew I didn’t want to wait for another birthday to see her that happy again. I knew I wanted to work someplace like this, where a good time lurked around every corner.