Monica Drake - A contemporary female Charlie Chaplin trying to express herself through her art. When she's not imagining how she will turn Kafka's "Metamorphosis" into clown performance art or about 17-page book 'Balloon Tying for Christ', her cash cow, she is unleashing a steady stream of thumper one-liners
Monica Drake, Clown Girl: A Novel, Hawthorne Books, 2007.
"Clown Girl lives in Baloneytown, a seedy neighborhood where drugs, balloon animals, and even rubber chickens contribute to the local currency. Against a backdrop of petty crime, she struggles to live her dreams, calling on cultural masters Charlie Chaplin, Kafka, and da Vinci for inspiration. In an effort to support herself and her layabout performance-artist boyfriend, Clown Girl finds herself unwittingly transformed into a "corporate clown," trapping herself in a cycle of meaningless, high-paid gigs that veer dangerously close to prostitution. Monica Drake has created a novel that riffs on the high comedy of early film stars — most notably Chaplin and W. C. Fields — to raise questions of class, gender, economics, and prejudice. Resisting easy classification, this debut novel blends the bizarre, the humorous, and the gritty with stunning skill.
"As Drake's debut opens, Nita, otherwise known as Sniffles the Clown, is tying balloon animals for a horde of greedy, sticky children at a fair. Suffering what may be a cardiac event, she's rushed to the hospital—after trying to get help from a clown fetishist, who simply drops his phone number on top of her prone form. Welcome to wacky, stressful Baloneytown, where clown prostitution, stoned dogs and fire juggling–cum–arson are the norm. Nita struggles to make enough money clowning to keep herself in oversized shoes and squirting daisies, while also saving for Clown College tuition for her boyfriend, handsome clown Rex Galore. But Rex is mostly MIA, and Nita's longing for him settles on local cop Jerrod. While not much happens, the pace of the narrative is methamphetamine-frantic, as Drake drills down past the face paint and into Nita's core, often using Nita's relations with men as the bit. Nita emerges as a fully-realized character, bearing witness to a lot of the emotionally ridiculous and just a hint of the sublime. Some plot threads never quite come together, and a few characters are underdeveloped, but there is a lot more going on here than just clowning around." - Publishers Weekly
"An introduction by novelist Chuck Palahniuk and a rubber chicken on the cover promise lots of nervous laughs for Drake's dark debut. The tale revolves around Nita (aka Sniffles the Clown), who inhabits Baloneytown, a depressed, crime-infested metropolis where residents peer warily out their windows when a cop car drives by. Nita aspires to high art but finds herself caught in a vicious cycle of corporate clown gigs that creep ever closer to prostitution. She misses her boyfriend (and fellow clown) Rex Galore, who has gone off to interview at Clown College. And now her dog has gone missing, her relationship with her housemates is on the skids, and the only friend she has left is a golden-haired policeman who is surprisingly concerned about her well-being. Drake, who teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art, renders rich, sinewy prose (with heady references to Chaplin, Kafka, da Vinci, and the like), but her offbeat subject matter and plot would play better as a short story." - Allison Block
"A famous author once said, "Characters to me, the ones I write, aren't persuasive till I can postulate what they do for a living." In her full-length debut, Monica Drake postulates into life a young woman named Nita, otherwise known as Sniffles, a freelance clown. Talk about vocation defining a character. When we meet her, Sniffles is tying balloons for kids downtown. But the summer heat (and a decided lack of nutrition) gets the best of her. She faints. Enter a cop, a rubber chicken, and Rex Galore, who ran off to clown college not long after Sniffles became pregnant with his child. Now meet Matey and Crack, Herman and Nadia-Italia. Step inside the world of Clown Girl, one of the most original and promising first novels to come out of Portland in ages." - Kyle, Powells.com
"Riffing on language and revising her jokes in nervous flurries, Nita is the most endearingly teary clown since Smokey Robinson." - Entertainment Weekly
"Sniffles, the titular clown girl, is endearingly self-deprecating... Clown Girl is a polished, quirky and often-funny look at the dark side of clown life." - Winnipeg Free Press
"Clown Girl is mesmerizing, drunk on the high wire, gorgeous and dangerous fun." - Katherine Dunn
"Clown Girl is more than a great book. Clown Girl is its own reality. We should all have an arch enemy this brilliant." - Chuck Palahniuk
"Clown Girl is an extreme novel... a hilarious book that asks the startling question: what does it mean to be serious about clowning?" - Peter Rock
"The word 'unique' is widely abused but I think, for once, it's justified: this novel is not much like anything else, and all the better for it. A really exciting debut." - Kevin Canty
"I have no doubt that Drake will be big — maybe as big as former classmates, even. So please, no matter how cautious you are about this one, give it a go. Judge it on its own merits. I guarantee you that it'll be worth your while." - Fancy Pants
"Nita is a clown. She lives in Baloneytown, waiting for her boyfriend, Rex, to return to her. She is a tenant in a house with a pot-selling burnout and his hostile and clever girlfriend, living in a tiny room with her beloved dog and her clown accoutrements. Nita loses items precious to her and longs to get them back, and dreams of a time when she can combine high art, literature and the profession of being a clown. Also, she meets a policeman who is clearly smitten with her though he has no idea what she looks like under her makeup because she lives her life completely as a clown. In Nita’s tale, Drake manages to tell a very familiar story but employs such unusual elements that one does not wholly realize that Nita could just as easily been named Bridget Jones or might easily have come from Marian Keyes’ Shopaholic series. Nita is feckless, self-absorbed, head in the clouds, in love with a cretin and her job is often in jeopardy. She has a bitchy nemesis, there is a strong, kind man waiting for her in the wings, and it takes her entirely too long to pull herself together, though she manages it after tumbling into one unlikely situation after another.
Drake spins a marvelous tale but the real reason I think I loved this book so much is not only that Nita speaks to me in an almost eerie way, but also because Drake inverts the traditional chick-lit story by stating outright what it is that makes these clumsy, clueless, grandiose, insecure women appealing. She makes it clear from the very title what Nita is. She’s a clown. No mincing words. Nita is a clown and Drake shows how hard it is not to be a clown when hiding behind makeup, clothes, images and pie-in-the-sky ideas is all one has ever known. I’m a clown, though less clownish (I hope) as I get older but if you began as a clown, bumbling your way through life, you will find much to like about Nita and her slapstick life. In Nita, using the raucous background of clowns and her inversion of the modern chick-lit novel, Drake creates a character who tells a story we are familiar with but have not wholly heard before.
Though this book is a riff on familiar plots, I don’t want to give an outline of the book because the fantastic disaster as Nita’s life unspools is one of the reasons I think you should read this book. But I will hit on some plot points as I share some of Drake’s writing and parts of the book that truly resonated with me. The novel begins with Nita collapsing, suffering from the effects of a terrible loss – a miscarriage. She is working as a clown at an outdoor event and the heat and likely the effects of her recent miscarriage cause her to pass out. She is taken to the hospital and the thoughts in her head as she navigates being in a frightening place all alone spoke to me and I immediately felt a kinship with Nita. I have no idea if her paranoia would translate to people who have have had excellent experiences with doctors and nurses, but for me, I could have written Nita’s thoughts (and it wasn’t lost on me as I read many of Nita’s thoughts that often the first letter of my own name is seldom pronounced by my fellow Texans, rendering me a de facto “Nita”).
Don’t tell doctors your dreams, ever. Don’t tell them your menstrual cycle. Don’t say you felt anything in your head, or that you might’ve known. If they ask about street drugs, which they will, say no, no matter what. If you say, I feel anxious all the time, you’ll get Valium. Otherwise you’ll get what they call “mood equalizers,” daily doses of who knows what, a gambler’s crapshoot in tinctures of chemicals.
As a clown on the street, I had to keep my wits. I couldn’t take their chemicals.
Don’t tell doctors anything.
This is a cluebat of sorts. Nita suffered a miscarriage before this trip to the ER, but it is also clear she had some frightening experiences with doctors trying to help her correct her brain, a brain that seems very common to me but might seem to others like the kind of skull space that needs tinctures of chemicals. I also relate to this fear of authority’s power more than I care to admit. Also, in this chick-lit inversion, it is refreshing that Nita does not want the drugs that would have just led to another humiliating escapade for a traditional heroine.
Nita takes being a clown very seriously but through the descriptions of the tools Nita uses in her craft, as well as the way Drake describes Nita’s thoughts about the artistic routines Nita wants to perform, we see the utter ridiculousness of Nita’s life. We don’t need Nita sliding down a fireman’s pole showing her panties or putting eyeshadow on in the place of blusher, all visually very clownish actions, to show Nita’s true inner clown. Take this passage about Nita’s approach to balloon animals, bearing in mind that later in the book she wonders about creating The Last Supper in balloon form and feels there is an important message inherent in such an act.
Swollen Sacred Hearts, shrunken wise men, and bloated angels bobbed at my feet, the fruits of my labor. On the shopworn dedication page of Balloon Tying for Christ it said “With appreciation and gratitude for my wife and six lovely children who have borne with me through twelve long years of deprivations while trying to complete this work.” Such martyrs! Balloon Tying for Christ was maybe all of seventeen pages long, with one blank page at the end. The tricks inside, by corporate accounting, were worth hundreds of dollars, Matey, Crack and me, that’s what we earned when high-end work came in. But work didn’t always come. We had to promote and deliver. That book was my cash cow.
It’s hard to think of anything more ridiculous than a 17 page book about making balloon figures for Jesus and how such a book could become the bread and butter to any person, but Drake shows us. She shows us clearly the absolutely insane pieces that make up the whole of Nita.
Nita above may demonstrate how she understands her profession is one of money but she longs to be an artist, a clown interpreting great art and literature (her final blowup with her despicable boyfriend Rex concerns him pirating her Kafka interpretation as told via a clown), but she resents the fact that she is a comedic act or worse, that she should be sexually appealing in her clowning. When one of two female clowns she occasionally works with spells it out for her, it’s not clear that it really sinks in to Nita. Nita simply wants to be a clown artiste and doesn’t like to think of how what she really does applies to what she really wants to do.
“Pssst,” Matey said, in a stage whisper and knocked a hand against her head. “Here’s a clue: Women wear makeup, right? But a man in face paint, people see aahh-rt. You and me, we top out at birthday gigs, and that hurts more than anything I’m doing now. That’s the meat o’ the matter.” She tipped her Chaplin hat. Was it true? Was there a latex ceiling, made-up makeup finish line?
Despite being a clown, and supporting herself, after a fashion, being a clown for parties and even engaging in sexier acts for corporate parties, Nita bitterly resents the way that money destroys what she considers beauty.
Leonardo da Vinci said water was the most destructive force on the planet. Water corrodes metal and eats through rock. But da Vinci forgot about the corrosive power of cash; when money came into a neighborhood, the buildings toppled. Even people disappeared.
Like any stereotypical artiste type, Nita wants purity. She wants pure love, pure work, pure happiness. Just like her grandiose idea of herself interpreting art as a clown, her ideas about what life can really be are just as grandiose and unhappy about settling for anything less. She says:
In a world of clown whores and virgins, I’d cling to the integrity of art.
That doesn’t happen, but even as she is descending into the world of clown prostitution, Nita still has lofty and near-risible goals.
Traditionally, there’s been no delicacy to balloon art. That’s where I’d revolutionize things. Chiaroscuro, sfumato: I’d find a way to translate da Vinco’s painterly tricks into rubber and air.
Maybe I’d pioneer a line of designer balloon colors in da Vinci’s palette. Why stop there? I could have a van Gogh line, a Gauguin line, Toulouse-Lautrec and Tintoretto.
Nita’s delusions carry her to strange places, to strange actions, to stranger results. She wants to be more than a juggling clown at a kid’s party. She wants to be a performance artist, a portrayer of truth. But she is a clown and she proves it over and over again, that her perspective of being a clown will never match up to her dreams of artistic relevance. And like the heroines in chick-lit, she decides to alter her body but instead of dieting or buying clothes she cannot afford, Nita decides to don a sand-filled fat suit to turn herself into a face-painted voluptuary. And what fine slapstick would be complete if she did not, in fact, juggle fire in such a get-up?
I’d be a sassy, busty clown girl juggling fire. Of course–why not? I’d play to crowds high and low. I’d find the fine line between Crack’s clown whore and my own comic interpretation, work both sides and move easily from the comedy of burlesque to striptease, slapstick to sexy. I’d graduate from Clown Girl to Clown Woman.
Then we go from a padded body suit to the sublimely ridiculous.
I’d do a new silent, sexy version of Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up, finds he’s metamorphosed into a woman with an hourglass figure–where every second counts!–and his world’s on fire. I’d do a busty Beef-Brisket Dance, on fire. Two Clowns in a Shower on fire. And Who’s Hogging the Water? –that’d mixed genre, soft porn plus fire. Even an ordinary bodacious bod and the pins on fire would be a new show altogether.
But Nita is still deluded. She can’t make it from being a clown girl to a clown woman as long as she is a clown. As long as she clings to her outrageous ideas, she will never be able to find any real truth. Given what a fabulous disaster she is, it ends about how you sensed it would as soon as you read the word “fire.” Nita sets herself and the yard on fire. And oh yeah, she’s fire juggling in the middle of the night. This is also a very good example of the both extreme and subtle humor Drake wields, making Nita a borderline caricature but never stepping completely into a place where the reader cannot respond to Nita’s plight.
“Crapola! Crapola!” I ran in a circle and threw myself down. I rolled on the grass where the grass wasn’t on fire, but the Pendulous Breasts resisted my momentum, and everywhere I rolled sparks flew. The Pendulous Breasts duck-quacked and chirped a cacophony of party sounds. I was guilty and now I was on fire. Who would’ve known hell was so efficient. A few mistakes and hell came to me faster than room service.
Because she is burned and experiencing heart problems, Nita returns to the hospital, where she again tells a terrible tale from her past. Without telling the reader the reasons for Nita’s paranoia, Drake makes it all too clear what happens to some girls who enter the maw of a hospital when they are alone, weird and full of self-delusion.
Here’s what I know now: never let a misunderstanding go unclarified in a hospital, same as in a school, jail, or prison. Never carry a diary with you, not even a day planner if you write notes in it. Don’t say, “Yes, that’s mine,” to any old scrap of nothing, to what might have been interesting in the free world.
The hospital, it’s a gateway, The path to incarceration.
Your best bet is don’t even write anything down. Ever. Most of all, don’t go near the hospital unless your problem is obvious as a bullet or a broken leg, and don’t go more than once. Otherwise you’ll learn about a two-doctor hold. Doctor Two-Hold, a seventy-two-hour detainment–and seventy-two hours can be longer if it’s late at night or over a weekend.
A deus ex machina in the typical chick-lit form of a man saves Nita from the probable 72-hour psych lock down that awaits her after coming into the ER burned, wearing an exploding fat suit and in full clown regalia.
…Jerrod had seen me inside and out, burned and in the psych ward. And still here he was, beside me. But the blood and the burns were all circumstantial, a string of bad luck, the anomaly. I didn’t want to think that was me–a wreck, a mess, a mortal.
But she is a wreck and a mess. You want to despair of Nita but you can’t, not quite. She periodically shows glimmers of insight that peek out when she is daydreaming about her despicable boyfriend and making an art show out of balloons tied to resemble Renaissance paintings. This scene, for example: Nita has lost her rubber chicken, whom she calls “Plucky” and put up reward posters all over her low-income and crime-infested neighborhood, resulting in dozens of people coming by with various rubber chickens trying to collect the reward.
“Maybe your Plucky jus’ fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe she was looking for love and thought she’d found it…but you can’t trust nobody round here, that’s what Plucky knows now. Uh huh.” The woman’s eyes were flat and dull. She’s quit looking at me. “Plucky maybe learned a few things, and you say, ‘No way, no second chances,’ and jus’ like that, man, turn her ass back out on the street.”
I said, “Who are we talking about here?”
And who were they talking about? The worn down woman at the door or Nita herself? It’s hard to tell here, but later revelations show Nita is far more in tune with herself than even she would like to admit.
I was good at pool. Physics, I understood. I knew all about vectors. That was my original goal in clowning–to create the illusion of defying physics with muscular comedy. I wanted to be able to stand when it looked like I should fall, to spring up when gravity would pull down, and to balance at impossible angles. I wanted to win, or at least stay on my feet, when it looked like I was losing.
Losing is a thing Nita understands so it stands to reason she wants to be able to look good doing it. But she also knows that she is not ever going to be able to make it in a more rarefied world.
One lone lobster beat a claw against the glass wall of a small tank. The lobster’s narrow, empty world was perched over a frozen sea; blue Styrofoam tray after tray of Dungeness crab, leggy purple squid, and bundled smelt rested on chopped ice below. Tick, tick. The lobster knocked, as though to flag down help. Across the aisle what had once been a herd of grass-fed cattle now lay silent in bloody pools of iced New York strip steak, flank steak, ribs, tongues, and burger. Edible flowers bloomed on a small green stand, a miniature field ready for harvest. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap. A lobster S O S. Get me out of this dead heaven. I knew the feeling.
Yeah, and this inversion of the chick-lit rang the truest to me because unlike her counterparts, Nita can’t just pick the right guy, clean herself up, lose a few pounds, get her credit card debt under control and she’ll suddenly find herself living the good life when the author rewards her feminine will to change with the perfect rich man to pave her way. Nita would feel even more like a clown in a monied world of privilege.
My heart, ready to burst, spoke in the fast Morse code of biology: you’ll die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy, die or go crazy... I had seconds to live. My heart was too big for my chest, my head hummed. I couldn’t move fast enough, had to get out of there.
As Nita shows how her damaged heart is telling her what to do, I could not help but think of Sylvia Plath’s Esther, whose heart beat, “I am, I am.” Nita’s heart tells her she has two options, both horrible, and given the hints of diagnosed craziness in her past, this passage was terrible because despite the loony ideas Nita had concerning her work and her art, at the core of her, the heart, so to speak, in times of grave stress her only options seemed to be to go crazy or die.
I like to think Nita’s heart went to such dark places not because she was indeed depressed (though she is definitely desperate) but rather because she knew on a very basic level that her dreams of clown artistry were hogwash, an attempt to cloak herself in dreams so she would not have to look at the real problems in her life. Nita has no family, she lost her baby, and she has no allies.
Emancipated minor? I’d been one for years–emancipated but no longer a minor, and I was ready to have a team, a side, a family. Somebody to back me up. A person shouldn’t be emancipated so long.
Sadly, the person she pins her hopes on, Rex, is not worth her care, even as a clown girl. Here’s a quote from Rex:
Rex laughed then, a mean, sharp snort. “Impossible? You want to talk impossible? This is all bullshit, babe. Youw ant to think you’re not a hooker, just a clown on a private date. Think you’re an artist, working a new car lot? I’ll tell you something–that’s not art. It’s just a story you’re making up. Maybe the same story you’d tell our baby, if we still had a baby. Mommy’s not a hooker, she’s a corporate party girl. No wonder the kid bailed. Christ, maybe the thing’s lucky you dumped it.”
As horrible as this was, as horrible as him rubbing her face in her miscarriage could ever be, he has a point. Nita’s no artist. She tells herself stories to get herself through and had created a fantasy about being a family with Rex as she had about her work. It hits her hard.
A deus ex machina reunited Nita with her rubber chicken and her lost dog, and once she has the dog back, she has to do something to save her dog’s life. Her roommates like to feed the dog pot and to keep the dog from becoming deathly ill, she needs peroxide to induce vomiting. However, she shows up at the convenience store wearing the ragged remains of the fat suit, her clown makeup smeared, and she cannot get anyone to take her seriously. Because she is a clown, she cannot impart upon anyone that she is in the middle of an emergency and she finally begins to see how she is hindering herself by imbuing her odd ideas with a patina artistic endeavor.
There was my face in the aluminum rim of the hot-foods incubator, around jo-jos and chicken, I was reflected in the glass of the Coke cooler and the grease-smeared deli case, all powdery makeup, black liner and big red lips, the face of a clown hooker right out of an old-time jail-time act. My one Caboosey boob hung free.
The only show was my life and it was a bomb. The only routine was the daily one. I’d been in clown costume so long, I wasn’t an artist. I was a freak.
She takes a good look at herself, where she lives and the people she knows and she realizes it’s time to change.
They, my friends, were hucksters, drug dealers, and bullies. But in that world of defeatism, I was the jester, the fall guy, the rubber chicken. I was the one who put on face paint and shades, limping in one big shoe.
And if this was a regular chick-lit novel, there would be another deus ex machina that would help Nita wipe off the clown makeup, would help her find two regular shoes so she could walk tall and proud, a job would magically fall into her lap and the new man who was lurking at her side unnoticed would sweep her off her feet and Nita would realize she could stand on her own two feet again, though she wouldn’t have to since the new guy would be rich and ready to marry her. That doesn’t happen in this chick-lit inversion but the ending is satisfying in its own way.
This book surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I think it managed to walk down the path of mainstream chick-lit novels to satisfy my occasional need for glurge, but it also did truly invert the real goal of such novels and their well-worn paths by giving us a heroine whose hidden past remained hidden, whose life really was ridiculous, whose world resembled places I am familiar with and whose transformation showed herself she could not remain a clown and achieve any of the goals she wanted in her life as a person. I highly recommend this book and hope Drake is writing new novel. I very much would like to see what she says next." - I Read Odd Books
"Monica Drake was a corporate clown, although not the usual sort who sits in staff meetings and nods at every utterance of the boss. She was a corporate clown complete with face paint and costume and oversize shoes who was hired by various companies for meetings, social events and grand openings.
Many of the Portland resident's memories of her six months at the lucrative corporate clown trade are as fuzzy as a fright wig, but she still recalls her last gig. It was at the grand opening of a fast-food outlet where too much greasy food mixed with greasepaint prompted Drake to quit, the final curtain for her juggling days and rubber-chicken nights.
Or so she thought. Little did Drake know that, years later, the temp job she stumbled into from college studies in dance and theater would be the centerpiece for her much-awaited debut novel.
"Clown Girl" is a devilishly quirky look at a downtrodden young clown adrift in the hostile streets of Baloneytown. It is a worthy fictional successor to another Rose City female writer's highly original novel with not-dissimilar material -- Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love," an instant idiosyncratic classic about freaks in a traveling carnival that was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989.
"Clown Girl" arrives with considerable river-town firepower. It boasts not only a blurb from Dunn, who describes Drake's novel as "gorgeous and dangerous fun," but also has an introduction by Portland's King of Quirk, Chuck Palahniuk, creator of "Fight Club" and other tilted-kilter best-sellers.
Palahniuk was a fellow member of the "dangerous writers" group under Tom Spanbauer, and his introduction describes Drake as his "archenemy" (" 'rival' would be a nicer word, but let's be honest"). As Palahniuk stresses, "No matter what you'd bring to read, Monica would write something better, funnier, more surprising, and sexy."
So Palahniuk's high-octane verdict on "Clown Girl" ("more than a great book ... its own reality") bears the heft of a once-jealous fellow scribbler, which is one reason why Drake has gotten boffo press in Portland, including the cover of Willamette Week newspaper. Hawthorne Books, a six-year-old Portland publisher owned by Rhoda Hughes and Kate Sage, has already run through "Clown Girl's" first printing of 6,000 copies and has ordered 5,000 more, spreading plenty of clown smiles around the publisher's office.
The center of all this attention has the wary gaze of a deer suddenly caught in the headlights. All the requirements of being a new author -- doing bookstore readings, answering interview questions, posing for photographs -- are a world away from the years expended in bringing her novel to print.
"It took a decade," the 41-year-old Drake relates. "Isn't that sad?"
Her path to publication was circuitous, with two three-year stretches of intense work on the novel, in-between years devoted to other writing (short stories, freelance reviews, a 100-page novella that took over an entire issue of The Stranger in Seattle), plus her regular teaching gig at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in the Pearl District.
There was also such consuming personal changes as her marriage to fellow writer Kassten Alonso and the birth of their daughter, Mavis, who arrived 2 1/2 years ago.
The biggest change in the novel came years earlier. The main character at that point was not a clown, but rather someone with "clownesque tendencies." Reactions from others convinced the young novelist that her approach was not working
"I was erring on the side of subtlety with the character and in the humor," Drake says. "I thought it was a really funny book, but it wasn't clear to many people that it was supposed to be funny. So I shifted the novel's focus, playing up the character as a clown, amping up all the clown language and references. That made it funnier, but also played up the sadder riffs, too."
Drake remains an admirer of dark humor that verges on being downbeat bleak, as seen in obscure novels, such as "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Conner, and cult films, like "The Loved One." This strong stuff is not everybody's cup of chamomile, but it courses through the pages of "Clown Girl" in unadulterated doses, including its opening line:
" 'Balloon Tying for Christ' was the cheapest balloon manual I could find."
Narrator Nita (aka "Sniffles the Clown") is a fringe performer with Picasso's seriousness about her art. She intends to scorn higher-paying commercial clown work, even though it consigns her to a grim existence where she has to look up just to see the poverty line. This is the gritty hand-to-mouth Northwest that later gave birth to grunge.
Nita occasionally crashes in the mudroom of the decrepit house of her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, but is rendered sleepless by her constantly bashed dreams of serious clown work, plus a lifelong series of hard body blows that would stagger a heavyweight boxing champ, let alone a clown contender.
Things keep happening to Nita, bad things mostly -- from the death of her parents in an auto accident to the uncertain return of her current boyfriend and the miscarriage of their child to the disappearance of her beloved rubber chicken, Plucky.
All this cosmic bad karma might persuade most others to scrap the face paint in favor of makeup and other manifestations of the regular work world, but not Nita.
As her creator explains, "The essential vision of this novel is a contemporary female Charlie Chaplin trying to express herself through her art. It could be any art, but she has ideas she holds dear, and she is intent in pursuing them in the face of a hostile world... There is something both funny and sad about how she hangs on to being a clown."
What keeps Nita's story from being a big-top downer is her unlimited supply of wacky schemes and wigged-out humor. When she's not imagining how she will turn Kafka's "Metamorphosis" into clown performance art, she is unleashing a steady stream of thumper one-liners. Recounting the time when she was pursued by a cop in a cruiser, she recalls, "I wanted to duck and run, or do a duck run, a waddle-on-out."
"Clown Girl" abounds with Drake's out-of-bounds humor. Puns and wordplay provide what the author sees as the written equivalent of a clown's slapstick. So there is "Hoagies and Stogies, a cigar bar sub shop." And a clown compatriot of Nita's outfitted in "a tiny mustache and the slick hairpiece looked... halfway to her own dictatorship."
Early drafts of "Clown Girl" did spark some interest in New York publishing circles, but never enough interest for any house to sign on the dotted line.
Then the final revised version of "Clown Girl" sat in the offices of Drake's New York literary agent for seven months, but never was sent on to any publishers, an authorial horror story that Drake still finds more mystifying than galling.
Original literary work, while given lip service in Manhattan, can scare off New York agents and publishers intent on cashing in on the latest sure thing.
Drake finally took "Clown Girl" to Hawthorne Books, which had done a excellent job two years previous with her husband's novel, "Core: A Romance". If Drake harbors any regrets that "Clown Girl" does not bear the imprint of some prestigious New York publisher, she disguises them very well.
"Hawthorne has been so supportive of the book that, in retrospect, this is the right thing to have happened," Drake stresses. "This has been a great experience - they're 100 percent behind the book, the design is great and I am touring the Northwest.
"I've had friends with books at New York presses, and they have had no support. There's this dream of a big New York contract as the ticket to success, but I don't think it necessarily is."
Underscoring Drake's point is the current edition of Entertainment Weekly, which includes five short reviews across the top of one page. Amid hardback books by such important New York publishers as Putnam, Bloomsbury and Alfred A. Knopf sits a sole paperback from a small press in distant Portland.
"Clown Girl" gets the second-highest grade of the five, an A-. That is no water squirt from the plastic daisy on Nita's lapel!
Score one for another Northwest original." - John Marshall
"I had this big, long, detailed description of Clown Girl written out and then my computer decided to make a sound like this: chuggg chugg eeekkkk, chuggg chugg eeeek and then it just kind of..died. So I had to take over my sons computer and write this out from my memory. Don't you hate it when things like that happen?
I will tell you what Clown Girl is not, it's not happiness, bright sunshine and feel good. It is dark and kind of twisty. It is sad in parts, funny in other parts and well written throughout. All I can think is that author Monica Drake has an amazing mind and crazy imagination.
Clown Girl is the story of Nita, aka Sniffles the Clown, who lives in a run down place called Baloneytown. She is holding tight to the hope that her boyfriend, Rex Galore, is going to come back to town and sweep her off her big clown feet and the two will live happily ever after. Of course it doesn't work out that way. There is a rubber chicken named Plucky, a police officer, a pot dealing ex-boyfriend and fellow clowns Matey and Crack, just to name a few characters from this novel. If you are looking for a different kind of book by a fabulous writer then you need to check this one out.
Whe did Baloneytown come from? Why not write about a place like New York City where there are lots of neighborhoods full of destitution and poverty?
- I wanted it to be a fictional terrain, so I could use the landscape to my own ends. The main character, Nita, is very much a pedestrian, and I wanted to mapout her walking paths in a way that would line up neighborhoods--Baloneytown, For-Salesville, KingsRow--in a way they don't necessarily naturally fall in any real city.
Also, the style of this novel isn't strictly realism. It’s more cartoon or comic in ways. For that, I needed a cartoonish version of a town, something that could show the grit of a city with the colors and bounce of a clown world. Voila! Baloneytown.
The book is dark, kind of chilly and mysterious. Did you set out to write this kind of a book?
I did. It's the kind of book, or kind of writing, I most enjoy - aiming for a mix of sad and funny, and most of all trying to get at something, trying to express a feeling about the world.
What kinds of books and movies are you drawn to? Do you like things light and happy or murky and warped?
I like to be caught by surprise, and to laugh, in that way that happens when a kind of truth hits you in the funnybone, and it's funny and sad and real all at once. I love the writing of George Saunders. I love movies like Being John Malcovich, things that just keep getting crazier and wilder as the story lines go on. Are Baloneytown and the clowns a metaphor for something? The main character, Nita, uses clowning as a vehicle for self expression. Not all the clowns in the book use it in the same way, or see it in the same way, and that’s part of the conflict she's up against; Nita’s relationship to what she views as her art is fueled by big ambitions and a longing to connect, to make life meaningful.
How would you describe Nita a.k.a Sniffles?
She's an optimist, and a dreamer. She's ambitious and plagued by abandonment issues, but she still believes she can forge the life she wants out of what she's got through sheer creativity and determination. She's little bit Horatio Alger, a little bit Bozo...
Clowns are universally known to be somewhat creepy, is that why you chose clowning as Nita's profession?
I'm not sure clowns are universally known as creepy. People have different responses, and it varies culturally. I've been told that the fear of clowns is more prevalent in the US than in other places. If that’s true, what does it say about us as a country? Is it just that too many people have watched "It", the movie with Pennywise, a terrifying clown, written by Steven King, or does it go beyond that to say something more, maybe speaking to an intolerance of the unknown, the chaotic?
For all I know it's a comment on a loss of innocence, or a fear of innocence. I chose to make Nita a clown because I worked as a clown, briefly, many years ago, and the experience has always stayed with me and resonated against so many other jobs, so many other events...I'm interested in what it means to put oneself out there, into the world as a clown, and what it means to be clown identified. It’s all about taking risks, about exposure, vulnerability and living outside the norm.
Rex was never planning to come back for Nita was he? It was a one sided love affair.
What I was trying to do with this is show Nita's view of Rex as all projection. It's a story she's telling herself. I didn't want Rex to come across as a complete cad; he's not what Nita wants, but who say she has to be? He hasn't made her any promises.
He's low, as an artist, near the end, but I think that helps Nita realize she's been giving away too much, sacrificing too much, and not taking care of herself. She can't keep throwing herself at the world, or at Rex. This is the moment she starts to think about taking better care of herself and her craft, her work. To hold a little something back, keep it in reserve, and reconsider her position in relation to the world.
What are you working on right now and will there be balloon tying, clowns or any other circus performer types in the book?
I've got some pieces that might line up into another novel. No clowns, balloons or circus performers in this one--at least not yet, but who knows? I revise a lot. A dozen revisions later... we'll see!" - Inteview by Cindy at Conversations with Famous Writers