On the first day of her class at King’s, Elaine McCluskey asked which of us were creative writers. I raised my hand. Any poets? Again, my hand went up. She didn’t ask if we had published anything: that’s not what being a writer means. Being a writer means sitting down at your computer with a head full of ideas and kicking down the walls. It means convincing yourself that your stories are worth telling.
She floated around the room with her hair flowing in every direction and I thought: “My teacher is the real-life Carrie Bradshaw!” (Sex and the City reference, for all of you HBO lovers). Her curls bounced with her every step and as soon as she had mentioned that her newest book had been released, she kicked Bradshaw out of first place as my role model.
I rushed to the nearest Chapters and bought McCluskey’s latest book, The Most Heartless Town in Canada. I was aching to know how a journalist, with writing all tucked and tight, could write a descriptive novel.
McCluskey was the first female Atlantic bureau chief at the Canadian Press and devoted her entire life to being a full-time journalist.
“If a disaster happened, if news broke out, I was on call 24/7,” McCluskey says.
In a addition to being a lady who was always on-the-go, she also had two small kids at home. A full-time job in journalism is like a needy child itself: when the news cries, you stop, drop and write. McCluskey had to make a decision, and she took a step back from journalism.
She decided one day, sitting at her computer, that she would write a book. McCluskey’s first book, The Watermelon Social, is a compilation of 10 short stories and a pun on the dreaded ice-cream social. There has since been a shift in her writing as she transitions from writing urban stories to exploring rural Nova Scotia.
“[My husband and I] have seen surprising things, we’ve been inspired by them, and I just thought it was time to look at small town Nova Scotia, which in my book critics call ‘dying Nova Scotia,’” says McCluskey.
“I hope it doesn’t die, because parts of it are splendid.”
McCluskey fictionalizes rural Nova Scotia into the town of Myrtle. She describes Myrtle as “an innocent town that’s minding it’s own business,” but becomes ridiculed and mocked as “the most heartless town in Canada.”
“And it’s not. It’s not at all. It’s just not.”
Her impressive transition from journalist to short-story writer to novelist is not without its difficulties. McCluskey’s life sometimes enters her world of fiction.
“I think the grief crept into the book because it was written not long after my father died. My father was a very big part of my life and my children’s lives. And if you read the book, somebody in the book loses a parent.”
McCluskey has also incorporated herself into the protagonist Rita’s indignant personality, and says that some of the more shocking details of the book are true.
Nowadays, McCluskey mainly identifies herself as a writer, but she hasn’t given up her journalistic instinct to keep her notebook in her purse and document the “telling details.” McCluskey doesn’t walk into the room and notice the colours of the chair or walls: she sees a person and tells their story.
“I just saw somebody doing something […] and maybe they amuse me or entertain me but I know it doesn’t belong in the novel so I’ll put it in the short story file and put it in later.”