Tastes like (rubber) chicken

Portland’s Monica Drake sneaks the reader into the world of rubber noses and squirting flowers.

Portland’s Monica Drake sneaks the reader into the world of rubber noses and squirting flowers.

Monica Drake’s debut novel, Clown Girl, is a Chuck Palahniuk-approved, claustrophobic tale that catapults the reader into Nita’s, aka Sniffles, oversized bubble-tipped shoes in the phantasmal city of Baloneytown. Clown Girl paints Nita’s attempts to keep her dignity as a human being and her love life from turning into a freak show, all the while subjecting herself to the daily indignity of life as a freelance clown.

PT: What was the writing process like for Clown Girl?

MD: I wrote it over a 10-year span. I wrote it three times, and each round took about three years. It wasn’t until the third rewrite that I made the main character into a clown. Before that she was what I saw as more of a Charlie Chaplin figure. Chaplin, as a character in his movies, doesn’t play a clown exactly, but he’s very clown-like. I wanted to create a contemporary, female version.

Chaplin’s characters are always outsiders, often chased by the cops, usually unemployed or underemployed … so I created a young woman character along those lines.

PT: Did you ever work as a clown?

MD: Years ago. I took a college class in something I think was called “Physical Comedy,” or “Physical Theater.” A local business association contacted the instructor and said they needed a few clowns. I raised my hand …

PT: Lots of people have clown phobias. Do you ever get freaked-out by clowns?

MD: No, I’m not afraid of clowns. I’m not afraid of dolls, either. Not even the kind with chipped smiles or freaky big teeth. I have a Raggedy Ann doll whose face was torn off by a dog when I was a kid. I fixed her face as a child and gave her one button eye that’s too big. She has a big scar where I made crazy stitches all the way down. Her hair is in patches. Lately, I’ve been wanting to take her picture. But back to clowns—I like clowns. I particularly like the clown-identified people who walk that fine line. There used to be a girl in my town who wore a pale-green silk collar with points on it. She wore mismatched shoes. I could tell she thought of herself as a clown, even as she went about normal life. I found her really compelling.

PT: If this book had a picture of a clown on the cover instead of a rubber chicken, I wouldn’t have been able to read it.

MD: Good to know! At least from a marketing point of view!

PT: What kind of people get involved in clowning?

MD: Most people, it turns out, have a clown in the family. A cousin, an in-law, a step-somebody. There are so many kinds of clowns, from the far-right Evangelical clowns who run Clown Ministries, to the more radical anarchist clowns who build their own chopped-up bicycles and wear face paint. There are clown porn stars and clowns who work birthday parties. The clown population in the U.S. is really multi-dimensional. I’m not sure what it’s about—I don’t have a definitive answer—but it’s cool, and I’m intrigued.

PT: What is this book really about? Clowns, or is it an allegory to something in the Bible?

MD: To me it is, in many ways, a book about trying to live life as a creative person in a world that can be hostile to the creative process. The main character, Nita (Sniffles) is a clown, and clowning is her art, but the struggle she puts up with could apply to anything—writing, playing music, painting. It’s about a drive toward self-expression and what it means to hold on to one’s integrity. “Every clown is Christ.” That’s a quote from a Christian handbook, or guide, to clowning. That interested me a lot, when I came across it. A clown is the voice of honesty, hidden behind a mask.