Visiting Niagara Falls for the first time since childhood, Ashley Little noticed a tension underlying what she saw. “The natural majestic beauty of the falls,” she says to the Straight, from her home in Kelowna, “is smushed right up against the gaudiness and tackiness of the strip. There is something about that meeting of two opposing forces that was an inspiration. I wanted to write something set in Niagara Falls because of that juxtaposition.”
This spark, which came during her trip in 2010 for New Year’s Eve, yielded several short stories that eventually developed into her MFA thesis and new novel, Niagara Motel. Focused on 11-year-old Tucker Malone, who leaves Niagara Falls for Los Angeles in search of the father he believes is Sam Malone, the bartender played by Ted Danson on the sitcom Cheers, the novel shares the midnight mood introduced in Prick: Confession of a Tattoo Artist, her ReLit Award–nominated 2011 debut.
Little, citing Willy Vlautin’s novels The Motel Life and Lean on Pete as other motivators, was also “interested in exploring the cultural landscape of the early ’90s, and how mass media seemed to really blow up during that time, and was showing us lots of images of violence”.
A survival sex worker who appeared in her 2013 novel Anatomy of a Girl Gang, which received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize the following year, led to the creation of Gina, Tucker’s mother, a narcoleptic exotic dancer and escort, who was initially intended as the current novel’s protagonist. In 2012, while cleaning house, “I heard this voice in my head that said, ‘I was born in a laundromat in Paris, Ontario,’ ” Little says. “And I knew that that was the first line of my next novel. But it wasn’t Gina’s voice, it was her son, Tucker—and so Tucker took over this novel.” (Their surname was established prior to using the TV character as a plot device. Kismet proved “that according to polls, Sam Malone was considered to be the epitome of masculinity at that time,” she says. “He was the ideal. And that is the hole in Tucker’s life, a masculine presence. I knew that Cheers was a really popular show during that time, and he would’ve probably watched it and been allowed to watch it.”)
After sneaking out of their group home, Tucker and his friend Meredith, a pregnant 16-year-old sex worker, hitchhike across America and catch rides with criminal celebrities of the era, including Timothy McVeigh and Lorena Bobbitt. In writing about these nefarious figures, Little was trying to comprehend the effects that their constant coverage was having on not only “the psyches of all people who were seeing that media, but especially young people who were just beginning to form their ideas about the world at that time”.
Just as headline news influenced Niagara Motel, music was a vital component. Between writing sessions, Little listened repeatedly to Nirvana and “watched the Michael Jackson video ‘Black or White’ a lot,” she says, laughing, “because Macaulay Culkin is in it at the beginning. I just felt like that was helping me to visualize Tucker.”
The violence that distinguishes her material requires additional effort. “I think maybe I need to gear up for that. For Anatomy of a Girl Gang, I stayed away from it [the manuscript] for about a week—which is a long time when you’re writing every day for months. It was the same with Niagara Motel. I took a break right before I wrote the L.A. riot scene.”
To build the segment where the adolescents arrive in Los Angeles amid the riots, Little went to California and toured Compton and Watts with a man who was present at the melee, and obtained raw footage from amateur videographer Timothy Goldman, whose recordings were widely broadcast. The research was “really sad, especially the interviews with business owners who had lost everything,” she says. “And just the brutality… That was really excruciating to watch.”
Of the chaos, Tucker observes, “In the distance, I saw a red fire engine and fire fighters spraying water at a huge building that must have been a shopping mall. It was hard to believe my eyes, but people were actually attacking the fire fighters while they worked. Launching rocks and bottles at them and jumping onto their backs as they hosed down the blaze.”
Like Tucker, the narrators of Little’s fiction are outsiders who seek family and home in a hostile world. Rather than depict the social spheres of “the white-collar, upper-class one-percenters”, Little is drawn to “subcultures that I don’t know very much about.
“These are the kinds of people that I find interesting,” she says. “The way they speak, the way they dress, their thoughts, what their fears and desires are—I just find this subsect more interesting, with more conflict, and maybe closer to my heart.”
Ashley Little will make two Vancouver Writers Fest appearances this year, both on October 18. See the Writers Fest website for times and venues.