Q & A: Erica McKeen, Winner of the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize (Literary Fiction)

Tear is a bold, unflinching bildungsroman that moves, chimera-like, between the real and the imagined; among the confusions and traumas of youth; from the humane to the monstrous. And therein author Erica McKeen accomplishes the truly remarkable. While walking in the steps of such gothic icons as Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, McKeen manages to forge her own path: avoiding the clichéd, the gratuitous, and the overwritten to create in Tear an inventive, affecting, modern work. With assured control of her craft and respect for both her readers and her genre forebearers, McKeen writes with originality, sophistication, and expertise.”

Judge’s citation, Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize

Last week, we were thrilled to learn that Erica McKeen had won the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize (Literary Fiction), valued at $10K, for her debut novel Tear. Erica’s interrogation of gaslighting and female rage is a deeply gothic response to human neglect and isolation. In Frances, McKeen delivers a haunting portrayal of grief and alienation, depicted in monsters both real and manifested, and a hunger to be heard. The Prize endeavours to raise the profiles of emerging writers. In this instance, it has also raised awareness for a story of a young person who feels unprotected by the systems that should be looking out for her.

We talked to Erica about this recognition for her true-to-life horror novel.

“In a way, Tear is a story about the danger of stories—it’s about the way these stories, told to us by our parents and friends and teachers, seep into every part of who we are and change us from the inside out. It’s about how these stories inside us out and become insipid, insidious, and nearly undetectable.”

Erica McKeen

Invisible Publishing: Despite being published at the height of the pandemic, the readership for Tear continues to grow, garnering praise from readers who recognize themselves in your protagonist, Frances, a young woman preparing to graduate from Western University in London, ON. Frances isolates in a basement apartment where she questions the realities of her existence, to include an incessant tapping coming from her bedroom wall. What’s been mirrored back to you by readers since the book was first published last year?

Erica McKeen: Again is again, readers have shared their uncanny feeling of being seen while reading Tear. It’s a cliché—”I felt so seen while reading your work.”—but I think it’s worth mentioning because Tear is all about feeling invisible, about being left unnoticed and unprotected by the larger systems (family, school, society as a whole) that should be looking out for those who, to use the book’s metaphor here, have been locked in the basement. I think young people especially, who feel unmoored and isolated, who feel they have not been prepared for the adult world that’s been presented to them—that in fact they have been let down by past generations and, simultaneously, have been gaslighted into believing its their fault that they feel sick, and scared, and alone. In Tear, I wanted to express that this feeling of uncertainty isn’t just a frustrating one, but a horrifying one, with ofte violent and monstrous undercurrents. Beneath the veneer of the spaces, bodies, and ideologies that many of us are living within is a curdling, brutal anger that demands, ultimately, to be recognized. To be seen.

IP: We’re describing Tear as a true-to-life literary horror novel. Tell us more about the monsters at the heart of Frances’s world?

EM: Although there are many real-life monsters that float through the background of Frances’s time in the basement, one of the biggest is mental illness. It may also be that Frances is so sick and isolated, it may that she is born from a mother who is also sick, but even more so the monster may be that Frances is unsupported. Emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially, the systems at work around her have left her unprotected—have even bred and provoked the manifestation of her illness in the basement.

Another of Frances’s real-life monsters, and a more complicated one, is storytelling. Tear is full of scary stories, snippets of narrative that Frances has digested and taken as determinates of her own identity. In a way, Tear is a story about the danger of stories—it’s about the way these stories, told to us by our parents and friends and teachers, seep into every part of who we are and change us from the inside out. It’s about how these stories inside us out and become insipid, insidious, and nearly undetectable.

IP: What does it mean now to have won the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize?

EM: To me, “emerging writer” has two connotations, which feel almost equal in weight when I hear the term. The first is the suggestion that as an emerging writer, I’m just starting out; I don’t have the resources, connections, or knowledge that more established writers might have. The other is that I’m an emerging writer, which confirms that I am, in fact, a writer! It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. It’s the work that makes the most sense to me; it’s work that hooks me to the earth, that grounds me, and that helps me map the world. Receiving this recognition validates the sacrifices I have made in order to make time for writing: the education I have sought, the jobs I have left. It wasn’t easy writing Tear while working full time and then part time, studying part time and then full time, applying for scholarships, moving countries, changing jobs, and so on. This prize means that there might be some core logic to the chaos, that I might—might—be taking my fumbling steps in the right direction.

Cover: Tear, a novel written by Erica McKeen. Image features an illustrated nose and mouth against black background.

IP: Finally, how does it feel to have so many vocal champions for this book?

EM: Since Tear’s publication in September last year, I’ve been continually blown away by the support from booksellers and readers. I keep thinking and saying “This is so unexpected. This is so unexpected!” Book Warehouse in Vancouver, the bookstore around the corner from where I live, has placed Tear in their window display multiple times; Upstart & Crow on Granville Island, Massy Books in downtown Vancouver, and Munro Books in Victoria have all been supremely supportive of my work. Two friends of mine who happened to be visiting Kelowna mentioned seeing Tear on display at Mosaic Books, and I know this was the work of Lancen, one of the booksellers there, who has championed Tear on social media and beyond. I would also be remiss not to mention the team at Little Ghost Books in Toronto, who placed a giant poster of the book cover in their front window during Tear’s initial release; or Stacey May Fowles at Open Book, who wrote multiple articles on Tear and promoted the novel to The Globe and Mail for their best 100 books of 2022.

Erica McKeen was born in London, Ontario. She studied at Western University, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the Guernica Prize, and shortlisted for The Malahat Review Open Season Awards. Her stories have been published in PRISM internationalfilling StationThe Dalhousie Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Tear is her first novel, and has been awarded the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Literary Fiction, selected as a 49th Shelf Editor’s Pick, and named a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2022.

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