Chad Pelley’s goal is to drag you in. Make you feel. Make you react to his writing as much as you are reading it.
He wants to give you a vicarious reading experience, so when you put his book down, you, too, feel as if you had just been in love or betrayed.
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Open his latest book, “Every Little Thing,” and you’re reeled in from the beginning. It opens in jail, the novel’s protagonist having been arrested for a violent act, although it’s not for another 200 pages or so before you find out what the act was.
You will, however, follow the character, Cohen Davies, on the trajectory leading up to the incident.
“I think it’s more alluring for a reader to know on the first page that the novel’s going somewhere,” says Pelley of his non-linear structure of the book, which, at times, makes the reader guess at what’s going on. “I’ll stop reading a novel if I’m not drawn in by the 10th page; I think the first chapter is the most important. I’m well aware of the fact that over 100 novels are going to come out this year and mine is just one in the crowd, so it has to grab people right away.”
Cohen, a bird biologist, is living in a basement apartment (Pelley has a degree in biology). A woman named Allie Crosbie and her father, Matt, a friend of Cohen’s parents, move into the house next door. Allie and Matt are dealing with a loss; Cohen and his family soon experience their own tragedy, too.
Cohen and Allie become a couple, and eventually move in together. A photographer as well as a scientist, Allie begins selling her work through an American man named Lee Brown, her relationship with whom has its own consequences.
The book doesn’t give its readers a rest from beginning to end, scenes full of heartbreak and sorrow and loss, and not a single word wasted.
“I think the reason I do that is because I like funny books, too, but I think we all react differently to humour and happiness and that sort of thing,” Pelley explains. “If I cracked a joke to a room full of people, some people would laugh harder than others, and some people wouldn’t even get it. When it comes to the baseline emotions, that connects all of us. We can relate to a tidal wave that happens a world away because we would know what it’s like to lose our loved ones.
“What I’m trying to do with my fiction is bridge the readers to my character and to do that, you need an emotional bridge. I think using these baseline emotions that we can all relate to, like loss, is how I do that. Maybe some people might see it as a fault that too much happens in my book, but I think if a writer’s going to stay on the line for 300 pages, you’ve got to have stuff happen.”
Cohen is a guy who’s more passionate than rational, Pelley says, and who starts making more impulsive decisions as the book goes on, though they seem to always be rooted in the right place. He’s got boundary issues and doesn’t always pick up on typical social clues.
Pelley was inspired to create the character after the success of his first novel, “Away From Everywhere,” which earned him invitations to book club meetings around St. John’s.
“You’re sitting there with 10 or 12 really intelligent women that are so drawn into your book that they’re arguing with each other over if this character is good or bad or that decision is good or bad or that sort of thing,” Pelley says. “They got me thinking that the real goal of my next book would be to have a character to make decisions that, depending on who the reader is, would say it was a good or bad choice. I’ve tried to put Cohen in all these decisions that readers would say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that,’ or ‘Of course you did that,’ or raise questions like would a good guy make that decision.
“I think ‘Every Little Thing’ is about how our whole lives cascade from one or two big decisions we make, and that’s kind of what happens in this book.”
Pelley, who lives in St. John’s, is also known as a writer of short stories, as well as for his blog, Salty Ink. He has won the first-, second- and third-place spots in the Cuffer Prize, presented for the past five years by The Telegram and Creative Book Publishing.
Last month, he was named the winner of the first Salon Fiction Prize, presented by the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick. His short story, “A Second Look at Nothing,” was chosen fro among 100 stories submitted from across the country for the prize, which comes with $1,000.
“A Second Look at Nothing” is also a sort of dark story, about a father looking for his missing 30-year-old son, for whose disappearance he may or may not be responsible. There’s a pretty tricky plot twist in the piece that Pelley admits he found challenging to incorporate.
“Every Little Thing” hits bookshelves on Wednesday, and Pelley will leave next week for New Brunswick, where he’ll accept the Salon prize and do a series of readings and book signings, in Moncton, Fredericton and St. John.
He’s also working on “Big, Red Hearts,” a collection of short stories about people longing for something they’ll never have, and participating in the film adaptation of “Away From Everywhere,” which is now underway.
Pelley has begun working on his third novel, this one about a snowstorm that sees a small outport community cut off from the rest of the world, which was inspired by 2009’s hurricane Igor.
“I feel like my last two novels were driven by constant tragedy, but this big story of this one is it’s a small Newfoundland town stuck in a five-week-long storm and they turn on each other,” Pelley says. “There are lots of tragedies happening within it for entertainment value, but I’ve never written a novel where it’s just like an HBO kind of special.”