When author Erica McKeen arrives at Western this week, she’ll retrace steps she walked as a student, as well as those she imagined for the protagonist in her debut novel Tear.
The walk between ‘what’s real and what’s not real’ is central to the journey McKeen, BA’17, BA’19, MA’20, leads readers on throughout her book, set in her hometown of London, Ont.
“I chose London because it’s what I knew,” said McKeen, who will discuss her craft as part of the creative writers speaker series, presented by the department of English and writing studies. “It’s where I grew up and where I went to school. It also works thematically for the book, which plays with the idea of ‘doubling.’ There’s London, Ontario, and then there’s always this bigger London, England, looming overhead.”
The book’s homonymic title also reflects duality. It was purposefully chosen by McKeen to invoke the idea of ‘tear’ in the sense of being ripped or torn, and that of a teardrop, reacting to the horror and grief experienced by the central character of the book.
Tear is the story of Frances, a quiet, reclusive Western student, sharing a rental house with roommates who often forget she exists. Isolated in a dark basement, on the brink of graduation, Frances, too, starts questioning the realities of her own existence.
“Being an undergraduate student at university is such a transitory phase in one’s life,” McKeen said. “It’s this in-between space where you’re no longer an adolescent, but often not treated as an adult because you’re not seen as living fully in the real world.”
McKeen deftly captures what can be an anxious time, drawing on her own undergraduate years.
“It was complicated, but it was also a very happy space,” she said, “because the creative writing programs and all they had to offer gave me opportunities to escape the unhappiness.”
Writing “is all I ever wanted to do,” McKeen said. She still remembers when her first piece of work was accepted by Occasus, the online literary journal produced by the department of English and writing studies.
“I was sitting in the lecture hall in a classical mythology class when the acceptance email came in. It was a very vivid moment. I remember thinking, ‘This counts as a real publication. Other people might read this.’ It was super cool and gave me a feeling I wanted to chase.”
Her work has since 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 International, filling Station, and The Dalhousie Review, among other literary journals.
Framed as a contemporary version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, McKeen wrote Tear while teaching English in Japan after completing her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature. In the genre of literary feminist horror, advance reviews describe the book as a “fearless and unforgettable debut novel” in which McKeen “unflinchingly engages with contemporary feminist issues and explores the detrimental effects of false narratives, gaslighting, and manipulation on young women.”
The process of writing the book left McKeen looking to learn more. Taking online writing and journalism courses through Western, she expanded her undergraduate degree, writing a fourth-year creative writing thesis under the supervision of professor Aaron Schneider.
She returned to Western to pursue her master’s in English language and literature in 2019, before moving to B.C. to earn her bachelor’s in education, and where she’s now working on her master’s in library and information science.
“I love learning and being in school,” McKeen said. “It’s a space where I have a bit more time for writing. It also fills my head with ideas and keeps me from becoming stagnant.”
Her advice to aspiring writers is: “Keep your passion alive any way you can, because writing doesn’t really get easier. It will always be difficult and challenging.”
“Every time you sit down to write something new, it will feel like you’re grappling with a windstorm with just your bare hands. But once you build a network, get a few successes and acceptances, you’ll feel more confident in your work.” ~ Erica McKeen, BA’17, BA’19, MA’20
McKeen said returning to campus as a speaker and sharing expertise as a published author is exciting, bizarre ─ and a little unreal.
“Thinking back to my undergrad when I went to a lot of writing events and lectures, I didn’t know anything, so it’s a cool moment of reflection to see how much has happened since.”
Open to all students, staff and faculty, McKeen’s lecture takes place Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 4 p.m. in Conron Hall, University College. She will also read at a book launch for Tear, on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. at the TAP Centre for Creativity, 203 Dundas St., London, Ont.