Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sharing a Slice with This Cake is for the Party Author Sarah Selecky

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Since being nominated for the Giller prize, Sarah Selecky is unlikely to need much in the way of introduction. She was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, and longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award. She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2001. Her stories are sophisticated; they range in register from somber to funny, quirky to gut wrenching. Selecky will be appearing on several other blogs this month, so please stay tuned:

AH: I want to ask about reception of the book. Were there things that people didn't get that you were surprised about? Were there things you thought would be more mysterious that people connected with?

SS: I had a great discussion about this very thing when I visited a book club not long ago. One of the readers said that she felt she didn't "get" many of the stories in my book. I've heard this from readers before: "these stories are so ambiguous!" So I asked her to tell more about her experience. What I learned was that this particular reader didn't usually read short story collections. In fact, she admitted that she kind of disliked short stories, and avoided them, because she often felt that she didn't understand them.

A lot of people are bothered by short fiction. People say short stories end "too soon." I realize that the thing I love about reading stories is the very same thing that can put other readers off. That feeling of groundlessness you get when a story ends before you understand everything in the story, the questions that it plants in your mind, the way your reality wavers for a moment when you are faced with that mystery, and you have nowhere to go to solve the problem -- that is exactly what I'm addicted to. That's what I'm trying to write towards... that feeling of mystery and power.

I was able to give this reader a few answers to her questions - for instance, is Janey sleeping with David in "Standing Up for Janey?" The answer is yes. But I couldn't answer some of her other questions, like, "Why is Magda's ear really watering?" The answer to that one is: I don't know. I have no idea. "Prognosis" is a story about what it feels like to have no idea. That is the point to the story. I think that some readers read "Prognosis" and think that they're missing something. They're not missing anything.

As far as people connecting to things that surprised me - oh, yes. Yes. And I've been so lucky to have received emails and letters from readers who were thoughtful enough to take the time to articulate these things to me. Different elements of the stories affected people in really personal, special (and unintentional) ways, and it has meant so much to hear their stories. One reader emailed me to say that she also grew up in Northern Ontario. She understood things about Where You Coming From, Sweetheart? -- like, things that weren't even overtly written there -- but she "got it" on such a deep level. I was surprised, because that story is so personal to me. It was one of those moments where a complete stranger gave me a reflection of myself, just by letting me know how my story gave her a reflection of herself. It's so special when that happens.

AH: You are a creative writing teacher. You've said in other interviews that you can teach yourself to be a better writer by teaching others to write (I paraphrase from Joyland). You have a project on Twitter where you tweet writing prompts (@sarahselecky). Do you find yourself teaching people using exercises you use for yourself? That said, do you test out your writing prompts before you suggest them? I imagine a teacher/ writer dichotomy in your head, where you hear your teaching voice when you're starting a piece/ working on a piece, how accurate is this?

SS: I do my own writing exercises all the time. All. The. Time. Those prompts are my writing practice. And when I teach writing classes, I've done all of the exercises that I give to my students. When something works for me, I give it to my students, because I'm so excited that it worked! But the benefit of being a student and having someone give you a prompt is that the element of surprise is still there. Also that someone is there at the table to hold the space for you. It is so much easier to write when someone is sitting there with a timer, making you do it. I have to continually train myself to pretend to be surprised by a prompt that I've come up with. In fact, making up the exercises is itself part of my writing practice: sitting still and watching my mind for a prompt to come every day, for Twitter, has the same feeling as sitting still and watching my mind for an image to come up.

I try not to listen to my teaching voice when I'm writing a new story. It's too distracting, even though it means well. When I work, I have to do the same thing that I tell all my students to do: empty your mind. Write without knowing anything. Let the story be the thing that you are writing - don't write about the story. Be the story. If you can be the writing while you are writing, there's no room for any chatter. Even if it is a kindly teacher voice.

AH: "Go-Manchura" made me cringe; I've had similar experiences with people over Mary Kay and Amway. The main character, Lilian, selling the (organic food) products is clearly desperate, in financial trouble, and maybe has a bit of a drinking problem. A bottle of wine for one and some organic lasagna anyone? You succeed in keeping the story from slipping into pathos though, partly because it is from Lilian's point of view, and her denial of her own desperation is so strong. Could you talk about keeping the desperation out of the pathetic? It seems like a decision to keep the story in Lilian's perspective. At the same time, it is hard to believe she can be in such denial, so ignorant of social cues. When she asks her guest, Brooks, if he has any rich co-workers for her to date, it is so embarrassing!

SS: I love Lilian, because Lilian isn't embarrassed to be Lilian! She believes in her products, she believes that she's helping out her friends. The insidious thing about those multi-level marketing schemes is the way they hijack intimacy with economy. What happens when you turn friends into customers -- and then need those customers in order to be financially solvent? Lilian's not pathetic, but she is insecure. And the problem is, she's confused intimacy with success. She truly believes that she is making the world a better place by sharing her knowledge about Go-Manchura, and I think that's why she's not entirely pathetic. She's sincerely trying to be a good person.

AH: Could you talk about the contraints of the short story, what draws you to them, who your favourite writers are?

SS: I talked a little about what draws me to short stories in your first question: it's that groundless feeling, the way a story can bring you to a place of utter surprise or mystery, and then leave you there to deal with it, all on your own. The story ends, and you read that last paragraph three times over, wondering, what does this mean? What do I do now that it's over? I think reading a good short story can be a powerful way to wrestle with the way life itself leaves you to struggle to find meaning. I respect the short story for this - more than any other form. (Though I know some poets who may want to take that up with me.)

I love Amy Hempel, George Saunders, Annabel Lyon, Lorrie Moore, Lisa Moore, Rick Moody, Ann Beattie. Those writers probably influenced the stories in This Cake more than any others. Right now I'm reading a lot of Lydia Davis. She has always intrigued me, but recently the intrigue has shifted: I'm in love. Her stories are disobedient, strong-willed, fierce, independent. Her sentences are strong and confident. She is unapologetic and outrageous.

AH: None of the stories in Cake take place in more than a few days. There may be extensive flashbacks or characters that have known each other for decades, however, actual time passing in the plot is short. Could you comment on this similarity? Is the short time span simply more suited to the short story?

SS: Certainly this is one thing I tell my students to free them up when I see them struggling with big unmanageable plots: it's okay for a story to just be a moment in time. It's so liberating to understand that - to give yourself permission to just sink into one moment, or a few hours or days, instead of trying to get the story of a whole lifetime down in 20 pages. It is worth slowing down so you can investigate one single moment with full, deep interest.

I don't know if the short story is more suited to that short time span. Though I've always loved Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, the way that whole story takes place over the course of one day. And it's always stuck with me - the form of that story has stayed with me since I read it as a teenager. But there are wonderful stories that span years (Rick Moody's Boys comes to mind (, or Matthew J. Trafford's "The Divinity Gene." I did enjoy seeing what I could do with the short time span while I worked on the stories and themes in Cake. But this short "slice of life" thing is just a convention that a lot of short fiction writers use. It's just a convention - and like all artistic conventions, I like to see it consciously broken, too (Note to self: add to list of things to do).

AH: I read in the Walrus interview about your process of writing down images and then looking at them and piecing them together into a story. When do you give up on a story? Can an image from an abandoned story appear in a new location?

SS: I have a story graveyard: a file labeled "leftovers" in my computer. But I won't delete them, just in case they rise from the dead somehow, someday, in some form. I also have a file of "fresh ingredients" that are sketches, images, freewrites and notes. That file feels like a well-stocked pantry. When I want to start something new, I go there. It's like going to the cupboard and thinking, "What to make for dinner tonight?" I take a little of this and a little of that, and make something from it. Sometimes it works. If it doesn't work, then yes: I will recycle the ingredients. Sometimes an image finds its way from the pantry into a story, and then I cut it out, and put the cut out part back into the pantry, where I eventually use it in another story. And sometimes an image goes from the pantry into a story, and I revise the story so many times that the original image - the ingredient that started the whole thing - gets left behind. I don't know if I can say that it's left behind forever.

Time and the creative process: it's all very mysterious. For all I know, that old quilt I took notes on four years ago might come up in a story I write ten years from now. I tried to write it into a story this winter, and the story evolved past the quilt, and became something else. But the quilt still exists as an image. I have no way to know for sure if I'll need it later - but it came to me unbidden, so I save it, respectfully.


@Aidan, I definitely like the pantry, the leftovers.
@ddalton, Chekhov: more, now, again!

"That feeling of groundlessness... " What a wonderful start to a perfect description of the short story...a form that took me years to realize has the most impact on me. Suddenly I wanted to go back and read Chekov with fresh eyes. You give so much to your interviews -- Thank you. (also heard you read in Waterloo at Words Worth - it peaked my interest in your book!)

I love the idea of a pantry of ideas! Now I can justify all those snippets I have kept over the years!

I also really liked this description. So physical, tangible.

What I particularly like about this interview is her perspective on the short story, specifically her comment "that feeling of groundlessness...the way your reality wavers for a moment when you are faced with that mystery". I couldn't agree more! One of the most insightful comments on the short story I have heard.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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