Sarah Selecky's stories have been published in Geist Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, Event and The Journey Prize Anthology. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and has been teaching creative writing workshops in her living room for the past ten years. Her short story collection, This Cake Is for the Party, was released by Thomas Allen Publishers this year.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I remember John Gould telling me once, when I was living and writing (anonymously, pre-publication) in Victoria, that the best time to write is before your first book comes out, because nobody is listening, nobody has any expectations, and you can experiment. You can write what you want, at your own pace. He was right. Now that my book is out, I am plagued with more doubts then ever before. When I sit down to write, I have to turn off way more taps. Publication has created new thought-faucets, and they pour out more complicated criticism now. It's a challenge.
The other thing that changed is that I've had to learn about self-promotion. When you're sending stories out to editors and magazines, you're also trying to convince people to invest in your writing, but in a different way. Promoting your book to bookstores and readers takes a great deal of time and energy. I don't have as much time to write as I'd like. I have to be more protective of my time, and learn how to prevent exhaustion. I'm figuring out the balance.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I write what I want to read. I'm a short fiction reader - I'm pretty obsessive about the form. I acquired the taste at a young age - probably from reading stories in magazines like Sassy and Seventeen - and I never gave it up. But I have been diving into non-fiction - Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Annie Dillard - and I notice my voice is shifting, and that I now feel drawn to the essay form. It really is about what I'm reading. It's not a conscious choice.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am not a quick and prolific writer. My book of stories was written over the better part of 8 years. I write skimpy and ridiculous first drafts that need a lot of development before they are worth reading. I have to collect a big bed of notes - small scratches, impressions, lines of dialogue, images - before I feel secure enough to attempt a first draft of anything. This is partly why I find it so difficult to write first drafts - it's so humbling. Many of the stories in my book have been rewritten over 10 times. And the changes are extensive. I have all of these notebooks around the house - shelves of them - with bits and pieces from different stories, developments that were built over the years, worked out on paper, and then transcribed and worked into the final version. It's a mysterious and labour-intensive process. And I give myself swaths of non-writing time, too - I think this is crucial - where I let characters simmer without looking at them for weeks or months, so I can get some perspective.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Fiction usually begins with a question or a problem that I'm trying to work out. I find ways to act it out on the page, with imaginary people and places, so I can make sure that I really understand all sides of the problem by the end of the story. I might not answer the question in the end, but by the end of the story, I need to be sure that I understand everything I can about the question itself.
Right now I have this interesting thing happening with three characters, three situations - I thought that the project was about weaving these three people together, but now I'm looking at it and wondering, is it all the same thing? Is my mind just trying to figure out the same problem in three different ways? Do I need to just find the right one, and follow it through? We'll see what happens.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are so much fun. I enjoy them most of the time (it depends on the listeners, of course, and whether they get my sense of humour). But I don't consider readings part of my creative process. By the time I read a story aloud, it's finished. Which means that I'm not really a part of it anymore - I'm giving it away. It's creative in the way having fun wrapping a present beautifully can be creative. But it's not generative for me.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I try to keep theory out of it when I'm writing. That kind of abstract critical thought about literature really turns me on, and I love to do it with other people's work. I love it when people tell me their theories about what they think my stories are doing, what questions they're posing, etc. A reviewer once said something about my stories that was so well-observed, so smart, I now quote her when people ask me about what my book is about.
But my work as a writer is different. I want to use language to articulate what can't be put into words. That's an embodied process for me - I have to get out of my head in order to get to a place where I can do that.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Of course writers have a role. They're writing our world as we live it. There's this great line I just read in Sheila Heti's story (in Darwin's Bastards), "There Is No Time in Waterloo." A character says, "No future can exist until it exists, since we are all creating reality together in a radically flexible present." Writers are creating reality. We all understand who we are through the stories we tell ourselves. Writers have a powerful cultural role.
Garrison Keillor said that the writer's job is to observe. A writer pays attention to everything. Writers are vigilant observers: that's their role in society. I agree with him.
I visited a book club once, and one of the participants told me that after reading my book, she felt that everything in her life was imbued with meaning - the dish soap on the counter, the curtain tie, the keys and how they hang on the little hook. Everything felt more important, she said. Everything was significant. That was such a powerful comment. I don't know if she knew how much that comment validated the work that I do!
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. If you can find an editor who gets what you're doing, respects it, sees your limitations and your strengths clearly, understands where your work can join the conversation that is happening in contemporary literature, and can articulate all of those things to you, you're a fortunate writer. A good editor is better than anything - better than publication, better than money, better than a good review, better than a prize. I can't say enough about this. I was very lucky to work with Zsuzsi Gartner for many years - she knew what I was capable of doing, and when I was taking shortcuts. She could see the sparkle of gold in my work when I could only see dirt, and she could see the gravel in there too, when I was trying to pass it off as precious metal.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You cannot know your story until you have written it first. Many people have said this in different ways. I can't remember where I read this lately, but it's worth repeating. It's kind of like that line in Sheila Heti's story (above) - maybe that's why I liked that line so much, actually!
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction or critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Writing non-fiction is like skinny dipping. At first you feel so exposed and vulnerable! Then, once you're in the water, it feels just amazing.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Roughly, it's like this: Wake up, make tea. Read a short story by someone great, like Amy Hempel or Lisa Moore or Deborah Eisenberg or Lee Henderson. Get inspired. Then start writing, with a timer to keep track. When I'm in between projects, I just write for at least 10 minutes before moving on to the rest of the day. When I'm in the middle of a project, and there is work to be done, I write from 9 - 11. When I'm revising/editing, I have more stamina - I work from 8 - 12.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go outside. The natural world has everything I need in it - metaphor is everywhere. For example, sometimes just seeing the way bare tree limbs move in the wind can bring me back. Because the branches look so much like roots. And they look so much like the lines in the leaves. And these all look so much like capillaries. When I see that connection, it can snap me back to awe, which is where I need to be when I'm writing.
It can be hard to get there - when I'm stuck, it's usually because I'm caught in some old patterns and responses, and I don't know how to reconnect with awe right away. If I'm not too far gone, I'll read Annie Dillard for help. But if I'm really stuck, I can't read, either. Sometimes reading makes me nauseous when I'm stuck. Then I go elsewhere: the art gallery. Live concerts. Theatre. That can be a powerful way to get unstuck, too - find places where creativity is happening, become still enough to be receptive to it, and then put yourself there in the field. We're like little radios - we can tune into inspiration. It's a frequency.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lily of the valley.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Of course. All of the above. I have a friend who recently told me that she was reading physics textbooks for inspiration. Something in the diagrams made her think about the way people work together. Metaphorically. Even though she knows not very much about physics, she was enthralled by the language - it was so different. But because everything is connected, if you're paying attention, you can find stories everywhere.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I've mentioned Annie Dillard - she's a big one for me right now.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd like to write a really tight novel.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I'd probably be a painter. I was a working artist, for a few years - I sold my work at the One of a Kind Show and the Toronto Outdoor Art Show, as well as other places. I sometimes wonder if I would have been a graphic novelist in another life. I still consider chef school.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Being an only child had something to do with it. That's why I love reading so much. And reading is the true cause, of course - a deep and profound love for reading. After I learned how to write, I simply wrote. All the time I was writing. I don't remember not writing. I didn't have a lot of friends growing up. But I always had my notebook.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Annabel Lyon's A Golden Mean took the top of my head off.
And Fantastic Mr. Fox - Wes Anderson's animated film - is the best thing I've seen on a screen in years.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm writing essays, and I'm writing a lot about writing.
I'm also working on this thing with the characters that I mentioned earlier. It might be a book.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;