Michelle Syba’s debut story collection End Times is out in May from Freehand Books. Described by Meghan O’Gieblyn as full of “humanity, ferocity, and grace,” End Times is about people variously entangled with evangelical culture. It features a cast of characters that includes a hipster megachurch pastor, a management consultant who ends up at Davos, a nurse who believes in faith healing, and quite a few Slavic immigrants.
Michelle grew up Pentecostal and left the faith in university, becoming a zealot for literature and completing a PhD in English at Harvard. She lives in Montreal. You can follow her on twitter at @lit_zealot.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m still amazed that some strangers in Alberta were willing to put time and money into my stories. They’re no longer strangers, of course, but given most publishers’ reluctance to accept short-fiction collections I remain awed by the generosity and guts of Kelsey Attard, Naomi Lewis, Deborah Willis, and Colby Clair Stolson.
As far as how the stories in End Times compare with my previous short fiction, most have a stronger current of plot. The titular story was the first one I wrote in which the plot unfolded fairly organically, in a way that surprised me and also felt inevitable, per Aristotle’s handy guideline.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I didn’t. J It has been a long, twisty route to fiction, after a period of writing academically about literature, hoping it would scratch my creative itch, and then writing a few memoir essays. Above all, I came to fiction first as a reader, and my time in academia gave me the opportunity to read gobs of wonderful art.
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?
On the whole I’m a slow writer. I prefer some preliminary rumination, in the form of notes (often just a phrase, a bit of dialogue, an image, etc.) scribbled in my notebook or typed into my phone. I need to feel some inner pressure or necessity to write the story, and that pressure takes time to build. I’m totally open to being a faster writer, but that message has not yet been received by my subconscious!
4 - Where does a work of 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?
In the case of End Times, the titular story had a lot of energy in it. After I wrote it, I realized that I wanted to write a story about a McKinsey management consultant like the daughter in “End Times,” Katy. (That story became the novella For What Shall It Profit a Man?) Then the homophobic elements in “End Times” made me want to write a story about a gay evangelical man, as a kind of counterargument. Plus I wanted to write more stories about Czech immigrants, a topic treated only glancingly in “End Times”; and then there was the surge of the Christian Right from 2016 until 2020, and again in 2022, with the Ottawa convoy protest. So there were a lot of lively little kernels in that first story, enough for a book, it turned out.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’ve done only two readings. Each time I enjoyed it: it’s thrilling to witness people’s attention to your words, but needless to say, it’s not essential. What’s been essential is feedback from my writing group.
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 wouldn’t say theoretical concerns, but my work has questions and concerns, yes, absolutely. Despite having left Pentecostalism, I remain fascinated by people of faith. I’m curious about what their faith makes possible for them, where it can take them, especially people with more precarious lives, such as immigrants and single mothers.
During the period when I began to write in earnest, Trump was newly elected and the damage wrought by white evangelicals was on full display. My first feeling towards many white evangelicals who supported Trump was contempt, and that reaction unsettled me when it implicated people I loved. After a while my contempt grew tedious. I wanted to explore a fuller range of emotions and perceptions vis à vis evangelicals. Also, I had long felt that there were things secular people didn’t understand about evangelicals, and I wanted to explore some of those blind spots.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It’s fair to say that the contemporary literary writer is pretty marginal within the larger culture.
What do I think the writer’s role should be? I struggle with this. I don’t even know what the larger culture is anymore. There’s a bunch of niches, a few of which I find either stimulating or cozy. I think literature is still useful for people who seek out complex expressions of human life, where there is space for ambiguity and ambivalence and the emotions or thoughts that make us doubt our own certitudes. After all, reading a good story is an experience of being surprised, recognizing that you didn’t understand a character or a situation as fully as you thought you did. A story turns the experience of uncertainty, which in life we usually dislike, into a pleasure. In a story, I can be delighted by uncertainty and the eventual apprehension of my own ignorance. In this way, literature can be a tiny countervailing force to the snappy strong opinions of social media.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! I can never see my words the way another reader does, so once a story is fully drafted it’s a gift to hear what another reader who cares about literature experienced as they read my words.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what you’d like to read.
10 – How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism to short fiction to essays to critical prose to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
Very! It has been a relief, in fact. When writing in one genre feels stalled (say, memoir), I can always switch to another (like fiction!), which feels fresh and exciting.
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?
When I can, I write in the morning, though first I read for 20-30 minutes. I need to be reminded of the thrill of literature by someone else’s example. Also, there’s always a snack, even if I’ve just eaten breakfast. I never sit at a desk, always in an easy chair or on a couch. It’s a fairly spoiled routine.
When I began to write creatively in earnest, I realized that I would need to make the experience pleasurable to build the necessary endurance to finish a project. Given the failure built into the writing life (as Stephen Marche has recently argued in his exhilarating book On Writing and Failure), the experience of writing has to be enough. And once you get into it, it is.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Books! I started to write creatively because it didn’t feel like ‘enough’ to be a reader. My faves are fairly canonical. Munro. Flannery O’Connor. George Eliot. Woolf. Also: Bohumil Hrabal, Rachel Cusk, Yiyun Li, J. M. Coetzee, Gogol.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lynda Barry has a great piece about how bad we are at identifying the smells of our own homes, which to us smell like nothing much. Probably the home with the most distinctive smell was my childhood home, which was above my mother’s health-food store. It had that classic ‘small health-food store’ smell—notes of chamomile, nettle, cinnamon, glycerin, freshly-ground peanut butter, and a bunch of other spices and herbs.
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?
Nature is the closest thing. As I get older I am consistently charmed by nature. The way I now notice the texture of lichen on a tree or the swoop of a chickadee’s flight has made its way into my work. During the pandemic I started foraging for mushrooms on Mont Royal, and that activity oriented me towards decay and death in unexpected ways, resulting in the story “Matsutake.”
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Garden. In fact I’ve just started this spring, but I haven’t really ‘done’ gardening yet. I am becoming an aficionado of worms.
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 don’t know. I feel very absorbed by my current life.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As many people have acknowledged, making art isn’t really a choice. It’s something I have to do to feel sane.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence!!! Somehow I never got around to it in grad school. The exploration of wealthy 1870s New York life, wry but above all precise—oh the tyranny of pleasantness!—and the way the protagonist Archer’s inner life secretly threads itself through the niceties of that world, the ways he fools himself about what he feels, it all feels so true even now.
Filmwise, I loved The Farewell, its mix of pathos and hilarity; and also the way it presents the audience with a situation they might not agree with (a family lie) but invites them to stay with it and try to understand it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Recently I’ve returned to personal essays. I suspect that I have a creative systolic/diastolic system whereby I alternate between nonfiction and fiction. We’ll see!