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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Interview: Sarah Selecky
Please tell us about your interest in the short story by
(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)

I wrote the first drafts for This Cake Is for the Party when I was living in British Columbia. It took me a long time to write it - almost ten years, in fact. I kept writing drafts and letting them sit for about a year before I knew how to revise them. But then two of the stories, "How Healthy Are You?" and "Go Manchura," were both written within one year. That was an incredibly productive year for me. I still can't believe I did it.

The book wasn't "a book" until I'd finished revising almost all of the stories. I was just writing stories, one at a time, for many years. At one point I looked back at what I'd written, and I saw that many of them fit together. They were about the emotional ways people related to food. They were about people who wanted to be good and/or healthy but just couldn't figure out how to do it. They were about mental illness, and love, and fidelity (and infidelity). Seeing that - seeing that I was writing about the same thing over and over again - this was both gratifying and unsettling. Because it wasn't intentional!

I love the story "Where You Coming From, Sweetheart?" especially because it was one of the first stories I'd ever written in the collection. I started the draft of it around 1999. I reworked that draft and put it away and reworked it and trashed it and then rewrote it entirely a number of years later. So it's both the newest story in the book and the oldest story in the book.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I recently reread a story of Jennifer Egan's titled, "Safari." It's now a chapter of her novel-in-stories, "A Visit From the Goon Squad." I loved reading the story out of context, as a whole and solitary entity. Letting go of all of the other characters in the book, and just focusing on the moments of this story in particular - it was a thrill. Interestingly, I felt sneaky doing it this way. Almost as if I was cheating on the novel to enjoy the story so much on its own.

It says a lot about Egan's writing that she can pull this off - write a novel-in-stories with chapters that actually DO stand on their own, as short fiction. She doesn't take anything for granted - every word, every scene and image, it still has to count. No short cuts or assumptions - she builds a world and a voice from scratch in each story.

I read "Safari" in the 2010 Best American Short Stories anthology (ed. Richard Russo). One of the best things about these anthologies are the notes by contributors at the back of the book. I really try to savour these anthologies: I only read one short story every day (at the same time every morning), and then I pause to read the contributor's notes after each story.

After reading "Safari," I read Egan's notes about her process while she wrote it. Get this: she started a first draft of a story called "Safari" around 1988, but never finished it. She found it again years later, still liked something about it, but didn't do anything with it. Then, in 2008, twenty years later, she started writing another story -- and characters from that 1988 story appeared in this new story, which is now also titled, "Safari." It took her twenty years to write that story! And I believe that you can feel that, in her writing. Nothing is rushed, here - it's the real thing.

(c) telling us about Story is a State of Mind. What's it all about?

I know so many writers who struggle with writing in their life. They can't find the time, or it's hard for them to prioritize it in their life, or they're afraid of being terrible, or maybe they're afraid of what would happen if they actually DID write something good. Whatever the reason is for their resistance, the end result is unhappiness. When a writer isn't writing, he/she can experience terrible pain and longing.

I created this course to teach people how to repair their relationship to writing. It's for writers who know they’re good, or at least have a feeling that they’re good at writing, but they fear doing it anyway. Or they resist it. I made it for writers who struggle with writing itself. Writing is one activity that could potentially give them so much joy – if they just learned how to trust themselves, and teach themselves to write often and write well.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned writer, either. Every time a writer faces the blank page, it's difficult. Story Is a State of Mind is for writers who know they love to write, feel that they're called to do it, and want some support and instruction as they start writing a new story. It’s is designed especially for short fiction writers, but any writer can benefit from the methods.

It started as a wish: I was teaching my courses online in a wiki already (similar to what the Banff Wired Writing program and the UBC optional-residency MFA offers in terms of online workshopping). But there were a few problems: first, the obvious problem of time zones. Second, the problems around flexibility. Many writers came to me saying, “I wish I could take your course, but the time isn’t right for me right now.”

Then there was the issue around my own writing time. I love teaching so much. I offer writers advice and methods that are different than what academic programs offer, and I think it’s important. But if I spend all of my energy teaching, I don’t have the space and time I need to write - and then I become unhappy, too. I wished for a way to keep teaching more people what I feel most passionate about, to do it in a rich, full, motivating and interactive way, AND to still have time to write.

I looked into it, and discovered that this was not an uncommon wish. People have created successful, inspiring and educational digital programs that work this way, in different fields of study, like Chris Guillebeau and Danielle LaPorte. But nobody had created one for creative writers yet. So I did.

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