Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Interview: Sarah Kathryn York

Sarah Kathryn York is the author of the story collection The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré (Coteau, 2012).

Born in Toronto, she is a dual citizen. Her short fiction has appeared in various journals (including The Danforth Review) and has won awards.

A former university instructor, she is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Master’s Program, and is currently completing her PhD.

Sarah divides her time between Canada and the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is at work on a biography and a novel called Sermon.

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?)

The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré is an imaginative take on the Willow Bunch Giant, one of the tallest persons in history. Really, it is the story of a dying doctor whose obsession with the giant’s cadaver leads him into the mystery of Edouard’s life. Edouard was a Métis cowboy, circus strongman, sideshow “freak,” and the first of twenty children. He died in 1904, but his compelling story does not end there.

The collection started as a biography. I strove to understand Edouard’s condition, experiences, and dreams, but his humanity was better explored in fiction, for a number of reasons. Missing facts were “fleshed out” with imagination: what his fights were like, if he made love, what it might have felt like to be 8’4”. Thematically, each story is based on a body part with the idea of gathering pieces of Edouard and making them whole again. So the book itself is a kind of anatomy, and reads like a novel. A lasting image for me occurs at the end of “Hair,” a story about Edouard’s last trip home.

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

There are so many wonderful stories out right now. I’d like to pick a new or lesser-known writer, but a collection I recently read and admired is Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman. Her use of language is close and keen, and she undercuts pretention with humorous sleight of hand.

Anything by Barry Hannah breathes and surprises with moments of powerful transgressive glory.

For a single story, I think of the classic “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov, because its humanity is both humbling and disarming.

Or, Paul Bowles’ “A Distant Episode” for refusing to answer terror and corruption with redemption or resolution.

(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

This is a loaded question. In the most basic sense, the short story accommodates new media like online journals – which demand shorter pieces — as well as contemporary readers, who crave brevity. Short stories allow for a plurality and diversity of voices that a globalist, heavily populated century demands. Many emerging writers are now fortunately showcased through short fiction, in part because established authors like Alice Munro and John Updike, who kept at it, helped to give stories the kind of “chops” traditionally reserved for the novel.

Short fiction lends itself to experimentalism and inventive potential. For instance, the line between story, parable, novella, diary and blog can be obscured to produce a dialogue between “genres.” I’m skeptical of the ‘hipness’ of stories, of fetishizing them as literary trinkets – “brief things” you might say— like conch shells that carry a writer’s current sound. Strong works are always relevant.

The short story is a dense and tightly controlled ‘form.’ It allows writers to entertain subjects, characters, or ideas that are unsustainable in longer immersive works. These literary “nuggets” offer glimpses of meaning, moral ambiguities, or representations of the human condition that leave us with unsettling questions. And we need that, in a century when people are so distracted, uprooted and quick to judge. Good stories can help ground us in reflection, and connect to each other on a deeper level. The story no longer has to be didactic or epiphanic as a way of transmitting meaning. Instead, it forces readers to work emotionally, to think critically, and to imagine differently. To engage complexity. At their best, I think, stories convey inner struggle, and allow the reader to struggle too.

Contemporary stories are often described as “raw” or “edgy” – terms I rarely use. I think of a line from Peter Fromm: “When he finally opens his mouth I ram my fist into it.” For me, this line embodies a current tendency towards strong violence in fiction, achieved in spare words. Twenty-first century short fiction packs a punch. And this punch arrives amid themes of emptiness, the search for love, and failed communication. It shakes us out of a culture in which daily ‘reality’ is increasingly vapid, communities are physically disconnected, couples struggle to stay together, and individual identities are unstable. Why do we hurt each other? How can we make sense of this world? Can we start again? Can we reconnect, forgive, heal, thrive? How can we be good to one another? Can we be loyal to others as well as ourselves? These are timeless questions that I hope we continue to deal with in stories. I am excited about what is coming.

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