Author Q&A with Sarah Selecky

  • February 21, 2013

Jeni Oppenheimer interviews the author of This Cake Is For The Party.

In these ten stories, linked frequently by the sharing of food, Sarah Selecky reaffirms the life of everyday situations with startling significance.  For fiction readers who seek stories that reflect the joys and pitfalls of marriage, fidelity, fertility, and relationship woes, this collection is a conversation starter. This Cake Is for the Party reminds us that the best parts of our lives are often the least flashy.

Reminiscent of early Margret Atwood, with echoes of Lisa Moore and Ali Smith, these absorbing stories are about love and longing that touch us in a myriad of subtle and affecting ways. Heralded by writers and reviewers alike, it’s clear that Selecky displays a rare combination of nuance and power that is both accessible and aspirational.  From a dying mother-in-law to a controlling father, a best friend’s heartbreaking admission, a drug-testing clinic, and wax Buddha candles – the emotions and objects in our lives are brought to light with brilliant style and craft in this debut collection.  Sarah Selecky is an exciting new voice with a promising future.

Interviewed by Jeni Oppenheimer

What made you want to write a collection of short stories as opposed to a longer work of fiction?

Because for about ten years, short stories were all I wanted to read. I had no patience for novels. I love the deliberate, focused mechanics of a good short story, and the power that every sentence contains. Reading one 20-page short story can affect you as deeply as reading a 200-page novel — but you can’t finish a novel every morning after breakfast!

When it’s very good, a single short story can give you something to feel for years. The best short story is one that leaves you with an emotion that you didn’t know you could feel before you read it.  I know that lingering feeling is what makes some readers avoid short fiction. People feel uncomfortable when they finish a short story. They think, “Is that it?” But I think that lingering feeling is a gift. I’ve come to crave it. After reading a good short story, I get to take that feeling with me all day, touch upon it from time to time, and ruminate. Short stories give us access to our emotions, and force us to look at them, in a more concentrated way than novels do. I was a short fiction addict; that’s why I wrote them.

Where does your inspiration come from for the different tone of your stories?  Are they based on experiences you have had or seen?

I explain it like this: everything in the book is true, but none of it actually happened. I’m inspired by everything I’ve ever seen or heard or touched or tasted or felt. Lorrie Moore said once that a writer’s relationship to her life is like a cook’s relationship with a pantry: what the cook makes from the things in the pantry is not the same thing as what you’d actually find in the pantry. So yes, the ingredients in my stories – the raw material – are taken from life. I was at a cottage once that was very similar to the one in Go-Manchura. I’ve lived on an island that’s a lot like the one in 1000 Wax Buddhas, and I made candles when I lived there. I know relationships that have been destroyed by infidelity. I collect experiences and gather a bed of real detail for every story. My stories need a foundation of detail in order for them to become something else, something that is imaginary and yet real.

What is your writing process like? Do you start with a character, an event or a place you would like to capture?

I hate writing first drafts. I find it very difficult to come up with something out of nothing. When I sit down to write, all of my energy simply goes into keeping myself in my chair. I write longhand at first. If I am starting something from scratch, I start by writing down words – just a list of them. This is how I drop in: this is how I clear my mind. I sit and wait for a word to arrive. I promise myself that I will write down every word that pops up, without trying to make sense of it. I do that for a few minutes until I feel strong enough to start writing a scene – sometimes, if I’m lucky, the words point me to a scene. Watching words appear out of nowhere gives me faith that scene and character can also come from nowhere. My creative mind trusts me enough to give me scenes and characters after this exercise – it trusts that I will write them down when it gives them to me, that I will listen respectfully.

Your description is fantastically original, lines like: “Blisters of paint cluster on the hood like acne breakouts,” are so inspired.  Do you think this talent you have with description is what led you to the theme of food that threads throughout your stories?

Thank you! I think it would be more accurate to say that my introverted personality gives me a lot of opportunity for close observation. And I understand parts of the world better when I use metaphor. Also, I love cooking. I’ve spent a lot of time in kitchens, working for years as a caterer and chef’s assistant. The truth is, I think about food all the time in my waking life – I guess it makes sense that food comes up in my writing too. I’m a person who’ll start planning what to make for dinner while I’m still eating lunch. I used to think about writing a cookbook, but the recipe testing phase stresses me out.

All of your stories have a similar narrative perspective with the acceptation of Prognosis, what made you write this in first person and in letter form?

I read a story by Amy Hempel called REFERENCE #388475848-5 and immediately thought, I wish I could write a story like that. I wanted to write a response to it. I loved how she took a letter story and made it transcend, made it about something else entirely, and still so personal, so specific. So I wrote Prognosis as a structural homage to Reference. Even though the premise is so different, the Hempel story was a guide and a mentor.

How did you decide the order in which the stories should appear in your collection?

Throwing Cotton had to go first. That story had exposure already — it had won a contest, it was chosen for a major Canadian short story anthology, and people had written to tell me that they loved it. This had never happened to me before. It was the first story of mine that had — well — fans. So out of respect, I wanted it to go first. I thought it had earned the right to be in the driver’s seat.

I also knew that “One Thousand Wax Buddhas” should be the final story. It’s so long and involved. That last scene is a tough one to follow appropriately. It also sort of says it all for me, for this book. I actually think that the feeling of that final scene has something to do with every single story in the book. Not the content itself — I mean, just the feeling of it.

So because I knew the first story and the last story, I worked with the others until I felt they fit. It was like finding all the flat-edged pieces of a puzzle and putting them together first, so you have a frame. Then I went by instinct. There were obvious things to consider, like point of view. I wanted to separate my male narrators, give them each some territory in the book. I wanted to give a front seat to mystery (Prognosis), and to create a spike of emotion in the middle: Where You Coming From, Sweetheart? is the most emotionally charged story for me. I also tried to sprinkle hope throughout: I wanted to balance humour with sadness.

I’ve heard people say you should put the strongest story in your collection first, and end on your second-strongest story, but this advice has always bothered me. If you’re going to put a collection together, you should believe in the strength of every single story that’s in there. If there’s a weak one, don’t hide it in the middle! Take it out.

I also wondered, how much does order really matter. Are these subtleties significant to anyone but me? I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow, I loved this collection: the sequencing is extraordinary!” I love this question, because I did spend so much time thinking about it. It’s a delightfully geeky part of the writing conversation. But the truth is, people might read the last story first. I’d never know.

Throughout your stories, characters have everyday experiences that change their lives in a profound way.  Do you think this is how change happens for most people? Through small moments rather than an extreme crisis or breakthrough?

I am interested in the subtle ways simple daily choices impact our lives. Our lives are lived through moments. We say we want to feel happy, inspired, calm, and connected to our friends – and then we interact with our lives in ways that exactly oppose all of those feelings. The way we wake up, the way we cook our food, all the different ways we ignore each other – our lives are happening in these moments. We are constantly creating desperation, anxiety, and disconnectedness in our lives – and it’s invisible to us, because we do it out of habit.

You have a great knack for character development, and even halfway through the story, the reader feels engaged in what will happen to your characters.  How do you pick where to end the story? Do you ever write more than one short story about the same character?

Thank you. Yes, I write about the same characters all the time. In fact, the title of the book is taken from a linked story. This Cake Is for the Party (the story) takes place a few months before Standing Up For Janey (a story in the book). My editor and I decided not to include both of them in the book. Having only two linked stories would have put too much weight on those characters.

I’ve also been writing again about Lillian (from Go-Manchura) recently.  It wasn’t until I read Ellen Gilchrist that I learned you were allowed to do that. You can bring characters from your stories back in different books, if you want. And why not? It’s so funny — I thought this was off-limits for the longest time. Like I was cheating somehow. But they’re real people to me: of course they continue to reappear.

I try to write my endings with the energy of a dare. That’s how I know that I’m not ending a story because I don’t know where to go next (a trap!).  I make myself feel very uncomfortable, like I’m pushing the story so hard I might break it.  I override my fear of unknown narrative consequences. This is the best way I can say it: I recognize an ending when it arrives. It feels to me like it’s always been there. When I write past anxiety in search of an ending, the ending comes to meet me halfway.

Your last story reads like an interview without the questions and the narrator is slightly unreliable, was this a difficult perspective to write from? If not, what was the most difficult perspective in the collection to capture?

That voice wasn’t as difficult to write – Keane always felt clear to me, and while Wax Buddhas needed a year of drafts because of all of the tricky timing and numbers and dates, the POV was always the same. Watching Atlas was the most difficult perspective. I revised it so many times looking for the right voice. I went back and forth, telling it first from omniscient POV, then to 3rd person limited, in Greg sections and Lise’s sections. I separated the sections first, and then rewrote it, weaving them together. It was a mess. My editors resorted to drawing diagrams in the margins to try to help me sort it out. By the 10th rewrite, I had decided to tell it through omniscient POV once again, and write the consciousness of both Greg and Lise.

It was Greg’s story, and eventually I figured that out. I think it was hard for me because Greg is a young guy who doesn’t really spend a lot of time living in his head, thinking about things. I mean that in a nice way: he lives in his world physically more than mentally; he doesn’t have an overactive mind. The reason this story can exist (if I can explain it this way) is because this was a really difficult time in his life, a moment where he was called to do something that was very challenging for him – and he was living in his head, uncomfortably, during the brief time of this story. And that’s why it’s here. That’s what I could relate to, with Greg. I doubt that he’s a character who will be coming back again and again, because I wouldn’t know how to write his experiences honestly unless he started spinning out in his head again. I like to think that Greg has moved on from this phase, found a job he likes, and goes mountain biking to blow off stress now, instead of shopping.

Jeni graduated with a BA in English, focusing on creative writing at the University of Puget Sound.  In the past, she has written for the Daily Telegraph in the news section.



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