In the Spotlight: Sharon Bala
Sharon Bala took a short fiction master class with me a couple of years ago. It’s always a treat to work with a talented writer who is deeply disciplined. Often I coach writers on the benefits of staying with their writing even when they feel resistance, but in this case, Sharon had a steady and consistent writing practice already, so we could work on other aspects of craft together. I’m so pleased to be sharing one of her mysterious middle drafts with you – it’s terrific.
It’s hard to read this excerpt without wincing (and cramping!) for poor Alex, the protagonist. In this scene, we feel his illness, yes, but it is also a physical manifestation of all the other trouble that blooms around him, and so we also feel his anxiety viscerally. It’s Sharon’s killer specificity that does the heavy work here: the details of the frog dissection, the glug-glug sound of the water pouring in to the glass, those salty thumbs of stuffed vine leaves. She doesn’t write, “Alex felt sick.” Instead, she creates the feeling of his sickness in and through the writing of the scene. We can’t look away. We can’t help but be right here with Alex, squirming uncomfortably – as much as we, like him, would rather be anywhere else.
Sharon Bala is a writer living in St. John’s. She is a two-time recipient of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts & Letters Award and was long-listed for House of Anansi Press’ Broken Social Scene Contest. Her writing has been published in the Globe and Mail, the Cuffer Anthology, and This Great Society. She is working on a short story collection called Legs Dangling Out and is in the very early stages of writing a novel.
Handwriting or computer?
Pen and paper for first drafts, the computer for edits, and back to the notebook again when I need to refine a sentence, write something new or re-work a scene.
Page count or time count?
Neither. A successful day of writing is something I feel in my gut, not necessarily something I can account for on the page.
First drafts or revision?
Every word of a first draft is wrung out with great effort, force of will, and procrastination. Revising is easy in comparison.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?
Writing group + mentor. An embarrassment of riches!
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?
Absolute silence for first drafts and occasionally something low key, instrumental or in a different language, for revisions. Recently, I’ve been listening to Antonio De Lucena and Avishai Cohen.
What's the best advice you would give a new writer?
Take a class. Preferably with a writer whose work makes you sick with envy. The ideal, I think, is a small in-person class with a heavy emphasis on peer feedback. Four things will happen:
1. You’ll write (deadlines are incredible inventions)
2. Your work will be reviewed
3. You’ll overcome your fear of critique
4. Your writing will improve in leaps and bounds And if you’re really lucky, once the class is over, you’ll have a ready-made writing group.
Writing groups are invaluable. They save you months of editing time. And the act of critiquing someone else’s writing, taking it all apart to see what works and doesn’t work, will make you a stronger writer.
Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?
David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories for the simplicity of the prose, his masterful build-up of tension and the way he takes ordinary events and makes them compelling.
Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her for the bold use of language. Here is a writer who trusts his readers’ intelligence.
Lisa Moore’s Caught is full of scenes that demand to be savoured. I’m especially impressed by the way she works with flashback; the past and present happen all at once. I went back to one of those scenes last week and read it slowly, aloud, trying to work out just how she writes these dual-tensed passages so seamlessly.
Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I didn’t pick up this book thinking it would influence my writing but (surprise!) it’s made me re-evaluate how I imagine and write characters.
Zadie Smith’s recent essay Love in the Boboli Gardens is evocative, nostalgic, lovely and sad...all the things I hope to achieve in my own writing but somehow never can. And while I’m thinking of Zadie Smith (one of my very favourite authors) let me put in a plug for this short story from the New Yorker (The Embassy of Cambodia).
Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today
This (short) story takes place in Turkey where Alex and his girlfriend Leyla have gone on holiday. Alex is here to meet Leyla’s family for the first time and to propose. It is Spring 2013 and the riots in Istanbul are about to erupt, though the characters don’t know this yet.
Excerpt from Untitled, by Sharon Bala
For two days Alex assumed the fetal, head by the toilet, recalling in technicolour detail, a high school biology lesson on the digestive system. Unaccountably it was the memory of the frog, split open and pinned down, spread eagle on the lab bench, and the gelatinous fat like grasping yellow tentacles, that kept coming back to him. He dry heaved into the toilet bowl, expelling bile in long, gloopy strands, feeling abandoned and sorry for himself.
Bayram brought him bread and fizzy water. Alex was sprawled on his back wearing only his boxers, covers thrown off, the sheets under him soaked through with sweat.
The afternoon before at the Kayseri Airport, Alex had shaken Bayram’s hand with a firm, practiced grip and felt a clear and concise pleasure at the discovery that Leyla’s big brother was three inches shorter.
Now Bayram hovered, shaking his head. Ah, he said. First time in Turkey, this is happening to everyone.
He twisted the cap on the bottle and a small cloud of gas dissipated. The water made a glug-glug sound when he poured it into a glass.
Alex wished he had the energy to at least sit up. Everything he’d eaten the night before - salty thumbs of stuffed vine leaves, deep fried cheese - all five courses turned greasy cartwheels.
Bayram pulled up a chair and Alex plotted his escape. He’d have to crawl across the bed in his boxers and his balls would hang out. Would there be time to shut the bathroom door? The battle was advancing, not quite to the esophagus yet.
We are all proud of Leyla, Bayram said. First one in our family to go to the University.
Bayram had bankrolled Leyla’s education and now Alex saw him asserting his place. I was here first, buddy. And don’t you forget it.
The plan had been to stay at Bayram’s hotel but in the car leaving the airport, he’d said there was a last minute booking. A Japanese tour group.
There is a room for Alex, he said. But grandma wants you to stay with her, Leyla. She says it is her last chance to spend time with you.
Leyla swiveled to Alex in the back seat and said, You don’t mind, do you? She’s ninety-two.
He couldn’t believe how easily she’d given in and he saw then how the trip would be.
Alex struggled to sit up in the bed and Bayram patted his arm. He realized that he had no idea what Bayram had been saying. Alex could feel everything bubbling up.
If you need something, I am at the reception, Bayram said and stood.
The bathroom was very far away. Alex burped silently with his mouth closed and felt the saliva collect. Bayram was halfway to the door and Alex was still in bed. There wasn’t even a garbage can. Alex leaned over the side of the bed. The floor was covered in a killim rug. There was no time to care what Bayram saw.
Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
What remains with you after reading Sharon's work?
Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?
How is your own writing practice like Sharon's? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Sharon!