Short Story Month

book stack

  As seen on The Afterword, presented by the National Post May 4, 2010  

Toronto-based writer Sarah Selecky guest edits the Afterword this week. Selecky, a long-time writing instructor, has had her stories published in Geist Magazine, The Journey Prize Anthology and Prairie Fire, among others. Her new anthology of stories, This Cake is For The Party, will be published by Thomas Allen on May 8th.  

Short Story Month Q & A: Sarah Selecky

The poets received all the attention last month, so once again, The Afterword is taking the month of May to celebrate short fiction. In this series of Q&As, we've asked short fiction writers – both emerging and established – to opine on the form. Here, we ask our Guest Editor Sarah Selecky.    

Q: What are the biggest challenges of keeping a short story short?

A: When I first started writing stories, they were all about 6 pages long. I was trying to write only in scene, avoiding all exposition entirely. As I learned how to be a better writer, I learned how beautiful exposition could be – how style and voice can make a passage of summary narrative crackle just as much as a carefully-written scene. Then it was hard to keep a story short. Also, the omniscient point of view can be really unmanageable. There are no limits! How do you know where to stop?    

Q: Do your stories begin with a character, a setting, a plot, or something else entirely?

A: My stories all begin with a nervous kind of feeling. I roll the nervous feeling around for a while until I get antsy. Eventually, with concentration and quietness, I am able to transform that feeling into some kind of image in my mind – an apple in a grocery store, or a magazine quiz in a doctor’s office, let’s say. I suspect that it doesn’t matter what the actual image or scene is at first, as long as it gets infused with that aforementioned antsy feeling when I write it down. Then I look into the image for more information. I pull the story out of it, bit by bit, like a magic chain of handkerchiefs: dialogue, character, setting. Plot usually comes last. I never really know what a story is about until after I’ve written it.    

Q: If you could take a writing class with any short fiction writer, dead or alive, who would it be and why? And further, what would you hope the first lecture would be called?

A: Just one? Flannery O’Connor, then. Because her writing was also a spiritual practice for her. It’s rare to hear writers mention that aspect of their work, and I’d like to hear her talk about what that meant for her. Also because her stories are so good I’m a little bit afraid of them. Feeling intimidated by incredible stories is like fertilizer for your writing. The first lecture: Don’t Be Frightened (which of course would make me even more frightened).    

Q: Is there a short story you would consider to be perfectly crafted?

A: “Perfect” is a dangerous word. I’m not sure it’s helpful to encourage a writer to conceptualize what is “perfect.” It’s like saying, is there a perfect human being? No! And thank goodness there isn’t, or what would that mean for the rest of us? If a story did exist that was perfectly crafted, why bother writing any others? You would read that story again and again and again and continue to learn from it forever. Okay, having said that: I think Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” is pretty close.    

Q: William Faulker prioritized writing forms thusly: “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” Do you agree or disagree, and why?

A: I haven’t written a novel, so I can’t speak on behalf of that form. But I will admit this: I could never understand poetry – writing it or reading it. I avoided it for years. It took ten years of of wrestling with the short story before I could even comprehend what poetry is. Now, I get it.    

Sarah Selecky's anthology, This Cake is for the Party, will be launched on May 6th at Czehoski, 678 Queen St. W. Selecky will be chatting with author Jeff Warren

Digging through memory for flashes of gold.
Writing is like driving blindfolded.


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