Sarah Selecky grew up in Northern Ontario and Southern Indiana. Her stories have been published in The Walrus, Geist, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and The Journey Prize Anthology.
She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British
Columbia and has been teaching creative writing in her living room for
the past ten years. She currently lives in Toronto.
with Sarah Selecky
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Sarah Selecky: This is my first collection, so I believe that all the writing I've
done in my life up to now has gone into these stories -- it's like a
first record album. But I know that's a frustrating answer. If I look at
the stories themselves more specifically, I would say that I started
writing these stories ten years ago. I sometimes say that I average
about one story a year: ten stories in the book, and a decade to write
The story that started the book, the one that is actually titled This Cake Is for the Party, I wrote in 2001. It isn't even in the
book, but I consider it part of the collection. I revised and updated it
a few years ago and it was recently published here, in The Walrus, as a prequel to the book.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
SS: No! Not until I had already written all of the stories already. I really
focused on each story as I was writing. It was slow going: one at a
time. I really just wanted to write good short stories. Later,
when I looked through all of my files and recording which ones had been
published in magazines and which ones hadn't, I started to see themes
and worlds developing. I realized that I'd written a book of stories
only after I'd written it.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
always knew that the first story (Throwing Cotton) would be first. Throwing Cotton had a lot of exposure already — it had won a contest,
and it was in the Journey Prize Anthology,
and people had contacted me to tell me that they liked it. This had
never happened to me before: it was the first story I'd published that
had — well — fans. Which
is strange, because I don't think it's better than the other stories.
But out of respect, I wanted it first. I thought it should be in the
also knew that One Thousand Wax Buddhas should be the final story.
It's long and involved, compared to the others. That last scene is a
tough one to follow appropriately. It 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 story in the book. Not literally — I mean,
just the feeling of it.
because I knew the first story and the last story, I worked with the
others until I felt they fit. It was a little 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 also 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). And I tried to sprinkle hope
throughout: I wanted to balance humour with sadness.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
SS: Ann Beattie was the first short story writer I fell in love with. When I
hear the word "story," I always think of her collection, The Burning House. I imprinted on that one.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
I write for myself first. I want to write the kind of stories that
make me excited to read them. In fact, I know a story is finished when I
read it over and I'm still surprised and curious about the sentences
and characters, even though I wrote them myself. When I can surprise
myself, I know that I'm onto something.
often write a story as a response to something that I've read. Prognosis is a story that I wrote because of an Amy Hempel story I
loved - but I wasn't writing it with Amy Hempel in mind as a reader.
I was writing it as a way of joining a conversation that Amy Hempel had
already started. I wrote it for myself, so I could read it.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
I'm curious about the Canadian-ness of it, for
readers outside of Canada. Is the humour different, because it's
Canadian humour? Is the landscape especially Canadian-feeling? If so,
how and why? I can't tell, and I'd love to know.
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
SS: It took me a long time to get used to the fact that people I don't know -
strangers! - are buying my book and reading my stories. Twitter has
made this a prominent part of my day - I can see people reading the
stories and discussing them in real time, because readers find me on Twitter and
they include me in their discussions. I don't know if I'll ever truly
get used to it. Honestly, it's a humbling feeling. Being a reader is one
of the most important experiences in my life - not just as a writer,
but as a human being. Now my own book is a part of that experience for
other readers; This Cake is part of that important transaction between reader/author. I am very grateful.
What are you working on now?
SS: I'm almost finished my next project, which is set to launch this winter: www.storyisastateofmind.com.
I've been a creative writing teacher for more than a decade now, and
last year I started developing a digital writing experience for my
students. It's a book on writing, a short fiction course, a video
lecture series, and a set of podcasts on reading and writing -- all
designed to teach new writers the art of writing short fiction. It's
unlike anything I've ever seen before, and I'm very excited about it.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?