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.

Short Story Collections

This Cake is For The Party
(Thomas Allen Publishers, 2012)

reviewed by Tania Hershman

Interview with Sarah Selecky

The Short Review: 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 them.
   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.

TSR: Did you 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.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

SS:  I 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 driver's seat.
   I 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.
   So 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.

TSR: What 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.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

SS:  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. I also 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.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

SS:  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.

TSR: What are you working on now?

SS: I'm almost finished my next project, which is set to launch this winter: 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.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

SS:  The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner, Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>