Sarah Selecky on Annabel Lyon’s “Watch Me”

April 30, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Sarah Selecky is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted story collection This Cake Is for the Party. She is guest posting on TSR on the final stop of her month-long blog tour. Here, Selecky discusses Annabel Lyon’s story “Watch Me.”

***

“Watch Me”

by Annabel Lyon (from Oxygen)

I read this story at least three times every year. I’ve been devoted to it ever since it came out in 2000. I go back to it when I’m spinning out at my writing desk, the same way you might hold on to a lucky stone you keep in your pocket when you feel anxious. The title has taken on another meaning for me, now. It’s like Lyon is saying, “Watch me – watch how I write this.”

The story is about family, responsibility, and what it means to be an adult. It makes you laugh and it breaks your heart, often simultaneously. And isn’t that an accurate way to evoke the spirit of family?

Here’s the story: Since the death of her husband, which happened years ago – we’re never told exactly how long it’s been, or how he died – Laura is getting on with life. She watches the young children next door when their parents disappear for days at a time. The parents are drug addicts; at least, that’s what Laura’s adult children think. They’re concerned about the situation next door, but they’re mostly worried about their mother, who is aging, and living alone. Laura will have nothing to do with their meddling. She seems immune to worry – or grief, for that matter.

Marie, Laura’s daughter, handles sadness differently – she pours herself Scotch with the energy of a pouting child. Laura’s son, Steven, tries to make things okay. He speaks to everyone in an easy, teasing manner, and his jokes rise out of the narrative like sparklers.

At the end of the story, this fractured family prepares to make a decision that will affect the family next door. It’s a hard decision, and there will be consequences. Marie thinks she knows best; Laura thinks she knows best. But when Marie tries to change everything, it is finally Steven who makes it happen. “We all love each other,” he says. “That’s how these things start.”

I return to this story to watch Lyon write dialogue, to watch her attention to voice and detail. It’s a showpiece of characterization: a deep, self-sustaining world of subtlety and detail mapped over 13 pages. The characters are real. They are so effortlessly and quintessentially themselves, especially Laura, with her unique way of speaking. This story has been one of my favourite writing teachers.

I leave you with a few small excerpts, so you can see what I mean.

Marie’s brother called to tell her the junkies were gone.

“Since when?” she asked.

“Two days,” Steven said. “But mum has their babies.”

“Oh, surprise.”

“I know, Marie, but two days. She says she’s running out of activities.”

“Someone should report those people.”

“Someone did. Mum reported them to me and now I’m reporting them to you.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know I’m going this afternoon and you’re coming. Pick you up in an hour.”

“Oh, Steven.” She cut him off with the tip of her finger and poked her mother’s number.

“Beth?” Laura, her mother, answered. Beth was the woman junkie.

“No.”

“Oh, Marie,” said her mother. “Now, I wish you had been here for lunch. I made this pesto salad such that the curtains smell of garlic.”

“How are things?”

“Well,” Laura said. “I’m surprised you can’t smell it down the phone, it’s that strong.”

“I can’t smell it,” Marie said.

***

“… Steven?”

“Mum?” Steven said.

“I need you to look at the washing machine. It’s thumping again.”

“Somebody needs to,” he said.

“Your father used to grease it with a little Vaseline, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Steven went downstairs and Marie sat next to Natalie.

“We have certain responsibilities here,” Marie said.

“Don’t start me,” Laura said.

***

Marie picked up a science magazine with her father’s name on the mailing label and began to read an article on robotics.

“I should cancel that,” Laura said, coming back into the kitchen a few minutes later. She opened the fridge and started pulling foods out and setting them on the counter. “I never bothered.”

“Don’t you dare.” Marie didn’t look up.

“Pumpkin,” Laura said.

“Remember when he gave me that microscope? Remember how he was the only one who ever called me Molly? Can I have his slide projector?”

“I gave it to charity.”

“Jesus,” Marie said. She started to cry.

“Stop that, chicken,” Laura said. “You have his armchair, his cushions, his good gloves, his antique typewriter and his bifocals.”

“I told you always to check with me first.”

“I have every right to dispose of my husband’s things. Now reach me the cilantro.”

Marie didn’t move.

“What did I raise?” Laura asked the ceiling.

***

(A version of this piece originally appeared in Quill & Quire.)

Apparently, there are prizes associated with this tour, courtesy of Thomas Allen Publishers. Click here to find out more.

Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 5

November 9, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This Cake Is for the Party. Sarah Selecky; $22.95 paper 978-0-88762-525-1, 230 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: None

From the publisher: “These ten smart, tautly written stories mark the debut of an exciting new voice in Canadian short fiction.”

From reviews: “Selecky catches each of her characters in the midst of acute crises and keenly extracts the stories behind the stories we tell ourselves.” – Lisa Foad, The Globe and Mail

“Although her stories can be chilling – particularly in the case of ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ about a candle maker who succumbs to mental illness, and ‘How Healthy Are You?,’ about a woman’s memory of her participation in the testing of a mysterious drug – Selecky is never what you’d call dark. This is a writer who is good at being open-ended without leaving us dangling. – Toronto Star

“The story that closes the collection, ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ … is almost a textbook example of what a short story should be. The prose is simple and unaffected, but Selecky, as if folding melted chocolate into cake batter, works in piles of psychological detail.” – Montreal Gazette

“This Cake Is for the Party may not offer a variety of styles or tones, and the subjects covered are anything but fun, but it possesses a satisfying blend of humour, angst, desperation, and warmth.” – Quill & Quire

My reaction: Death and dissolution hang like spectres over the ten stories in Sarah Selecky’s debut collection. A woman attends a garage sale held by the family of her elderly neighbour who has died of cancer. A mentally ill artist immolates herself in her studio. A 14-year-old girl makes out with a stranger in the back of a Greyhound bus while her father’s dead body lies waiting for her at home. Marriages hit the skids, couples break up and reform, and practically everybody is being unfaithful to one another.

Despite the heaviness of the material, Selecky’s stories are not ponderous; on the contrary, the prose is light and quick, tinged with moments of wry humour. “[L]et’s not talk about marketing before we eat,” says an author to a table of dinner guests at a charity benefit. “It can cause indigestion.” A bride-to-be rejects the notion of carrying lavender flowers down the aisle because “dried flowers are terrible feng shui.” A woman who believes she sees the Virgin Mary in an apple says of another neighbourhood woman that “while she was inarguably a kind-hearted person, [she] was delusional.”

Selecky’s deft touch helps to ameliorate the darker material in her book, and to enliven the somewhat trivial concerns of certain characters. Stories often turn on such fashionable afflictions as postmodern anxiety, a fetish for nutritional supplements, and a dependency on anti-depressants; there’s nothing wrong with these as subjects for short fiction, but when forced to abut the weightier, more existential concerns of sickness and death, they do come across seeming a tad pallid.

Moreover, while Selecky displays a facility for clever turns of phrase, the writing is occasionally careless. In “Watching Atlas,” for example, a screen door closes “with a hiss”; three pages later the same door “hushes itself shut.” In the same story, Selekcy overuses italics to indicate the narrator’s inflection, and in the opening story, “Throwing Cotton,” she appears innocent of the distinction between the verbs “to bring” and “to take.” These slips, along with the occasional misplaced modifier (“I drop my keys in the dish by the front door that says Florida’s Ripe for Picking“), are not fatal, but neither do they signal a writer who has achieved complete mastery over her materials.

In general, the stories get stronger as the collection progresses. Stand-outs include the Joyce Carol Oatseian “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?” and the book’s bravura final story, “A Thousand Wax Buddhas.” Selecky is clearly a writer of talent and promise. But taken as a whole, this cake is less than completely satisfying.

A Giller shortlist that could make a curmudgeon squee

October 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Apologies for being tardy to the party, but yr. humble correspondent has been out celebrating. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced at a press conference in Toronto yesterday. Two thirds of this year’s jury, Claire Messud and Michael Enright, were on hand (the third juror, Ali Smith, was unable to attend), and announced their choices for the final five with dignity and poise. The same could not be said of one frequently bitter and acerbic member of the audience, who, tucked away in the back corner of the room, was almost turning cartwheels as each successive name was read.

Basically, this year’s jury delivered my dream shortlist, a group of books that favour small presses over large, new names over old, and a startling array of genres and approaches. The shortlist in full:

  • The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)
  • This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

In case you’re keeping track, that makes two collections of short stories (both from debut authors), and two first novels. Four of the five books are published by small or medium-sized presses, all of which are Canadian owned.

Even the one heavy hitter, David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris, is something of an anomaly. The novel, which has been compared favourably to Saul Bellow’s Herzog, sees the author eschewing the ponderous heaviness of his most recent books, The Time In Between and The Retreat in favour of a more comic mode and a more personal story. The book is a return for Bergen, in more ways than one. On the publishing side, it marks a return to HarperCollins, Bergen’s early publisher, after a handful of books with McClelland & Stewart. One of those, The Time in Between, nabbed him the Giller in 2005, meaning he’s not only the lone member of this year’s finalists to be making a return appearance at the gala dinner, he’s also in the running to join Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji as one of the only authors ever to win the prize twice.

I wouldn’t lay any money on that outcome, however. If this year’s jury has proven anything at all, it’s that they are beholden to no orthodoxy, and willing to toss all accepted verities to the wind. We could still see a repeat of 2006, when the lone book from a multinational house walked away with the prize, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. At the very least, there is no clear frontrunner this year, which means that the November 9 broadcast of the awards ceremony should be an exciting affair (for a change).

There have been rumblings of concern from booksellers who fear that the smaller houses such as Biblioasis and Gaspereau Press won’t be able to supply sufficient stock to satisfy customer demand for the shortlist. Skibsrud’s book, which was published in 2009, is already out of stock at many locations across the country, and although publisher Gary Dunfield told Quill & Quire that the company planned to reprint, they were busy printing their fall books, which makes scheduling an issue:

According to Dunfield, the press is going to do everything it can to capitalize on the nomination, but it can’t afford to postpone forthcoming titles. “That would be a very bad idea,” he says.

This is a problem for small houses nominated for big prizes: in some cases, the nomination actually costs them money. For all the talk of a “Giller effect,” it isn’t clear that people will buy the entire shortlist (despite Jack Rabinovitch’s annual claim that the shortlist can be purchased for the price of a meal in a Toronto restaurant). Most people seem to wait for the winner to be announced, then buy that book alone. Not surprisingly, publishers of this year’s nominated titles are being cautious in the size of their reprints.

The other problem this year will be in marketing the prize itself. There are no household names on the list; instead of trumpeting the iconic status of the authors, the people promoting this year’s prize will need to introduce these authors to the book-buying public. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that they have their work cut out for them.

But one thing a prize of Giller’s stature should accomplish is broadening the focus of Canadians’ ideas about their national literature, and encouraging the literary heterogeneity that frequently goes unnoticed amidst the clamour of blockbuster books and celebrity authors. On this score, the 2010 Giller jury has done a remarkable job. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this is the most exciting shortlist in the prize’s 17-year history.

Once again, I will read (or in MacLeod’s case, reread) the five shortlisted books. The difference this year is that instead of staring down this task with a sense of encroaching dread, I approach it with anticipation and delight. All thanks to this year’s runaway jury for giving an inveterate curmudgeon something to smile about.

Davis, Selecky, and Livingston on Frank O’Connor longlist

April 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Three Canadians have made the longlist for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Brian Joseph Davis was nominated for Ronald Reagan, My Father; Sarah Selecky for This Cake Is for the Party, and Billie Livingston for Greedy Little Eyes. Each author was recognized for a first collection; Davis and Livingston have been published previously, but this is Selecky’s debut. They are in good company, sharing the longlist with such heavyweights as T.C. Boyle, Sam Sheppard, and Richard Bausch.

The longlist will be whittled down to a half-dozen finalists in July and the winner will be announced in September.

The Frank O’Connor Award is sponsored by the Cork City Council. Previous recipients include Haruki Murakami, Simon Van Rooy, and Miranda July.