Sarah Selecky is the author of the new novel Radiant Shimmering Light. She also has written the story collection This Cake Is for the Party. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Walrus and ELLE Canada, and she is the founder of the Sarah Selecky Writing School. She lives near Toronto.
Q: You've written about your characters Lilian and Eleven before--how did they change from your original story to this novel?
A: I’ve been writing about these two women for more than 15 years! Why? They’ve been in my imagination for so long, and I’m still unsure why that is. I guess sometimes characters just hang around and haunt you. I thought I was finished with Lilian after that short story — but then I realized there was more I wanted to know about her.
In many ways, Lilian is the same Lilian. Just older and… wiser? Well, more experienced, let’s say! In relationships, she’s still the same well-intentioned, vulnerable, and insecure woman she was in the story. She’s still searching for where she belongs, and she doesn’t know how to find and nurture true connection. That part of her character was the driving force of both the story and the novel.
In the novel, I gave her a magical superpower and got to spend time developing it — she has the ability to see auras, and she’s an artist.
Eleven is a bit different. She was a mysterious presence in the earlier drafts of that short story. Lilian was obsessed with this person, desperately hoping she’d come to her awkward sales event. Alas, she never arrived, and Lilian was so disappointed.
In the final draft of the story, I changed the name of that character to “Evelyn” instead — “Eleven” was such an unusual name, and I didn’t want it to be a red herring for the reader.
But I never stopped thinking about the original character, named Eleven. Who was she? Why was Lilian so disappointed when she didn’t arrive? What power did she have over Lilian, real or imagined? In the novel, I got to ask those questions in more detail, and play them out.
Q: Do you have a preference when it comes to writing stories or novels, and is your writing process similar?
A: I had to learn how to pace myself through writing a novel by making many false starts. Ugh! So many.
I thought that I could write a novel the way I wrote a short story — writing without knowing what would happen, investigating as I wrote, and trusting that I’d find out what the story wanted to say when I got to the end. But the cadence of a short story is different than a novel. I couldn’t keep up the pace. I’d sprint-write 50 or 60 pages, and then I’d stall.
So I learned how to adapt my process and still feel curious about what comes next. Not knowing what it’s all about is what keeps me going. I love feeling surprised by scenes and dialogue as I write them. For a novel, I learned that holding a loose outline — some milestones and markers for the journey — is what I needed.
For both short and long fiction, I spend a lot of time “moodling” — daydreaming and journalling about the characters, going for long walks and letting ideas emerge and settle before I put them on paper. It seems that staring out the window for long periods of time will always be a significant part of my writing process.
Q: You've written, “Teaching writers and witnessing their breakthroughs has shown me that self-doubt doesn't go away; you just have to write through it.” How do you advise your own students--and yourself--to get through that self-doubt?
A: One thing that works really well is to get a writing buddy (or a whole class) and to write down all the things you doubt and fear about your own writing. What’s the worst thing you fear? What are all of the awful things that your inner critic says to you? What are you afraid of, really? After you all write it down, read it out loud, and share it with someone else.
Every time I do this (either with a class, or personally, with a writing friend), I’m surprised (and kind of delighted) by how general and repetitive our fears turn out to be.
Everyone is afraid of the same sorts of things; we just say it in different ways. When you witness someone you trust speaking the same doubts that you have, it helps to dissolve the fears. They just sound whiny, flimsy, and sometimes even funny. They just don’t stand up anymore.
Then I tell writers to draw a picture of a cartoon creature with speech bubbles that say all of those negative things, and to put it somewhere they can see it, so they can point at it and laugh whenever their self-doubt rises again.
Beyond that, I think the key is to give yourself permission to love writing more than you fear failure. Do whatever you can to make the self-doubt feel less important than the love and the pleasure of your vocation. Remind yourself how much you love writing, day after day.
The self-doubt will likely always creep up, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s not all-powerful. You don’t have to listen to it. Listen to what you love about writing instead.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: I love writers who mix genres, play with conventional narratives, upend our expectations of good vs. evil, and who can deftly mess around with truth, mystery, realism, magic, humour, and despair in turn.
This is who I read for guidance and sustenance while I was writing my novel: George Saunders, Ruth Ozeki, Ali Smith, Karen Joy Fowler, Edward St. Aubyn, Ann Patchett, Claire Messud, Thomas King, Elena Ferrante, and Eden Robinson. I kept Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss and Francesca Lia Block close at hand, too.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb