Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Shawn Syms

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The Lucky Seven Interview, with Shawn Syms

Nothing Looks Familiar (Arsenal Pulp Press) is Shawn Syms's debut story collection, and is garnering praise from critics and writers alike. Steven Heighton said of the collection: "The stories in Nothing Looks Familiar pitch the reader into a world of meth addiction, cheque forgery, botched muggings, and dead-end jobs in abattoirs. This is uncompromising work — kinetic, gripping, affecting, and terrifyingly true to life." In the stories, Shawn tackles tough subjects and complex characters with unflinching clarity.

Shawn speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Shawn tells us about the possibility of change, the necessity of a tidy desk and the Canadian novel that hit home for him after a difficult family experience.

You can see Shawn in person at the Toronto launch for Nothing Looks Familiar on Tuesday, September 9 at 7:00pm and Buddies In Bad Times (12 Alexander Street). For more information, check out the event's Facebook page.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Shawn Syms:

Nothing Looks Familiar is about people who transgress — they do the things society says is wrong. They have “promiscuous” sex, they take hard drugs, they hit each other, they hurt each other. The book’s characters range from a woman working in a meatpacking plant to a mother raising her kids in a drug den to a man who is aroused by dressing in diapers. Each is searching for answers to existential questions — and mainstream social mores offer them very few clues. The book emerged from a lot of work I’ve done over the past two decades as an advocacy journalist focused on the lives of people who are downtrodden or marginalised.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

SS:

Perhaps the fundamental question that emerged through the process of writing the book is: “If you’ve had a rough life, is change possible?” Difficult things happen to my characters — violence, addiction, coercion, abuse. But something else is always there, too: the will to live. So ultimately, I suppose I come down on the side of optimism, though it may not initially seem like it in a lot of these stories. Change is sometimes incremental and sometimes subtle, but it’s almost always possible — one way or another.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

SS:

I started working on Nothing Looks Familiar about a decade ago. After a major life event, I decided I need to try something new. Although I have been writing for publication for over 25 years, at that point I had never tried my hand specifically at fiction before. So part of that time was spent not just writing stories, but learning how to write stories — taking classes, workshopping with other writers, reading tons of short-fiction and developing critical faculties. And at the same time, just going through life. And death — a lot of people who are very important to me died during the writing of this book. Which had a significant influence on the tone and content of the stories.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

SS:

A keyboard and a clean desk. There is a relationship between the state of my desk and my state of mind — if one is cluttered, the other generally is too. So if I feel that I need to seriously concentrate on a piece of writing, the first thing I do is tidy up my desk — even if I just move a pile of papers and dump it somewhere else that is not within my line of sight, that works.

I write on a computer — there can be a lot of mysticism in some writerly circles about the benefits of writing by hand, but it just doesn’t work for me. At all. A friend told me about crafting a story — an excellent, very immediate one in fact — that he wrote in one sitting, in a moving subway car, on a BlackBerry. I wonder if I should give that a try.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

SS:

Though it gets easier the more I do it, I have found the process of creating fiction a bit more agonising and stressful than any of the other kinds of writing I’ve done. In general, adequate rest, food and exercise help — but otherwise, I find that taking a break and taking in some other cultural nourishment — watching a classic movie or well-crafted TV show, reading a great magazine or listening to an inspirational album (I turn to Gillian Welch a lot) — can be just the sort of pause that allows to you turn back to a piece of writing with just enough of a shift in perspective to help get things back on track. Or even better, moving in a new and unexpected direction.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

SS:

A great book can illuminate an intensely resonant experience — or, conversely, highlight a unique or unconventional way of looking at the world.

An example of the former, for me, would be Miriam Toews’s most recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Hilarious, tragic, blunt, this book tackles big questions — death and family and suicide and mental health — with intimacy and immediacy. I read it right after my father was torn out of my life — and it was just what I needed at the time.

And when it comes to making the strange more comprehensible and beautiful, I return time and time again to the genius of Barbara Gowdy. Her writing is profoundly inventive in terms of both content and approach. She approaches what some may consider extremes in human behaviour — one story is centred on the perspective of a woman who has sex with corpses — and renders them with sensitivity and humanizing grace. If you’re any kind of outsider in this world, reading Gowdy can make you feel a tiny bit less alone.

OB:

What are you working on now?

SS:

I’ve been toggling between a second short-fiction collection and the beginning of a novel. Soon I think I’m going need to pick which one to focus on and then really settle into the work.


Shawn Syms is an author and journalist who has written for over fifty publications in the past twenty-five years, including The Rumpus, Foreword Reviews, The Collagist and the acclaimed anthologies First Person Queer and Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York. He is also the editor of the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He lives in Toronto.

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