Former Malahat publicity manager Susan Sanford Blades recently spoke with Amy Jones on her short story, "Die Young," which appears in Issue 186, Spring 2014. Get ready for funerals, asshats and expensive cowlicks with this piece.
What was the inspiration for “Die Young”? Did you set out to explore death and quarter-life malaise or was it spawned by an image or something else?
I had gone to a couple of funerals in a row and was thinking a lot about death and funerals and you know, the whole pointlessness of everything and just generally being weird and moody and wanting to write about it. A lot of my stories start like that: with me wanting to process something that I’ve experienced or that I’ve been obsessing over, and using that kind of as a jumping-off point for something fictional. I feel like if I can transform something, make it happen to other characters in a different setting or in a different way or whatever, that it helps me understand it better.
(I realize I just said “other characters” as if I am a character, too, which I suppose is entirely possible and if I think about it too much I’m going to fall into some kind of “Stranger Than Fiction” black hole and make myself insane.)
I’ve read that you essentially write your stories in your head until they feel ready to you and then they flow out on paper. Was that the case with this one? Did you come up with all five characters in your head and did you know that you would tell the story from four different points of view before you sat down to write?
This story went through a really different writing process than most of my stories. I actually wrote a draft of it years ago (back when I was going to those funerals and being all angsty) that was just in one point of view and was not really very good. Normally I am super harsh when it comes to turfing stories that are not very good (or hiding them in some folder inside a folder inside a folder so I never have to look at them again) but there was something about this one that made me keep it around. It travelled with me in a “to be revised” folder through several years and provinces and laptops and I’d look at it every now and then and then put it away and then avoid it and think about deleting it and not deleting it until finally one day while I was on vacation with my boyfriend on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean I literally woke up one morning and was like, holy crap, THAT’S what I need to do. So really, I guess all I need to do to figure out my stories is go on exotic vacations. I wonder if you can get grants for that.
Could you tell us what form the original story took and what was the “THAT’s what I need to do” revelation?
The original story was just told from Kate’s point of view, and it just seemed too… I don’t know, insular? Banal? She’s not exactly the most insightful character. And when she was in charge of things, there was this whole part when they brought Rebecca to the strip club and it was just kind of cheesy and horrible. So the revelation was that I needed to write the story from multiple points of view. Because it’s such a horrible, inexplicable thing that happens, and no two people are going to understand it or process it the same way. It seemed unfair not to let Henry and Sasha and Rebecca have their say, too.
How do you create your characters? Are they based slightly on people you know or knew? Do you take notes from people you pass on the street? Are they created out of thin air?
I would say it’s a little bit of all these things. Sometimes I will start with a character, and usually then it’s some interesting trait I’ve noticed in a real person or another character, and I expand on it, and develop a story around them. More often though I will start with a story idea and the characters sort of grow out of that. I put a lot of weight on names. Once a character has the right name, they are suddenly very real to me. In “Die Young,” Zach was originally named Jay and Rebecca was originally named Nicole and it was like, who are these people? But then at some point they became Zach and Rebecca Bello and it was like they just appeared in front of me as real, whole people. (So clearly the answer to your question is actually: from hallucinations and/or ghosts.)
Did you make up the word asshat?
No! I mean, I’m sure I’ve heard people using that word before. It’s a really satisfying insult to say, maybe because of the double long A. Also the image it evokes. I mean, what’s more useless and demeaning than an ass for a hat?
Can you tell us a bit about the ending of “Die Young”? What made you decide to end on an uplifting note?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision, it just kind of happened. But I also don’t think there could have been any other ending. I mean, you think about a bunch of young people in their twenties who lose a friend and whose lives seem kind of directionless and fraught and angry and it’s either, they stay that way forever or they somehow get through it and move forward and get on with their lives. And I really don’t like the idea of my characters staying one way forever, even after the story is over.
And that brings up an interesting point which is, how far ahead do you plot out your characters’ lives? Do you actually think much about what’s going to happen to them post-story?
I do, but only in a vague kind of way, just like daydreaming about it and stuff. I get embarrassingly emotionally attached to fictional characters—not just my own, but other people’s too. When I was a kid I couldn’t handle saying goodbye to characters at all, so when I was reading a book I would write what happened next in the blank pages at the end, always along the lines of “then the cute boy kissed her and she rescued seven puppies” or whatever, even if it was like a Nancy Drew book and totally not an appropriate ending. I basically got my start writing Nancy Drew fan fiction. Wait, what was the question?
Oh, right. So I guess what I’m saying is, if I had to write a family Christmas letter about my characters, I totally could.
How did working on your MFA at UBC affect you as a writer? Do you think you would be where you are now in your writing without having done it?
No, no, no, definitely not. I mean, the main thing is I had this chance to write, like, all the time. And even though I was working my two crappy retail jobs it wasn’t like, hey, I’m just a crappy retail worker, I was suddenly an MFA student working temporarily at a crappy retail job (or you know, at least that’s what I thought at the time) so it was like it legitimized me in some way, gave me confidence to do what I did. I don’t think it changed the way that I write, but just that it gave me more focus, helped me hone in on what I wanted to do, and get feedback and support from incredibly talented and generous people who wanted to help me do that.
You don’t think the MFA changed the way you write at all?
I did just say that, didn’t I? I don’t know, I guess it’s tough for me to unravel. The stuff I wrote before I did my MFA was really super crappy, on a writing level, but if you strip away all that, the bad sentences and the adverbs and the wooden characters and the sentimental BS, at its heart it was still essentially the same thing, the same way a frozen pizza is still a pizza. I used to do a lot of experimenting, with structure or tense or whatever, but looking back it just all seems very gimmicky. The MFA taught me that the most important thing is the story, and everything else exists to serve that. It distilled my writing, simplified it, made it cleaner. So I was still making the same dish, but using better ingredients.
For instance, “a thrift store blazer that looked like something some sunken-chested, chronic masturbator with an expensive cowlick and a doughy Accutaned face wore to his Bar Mitzvah in 1997” seems like it was somewhat Zsuzsi Gartner-inspired. Am I right?
Oh yes, probably. Zsuzsi had a monumental influence on my work. If people can read my work and see that influence, then I’m very pleased, because, I mean, she’s Zsuzsi. At the same time, I think she would hate that—she was always so mindful of helping us preserve our own particular voices, of wanting to help us become better versions of the writers we already were.
What exactly is an expensive cowlick?
Ha! I was kind of picturing a kid who, even though his parents sent him to an expensive salon for a haircut and bought him a bunch of product, still had that pesky cowlick that wouldn’t go away.
Do you have a day job? If so, what is it and how does it contribute (or not) to your writing (obviously not just financially)?
I have several day jobs! I am the associate editor for The Walleye, which is a monthly arts and culture magazine here in Thunder Bay. I am also the administrative assistant for the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop, which is an organization representing writers in the region. And I’m just finishing up a semester of teaching creative writing at Lakehead University. So, yeah, all my jobs are writing-related, so while they aren’t necessarily conducive to producing writing all the time (especially the teaching gig! No one told me how much mental energy THAT was going to take), but they do give me a chance to get involved with my community, to get out there and see what other writers and artists are doing, and meet up with other like-minded people. I know this isn’t necessarily a priority for a lot of writers, but for me it’s huge. It’s really easy for me to just isolate myself, especially living where I do—just drink and eat and write and never wash my hair or put on pants—and that isn’t always the best thing for my mental health.
You have a book of short stories out with Biblioasis (What Boys Like and other Stories, 2009) and I hear you’re working on a novel. Is this true? And, if so, how does this differ from working on a collection of short stories. More/less frustrating/rewarding?
It is true! I’m actually working on a novel and writing more stories, because I am incapable of being literarily monogamous (I am always reading a novel and a collection of short stories, as well, so I have a history of this kind of fear of commitment). I can’t help it, I love both. I think I would probably say short stories are more frustrating and more rewarding, just because that’s what I’m working on now. When I go back to the novel I will likely change my mind the other way. It took me a while to get over the whole looseness of language in a novel, the whole expanse of it, the crisscrossing threads of story, the rhythm of it—I’m used to being very economical with language, being obtusely ambiguous, ending things before they’re resolved, not saying more than I actually say. It’s kind of fun, though, to see characters through a longer lens, to be able to think “okay, what’s next?” and follow through with it. I’m sure most people who write novels don’t do it that way—they probably already know what happens next from the very beginning. But for me that surprise is what makes it fun.
Do you think a “looseness of language” is necessary in a novel, or can there be a tight novel? Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean comes to mind.
I don’t think it’s necessary, but for me it’s preferable. I have a hard time reading tight novels—or, at least, I experience them in a very different way. I always think of novels as cake, and short stories as a box of chocolate truffles, or a huge piece of fudge: almost too delicious to even handle for the first few bites, but if you try to eat the whole thing in one sitting it becomes super cloying and kind of unpleasant. When I read a collection of short stories, it takes me a while, because I read one story and then I have to put it down and go back to it. I savour short stories, but I don’t get lost in them. I want to get lost in a novel, I want to get swept up in it, I want to keep eating it until I look down and realize the whole cake is gone. That’s the kind of novel I love to read, and it’s the kind of novel I wanted to try to write. But of course, it’s just personal preference, and obviously many people with less impatient minds than my own can get swept up in a tight novel.
As an aside, I don’t even really like cake or fudge, but pizza doesn’t really work as well with this analogy.
And, does this mean we can expect to see a novel and another story collection from you in future?
I really hope so! I mean, that’s the goal. I’m going to try to not let it all hinge on being able to take another exotic vacation.
Susan Sanford Blades
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