A Doorway into Fresh Perceptions: Sarah Brennan-Newell in Conversation with Tajja Isen

Tajja Isen

Malahat volunteer Sarah Brennan-Newell talks with Tajja Isen on winning the 2014 Open Season Award for Fiction.


Read what Open Season fiction judge Yasuko Thanh had to say about "The Anxiety of Influence," Isen's winning story.

Congratulations on winning the 2014 Open Season Award for Fiction! Judge Yasuko Thanh writes that “The Anxiety of Influence” explores “how one’s selfhood can be manipulated for better or worse by a stronger ego”. Indeed, the narrator is unnamed, and navigates her own identity in relation to that of her ex-husband and her son. What drew you to writing about the creation and maintenance of identity? Can you speak more broadly to the role of the other in defining the self? 

Thank you! I think that the creation and upkeep of identity is a pretty widespread and enduring preoccupation, but its manifestation in “The Anxiety of Influence” owes a lot to context—at the time of writing, I was a career-baffled undergrad who happened to be reading a lot of Freud, and the story is partially a product of that flammable-sounding combination. I was taking a creative writing course and, immersed in the theory I was reading, knew I wanted to play with its practical implications in fictional form. The story explores several different “narratives” that we have at our disposal for self-definition—developmental psychology, literature, psychoanalysis—and I view the “other” as another tool in this arsenal; something we use to inform our own self-concept that, if handled carelessly, can become a convenient screen to hide behind, something of which my narrator is quite guilty.

The story also investigates interdisciplinary relations between psychology and postmodernism. Do you have background experience in these disciplines? If so, how do you feel they inform your writing?

It was my aforementioned interest in Freud, fed by a literature and psychoanalysis course, which spurred that interdisciplinary pairing. My background in psychology doesn’t extend past an introductory course, but the study of psychoanalysis from a literary perspective was very influential to me. For all of his flaws, Freud’s a great storyteller, and I find his work a compelling narrative of self-understanding—and, perhaps more crucially, of self-misunderstanding. Being versed in the discipline has informed my writing in subtle but powerful ways, giving me a playful, slightly self-conscious way of probing the minds of my characters.

Like my narrator, I’m a former English major, and if I were under duress and had to pledge fidelity to a single literary movement, I’d likely choose postmodernism. I get a real thrill-of-the-chase feeling when dealing with the challenging works of the period. The biggest influences of the postmodern ethos on my writing are the irony and the linguistic playfulness—apart from that, I strive for more warmth than you might otherwise find in the pages of Pynchon. I didn’t set out to cast my narrator as a postmodernist, but when I tuned in to the elitism and skepticism of her voice, it was a moment of, “You’ve definitely read all of Nabokov, haven’t you.”

How did this story come about? Was it written for the contest or has it been evolving for awhile? What came easily to you in writing it and where did you struggle?

The story was originally written for a creative writing workshop at the University of Toronto. During the writing process, the voice came first, and came easily. The narrator’s sarcasm, pretension, resignation—her tone asserted itself pretty strongly, and drove the narrative. It was a voice that lent itself well to unintentional self-revelation, exposing some very telling gaps in her exterior (I may have mentioned that I’d been reading a lot of Freud). The tone became a bit of a double-edged sword when I reached the ending, though, where the narrator is caught off-guard by her ex-husband. It was the closing of the piece where I struggled, finding it a challenge to peel back the irony and render her sudden sincerity in a way that still felt true. The workshop atmosphere was essential in this regard—the brilliant Robert McGill, who taught the class, encouraged me to rewrite the moment in a way that brought it closer to its emotional potential.

You are also a singer-songwriter, pianist and voice actor. How do these other interests interconnect with writing for you?

This is a lovely question, and one that I consider often. My background as a musician has had a huge influence on my attention to language—to sentence rhythms, to the sounds of words as much as their sense. In my earliest stories, this was something of an Achilles heel—I had to dial it back quite a bit, lest every sentence turn into a Chopin cadenza. Being both a fiction writer and a songwriter does present me with a formal crossroads, though, when it comes to starting the creative act—fiction wins the day if I have a strong sense of character and significant emotional ambiguities to explore; musical if I’m feeling concise and can distill it into four minutes. Voice acting balances the scales by immersing me in the conversational, as years of reading scripts have helped with writing dialogue. It also injects a great deal of vitality into the writing process, to be able to sit there and, as it were, “do the police in different voices.” They’re all quite aural acts as well, which motivates me to bring their liveliness to the page. And, quite crucially, they’re all empathetic acts, involving the creation and translation of feeling.

What or who influences you most as a writer? Would you say you share your narrator’s love of the ironic?

My biggest literary influence is Jonathan Franzen. It was my encounter with his novel The Corrections that formalized my impulse to write fiction, and I’m, for lack of a better word, a disciple of the way he fuses postmodern irony with warm, rich nineteenth-century attitudes towards narrative and characterization. Nabokov and Roth are also powerful allies, if a little less cuddly; Zadie Smith’s wit sets a standard for which I will continually strive; the things David Mitchell does with plot blow my mind and I’ll have to accept them eventually; Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary, shape-shifting intelligence; Alice Munro, whose intensely-felt work and whose line “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum” (from Lives of Girls and Women) enlarged my sense of what fiction can do.

I absolutely share my narrator’s love for the ironic. I think a slightly irreverent worldview is a doorway into fresh perceptions, and is also a powerful counterpoint to sincerity—if you have a character that lives in a shell of caustic wit, cracking it at the perfect moment can increase the emotional resonance.

What’s coming next for you professionally? 

I’m dedicating the next year and a half to my creative pursuits—performing regularly in Toronto as a singer-songwriter, finishing up my Grade 10 classical piano, still working as a cartoon voice-over actor, and continuing with my writing. This contest has given me a renewed enthusiasm for the latter, for which I’m very grateful. As well, I’ve got an eye on law school in the near future—I need to feed both my creative and analytical sides, and I want to do everything, always.


Sarah Brennan-Newell

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