Today’s post is a Q and A with exciting new author, Sherry Isaac, whose book of short but great stories, Storyteller, has just been released. From the time I first met Sherry, with her sundress and wide-brimmed beauty of a hat, I knew she was a comer. We were both in Brian Henry’s eight-session, extreme editing course. Sherry has lived up to her promise with constant honing of her skills, which effort has won her The Alice Munro Short Story Award.
1. What makes a writer stick at it if Stephen King or Agatha Christie’s popularity hasn’t come yet?
Knee-jerk answer? Insanity.
Serious hat on now. It can be really hard to take the rejection, to sort through conflicting feedback, to continue to learn your craft while pushing through to the end of your manuscript. Before you have a book published, its hard to be taken seriously as a writer. For some, if you’re not paid, not published, the simple act of writing doesn’t qualify as being a writer.
For me, it was the desire to be excellent (I’ll call you when I get there. Million years sound good?) and the continuing growth as a writer. I’m sure any writer, in spite of their success or calibre, can look back at their first publications and cringe. I knew I didn’t want to be mediocre. I didn’t want to simply be good enough to get published. We’ve all read books and wondered, how did this (insert expletive) make it to publication?
Most important, as solitary as writing is, I would never have grown–as a writer and as a person–or seen publication without the support of fellow writers. This goes for critiquing too. Criticism can be hard to hear, but you don’t improve by being told your writing is perfect. My writing peers are my lifeline. Their encouragement, our shared successes and failures, are invaluable. There is so much to know. We learn from each other. And when we succeed, we have precious friends to share in the success. When a friend wins a contest, gets a great review, signs a contract, I whoop for joy.
2. Your trademark seems to be your surprise endings. Do they come to you first as you write or are they a surprise to you, too?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What You Wish For was a no. I worked through all the scenes and got to the point where I didn’t know what else I could do with the story plot wise. Megan had already written, what was it, five letters at that point. The crux was made. I had to wrap it up. Then a tickle of delight as I realized how to end the story. It was all there, I just had to go back and make sure the links were clear, emphasize this, make a casual mention of that, tweak that other thing, so at the end all the clues added up.
3. Your story, Sweet Dreams, is masterfully developed. How much rewriting did it and other stories take?
Wow. I don’t know if I deserve that compliment, but I’ll take it! Sweet Dreams just sort of happened. The story grew out of a creative writing assignment from instructor extraordinaire Brian Henry: to write about someone who comes to a decision over a cup of tea. The original draft was scribbled out in a 20-minute session, but I knew there was something there and other than some light housekeeping, clarity and a little expansion, it remained pretty much intact. Sometimes the subconscious takes over. Not that Sweet Dreams reveals any secret desires on my part. It’s dark fun, but fun all the same. Hm. I probably shouldn’t mention that my husband snores.
4. What about the short story format intrigues you?
Aside from feeling a sense of accomplishment after 3000 words? The scope is narrow. Less characters, one plot thread, allows me to zero in on the issue without weaving in other elements or keeping track of other character’s goals and motivations. This more linear route to storytelling should be easier, but the stripped down aspect makes it harder to hide. Every word always counts, but in a short story there isn’t time to develop the scene or play around with setting or character traits. Characterization, goals, conflict, motivation, setting–it all has to be clear right out of the gate.
What really surprises me is that I not only can write short stories, but that I enjoy it. I never thought I could, or would.
5. Have you tried any other genres?
This question makes me smile. My critique group and I have had this conversation many times. What is Sherry’s genre? And that was a difficulty in trying to summarize the theme of this collection. Short stories were a way to earn publishing credits while I sought the holy grail: an agent for my novels. I never wrote them with the intention of putting together a collection. I write mystery, I write suspense, I write about ghosts and prickly paranormal chills and stories with strong romantic elements. I’ve written for younger audiences, too, though none of that work appears in Storyteller.
The summary of Storyteller turned out to be ‘tales of life, love and forgiveness that transcend space, time and even the grave.
6. When you read Alice Munro do you read as anyone would or are your thoughts sidetracked with observations of craft?
Confession time. I am a terrible, terrible Canadian. I haven’t read a lot of Alice Munro–there’s so much! I’ve barely nicked the iceberg!–and what I read was pre I’m-serious-about-my-writing days. Because of the ‘when’ I wouldn’t have read her work comparatively, nor the work of Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood. Or Carolyn Keene, for that matter.
With years of practice and instruction behind me I’ve become a more critical reader. I tend to pick up on things that I’m sensitive to, things that were bad habits I worked hard to break. A recent read was a thriller by a well-known author. I knew his name and several friends recommended I read his work. The thriller was fast-paced, intriguing, great characterizations, juicy plot, but he had a thing for the gerund. Was sitting instead of sat. Was thinking instead of thought. Was pacing instead of paced. I wanted to correct those gerunds because that’s what I look for and nix in my work. A little habit I reversed during NaNo. All those ‘wases’ added up!
When in the hands of a capable writer (Sue Grafton, Lynda Simmons, Harlen Coben) I am carried away on their ocean of words and don’t notice a thing, other than great writing and the jealous monster that whispers in my head, ‘Why didn’t you think of that?’
7. How much reading do you do and what do you read most?
I’ve always had a book on the go. When I became more serious about writing I made a point of reading more, and keeping track of the books I read, as well as reading other genres and authors I wasn’t familiar with. I try to balance fiction with non-fiction 2 to 1, since there are so many topics that intrigue me. In 2008 I read 33 books, a personal best. The number slid in 2009 and in 2010 I read 19 books, a testament to how much more I am writing.
The mystery/suspense genre will always be my favourite.
8. Can you talk about the writing journey? How long has the road been and how hard?
I played with the notion of writing for years, as long as memory, and even indulged in a few courses along the way, but it was early in 2001 that I admitted out loud that I wanted to write. Early in 2004 I went to a workshop on getting published, curious but prepared for a scam, some pond thing feeding off the naive dreams of others.
It so wasn’t.
Workshops and classes continued, I immersed myself in classes, critiques, books on writing craft, became part of a critique group. Becoming part of the writing community helped me stay focused and BELIEVE!
Hard? Depends on your definition of the word. If you consider an oak plank swung against your forehead at a hundred kilometers an hour hard, then yes. Very. Painful, too, and it leaves one heck of a mark. Splinters break through the skin and seep into your soft brain tissue, become imbedded, make you who you are.
9. What or who gives you the energy to keep going when the blocks come? Or do they come?
Energy? Where? Have you been reading fairy tales again, Elaine?
Balance. Critiquing partners and I are always talking balance. Balance is different for everyone. For me it’s time outs with family, tea with a friend, getting in touch with writers in an informal setting, like a reading or a retreat or just dinner. I like to putter in my garden. I like to read. Exercise is great. A walk at the water’s edge. These things recharge my batteries and I’m amazed at how sticky points in a manuscript or character sketch can come together if I take a step away and let perspective slip things into place when I’m not looking. But it’s important to come back to the work.
I don’t really buy into the ‘writer’s block’ phenomenon. One good writing chum puts it this way: does your server in a restaurant get server’s block? I’m sure there are writers out there who would argue that it’s real but for me, blocks, if they do exist, come from within. If I’m stumped, I look for the why. If I’m not sure where to take a plot point, I let it simmer and work on another chapter, do a bit of research, rethink a character. Sometimes I’m ‘blocked’ because something isn’t working. Trust and tap into the subconscious. It could be telling you something important. Maybe a character’s consistency of motivation is off, maybe a weak plot point is treading a twisting path to nowhere. Stepping away helps. Returning to the work is crucial.
10. What is your favorite story in the new collection? Why?
Ask this question on a different day and you’ll get a different answer. Today I’ll say, A Love of Reading.
The weather is great and I’ve been working in my garden and sprucing up the lawn. Grandpa would be proud. My grandfather always had the prettiest garden, the plumpest tomatoes, the softest, greenest grass, the ‘bloomiest’ flowers.
Eight, maybe ten years ago, I heard a story about my grandparents no one had shared before. It was how they met. While the rest of A Love of Reading has nothing to do with my grandparents’ lives other than their till-death-do-us-part devotion, when I heard the story of how they met, I knew I’d have to use it some day. When Simon and Lila’s story came to me, I knew I’d found the right story to honour that snippet of my grandparents’ lives. I don’t know how their first conversation was sparked. I don’t know what Grandpa said to Grandma. But I know they met at Woolworth’s in downtown Winnipeg on a Wednesday. And I know they ended up spending a scandalous afternoon in the park…Kissing!
11. How hard has launching your book been? Were there any surprises?
The biggest surprise was the amount of time it takes, so start early. I’d read a lot and felt prepared in terms of what to try, and what might be a waste of time. I built a small platform through keeping in touch with class and workshop mates and doing readings. I don’t know what I’d do now or where to start had I not spent all of my writing days leading up to this point doing exactly those things.
I recently took an online class in growing your audience, and had already come across and applied most of the information prior to this class so in that regard, I felt I was ahead of the game. But the time commitment is unreal. It reaffirmed my decision to start early.
If I could have, I’d have reached through the screen and gently smacked the handful of writers in that class who didn’t feel it was necessary to start a website or blog or other form of internet presence, including commenting or guest blogging, until they had a contract in hand.
I’ve had my website up for almost two years. When I think of all the tweaking and starting over from scratch that I did? It’s akin to writing a novel. Trash this, revise that. Highlight this, emphasize that. Reshuffle, reorganize, redesign. And that’s just the website!
Network. Network network network. Network till your fingers bleed.Throw a pebble in your pond the circle will expand outward. Throw a pebble in your pond and a pond in California and a pond in Texas and a pond in Colorado and a pond in British Columbia, and the circles will expand outward and overlap.
12. What do you know now about establishing yourself as a writer that you wish you had known in the beginning? When was the beginning?
There were false starts along the way, but the official beginning would have been that workshop in 2004.
In the beginning I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I thought I was a literary genius. That’s part of the curve. Seven years later, I know that I’m not a literary genius, but I am a better writer than I was seven years ago.
Winner of The Alice Munro Short Story Award, Sherry Isaac’s tales of life, love and forgiveness that transcend all things, including the grave, appear online and in print. Her first collection of shorts, Storyteller, debuts July 2011. For more information, or to order an autographed copy, click HERE.