How does an ex-Mormon Canadian runner from Calgary manage to have a short story collection published by a small US press and get a contract on her speculative fiction novel with an Australian press? Meet Sarah L. Johnson, author of Suicide Stitch, a collection of short stories from EMP Publishing, and the forthcoming Infractus, which will be published by Driven Press. I had the opportunity to chat with Sarah recently, and try to understand the dark and twisted turns her mind takes when writing fiction.
Sandra: Describe a typical day for Sarah.
Sarah: I like getting up before everyone else. With three kids to wrestle out of bed and out the door, my days start in the craziest way possible. Having fifteen minutes of peace with a cup of coffee ensures the survival of my young. After the morning bedlam, I go to my day job. I’m the events planner at a local independent bookstore (Owl’s Nest). It’s cool to be plugged into the literary community and to work for smart people who’ve taught me loads about publishing and bookselling. Every writer should make friends with their local bookstore.
Sandra: What was the first story you got published?
Sarah: A story not in this collection, a piece called “Love Letters” sold to an erotica market. A couple having relationship difficulties tries to work things out through a letter writing exercise. While certainly filthy, it’s more comedic than erotic, but my work tends to be that way. Genre isn’t something I think about a lot, which leads to many rejections containing the words “well written but not quite a good fit”.
The first short story I ever wrote is in my collection. “A Ballad For Wheezy Barnes” (is) a noir crime story set at the Calgary Stampede.
Sandra: How do you think being Canadian shapes your perspective as a writer?
Sarah: For me, I don’t know if it’s necessarily being Canadian, but the setting, the winter, the cold. Things like the Stampede are fun and festive on the surface but there’s a seediness underneath. I’m reluctant to make declarative statements to say that Canadian writing is this or that. But reading from the CanLit canon has definitely influenced a literary aspect in my writing.
Sandra: With a short story collection you end up developing a lot of different characters. Which character from the Suicide Stitch collection do you identify with most, and why?
Sarah: The title story is about sisters and the main character shares a lot of personality traits with me. As I had her sorting through her recently deceased sister’s belongings I found myself struggling to get the words down. My own sister and I are very close and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, even hypothetically, my brain just shut off when I tried to go there. I’ve had difficulty writing about certain things before, but this was different. I felt threatened.
Sandra: You do have a lot of dark stories with dark themes in this collection. Do you identify particularly with one genre? Where do you see yourself fitting in the literary spectrum?
Sarah: Where does the darkness come from? Maybe from being raised in a devoutly religious household. I was raised Mormon. The church and I parted ways when I was a teenager. Nothing bad happened to me and I don’t hold grudges, but my obsession with dark themes stems from the fear and curiosity around stepping off that righteous path. I write crime, noir, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, erotica, and straight up literary fiction. But when I sit down to write I never think about that and so the stories almost always slip between genres. I’m a genre misfit.
Sandra: My grade 12 English teacher once said that teaching classic literature was much harder because so many students didn’t understand the Biblical imagery. Some of the stories, like “Heart Beating Still” have a lot of religious elements to them. Does this come from your upbringing? What’s your relationship with your parents like?
Sarah: While my brothers are still active, my sister and I are no longer members of the church. Sounds like a recipe for acrimony but in our family we’ve simply refused to let it be a problem. When I write about religion I think they understand that I’m not writing from a place of bitterness. My parents have read all my stories and bought copies of my book for their friends and family. They’ve been nothing but supportive and open-minded.
With regards to imagery, especially in HBS, I knew I’d be putting my scriptural knowledge into the work, but the last thing I wanted to was to turn out an indulgent diatribe, groaning under its referential weight. I rely on feedback from my crit partner(s) to tell me when the context doesn’t support a biblical image or reference. That said, not every reader has to pick up on everything. That’s what’s great about stories, especially short stories, they are a collaboration between reader and writer.
Sandra: Throughout the stories there’s religion, sex and death. Then there’s the story “I Am Lost”. I found myself thinking about the use of religion, sex and death as a way of talking about free will, and personal control. Was that something you thought about consciously? What themes were you thinking about when you wrote it?
Sarah: My family and I vacation in the Rocky Mountains in BC. It’s a beautiful drive but at night it’s so dark. It’s overwhelming. In our homes surrounded by countless comforts and conveniences, we feel like we call the shots, that we’re in control. But in the vast space of nature and mountains and wilderness, you’re a speck. You’re nothing. I am Lost came out of that elemental fear of being inconsequential. The character is someone who has always felt lost in her own life, and it’s only when she tries to take charge and change things that she truly learns what it is to be lost.
Sandra: “I Am Lost” also made me think about the fact that you’re a runner. There’s a sense of isolation in running. You’re moving at a different pace than the average person and you can really get lost in your head. What’s the appeal of running for you?
Sarah: It started as a fitness thing but these days it’s a head space thing. Writers talk about having the best ideas in the shower but for me it’s running because I don’t have my phone I don’t have anyone talking to me and something happens when your body is working that hard. It forces this economy of thought. I work through a lot of plot snarls and dialogue. Aloneness and isolation have negative connotations but as an introvert, that quiet empty space is restorative and vital to my creative process. I also get to eat cake whenever I want.
Sandra: In the mix of a lot of dark stories you have “Thank You For Playing”. This made me think of the Random Acts of Kindness thing some years ago. What was your inspiration?
Sarah: That story was solicited by an organization that does pop up art installations and events in Inglewood and Ramsay, Calgary’s oldest community. They wanted a ‘nice’ story they could break into a walking tour for the community. At each stop on the tour you got a chunk of the story. I spent a lot of time walking the streets, thinking about how to write ‘nice’. In a gleeful way, I felt like a creep, stalking not a person, but a neighborhood. Afterward I read a lot of tweets and social media comments remarking on what a sweet story it is, what a great message. A love story about community. I found it fascinating that so many people overlooked the sinister subtext.
Sandra: Do you think our society would improve if we were less self absorbed and more community minded?
Sarah: I think society would improve, but how to incite that change? Life is like writing in that way. Conflict is what moves us forward. What if we all woke up to a sticky note on our door asking us to do something nice, with an implicit OR ELSE attached? Scary, but perhaps in the end we’d be better for it.
Sandra: “In Five Day Forecast” you focus on a stripper and a ten-year-old boy’s brief but revealing friendship. What is it about unusual relationships that you like writing about?
Sarah: I jokingly refer to this book as a collection of love stories. Each story is about a different kind of love and a different sort of relationship. While I like the idea of romance, I’m not a romantic person, and I suspect that’s why the relationships I write take a hard left at some point, because I’m trying to explore something I like the idea of but don’t fully understand. I’m an INTJ personality trying to experience love through characters that are more capable, I guess.
Sandra: Do you ever have any qualms writing about sex? Do you every feel restricted by the possibility someone will think the stories are autobiographical?
Sarah: Obviously not enough qualms. When you put a piece of writing out there, it doesn’t belong to you any more and you can’t control how people interpret it. What annoys me is the reductive attitude towards women’s writing, that it must be based on personal experience. I guess if people want to think my sex life is that adventurous and/or illegal I can’t stop them, but I would hope it’s the story as a whole and the bigger questions it asks that leave the lasting impression.
Sandra: You’ve had a lot of short story sales. What do you attribute your success to?
Sarah: Persistence. Every publication probably has 20 rejections behind it. When a story does get accepted it’s often accompanied by some iteration of “not what I expected”. There are few things more gratifying than to find those markets hungry for something different.
Suicide Stitch came together under unusual circumstances. I call it my accidental short story collection because I’d submitted I am Lost to an EMP Publishing anthology call, and they rejected it because it didn’t quite fit the theme. The acquiring editor said she loved the story though, and asked if I had anything else. So I sent about 18 short stories and from those she chose 11 that she thought went together nicely.
On that note I’d like to give a shout-out to EMP Publishing, Grey Matter Press, and all the small presses taking risks to keep the literary landscape fresh, fierce, and full of short stories.
Sandra: How does writing short stories compare to writing a novel for you?
Sarah: Short stories are harder from a technical standpoint. You’re asking more from the reader and it’s a fine line between asking enough and asking too much. Novels require endurance, and a certain humility. To write a good novel, you must accept that you will in fact be writing many novels, draft after draft, most of them not good at all. It can really grind you down. It’s nice to crawl out of the novel trench at regular intervals to work on a short story.
Sandra: Do you pre-plot your stories or identify the theme first or do you start with the characters?
Sarah: My inability to outline is why it takes me three years to finish a short story. I’ll have an idea, write a page or two that captures character and voice, and then I don’t know where it’s going, so it goes in a drawer with all the rest of the stories that don’t know where they’re going. Two years later I’ll pull it out and then finish it within in a few months. It used to really frustrate me. These days I’m okay with it. I could force myself to write faster but I don’t know if faster is better.
Sandra: Your novel, Infractus. When is it out and what’s it about?
Sarah: Probably in the next six months. It’s a dystopian sci-fi/fantasy. A government assassin is recruited by the archangel Michael to destroy the oppressive shadow government enslaving the human race. It’s my subversive baby. My hope is that readers will hold it in their arms and think ‘not what I expected’.
Sandra: Who’s publishing it?
Sarah: They’re called Driven Press and they are out of Australia.
Sandra: US short story publisher, Australian novel publisher. How did that happen?
Sarah: I was querying agents but at the same time I was looking at smaller presses and they came up in a Duotrope search. They’re a new general fiction imprint of a publisher that’s been around for years putting out primarily romance. I suspect the main difference between an Australian publisher and a North American one is the weird hours at which we Skype.
Sandra: What’s a book you’ve been influenced by?
Sarah: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. It’s a book I may never recover from because it’s that good and that awful and unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Sandra: What are three things from the news or social media or your day to day that are currently inspiring you?
Sarah: Crime with a Christmas theme, the BBC program Top Gear, a leather-bound journal I took to Mt. Vesuvius where I started writing a story about a charismatic parking lot attendant. I’ll know where it’s going in about three years.
Sarah is part of the Alexandra Writers Centre Society in Calgary. For more information about Sarah visit her website, http://www.sarahljohnson.com/, and catch up with her on her blog, http://www.sarahljohnson.com/blog
Next weekend: insight from Sarah on successful bookstore events.
Have a new work being released soon or a forthcoming event? Want to do a Q&A? Editors and authors can email me (sandraruttan.spinetinglermag(at)gmail.com. Tell me what you have coming out soon and the publication date in your email.