"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, May 9, 2016

Book Soup Interview with Sara Majka

 By Christina K. Holmes

This week, I had the privilege of interviewing author Sara Majka on her collection of short stories Cities I’ve Never Lived In, our (Book) Soup of the Month. And, just like these wooly stories sketch shadows of brilliant truths in the mind for the reader to ruminate over days later, so too will Sara’s words on her collection, writing life, and influences. 

Most of the stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In are rooted in towns and cities across the eastern seaboard. How is place central to your stories?

Place was the thing that influenced me most when writing this collection. I started writing it when I moved--very briefly, just for a year--to the center of Maine. It was not a happy year for me, and I spent a lot of time driving down to Portland and became inspired by the people and the isolated coastal towns. My dad was in the Coast Guard and growing up we lived for a short time in Maine. Still, I don't know why that year was so important. Something about being there really triggered something for me. And then I also spent time in Provincetown, Massachusetts (as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center) and in New York City, and those places made it into the collection as well.

Your narrator seems to meander in and out of her stories, starting in one place and ending in others. Can you tell us more about why you chose to tell her stories in this way? Is this style a reflection of her character?

Sometimes the only answer I have to things is: that's how I am, or how I see things, and I think this is one of those examples. That meandering or drifting was a lot of how life was for me back then.

Your narrator’s insights are extremely poignant. One line in particular struck me in your title story: “I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension you feel when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay”. How did you choose to balance these sparks of acute awareness with the plot of your stories?

I really enjoy reading those sorts of lines in other people's work. I like writers who want to directly tell you something, who have that inclination--of course, it has to be well done and fit the narrative. But I fell in love with Graham Greene's The End of the Affair right away because he started to talk about what love was. I'm on the road right now or else I would take out my copy and make sure that he actually does that. But in my memory he does. And Carson McCullers. [H]er book The Ballad of the Sad Café. In my memory she spends half that novella trying to get at love, what it is, how it works.

I read in your interview with A Public Space that the title story is quite autobiographical. Does it make you feel vulnerable to incorporate part of your own life into fiction? How do you safely separate the two?

It doesn't make me feel vulnerable, and I don't know why, as I'm a relatively private person. I'm not even sure private is the right word, as my first inclination is always just to reveal what is going on, so I'm willing, always, to reveal a fair bit, though I do have a reserved personality.

I have this thing I think to myself, one of those things that makes sense to me but might not make sense when said out loud, but I think to myself: the more you give away the more that's left. It's sort of like that saying, hiding in plain sight, but the spirit is somewhat different.

Why did you chose to work with a first person narrator? What did it provide you as a writer?

I can't seem to get away from a first person narrator. Every story starts with one when I write. Sometimes if the first person narrator tells a story, I can then, later, during revision, take that frame out and what's left is the third person story. But I always have to create a narrator and then it's them and not me who tells the story. It's a lot of work! Two whole worlds to create. But just telling the story seems weird to me, like I'm talking in a fancy accent or in a serious voice. It also feels too broad. Creating the narrator helps to narrow the focus.

Can you tell us about your influences? Do you have any particular writers that inspire you?

Yes! So many books. I tend to think, though, with this collection that my biggest influences were [W.G.] Sebald and [Alice] Munro.

Is there anything outside the writing world that impacts your storytelling, for example art or film?

Visual art. I love museums. I love the space of it and the quiet of it, and being able to wander about and look at color and shape.

Why are you drawn to short fiction?

I grew up wanting to write a novel. I was an avid reader as a little girl, and naturally you don't really read short stories that young. Except in school. But I just read novels on my own and so that's what I wanted to write. But as I got older and started to write, whenever I tried longer it didn't work out. I seem to need the speed and movement of the shorter form.

Can you tell us about your writing process? How do you begin? How do you know you’ve finished?

Oh, the process is almost humorous, it's so...I can't even come up with the right word. Slow still suggests forward progress. What I do is almost a meditation on nothingness.[O]r a meditation on writing rather than writing itself. It's almost like every day that I write, I have to work to accept the way in which I write. I have to accept that it's not about moving forward or getting something done.

Much of the work I do is to make something shorter. I'll write and write and think I'm doing a novella or even...dare I say....a novel, and then I start editing and it becomes ten pages. That's my joke about my process, but it's also somewhat true.

And finally, what book or books are you reading currently?

I'm in the middle of Jonathan Lee's High Dive. He worked for A Public Space (he's at Catapult now) when my book was coming out and he was (and still is) a great help.

Order the book HERE

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