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Parkdale Giller Prize nominee’s ‘quietly apocalyptic’ stories told over dinner table

January 28th, 2011 · 1 Comment

Once the "surreal" glamour of the gala was over, author Sarah Selecky became friends with her fellow Giller Prize nominees. Courtesy Sarah Selecky

By Jeromy Lloyd

Seven years ago, the short stories from This Cake Is For The Party moved with their author from Victoria to Toronto, where they found audiences in publications such as The Walrus and Geist. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the process of assembling these stories into Cake, Sarah Selecky’s first anthology, began.

The young author and writing instructor had just bought a home in Parkdale. There, she began an intense editing and rewriting process that fashioned Cake into a work so well-received it would go on to earn a nomination for one of Canada’s top literary awards—the Scotiabank Giller Prize—alongside such notables as Kathleen Winter and Alexander MacLeod.

“I have to go for a walk once a day through the neighbourhood,” she says of the daily rituals that produced Cake. When deep in her process, she’ll visit a few of her favourite haunts to watch Parkdale’s residents going about their lives. “Parkdale feels like such a little village to me. It’s a very supportive community.”

In contrast, big cities, or their obvious absence, play a large role in most of Cake’s stories. In “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?” they’re a haven for the sullen fourteen-year-old trying to escape Sudbury and her father. For the simplicity-seeking couple in the midst of a marital crisis in “Prognosis,” they are an overcrowded past life. Characters always seem to flee either to or from them.
Selecky’s cities are anxious places, and characters often leave them to escape their worries. It never really works, leaving Selecky’s lost souls to cope with their choices far from home and comfort.
“I’ve had my brushes with [anxiety],” says Selecky, on the phone a few days prior to the Giller’s nationally televised gala ceremony. “Writing definitely brings that out in me. When I’m writing and it’s going well, I feel better than when I’m not [writing]. The panic that sets in when I’m not writing comes out in my stories.”

The Giller judges describe these subtle tensions in Selecky’s stories as “quietly apocalyptic,” which makes Selecky laugh when asked about it.

“When I was young I always had a fear of the Apocalypse, so seeing that word used in relation to my own work made me think, ‘Oh God, they can see that?’ Growing up I lost sleep over it. I never told anybody, and now I’ve clearly subverted it into something ‘quietly apocalyptic.’”

Personal disasters like death and betrayal appear throughout Cake, though Selecky says she’s never conscious of her writing patterns until readers show them to her. “A lot of themes from story to story are pointed out to me, and then I feel really exposed. It’s the oddest thing. I think I’m doing something completely different with a plot, then someone will say ‘There’s always a dinner party in your stories.’”

It’s true. Dinner and cafe tables are where characters reveal their conflicts. In “Throwing Cotton,” Anne, who wants a baby despite sensing resistance from her older husband, foresees an awkward weekend retreat over a spaghetti dinner with friends.

“The pasta should have been cooked for another five minutes,” Selecky writes. “It sticks to my teeth like masking tape … Sanderson is quiet, possibly craving a cigarette. Shona is the only one who has wine left in her glass. I wrap my ankles and feet around the cold metal chair legs and silently will Sanderson to not open another bottle. It’s cold in the cottage, even though the candles on the table make it look cozy.”

Selecky, a vegan and self-described foodie, says food is implicit in life’s emotional events.

Cake’s stories are all about intimacy in some way. Food plays a role in that, whether eating for emotional fulfilment or not. In so many of our most compelling times in relationships and families and social situations, food always shows up: weddings, funerals, Christmas.”

No wonder, then, that Poor John’s (1610 Queen St. W.), the Mascot (1267 Queen St. W.) and Capital Espresso (1349 Queen St. W.)—with their vegan cupcakes, cookies and soups—are regular stops for Selecky. She sometimes ventures to The Belljar (2072 Dundas St. W.) for its avocado and pepper sandwiches.

While the Parkdalian didn’t win this year’s Giller Prize (Johanna Skibsrud, a Nova Scotian who now lives in Montreal, took the top prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, Selecky has become good friends with her fellow nominees. Once the “surreal” glamour of the gala’s television broadcast ended, the five writers found time to sit together and talk shop. They email each other regularly now, sharing photos from the night and discussing future projects.

While there is still some promotion to do now that Cake has a “Giller Prize Finalist” sticker on it, she’s set time aside this winter to work on a new project (which she hints may be non-fiction). Until then, she’ll walking her neighbourhood streets every day, recording the quiet apocalypses she walks past.

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