Interview by Troy Palmer, 2012.

LF: When first promoting The Exchange, we described it as a story about fitting in, growing up and trying to borrow a pair of underpants from a girl you barely know. How would you describe it?

SS: That’s a nice encapsulation of the plot and the story’s thematic considerations. The Exchange is an effort to convey a child’s worldview, in which engagement with other kids is central and immediate, and role of adults is distant, occasionally surreal and possibly sinister. The main character Roddy’s relationship with his family is superficial and most other adults—from the crossing guard to the swim coach—seem worthy of distrust. It’s meant to be atmospheric and moody. Not everything happening may be explained to or fully understood by the young characters, but I try to imbue them with a high level of emotional awareness and sensitivity.

LF: What inspired The Exchange?

SS: The characters and events are fictional, but its setting is based on my recollections of a neighbourhood and school in Burlington, Ontario, where I attended Grade 3. And the bully Mike Martell is based loosely on a boy I knew in that class.

LF: You mentioned on Twitter about the bullying aspect of this story being auto-biographical. How did that experience shape you?

SS: Kids can be cruel; I was picked on as a little boy and unpopular and ignored as a teen. It shaped me profoundly. Bullying is horrible; I don’t think things are better today and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I can still say I’m happy about the person who emerged from that crucible in one piece. I’m sensitive to pointless mockery, I value non-conformity and I’m passionate about social justice—and I think those traits have a lot to do with things I experienced growing up. All of it goes into my literary-fiction writing at some level.

LF: Roddy is a very likable protagonist. But as much as I cheered for him, I also felt bad for Mike, the bully. You only touch on his home life briefly, but it’s enough to let us know that he’s a product of a bad upbringing. Did you ever think about exploring that story any further?

SS: I’m not sure I’d delve into it further, simply because I like to leave some questions unanswered. But absolutely, your perception regarding Mike is an important part of this story to me. Bullying is a very au courant topic these days, but I wanted to complicate the cultural narrative at least a little bit.

Hindsight suggests to me that bullies often have their own serious problems, which wasn’t as clear to me when I was chased home night after night or held down by a gang of kids while another one kicked me in the stomach. I grew up in a very working-class neighbourhood and my peers included some really mean kids, and in particular some very tough girls. In retrospect I realize not all their lives were necessarily very happy either.

LF: What is your writing process like? Do you usually have the beginning, middle and ending when you start out?

SS: I usually start with an idea or an image that I want to explore. This can mean a setting, a topic or a type of relationship, or even a way of structuring a sentence that I’m curious about. I often let a particular preoccupation float around in my mind for a few weeks, and then when I sit down to write I see what comes out.

My style of storytelling is fairly linear and plot-driven, and I usually write the story in order from start to finish. As I write each scene, I’m thinking about what could happen next, about how things might end and what that trajectory could look like.

But I still make it up one sentence at a time so it’s all subject to change. I never have an outline in advance. Often I don’t know exactly how a story is going to end until I reach the conclusion. From time to time I have a firm idea about the ending when I’m still in the thick of things, and sometimes I’ll go ahead and write the final paragraph, and then fill things in from there.

LF: Do you have any writing rituals? Settings, music, a particular cocktail, etc.?

SS: For me, the best way to start a productive writing session is to clean my desk! I’m not a naturally neat person, but clutter makes it harder for me to concentrate. The rest of the room can be a mess, but as long as the desk is orderly, I’m good to go.

Other than perhaps an espresso if it’s morning, I’m a bit superstitious about avoiding any mood-altering substance when writing—which is a bit funny given that I write about alcohol and drug use a lot in both my journalism and literary fiction. I just want to feel like whatever comes out is authentically from “me” rather than some intoxicated incarnation of me.

I usually avoid music too because I find it distracting. An exception would be the work of experimental composer William Basinski. I’ve played his piece Vivian and Ondine dozens of times and I have found his work is a good backdrop when I want to focus.

LF: What do you like most about writing (or reading) short stories?

SS: I like short stories that feel accessible and unpretentious, but that move or surprise me. As a reader—and writer—I’m more interested in experimentation in content than form.

I used to find short-story writing rewarding but agonizing. It differs from criticism and journalism as those involve a subject that is concrete and approachable, which feels naturally easier to me. Plus I’ve been doing those kinds of writing much longer.

At some point in the middle of writing my first collection though, something clicked and things got a lot easier. I’m about to start my next writing project in earnest, and I think the process may be very different this time.

LF: What, if anything, can you tell us about your next project?

SS: The Exchange is part of a completed short-fiction collection that I’m currently shopping around. Response so far has been promising. I’m actually debating whether my next project will be a second book of short fiction, or a novel I’ve already started work on. I learned a lot writing my first short-fiction book and I’m curious to see how I’d approach another one differently.

The novel has a working title of Birth Rites. Without giving too much away, I’d say it’s set in modern-day Toronto and it concerns sexually transmitted infections, unconventional relationships and pregnancy. I’m keen to develop it further, and there is a certain pressure in the marketplace toward novels. I’ve gotten really positive feedback on my writing from agents, who basically ended the conversation by saying, “Now come back to me when you have a novel.” 

But I’d rather make that decision based on creative interests than business ones. I’m passionate about short fiction and I think there is something beautifully self-contained about the short story, especially as online and social media create more opportunities to bring writers and readers together.

Read the exchange »


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