Monday, September 16, 2019

TBR: Once Removed by Colette Sartor

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

The women in the linked short story collection Once Removed carry the burdens imposed in the name of intimacy—the secrets kept, the lies told, the disputes initiated—as well as the joy that can still manage to triumph. Some of these women possess the fierce natures and long, vengeful memories of expert grudge holders. Others avoid conflict at every turn, or so they tell themselves. For all of them, grief lies at the core of love.

Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

The story I most enjoyed writing was “Malocchio.” My work usually includes bits and pieces of family lore, but this one contains the most. “Malocchio” is about my favorite recurring character, Rose, who’s based on my paternal grandmother. In it, Rose tells a story about starting kindergarten in the 1940s from a reflective first person POV, an unusual narrative perspective for me. I set the story in the city triplex where my great grandmother ran a dairy farm and raised my grandmother and where my grandmother later ran a sweatshop and raised my father and uncle. It was pure joy to imagine my brilliant, vengeful, loyal grandmother as a child. In fact, I loved writing Rose so much that she’s a main character in my novel-in-progress, Piecework, which is based on a murder my grandmother helped cover up in the ‘70s.

The story that gave me the most trouble was “Jump.” “Jump” involves estranged adult siblings, but the inspirational seed was a story my mom used to tell about how she and her brothers made a game out of jumping off the garage roof. I knew that scene would be more powerful told in the present rather than as a flashback or in backstory. I also knew that writing that scene in present day meant it would need to open the story, which in turn would require a decades-long jump in time from that first scene to the next one. Given how risky such a jump might be to pull off, I decided to really take some risks and play around with structure, which somehow led me to intersperse the scenes with text messages, which led to a draft so overly complicated that the story took me years to complete.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Publication was an extremely long road for this collection. I started writing short stories after I finished my MFA to give myself a break from writing a novel that will forevermore live only on my hard drive. I knew I needed to learn how to tell a better story, and short stories were faster to finish and easier to analyze than novels. So I started writing my own short stories and storymapped published ones, by which I mean I highlighted the different structural elements of my favorite short stories (e.g., all the dialogue in pink, all the present-day actions/gestures in blue, all the expositional backstory in green, etc.) to figure out how the stories were put together and why their structures worked.

Before I knew it, I was obsessed with short stories. That’s all I worked on for years. The problem was, I wrote about whatever came to mind without thinking about how my stories might fit together in a book. So when I started trying to pull together a collection, I realized that my stories weren’t sufficiently linked to feel compelling as a whole. Instead of finding a way to make them more cohesive, I just put my strongest stories first and last, buried the weaker ones in the middle, slapped on a title, and submitted the “collection” to contests. That approach resulted in a few nibbles but mostly generic rejections.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I forced myself to do the hard work of figuring out the connective tissue between my stories—not just themes, but also characters, settings, histories, timelines. I kept refining those connections, finished a few more stories, and worked with editor Matthew Limpede to ensure the collection felt whole. Then I forced myself to submit it to the Flannery O’Connor Award contest—one of the ones that had nibbled but rejected my previous efforts. A few months later, I got a text/ phone call from Lee K. Abbott to say my collection had won.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Show don’t tell is bullshit.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

That I finished it. I’m only partially joking. I almost abandoned this book many, many times. I’m forever grateful to Matthew Limpede for encouraging me to finish it and to Lee K. Abbott for choosing it for publication.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title came from one of the collection’s stories, about a woman trying to find her place—if any—in her new boyfriend’s fractured family. That story and its title best embodied all my characters’ struggles to shoulder the responsibilities of family and intimacy without abandoning their own identities and desires.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Italian food, most definitely. Your question inspired this post about my obsession with food, which includes my mom’s sauce recipe:





READ A SHORT STORY, “Bandit” (in a slightly different form):


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.