Monday, April 10, 2023

TBR: Imagine Your Life Like This by Sarah Layden

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?


We all long for something; what if we get it? The characters in this collection are on the verge of change, if only they could see themselves or their situations with greater clarity. If only they—and we—could come to terms with self-identity, perceptions of others, and the photographs that don’t match the picture in our minds.



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


I spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time on the shortest story in the collection: “Paternity Test” is only five pages long, but it has more characters and connections than some of the longest stories in the book. I wrote a very fast, very rough first draft in Fall 2020, and it struck me later that I was seeking out the day-to-day connections I was missing during the pandemic. It took many more drafts to tighten and figure out the story’s trajectory. Working in short forms like flash fiction, or in this case, a flash-adjacent/slightly longer story, is a challenge I enjoy.


As for struggles, a thing about starting some of these stories two decades ago? It’s shocking how fast society can change in that relatively short amount of time. “In Search Of” is an early story that remains set in the early 2000s, at a weekly newspaper where a man and woman take personal ads by phone for the Classifieds section. That sentence alone, along with the attitudes of the main characters about gender, bodies, race, and romantic entanglements, form a kind of time capsule. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it was, at least in terms of how much has changed since then. I wanted to capture that time, place, and feeling even as I was making large-scale revisions to the story and seeing it through more recent eyes. These characters don’t have the same luxury of hindsight.  



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


A story collection is such a tricky animal. I started a few of these stories in the early to mid 2000s, in my MFA program. Even though several were published, they were still taking on different forms post-publication. Particularly in the revision of this book, I struggled for a long time with the idea of “doneness.” This could be my journalism background, but to me it felt that once something was printed, it was finished, at least in terms of my consideration or attention. It was really a challenge to think about how they stories could take on a new life in order to operate as a cohesive unit. The collection went through multiple title changes, rearrangement of story order, and detailed revision of every story, including the ones previously published. To become a published collection, it had to evolve into a new creature.


I also entered many contests run by presses and journals, and was occasionally a finalist, which encouraged me to keep working on the book and submitting it. The review process of a university press can be intense, but it helped me see the work through new eyes, which is always the goal for me in revision: how does a reader outside of my own head read the work? And then, what am I going to do with that information?


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I have many. But one I often find myself returning to is something I heard from Steve Almond: “Slow down where it hurts.” That moment in writing where you find yourself wanting to speed past or gloss over: what’s beneath it, either for you or the characters? It’s revelatory, the things that happen on the page when you let your characters fully experience or inhabit all their messy and true emotions in scenes. People are often trained not to pay attention to pain, and we can trace countless individual and cultural problems that stem from unprocessed pain. Terrible for human beings, great for fiction.


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


At the story level, there was a moment in drafting “I’m Not Who You Think I Am” when I finally understood what happened to the missing character, a runaway groom. That cracked the rest of the story open for me, and I rewrote the whole thing what that in mind.


At the book level, it’s hard to believe how many lives this collection has lived inside my computer. I don’t know if writing and assembling a short story collection is a straightforward process for other writers, but it certainly was not for me. I might be able to identify this as a Sarah problem, actually, as this trends across many of my life experiences. (Is there an emoji to convey overthinking while laughing and crying? That’s the right one for this context.)  


How did you find the title of your book?


The title story came late to the collection. When I was revising and wrote the line, I knew it would be the book title, too. I’ve always been interested in how we imagine or refuse to imagine the lives of other people, and what results from connection and disconnection, from misperception and failure of empathy. I like to think of the title, Imagine Your Life Like This, as a dare to my characters. Also to me. And you.


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


Half-moon cookies are a Syracuse staple and are featured in my story “Hysterectomy,” which takes place near the Syracuse University campus. The story was published in Stone Canoe, a journal once out of SU and now part of the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center. Two of my former colleagues at the Syracuse Post-Standard give us the goods on half-moons: this Sean Kirst column illustrates the significance of these delicious cookies, and journalist and food blogger Margaret McCormick recommends this Saveur recipe (adapted and scaled from the Hemstrought’s Bakery recipe, which originally made 2,400. Oh, wow. Can you imagine? I can.)






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