Staff Writer Addy Strickland and Co-Editor-In-Chief Yanik Gallie interviewed novelist Sarah Mian at Trellis Cafe on Tuesday 24th of July. Sarah is writing the script for a film adaptation of When The Saints. Sarah is also in the process of writing her second novel, The World in Awful Sleep.
Sarah Mian's debut novel, When the Saints, won the Jim Connors Book Award, the Margaret & John Savage First Book Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The book has just been optioned for a feature film and she is writing the screenplay.
AS: You recently left your day job with the RCMP to become a full-time writer. What does a typical day of work look like for you now?
SM: I wish I could say that I had a routine that I stick to everyday. It’s more random than that, because I never know what project is inspiring me on a particular day. I am working simultaneously on my second novel, the screenplay for When The Saints, and a few other freelance projects. I try to get the tight deadlines out of the way first. Generally speaking, I write better at night, and now that I don’t have to get up everyday and go to a day job, I can write all night. I find that I think much more clearly in the evening, so I usually start writing on the heavy stuff after 7pm, go till about 2am or so, and then I wake when I wake. I try to get some exercise in there. I find that when I do something repetitive like running, walking or paddling, a different part of my consciousness can come forward and I’m better able to work out all of the plot points that weren’t coming to me when I was typing.
AS: When The Saints is your first novel, correct?
SM: I wrote what I call a starter novel in my 20s, and I highly recommend it because it taught me how to be a better writer. When I read it back, not only is it a capsule of the way that I thought in my 20s – my gosh, I’d be mortified if it would ever be published because it’s so saccharine, idealistic, naïve --but when I read it back, it I can see that the writing gets better halfway through. All that consistent writing really paid off. The beginning is weak, and the ending is so strong, I can see the transformation of myself as a writer through that manuscript. It was absolutely worth doing.
I teach writing classes now at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and I always tell students, “never throw anything away.” If I had thrown that manuscript in the wood stove once I realized it wasn’t going to get published, I would have lost some really poetic descriptions of weather, landscapes and the ocean. I’m pulling those out and using them now in my second novel. It’s like a gift from my former self.
AS: What was the process of writing When The Saints like compared to your first novel?
SM: It started out as a flash fiction exercise I was doing with my writing group. I just kept adding to it, and it became a short story. Then, it was longer than a short story and I was still working on it. I had no intention to write a novel based on it – but the voice was so compelling and urgent. So, I wrote the whole thing from start to finish. Then, I went back to the beginning and made every line lead up to that ending. It felt like with this particular story, like it wanted to exist, or it already existed, and it chose me to take it down like a scribe which makes it sounds easier than it is. My second novel is not going down that path at all. It’s a completely different beast. I really value the fact that When The Saints came to me so fully formed.
AS: When the Saints took home the notable Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award and Margaret and John Savage First Book Award in 2016. As a debut author, how were these awards significant to you?
SM: Because those awards are judged by other writers in the Maritimes it felt really good to be recognized by my peers. It meant a lot to me while I was writing the book, and after I wrote the book, that people here embraced the book. It is such a Nova Scotia story. It was also shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and there were only three finalists - the other two well established with many novels under their belts and had been shortlisted or won the thing before, and me. And, this is a big event where it’s black tie and they sing the national anthem. That was kind of surreal for a kid who grew up in the hood in Dartmouth on social assistance.
YG: What did you take away from working with the major publisher, HarperCollins?
SM: I had no idea there were so many layers to the editing process. There’s an editor, and there’s a copywriter, and then there’s a proof-reader. I was getting emails like, “hey, you have someone drinking a pineapple cooler, and the book takes place roughly around 1996. I don’t think those were invented yet, here’s a list of coolers that you can choose from.” So, I think I changed it to Calypso Berry. I was thrilled that somebody is actually like, “hey if they drive to the stop sign and turn left, wouldn’t they be going the wrong way?” They’re actually paying attention to my imaginary town.
Then there’s a jacket designer. I sent them a photo of something that I had in mind, and then they had their artist create this cover. I’m so happy with what she did. When it was published, HarperCollins gave me a publicist. It felt like I had a whole team. Through it all, I had a say in everything. My contract stated that I am the top authority over my creation, and HarperCollins stuck by that.
YG: It sounds like you had a lot of creative liberty to make the book’s aesthetic and content exactly to your liking, which is awesome.
SM: Yes, but when it comes to the screenplay, it’s going to be completely opposite. Having had this experience, I really need to brace myself for the fact that I’ll have little control over the decisions. But hey, Hemingway famously said that if anyone ever options your book, you should drive to Hollywood, throw your manuscript over the fence, wait for the bag of money to come back and then drive away as fast as you can. It’s just a totally different medium and the book will be completely unrecognizable. It will be a good challenge for me to think through how we can lose the flashbacks or condense characters or eliminate scenes and still retain the information that those scenes conveyed. I’m excited about that, and not excited about that at the same time. Hopefully it will still retain its flavor, tone, and characters. If they find really good actors and nothing else – even if the budget is small and the set is tiny – I think they can pull it off.
YG: The title When the Saints alludes to the familiar lyric, “when the saints go marching in.” An acute reader could anticipate the reuniting of the Saint family. Was this planned foreshadowing?
SM: I can’t recall at what stage of writing the novel the title came into play. The name Saint came from the RCMP. There had been a woman in a small town who had committed countless petty crimes with the last name Saint. I felt there was great irony. In other police files, there were whole families who were the shit disturbers in the town. So, I put those two together and formed the Saint family. It seemed to me the most logical title because it works in that your mind automatically connects with the rest of the sentence. As soon as you start reading or even read the back you’re going to see that they’re the kind of people who take no prisoners.
YG: Many reviewers on Goodreads mention that they connect with Tabby on a deep level. How did this brave character come to be?
SM: She, I would say, is a composite of people I grew up with in a rough neighbourhood, in Dartmouth. There are elements of family members, elements of myself, but then some of her was always her own person who kept talking to me and I kept listening. I also feel quite an affinity for her. I don’t know how we met, but I’m glad we did.
YG: Literary critic Laura Eggertson from The Star praised your exceptionally-developed characters. What is your process for developing characters?
SM: I think with the Saint family, they are all very strong personalities, and their motivations are overt. They’re very outspoken, which kind of made them easier to know. Once they knew who they were, and what their motivations were, all of the plot lines evolved very organically out of themselves. They drove the whole thing, just being who they are. They are all sort of characters from my upbringing. They’re all mish-mashes of many different people.
I spend a lot of time musing about characters when I’m not writing. Like if I’m watching a concert, I would try to put myself into that person’s body and mind, and think to myself how would Jackie react to this right now? Would he be patient? Would he be secretly really moved by it? I try to inhabit them outside of the writing process on occasion and sometimes that leads to some really cool insights.
I take a minute to check in with them. Even if I’m just camping with friends, I kind of go off in my head, often, and my friends are used to that - where I’m thinking about the people who don’t exist while hanging out with people who do exist.
YG: I would argue that it’s a reason why your fictional world comes to life so much.
SM: I think it’s important not to treat them like your Barbie dolls where you just tell them what to say. If they start to live and breathe on their own, they’ll resist that anyway. You tell them they want to go this way and they won’t. So, you trust them, and you follow them. You don’t steer them to places where they wouldn’t go.
YG: You wrote the book in 1st person narration and present tense, which are interesting choices for style - why did you choose this style of narration?
SM: I think because it’s all filtered through Tabby and she’s just come back to this world, she’s the outsider now. Like us, the reader, she knows nothing. I wanted us to learn things as she learned them. I wanted to be inside her head, hearing only her thoughts and feelings the entire story, because it really is her journey. When the Saints is the story of Tabby's transformation from rejecting her family to accepting her family.
AS: Would you ever consider writing a sequel, or will you leave the story as is?
SM: I never want to write anything twice. As much as I’ve been asked that a lot, I’m always trying to express myself in new ways. I kind of like the idea of people who read my second novel for the first time, never in a million years would they think that it’s the same writer. I want to lose myself in each new story so completely that I don’t have a consistent voice because the story is the voice. I wouldn’t want to revisit because I’m excited to see what I’m capable of next.
YG: In what ways do your Nova Scotian roots manifest themselves in your writing and vocabulary?
SM: There’s been a lot of mention in reviews about the language, because it is rather extreme, however that’s the way people talk here, especially in the world I grew in, and especially in Nova Scotia. When I tried to tone the language down in certain places, I couldn’t and still feel true to the characters. I let the characters express themselves according to their upbringing. There’s a certain poetry to it, I think it wasn’t peppering it with expletives for shock value, it was very controlled. It’s just the way that people talk around here. I eavesdrop on conversations all the time and make notes in my writing journal if a turn of phrase catches my ear.
YG: Did Jim Lahey inspire your use of the word “shitstorm”?
SM: No, but after the book was published , John Dunsworth, the actor who played him, gave me his Dicshitnary. I said, “man, I wish I had this as one of my reference books when I was writing the book When The Saints.” The book has been described as Winter’s Bone meets Trailer Park Boys, which I’m not against. I’m hoping the movie version will be more like Winter’s Bone because while it is a funny novel, it’s also a very serious story and a very heartfelt story. I don’t want it to end up a parody. It’s important to me that this screenplay is not just entertainment. It has to show that these people aren’t to be taken lightly. This is a real true experience. This same cast of characters in another neighbourhood would probably flourish. We don’t always get to transcend our upbringing, not everybody does. When your soil has no nutrients, it’s hard to grow. I think that was the big question I was trying to answer when I wrote this book: Can we do better than our parents? I taught adults in a program designed for people who had been out of the workforce for a very long time or never had a job either because they had addiction issues, some had been prostitutes, some of them had been incarcerated. The historical damage within those bloodlines – they didn’t stand a chance. We all are presented with similar opportunities in a way but if you have no self-esteem left, you’re not going to pursue them. I wrote this book to honor that experience.
YG: You mention Alistair MacLeod’s short stories as a source of inspiration in your interview with Shannon Webb-Campbell. How did Alistair influence your style of storytelling?
SM: I remember the curriculum in junior high, elementary, even high school, there were very few Nova Scotian writers. So, it was exciting to read one whose writing was so nuanced, had a tinge of darkness. It was our experience reflected back. I was very moved by his work, I still am, and I am now a fan of his son’s, Alexander MacLeod, works.
Alistair did a lot for the literary community in Nova Scotia. I feel like he’s one of the last of the old-school writers who wrote by hand. I like the idea of being on a windswept, rocky coast someday writing by candlelight, by hand. It’s hard to reconcile what I thought a novelist’s experience would be with the reality in 2018 where with social media, it’s hard to be mysterious. I always liked being mysterious. You always secretly want the author of our favorite book to be their character, then we’re disappointed when they’re not. It’s better to just keep the shade down. It was really hard for me when the book came out. My publicist at HarperCollins sent me a social media audit in which he had taken screenshots of everything I was not doing, or doing wrong, or could do better. It was like, you should have a Facebook page, and you should have a website, look these people are commenting on Goodreads so you should talk to them. I didn’t want to do it, and I still don’t want to do any of that. I joined Twitter for five minutes and was like, “I can’t, I’m out.” I’m a luddite who listens to only vinyl records and just got a cellphone at forty. I don’t like the idea of being that connected, but because the book industry is not as lucrative as it once was, there’s an expectation that you fulfil some of the marketing requirements yourself. I do have an author Facebook page, but I don’t think I’ve updated it in a year. I do have a website, and I’ll say, “post to come!”
I do love reading to people, but I don’t love talking about myself as a writer. I’ve done acting and I perform music sometimes, and that’s different because I’m being somebody else when I do that. When I’m me, at my most authentic self as a writer, I feel so naked. That’s been a learning curve about how to get used to the spotlight on me personally and not me as a character. I’ve had other writers recommend that I create Sarah the writer as a character but that feels wrong because I don’t want to separate myself from my writing life in that way.
AS: Are there any other books or authors that are always on your reading list, or that you’ve enjoyed recently?
SM: I don’t know that I have authors that I revisit again and again, because I’m always trying to learn from new voices. I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories because my new novel is a bit of a scary suspense story, and I’m trying to deconstruct what works and what doesn’t. Everything from the classics like The Haunting of Hill House or Edgar Allan Poe. I’m reading Elizabeth de Miriaffi’s Hysteria right now. A lot of what I read in fiction is in service to my own fiction, depending on what it is I’m trying to get better at myself. For pure love of reading, I love short stories. I appreciate that art-form and would love to get to the point where people would want to read my short stories, which usually happens after you’ve developed a following. I just read a collection called I am, I am, I am by a writer named Maggie O’Farrell, an Irish writer, and each of the stories details a time she almost died. Within those stories, she kind of gives us a whole narrative of their life and I thought they were perfect.
AS: You’re working on a new book, The World in Awful Sleep. Can you tell us about where you’re hoping to go with this new project?
SM: The first draft of this book is not coming as easily as When the Saints did. It’s a very complex story with characters who don’t reveal themselves easily. It’s like starting over and learning from scratch how to be a writer. I tried to write it the same way as I did with When the Saints from beginning to end and it would not comply so I’m building it very slowly from the ground up. It’s a lot more fleshed out, but slower moving. I’m hoping to have a full first draft ready to show my editor by next spring.
AS: Is there any advice you would give to an aspiring writer who wants to write a novel?
SM: There is so much advice that I wish someone had told me fifteen years ago. I’ll narrow it down to my top 5. Number one: Start a writing group. That feedback is invaluable, and that support system is invaluable. It’s a really lonely and difficult job. Your family or partner, they don’t always necessarily understand that part of you, so to connect with other people who do, and people that you trust and give you knowledge and feedback, you start to become this family in which success for one of you is a success for all of you.
We used to workshop each other’s work. If it were your turn you would email or send us what they’re working on in advance. We all will have read it and have feedback prepared and would discuss it at length. We’d have a short little exercise at the start and then we just drink and gossip. It’s now at the point where we’ll meet up on a long weekend and go to a cabin and spend three days together. It’s motivating because if you know you’re going to meet up with your writing group, you need something to show. It gives you a deadline. So, start a writing group, or join an existing writing group. Sometimes you don’t gel, you have to find the right people, but I feel like when it’s fate, the wrong people will fall away and the ones who are supposed to be there will find you. Number two: Keep learning. I still take writing workshops. I read books about writing all the time. I tap other writers for advice. I would never presume to think that I know anything about writing. Having written one novel, I discovered that all of the techniques I used in the first one are not working in the second one. It’s like I’m starting from scratch. I’ve been talking to a lot of writers about second novel syndrome. Number three: Keep a journal and never throw anything away. You may use it later. It’s really hard to cut passages from your writing that are so eloquent, or a really precise thought that you had in your head, and you’re proud to have put on paper, but if it doesn’t move the story forward, it has to go. To temper that loss, put it in a safe place and keep it., I have used many things that I have thrown away. Number four: Keep your rejection letters. Send things out all the time. Keep a spreadsheet of where you sent them, and when you get feedback write down what it was. Was it a personal note? Was it a form letter? Write the dates down and send it everywhere often. It’s so hard not to get lost in the shuffle. Send your work everywhere, often, and keep your rejection letters to tell the story of how you made it. I read that in Stephen King’s On Writing autobiography and I started doing that. Now when I go talk to kids who want to be writers in schools, I bring this giant binder and say, “this is what it takes to be a writer.” I never doubted that I would become a novelist. I knew I would and I knew I would because I knew I would never give up. That’s the only difference between a non-successful writer and a successful writer. Number five: Get an agent. It’s almost as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher, but it’s well worth it. I highly recommend finding out what the agencies are in Canada, find out who the agents are and which writers they represent. Find one that you think would be a good fit for you. When you have something to show them, write them a letter about why you’d be a good match. Include why you’ve written this book, why only you could write this book, and why it has to be written now in your letter. Try to give them a sense of your writing voice so they’re intrigued enough to want to read more. Don’t send them a book in the mail. Ask them if they would be interested; make them interested. The agents have all their editors in their pockets that they can call, and then that agent is almost guaranteed to read it as opposed to you mailing it to Penguin or Random House where it sits in a slush pile for who knows how long.
What happened with me is that I sort of blindly applied for my first grant to go and I got it and went to the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. One of the writing mentors I was paired with loved my book so much, she offered to work together long distance after the program had ended - which is rare, and so generous. After I had finished the next draft, she gave me a little more feedback and said, “when you’re done with those few things, send it to my agent.” The agent loved it and signed me right away, and a month later, I had a book deal with HarperCollins. It felt like a complete fairy-tale and a fluke, except I had thirty-year apprenticeship of writing behind that. Since I was a little kid I’ve been honing, and honing, and honing my craft. I would never have wanted to be published anything that I didn’t feel was necessary to other people.I want what I write to be important so I must dedicate my life to mastering my craft. Taking this step and quitting my day job to do this even more deliberately, I feel that I will get better and that I will learn more.