By Leslie Lindsay
Stunning collection of interlinked stories featuring strong, yet vulnerable women, exploring fears, desires, earned raw emotion, and so much more.
~FICTION FRIDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
I am literally swooning over this collection of interlinked stories by Colette Sartor. ONCE REMOVED: Stories (University of Georgia Press, September 2019) and winner of the Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction, shimmers with radiant, but unsettling characters in authentic situations. It’s mostly about intimacy–and I’m not talking about sex here–it’s the voids and turns of life brimming with emotional complexity. It’s about babies and meals, traditions, and customs. It’s about houses and homes; leaving and going; about love and grief, fierce natures and grudge-holders. It’s about disillusionment and estrangement.
The prose is pounding with pulse, and yet, there’s a lyrical restraint here, too. Sartor strips away the facade we fallible humans hide behind, revealing the (sometimes) crumbling foundation. She excavates the fears, desires, secrets in ways that are surprising and while troublesome, are also delightful. The emotion here is raw, but it’s earned. She does a fabulous job of ‘set-up,’ planting little seeds for the reader, and when the conclusion comes, it’s both inevitable and surprising.
Each of these stories-and I’m not really going into specifics because you just need to read them–are organically told, they unfurl in a way that feels like interlocking pieces of a puzzle. I had several ah-ha! moments, discovering connections between various characters. This is truly a ‘linked’ collection, not just a smattering of work by the same author; they are tethered together in a satisfying whole that works on both a micro- and macro-level, no easy feat.
Overall, I loved ONCE REMOVED. Do yourself a favor and dive in.
But first, join me in conversation with the lovely and talented Colette Sartor.
Colette, I am so glad we connected! This is a troubling time for our world given the COVID-19 pandemic. I was so drawn to these stories in ONCE REMOVED, mostly because I think they have raw intimacy and vulnerability, which is what we are all experiencing right now. Can you talk about your inspiration for this collection? Did you intend for it to be a collected work, or did it evolve that way?
I’m glad we connected too! Answering your questions has given me a respite from the constant anxiety inspired by the pandemic. It’s also been an excellent distraction from baking, which is a much less productive way I’ve been using to stave off anxiety.
To answer your question, I didn’t intend for these stories to be a collection. When I started writing in my thirties, I didn’t even consider myself a short story writer. I assumed I would be a novelist since I tend to be long winded and have a hard time writing anything under 6,000 words (which is fairly long for either a short story or a novel chapter). It was only after I finished my MFA program, where I’d tried and failed to finish an extremely messy novel, that I decided to teach myself to be a better storyteller by writing short stories. Once I started, I got hooked. Short stories present this wonderful challenge of creating tension, conflict, and the illusion of a full, vivid life within the confines of small space. The process of short story writing reminds me of jigsaw puzzling: every story element must fit together in a precise, particular way for a story to feel complete.
My quest to become a better storyteller led me to use my short stories as craft experiments. For instance, I wrote “Jump” because I wanted to play with modern epistolary devices like texts messages and emails as well as challenge myself to use a thirty-year time jump between scenes. “Daredevil” gave me the opportunity to write an unreliable narrator and to experiment with a flash forward ending.
Still, I wouldn’t be able to write anything if my sole motivation was to better my craft. I realized early on that I need to feel emotionally connected to my characters and their dilemmas. Usually, I mine story inspiration from experienced or observed moments that I can’t get out of my head: a trip to San Simeon where I fell in love with elephant seals and Hearst Castle; my first voice teacher’s decision to stop singing when she no longer sounded the way she did at the height of her career; my grandmother’s insistence on flying from Newark to Michigan with a whole lamb in her suitcase for my and my twin sister’s very first Easter. I let those moments brew in my head along with the characters who attach themselves. Once the characters’ voices get loud enough, I start writing.
The main drawback to this approach is that it doesn’t include any consideration of theme, which made it difficult to put together a collection. As I discuss more below, when I finally decided it was time to collect my stories, I shied away from examining the thematic threads throughout my writing. Instead, I placed my most successful stories at the beginning and end of a manuscript, placed the less finished ones in the middle, and slapped on a title, which resulted in numerous failed manuscripts. Consequently, it took me years to assemble ONCE REMOVED in its current form.
I’ll admit that I am a little obsessed with short stories right now. I love how they can encapsulate so much in such a small space. Just because they are ‘short’ or ‘small’ or however you want to categorize them, they are not in any way ‘easy.’ What advice would you give someone wanting to write a short story? Let’s talk about story-mapping. What does that look like? Do you have any examples?
My advice to aspiring short story writers: if you want to write short stories, you have to read short stories, lots of them, to get a feel for the structure and rhythm of the genre. Also, as you noted, Leslie, aspiring short story writers shouldn’t equate “short” with “easy” or “fast.” Short stories are demanding little assholes. They won’t tolerate any extraneous element. Every character, event, gesture, flashback, dialogue must serve multiple essential purposes to the forward motion of the plot and the main character’s journey toward achieving her innermost desire. So if you’re afraid of killing your darlings, the short story form probably isn’t for you.
As for storymapping, it’s a technique I use to help me better understand short story structure. It’s kind of like creating a blueprint for a house. Structure was difficult for me when I first started writing. I knew instinctively how to tell a story orally, but when I tried to write it down, I didn’t understand the basic structural elements required to translate a story to the page.
So I took published short stories and retyped them as Word docs, which allowed me to color code different craft elements. For instance, on my first round of storymapping something, I might highlight all the dramatized scenes in pink and all the expositional passages in blue. Then, I would take the dramatic scenes and break them down even more: dialogue highlighted in yellow, backstory in gray, characters’ actions and gestures in green, internal thoughts and emotions in purple, bits of exposition in the same blue I used for the expositional passages. Then, I’d break down the expositional passages using the same color code, to help me understand the moments when exposition uses the dramatization techniques. Once I finished color coding, I would print out the story, or simply look at as a whole on the screen, and a structural pattern would emerge, one that helped me understand the various ways I could interweave craft elements in my own stories to make them more dynamic and conflicted.
And since we’re on craft, can you talk a little about how you went about the process of weaving the stories in ONCE REMOVED together, what do you see as the connective tissue that tethers them together?
It took me a long time to figure out how to weave the stories together, in large part because when I first started writing, I didn’t think much about the themes underlying my work. Theme can be a broad, esoteric topic. Even now, whenever I try to write from theme, my characters wind up stilted, pompous mouthpieces spouting agendas that aren’t theirs. I prefer to write from small, specific moments, an argument between best friends over a broken glass, a parent’s reflexive smack when her toddler hits her first. Those interactions spur my imagination and result in complex, layered characters motivated by desire who wind up surprising me, delighting me, and often breaking my heart.
Back when I was a new writer, though, the negative result of shunning theme was that I became gun shy of it. I refused to think about why I kept writing about women who couldn’t get close to anyone, including those they loved most; women who felt estranged from lovers, parents, children, friends, even if nothing of true consequence had ever transpired to push them apart. Consequently, I wasn’t able to put together a collection that felt cohesively linked by theme as well as other elements. Several years ago, I finally force myself to sit down with eleven or twelve of my stories, many of them about parenting or being parented, a few linked by recurring characters, and I mapped them out on a timeline that spanned about a decade. As I played with the stories on that timeline, I noticed that what my characters feared most were the sacrifices required of them in the name of intimacy. They bore the burdens of the secrets, lies, and manipulations sometimes necessary to keep relationships afloat. Those burdens made my characters leery of intimacy even as they craved it. Those burdens made them feel once removed from others and themselves. Only after I recognized this as the overarching theme driving my stories was I able to mine those themes and rewrite the stories in a way that resulted in ONCE REMOVED.
Most of these stories take place in L.A. It’s not the glamour and glitz Hollywood-type place we might be imagining. It’s a little more run-down, a little shabbier, but still gleaming with disillusionment. Can you talk about that a bit?
Any disillusionment existing in this collection really results from my own world view. It’s not necessarily a reflection of Los Angeles. I love this city and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Still, when I moved here in my twenties, I had glamour and glitz on my mind. I was too afraid to pursue a creative career, so I studied law with the intention of being an entertainment lawyer and, eventually, a film producer. I quickly discovered, though, that the glamour and glitz of LA was both illusory and repulsive. Red carpets were fraught with holes and frays, and movie stars, producers, creative executives, even entertainment lawyers often came saddled with warehouse size egos designed to distract from mountainous insecurities.
Once I escaped entertainment law (which took me eight years), I discovered the Los Angeles I’ve come to love: early mornings spent roller blading at the beach flanked on one side by homeless people sleeping in tents and cardboard boxes, and on the other by the rippling ocean occasionally crested by dolphins; traffic-filled streets lined with fancy restaurants and shops that can unexpectedly switch to seedy pawn shops and check cashing joints with barred windows; urban neighborhoods like mine, populated by shabby multi-unit housing intermixed with Spanish-style duplexes and single family houses. People around here wave when they walk their dogs and knock on each other’s doors if someone’s car is in danger of being ticketed.
I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over twenty years, longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, but there are people who have lived here far longer. My neighbor Izzy bought his duplex in the fifties, raised his family there, and lived there alone with his little dog until he died recently, well into his nineties. He always kept an eye on our place while we were away; he’d turn the water off if the sprinklers malfunctioned or pick up our mail if the mailperson inadvertently delivered it while we were still gone. The four-plex across the street was owned by a family of four—a mother, a daughter, two sons—who lived there for decades. I never learned all their names, except for Big Mike. It was hard to miss him, a tall, sallow wraith of a man who used a walker and toted an oxygen tank though he probably wasn’t much older than fifty. I heard from neighbors he had a host of health issues from years of hard living and a multi-pack per day smoking habit. He kept smoking right up until the night he fell asleep on his couch with a lit cigarette and didn’t wake up in time to escape the ensuing fire.
The whole neighborhood shuffled out at three a.m. to witness the fire trucks arrive, the ambulance with its lights flashing silently. Few of us knew Big Mike personally, but we owed him that much: to show up and bear witness to his death. After all, he was as close as we were going to get to an original member of the neighborhood. The story went that his mother was the original owner of their four-plex. She raised him and his siblings there and lived in one of the lower units until she died there. The last time I saw her, I was seven months pregnant. I was having a garage sale to make room in our upstairs unit for the baby. She tottered across the street, tiny and stooped, with a fine netting of white hair and a face weathered by time and cigarettes, much like Big Mike’s. She bought a fan from me, to cool off her apartment, she said, but I’d like to think she also wanted to help me out. She knew what it was like to raise kids in a small apartment in this neighborhood where she had lived most of her life, a neighborhood where I’ve now lived much of my own life. A neighborhood where we look out for our own.
Did you have a particular story—or character—in this collection you connected with most? Who (or what story) did you find a challenge to write?
I especially connected with Skye in “Elephant Teeth.” Her character emerged while I was writing “Jump,” a sibling rivalry story. Skye doesn’t actually appear in “Jump,” but her friendship with one of the siblings becomes a point of contention. Once I finished “Jump,” I realized I wanted to know more about Skye and what happened to her after “Jump.” I found her voice and circumstances so compelling that I wound up writing “Elephant Teeth.” Like Skye, I had my son later in life, so I keenly identify with the hurdles she faced as an older mother, when parenting becomes more physically and mentally taxing. There’s a selflessness involved in caretaking—a willingness to think outside the self and focus on the needs and best interest of a separate person—that’s especially challenging for someone like me and Skye, who had thirty-plus years of self-focused living before giving birth. It felt freeing to allow her to admit the fears and frustrations that crop up during parenting.
“La Cuesta Encantada” was the toughest story to write in the collection. It took me forever to finish. I worked on it in fits and starts, trying to puzzle it out and then putting it down to reconsider once I had a better understanding of craft. The story changed dramatically over the years it took to write. It started out being called “Blue Grass and Coyotes” and revolved around a middle-aged couple who ran a gift shop in Sedona, Arizona with a couple of other women friends who kept showing up but never doing much of anything. I could never quite figure out the story’s central conflict. The story stagnated.
Right before my sister got married, I took a trip with her and our best friend to Cambria, a small city on California’s central coast where I fell in love with elephant seals and Hearst Castle. I also realized that “Blue Grass” was about love, not just between spouses, but also between lifetime friends. I moved the story to Cambria, where the husband and wife ran a gift shop selling Hearst Castle and elephant seal memorabilia, and I started exploring the friendship between the wife and the two other women, which led me to write about them as teenagers, when Hearst Castle was the jewel of the coast, which in turn required a much longer story that involved three different time periods in the characters’ lives. These choices added several more years to the writing of the story. Still, I’m glad I let “La Cuesta” germinate for so long. If I had tried to finish it sooner, when I wasn’t as developed a writer, I wouldn’t have been able to write the story the way the characters wanted it to be told.
Colette, I so loved this. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to chat. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Same here! I had so much fun answering these questions and getting my mind off pandemic worries.
Artistic cover of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #alwaysreading.
For more information, to connect with Colette Sartor via social media, or to purchase a copy of ONCE REMOVED, please see:
I found some connections between this collection and others of similar ilk, including: IF THE ICE HAD HELD (Wendy J. Fox), THAT TIME I LOVED YOU (Carrianne Leung), THE WONDER GARDEN (Lauren Acampora), maybe also the writing style of Anita Shreve meets Thomas Christopher Greene.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Colette Sartor’s linked short story collection ONCE REMOVED (UGA Press) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately and is an executive director of the CineStory Foundation, a mentoring organization for emerging TV writers and screenwriters. Her writing has appeared in Carve magazine, Slice magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Kenyon Review Online, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Among other awards, she has been granted a Glenna Luschei Award, a Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and a Truman Capote fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and very large German Shepherd Dog who howls like a wolf at every passing siren.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Forthcoming photography to appear in Up the Staircase Quarterly and Another Chicago Magazine; poetry to appear this summer in Coffin Bell Journal. Leslie has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic cover of book designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #alwaysreading]