Debut novelist Sigal Samuel on what her inner critic is wearing
Sigal Samuel knows how to start things off with a bang. The Montreal-raised, Brooklyn-based writer's debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, racked up wins at the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Awards and the Alberta Book Publishing Awards, and is longlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award.
Below, Sigal Samuel answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Writers often use their own life as a springboard for fiction. Could you relate a real incident in your life and then tell us how it got changed into fiction?"
One night, I cooked a pot of macaroni and cheese, portioned it out into a few separate bowls, opened a bag of M&Ms and separated out the candies by colour, then mixed each different colour into a different bowl. The candies turned some noodles red, some blue, and so on. In my novel, the two kids in the central dysfunctional family often get left to their own devices when it comes to making dinner, so I wrote a scene where they do this trick with the macaroni and M&Ms. Upon reading the book, a friend told me, "I love when the characters do that, it's such a good metaphor, mixing the bitter and the sweet to reflect a bittersweet childhood — and it's such a weird little kid thing to do!" I did not tell this friend that the metaphor was totally unintended — or that I was 23 when I made this dinner for myself.
2. Taras Grescoe asks, "What act of betrayal has being a writer led you into?"
Being a writer has often led me to betray my own body. Over the past five years, as I was writing and promoting my novel, I've happily let writing steal from my body hundreds of hours of sleep, dozens of meals, countless weekends I could have used to actually relax after a long week at my day job. I don't regret it per se, but I do see now that all that took a real toll, leading to physical burnout. No joke, I repented for that "betrayal" this past Yom Kippur.
3. Alan Bradley asks, "Does the act of writing ever have a physical effect on you? If so, describe it."
Writing, for me, is often synonymous with pacing. When I can't figure something out — a character motivation, a story beat — I walk around in circles in my apartment or outside. There's a tiny park near my place in Brooklyn and it contains a statue of inventor Robert Fulton ("Fulty" to me), and I'll often pace around him and talk to him aloud like a big weirdo.
4. Peter Robinson asks, "How important is the sense of place in your work?"
A lot more important than I initially thought. When I first started writing The Mystics of Mile End, I thought it could take place anywhere in North America, and originally it was set in Vancouver. The day I realized that it needed to take place in Montreal's neighbourhood of Mile End was the day everything clicked. I threw out my old problem-ridden manuscript and started writing the whole book over again at breakneck pace. It poured out of me easily this time because Mile End — an area populated by hipsters and Hasidic Jews — functioned as a metaphor for the battle between secularity and religion, one of the novel's major themes. The setting did half the work of plot for me.
5. Marie-Claire Blais asks, "What is, for you, the spiritual aspect of writing?"
Since my novel tells the story of a family that becomes dangerously obsessed with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) to the point of madness, it may be incriminating to admit this, but: When I write fiction, I feel like I'm engaging in a Kabbalistic practice. The medieval mystics' meditations, which included letter permutations and automatic writing, were basically techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness. That's exactly what writing fiction is for me. It's an altered state in which I let my subconscious take over; I'm often surprised by what comes out of it, and being surprised by myself is my favourite part of the process. (Later, of course, I go back and edit with my conscious mind — that's where the hard work comes in.)
6. Caroline Pignat asks, "If you made a caricature of your inner critic, how would it look? What might it say?"
My inner critic is a whip-smart, sarcastic white girl with long straight hair and faded jeans. Don't ask me why. She's always yelling at me to make my prose more "spare" and "minimalist." She is a fan of "concision." She doesn't like that I'm not.
7. Ivan Coyote asks, "What is one story that is rattling ghosts around in your head, but for whatever reason, you haven't tackled it yet?"
Ever since I discovered that my ancestor was a revered Kabbalist in India, I've been toying with the idea of setting a novel in the Jewish community of Mumbai. I have a lot of the plot mapped out in my head and I can see the characters clearly. But I haven't written a word yet, because it's all presenting itself in my head too easily, too obviously. That's a bad thing because it means I'm bored. And if you're going to devote the next five years of your life to something, it can't bore you; it has to be an urgent question to which you don't know the answer. I still want to write this story, but I have to figure out a cleverer way to frame the question, so that I'm forced to write my way to the answer.
8. Emma Donoghue asks, "What quality or tic in your writing, or flaw or dearth in your works as a whole, makes you blush?"
I have a tendency toward overly lush prose. My inner critic has tried to stamp this out of me, but I'm not sure she's entirely succeeded. Here is an actual sentence I wrote years ago and recently rediscovered on my hard drive: "The heat lulled her into a daze through which her consciousness sailed on a sea of pink reminiscences and soft-edged emotions." Seriously, what is that?! I would like to be able to defend myself by saying that I wrote this textbook example of an overwritten sentence more than 10 years ago. But I can't lie to the CBC.