A haunted mother is terrorized by spectral visions of twins. A young academic reminisces on the past, and a long-lost film, as she watches her apartment building burn. A carefree woman tears through Toronto dance halls during the second World War.
The characters in Frances Boyle's forthcoming debut collection, Seeking Shade (Porcupine's Quill) are, above all, shaped by creative expression. Through dance, literature, film, and visual art, Boyle's stories explore how these mediums affect our worldview and the decisions we make, resulting in consequences that are not always easy to swallow.
Demonstrating both a skilled restraint and poetic flair, Boyle lifts her subjects from troubled, complicated lives to ask hard questions of themselves and, ultimately, be redeemed.
We're very excited to have Frances at Open Book today, where she tells us about why she's a habitual re-writer, how reading other writers' short fiction inspired her to take chances in her own work, and why she chose to dedicate her book to the sisters in her life.
How did you decide what stories to include in the collection? When were they written?
Well, choosing what to include wasn’t all that hard, since Seeking Shade contains most of the complete stories I’ve written. Throw them all in! Seriously though, I did decide against including some stories that either weren’t really consistent with the tone and themes of the majority of the manuscript, or that I (or my editor) felt weren’t as strong as the others and could stand some rethinking and reworking.
The stories that made the cut were written and revised over many years. My work has a very long gestation period, and I find it hard to give up on a story. I will rework it and rework it until it ultimately releases me.
The earliest draft of the title story dates from a university creative writing class eons ago: luckily the current version bears little resemblance to what’s on those purple-mimeographed sheets sitting in my file! The most recently written story, “Long Term Lease”, was begun in 2017. The opening story in the collection, a flash piece called “Two-Tone” was the first story that I ever published (in The Fiddlehead in 2001), and my most recently published story “Claims” was published with The /tƐmz/ Review in January 2020.
What do the stories have in common? Do you see a link between them, either structurally or thematically?
The stories have various threads that link them. The most prevalent thread is the way that different forms of art—dance, storytelling, film, visual art, ritual—can shape a person’s life, or their view of life. Many of my protagonists are women, often young women, facing life-changing experiences or decisions—these turning points are very often at the core of the stories. The notion of the fallibility of memory also runs through a number of the stories.
Did you do any specific research for any of your stories? Tell us a bit about that process.
Several of my stories have contemporary settings (or at least take place within my living memory) so I was able to draw in large part on my own recollections for landscape, pop culture, language, etc. I did need to look into a couple of medical conditions to make sure I’d gotten my characters’ symptoms right (in “Shards” and “Fairy Tales for Survivors”).
Two of the stories, which are set in the early 20th century, required a greater amount of research. For “Dance Me”, I wanted to get a sense of what daily life in Toronto was like during the 1930s Depression and the war years of the 1940s. I read personal accounts, histories of the war effort, of Toronto dance halls, and of the resorts in Haliburton and Muskoka, looked at a lot of photos (Simpsons catalogues are great resources) and viewed several video clips that I found online. For “Rest Cure”, in addition to reading about Canadian sanatoriums and TB outbreaks, I made a trip to a sanatorium in Ste. Agathe, Quebec that was the model for the one where my protagonist is confined. It is an administrative office building now, but I got to peer into the windows, and walk the grounds to get the feel of the place.
For “EverPoppy”, the only purely speculative fiction story in the book, I did some etymological research, delving into the roots and origins of words as I coined some new ones for the society I was building.
What story collections were you reading for inspiration while writing your book? What did you learn from them?
A couple of years ago, I set myself the pleasant task of rereading all of Alice Munro’s collections, in publication order. Her writing has always been an inspiration, though I think ‘aspiration’ is the more apt word. I’ve not read anyone else who braids time so masterfully, and her insights into the motivations that drive people’s actions, even though they may not be aware of them, are incredible.
I’m always reading short fiction, so it’s hard to say which other books were inspirations during the time I was putting my collection together. Some that I recall as particularly revelatory include K.D. Miller’s Late Breaking, Elise Levine’s This Wicked Tongue, Erin Frances Fisher’s That Tiny Life, Andrew Forbes’s What You Need. and Deborah Willis’s The Dark and Other Love Stories. Among the many things I learned from these writers is that the everyday can coexist in a collection alongside the eerie, and that literary fiction is enriched by drawing on what formerly would be considered genre writing. I had initially wondered if “EverPoppy”, with its near-future setting, was too much of an outlier, but I became comfortable with including it when I noted the diversity in these other works. That realization spurred me to ramp up the spooky underpinnings in a couple of other stories.
I also dipped into Jean Stafford’s work, inspired by a New Yorker podcast with Garth Greenwell reading and discussing one of her stories. I love discovering writers from earlier generations who I might not have known of. I found Stafford to be particularly strong in her sharp awareness of how children view their parents’ misdeeds.
Who did you dedicate your collection to, and why?
My collection is dedicated to my sister, Janet, and to my chosen sisters—friends who are as close as sisters without being blood relations. I refer to these women as “kith”, from an old English word cȳthth, which is related to ‘couth’ and carries the sense of ‘knowledge’. Sisterhood is a powerful thing; sisters know things about you that no one else does. Since, with each revision, I felt I was getting to know my diverse characters better, this notion suggested itself to me in dedicating the book. However, I’m grateful that my ‘sisters’ are not always couth, and that we have shared many laughs and a few escapades.
Frances Boyle has practised corporate law, volunteered for a number of feminist, arts and international development organizations, and served as a board member and Associate Poetry Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of a novella (Tower, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018), two books of poetry, (This White Nest, Quattro Books, 2019 and Light-carved Passages, BuschekBooks, 2014), and several chapbooks. Seeking Shade is her first collection of short fiction. She lives in Ottawa with her partner and a large standard poodle who believes he is a lap dog.