News and Interviews

The Lucky Seven, with Barbara Sibbald

b_sibbald_2016 - Photo credit - Sean Sisk

Barbara Sibbald's The Museum of Possibilities (Porcupine's Quill) was a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. After a career in novels, Sibbald returned to her first love, short fiction, and the result has earned praise from the likes of Governor General's Award winner Diane Schoemperlen, who called The Museum of Possibilities "an outstanding display of what the short story can do when it finds itself in the capable hands of a talented writer".

We get the pleasure of speaking with Barbara today about the collection as part of our Lucky Seven interview series, which poses seven probing questions about an author's newest book. 

Barbara tells us how each story works as a "shadow-box", how the collection changed over its twenty year incubation period, and shares some fantastic quotes from favourite books that will have you hightailing it to the closest library or bookstore. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Barbara Sibbald:

I began writing and publishing short fiction more than two decades ago, but moved on to write three novels. A few years ago, I returned to short fiction and began thinking of gathering my work into a book. The Museum of Possibilities is a collection of what I think are my best 16 short stories.

The collection is divided into three parts. The first stories feature people discovering the consequences of their actions (or inactions) that are full of psychological suspense and verge on the supernatural. Then there’s a grouping of six flash-fiction stories set in a sort of domestic purgatory fuelled by jealousy, bitterness, isolation and fear. The book closes with a truncated short story-cycle about a disconnected young woman’s search for community and her first experiences of sacrifice and jealousy, sexual experimentation, empathy, and desperation.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

BS:

Like the dioramas in the title piece, each story in the collection is a “shadow-box” narrative—a unique scene centred on pivotal moments of intense longing for love, for power, for fame, for freedom, for revenge and perhaps most of all, for connection in an increasingly disaffected world.
The question is how will these characters go about satisfying their longing?

The essential question has always been central to my short fiction. Early on, I examined longing in the context of relationships and community. More recently I’ve been exploring other types of longing: for power, for success, for self-understanding and so on. 

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

BS:

With a gestation of twenty years, the collection inevitably changed. I matured and the things that concerned me, the things my characters longed for, expanded. 

I have also matured as a reader, moving from traditional narrative to more experimental work. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t make it through Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, now I am reading it with immense pleasure and awe. Inevitably, what I read indirectly influences both the form and content of what I write.

OB:

What do you need in order to write in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

BS:

There are two phases of writing for me. That initial spark of creativity, and the (seemingly endless) revising. For the latter, all I need is a quiet place and the determination to keep my seat in the chair (and the internet switched off). I use my lap-top during that phase. That’s basically it.

The initial draft, which requires that spark of creativity, involves a more delicate ritual. Usually, I write in long-hand (with green ink) while I’m fresh from a dream state (before coffee even), still in bed. I use a special bed-sitting cushion and a portfolio. 

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

BS:

I acknowledge that fallow periods are necessary to growth, to creativity, and I sometimes allow myself a few days or a week to refuel. I read something that inspires or challenges me. I take a time out from the project at hand, but I keep writing in my journal every day. Sometimes I write about why I can’t write. Whatever it takes to keep the words flowing. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes. It’s essential to me to keep in the habit of writing.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

BS:

A great book takes me on a journey where I discover essential aspects of my world and myself, or that reveals ways of thinking or seeing. And, in a great book, these truths may be expressed simply, beautifully, or surprisingly, but always memorably.

Here are a few examples:

Air Carnation, by Gudalupe Muro: “’Rita, why would I expect love to last forever? Nothing lasts forever. There are no exceptions, and, to be happy, that’s the only thing you need to know about life.’” 

His Whole Life, by Elizabeth Hay: “He talked about how much discipline it takes. Constant discipline not to take life personally. Nan felt the truth of that ring through her. When you take things personally, she knew, the world becomes very small. It is you and nothing is smaller. When you manage not to do that, the world opens wide.”

The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham:
“Have you never thought of divorcing Gray?”
“I’ve got no reason for divorcing him.”
“That doesn’t prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to.”
She laughed.
“Why d’you suppose they do it?”
“Don’t you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.” 

OB:

What are you working on now?

BS:

I’m working on a few shorter pieces, but I’m thinking of a longer work, creative nonfiction loosely based on my family’s connection to India. Maybe. 

_____________________________

Barbara Sibbald is an author, editor and journalist. Her previously published works include The Book of Love and Regarding Wanda. A health journalist for over twenty years, she currently works as News and Humanities editor at the Canadian Medical Association Journal. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Related reading

The Museum of Possibilities

In The Museum of Possibilities, the future is limited only by the imagination—and the choices that we make. This exhibit contains, among others:

  • a minor government functionary, forced by an apparent hoarder to face the consequences of his risk-averse life;
  • a driven scientist who learns—too late—the disturbing cost of her blind ambition;
  • the residents of the small town of Madawan, whose domestic purgatories include plotting death by dairy or pondering the merits of fresh produce in predicting adultery; and
  • a military brat named Wanda, who navigates the muddy waters of adolescence and learns about sacrifice, sexuality and the everyday difficulties of sharing life with another.

The quirky short stories in this collection focus on pivotal moments of intense longing—for love, for power, for fame, for freedom, for revenge, and perhaps most of all, for connection in an increasingly disaffected world.