Home > Interviews > Story is a Partnership: An Interview with Sharon Bala

sharon bala photoSharon Bala is a member of The Port Authority writing group. They can be found every second Thursday swapping fiction in the closet of a store room on Memorial University’s campus. They recently published a collection of stories, called Racket (Breakwater Books, Fall 2015). Sharon’s short fiction has won three Newfoundland and Labrador Arts & Letters Awards, and been published or is forthcoming in Grain, The New Quarterly, Room, and Riddle Fence. In 2015, her manuscript, The Boat People, won the Percy James First Novel Award was shortlisted for the Fresh Fish Award. Sharon was born in Dubai, raised in the 905, and now calls St. John’s home. You can visit her at: sharonbala.com.

Prose Editor Christopher Evans talks to Sharon about her contribution to PRISM 54.2, the stellar story “Reading Week,” and about writing from The Rock.

One of the things that drew me to “Reading Week” was the sentence structure—longer, more elaborate lines cut through with passages of short, terse sentences. There is often little connective tissue linking these short sentences together, making them like snapshots for the reader to arrange. To me, this suggests a certain faith that your readers will get it. Is that the case? Do you trust that your reader will understand something as you intended it?

The joy of fiction is in solving the mysteries, discovering a character’s dark secret, reading between the lines of dialogue to work out what everyone’s really saying. As a reader, don’t you feel clever when you connect those dots? And don’t you become exasperated and bored when everything is spelled out?

So yes, absolutely, I trust the reader to get the story. Which might mean understanding it exactly as intended or, more likely, intuiting themes and links I didn’t even notice. A good story is a partnership, a thing that is created by both writer and reader.

The only caveat is that I get a lot of editing help. Before I send a story out into the world it has been ripped to shreds and stitched back to together by my writing group. And my husband, who is a mathematician, which is the exact opposite of a writer, by the way, reads all my work, red pen in hand. So if anything is going to trip up a reader, it’s caught and corrected.

As an aside: “Reading Week” was born of a gauntlet thrown down by Lisa Moore. Write a story in point form, she said. So I did.

Who do you write for when you write? Are you writing for yourself or a general audience or do you have a specific reader in mind?

This is the one advantage of working in unpublished obscurity: I have never once felt the reader looming over my shoulder, breathing down my neck. Maybe one day, if I am fortunate enough to have my novel published, this will change, but it would be a real shame. You can’t write a sex scene if you’re thinking about your mom.

Sarah Selecky says write the story you want to read. It’s wise counsel: write for an audience of one and let that one be you.

Perhaps the way “Reading Week” is best cemented in time is through its musical references—Portishead, Tricky, late 90s alterna-rock, the Music for the Jilted Generation poster over Jo’s bed. Is music important to your work generally? Do you otherwise mentally soundtrack a piece to help set the tone?

I wish! Honestly, I’m a dunce about music and have only written a handful of stories where it plays any kind of role.

But “Reading Week” is set at Queen’s University in the late 90s when I, like my character Jo, was at school. My memory of those years is vivid, full of particular, textured details, and I wanted to imbue the story with all those specifics—how the library was both foreboding and a place of solace, how everyone went there dressed in plaid flannels.

And when you live in residence, there is always music playing somewhere. So it felt natural to give the story a soundtrack. Also, that creepy Prodigy poster hung over my roommate Nikki’s bed and it’s been haunting me for years, so I was relieved to finally put it in a story.

You’re having what I would consider a pretty great year publishing- and career-wise, with work coming out in several prominent Canadian journals and the manuscript for your novel The Boat People landing on the shortlist for the Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers. Does it feel like you are coming into your own or finding your footing as a writer?

Thank you, YES! 2015! The miracle of this year is how unexpected it’s been.

I’ve been writing seriously for about five years and I’d say it’s been a gradual process of getting my footing—taking classes, finding mentors, sending stories into the world, doing public readings, forming a writing group.

But this was the year everything really coalesced. After years of unrelenting rejection, I had four stories accepted in the space of three weeks. My manuscript won one big award and was shortlisted for another. My writing group, The Port Authority, put a collection out. I finally feel like I’ve made the transition from being a person who writes (mumbled sheepishly at social functions when answering the question “and what do you do?”) to being a writer.

You have a story, “A Drawer Full of Guggums,” in the recently-released anthology Racket: New Writing from Newfoundland; the collection was edited by the always-terrific Lisa Moore, and features work from members of your writing group. The last few years have seen exciting work from, not only yourself and The Port Authority, but also George Murray, Elisabeth de Mariaffi, Michael Crummey, Megan Gail Coles, and many others in the province. What is it about Newfoundland, or St. John’s in particular, that’s made it so creatively fertile?

I dread this question because I don’t know the answer! What I do know is there are a ridiculous number of talented writers in St. John’s and there is also a great spirit of generosity here. It never fails to amaze me how genuinely free everyone is with their help, advice, and good wishes.

And this is an island of opportunity. For a small province, we seem to have more than our fair share of literary festivals, competitions, grants, and forward-thinking publishing houses (shout out to Breakwater Books, publisher of Racket!). We have a vibrant and hard-working Writers Alliance that runs workshops, an editing service and an invaluable mentorship program. Every year, Memorial University hires a writer-in-residence who is available as a resource to anyone. As a writer, it’s a great fortune and a privilege to work here.

2015 is quickly reaching its inevitable conclusion. Looking back, what floated your boat this year?

One thing that fascinated me this year: the turn-of-the-century bohemians (Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murray). They and their friends led wild, unconventional, technicolour lives, but the incredible thing was the naïveté they brought to the whole endeavour. I wrote a short story about Mansfield this Fall, and there is a ménage-a-trois in the works for the new year, featuring the Bells and Virginia Woolf.


Christopher Evans is the Prose Editor for PRISM international. His work has appeared in Feathertale, Ottawa Arts Review, and Grain, and is upcoming in the Nashwaak Review, Isthmus Review, and Australia’s Grapple Annual. Follow him @ChrisPDEvans