Sivan Slapak won our Peter Hinchcliffe Award for Fiction in 2015 for “Road One.” Cultural and religious identity loom large in this story, a portrait of the relationship between a peace-keeping Israeli-Canadian and a Palestinian co-existence educator. In judging the contest, our adjudicators had the following to say:
“This is an ambitious story that feels fully realized and accomplished. The complex setting and political backdrop is sketched in a way that feels easy, and there’s a deceptively light touch to the storytelling and style.”
“Real emotion is being mined here, and real connection and relationship. Through each other’s eyes the characters gain depth, and their dialogue sings.”
Here we talked to Sivan about her writing and her inspiration for “Road One,” which can be read here.
How did you begin writing? Do you have any writing rituals?
I started writing when I was young—I have a stack of diaries dating back to single-digit years, and the journal-writing practice stayed with me for a long time. In the last couple of years that’s morphed into a writing exchange I have with a friend abroad, where a few times a week we spend twenty minutes just writing associatively, sometimes with a prompt and sometimes without, and sending it as an email to the other. We call it our Wild Mind writing, after Natalie Goldberg’s book by the same name, where she promotes the idea of keeping your hand moving and turning off the inner editor. So it’s our chance to take some minutes to just write freely, and a great way to keep in touch in a meaningful way. In any case, that’s the kind of writing that’s been a thread through most of my life.
As far as crafting complete stories—that began more recently. Let’s see: I guess my rituals are to wait for a deadline and tap at the keyboard in a frantic rush through the hours leading up to it? Drink tons of coffee? I’m not methodical in my writing habits, I’ll admit. I read a quote, attributed to William Faulkner (among others), which said, “I wait for inspiration to strike. Fortunately it strikes at 9 am every morning.” I wish I could say the same, but I’m learning to make peace with my work style, which, though driven, is a bit more haphazard. Maybe that’s a technique that works for short stories more than novels, I don’t know. In the end, it gets done, even if it’s in fits and starts! But it’s hard to carve out time to write, and it’s my hope to build a sense of discipline, where ‘writing time’ is a consistent block in my schedule. I think it’s time for my sense of commitment to find a home in routine.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have a strong influence on you or your writing?
This is always a hard question to answer, since there are so many. As for short story writers, there’s obviously the one and only Alice Munro. No one does it like her. I admire Grace Paley’s voice—she captures complicated feelings in simple terms, and she has a lot of empathy. And all of her stories seem to be simultaneously funny and tragic and socially engaged, and very vivid. Those are the kind of notes I’d like to hit, and hope I learn how to do that successfully. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is a book that’s left long-term traces on me, and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces stands out, and is one I come back to periodically. (I would also call Michaels a literary hero of mine, just based on that book.) It’s beautifully written, and also about many of the themes that preoccupy me the most in my life, and now in my writing: traumatic memory, immigration, cultural displacement, the role of language in all of this—these are magnetic subjects for me.
The last novel I read was Israeli author David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, which was, I thought, a masterful reflection on the realities of life in Israel, multilayered and wrenching.
I’d say that the books I’m attracted to, are generally about extreme alienation and longing. But that’s what so many stories are about, aren’t they? In some sense, this is probably what drives so many to write.
What attracts you to the short fiction genre?
I wonder if I might see life as a series of short vignettes?
What I enjoy is seeing what can be packed into a few pages, testing how much a world can come alive. How much do we care about the characters, how many layers of meaning or associations are we left with by the end, and is a wider field created from the hints we’re shown? And in the stories I read—and am trying to write, it seems—I like feeling unsettled and yet satisfied by the final line, even if I was only in there for a few minutes.
Can you talk a bit about the major focus or themes in your piece and why they are important to you? What drew you to writing about this?
Well, clearly the setting of Jerusalem is important to the story, and important to me, more than I can effectively express here, I think. I’d say the city, in a way, is another character in the story, as it is in many of my stories. I lived in Jerusalem for a long time, and was shaped by the many different rich and complex worlds that inhabit this place, and the way they overlap and encounter one another. And often confront and come into conflict with one another.
I wanted to zoom in and write about a relationship, one that’s developing against this backdrop, and that is of course a product of it. A friendship that is nuanced and heartfelt but has the challenge of trying to build across a lot of boundaries, that aren’t usually crossed, and so is complicated. But the main theme is simple: it’s a story about a friendship.
As an emerging writer can you comment on your work and what drew you to the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction contest in the first place?
I do feel very much like a beginner, or, “emerging.” When I moved back to Montreal two years ago, after twenty years away, I knew I wanted to try to write some pieces based on life in Jerusalem. So I started to do that, and now have a pile of unpolished stories and fragments that will hopefully find their shape soon, and ultimately fit together in an interwoven collection. Last year I had the chance to participate in the Quebec Writers Federation’s mentorship program, where beginning writers are paired with those at more advanced stages of their careers. They’re meant to advise you as you work through your material, and offer support in various ways. It’s a terrific program. My mentor was Alice Zorn—an author you’ve published—and towards the end of our time together she suggested that I submit something to The New Quarterly, that it might be a good fit. When I found TNQ online, I immediately appreciated the tone and the kind of writing that was being published. I noticed the deadline for the contest was approaching, so I sent this story in, as I’d just finished working on it. I’m grateful for Alice’s suggestion, because it seems it was a good fit! This is my first award (I call it that with hope, instead of “my only”), and receiving it and being published in The New Quarterly has been uplifting in every way. I feel honoured and lucky to be here.
Photo by Flickr user Emmanuel DYAN