Every couple of weeks, Robert Edison Sandiford calls me from Barbados. Robert is one of this year’s QWF fiction mentors, and I am his protégé. We’ve made arrangements to speak at 5 p.m. via Skype so this interview would feel more face-to-face. At 5:10, we still have no audio so he switches from his desktop to his laptop. At 5:25 the recording app on my phone stops working. At 5:37 we decide we’ll have to hobble back and forth between the computers, a phone, and another phone app to somehow make it work. Afterwards, when it’s all sorted, he says: “Well, there’s a lesson about tenacity.”
Robert was born in Montreal to Barbadian parents. He is the author of nine books that range in form from short and long fiction to memoir, graphic novels, and erotica. Over a period of four months, he’s worked with me on my own collection of stories and we’ve talked about many things: process and voice, the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, and how baking helps to reduce stress. Robert answers my questions below.
Let’s start with a quote from Fairfield, your most recent collection of short stories. In reference to engaging fiction, you say: “All that matters… is the individual and the moment.” Can you expand on that?
ROBERT EDISON SANDIFORD
In the context of the collection, it had to do with making the most of art. It had to do with knowing when something is ready or when an artist has what it takes. It comes from a quote by Matthew Arnold [“For the creation of a masterwork… two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment”]. How do you know when you’ve got what it takes? All we are is who we are and the talent that we have. My contention is that most people are a little better than they think they are. They can do better than they’ve done.
Besides being a mentor, you’re an editor and teacher. How does one turn a good manuscript into a great one? Or a good writer into a great writer?
There has to be that spark within the work itself, or within the writer. There has to be something inside that person already that lends itself to greatness. And it may depend on how we define greatness. There are a lot of artists, not just writers, people who never enjoyed recognition while they were alive or young enough to enjoy it. So there’s that question again, of the individual and the moment and the individual and talent. There are certain things you can teach people to make them better writers but that sort of greatness, that may also depend on them.
In Fairfield, a fictional editor writes that the character G. Brandon Sisnett borrowed from other authors, including one from Montreal who wrote Caribbean fiction on the themes of “familial loss and managing the pain of living.” Which are themes that recur in your work. Would you like to talk about theme?
I’m curious about theme. Both of us are writing from a particular place. Germany finds its way into your stories, as well as Canada. For me, it’s Barbados and Canada. Theme is distinct from subject matter but they inform each other. I write out of where I am but also where I come from. I do believe that all writing is regional, in a sense. People talk about things being universal but I think it goes to honesty. If you write in a way that is honest, the regional will get you to the universal. Someone will pick up the story halfway around the world and say, “I relate.”
“There are certain things you can teach people to make them better writers but that sort of greatness, that may also depend on them.”
Is place a detail?
Place is a necessary detail: your characters have got to be somewhere. But it’s more than that. It’s a space in which you invite the reader to share an experience. It’s about learning, actually. If I write about a particular place, I want you to feel that place. I want you to experience it as if you were actually there. Unless having a non-descript setting is important to telling the story, then why have this non-descript thing? I get the answer, “But I want it to be universal.” I just say, “Stop. What you may be doing is taking out the necessary edges that people need to relate to the story even more.”
“I do believe that all writing is regional, in a sense. People talk about things being universal but I think it goes to honesty. If you write in a way that is honest, the regional will get you to the universal.”
What’s the difference between style and voice?
Style and voice tend to be synonymous. But to make a differentiation, when writers are starting out I like to talk about approach. I used to talk about style but I think writers get confused. They say, “But the way I put it down is a style. I like to use all these ellipses when I write, that’s my style.” And I say, “No, that’s more of an approach and it may even be a bad approach.” Style is something that you develop over time. Voice is all those things combined. It’s reading a work and recognizing who it is. Ultimately, it’s telling a story in a particular way. It can’t be told by anybody else.
You published your first story collection more than 20 years ago. Does it get any easier?
Hell, no! Publishing is more difficult now than it was before. Coming up with a story, I don’t know that that gets any easier. What gets easier, maybe, is knowing what works and what doesn’t. But I wake up every morning doing what I do and I have no regrets. Ever. That’s a hell of a thing to be able to say.
On June 4, the 2017 QWF mentors and mentees will present new writing at the annual public reading in Montreal. Click here for more information.
Robert Edison Sandiford is the author of nine books, most recently Fairfield: The Last Sad Stories of G. Brandon Sisnett. He is the founder, with the poet Linda M. Deane, of the cultural forum ArtsEtc Inc. A recipient of Barbados’ Governor General’s Award for his fiction and the Harold Hoyte Award for newspaper editing, he has also worked as a teacher and video producer.
Pamela Hensley is new to Montreal, having relocated once again after returning from Germany to Ontario. She was selected to participate in the 2017 QWF Mentorship program and is currently attending her first QWF workshop. You can read her stories in Canadian journals, including The Dalhousie Review and EVENT magazine, and are invited to hear her read with other QWF mentees at The Comedy Nest, Montreal Forum on Sunday, June 4 at 2 pm.
Photo credits: Pamela Hensley (top banner); Aeryn Sandiford (Sandiford headshot); Gordon Hensley (Hensley headshot)