Q&A: Shawn Syms, editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesfromlivingonline

Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesfromlivingonline, edited by Shawn Syms (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013).Where are you reading this? What are you reading this on? How many times do you anticipate you’ll break from reading this to connect with someone via email, text, Facebook, Twitter, or to upload a new-and-improved image of your lunch to Instagram?

Does any of the experience of where you’re reading, on what, and how you engage this text feel abnormal? Par for the course?

Writer and journalist Shawn Syms is the editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesfromlivingonline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013), a collection of fictions that point to how commonplace technology and social media have become in our lives, no longer something that needs to be defined. “Did you say, ‘tweet’?” “Face-what?” Among the contributors are some of Canada’s best wordsmiths of the short form: Steven Heighton, Heather Birrell, Zoe Whittall, Greg Kearney and Jessica Westhead, seriously just to name a few. (There are 27.)

I asked Shawn Syms a few questions about the book. Why fiction, for instance, and not essays? Can the collection rise above gimmick to stand the test of time into and through the next new thing? And, of course, how does he imagine Friend. Follow. Text. will be shared among readers?

Julie Wilson: You point to E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” as one of the first pieces of fiction to characterize communication across distance via an interface. Published in 1909, the story even references such features as the “isolation knob” to render one unreachable and imperfections such as an inability to “transmit nuances of expression.” I want to tie this to fiction and your decision not to edit an anthology of essays. Was this simply something you began to notice in the books you were reading?

Shawn Syms: Yes. I spend a lot of my time either reading, writing, thinking about or reviewing short fiction, and, over the course of a year or so, I started to notice more and more pieces where the form and/or content was influenced by social media and online communication. Much of the time, this would be within the context of an individual story. In the case of Rebecca Rosenblum’s collection The Big Dream, which centres on a group of workers in a corporate office environment, her stories were bookended by fictional email messages that involved key characters and helped establish mood and tone.

I learned of the Forster story via Steve Himmer, editor of Necessary Fiction, a big supporter of the book. He pointed me to a Storify thread on the subject of early fiction that anticipated the rise of social media. The funny thing is that I had already chosen as a working title of the book Only Interconnect, based on “Only connect,” the epigraph to his 1910 novel Howards End. (I’ve never read that book, but I’d seen it quoted in the front matter of one of my mother’s paperback novels when I was a boy.)

Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is rather dark and interestingly a lot of my submissions also concerned fairly weighty matters. I put a lot of thought into the sequence of the stories and one of my considerations turned out to be a desire not to put too many intense stories in a row! Luckily the pieces overall are complex and sophisticated, and so few of them are relentlessly dire. Wherever there is sadness, there is generally hope as well.

JW: A number of the stories in this collection were previously published pieces. How did you then go about soliciting the remainder of the stories?

SS: This is the first book I’ve edited, so I wasn’t quite sure what the standard approach would be—should I line up the stories first with the hope of finding a publisher, or try first to hook a publisher on the idea itself? The notion of the book was borne of messages exchanged on Facebook with Megan Stielstra and Brian Joseph Davis. That conversation validated that this was a good idea and helped me believe I could actually do it. Initially I approached the authors of the previously published pieces and pitched the idea, and all were enthusiastic. From there, I set up a submissions page using the online service Submittable, and paid for ads in various places to drum up interest. In my call, I made a particular point to invite women, queer and trans writers and writers of colour, which is reflected in the book. I wanted the book to resonate for many different readers and to reflect the current moment, and I wanted the stories to be as diverse as possible in terms of form, content, thematic preoccupations and in the different sorts of social media integrated into the storylines. I got about 80 submission, and honed down the contributions to 27.

JW: Were you concerned that you’d get back pieces that were overly self-conscious? How did you go beyond gimmick?

SS: I’d characterize a certain subset of the submissions that way. This could be reflected in small ways—overuse of texting acronyms to a point that seemed forced or was distracting, for instance, or stories that featured overt, heavy-handed editorializing about perceived negative aspects to online communication. The stories that appealed to me the most generally took for granted the role of social and online media in people’s lives and explored that in a broader context, either in traditional prose or using formal innovation inspired by social media to invent a new way to construct a compelling narrative.

If anything, I found the more formally experimental pieces quite exciting to work with. I’ve long had a bias as a reader toward more conventional prose as well as a timidity with regards to experimentation in my own writing, which may reflect the fact my background prior to writing fiction was in journalism and reportage. And I find myself generally wary of writing that feels as if it’s formally experimental simply for its own sake. So to see writers taking forms that I’m most familiar with outside of lit—texting, blogs, message boards, hookup apps, and the like—and integrating them formally into their work in ways that succeed from the standpoint of craft and storytelling, I find it pretty inspiring.

JW: This collection is above a wink and a nod, isn’t it? You’re pointing out that narrative now exists in the most common forums. We’re, all of us, more conscious about how we construct our messages, where they’re posted, how they’ll be received, and even how to go about finding an audience.

SS: We are always, in various ways, telling the story of ourselves—sometimes with a highly specific audience or individual in mind, sometimes never really knowing. That’s true online; it’s also true simply walking down the street in whatever attire and with whatever comportment. And of course with the advent of mobile, these can be simultaneous true, as we are increasingly online while we walk down public streets. And in those moments, we are, in a sense, in multiple places at once.

I was part of the blogging community LiveJournal starting in 2003, and before that in the 1990s I participated in a listserv called the Bears Mailing List. In those forums, we were working through all of the same predicaments—risks of dramatic miscommunication, perceived differences between the online self and the supposedly “authentic” in-real-life self, interplay between the ego and the notion of playing to an audience—that have become far more widespread today, particularly with the advent of Facebook. The difference is that now the potential audience is larger and in some senses potentially global in span. (That said, I think that social networks in many ways reflect, rather than transcend, structural inequities such as gender, race and global economic power.)

JW: Narrative now also commonly includes visual imagery.

SS: The simple act of sharing a photograph or set of photographs of yourself with someone is all about constructing a narrative (and this notion is explored in Megan Stielstra’s story “SO. MUCH. FUN.”) The pictures you select and the order in which they are sent—how does that influence a story you’re telling without any words at all? What is the impact of the quality of the image as much as its composition, however intentional or not? The type of device from which you send versus the one on which someone receives—phone, tablet, computer—how does this influence the story? Whether you are alone or not when sending; the social context of the recipient. The ever-shifting story of ourselves, our stories about others, and how we communicate these things—questions of representation are nothing new, but I think they are becoming preoccupations, consciously or subconsciously, for more and more of us in these increasingly digital times.

JW: When you came up with the idea for this anthology, did you have a particular reader in mind? The commuter? The gadget geek? If so, was it a matter of introducing fiction to the on-the-go reader or packaging thematic content for the educational market, or . . . ?

SS: I saw myself as primarily working within the milieu of small-press literary fiction and its Shawn Syms, editor of Friend. Follow. Text.traditional audience. This book is based on an original idea, is full of great stories, and has some potential to be a popular success, but there are numerous constraints—the very busy and small staff of its small-press publisher, my own energy level and ability to connect with influential people in publishing and promotion on top of my day job, the struggle to get the book into larger chains.

All that said, reactions have been very positive, and I hope that the form and content will resonate with as many people as we can expose to the book. I do think the educational market is a logical target; I just need to figure out how to gain access. And the electronic versions of the book should be ready soon; already people are asking and the publisher is more optimistic than usual with regards to the e-sales prospects for this particular title.

This will make it more accessible to readers on the go, which I think fulfills some of the promise behind the book. What actually happens in terms of sales and the accessibility of Friend. Follow. Text. remains to be seen though.

JW: From the introduction: “We friend. We follow. We text. Above all, we connect.” It’s amusing, if you think about it, because in books we retreat deeply. The hope, we believe, is that the reader will re-emerge and: Like. Fan. Share. I imagine you can’t put together a book like this, with this level of sophistication, and not think about the long tail. With that in mind, is Friend. Follow. Text. also an experiment in how readers come to locate books and share them?

SS: One interesting thing that has come up—writer Nathan Burgoine has been reviewing the stories one by one while in the process of reading the book, and posting his thoughts via Redroom.com and Twitter. To me, this sort of engagement has exciting possibilities for which I think a book of this nature and with this many individual contributors is well suited. It’s a bit different from the traditional model of writing a book and then engaging in promotional efforts that you hope will result in getting reviewed in a newspaper. It suggests there are some additional possibilities out there for engagement with readers and critics, ones that are not so static.

JW: Is there another communication trend on your radar, something you expect will begin to appear more in fiction and provide you with a follow up to this anthology?

SS: The idea behind the book is far from exhausted; I can easily imagine a sequel, though this might ultimately be dictated more by market factors than anything. The concept would naturally evolve. My contributors have many ideas in this regard. K. Tait Jarboe is a multimedia digital artist and sees many opportunities for the book to exist beyond paper and kickstart some more interactive and engaging experiences. Trevor Corkum has many thoughts about how we can directly engage readers online, as well as new directions that fiction may take as more and more people read while on the go. The main bottleneck has been me!

Personally, I’m somewhat curious about the impact of literary feedback-mechanism sites like Red Lemonade and writing-collaboration tools such as the social writing app Next Sentence. All this suggests to me there are a billion possible directions for a follow-up to consider, some of which will only reveal themselves as time unfolds.

Want more? Like Friend. Follow. Text. on Facebook and become bosom buddies on Twitter.

Zombie Talk with Corey Redekop, author of Husk (ECW Press)

Yesterday, I sat in front of my computer, and, as luck would have it, so did Corey Redekop. We spent the next half hour talking about Husk, the follow up to his biblio-rrific novel Shelf Monkey.

Husk is the story about everyzombie Sheldon Funk. It’s sharp-witted, gross, “stupid-funny” and astute in its observations on what it means to be alive even if you’re dead.

Husk has received great reviews from the Toronto Star and Quill & Quire (among others), and won the favour of authors such as Andrew Kaufman and Andrew Pyper.

In this chat, we talk zombies, body horror, grotesque humour, the hilariously-inappropriate book trailer (see below), Corey’s upcoming appearance at IFOA, and, finally, who will (un)likely play Sheldon Funk in the sure-to-be-made movie adaptation of Husk. (Hint: He may be a little too beef-cakey.)


Corey will appear in Toronto this October as part of the International Festival of Authors (IFOA).

Visit Corey online to stay in touch.

Event: Julie Wilson appears at Toronto Public Library to discuss Seen Reading

Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading: Tales of a Literary Voyeur
Thurs. Oct 04, 2012
6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
60 mins
Spadina Road
branch of Toronto Public Library

I’ll be joined by Julie Booker, author of Up, Up, Up (House of Anansi Press).

From the event listing: Julie Wilson’s compulsion to observe people reading on streetcars and subways led to Seen Reading, a collection of microfictions based on these sightings. Who is the reader and what does a book tell us about him or her? Wilson and Julie Booker, author of Up, Up, Up, offer answers to those questions.

Jaime Woo on the Development of His Self-Published Book Gaming Grindr

Jaime Woo is the co-founder and co-organizer of Gamercamp, an annual festival in Toronto celebrating the art, playfulness, and creativity of games.

Woo has been featured on, in, or at CBC Radio, InnerSPACE, Electric Playground, The Financial Post, The Globe and Mail, Metro, xtra!, Fab, and The A.V. Club.

Jaime is in the process of self-publishing a book, Gaming Grindr, and has successfully surpassed his Indiegogo fundraising goal.

With over 4 million users worldwide, Grindr, a queer cruising app first launched in 2009, is the largest all-male location-based social network.

With approximately 10,000 new users downloading the app every day, Woo, a technology journalist, asks: “Is Grindr a game?” Gaming Grindr explores the rules, how users “win,” and how to play better.

Take a look at his campaign video.

And here’s our chat about why he’s writing the book, and why he chose self-publishing over the traditional model.

Jaime Woo of Gamercamp on the Function of Play

Jaime Woo is the co-founder and co-organizer of Gamercamp, an annual festival in Toronto celebrating the art, playfulness, and creativity of games.

Woo has been featured on, in, or at CBC Radio, InnerSPACE, Electric Playground, The Financial Post, The Globe and Mail, Metroxtra!, Fab, and The A.V. Club.

I’ve been interested of late in the role of games and play in our daily lives, as well as how to arrive at a shared language between youth and adults in conversations of appropriate use and moderation. Woo makes the point that it’s because we believe games don’t offer a productive goal that we’re quick to call a child “addicted” to play. Woo encourages us to look closer at games for evidence of skill-building, and offers a few suggestions for games and books to encourage your child/teen toward design.

Enjoy our chat!

Lindsay Zier-Vogel Talks to Julie Wilson about The Love Lettering Project

If you’ve been near a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television in the past few weeks, you’ve by now heard of Lindsay Zier-Vogel, creator of The Love Lettering Project, a community arts endeavour that encourages the people of Toronto to write love letters to the things, people, and places they adore.

Lindsay’s enthusiasm is infectious, so I asked her to join me in a (very) early morning coffee chat via Skype, recorded Friday, August 17, 2012. I was in my home. Lindsay was in hers. And I asked her the one burning question on everyone’s mind: Is she really that happy?

For this and more . . . watch the video below. (And many thanks to Lindsay for the great conversation, and to The Awesome Foundation for tossing some cash at this great contribution to Toronto culture and pride.)

From The Love Lettering Project:

Write love to what you love.

The Love Lettering Project is a community arts project bringing love letters to strangers.

The Love Lettering Project focuses on the joy and goodness of the world we live in, without requiring anything back from the recipient. It gets people talking about their city and the stories of their days. In this, The Love Lettering Project is participatory and has the ability to transform a familiar landscape too easy to take for granted.

For eight years, writer and artist Lindsay Zier-Vogel has been writing love poems for The Love Lettering Project, turning them into one-of-a-kind paper and thread collages, slipping them into airmail envelopes marked “love,” and distributing them anonymously — tucking them in bicycle spokes, bushes and letter boxes, leaving them on doorsteps, window ledges and café tables, hiding them in the pages of books in libraries around the city to be discovered later by strangers.

In 2012, it’s your chance to join in on the love lettering. Lindsay will be set up at events all over the city during the summer of 2012. You can write a love note to something you love about the city, slip it into an airmail envelope, then leave it for a stranger to stumble upon! Find out where you can make your love letter here!

Heather Jessup on the Avro Arrow, the inspiration for her debut novel

Heather Jessup, author of The Lightning Field (Gaspereau Press, 2012).Heather Jessup teaches at Dalhousie University in the English Department where she took some time out to Skype with me about her novel The Lightning Field (Gaspereau Press, 2012).

Since the book’s release, Jessup has been shortlisted for the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the John and Margaret Savage First Book Award.

About the book:
The Lightning Field, by Heather Jessup (Gaspereau Press, 2012).
Set against the backdrop of Cold War Toronto, The Lightning Field follows the lives of Peter and Lucy Jacobs from their post-war courtship through marriage and child-rearing in the suburbs. Though spanning four decades, the book pivots on the events of a single day: October 4, 1957. On this day, the Russians launch Sputnik into orbit, the Avro Arrow—the most advanced jet plane of its time, whose wings Peter Jacobs has engineered—rolls out onto the tarmac to great ceremony, and, in a nearby field, Lucy Jacobs is struck by lightning on her way to the event.

The Globe and Mail calls The Lightning Field, “Jessup’s homage to a dream, to the knockout movie playing in her mind.”

Enjoy our chat. (I did!)

Topics include: Jessup’s own family connection to the Avro Arrow; life in the 50s and 60s; the wingspan of my hair flips; and, a guest appearance by my cat, Oscar.

Heather Jessup: website | Twitter

Upcoming appearances:

An Evening with the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize Nominees David Adams Richards, Valerie Compton and Heather Jessup
Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Time: 7:30 PM-9:00 PM
Location: The Black Box Theatre—Sir James Dunn Hall, Fredericton, NB, Canada

Date: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Location: Lane’s Privateer Inn—Liverpool, NS, Canada

Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction AwardDate: Friday, October 12, 2012
Location: Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts—Halifax, NS, Canada

Gaspereau Press Wayzegoose
Date: Saturday, October 20, 2012
Location: Kentville, NS, Canada