In 2015 Karen Smythe joined Humber's Creative Writing - Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry program with the goal of improving her craft and writing her first novel, This Side of Sad. With a lot of hard work and guidance from program faculty, Karen was able to finish a first draft of the novel by the end of the program. This fall, This Side of Sad will be published by Goose Lane Editions. We asked Karen about This Side of Sad and her experiences writing it.
Could you describe what This Side of Sad (TSOS) is about?
The novel is about a woman, Maslen, whose husband James has just met a violent end--whether suicide or an accident, she isn't sure. Throughout the book, Maslen re-examines the choices she has made and the bargains she has struck in each of three significant relationships. TSOS is an exploration of a disintegrating marriage; it's also a self-interrogation, and a quest for truth about longing and varieties of love.
How long have you been working on this novel?
I started writing TSOS in a rather traditional format in May 2014. In January 2015, I enrolled in the Humber School for Writers' creative writing correspondence program, working with Diane Schoemperlen, and by the end of July I had completed my first draft. I spent the next few months on revisions, and when I signed with an agent--Stephanie Sinclair, at the Transatlantic Literary Agency--I did another full rewrite, which took me to May 2016. Once Goose Lane Editions accepted the novel, I began the editing process and made further revisions along the way; I submitted the final manuscript for copy editing in February 2017. So the short answer to your question is “almost three years"!
You’ve written many short stories, as well as criticism. What made you decide to write your first novel?
First of all, I had to leave academic life to be able to write fiction at all. When writing literary criticism, you use different parts of your brain than you do when writing fiction--at least, I do; I’m not one of those people who can teach literature and write creatively at the same time. So I decided to work in various administrative roles while I wrote and published short stories, and in 2001 my collection, Stubborn Bones, was published. Then I found that my short stories were becoming longer and longer, because the concerns and subjects I wanted to explore in fiction were becoming wider and deeper. I knew that moving to the novel would give me a larger canvas to play with; the novel form also let me play with unconventional ways of telling the story. In TSOS, for instance, the structure is not chronological or linear, but follows an associative logic of the narrator's mind as she works through conflicting and extreme emotions after the loss of her husband. I’ve always been interested in playing with time in narrative, too, and while this is also possible in short stories--just look at Alice Munro, the master of time play--I wanted to see what I could do with a complex consciousness like Maslen's using a variety of forms, from the confessional to the epistolary, from the elegiac to stream-of-consciousness. So the novel form gave me that scope.
How did the creative writing program help you write and develop This Side of Sad?
If I had not enrolled in the creative writing program at Humber, I would probably still be stalled at the early stage of draft #1, in which I was writing traditional, linear narrative. I would have bored myself to death by now! I would not have been satisfied with my work, and I might very well have stopped writing fiction altogether, thinking of myself as a failed writer. By working with Diane Schoemperlen, I gained the courage to experiment with the work I was doing, and even to start over, to consider new possibilities I wouldn't have dared to try on my own. The program put me back in touch with my writer self after years of having no time to write, and it also allowed me to invent a new way of telling a very complex story about a character's inner life. So thank you, Humber, because now TSOS does exist, and I'm very proud of this novel, and of the process I went through to get to this point in my writing career.
What would you say was the most important lesson you learned while attending Humber’s creative writing program?
There were so many lessons, but I think I’d have to say it was the confirmation that discipline is a crucial component of the writing life. I’m a self-disciplined person to begin with, but being a student while writing my first draft made it more than “okay" to devote most of my time, day after day, to my writing; it made me feel that my work was important and legitimate. And because both the former program director, Antanas Sileika, and Diane took my writing seriously, I learned take myself and my work as a writer more seriously, too.
What’s the most enjoyable aspect of writing? And what’s the hardest?
Great questions! The most enjoyable is definitely the feeling I get when I’m writing and I lose myself in my work. I'm taken over by the act of writing, which is heaven, because writing is like breathing to me. The hardest part is overcoming self-doubt, because even when the writing is going well and I’m happily working on a piece, there is that inner critic who pipes up and says, “you’re really stupid and you have nothing to say.” So starting a new piece after finishing a novel or story is pretty tough, until I get far enough into writing something new to quell that nastiness for a while. Luckily I am gradually becoming immersed in my second novel, but turning down the volume of that negative voice requires ongoing effort. I know a lot of writers who are like me in this way; perhaps it's part of the reason we write to begin with--to shut that voice up for a while! Who knows. To me, it's a privilege to be able to say “I’m a writer,” no matter how hard it is at times. And becoming part of a writing community is rewarding, too--which is another great thing that the School for Writers does for those who can take a course or a program: it opens doors and welcomes you in. So it's a pretty great way to kick off your writing life, or--in my case--to start it up again.
Congratulations, Karen, on this amazing accomplishment. This Side of Sad will be published September 5th by Goose Lane Editions and is available for preorder.
Photo Credit: John Wills Photography