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The Space of Curiosity: An Interview with Clare Sestanovich

Monday, June 21, 2021

In Clare Sestanovich’s debut story collection, Objects of Desire, a narrator and self-deprecating artist discusses writing with a love interest, recalling, “That afternoon, you told me the story wasn’t really fiction.”

“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘one of those.’”

Later, the narrator confesses, “Hundreds of times I have tried to write what you look like, to remember exactly the words you said, and because it isn’t perfect it’s all wrong.” This is how the collection feels, as a whole, at once introspective and external, confessional to the deeper desires throughout stages of lives. 

This interview has been lightly edited.

TQ: How do you workshop your stories initially? Who do you reach out to as your first readers? 

CS: I did an MFA, so that is my most institutionalized experience of the workshop. There actually aren't many stories in this collection that originated there. Sometimes when people ask me about the MFA I have a version of different opinions about it, but one thing I do feel it really instills in writers, in a good way, is an appreciation for the process, and often the very slow process. 

And it also acquaints you with the difficult truth that readers tend to disagree about things. I regularly had the experience of the thing in a story that someone would love, somebody else would object to and think was the most problematic part. For me it is essential to not be gearing anything toward any particular type of reader with the understanding that some people will hate one thing and other people will love that. I feel torn about the workshop process, but that is my most obvious experience with it.  

Ever since then, writing for me is a pretty solitary activity. I don't have a lot of readers and for a while, after the MFA I was sequestered writing these things, wondering if they would ever exist in the wider world, basically operating on the assumption that they might not. 

Meeting my agent, Bill, and then working with my editor, Annie, they became the first intensive experiences of sharing work with other people. Both of them are extremely astute readers, and demanding readers. Small details do not get past them. They are my main people that I’m writing for in the initial stages.

I don't know how all writers feel about this, but it is extremely stressful for me to to share work with people, so I don't.

I usually spend a lot of time drafting and revising before anybody else sees it, and then it kind of starts all over again. That can be very exhausting, but also feels really important to me. I'm also an editor, so I feel like I have no ground to stand on to not be willing to constantly revisit and tear things apart, and accept that “done-ness” is a very elusive quality in my experience.

TQ: How does working as an editor influence your own writing and drafting process?

CS: I think it mainly is what I’ve just described, of an awareness of the process as ongoing. I never write a sentence and think of it as set in stone, it is a constant process of revisiting.  Especially when I’m writing stories, I am the type of writer who sits down and reads from the top, every day. There is a lot of tinkering that goes into things. 

It's probably true that being a writer influences me as an editor more than being an editor influences me as a writer, but I'm sure there's a symbiosis there. By that, I mean I’m always aware, when people are sending me their writing, of how personal and vulnerable it is to share a draft when you know it needs work and you need somebody else's eyes on it. 

I think that's the other thing, whenever I have the instinct to feel defensive or disappointed by some type of feedback that I've gotten from a reader, my experience on the other side of the table is the reminder of, “Oh no, this is actually exactly what you need right now,” the type of advice that’s going to throw you a little bit, or in throwing you, give you the new vantage on your work, when you've been sitting in the same chair staring at the same document for however long, it's just impossible to get. 

TQ: In planning out these stories, there’s something beautifully frustrating about watching these characters make mistakes. They tend to base decisions on passion or fear, rather than rationality. You turn your characters away from what an audience might expect, and toward what I feel is more true to the human experience. When plotting your stories out, do you start with a trajectory in mind? 

CS: Never. I do think of fiction, and especially the short form, as being like a project of inquiry. If there's any good analogy of the writing process, to me, it is like circling some question. If I knew what the question was, I’d probably just write one story, and leave it at that. I’d have phrased the question, I figured out the answer. Instead, there is always this feeling at the beginning of a story of something that I feel curious about and I'm not exactly sure what it is. So I’m writing into that space of curiosity. What that means in this sort of granular matter of plotting is that I never know where something is going. There usually does come a point in the story where I think I know where it's headed. 

This usually happens a couple times. The first time it happens, it usually means that I'm wrong and that things are going to be like pat, and it would be a too tidy structure that I have in mind. The first sense that everything is clicked into place is really the one to resist.  

A little bit later, there is the second moment when things seem like, “Okay we're not headed in that direction. It's actually here that we're going,” and that is usually the instinct that I trust. 

This all sounds very nebulous because I don't actually have any sense of how this works, but I think, for me it is the moment that some feeling of having figured things out settles in in the story, or rather, if it happens too early, that is when it feels to me like the prose gets really inert. The process of writing is then just filling in the missing pieces of the formula. It is that sense of curiosity and actually trying to open up the space as a possibility that feels most fruitful to me as a writer.

TQ: That is surprising for me to hear, because there is such a natural flow in these stories. Everything in them feels familiar, whether it's the locations, or the characters occupations, or even the very small details of things they are interested in. For example, there is a moment in “Terms of Agreement,” where the narrator notes, “If we had been sitting down, our knees might have touched, or our shoulders.” It’s a leveling space to be in. It encapsulates a lack of space in this example. What is your process of research for these stories? Do you make note of things and incorporate them into your writing, or find examples like these and work outwards? 

CS: In as much as there is research, it mainly feels like going about in the world. I do tend to start my writing day with what I suppose we could call journaling. It is mostly writing images or writing details, or sometimes it is like writing a thought I had.

I have a sense that I am collecting material as a person in the world, but what material turns out to stick is usually only apparent to me once I'm sitting down and in the midst of a story. I've heard writers describe when you're in the middle of a story or a novel, everything that happens to you and everything that you see seems to perfectly click.

I do sometimes have that experience. I can be at an impasse in a story and it suddenly is clear that this weird detail, the thing I saw on the bus that I haven't been able to figure out why exactly it was lingering with me, seems to unlock something. It can be an extremely small thing like the way two people are sitting next to each other. But I should say, I really admire writers who have a more intensive and formal research process.

TQ: I noticed there is a repeated motif of characters on the brink of their artistic endeavors, but they seem self-conscious to be creating art themselves. So many of these characters surround themselves with “real artists,” but that makes them feel like imposters. What do you think the balance of art and practicality is within these characters?

CS: It's a good question. It reminds me of your earlier observation of the characters of being rational people who often act in defiance of that rationality. I do think these characters all feel very different to me and feel that they're facing particular circumstances in different stages of life, but they feel equally confused about who they're supposed to be, or what the balance between some authentic self and some performative self and some aspirational self is.

It can be easy as people moving about the world to forget those tensions that I imagine exist for everybody. Part of what I am really drawn to in writing is to try to identify those disjunctures that exist for people between who they think they are, sense they are, and want to be.

Self-consciousness is a way to describe that, but also I think of that self-consciousness can be both a necessary ingredient for self-actualization and an impediment to it. And I'm interested in watching which direction it takes for people. In some cases, it can be a path to self-awareness that gets you closer to your identity. Like you're an aspiring artist and seeing other people's modes of real art somehow clarifies for you what you want your own art to be.

In a different scenario, it only seems to paralyze you and shut down the process of creative flourishing, whatever that might be. Not all of the artists in this collection are writers, but I do think of them all is sort of like narrators of their own experience, who are trying in some way or other to cast themselves as characters in their own lives. How are they going to become the authors of their own lives, or you know creators, in whatever medium, it is they're working in? I tend to think that's probably a never completed quest, but an interesting one to write about.

TQ: Many of these characters, especially post-college-aged artists, regardless of the medium, are using gig economy work as a placeholder between getting a nine to five-type job. They use apps as an intermittent career to get them through. Though, at the same time, the instability seems to take a toll on the characters. What are your thoughts on the gig economy’s role in society or, more specifically, in contemporary storytelling?

CS: In the stories where the characters are sort of feeling buffeted by these forces, I am trying to render in a more mundane way what that type of precarity looks like. The characters in these stories aren't experiencing that precarity in the intense way that many people do. It's more the way it registers for them as a narrative instability. They wear a lot of different hats and they're not really sure which one actually fits or feels right to them. There is a similar feeling that some of the characters with more stable professional lives experience not being certain about how stable the meaning that their jobs are lending their lives is.

TQ: Throughout the stories there's not a huge reliance on technology, in general, or if there is, it's woven into the story so it's not totally reliant on that as a construct, which I think people are gravitating toward more and more in contemporary storytelling. On my second read-through of these stories, I realized there are aspects of technology, more than I initially realized. For example, a character in “Make Believe” downloads an app to remind her to drink water. I did the same thing, it's been great, but also made me realize these aspects are nearly impossible to avoid. Do you purposely write toward a sense of timelessness in these stories? What are your thoughts about incorporating technology into your work?

CS: It seems impossible to capture the texture of what life is like right now without having technology. Our phones have become these limbs that we don't really seem to be able to function without. I don't want to amputate the limb and create fiction that doesn't feel realistic.

I'm more interested in technology as an appendage for these characters than as portals to these different worlds. I find it pretty difficult to write about and I feel like I haven't sorted out for myself what I think the narrative effects of the Internet are. Honestly, that feels like a really tricky question, and one that I haven't really figured out how to answer. I am really interested in all these stories in the props of our lives, and I think the things that are around us are just really important. There's a story, where I just kept writing about seltzer and I was like, “This is odd.” So to me it's sort of like the seltzer and the phone, they're both there. You gotta have them in the piece to render the texture of a certain person's life. Maybe the way phones feature in my fiction will change, but that's where I'm at right now.

TQ: I’m curious as to how people order their short story collections. There is a definite feel to Objects of Desire, where it’s as if the stories are linear of different stages of life, even though it’s not reflective of the characters’ ages, but maybe closer to their maturity levels. It was fascinating to me, and I am wondering how you feel that these stories fit within the same world, or the same universe. What was your decision to order these stories within the collection?

CS: The short answer is that it was an agonizing process. It made me feel like, “I'm a writer, but I'm not an organizer of a book. I don't know how to do this.” It’s mainly a process of intuition. 

Whenever I would start getting too far down the rabbit hole of “Oh wait, but if we have this character next to this character,” I wouldn't be able to describe exactly how it would be throwing everything off kilter, but it seemed like it was. At that stage, I had to just decide that. The perfect was becoming the enemy of the good. 

Part of what I am most excited about in the prospect of readers encountering this work is, that the order of these stories will land differently for different people, and that is part of what I have accepted and look forward to. The most I can say is that it was in service of some elusive sense of balance and cadence throughout the book. Then I relied on a lot of other people to tell me when I had driven myself crazy trying to figure out the perfect order.

My editor, at one point, came upon a review of a book that praised a collection of stories as “Perfectly ordered” and we were both terrified. What does that mean? Perhaps someone will have that reaction and we will be thrilled, but if they don't, well, you know.

TQ: What were you reading while you were drafting these stories?

CS: Oh, a lot. I guess, back to your research question, the main thing that feels essential to me while writing is to be reading all the time. It really does feel like if I’m not steeped in a lot of different people's work, my voice feels flat and wouldn’t be resonant to anybody except me. 

I don't feel myself to be in active conversation with writers, which feels sort of presumptuous and silly, but it does feel like I need to be eavesdropping on whatever is happening on the bookshelves of history to feel like I have anything at all to say. 

What can sometimes happen is it just feels like I’ve read a book at exactly the right time. What comes to mind most readily is Garth Greenwell's collection Cleanness. It landed at a moment when I felt like I had been so immersed in this particular type of spare, hyper-sharp, sort of acerbic writing that I admire, put a value on restraint that I'd learned a lot from, but that also was limiting, in a way. Encountering that book, there's just so much sensuality of it, but also the style of it that felt like a permission to write long sentences and write sentences that maybe seemed like too much, and maybe not to leave those as the ultimate sentences, but really did feel like a different register to me. 

I think sentimentality has become such a sort of bad word and I don't find Garth’s writing sentimental at all, but there is this fearless engagement with a type of deep feeling that is what I really want to get. It can sometimes feel like there are forces that are keeping that in check for me when I'm writing and I feel best about my writing when I am able to push against that. That was a book that felt liberating in that way.

TQ: There’s a sense of lucidity, I think, in both your and Greenwell’s prose styles. My final question is, what are you currently working on?

CS: I’m working on a novel. I've never written a novel, so I’m learning a lot. It is very painful and very interesting, and that is sort of all I have to say. I find it more or less impossible to talk about work in the gestation process. It feels like this murky water that I'm swimming in, and when eventually I come up, I will have some sort of story to tell, I hope.