A conversation about The Museum of Possibilities with Barbara Sibbald

Interview from Montgolfiere Weekly

First, I should declare that Barbara Sibbald is a friend, a colleague and a contributor to this blog. Second, like one of her characters who is reading a short story in “Things We Hold Dear,” “I usually don’t read short stories. I like a longer relationship with my fictional company.” In spite of my usual preference for a more lengthy narrative, I found the stories in The Museum of Possibilities highly entertaining, being tightly constructed and inventive, and featuring unsparing observation of the human condition in its mundane failures, though these are recounted with a dark and witty relish. Unhappy marriages and untimely deaths abound in this collection, sometimes one leading directly to the other. There are surprises, such as the contents of the many boxes belonging to an apparent “hoarder, grade three,”or the hard realization of an ambitious researcher who manipulates patients’ perceptions but fails to recognize the feelings of the people around her.

A number of the stories are about working on a small-town newspaper, reflecting the author’s experience. In “Dispatches from Madawan,” an unhappily married journalist types on a war correspondent’s portable typewriter in upper case, the Underwood having no lower case letters, as she files a story she’s working on about a local woman’s adult son who may have committed suicide in Thailand, while also tapping out stories from the home front: “I LOAD THE CAR WITH ESSENTIALS … AND HEAD NORTH … MY HUSBAND IS LEFT BEHIND WITH THE PHOTO ALBUMS AND ELECTRICAL APPLIANCES, OF NO VALUE IN A SURVIVAL SITUTATION.”

The first group of stories features characters with a heightened, sometimes supernatural sensitivity to others, knowing more than is possible about them. What else would you say those first stories have in common?

The characters’ sense of longing. They all desperately want something: success, love, recognition. Also, the endings are more consistently ambiguous than those of the second and third parts of the collection. I like that ambiguity. I see the short story as a communication between the author and the reader, where the reader brings her or his perception to the interaction. For instance at the end of “Lucid Dreams,” did someone die?

In “Things We Hold Dear,” I liked the juxtaposition of a passive, albeit sharp-tongued, reader and an active character, endlessly shuttling between point A (husband in rural community) and point B (her framing shop in an Ottawa Valley town) in a short story within a short story. I felt a small shock a few times when the point of view shifted. How did that story come about?

I had been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller with its shifting perspectives, which inspired me to write “Things we Hold Dear.” I am pleased with it. It could have flopped. In fact, initially, the observer was too benign and needed her own contrasting story. She needed more story than I had initially allowed her to have. I loved the idea of a narrator within the narration. In addition, the “active” character, being a photographer of dead life, is also an observer.

The idea of a woman getting caught in a snowstorm was based on something that happened to me and that I started writing about in the eighties. I had to walk two kilometres, but I didn’t get lost.

The middle group of stories is described as flash fiction on the back cover of the book. How do you define “flash fiction”? What’s the writing process like compared with regular short stories?

It’s really short, a little burst of narrative, but it has to be cohesive and deal with only one, maybe two, themes. It can be difficult to write, but then sometimes it isn’t! Having thought about the plot for “Bitter Butter” for some time, I then wrote it in two hours, which is very unusual for me. I usually agonize over my writing.

The writing process is different. The characters are not fully developed and there’s no back story, but a nuance has to be given to each character, so readers know who they are. The action can take place over a number of years, as in “Bitter Butter,” but it’s still very focused and in the moment.

When were the Wanda stories written? What is their relationship with your novel Regarding Wanda?

Regarding Wanda was written in the nineties as a short-story cycle like Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro, where the last story takes you back to where you were at the beginning. The first of these short stories to be written and published was “Seeing,” now reworked as “The Normal Blur of Myopia,” which actually is the novel, in that it starts at the beginning of the book and ends at the end.

I had the opportunity to take part in a writing program at the Banff Centre in 1998, where Audrey Thomas was my mentor. I showed her four or five stories about Wanda and she told me that given that all the stories centred on the same person and had the same voice, I should make them into a novel, which became Regarding Wanda. The novel was well received. It was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award, but I regretted giving up on the stories. I wanted to go back to the original concept. That’s what I did. I deconstructed and reconstructed the stories. It was nice to get back to them.

Why are there so many unhappy marriages and relationships in these stories?

And there’s also fear of marriage among the unmarried, as expressed by the character in “Drowned.” I write about what I care about, and relationships matter to me. Marriage matters to me: why does it work and why doesn’t it? I’m lucky now, being with someone with whom I have a lot in common, but we lived apart for the first year of our marriage, because I wasn’t confident about being able to stay in love with someone with whom I had daily contact.

Unhappy marriages can also be a plot device?

Yes, as in the women feeding their husbands too much butter! Also, there’s the longing for the stability of a long-term relationship, though sometimes the characters are smart enough to see that the relationship won’t work, as Wanda realizes in “Do You Think She Knows?” She fears being subsumed by Ron, and she’s probably right.

Would you say that there’s a happy marriage in this collection?

Yes, I would say that there is one. In “Dispatches from Madawan,” the main character’s brother and sister-in-law’s marriage has survived the death of a young child, which is unusual. Furthermore, the brother had told everyone that he too had not noticed when their two-year-old son had “slipped out through the patio doors,” though, in fact, he hadn’t been there. He wanted to share the responsibility for the loss and protect his wife.

Barbara Sibbald’s collection of short stories, The Museum of Possibilities, was published by The Porcupine’s Quill Press.