Alex Custodio in Conversation with Shanna Roberts Salée

From The Lying Juilliards

Between suspected affairs, inappropriate liaisons, corrupt neighbours, suburban drug rings and teenagers with nothing to lose, the Juilliards all think they have a very secret problem, and that the secret solution is money. Alternately told through the eyes of each of the five members, The Lying Juilliards follows the family members as they navigate their individual struggles by spinning a web of lies so intricate they inevitably lose their way, ending in a spectacular collision of the minds and the display of suburbia in all its glorious decay.

After an elaborate conversational dance during which Gerry pretended that he hadn’t completely ignored Tim and Chastity the first time he walked through the living room, the five of them sat around the coffee table to eat an array of store-bought hors d’oeuvres.  According to Timothy’s elitist palate, they all tasted like peanut butter—the generic kind.

The conversation was slightly painful and definitely forced, as was always the case when Chastity came for dinner. She just had a quality about her, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi of triviality which naturally pushed people away.

Gerry looked at his watch.  “What time did you say Donnie was supposed to get in?”

Nancy took a long sip of wine and counted the flowers on the wallpaper.   “His bus arrives at four, why?”

“Darling, it’s 6:30.  Shouldn’t he be here by now?"

“Good God.  Is it really that late already?"

Chastity snorted.  “Of course he’s late, Mother.  It’s Donald.  He probably got distracted by some first-year girls painting their toenails.”

While Chastity’s comment was unnecessarily vindictive—especially considering the fact that Donnie wasn’t even there to defend himself—the truth of the matter was: it remained a very likely possibility.

“Well, regardless. I’m sure he has a good reason to be late.  If we don’t start, though, the turkey will get cold.”

Gerry frowned petulantly.  “We’re having turkey? It’s summer.”

Nancy tightened her fists, but no one noticed.  “Tamara asked for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.  It’s her birthday after all.”

“I would have preferred burgers and beer, but if my favourite girl wants turkey, then so be it.” 

Nancy winced at his choice of words, hoping Chastity hadn’t heard.  Of course, she had.  They collectively thought that this was going to be a very long night.

Excerpted from Shanna Roberts Salée, The Lying Juilliards, Thought Catalog Books (2015).


Alex Custodio in Conversation with Shanna Roberts Salée

Alex Custodio: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Lying Juilliards. Can you tell us a bit about what that process was like, especially the experience of publishing a major work for the first time?

Shanna Roberts Salée: It was a very long, harrowing process. I actually finished writing the book four years ago. I’d taken a summer off from work, went back to my parents, and just wrote it in three months from start to finish. I put it aside for some time, came back to edit it, and then went through the process of trying to find an agent to get to the bigger publishing houses. That part was really hard—one hundred and fifty rejections. But if you go directly to the small publishing presses, you have to send them a letter first and then they might ask you for chapters, and, after they read the chapters, they might ask you for the full manuscript. That whole process can take up to six months for one place and some places want to be the only ones to be considering it, so I was trying to avoid those because it was just a waste of my time.

Eventually, I started writing for Thought Catalog, which is a popular online blog, and I saw that they had a book publishing component to their operation. I started talking with the publisher there and sent them my manuscript. They were really excited because they mainly publish non-fiction and they’re trying to build up their fiction collection. So I did a bit more editing, a few months went by, and finally here we are.

AC: Could you speak a little about how you deal with the rejection process, and any suggestions you have for other writers dealing with that process?

SRS: You have to believe in your work. That’s the thing I realized is most important. If you’re unsure about the quality of your work or what you’re presenting, then you’re done because the rejections just keep coming and they come fast and strong. If you’re unsure about whether or not it’s good, have other people read it. My father is a professor here at Concordia, and he’s very critical. I thought, if he reads it and it passes the test, then I know I have something good. Sure enough, it did. You just have to believe in your work. If you don’t believe in it, go fix whatever you think is lacking.

AC: Your short story “So It Is”, published in issue 18.1 of Soliloquies Anthology, revolves around the complicated relationship between a mother and her adopted child who was born with Foetal Alcohol Disorder. Your novel, The Lying Juilliards, also follows the life of a family and the tensions that arise as a consequence of the grandfather’s passing. Do you see family and familial trauma as a recurring topic your writing? If so, why do you think these things grab you so much?

SRS: I love writing about family and family dynamics. I don’t think there’s anything quite as captivating, complex, and tense as families, the way that there are power plays and hidden stories and dynamics. There’s so much history in a family that goes back thirty years to when the parents were kids and how their parents affected them and it’s a cycle that just goes on and on. To me, it’s an endless source of inspiration.

AC: On a somewhat similar note, are there any particular authors or works that stand out as strong sources of inspiration for your own work?

SRS: Definitely. My favorite author is Douglas Coupland; his books speak to me on such a deep level. The first time I read one of his books, I was maybe seventeen or eighteen. I read The Gum Thief and I was mesmerized by the way that he writes. Family is also a big recurring theme in his books. Jonathan Franzen and Miriam Toews have also been sources of inspiration for me.

AC: Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Are you the type of writer who plans the structure of a story out ahead of time in great detail and tries to stick to it the whole way through, or do you write more spontaneously?

SRS: Short stories and small essays I write spontaneously, whenever I have the inspiration. And whenever I feel inspired, I just have to do it right then and there. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3:00 am, I’ll be in my bed and I’ll get up because I have to write. For my novel, it was a bit different. I felt as though it was such an undertaking that, if I didn’t plan it out in a certain way, I would never get to the end of it. For a short story, you have the beginning, the middle, and the end, and it can be within five pages. There’s a smaller chance of getting lost. For the novel, I thought, if I just start writing and let my mind wander, I’m never going to find my way. When I started writing it, I spent a week sitting down and getting to know the characters and writing out their thoughts. Since the book is written from the perspective of each of the family members, I really had to get to know them to give them a voice that wouldn’t be the same as all the others. When I mapped out the plan, I knew where the story was starting and I knew where it was going to end, but I had no idea how I was going to bridge the beginning and the end to the middle. So I kind of worked my way to the centre asking myself, “So this guy starts here and in the end, he’s there. What happened throughout that summer for him to end up there?”

AC: For how long had you been writing before the release of The Lying Juilliards? Has your writing process changed significantly now that you’ve published your first novel?

SRS: I wouldn’t say that my process has changed significantly, but knowing now that I can do it—that I’ve done it—is very liberating. I feel like I can keep going. As for the first question, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. It’s weird because, when I was young, I used to keep a journal and write these little short stories in high school. I just thought that that was something everyone did. And then one day my father saw me writing and he came over to read it and said something like, “What’s this? This is great. How long have you been doing this?” I kind of responded, “I don’t know, forever. I just thought that’s just the way everyone is.” And then he told me that, no, that’s not how everyone is, and he encouraged me to keep writing. My parents are very supportive, which helps with all the rejections.

AC: This year, you also launched a web series, titled Mistakes Were Made, which you wrote, directed, and produced. How has that process been for you? How do you manage to sneak in time for writing while working on such a project?

SRS: Mistakes Were Made actually started as a feature. Considering that I hadn’t done anything significant in terms of directing—when I was in Concordia, I directed a few small shorts and documentaries, but nothing that was significant that I could present to the SODEQ to get funding to make this movie—I thought, if no one is willing to give me the money to do it, why don’t I break it down into something manageable and do it myself? So I did. I broke it down into nine episodes and changed things a bit so it would be more manageable in terms of budget and locations. I have some actor friends who were really interested in being a part of it, so I got them involved and we did it. We shot last summer from the end of July to October. So here and there during my days off, we’d be running around the city. After putting it aside for a bit to get some objectivity, I started editing. We launched it in May and it’s been a lot of fun. Now I’m doing the festival circuit with it. If anything, this has been a great beginning project to be able to show what I can do.

AC: Now that you’ve finished your first novel and gotten your web series underway, what’s next for you? Are there any new writing projects in the works?

SRS: Mistakes Were Made Season 2 has been in the works for the past couple of months. I’ve started thinking about it and started writing it a bit. That could be next year. Although, if I were to do a second season, I would want to have it in a more structured way, to try to get more funding and more people involved. We’ll see how that pans out. Apart from that, yeah, I’ve been writing. I have ideas for a second novel, so it’s on an ongoing process. This is just the beginning right now.

Author
Shanna Roberts Salée currently works as an Assistant Director on Sphère Media's TV police drama
19-2. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines such as Soliloquies AnthologyEcholocationThe Hilt Magazine, and Bareback Literary Press, and most recently, in the daily newspaper Le Devoir. She also contributes lifestyle articles to Thought Catalog, and launched this year her first web series Mistakes Were Made, which she wrote, directed, and produced, on mistakesweremade.tv. Shanna lives in Montreal, but occasionally not, and has no pets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For more content from Soliloquies Anthology, visit soliloquies.ca