This month Off/Kilter sits down with Madeline Sonik to chat about her newest short story collection
Fontainebleau (Anvil Press). Set in the mythical city of the same name, Fontainebleau is a place where something dark lurks – from poison in the soil all the way up to something menacing in the sky. In our interview, Madeline shares more about her personal connection to this fictional setting, based on a subdivision located in Windsor, Ontario, the Gothic as inspiration for writing dread into her work and the challenge of creating a sustained feeling of suspense.
Leyla T: Fontainebleau, Ontario acts as the main setting for this collection of stories. Do you have a personal connection to this area? What inspired this as the perfect backdrop and linking element across these stories?
Madeline Sonik: The mythical city of Fontainebleau is situated on the South bank of the Detroit River, which in reality, is the location of Windsor, Ontario. My family moved to Windsor, to a subdivision called “Fontainebleau,” when I was ten, and although we only lived there for a very short time, I’ve always considered it the place I grew up. In this collection I wanted to explore this past terrain through fiction. A couple of the stories are based on factual events, but most are derived from local urban legend. There was said to be a curse on some of the subdivision’s land, UFOs were said to have been spotted and aliens were said to have landed in nearby fields. I wanted to play with some of these ideas as well as express something about the violence and vulnerability of childhood that I became increasingly aware of as I matured.
LT: Throughout some of the stories in Fontainebleau, there is a common, creeping feeling of uncomfortable dread. Can you talk a bit about the art of writing this intangible emotion into your work and if/how the short story format best lends itself to this?
MS: That feeling of anxiety you identify is most prevalent in gothic and mystery genres. One of my favorite examples of this is in Dracula, when Jonathan Harker, after arriving at the vampire’s castle, realizes he’s dealing with a monster, but is loath to confront him. In this instance, it’s the unspoken that creates that kind of tension, and Stoker draws this out, keeping the reader on tenterhooks for as long as he possibly can. In several of the stories in Fontainebleau, I tried to create similar feelings of disquiet using a variety of gothic and mystery techniques. I don’t believe that the short story form lends itself to these techniques better than other forms, but I do think the pitch of anxiety is often heightened in shorter forms.
LT: How does your work in Fontainebleau differ or compare to the writing of your previous collection of short fiction
Drying the Bones (Nightwood Editions)?
MS: Fontainebleau was a far more challenging collection to create, not only because the stories are all linked, which is a challenge in itself, but because I wanted the forms of the stories to differ. For example, I have a mystery, a literary fairy tale, a surreal work and a hardboiled detective story. Because I like to try new things in writing and I’d never come across a work of linked stories with different forms, I wanted to see if I could join a variety of genres and still create a unified work.
LT: What were some of the considerations or challenges you faced when compiling this collection in terms of what would be included or excluded and the order that the stories would appear?
MS: I wanted to keep the suspense high and not lose momentum, even when linking a story that, in itself, wasn’t particularly suspenseful. Interestingly, I found that a couple of older stories I’d been saving for a different volume contained the geography of Fontainebleau, and fit perfectly into this collection with a bit of editing. The most trouble I had was trying to create different story types for the volume and seam them together, so that readers wouldn’t realize the types differed, but would just experience the exhilaration and energy of the new form.
LT: We love to know what makes an author tick! Are there any particular authors, genres of literature, art, artists or other media that inspire your work or that you are passionate about?
MS: It would be difficult for me to point to any one author, form, or genre. I read widely: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism. I’m both a student and a teacher of technique. My pleasure in experiencing any art form is in trying to figure out how a piece technically works, how it’s able to elicit a specific response, be that emotional, physical or intellectual. I’m also a student of psychology, and would say that that study profoundly affects the way I write and process art.
LT: What are you currently reading and do you have any short story collections that you would recommend for someone who enjoys off kilter works like Fontainebleau?
MS: I’m currently re-reading Vanity Fair and Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. I’m also reading Deathless, a wonderful speculative novel that combines myth, folklore, and Russian history. Because Fontainebleau attempts a number of different forms, it’s difficult to recommend other similar works. For “off kilter” works, off the top of my head, I’d recommend Barbara Gowdy’s, We So Seldom Look on Love, Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel, Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.
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Madeline Sonik is an award-winning and eclectic writer, anthologist, and teacher, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Her books include a novel,
Arms; short fiction,
Drying the Bones; a children’s novel, Belinda and the Dustbunnys; two poetry collections, Stone Sightings and The Book of Changes. Her volume of personal essays,
Afflictions & Departures, was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize, and won the 2012 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize.
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