Tag Archives: How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga

An Interview with Leona Theis

13 Oct
Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.

To read an exercise on making characters represent a place or group based on Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” click here.

In this interview, Theis discusses writing about internal conflict in the midst of external drama.

Michael Noll

A lot of the action in the story happens off the page. The scenes seem to focus instead on the interactions and moments that happen in the wake of that off-page drama. I was particularly struck at how the story avoided certain storylines. For example, the drama that’s built on Lisa and Dave’s relationship is an important part of the story, but it remains secondary to what’s going on with Sylvie. Another writer might have made it a much bigger part of the story: what will Lisa do? What will Sylvie do? Those questions are present, but they’re kept to a lower register. In the same way, there is a developing romance with Will that gets folded into all of the other stuff going on in the story. As a result, one could call this a love story, but that wouldn’t feel quite right, I don’t think. When you were working on this story, what was your sense of what kind of story it was? Was there a tag that you placed on it in your mind? Like, “this is my love story” or “this is my yoga story”?

Leona Theis

I never did think of this as “a yoga story” or a “love story”. My process in developing a story or an essay is almost always exploratory for the first few drafts, and that was the case with this one even more than usual. It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of. Once I’d decided what the story was about, I rewrote it several (in fact, many) times, hoping to make all the parts of it work together to make that drama felt.

I wrote this story to stand on its own, but I couldn’t leave Sylvie alone, and eventually it became the second chapter in a novel-in-stories called “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives.” (I’m just about to query agents about it now.) The story of Sylvie and Jack, which is, as you say, “off the page” here, plays out in the story that precedes this one. (That story, “High Beams”, appeared a couple of years ago in The Journey Prize Stories 26, in Canada.)

Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

The tension between Lisa and Dave is apparent in “How Sylvie Failed…,” as is Sylvie’s response to it, but I didn’t put much of the actual, physical goings-on between those two on the page, as this is a story about Sylvie. The drama I was most interested in delving into was happening inside her. She’s trying on different versions of herself and hasn’t yet come to realize that life is serious business. She’s reaching for some idea of cool, and, naively, she half thinks she’s already achieved it. But she’s yet to take a deep look at anything in life, which is one reason the yoga experience baffles her so. She’s terribly self-absorbed, a person tasting things to see how she likes them, to see what will satisfy her. Even her relationship with Will is less a love story and more another angle on Sylvie trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. I love her and I forgive her faults, because she’s young, and a slow learner.

Michael Noll

How did you approach pacing the steps that lead to Sylvie and Will’s increasing closeness?

Leona Theis

I don’t remember much about how I arrived at the pacing of the increasing closeness between Sylvie and Will. I suspect that that part of the process was intuitive, and when the pacing to do with that continued to feel right draft after draft, I knew not to mess with it.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the story is the description of one of Lisa’s friends when Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

I love this line because it clearly describes the guy and also the time and place. Did this line just appear on the page one day, or did you have to revise your way toward it?

Leona Theis

I’m happy that you liked the line about the guy in the quilted vest saying, “Far out.” That line was one of those gifts that comes out fully formed when a writer manages to transport herself to a time and place she remembers well, when she can hear the characters’ voices without straining.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the editors at American Short Fiction, Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits for their fine editing. Also, Elizabeth McCracken for selecting my story for the prize.

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

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