Shaena Lambert is a novelist, short story writer and teacher. Her latest book of stories, Oh, My Darling won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Story Collection of 2013, was selected as a top book of the year by both the Globe and Mail and National Post and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award for the Short Story. Her novel, Radiance, about a Hiroshima survivor who comes to New York in 1952, was a finalist for the Writers Trust Fiction Award, the Ethel Wilson Prize, and the Ontario Evergreen Award. Her first book, The Falling Woman, was published to critical acclaim in Canada, the UK and Germany. Shaena has taught and mentored fiction with The Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, The Humber School for Writers, The Writers’ Studio of Simon Fraser University and the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts.
What book, poem or other written work has been most inspirational to you?
I love the work of Henry James. The dark heart of his stories, the impeccable surface. Also love William Trevor, Alice Munro, and Tolstoy, both his novels and his stories. Love how his characterizations are so humane. And there is such a flood of gentle intelligence at the heart of his stories.
What books do you recommend VMI participants read for additional advice?
Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction. Natalie Goldberg (for memoir), Old Friend from Far Away. Jack Hodgins’ wonderful book, A Passion for Narrative. Douglas Glover’s, The Attack of the Copula Spiders. John Gardner’s famous books, The Art of Fiction, and Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Betsy Warland, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. EM Forster’s The Art of the Novel.
What are you currently working on?
A novel set in 1930s Vancouver. And stories.
What do you wish you knew when writing your first manuscript that you know now?
Some very basic skills would have helped. How to move between scene and narrative summary. How much perspective can come from a change in tense. How important conflict and action are to any story, even the most lyrically based.
What is the most valuable insight or skill that your VMI writers have learned from you?
To revise! And how to do this while keeping the energy of a piece alive.
What do you gain from the mentoring process?
What do you enjoy most about being a VMI mentor?
One time when I was walking along English Bay with Betsy, we were having a heated and involved discussion about mentoring. I think we were talking about what it feels like to connect deeply with an author by reading their work in progress. It’s very intimate, sometimes even dangerous, often raw. You have to feel your way through it, using intuition, respect, and all your skills as a reader and writer. Anyway, Betsy turned to me and said, “It’s soul work, Shaena.” I often think of those words. And it’s true. It’s complicated work. But it’s also a privilege to move into this intimate space with another person, to be admitted into what is often a secret world.
What will VMI participants gain from the program?
Writers spend hours, days, months working out invisible worlds on their own. VMI is a chance to share, connect. One-on-one mentoring allows a writer a to get feedback while still keeping a net of privacy over a piece of writing. This can be important in the earlier phases of a project – when over exposure, in workshops or small groups, no matter how well meaning, can hinder growth.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have received?
It was a piece of advice that I received in a life-drawing class. I would do a sketch and then begin to add lines, darken, harden, and eventually scribble all over what I was doing. The teacher kindly came and put her hand over mine, ‘Slow down. Some of your drawings are pretty good, you just have to inch them along, rather than scribbling all over them in frustration.’ That happened twenty years ago, and I still think about it. Be kind to yourself and your art.