An Interview with Sigal Samuel, Room's 2017 Fiction Contest Judge

Interview by 
Meghan Bell

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning novelist, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, won the Fiction Prize at the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards and the Trade Fiction Book of the Year Award at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards, and she has written for publications such as Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Electric Literature, Refinery 29, Tablet, and the Walrus. She is the current religion editor at The Atlantic, and a former editor at the Daily Beast and the Forward. Sigal's work has appeared in Room a couple of times, and most recently was included Making Room: Forty Years of Room MagazineA former Room contest winner, Sigal will judge Room's fiction contest in 2017.

Sigal took the time to answer a few questions about faith, language, and what she looks for in a short story.

ROOM: You're the religion editor for The Atlantic and have written extensively about faith and Judaism, including in your debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End. What does faith and spirituality mean to you and your work?

SS: I find faith and spirituality, in all their various forms, endlessly fascinating. But I used to think that I couldn’t write about religion in general and Judaism in particular in contemporary fiction. I thought I had to erase that particularistic interest and shoot for some mythic “neutral universal” (in Zadie Smith’s phrase). Now I trust that I’ll get at the universal through the particular, that in fact this is the only way we can ever get at the universal. I also trust that if I love to nerd out about X, somewhere there are other readers who are also secretly dying to nerd out about X. It’s not my job to reach as many millions as possible. It’s my job to reach those nerds and to reach them as perfectly as possible.  

ROOM: From a craft standpoint, what were some of the challenges of weaving multiple storylines and character points of view together?

SS: You might expect that the biggest challenge would be switching between different voices and executing each of them well. I found that hopping between characters was actually a pleasure, because when I was daunted by one I could procrastinate by hanging out with the other. For me, the biggest challenge was that I had to give up on certain pretty phrases or scenes I’d become wedded to in one storyline, because I realized they just didn’t fit with the larger puzzle I was trying to assemble once all the other storylines coalesced. 

ROOM: Why did you decide to make Mile End (the place) your final narrator in Mystics?

SS: The Montreal neighborhood of Mile End is home to hipsters and Hasidic Jews; it sets up the tension between secularity and faith instantly. All you need to do is describe what you see, and a conflict of ideas suggests itself. So choosing that neighborhood as the setting did half the work of plot for me. This was a great thing for me as a writer, because it catered to my laziness . . . I mean, efficiency.  

ROOM: You are a former second-place winner of Room's creative non-fiction contest (in 2010). What was that experience like?

SS: That experience really boosted my confidence as a writer. It was one of the first times I’d placed a piece in a literary magazine. I thought, hey, I can do this! And a few months later, a literary agent emailed me because she’d read my piece in Room and enjoyed it. She wanted to know if I was working on any novel-length fiction and if I was looking for an agent. So, you never know who’s going to be reading your work, and you never know where it might take you.

ROOM: Mystics is, at its core, a story about family, but it’s also a story about the power and limitations of language—a theme that also popped up in your contest-winning essay, “Love and Other Irregular Verbs,” which discussed your experience learning multiple languages. Are there any words you wish there was an English equivalent of?

SS: The Hebrew word davka is pretty unique. The most common English translation would be “specifically,” and it does mean that. But it’s got more valences than just that. To “do something davka” is to do something negative on purpose, to do it with the goal of pissing somebody off.

I also wrote a whole short story about words that don’t exist in any language, but should. The story is called “Words I Wish I Had.” Here are a few of the experiences I wish I had words for:

  • That split-second period (which seems to expand into an hour) between knocking over a piece of glassware and seeing it strike the ground.
  • The pleasure of plunging your finger into oozing wax that is not hot enough to seriously burn but causes a gasp and then dries on your fingertip.
  • Nostalgia for an abstract future event that may not happen, but you think that it probably will happen, and you already feel nostalgic about it.
  • The sensation of being slightly choked by a turtleneck.

ROOM: Do you have any advice for newer writers who are just starting to send out their writing?

SS: Working as an editor nowadays, I have to pass on fantastic stories every week. It’s not that the stories aren’t fascinating and well written. It’s just that I have limited resources and I have to choose stories while keeping in mind various factors, not only quality. So, don’t be discouraged when you get rejections. I’ve gotten loads of those. It is, to a large extent, a numbers game. Keep sending out your writing, if you feel the persistent need to write and share your work. If you don’t feel that need, consider yourself lucky.

ROOM: What do you look for in a short story?

SS: I look for something I haven’t seen before. Don’t play it safe. Don’t write something that you’ve already got all figured out. Write something that flows from a question that’s urgent to you, a question to which your answer is still “I don’t know.” And seriously, write what you would want to read—which, let’s be real, is probably something crazy and sexy and weird. I look for good writing and good characters, sure. I look for big, philosophical ideas. But I also look for weird. 

Learn More About Our Fiction Contest

Meghan Bell is the publisher of Room magazine.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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