All hands are on deck working on Issue 46.2 of Room! Send in your submission by October 15th to be considered for publication alongside our 2022 contest winners and commissioned writer Sydney Hegele, who is the author of the short story collection The Pump. Sydney joined us via Zoom to talk about finding their descriptive style, the resonance of the weird, and forging your own queer future.
ROOM: What’s the most important thing that writing The Pump taught you?
Sydney Hegele: I’ve said this before, I think, but it tends to ring truer and truer the longer it’s been since I’ve written the book. When I started the book, I was very convinced that when you grew up different in an isolated small town—particularly through my experience in southern Ontario growing up queer and below the poverty line, feeling different from a lot of the people in my town—that you only had two options. You could either stay in your town and pretend that you weren’t different and try to assimilate, or you could leave. Because I left. And some of the characters in The Pump choose to stay. Some stay just because of their circumstances, because of class and things like that, and quite a few leave. And while I was writing it, it really seemed urgent that that choice had to be made when you reached a certain age in early adulthood. But as I’ve been promoting the book and getting a different perspective on it, and as I’ve gotten older, the book has really taught me that there’s this third reality that seems almost better to me, of staying and making a space for people who are like you. I don’t blame myself for not having done that, and I don’t think it’s an obligation for people to do that, but I do think that the option is there, and when it happens, it really breaks that cycle of having to make that choice in the first place—to create space for the people that are different in the same way that you’re different in your small town, rather than having to stay and stay the same, or leave. And the number of younger people from small towns, who currently still live in small towns—including the small town Grimsby that The Pump is based on—who have come to me and said that they enjoyed The Pump and it really resonated with them… that proves to me even further that representing those spaces and making space for queer people who haven’t left, who are willing to stay and be loud and proud and make more space for people like them, is vital work. Even though it wasn’t my work, I hope that the kinds of people who are reading the book who are still in those small towns can see that there is space for them if they make it.
ROOM: Thank you for sharing that. I feel like I was thinking about that when it came to Laurent and Taylor. There was almost this hint of potentially something else shining through, which was interesting. So many of the characters say that you can’t leave, that the Pump doesn’t let you leave. But in the second-person perspectives that start and close the book, you see a different take. Can you talk about what it was like to come up with those bookends for the stories?
SH: The bookends, I think, are the most personal of the stories. They have the most personal details from my life and my own story woven into them. While I was writing them I was thinking a lot about how I had left my hometown to go to university a few years before, and my mother, when she was around the same age, eighteen, she left Quebec to move to Ontario to learn English, and she left home by herself. Shortly after having me and my brother, she moved into our small town where she knew nobody. She was moving into this rural space out of this cityscape for the first time, into isolation rather than out of it. I was thinking about the trajectory of a lot of the different characters, but while I was doing that, I had this undercurrent the entire time of my coming into the world in my small town, and my leaving. At that time, my mother hadn’t left our small town yet. And so it was this reverse journey home—a journey away from home. It felt important to me to represent a little bit of her story of having to come into a new place and go into isolation, moving into that small town so young, but also imagining a way out for her as well, just as I had left, and the complicated feelings that come with that. Your small town tends to feel like your entire world after a little while, even if you’ve moved from a larger place and you’ve grown up somewhere else. It feels very isolated from everything else on the outside. So to come out of it is freeing, but it’s also terrifying, because there’s so much more space and more possibility and you aren’t enclosed in everything you know and everything that you recognize. And so to try to imagine her coming out of the town in a bookend, as she came in, with a lot of that excitement and fear and unknown, felt important to me as I was processing my own exit from my small town. And then shortly after she did leave her small town. It ended up feeling like a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a way.
ROOM: A large part of how you bring readers into the town is through the powerful atmosphere that you build. Your fiction has a really distinct voice and an atmosphere that feels integral to what it’s getting across. Can you talk a bit about that from a craft perspective?
SH: When I was younger, I thought—and I think a lot of younger writers tend to think this when they’re first starting out—that to include as many details as humanly possible, with large thesaurus words, is what writing is. I would have a lot of trouble picturing rooms in my mind, so I would sit and I would write a paragraph and I would write every single item in the entire room. Like, Tolkien-esque, describing a tree takes seventy pages sort of thing. And I quickly realized that not only was I not very good at making that engaging, but also I didn’t enjoy it. The more detail I put into it, the less imagination and gaps there were for me to fill in and for the reader to fill in. I’m a big fan of audience participation, and discomfort, where I like the reader to do a little bit of the work. So I’m naturally inclined toward a style that mentions very specific details in worldbuilding, like sense and texture and particular images—whether it be the water in the marshes, or the hospital sceneries, and the forests, and things like that—but using them more as a structure for the reader to fill in, rather than a complete image. It tends to help me with my craft. By mentioning five really distinct, interesting, emotionally evocative things in a room, rather than everything in the room, I feel as though it paints enough of a picture that the reader is simultaneously surprised and intrigued, but nostalgic for something that they never even experienced, because they then fill in the rest of it with what they think the room looks like. So I try to do a lot of that with my descriptions, this skeletal work that the reader and I fill in together as we go along. It’s hit or miss—sometimes I’ll bring a scene in and an editor will be like, we don’t know where we are! And I’ll be like, oh yes, I need to add more siding to my skeleton, a few more bones to make it a little more stable. But I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of writer that can create an entire room in intense detail in the way that some other writers I admire can. I think I’m more for making the reader and I do a little bit of the work as we go along, and filling the skeleton with organs and things ourselves.
ROOM: The Pump straddles various genre lines fairly comfortably. I’ve recently been recommending it to some of my science fiction friends who read weird fiction, for example Jeff Vandermeer. Is that something you think about consciously when writing, or do you prefer to throw the labels out the window when you’re creating? Do you feel like it’s impacted the reception of the book at all?
SH: That’s interesting. I get a lot of people who call it straight-up literary fiction, and then people who call it straight-up horror. And there are a lot of surrealist, speculative fiction, magical aspects in it as well—but never enough to go into full surrealism. I don’t think I went into it super consciously wanting to take a little bit from everything. I wanted to write a collection of stories about small town isolation, about a water crisis, about climate change, about human relationships to animals, and about intimacy. But I’m also really intrigued by the weird, and the terrifying, and I like surrealist magical things as well. So I would hesitate to say that that natural bend would ever leave my future work, because it helps me to have some kind of little odd schtick in there to build everything around. But I will say that it feels a lot more freeing to just write what comes in all its weirdness, or in all its simplicity, without having to think too hard about what makes literary fiction different from horror fiction, or from speculative fiction, and things like that. I only define it in very strict genre terms when I’m forced to, like through a bookstore tag. Otherwise, I wish all our books could just live in this genre soup, and people with certain interest could pick up any book without feeling weird about it.
ROOM: Yes, I also very much think people would benefit from tossing out the stigma around some of the genre tags. To speak specifically about one of the weirder elements, the beavers get a lot of attention, and for good reason, they’re really great. But I’m curious about another animal from The Pump: the terrifying storks! What drew you to the storks? Can you talk about how they came to be?
SH: Yeah! I was writing the book in London, Ontario while at Western, and for some reason on our lesser Thames we get these giant herons with these large beaks—and I’m terrified of birds. My second book that’s on submission right now is all about birds. And I have this fear of flapping, I have a fear of how birds look and act, I’m quite afraid of birds. So I remember frequently encountering these giant herons and just being like, wow, if that heron stood up properly, it would be taller than me. That’s a giant bird! So it was a little bit of that, and a little bit of this fascination with the Grimm’s fairy tales. I’ve always been fascinated with the stork narrative of delivering a baby or taking it away, I’ve always been really fascinated with fairy-esque stories of changelings and things like that. That’s the one story that gets described as an out-of-place story most of the time. But I only wrote it third in The Pump, or something like that—I didn’t write it completely separately. In my mind it exists as this narrative within a narrative, like folklore within folklore, and the only thing I could think of that was more terrifying than beavers that eat people were storks that people sacrifice babies to.
ROOM: Yeah, it certainly worked on the terrifying side! That one stayed with me for a while.
SH: I am glad and sorry.
ROOM: That’s the sweet spot, isn’t it? Just a fun one to end with, do you listen to any music when you’re writing or editing?
SH: I tend to get obsessed with an album or a few songs per writing project and just play them on a loop, but very honestly, my ADHD has been so bad lately that I’ve been listening to smothered brown noise with isotonic tones on a three-hour loop because it puts these little tones in your ears, and whooshing noises, and noise machine sounds [laughter], so hand me the aux cord and I’m going to play smothered brown noise with isotonic tones any day. That is what I am listening to, that is what I’m here for.
Get ROOM 46.2: Ley Line now.