I first encountered Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s work in graduate school, where we read an excerpt from her second novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. Her powers for imbuing the mundane with a particular, shimmering wonder were in full effect: a middle school teacher attempts to write unique descriptions of each of her students, elevating their most ordinary talents in magical ways.
Madeleine Is Sleeping, Bynum’s first novel, is the kind of book you devour in quick, fast gulps. A girl on the cusp of adulthood in France falls into a deep sleep and embarks on a fairy-tale adventure in the realm of dreams, confronting the events that drove her to seek refuge in sleep.
Bynum’s most recent book, the California Book Club selection for January 2022, is the short story collection Likes. It is marked by the same unmistakable sensibility that characterizes her two earlier books. She uses fairy tales not as a diversion from the difficulties of real life, but rather as a lens by which to see these realities more clearly.
I corresponded with the writer over email about constraints, building a short story collection, and the energy of sensory detail in storytelling.
In an interview with Aimee Bender, you mention searching for concrete frames and containers to hold the inchoate question or “disturbance” that sparks a short story. Did you conceive of the collection itself as a container? Were there any constraints that helped you write past periods of uncertainty?
I rely on constraints in various forms because I am so often beset by uncertainty! In the case of these stories, sometimes the constraint would be externally created—an invitation to write a modern fairy tale for an anthology inspired “The Erlking”—and sometimes the constraint would be self-imposed. I’d set out to rewrite a classic Mavis Gallant story, keeping the narrative frame intact (“Bedtime Story”), or I’d try to structure a story in short, image-driven sections that mimicked the experience of thumbing through Instagram (“Likes”).
I find constraints helpful as I’m tentatively feeling my way around in a new story, but I also allow myself to let go of them if the story is tugging in a different direction. With “The Bears,” the narration is ruminative and meandering, and at a certain point my confidence in that voice began to falter, so I told myself I was writing a Hansel and Gretel story—that kept me going with the promise of danger, stakes, sugar, plot! But I didn’t finish the draft, and it sat on my hard drive for many years, and when I finally returned to it, I realized that I was actually telling a different tale of trespassing—not Hansel and Gretel but Goldilocks. It was only by abandoning my original model that I was able to follow the story where it needed to go.
Some short story collections are simply a gathering of the short stories a writer has written over a time period, but there’s an intentional fullness and breadth to this collection. The sum of it is greater than its parts. Did you have a vision for how a reader would travel through the collection as you decided on sequencing?
Originally, the collection didn’t open with “The Erlking,” but among the benefits of the editing process is the time it takes, the time it gives you to sit with the completed book and to imagine it in a reader’s hands. During that time, it occurred to me that a reader might want a quick look at a map in order to navigate this collection, because each story approaches the question of realism differently; the terrain is always changing. I didn’t want a reader to think they were signing up for a journey into the fantastic and then feel disappointed or disoriented by the stories that lack those elements, and vice versa. Starting with its title, “The Erlking” activates what Kate Bernheimer calls “the fairy way of reading,” but it’s also a story that’s rooted in specifically contemporary anxieties around parenting and childhood. My hope was that by putting this story first, I could ask readers to be open to multiple possibilities, flexible in their expectations as they move from one story to the next.
Part of what makes these disparate stories—ranging as they do across points of view, levels of realism, setting, subject—feel of a world is this generous, unique curiosity at the level of language that you bring to the page. How do you find your way into that place of careful noticing?
I am a stubbornly concrete thinker, most at home in the sensory world among tangible things and felt experiences. And my biggest pleasure as a reader is when the combination of exact and original language summons up someone else’s sensory world for me in all its fullness, so that it becomes mine even as it remains not mine. I guess it follows, then, that this effect is what I’m always chasing as a writer. I work very slowly. I space out a lot. Sometimes I have to perform an action repetitively and deliberately—like closing a door or peeling an orange—in order to find the words to describe what it feels like. My process is neither reliable nor efficient. Other elements such as point of view and structure are ultimately subordinate to language for me—they inform the language, of course, but they can’t replace it as the primary source of energy.•
Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.