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Introducing Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer – Sierra Skye Gemma

Sierra Skye Gemma was recently named Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer at the National Magazine Awards for a story called “The Wrong Way”, originally published in The New Quarterly.

Her piece takes an unflinching and honest look at grief. The jury’s citation reads, in part, “With a fresh voice and a strong command of style and structure, Sierra Skye Gemma digs ever deeper into a story of a lost life, writing with both an edginess and verve in this meditation on the process of grieving.”

In addition to her 2013 National Magazine Award, Sierra’s creative nonfiction won the 2012 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and the 2013 Rhubarb “Taboo” Literary Contest and her fiction was long-listed in House of Anansi’s Broken Social Scene Story Contest.

Currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Sierra works as an Executive Editor of PRISM international and co-writes the blog Regressive Parenting. Her work has also been published in The New Quarterly, The Vancouver Sun, The Vancouver Observer, WestCoast Families, Fringe Magazine, Plenitude, Nineteen Questions, and elsewhere.

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Congrats on your recent (& well deserved) NMA win for Best New Magazine Writer. What was that experience like? Does being recognized in this way change anything for you, as a writer?

It was amazing! I was up in the hills of Northern California doing research for my novel when the awards were announced. I had Wifi, but no cellular service, so I found out through Twitter. I ran around the place I was staying, screaming my head off. When you’re tucked away on seven acres in the middle of nowhere, you can do that.

Whether it changes anything for me—yes and no.

It doesn’t seem to change anything as far as the rest of the world is concerned. I haven’t been contacted by any literary agents. You’re the only one to ask for an interview. My website did get some increased traffic, and after looking at the search terms that brought people to my site, I know that they were actually looking for me and not Sierra Skye the adult film actress.

That said, it has changed things for me in an internal way. It has given me confidence. It has validated some recent life decisions that many family and friends questioned. It made me feel like my work could touch people and that feeling is A-MAZ-ING. I highly recommend it.

How long have you been writing? Can you share a little bit more about what’s shaped you as a writer?

I have been writing with intention since age 12. Between the ages of 12 and 15, I produced many volumes of handwritten pages, mostly poetry and novels. My writing influences were literary giants like “Carolyn Keene” and V.C. Andrews. I was not one of those cool writers who grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and John Steinbeck, although I did read Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” in secret at the age of 14.

My father was a remarkably unsuccessful writer who experienced many near-misses with publishing, so I grew up with this strong idea that you don’t write for a living unless you want to live on the cusp of poverty, as we did. At the age of 15, when I moved away from my parents to live with my older sister in Hawaii, I practically stopped writing altogether, except for the occasional poem.

It wasn’t until after I graduated with my BA (in History and Sociology) in 2009 that I started writing creatively again. I started a blog that sparked the memory of my love of writing. The next year I applied to the MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC and I got in. I can’t say enough good things about what the MFA Program has done for my writing. I am not convinced that any education in the world can turn a bad writer into a good writer, but an MFA Program can sure improve, inspire, and motivate a writer with potential. That’s what it has done for me.

What writers or books have had the biggest impact on how and what you write?

Hmm, remember when I said I wasn’t one of those cool writers who grew up reading quality literature? Well, I am still the same, although I am trying to improve. When I was a teenager and young adult, I read lots of myth and fantasy, like Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and Morgan Llywelyn.

Then I moved on to popular fiction or crime stuff, like Dean Koontz and John Grisham, yes, even Dan Brown. It’s all on my Goodreads page. I’ve got nothing to hide.

But, it hasn’t all been garbage. I read a TON of non-fiction and I think most of my influences have been from that genre. The non-fiction books that have influenced me the most have been Alice Sebold’s Lucky, Andreas Schroeder’s Shaking It Rough, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle.

Lucky showed me that brutal honesty can also be beautiful, even when it comes at great personal cost; Shaking It Rough taught me how structure can help shape a story that might have missing pieces; Running with Scissors made me believe that I could write about my life, as crazy as it has been and as unbelievable a character as I may be; and The Glass Castle showed me how to write about tremendous heartbreak without self-pity.

In your NMA-winning piece “The Wrong Way” you de-construct grief, you write clearly and honestly about grief and argue against Kübler-Ross’ dominant theory of the typical stages of grief. Did you start out wanting to tackle or challenge her work directly, or was it an angle that came to you after you’d already been working on the piece?

No, I definitely did not think I was going to take on the grief theory that has dominated mourning in our culture for several decades. No, sir. In fact, I looked up Kübler-Ross’ work because I thought that my experiences would line up nicely with the Five Stages of Grief. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I began piecing together the structure you see in “The Wrong Way” now.

I believe that all good writing carries some emotional risk for the writer; that something must be at stake for the piece to work. Can you talk about what sort of risks you were working with (if any) when you wrote “The Wrong Way”?

The answer isn’t pretty. It’s selfish and uncaring. The answer is that I didn’t think about the risks. I didn’t think about them for myself because I’m tough and the experiences you read about in “The Wrong Way” offer just a tiny glimpse of my past. There’s a lot more nastiness that didn’t make it into this piece, but I can handle it because I’m tough. And it’s because of that toughness that I didn’t think about the risks for the other family members featured in story, and that was unfair on my part. I should’ve thought about those who may be more sensitive or private than I am, but I didn’t.

I want to say that it was a mistake, but I can’t regret it. I must write. All writers must do this. It’s a compulsion. I write non-fiction, so it’s going to happen again. A writing instructor once told me that all good non-fiction writers must have a sliver of steel in their hearts to do what they do. I believe that and I have that sliver.

What has the reaction been to the work? Have you had any pushback from readers who disagree with your views on grief?

No, just the opposite! I’ve had many people tell me that the piece resonated with them. People have been very kind. One of the best compliments I received was after a reading of an excerpt at the Wild Writers Conference in Waterloo, Ontario. A little old lady came up to me afterward and waited in a (small) line of congratulators. Very sincerely she told me how much she loved my reading and how much it meant to her. Now, little old ladies have lived a lot of life. They do not have the time or patience for bullshit.  They do not wait in line “just to be nice.” So, that compliment was extra special to me.

You write fiction as well as non-fiction. What projects are you working on currently? Do you find it challenging moving between genres?

For the past 20 years, I have written non-fiction almost exclusively. During this time, I have written only two pieces of fiction. One short story was recently long-listed in the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Story Contest. Thank gods for that because I really needed a confidence boost when it comes to my fiction as I am currently researching a novel. I’m in California all summer on a travel grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

I do find it more challenging to write fiction, but why wouldn’t I? Quantity-wise, I’ve produced much more non-fiction. That said, there’s a freedom to fiction. A story I recently wrote was heavily autobiographical, but because it was fiction I was able to take the story to all-new heights with voice and character and plot. That was exciting.

Any advice or words of wisdom to other writers about writing truthfully?

If you ever stop to think, what would __________ say about this piece of writing? then it is Not Going To Work. When you are writing, you must write for yourself.

A lot of writers worry about the consequences of their writing. “What if my mom reads this?” “What if my husband sees this?” I get it. There are risks. But writing isn’t a risk. Sharing is a risk. Publishing is a risk. Until you are ready for that, just remember that it is safe to write truthfully because the story can stay in a drawer, or hidden in a locked safe, or burned to ash.

Now, when you are editing, it’s a whole different story. I do my best to fact check myself. Sometimes you think you know. You are so sure you remember. You can recall all the details of the moment, right?

Wrong.

When I was writing “Spare Change” (which appeared in Plenitude #2), I got in touch with the old boyfriend who was a main “character” in that story. I said I was writing about that time in our lives and he was supportive. He’s a writer, too. But as we discussed the piece, I realized that what I remembered was not accurate. It’s pretty weird when that happens. I had written something exactly as I had remembered it, but I had remembered it wrong. So, I had to re-write a section of the piece according to his memory (which I knew was better than mine).

I think readers have become so demanding of memoirists that they’ve forgotten how slippery and insubstantial memories are to begin with. You can never remember something in an objective way, but the audience forgets this.

As a writer—to protect yourself and your reputation—you have to second-guess yourself when you are editing.

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Learn more about Sierra Skye Gemma’s work and ongoing projects online or through Twitter.

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