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Our stories in the digital age: an interview with Shawn Syms

How has storytelling changed with the advent of social media? Have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram changed the types of stories we share?

These are questions noted author and editor Shawn Syms set out to answer in the new anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, coming out next month with well-known indie publisher Enfield & Wizenty.

The anthology itself offers a broad range of stories, 27 in total (including my own “5’9, 135, 6c, br bl”), all deeply influenced by online and social media. These are stories, many humourous, that move beyond the use of social media as merely gimmick.

As the launch date approaches, Shawn took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the anthology and his experience editing the book.

Shawn Syms is the editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. His short stories, journalism, poetry, criticism and other writing have been published over the past 25 years in more than 50 publications. A finalist for the prestigious Journey Prize for fiction, he has completed a short-fiction collection that he hopes will make its way into print soon – and he’s currently toggling back and forth between the early stages of a novel and a second book of short stories.

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Shawn, you’re a noted author, critic, reviewer, and all-round man of many talents. What’s it been like to wear the editor’s hat for a project of this scope – 27 stories in a single anthology?

Well, thanks for the kind words, Trevor. Working on this book has been a fantastic experience – and one that in itself has involved wearing many hats: soliciting work, editing and proofreading, promotional efforts, negotiating for reprint permissions, and so on. It’s been gratifying to work with a diverse set of authors on a really strong suite of stories about the ways and means that people connect with one another online.

I have a lot of experience editing other people’s work, but much of that effort has been journalistic rather than literary – so I was a bit nervous and incredibly gratified that the writers generally accepted my recommended revisions (even the occasional drastic ones!) and were so accommodating and easy to work with.

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How was the idea for Friend. Follow. Text. born? Had it been simmering for a while?

For me the earliest seeds of this project germinated after I wrote a story called “Jenna on Twitter,” published by Joyland Magazine. It’s about a woman with a crush on a gay male singer who fantasizes while watching his YouTube videos. She uses her iPhone to impersonate another gay man on Twitter, tweeting and exchanging direct messages in order to connect with him. I was thrilled that my editor, Emily Schultz, took a chance on this quirky story. After that, I started to notice that other authors were increasingly using social media and online interactions as part of their work, in terms of both form and content (I wrote about a few of them in an article for the Toronto Review of Books.)

One day, I was chatting on Facebook with author Megan Stielstra and Joyland co-publisher Brian Joseph Davis about the fact a book like this ought to exist. We all agreed, but they were both too busy, so I took it on. Brian has remained a huge supporter of the book, and Megan contributed a great piece that uses Instagram as a window into the lives of three close friends on one wild night out.

All in all, it’s been great to take something from an embryonic concept to an actual book – and one that I hope can be one part of a broader, ongoing conversation about how the online realm is affecting how we live our lives, as well as what and how we read each day.

What was the response from the writing community, when you first put out a call for stories?

There were two phases, really. First, I reached out to a half-dozen or so well-known authors to inquire about reprinting pieces, and was happy not a single person said no. (Everyone – from the bigger names to the first-timers – has been very generous with their time and their enthusiasm for this project.)

Eventually, I placed a call on Submittable and advertised it in a range of places, to try and elicit additional submissions from a diverse range of folks. About 80 stories came in from all kinds of people from around the globe, many of them very strong. The theme clearly struck a chord with a lot of writers.

Did anything surprise you about the submissions you received – certain themes, particular forms, any trends you noticed?

Many submissions were dark or even dystopian in nature. In particular, there were many more pieces on the subject of suicide than I expected – perhaps unsurprising given the visibility of suicide in the public imagination right now. This may also reflect the complicated relationship between social media and suicide – as manifested in online suicide notes on Facebook and YouTube, the incidence of webcasted suicides, and the relationship between cyberbullying and suicide. A lot of those pieces were quite strong but I couldn’t accept them all, as I think it would have really affected the tone of the book.

Beyond that, many stories focused on the impact of online communication – from dating sites to hookup apps to sexting – upon people’s sexual and romantic lives. A common recurring theme was the disjuncture between how people represent themselves online and how they “really” are.

The stories that appealed to me the most generally took for granted the role of social and online media in people’s lives and explored that in a broader context, either in traditional prose or using formal innovation inspired by social media to invent a new way to construct a compelling narrative.

What can readers expect from the anthology?

A diverse and eclectic set of stories, each of which reflects upon both the specific and the universal. While I like to think the book has a great flow to it, it is certainly not homogeneous in either form or content. This is a modern, contemporary book reflective of a non-monochromatic world, and as such there is a lot of variety both among the contributors – as just a few examples, there are younger and older storytellers, racialized and non-racialized authors, and writers varied in sexual and gender identities – and across the subjects and themes that they contemplate.

And while the contributors to Friend. Follow. Text. deal with serious and occasionally intense topics  – fertility, sexuality, death, relationship collapse and renewal – their work is leavened with humour as well. In fact, my publisher told me the pieces that made him laugh out loud are the ones that sealed the deal. I hope that readers will be intrigued and moved, and that they may see a bit of themselves in many of the characters in these pages.

I’m extremely proud of the book, and that stems directly from the uniformly high quality of the contributors’ efforts. I can say pretty confidently that I think anyone who picks up this book will find the modest cover price to be money well spent.

On a personal level, how do you feel social media has changed how we tell stories to one another? Any examples from your own life or work?

If anything, I find that the range of social media and their varying strengths lead to me think a lot about what I’m saying to whom and in what context. When I communicate with folks individually or in groups, I find that some things work best in email, others on Twitter, or Facebook, texting, and so on. Further, I find myself sometimes switching between a phone, a tablet or a computer depending on what I need to accomplish, in terms of both writing and reading. And while I do so, I recognize that many folks may have some of these tools, all of them, or none of them. In short, these means of communication exist within destabilized cultural and economic contexts.

I find that the emergence of these possibilities for fluid transfer between modes of communication has influenced my writing as well. For example, I have a piece of my own in Friend. Follow. Text., a story called “Three Tuesdays From Now.” It’s ultimately a story about the depth of relationships among two sets of best friends, but it charts in particular how two people get to know one another from multiple angles – via traditional prose, through an IM chat log, and in a description of the two of them as viewed through a webcam. There is an increasingly kaleidoscopic array of potential ways we can perceive and engage one another today, and I think contemporary international fiction will continue to evolve to reflect that.

What can fans expect from the upcoming launch?

There is a launch in Toronto planned for Wednesday, October 23 at Playful Grounds (605 Markham Street). It should be a fun night of mixing and mingling and meeting a bunch of the local contributors – and people will get to hear excerpts from a number of the writers. We’re going to keep it fast-paced and fun – and some of the really funny writers will take to the mic. Folks can pick up a copy of Friend. Follow. Text. and get it signed by a range of fine authors – yourself included!

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Check out Friend. Follow. Text. on Facebook or Twitter. And tell your friends. The anthology will be available at booksellers in early October.

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