The Joy of Discovery: An Interview with Shannon Sanders

On May 1st at our Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating four of our authors who have recently published or will soon publish their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

Today, we’re talking to Shannon Sanders, author of One Story Issue #263, “The Everest Society” and the short story collection Company (Graywolf Press).

Beautifully written and rendered, Shannon Sanders’s debut collection Company consists of 13 interwoven stories, featuring several generations of a Black family who live in DC, New York, and Atlantic City. Set at points in time dating from the 1960’s to present day, each story captures the joy and the stress of being part of a tight-knit family. Sanders explores gender, race, and class through her remarkable and unique voice, which blends humor and pathos, providing the reader with a richly textured examination of family life. With stories worth revisiting again and again, it belongs on the shelf next to other stellar linked collections including Lost in the City, Night of the Living Rez, and Olive Kitteridge.

—Laura Spence-Ash


Laura Spence-Ash: Where were you when you found out Company was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Shannon Sanders: The book went to auction in November 2021, at which point I had been teleworking and hunkering down with my family for a little more than a year and a half. So I can say with certainty that I was standing in my own living room when I got the news, and it was a really welcome bright spot in a difficult year. Did I celebrate? I don’t think so—I had a toddler and twin infants at the time, and they were uniformly unimpressed! I don’t think I ever even cracked open the champagne we bought. But it definitely put some much-needed wind in my sails and made the year that followed a lot more exciting!

LSA: Part of the great joy of reading Company is to encounter characters in more than one story, from alternate points-of-view and at different moments. It’s akin to running into an old friend. Can you talk a little about how you put together the collection and how you decided which characters we would meet first? Did any of the stories require editing to fit the collection once the order was set?

SS: I love linked collections that take this approach—it’s so much fun to meet a character in one context, then to run into them again in a completely different one. I had in mind that I wanted the reader to be continually surprised while reading the stories, and to reach new understandings of the characters and their motivations. For example, my agent, the book’s editor, and I were all in agreement that the collection should open with “The Good, Good Men,” which introduces a memorable character named Lela (Lee) through the misguided eyes of her two sons. I found it thrilling to revisit Lee in later stories from the perspectives of her sister, her mother, and her estranged husband, all of whom relate to her completely differently. Even though I realize the writer doesn’t get the final say on how a reader experiences the collection—and I hear that (gasp!) lots of readers don’t proceed in order—I tried to use the order to help create rich arcs for many of the characters that way.

To your second question, I found the Collins family fascinating—and once I started writing about them, I didn’t want to stop! Which is to say that even as early as the first draft of my manuscript, all the stories were about Collins family members or their friends. Each story I wrote built on details from a previous one, so I didn’t really need to do any retro-fitting (and thank goodness, because I needed all the forward momentum I could get to finish the book).

LSA: You use dialogue to such great effect in your work; we learn much about the character who is speaking and also about the relationship between characters by what they say to each other. Is dialogue something that comes naturally to you in an initial draft, or is it something that you focus on more in the editing process?

SS: Thank you for the kind words! I sometimes struggle with setting and other aspects of setting up a scene, but I LOVE writing dialogue. For me, a dialogue sequence is the reward for getting through some of the harder parts of the writing process—those sections always come along relatively quickly. I think writing effective dialogue comes down to two things: (1) understanding my characters and (2) immersing myself fully in the scenes I’m writing. Once I know who the characters are, I can imagine myself sitting in the room with them. Then, it’s just a matter of “hearing” what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and the pauses and false starts where they’re choosing what not to say. Many things changed between the first draft and the finished book, but most of the dialogue remained virtually unchanged.

LSA: Short story endings are notoriously difficult to land well, but every one of your endings feels pitch perfect, producing such readerly satisfaction. Do you write a story with an ending in mind or do you arrive at your endings as the story unfolds?

SS: Ooh, thank you again! Different writing processes are so fascinating, and I’ve heard a lot of writers say they start with an idea and discover the story as they draft. My process is totally the opposite! For almost every single story in the book, the ending came to me first. I would start with that ending in mind and then write toward it, and the joy of discovery came from figuring out how to get there. For me, this has always been the best way. I never have a scary blank page in front of me; I have a frame for the story and a goal to work toward. (And as a bonus, it means I always know when the story is over!)

LSA: “The Everest Society,” which is the final story in the collection, was published in One Story in 2020. As with the other stories, there is a strong focus on group and family dynamics, and the ways in which communities provide both love and heartache, often in the same moment. Is it difficult to create that balance? Do you lean toward one or the other as you write?

SS: Real-life communities (families and others) can be so complicated, and I definitely try to capture that in my writing. And yes, it can be hard to create that balance! But it’s a lot of fun to try. All of the stories have in common that they involve characters who stress each other terribly in their efforts to show love and support. As I was working on the stories, I relied on early readers to tell me when the balance was off—when a relationship seemed too caustic, or when a joke between family members came off as unkind or even abusive. Because these characters genuinely love each other, I tried always to err on the sunny side. Also, I was intentional about ending some of the stories—“The Everest Society” among them—on notes of laughter and camaraderie. I love to write scenes where people go from snarking at each other to laughing together.

LSA: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball? 

SS: Partying with the whole crew! I’m so looking forward to seeing the amazing One Story staff—every single person on it has been such a tremendous teacher and/or supporter to me as I’ve started my writing career. The great Will Allison was my instructor at the 2019 One Story Summer Writers’ Conference, and later he even blurbed my book! I’m also so excited to meet the other debutantes in person and to share a toast and a dance with everybody there. I always think it’s wonderful to get to spend time with people who love and celebrate the literary arts.

Laura Spence-Ash was a One Story debutante in 2023. Her debut novel, Beyond That, The Sea, was published by Celadon Books in 2023; her debut short story, “The Remains,” was published by One Story in 2014. Her short fiction has also appeared in New England Review, Crazyhorse and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and support from MacDowell, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She earned her MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark.

Posted On:
March 25, 2024
One Story
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