Ten Questions Feature

Ten Questions for Shannon Sanders

What inspired you to tell this story?

I’m a storyteller through and through—for most of my life, I’ve processed lived experience by writing fiction. In 2015, I had some time on my hands (this was before kids!) and a few story ideas I really wanted to get onto the page. After I’d written the first two pieces, I could already see the contours of a collection coming together (though I didn’t realize it right away). There were characters I wanted to explore further and questions I wanted to answer. Once the ball was rolling, I was excited to keep going!

What did you edit out of this book?

Honestly? Very little came out of the book. I’ve never been a “messy” drafter—for the most part, I try to do the work of editing down my ideas while they’re still just mental exercises, before I ever put anything down on paper. That certainly doesn’t mean no editing itself happened (plenty did—many thanks to my editor, Yuka Igarashi at Graywolf!), but I didn’t need to edit anything for length in particular.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion? 

Because this is a short-story collection, I think there were lots of points where I might have considered myself “done”—that is, the book could have worked with 10 or 11 stories instead of 13, or I could have continued writing about the Collins family for another 300 pages! But I had two particular goals in mind: (1) I wanted the reader to get to spend at least a little bit of time with each member of the family (grandparents, parents, and children); and (2) I wanted to create at least a few moments of revelation—moments in which a reader would come across a familiar character presented in a whole new way, or come to understand an earlier scene or situation differently due to a shift in perspective. I wanted the book to paint a picture of the Collins family that was multilayered and complex, and that maybe even seemed to contradict itself. Just like a real family. Once I felt like the stories achieved that, I felt great about sending it into the world.

What was your agenting process like?

I got very lucky here, and I don’t take it for granted. In 2020, I won a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, which helped me catch the attention of Reiko Davis at DeFiore and Company. She and I vibed pretty much immediately and she had the perfect temperament given where I was in the process (struggling to find the motivation to keep writing while working full-time in another industry, raising a toddler, and expecting twins—during the early days of a life-changing pandemic). She was patient, understanding, and encouraging. I don’t like to give unsolicited publishing advice, but I do tell everyone who wants an agent that they should try to find an agent who’s a true fan of their work—for months if not years, that might be your only audience, and it’s best if they believe in the work in a way that you can feel.

But let me be clear: I also spent some time in the querying trenches! And it was exactly as challenging and painful as everyone says. Rejection and ghosting are baked into that process, and that’s especially hard when other parts of your life aren’t going so smoothly either. But again, I got very lucky in that I did get some nice feedback, including from one very kind agent who (before passing on my manuscript) generously offered me some helpful formatting tips. I’m glad to have been through that process, as well.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Workshops, without a doubt. I don’t do them much anymore (see: three kids + day job), but between 2015 and 2020, I did several at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD; one through StoryStudio Chicago (where I got to study under Danielle Evans!); and a boutique workshop called CRIT based out of Brooklyn under Tony Tulathimutte. In every case, I benefited tremendously from having both a deadline and a built-in community. Writing largely takes place in isolation and can feel very lonely at times, so there’s something incredible about weekly workshops!

As a parent with a full-time job, I can’t realistically invest in anything that costs too much or takes me away from home for a long time, but a few hours each week was doable. After I started getting stories published (and sometimes earning money for publications), I decided that my writing income would have to cover all writing-related expenses—that’s the economic approach that still makes sense to me.

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day. 

Time for more honesty! I have a day job, and I have three kids under age six, so there’s no such thing as a “typical writing day” in my world. I’ve tried all the things people suggest (writing at 4 am, writing at 11 pm, drafting through voice memos, etc.), but the truth is that I don’t write as well when I’m sleepy or dealing with work stress or distracted by that giant pile of laundry over there. (I wrote half of my book before I had kids and the other half afterward, and I was SO much faster back then.)

So in a typical writing week, let’s say, I might not get a chance to do any writing—any actual keyboard typing—from Monday through Friday. Instead, I’ll spend that time thinking about my work: daydreaming about scenes, working out plot points, rereading things I’ve already written to stay tethered to the world of the story. Then, on Friday or Saturday night (assuming I’m not dead tired and there isn’t some household emergency going on), I’ll pour a glass of wine and try to write for as long as I can stay focused. If I make a lot of progress, I might be able to hold onto the momentum and add a few more sentences a night over the following week.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Read widely—things you admire and things that challenge you.
2. Follow the heat—lean into whatever excites you. If you’re dreading having to write the first chapter but can’t wait to get to a later scene, do the later scene first. You’ll be more productive and get a lot more joy out of the writing process! (You can always come back to the first chapter later.)
3. Take risks. There are tons of so-called “rules” in writing, but every last one of them can be broken if done well. If you want to try something, try it!

What does literary success look like to you? 

Watching my work find its way to readers who really appreciate it—it’s beginning to happen, and it’s the best! I especially love when someone notices an Easter egg I included on purpose.

Also, since money is so hard to come by in the literary world, I call it a success whenever my writing pays for itself (i.e., the money I make from a publication covers the costs of a class or a workshop). Anything better than that would be icing on the cake!

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I don’t want to name names (because I’ll forget one), but I’m intensely grateful for the friends I’ve met in workshops along the way! In many cases, we kept in touch and continued exchanging work after the workshop ended. It’s wonderful to build relationships with people who have a history with your work—who know your intentions and can see what you’re trying to do (and what you’re not).

I no longer show my work to many people before it’s ready, but I still love having accountability partners—people who ask how the work is going (and who will cheer when it is, and understand when it isn’t).

Who are you writing for? 

I should say I’m writing for everyone, or for all people who like multigenerational family stories. But I like the advice to pick one particular loved one as your intended audience and write with that specificity in mind. A lot of the time, I’m writing for my bestie Brittany.

Shannon Sanders is the author of the linked short story collection Company. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Sewanee Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, Joyland, and elsewhere, and has received a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She lives near Washington, DC with her husband and three sons.

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Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Raising Mothers was the 2021 Romper People’s Choice Iris Award Winner. Originally from Brooklyn New York, she is a first-generation American turned immigrant living in Amsterdam, NL with her husband, two children, and cat.