This Side of West Interviews Liz Stewart
Interviewed by 2021-2022 Fiction Editor, Tosh Sherkat.
Liz Stewart (23) is the Prose winner of This Side of West’s first annual Prose and Poetry Contest. She is the recipient of the W.P. Kinsella Scholarship in Fiction, which is awarded to a fourth year writing student by recommendation from the department of creative writing at the University of Victoria. Her work has appeared in the Montana Mouthful, and in Issue 18 of This Side of West. She will graduate in December of 2022. We interviewed Liz about her winning short story, “You and I,” her writing process, and her future goals.
Tosh Sherkat: Tell me about “You and I.” What was your inspiration? What was going on for you when you wrote it?
Liz Stewart: So I was right in the midst of my Twitter addiction when I wrote this, and I was… I don’t know…a little cynical. Does that come through? [Laughter] I was so lost in the sauce, in the feed all the time, and I think where I can see Twitter appear in the story is in the news that she’s watching. That news gets interwoven and becomes deeply personal in this weird way. Twitter is constantly telling you the world’s ending. Which is true, but being thrown all this information all this time is not a good way to process that—like in between viagra ads and celebrity gossip.
I was also really into candy hearts at the time, and this story is the aftermath of Valentine’s Day. I read some article about new sayings that were coming out. Some sayings were getting taken off the market, like my personal favourite, “Fax Me.” I was also really into crosswords, and the people who make crosswords, and the two things seemed to fit together. I think Jen is genuinely having fun in that moment, even if it’s slightly manic. She’s in her flow state, she’s focusing in on creation and tuning out the rest of the world. I’m sure she had a great time coming up with those words. I definitely did.
TS: The character of Jen is positioned, within the narrative and on the page, between her own crisis and the crisis of the world around her. Is there a commentary you’re making here about climate change, and if so, what commentary are you making?
LS: Yes, there is something I’m trying to say. The climate crisis feels very impersonal to her, so it seems like she’s really down and out about the wrong thing. She’s aware about climate change; her column is about the apocalypse, so she knows what’s going on, but it all comes back to how it affects her and her sense of self. Her opinion of herself is what actually upsets her rather than the existential crisis. Which I think is true of a lot of people who think, “Until it actually messes with my ego it doesn’t really bother me.” Jen can’t interpret it in that global way. I like to throw those little bits of doom into stories because it does add some context to whatever anyone’s doing—like, [laughter] there’s also something burning in the background.
Generally, I like to write about women who have issues that they don’t handle in a socially acceptable way. I am into female rage—the intense feelings that they have. My characters are always kind of a little bit messed up. They have to be having some kind of internal conflict that I relate to, or somehow the story has to be about me [laughter]. It always has to be somehow about me in some way. I wrote this and another story in third year, and both the characters had shitty boyfriends! [Laughter] Why do they all have shitty boyfriends?
TS: The characters in “You and I” seem to be almost always brimming with disgust for each other. Sometimes it seems like they get what they want, but they have neurotic reasons. What commentary do these characters evoke?
LS: I like that you’ve used the word “disgust.” It is how they think about each other. They have an issue with self involvement. That’s the main issue in their relationship. They can’t fully understand each other.
Ken’s a bit paternalistic, but he’s a nice guy. He has nice guy syndrome. He’s one of those people who are like “if it works for you it works for me—I can calm my mind and you should be able to as well.” Which is why he doesn’t really get through to Jen.
And Jen… well I don’t see it as a daddy issue as much as he is—well I guess he is trying to be her father—but there’s not a huge age gap, only seven years. He actually really fell for her. Jen was doing her thing and he fell.
Jen has trouble with that generational gap between them. The attention deficit that people in this generation have that people in an older generation don’t. She’s one of those people who does half a puzzle and then gives up because she thinks about something else. She’s a driven person but doesn’t follow through. She’s got Twitter symptoms. Twitter vibes. She’s also very sensitive to everything.
I was interested in how different perspectives can leave a lot of space in the middle for miscommunication and a lack of understanding. They do both love each other. The issue is that they’re in the same room looking at the same stuff but seeing different things. How Ken is reading Jen is not how Jen is experiencing herself. Their internal lives are not coming through to each other.
I wanna say that they will continue to be together outside of the story because let’s keep them in this circle of hell.
TS: Are you a Jen or a Ken? How did you generate these characters?
LS: I’m a Jared. No, I’m kidding. I’m definitely more of a Jen. I have some Kens in my life, and good for them, they’re thriving, but I’m just not like that at all. Ken is just there for you no matter what. But, he is a little bit of a judgemental character, even though he’s loving. He’s not perfect, but he knows that and tries to work through it. He can look beyond himself a little bit.
I based both the characters on different kinds of me at different times of my life when I wonder how I look to other people, and wondering if there’s a massive difference between what I’m doing and how I’m being perceived. From the outside looking in, Jen’s just a little girl throwing a tantrum. To Ken and the reader, it looks more cute and precious, but to Jen it’s a holistic experience for her.
TS: What is your writing process like?
LS: I’m really not like a sit down-and-write-it-all-out kind of writer. I am more of an I-have-an-idea, I-write-a-couple-scenes, I-forget-about-it, I-come-back, I-forget, I-come-back kind of writer. I tinker away at something even before I finish a first draft.
Usually I go into writing something with a question, or I’m exploring something, or bothered by something, and if I can express that in some way that feels true then I feel like I’ve done a good job.
When it came to editing this piece in particular, I had to balance things out with the dual perspective. It was pretty lopsided in the beginning. I had a lot of Jen and very little Ken. So it was about balancing things, and giving him more of a part. It’s about balance—does this come through, does that say what I’m trying to say, does it all come through in the end. I’m not finishing a first draft looking back and being like, “Ok, so what does this actually mean.” I usually have an idea about what it is about. I’m nitpicky with the story rather than the characters, however. I feel like I have a sense of who the characters are by the first draft. After the first draft, I know where I’m going with the story. It all could be changed, but what I’m trying to say stays with me.
Sometimes I do think about my characters’ childhood experience, but I don’t know if it helps writing or understanding the story for me. But I do love it when other writers do that. I love when writers think about how a character had a twin brother who died in the womb. I really love anybody out there who’s planning their characters like that.
TS: One of the techniques you use in this story is the layering of POV—both Ken and Jen at the same time, sometimes even in the same sentence. How did you come up with that? What was your inspiration?
LS: I was tickled by this scene: Ken being outside on this smoke break at this yoga studio on the phone with Jen. I just thought that was really funny. I wanted to show that scene; I wanted him to be there, and not just have Jen guess that he was there but have the reader go back and forth between the two of them. The conception of the dual perspective came from that one scene. Also it came to be necessary because when Ken came home, the reader needed to know what he was thinking. They’re not on the same page, so I had to show that through both of their perspectives.
TS: What is next for you?
LS: I’ve been doing these short stories for my whole degree so I am looking forward to writing a novel at some point. That’s the goal! Other than that, I have some stories coming up, that are also about… women who are unhinged. I am hopefully going to write a book but also no promises. But who knows where I’m gonna end up…the climate apocalypse is descending upon us; it is descending into your emails. Watch out!
TS: If you were to offer tips and tricks for your first year self, what would they be?
LS: I would tell myself to be happy about the work. Accomplishing something, anything, is a really good thing! It’s important to congratulate yourself for those things.
And I would say to be more open to sharing my own work. I feel like lots of people come into the program being nervous about sharing their stuff, like “Oh my god what will people think of me?” But I would say to be more like, “Here is what I’m working on, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all trying things, no one’s got it perfect yet.” In that sense—to feel like it’s not the end of the world.
I’ve learned from a lot of great people and made a lot of amazing friends who I trust with my work, which is what I really think it’s all about—mentors and friendships. You can write whatever for school but you can’t just generate community.
TS: Thank you for doing this interview with me, and for This Side of West, we love your story so much!
LS: Thank you guys for being so fun and cool! And a great place for students to submit their work.