Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

“I think everyone in some way is an outsider”: Kate Cayley on short stories, literary tradition, and why she would be hesitant to read a novel she had written

After winning critical acclaim – and the Trillium Book Award – for her 2014 short story collection How You Were Born, Toronto author Kate Cayley knew what she had to do in order to become a serious writer: she had to write a novel.

It is almost axiomatic among some readers and publishing industry insiders that novels are the only really respectable genre of imaginative prose fiction; some publishers sign beginning writers’ first story collections with the express intent of getting the novel they are certain will follow. Novels tend to hog most of the attention, appear on year-end best-of lists, and scoop the major prizes. (The Trillium has for some time been an outlier in this regard.) Though Cayley, a playwright and short-fiction writer, was reluctant to embrace the longer form, she dutifully decided that it was an authorial rite of passage she needed to undertake.

Accordingly, she sat down to compose a novel she never wanted to write in the first place. She spent four years working on a book set partly in a commune, a portion of which was sent around to prospective buyers by her agent, Barbara Berson. “It was respectfully and regretfully rejected by a huge number of publishers,” Cayley says.

As the soon-to-be abandoned novel was making the rounds of acquiring editors, Cayley found herself at loggerheads about how, or even if, to proceed with it. “Partly to cheer myself up in that waiting time, I wrote more short stories.”

Not long after, Cayley realized she had the makings of a second collection. Feeling that the novel was not working the way she wanted it to, she extracted a self-contained section and dropped it into the short-fiction manuscript that became Householders, recently published by Biblioasis.

The stories in Householders are thematically united by a focus on home and an individual’s relationship to society, though this takes different forms across individual selections. The opener, “The Crooked Man” (which, under the title “The Bride and the Street Party,” appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017), is about a woman who worries that a planned neighbourhood street party is going to adversely affect a bride’s limo route. “Doc” tells the story of a young man acting as caregiver for an elderly musician. “A Bare Beautiful Room,” set during a kind of zombie apocalypse, has a female barista taking shelter in a bunker alongside a group of super-wealthy preppers. And “Pilgrims” focuses on a woman who adopts the persona of a nun online.

At some point in the editing process, Cayley also shoehorned in another excerpt from the novel, prompting her editor, Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells, to ask whether she had any more stories about Naomi, a Toronto native who gives birth to a daughter, Trout, on a commune in the Maine woods. It was Wells, Cayley says, who pushed her to include more directly linked entries and to draw out the thematic connections in the other stories. “It went from being a collection with a couple of linked stories to a collection with a loose through-line,” Cayley says.

Some linkages are obvious, while some are more oblique. In “The Other Kingdom,” Naomi, still a student and going by her birth name Nancy, listens to the music of Doc Sinclair, the invalid musician from the later story. The most apparent connections occur among the stories involving Naomi, Trout, and her friend Strawberry, who was born on the same day. The collection’s outlier (to use the author’s own word) is “A Bare Beautiful Room,” in large part due to its dystopian genre trappings. Though even that story contains thematic elements dealing with social acceptance and moral uncertainty, in this case married to a sharp critique of class structures and privilege.

“I can’t write genre fiction to save my soul,” Cayley insists, even as “A Bare Beautiful Room” stands in refutation of this assertion. Cayley credits Wells with pushing her to draw out the individual characters in the story, rather than relying on her premise to do all the heavy lifting. “You still have to have a feeling of people here,” Cayley recalls Wells saying. “Not just your zombies and your billionaires and your underground bunker. That will not carry you.”

“Tradition is like religion: it’s something I have a very ambivalent relationship to” (Photo: Carmen Farrell)

While an interest in dystopian zombie fiction may appear outré for a writer more know for – and by her own admission more comfortable with – writing in a realist mode, it arguably comes as less of a surprise when Cayley describes her reading taste, including a deep affinity for the work of Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. “Ishiguro is god, as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “His stories work as fables, but they also work entirely as realistic fiction.”

What Ishiguro’s work – whether a more straightforwardly literary novel like The Remains of the Day or the SF-inflected Never Let Me Go – shares in common with that of Cayley is a determination to mine its characters’ inner lives for deep psychological resonance. For Cayley, this involves a complexity in each of her characters that results in certain aspects of their psyches or situations remaining obscure to the reader – and even to the writer herself. “I love a story that feels there’s something unexplainable in these characters – they’re not just their characteristics,” she says. “That seems valuable in what literature does.”

It is also one of the defining aspects of short fiction, which takes up moments in time without needing to sketch in the before and after or, significantly, explaining why things happen. The sense of something mysterious at play is important for Cayley, as is the form’s invitation to write in a melancholy mood. Many of the characters in Householders are dealing with loss, uncertainty, or moral ambivalence; Cayley considers the sombre mood she creates unsupportable over a longer work. “You can play with these notes [in a short story] and sustain them and then drop them again,” she says. “I think a short story can handle that. Whereas I’m not sure I’d read a novel that I wrote.”

Short fiction is also the go-to literary form for writers dealing with loneliness or isolation among outcasts or what Frank O’Connor described as “submerged population groups.” In his classic book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, O’Connor writes about short fiction as home to characters who “understand that a familiar society is the exception rather than the rule” – a sentiment with which Cayley seems to agree. “I don’t know if anyone quite fits in the world. I don’t think there are insiders and outsiders. I think everyone in some way is an outsider,” she says. “I do think that we’re longing for something that is not fragmented. And yet this feeling of fragmentation might also just be the human feeling – the feeling that we used to have something whole and then lost it.”

Though it is tempting to suggest that Cayley fits into the tradition of short fiction O’Connor identified, such an assessment should be made guardedly, since Cayley herself expresses hesitancy at the notion of tradition as applied to literary history. “Tradition is like religion: it’s something I have a very ambivalent relationship to,” she says. “I want a postmodern understanding of tradition, in which a tradition is not a straight line, can come from anywhere and speak to anyone, and is very much multiple.”

If tradition means anything to Cayley, it involves a kind of writerly humility in the face of a specific realization. “It’s extremely important as a writer to know that you’re never going to be the first one to do a thing,” she says.

This humility is evident in the care she takes with her craft and the intelligence with which she treats her material. In conversation, she is equally unwilling to make grand claims for her work or its influence over her readers. “Anyone is capable of making extremely grandiose statements about what art does and art’s social utility. I don’t want to do that. I think that the thing art does is very small and mysterious,” she says. Although she almost immediately qualifies this with one significant caveat: “Art is a way of remembering what it is like to be alive when you may have forgotten. Which is quite a big thing.”

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