Interview by Christina Hunter
Eufemia Fantetti is an award-winning Canadian playwright whose works have been produced in numerous venues across Canada. In 2009, she won the Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest and, in 2012, the seventh annual Accenti Writing Contest.
Fantetti read an excerpt from her 2013 short story collection, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love, at Humber’s Writing Centre’s Book Club, in November 2013. During the reading, Fantetti explored the profound — often painful — impact that extreme psychological states can have on relationships. Her distinctly evocative style seemed to derive not only from her imaginative treatment of family interactions, but also from the carefully detailed descriptions of her characters’ often volatile physical and emotional reactions. An exquisite finesse was manifest in the poignancy and dark humour of her tales, and the audience’s highly charged response to Fantetti’s performance attested to the powerful and provocative quality of her short stories. We corresponded by email during January, 2014, on the subjects of reading and short stories.
HLR: How old were you when you began writing short stories, and can you recall what it was that motivated you to do so?
EF: The first time I ever wrote a story, it was an exercise in Grade 3. I remember Miss Cox (a freckle-faced tomboy of a woman, a red head with a Dorothy Hamill hairdo) asked us to write a paragraph on a piece of foolscap. We were learning grammar, and she wanted us to practice writing in the past tense.
The story I wrote was true: it was about hanging out with my cousin Domenic. I inserted a joke he had told me that I didn’t understand.
I was just a child trying to do an assignment well, trying to amuse everyone, and I got totally absorbed in the task. I still think about my friend’s question. It turns out that’s been the impetus for my writing: I’m trying to comprehend something, make sense of something I don’t understand, hoping that putting it down on paper will help me figure it out.
After that, I pestered my dad until he bought me a toy printing press from Consumer’s Distributing, and I got some neighbourhood kids together to start a newspaper. The venture was over before it could begin, but the yearning to write (and years of writing bad poetry) were still ahead of me.
HLR: Do you structure your stories before, during or after their creation?
EF: Yes to all three, though more frequently during and after. If I spend too much time thinking about [my process] before, I stall. Part of my conundrum is that my process looks different each time—I haven’t quite figured out a rhyme or reason to it, other than I try to follow the “Start before you’re ready” rule since it’s impossible to edit a blank page.
HLR: In addition to writing short stories, you have also written a number of plays, such as The Waiting Room, An Italian Tale, It’s All the Rage, and My Own Private Etobicoke. How does the process of writing a play compare to that of writing a short story?
EF: When I’m working on a play, I focus mainly on the rhythm of the dialogue or multiple voices in conversation, and I don’t think about physical descriptions of place or people. The setting is summed up in few words, and even if I have a visual for the character in my mind’s eye, the description is usually bare-bones, concerned with only age and attitude. I rely on the characters’ speech patterns to get across who they are, where they’re from and how they’re going to handle the circumstances of the world of the play. I have always “heard” the line or the words. When I started writing more as a teenager, I was reading a lot of plays and loved work by Joan Macleod, Morris Panych, Daniel MacIvor—it was a thrill to be able to study with Judith Thompson during grad school.
HLR: Alice Munro’s recent winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature has sparked considerable interest in the literary genre of the short story. Which short story writers have influenced your work the most and in what specific ways?
EF: I admire Susan Minot’s sparse and clear prose. Aimee Bender and Elizabeth McCracken—I can’t get enough of their quirky takes on the world and brilliantly odd characters. With Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz and Achy Obejas, I appreciate the humour that surfaces from dark spaces and the distinct voice captured on the page. I love all of them at the sentence level, the way they capture and craft the rhythm of a narrative tone in each story. And Amy Hempel, too, for her Master of the Universe status with the sentence: it’s swoon-worthy stuff.
HLR: In your collection of short stories, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (2013), the narratives move backward and forward across time. Meanwhile, the characters seem to have no choice but to adapt to their new realities. Does your treatment of time evolve organically as you write the story or is it structured deliberately in advance?
EF: It evolves as I work on the story, as I try to figure out what to leave out and what has to be added in. Often, the feedback I have from editors and other writers is that I’ve been too subtle, that I thought I’d stated [the treatment of time] but I hadn’t, and then I work to find a balance in moving the story forward and revealing a narrator’s world without feeling overt. In A Recipe for Disaster, this sometimes involved making changes in the story’s timeline, an adjustment that would illuminate where the character was coming from or how they had arrived at their current circumstances.
HLR: Somewhat remarkably, your creative range also includes stand-up comedy and, in your routines, you often address serious issues such as mental illness. Likewise, many of the characters in your short story collection use humour to cope with the stressful situations in their own lives (an example being the effect of domestic dysfunction on multiple generations of families). In both instances, are you using humour as a way to escape despair, or does it fulfil another aesthetic purpose?
EF: As the daughter of a woman struggling with severe psychosis, I do everything I can to escape despair, but it will always find me. (I don’t think anyone can avoid it, to be honest. Life is full of stress on so many levels, the personal and universal. The first of the Four Noble truths taught by Buddha holds that life is rife with suffering. Everyone will experience loss and illness, not to mention the desire, deep longings and loneliness that accompany being human.)
I did the stand-up comedy because I wanted to challenge myself to pursue things that terrified me. (My new motto is Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, no need to be a hero.) I used to be frantic about being funny; I behaved like an organ grinder’s monkey when I was younger, all in the effort to distract my parents from their acrimonious arranged marriage and their coupled misery. Talk about a tough crowd.
I admire the craft required of comedy, the timing, vocabulary and structure: I would be lost without humour, without writers like Shalom Auslander, David Rakoff, Sara Vowell and David Sedaris, or storytelling comics like Eddie Izzard, Alexei Sayle and Patton Oswalt.