Nathan Sellyn makes us want to invent a new word: a mixture of jealousy and intense admiration (jealoumiration, admilousy?). We don’t think there’s a word like this in English and Torontoist sadly doesn’t have his German-English dictionary handy. So first the jealousy part. Sellyn is 22, just recently published his first collection of short stories Indigenous Beasts with Raincoast Books and he was mentored by American literary giant Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton. But we admire him because it’s pretty special to be able to write a short story collection that includes murder by baseball bat, soon-to-be deadbeat dads and a guy who gets beaten up at a strip club before visiting his elderly mom, yet doesn’t make us revulse in anger and disgust.
Recent young male writers seem to be cut out of the sensitive, angsty, tongue-in-cheek McSweeney’s cloth and Torontoist still has a soft spot for the Eggers and the Safran Foer’s of the world but Sellyn is a bracing counterpoint to all of this. We recently e-mailed Sellyn a few questions and touched upon his reading, TV watching and more importantly who he’ll be cheering for in the playoffs.
I think the most noticeable thing about your writing is the violence. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Violence is certainly part of what ties this collection together. Many of the stories build to a climax that’s often physical and aggressive. These moments are when the characters resort to a kind of primal state, and in
those moments, when they really resort to almost base instincts, I think you get a very raw, nearly naked view of who they are. Those moments don’t let them hide anything, because there’s a purity of their emotions when they descend to that level. One of the things about a cracked mirror is that it provides you with a different view, and I think that’s what I try to accomplish with the violence in the stories.
I get the feeling that your work is going to get compared to people like Palahniuk and Easton Ellis, how do you feel about that?
Well, if it happens, I’ll love it. Especially Ellis, whom I’m a huge fan of. There’s that Mailer quote about American Psycho, that it shows “where the hands have come to on the clock.” I couldn’t possibly agree more, and
I think Psycho is the best novel of the 90s. Any comparison to them would be a huge, undeserved, and greatly appreciated compliment.
In pop culture I noticed a trend of male characters that are imperfect, dark, violent but at the core still somehow likeable (Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, to name a few on TV) how do you feel about that? Is your work reacting to/part of that same vein?
That’s very true – And I think Tony is a better example than Jack Bauer, because – although I’ll admit my viewership of 24 is limited to the first two seasons – you know Jack is always in the right, when it comes down to it. He may fight the system at times, but there’s no question about whether or not he’s the good guy. Tony, on the other hand, is often led by his vices rather than his virtues. It’s the modern antihero. It’s a character that is appearing more and more on television, but who has been a mainstay of fiction for pretty much forever. Guys like J.P.Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield (The Ginger Man) and [Martin] Amis’s John Self (Money) are two excellent examples – guys who are selfish, lecherous, substance abusing scoundrels, yet somehow succeed in winning the reader’s sympathy. And it’s easy to identify with them, because – whether we admit it or not – all of us have flaws or thoughts that run deep and dark, things we’d be reluctant to publicy discuss. But when we read about these characters, it’s no wonder that we find a way to connect to them.
Is my work part of that vein? I’d like to hope so. There are a couple of my characters – the guy in the story ‘Ma Belle,’ for example – who are definitely of that type. He’s pathetic, but you can relate to him. And he almost pleads for the reader’s acceptance, for them to cheer him on.
Working with Joyce Carol Oates what was that like?
Excellent. There was an article the other day about Michelangelo in the London Times, and how when he taught his students, “his main teaching technique was to outshine them at every stage in order to make them feel feeble and inadequate.” And I think, when you have someone who is an absolute giant in their field teaching you, there is that risk of, “You’re wrong. Look how much better I can do it.”
Joyce never took that route. In fact, when I got work back from her, she often stayed away from doing specific line edits. Instead she’d offer just one or two small changes — which made huge differences. She was very insightful that way, and certainly helped me recognize what I do well, and how to focus on that.
Who else has had an influence on you?
I’m guessing you mean from a literary perspective, otherwise you’re looking at a pretty lengthy response. Ellis is certainly a good place to start. After I first read ‘Less Than Zero’ I went out and got everything he had ever done, and – while I know he has his detractors – I can’t get enough of him. Martin Amis – I saw him read when I was in college and it was unforgettable. He told this one story describing his father’s wet dreams about the Queen… Amis is really notable for his novels, but his non-fiction writing is also incredible. Raymond Carver. Michel Houellebecq. Richler, of course, like any Montreal kid. Leonard Cohen – my graduation present from my father was a copy of Let Us Compare Mythologies. Graphic novels and comics – Wagner’s Grendel series especially. Melville… I’m kind of going away from influences into just ‘stuff I read over and over,’ so I’ll shut up.
You’ve travelled quite a bit how do you think this has shaped you as a writer?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know that I can specifically point out how it’s shaped me… you know, it’s funny, because although I have done a bit of globetrotting, being in the United States for so long really had a more profound influence on me than, say, Asia or Europe. It’s a country that is so similar to our own, and yet its minor differences give it a totally foreign character. Like MTV… I used to just sit and watch MTV for hours on end. It does such an excellent job of shaping minds, telling kids what’s cool and what’s not with such remarkable subtlety. I
don’t think any of it is particularly good programming, but it’s so good at what it wants to do. It sells ‘cool’ perfectly. I’m terrified of it coming to Canada in a few weeks or whenever it’s slated for. But anyway… seeing those disparities, between us and the US, definitely had an influence on me, because I think it gave me somewhat of an outsider’s view of the Canadian identity.
Is there anything you miss about Toronto?
Well, I only lived there until I was… four? So, you know… I have this distinct recollection of a toy store somewhere near where I grew up – Armidale Avenue – and how it had this huge Lego section in the back. But my memories of Toronto are pretty limited. In some ways it’s so un-Canadian, this leviathan of a city. I do love it, though. I really enjoy spending time there now, and I discover something new everytime I go.
Except the Leafs, I’ve got nothing good to say about them. My formative hockey years were in Montreal, and once your blood has three colours in it you can never go back to two.
Listen to a podcast of Nathan Sellyn reading from his debut book Indigenous Beast or hear the real thing when he reads at the Harboufront March 29, 7:30pm, $8 with Emily Schultz and Anosh Irani.