This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Shannon Sanders, whose debut story collection is out today from Graywolf Press. These linked tales unfurl a panoramic narrative of a family and their social circle from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century. In a mix of third- and first-person narration, these tautly controlled stories delve into the nuances of interpersonal relations among family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, and acquaintances. An assemblage of characters—from children to older adults—receive careful attention as Sanders explores how the past informs the present in the way people respond to the situations into which they are thrown and the people with whom they are forced to contend. Personalities gel or clash, people who seemed familiar turn out to have unknown dimensions, and individuals find new vistas within their own inner landscapes. Publishers Weekly praises the “exquisite emotional acuity” of Company. “This is a winner.” Shannon Sanders received the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and her fiction has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Joyland, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family.
1. How long did it take you to write Company?
Each individual story took anywhere from one day to two weeks to write, but the collection as a whole took about six years. I wrote the first few stories very quickly between 2015 and 2017, then slowed down when I started having children. I added a few more stories in 2020 before taking the book on submission. After Graywolf acquired the book, my editor urged me to add one last story, which I drafted in 2022. Not exactly a linear process, but an exciting one!
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The writing itself was, almost without exception, a total pleasure. What was extremely challenging was finding time to write! During the time I spent drafting the book, polishing it with my agent, and then taking it out on submission, I had three babies—including twins—and a global pandemic entered the equation. For more than a year, I was working a full-time job without childcare while trying to complete the book. I often thought I would never finish. But I did!
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
In a perfect world I would write at nighttime in a quiet part of my house while my kids are asleep and knock out a consistent word count each day, or most days. Sometimes I’m actually able to pull that off. Tracking my daily progress helps, as does motivating myself with small incremental rewards.
Mostly, though, what I can manage is to spend most of the week thinking about the work: mentally outlining, visualizing scenes, shuffling around the pieces in my brain. Then, with some support from my husband, I step away from home for a few hours on the weekend to get the ideas out on paper. I’ve found that with three little kids and all the household chaos that comes with them, the change of scenery is really important. It helps me fight the temptation to spend my writing time doing laundry.
4. What are you reading right now?
Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. Everything she’s ever published I’ve consumed as soon as I can get my hands on it. I also just finished Tessa Hadley’s story collection After the Funeral and Other Stories, which was excellent, as all her stories are.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Like so many people I was raised on the work of Toni Morrison. Not just her novels but her literary criticism, her work on race, and the lore about her writing in the morning before her children woke up. As I mentioned above, I’ve been greatly inspired by Zadie Smith. And I also owe a major debt to several contemporary Black writers whose story collections came before mine: Danielle Evans (who has been a favorite writer of mine since her first book), Deesha Philyaw, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jamel Brinkley, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and others.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Company?
I knew intuitively that the stories were linked from the time I started writing them, but it was still a fun process to discover the connections among the characters and their circumstances as I worked on them. The book’s editor, Yuka Igarashi, raised some wonderful questions during the process, which generated ideas about how I could further develop the history of the family at the center of most of the stories. Eventually pieces started coming together on their own. It surprised me that it got easier as I went along!
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
When I was a teenager I overheard a friend of my parents talking about an acquaintance whose adult sons had paid her a surprise visit from out of town to express their collective disapproval of her new boyfriend. I remember being shocked by that story—that the sons had taken the time to drive across state lines to interfere with an adult woman’s romantic life. That anecdote became the premise of “The Good, Good Men.”
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Company, what would you say?
I wish there were a way to bottle the confidence and perspective that come from a few years of sending work out and amassing rejections. If there were, I’d be tempted to pass it out to lots of new writers, including my earlier self. But actually I think that entire process—submission, rejection, lather, rinse, repeat—is an incredibly valuable part of the journey to completing and publishing a project. Learning not to take rejection too personally or seriously was one of the best things that happened to me during the process of writing this book. It helped me learn to keep my focus where it mattered. So instead of handing her that magic bottle, I think I’d tell my earlier self: Don’t worry. This won’t be linear, and it won’t be quick, but you will learn from it.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Does my day job count? I’m an attorney, and I work for a financial regulator. My day job requires lots of noncreative writing, which I find really helpful for keeping my muscles limber. The better my thoughts sync up with my typing fingers, the easier it is to get ideas out on paper.
I’m also an avid knitter. I highly recommend knitting to anyone with restless hands! If I’m stuck trying to work out a tricky plot point or dialogue sequence, I pick up my needles and it seems to unlock something.
This particular book didn’t take too much research. I felt that I knew the characters deeply after years of thinking about these stories, many of which were inspired by anecdotes I’ve heard from loved ones. But occasionally I had to reach out to an older relative to ask questions about family history, and that was always fascinating.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Worry less about the writer’s life, whatever that is, and more about the writing. Less energy toward beret-shopping, more toward doing whatever it takes to get your words onto paper.