(*As Published in The Violet Hour Magazine, Issue 1.1*)
“The way the past unfolded depended upon who told it.
Or So It Was Said
It begins, always, with the eyes. The day began with thunder, then heavy rain punctuated by lightning strikes so near the house they rattled the windows. That morning, I had a strange feeling. My doctor calls it the aura, a warning of a seizure. The timing, always unpredictable. Doesn’t matter what doc calls it. When it hits, eyes twitching, legs and arms spasming, lips mumbling, incoherent, speech, inconceivable, mouth frothing, jaw out of control, grinding the tongue, taste of blood. Inside, shouting, God, make it stop. Speak! Why can’t I speak? Yell! Yell for help! God, oh please, let me black out. It begins with the eyes. Uncontrolled blinking. Strobe lights. That aura. Cruel warning. Something. I can’t prevent. Coming.”
–Rule of Seconds, p.x – p. 1, par. 1, Shawna Diane Partridge
What is it that defines a family? What defines our place within it and within the long line of its history? These are the questions that Shawna Diane Partridge addresses with a captivating glimpse across the generations in her debut novella Rule of Seconds.
Opening with the present-time epileptic seizure of the narrator Sheila, as well as the arrival of “diviner and water witch” Herald Hudy (a friend of the family we have yet to meet), this novella becomes a narrative relating as much the narrator’s search for insight into her own illness as for affirmation of her place in a proud but constantly-at-odds line of the “hard women” who are her ancestors.
Culminating in a climax of loss and uncertain futures, having come full-circle in its colourful and skillfully woven narrative, Rule of Seconds is at once emotionally compelling as well as intelligent. It demands a second reading as much as it demands that the reader perform their own self-examination and regards themselves, their familial ties and their history with deeper scrutiny and, ultimately, deeper understanding.
I recently had the privilege of discussing the work with its author, as captured in the following interview.
CELESTE MILLER: First of all, your book, Rule of Seconds: it was a pleasure to read it.
SHAWNA PARTRIDGE: That’s really nice, thank you.
CM: As the reader, thank you. Thank you for writing it in the first place. It was so refreshing, because there were so many elements about it that really struck me. The unconventional protagonist, for example, the narrator. There’s so many times where writers—even drawing from their own experiences, from their own lives to create a narrator, as you said you did for this novella—like to idealize, where they like to paint this pretty picture of almost how they wish they were, to smooth over flaws and shortcomings they wish they didn’t have… but which are what make a compelling character. And that’s particularly what struck me about this story you’ve written: your narrator is very human, relatable as well as likeable. She wasn’t perfect, and that’s what made her, in her own way, enthralling.
So I guess where I’d like to start is here: I know you drew a lot from your own experiences with epilepsy and elements of your own family to write the story, so what’s been itching at the back of my mind is wondering… just how much of this is your own experience?
SP: Yeah, I have had that question. People, now that they’re starting to read it, ask, “Is this story true?” And I kind of refrain from saying, “Oh, that is true,” just because… I don’t know, I don’t want them to know precisely how much of it is true because I just want them to read the story and not try to worry about comparing me with the protagonist. One of the main elements that actually is true is, yes, I do have epilepsy. So I wanted to write about epilepsy because, that I know of, there are not a lot of protagonists that have epilepsy. And if there is one, they’re somewhat negatively portrayed. And obviously I know epilepsy is a condition that’s very painful, but there is a way to talk about it without it being so negative.
I read a novel by Lorne Slater called Spasm: A Memoir of Lies, which deals with her epilepsy that she had as a teen. The way she does it is through an unreliable narrator. She’s doing it for a different reason, but it was a lot of, “I have epilepsy… I don’t have epilepsy.” Like she was taking it back. And she was doing it for specific reasons, but personally when I was reading it, I was thinking, “No, I want it to be very clear. And I want the protagonist to take command of it. So yes, I have epilepsy. Now what am I going to do about it?”
That’s why I wanted to write about epilepsy. I’ve had people come up to me before. Finding out that I have epilepsy, they ask, “What does a seizure feel like?” And so in this book, I really wanted to describe what it feels like, which is very, very difficult to do for people if they’ve never had a seizure. The way I chose to do it then was through the senses. All the senses: what it looks like, what it feels like, what it tastes like. It took a lot of looking at myself, and looking back and saying, “Okay, what is it really like?” Personally, I’ve only had grand mal seizures, which are the very large seizures but they’re not as frequent. It’s a give and take, and with my epilepsy I only get them when I’m sleeping, which is very rare. So I wake up, and I’m in a seizure. I used to be quite scared going to sleep, especially if I was tired or going to school in the morning; I would be scared, not knowing if I was going to wake up into one. You just don’t know.
So all of that in the story was drawn from personal experience. I wanted to represent that. I wanted to add to that voice, to add it into literature since it wasn’t really there. There’s a gap there, and I wanted to fill that gap in a way.
So I can definitely say that that is true, that I do have epilepsy.
CM: Now then, about your family: in the book’s acknowledgments, you mention that you asked them a lot of questions and that you drew a lot from their answers to even the smallest things.
SP: Yes, definitely. The way I started the process of writing this book was that it started with a story about my great-grandmother that I was told many, many times when I was younger: she owned a boarding house and she ran an illegal bar in it. And I always heard this story of this “hard woman.” All the women in my family are described as “hard women,” which gets a lot of the time a negative connotation. But I don’t take it as that—I take it as them being these very determined women.
I was always caught up with this story. That’s where the current all started with this, for Rule of Seconds, with this family story. I wanted to learn more about this. Were there other bars like that back then? What was it like—Sault Ste. Marie—in each different era? You read textbooks, and they don’t tell you just what it was like.
CM: I know I actually never really knew myself that that kind of culture existed in Sault Ste. Marie. That’s the sort of thing you imagine being in harder, busier, bigger places.
SP: Exactly. I started with reading textbooks, old newspapers. I was going through a microfilm machine—and I don’t know if you’ve ever used one, but those things are temperamental. So at times it was frustrating, sometimes it was exciting, you know, using these machines and going through the archives in the Sault. And then I needed to start filling in the gaps in the textbooks. I wanted to know just what it felt like, what the people were like. And that’s when I talked to my family. I also wanted to know more about my great-grandmother, so I interviewed my grandparents. Actually, I interviewed them twice each: my great aunts, my great uncles, my mom and dad. I didn’t want to do just a certain generation—I wanted to do all of the generations. I even interviewed my sister. I did all of the generations, and I recorded the conversations. That’s actually how I found I picked up on the dialect, and the mannerisms. When you’re just talking to someone, you don’t seem to pick up on it. But when you record it and you listen back, you hear it, and I wanted that to come in: the slang, those certain things you say in the Sault. I wanted that.
And then I had all this information, and had to ask, “Okay, where’s the story in all of this?” Which was the hardest part of this: taking all this information, and finding the story, digging out the story from inside of it. It took me about two-and-a-half years—it started as my Master’s thesis. After I graduated, I took a look at it over the summer, edited it, added a few chapters, and that was when I was able to publish it with Latitude 46. I was actually going to go with Scribner, but then they closed down. It was so nice to hear that people who’d worked with Scribner had branched off to open up shop themselves. Because there’s not a lot of Northern Ontario publishers, and we need that. There’s a gap there too that needs filling.
CM: And it’s almost the same with Northern Ontario writers, although in their case, there’s a lot of them, but the problem is they don’t get a lot of attention and mainstream publication. There’s so many who love to write, love the arts, but it seems sometimes like a quiet community, a quiet writing culture that you don’t hear as much about as you should, until an event like your novella’s launch brings out that wonderful multitude of support.
Thinking more about that topic of culture brings me back to the story: reading through the elements of the Sault’s culture, it really felt alive. You really brought together that mixture of trying to acclimate as immigrants to your surroundings, getting local jobs and local homes without wanting to lose the culture you came from initially. Like with the narrator, who feels that disconnect and at one point notes to herself that she never grew up with the culture of her ancestors. She has to admit that she only ever learned English, and her only ties to her heritage were family like her grandparents, and the only Ukrainian she could recognize was the Ukrainian spelling of the name of her great-grandmother on a postcard, which she takes from her grandmother’s house like she’s trying to cling to that tie.
Is that kind of attempt to hold onto heritage and familial history something you drew from as well?
SP: Well yes, in a way. I think it comes from knowing your family’s stories. I find nowadays that the younger generations don’t talk to their grandmother. They don’t sit down and just say, “Tell me a story.” And that’s part of what I wanted to capture, so many generations talking. I wanted the older generation to have a very clear voice and have a lot of dialogue. I find a lot of older characters don’t get to talk very much in their roles in some stories.
I wanted these older generations in my book to be more up-front. The grandmother, No-No, she’s an amazing character. And I found that she is actually the anchor of the book. She’s always there, she’s the one that has connections to each generation, and I wanted that connection and for her to be very alive. She’s my favourite character, actually.
CM: Absolutely. I loved what No-No contributed as the family’s aging matriarch. All of these women, actually, old and young, they have this amazing presence.
SP: Definitely. I wanted them to be very dynamic. A lot of things going on. They each have a lot of things going on in their lives, they each have struggles: the epilepsy, the depression, and so on. I wanted to portray that, that everyone has something going on in their lives, always.
CM: That was actually a key point for me that I noticed as I was reading. My favourite part of the book was how the epilepsy ties in. At first, I thought it was going to be the main plot point. It starts out with a seizure, and you think this is going to be primarily a journey of epilepsy, of trying to reconcile the condition with her family’s history of strong women, trying to figure out where it came from and what to do about it, how to cope. But where it started out as that, it turned into primarily a journey of discovering strength—its forms, its meanings, its consequences.
SP: Yes, I did want the epilepsy in there, but I didn’t want it to be the only thing, because if it was just the epilepsy it would just focus on the narrator. And I wanted all four generations. I wanted all four leading women to have their own story, as threads piecing the overall story together.
I structured the story like a braid, with each woman having their own stories, their own secrets, but they’re woven together throughout, with other braids. One is that each generation has their love triangle. The next one is that each one has their ailment: depression, or epilepsy, or what-have-you. And the third is they each have their stories about the speakeasy, different views on it. And I took these three braids, and wove them through the story, weaving these women together.
CM: That’s exactly how it read. And actually, on the topic of weaving things together: the epilepsy. Every now and then you would mention it, it would make a little appearance such as when the narrator made the discovery about the young boy in their family who had long since died of epilepsy complications, and then more recently a baby who’d also passed away from it. Every now and then, touching on things like that, with all of those elements of family history and family ailments, connecting back and forth and jumping back and forth between each other. With all of that, the way you later describe in the book the “electrical storm” that is an epileptic seizure firing the brain’s neurons and overwhelming them really seems to tie together the emotional storm and chaos of her family, past and present. The storm of conflict and emotional versus calculated choices shaping her family’s endurance, shaping all of those “hard women” throughout the generations.
SP: Yes, I think that’s very accurate. It’s a storm of emotion throughout the book, with the narrator caught up in it all.
CM: And actually, speaking of family, how did your family feel about you somewhat mining family stories and their experiences? Because there’s definitely the impression that a lot of this—whichever of the many aspects are based on true struggles within your family—is very personal.
SP: I think they were… well, with my great aunt, my mother called her up and said, “Shawna wants to talk to you. She just wants to hear stories about the family.” So she was intrigued. And me and my mother went over one day and my other great aunt was there, and my great uncle was there. She set out tea and cookies, and she said, “Yes, I will tell you stories.” And I think they were just excited to tell their stories. I thought it would take half an hour, but it just kept on going, and it was wonderful. I think they were happy just to have someone really listen. The only person in my family who’s actually read it so far is my sister. I think it was before the manuscript was submitted, and she liked it.
CM: And they didn’t mind that the book version of a family took this harder, more alienated turn?
SP: I don’t think so. Especially with my great-grandmother—her story is just extraordinary. It’s just a story that I grew up with, just knowing that yeah, that’s just great-grandmother. And I hope they just look at that, and enjoy that someone else now is going to get to hear about her story, which is so incredible. I hope that’s what they think of it—I’ll have to wait until they read it! But I hope they like it. I hope my great-grandmother would’ve liked it; I didn’t actually get a chance to meet her.
So… who knows! I guess we’ll find out.
CM: Something else comes to mind that especially stood out about this story, which is the grandfather, and the time the narrator spends with him, and the climax that the book builds to. I won’t give any spoilers away, for those who haven’t read the book yet, but the way the ending is structured, it’s more like there isn’t actually an ending. Which I quite like. It was brave. It’s rare to find a story these days that doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow at the end, finishing off firmly “happily ever after,” or the other way entirely. It leaves off on this middle ground. How did you go about structuring the ending? Did you feel any need to tie it up in that neat bow, before you came to the ending you wrote in?
SP: I think that there’s always that pull to put a neat bow on things. But with this family, there’s so much going on, and nothing’s neat with this family—nothing’s clear-cut. So I kind of knew the ending couldn’t be clear-cut. And with the narrator, she’s always in this position of being in the present, but also in the past, and then again in the future as well, since she’s worrying about not knowing whether she can ever have kids or not. I wanted to leave her in this position of ambiguity, positioned within and without all of these time frames.
So no, there actually wasn’t too much of a pull to put a neat bow on it. I did realized it once I wrote it, that it leaves you with more questions than answers, but with this story, as so often in real life, that’s how it has to be.
CM: Yes, I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, whether to be annoyed or not by there being no definite ending. But the more I thought about Sheila, and her ailment and her family, the more it made sense, because this was all about a family—it couldn’t have an ending, because they and their problems were always ongoing, throughout the generations. It can’t be finished, not entirely.
SP: Exactly. I knew that I wanted to end it by water though. There’s water throughout the book; the Sault is surrounded by bodies of water, and water often represents time, the fluidity of it. So I knew I wanted to end it by water, because it wasn’t going to have a clear-cut ending, just an ending of fluidity, where we as well as the narrator are wondering, “What now?” while knowing that the tide will come in and go out, and things will keep on going, one way or another.
CM: And between the narrator herself, and the journey she takes with the ending we leave her at, did you wonder while writing it about how relatable she’d be to the average reader? Her experiences and positioning in her family might seem able to have readers wondering at their own places within and inheritances from their families.
SP: No, I couldn’t obviously know what people would take away from it, if they would relate to it. I did want to write something though that had universal themes, universal emotions to it. Like gossip—everybody gossips, it’s a universal thing. So I wanted to just write a story about a family who is very complicated, and not even all that loving towards each other, not in any obvious way at least. And I wanted to show the narrator’s struggle with finding her place in that, where fitting in with any family can be complicated enough.
CM: That’s for sure. So where to from here? What now, for you? You’ve written a strong debut—what do you have in mind next? Continuing with historical fiction? Or branching off in another direction?
SP: I think what I want to do is branch off from this book directly. In this book, you have the four women, and they’re all entwined together, but I think there’s a lot of questions about each of the women, so each book would focus on one of the women. I want to start with No-No—I’ve been getting a lot of questions about her from people who’ve read the book, and they want to know, you know, how did she get this way? How did she come to be a hoarder? That sort of thing. There’s a lot to explore there.
CM: And from her particular perspective, at that.
SP: Exactly. So I want to write a book to focus on each of the women separately, even though the other women will still feature. It’ll just have that different focus. But especially No-No… I just can’t leave her! I love her. I think she’ll definitely be first.
CM: Well you definitely have a new fan, and I’m in line to read the next book in the series. It’s great to have a new, unique writing voice in Northern Ontario.
SP: Oh, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be a part of things happening up here. The north really has a great pool of exciting writing voices.
CM: And it’s been a pleasure talking with you.