An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

Radiant Shimmering Light

Sarah Selecky

Bloomsbury Publishing

Lilian Quick sees colorful auras around dogs and tries to eke out a living painting their portraits – until she reconnects with her cousin Florence – now known as Eleven – a self-actualization guru for empowering women. Eleven sweeps Lilian up into the movement, giving her an all-consuming role at her headquarters – the Temple – revising Lilian’s lifestyle and self-image. Is all this too much for Lilian, and maybe even Eleven?

AUTHORLINK: Where did your idea for this story start?

I thought I was writing satire in the early days; it became real life by the time I finished the book.

SELECKY: I started writing this story around the same time Facebook came on the scene. Twitter was new, and Instagram hadn’t even been invented, yet. So, as I wrote (or attempted) early versions of this story, I became aware of the way social media was changing everything, especially the way we were relating to each other. Naturally, this became part of the story. I thought I was writing satire in the early days; it became real life by the time I finished the book.

I started with a character who intrigued me – Eleven. Why was her name Eleven? Why did everyone love her so much? She was mysterious, confident, and powerful, and I wanted to know more about her. I’d already written a short story about Lilian in my first book, This Cake is for the Party, and so I imagined introducing them to each other. Lilian was a people pleaser, unsure of herself, and wore her heart on her sleeve. She was the perfect foil for Eleven.

Also, around this time, a well-known male spiritual leader had just been called out for misuse of power, and it was causing a ripple of unrest in many yoga communities. Of course, there are so many stories like this – powerful male spiritual leaders, professors, and employers who wield their influence in unacceptable ways. I started to wonder, what about a female charismatic leader? How does the power dynamic play out with her followers? What does it look like when she misuses her power, and what motivates her to do so? How would this feel? And I wondered if she’s self-aware, actively choosing to lead differently, as many women do: does female empowerment really change the power story?

…I felt my way along as I wrote, aiming for each story point the way I aim for milestones when I’m running.

AUTHORLINK: How did you plan (or not) your story? Did you know how it would work out for Lilian and Eleven?

SELECKY: Well, I had a loose outline, and I felt my way along as I wrote, aiming for each story point the way I aim for milestones when I’m running. Like, “I just have to run to that driveway up ahead, then I can slow down.” And my outline didn’t even tell me what was going to happen, exactly. I knew that Lilian was going to crack under the pressure of work at the Temple, at some point, but I didn’t know what that would look like until I wrote it. I knew that they would all be in Hawaii at the end, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to Lilian or Eleven in the end, until I wrote the last page of my first draft. My outline gave me something to hold on to as I kept revisiting a set of questions, over and over. The scenes sort of came into focus as I wrote them, like figures emerging through fog.


AUTHORLINK: Do you have a background in art?

I’ve always loved drawing and painting. When I’m painting, it feels a lot like writing…

SELECKY: I’ve always loved drawing and painting. When I’m painting, it feels a lot like writing — but it’s such a relief and delight to create without using words! In my 20s, I used to sell little illustrations to help pay my rent. Watercolour dries quickly, and it’s portable, so I could take it with me anywhere. I would go out into the town square where tourists liked to shop, and I’d paint en plain air, and sell my pieces to whoever would buy them. So, I can relate to Lilian, sort of. These days, I’m not painting as much – now I spend more time writing – but I miss playing with colour and line. I think I made Lilian an artist so I could spend my days imagining what it would be like to paint again. Lilian’s much better at it than I am, by the way. It was fun to write someone who had so much talent and skill with paint.

AUTHORLINK: Where did all the ideas for feminine empowerment come from?

SELECKY: Writer and marketing strategist Kelly Diels writes about the “female lifestyle empowerment brand”, which she calls the new Beauty Myth: a way to leverage social status to gain authority, through sharing images that sell us a fantasy version of empowerment (I see your perfect manicure wrapped around a glass of green juice, by the pool… you must be right! Okay, I’ll buy your lavender aromatherapy kit!)

Again, I started out writing about this satirically. By the time I was on my second draft, the satire had become real life. #goodvibesonly

AUTHORLINK: What do we learn from Lilian’s experience in a self-actualization movement?

SELECKY: The compassionate attention of her new community and Eleven’s brand of therapeutic life coaching are undeniably good for Lilian. She feels seen and respected. For the first time, Lilian feels the sweetness of belonging. She practices mindfulness, alone and in community. This calms her active mind. She changes some old thought patterns that were creating dissatisfaction in her life. She becomes more confident and takes more creative risks.

At the same time, she puts herself under an enormous amount of pressure to become and stay self-actualized. She needs to keep up with the ever-changing hustle of the brand, to bring in more money, to be always happy, always present, always connected in order to be successful. It’s an illusion, and it’s exhausting.

I think Lilian’s experience asks us to acknowledge the both/and instead of the either/or, and to hang out there. To just feel how that feels, without naming it wrong or right.

AUTHORLINK: How does marketing interfere with the authenticity of these programs?

The question is, can an organization sell spiritual enlightenment? Does that even belong in the market economy?

SELECKY: Marketing is a way to create tension for consumers. It shows consumers the gap between what we don’t have and what we could have. This is manipulative. But it’s also how organizations make change happen. When an organization wants to change the world in some way – protect more wildlife, get more people to play an exciting game together, find the right homes for the right people – marketing helps make those changes happen. But marketing can also take advantage of consumers by cranking up the tension, just to make money, without caring if the change actually happens.

So, marketing can interfere with the authenticity of any program or product. It depends on the integrity of the organization, and what motivates it.

The question is, can an organization sell spiritual enlightenment? Does that even belong in the market economy? If so, how much should it cost? What’s the ethical amount of tension to use if you’re selling a life-altering, spiritually transformative experience?  

AUTHORLINK: How does the continual use of social media enhance what your story is telling us?

SELECKY: I wanted to write a book that felt true. A novel that would show the experience of everyday digital overwhelm. Our phones aren’t something we sometimes choose to use anymore: they’re with us, always. Remember when we used to type “brb”? We never type that anymore, because we’re never away from our phones! Maybe five years ago, I could have written a novel where most of my characters were actually present with each other in person, and texts would just conveniently interrupt a scene here and there to tell us something important. But that’s not the life of these characters today. I wrote with social media this way to re-create that non-stop feeling of interruption, multi-tasking, and status-checking that is life, now. There are no chapter breaks – the pauses are only when Lilian stops to check her inbox. This is undeniably uncomfortable to write and read because it is a mirror. We are so distracted, so much of the time.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

I’m writing about powerful women again.

SELECKY: I’m writing about powerful women again. But my main character is not like Lilian; she has a very different kind of problem. I think I’ve found a way to keep the story contemporary but without using smartphones at all. And not because it’s post-apocalyptic! It’s an optimistic story, I think.

About the author: Sarah Selecky received her MFA from the University of British Columbia. Her short story collection, This Cake is for the Party, was a finalist for the Giller Prize. She is the creator of the Sarah Selecky Writing School.  Radiant, Shimmering Light is her first novel. She lives near Toronto with her husband.