Shamini Sriskandarajah talks to author Gemma Seltzer about her new short story collection Ways of Living and its themes of female friendship, religion, and the city.
I meet Gemma Seltzer in the tranquil London church St Mary Aldermary on a Tuesday morning in August. It’s a little sunnier and warmer than it has been lately, and it’s dry for a change. The Host Café comprises the entire church, located in the heart of Christopher Wren’s city of churches, just up the road from St Paul’s Cathedral. Like St Paul’s, St Mary Aldermary survived the Blitz almost intact. Now you can take your coffee to a pew and read or pray. In what feels like a past life, when I commuted through the City of London every weekday, I had a list of churches I wanted to attend at Christmas to sing carols, and church cafés I wanted to visit. This was one I had never made it to. It feels like an enchanting setting for two quiet people, who used to meet at dawn writing workshops in a Quaker library, a religious group famed for their embracing of silence.
Religion in writing
One of my favourite stories from Gemma’s new book, Ways of Living, is set in a synagogue, and religious references are scattered through the whole collection. As I ask her about this, I look around us:
“We’re meeting in a church.”
“Oh yeah, we’re meeting in a church.”
The references in Ways of Living were not a conscious decision, Gemma says, but found their way into the writing. “I do think about being a Jewish woman in contemporary society, which aspects of myself I keep to myself and which aspects I show.” She points out that the stories themselves are not about being Jewish, but that Judaism does offer a context. As a result, it doesn’t feel awkward or thrown in; it feels organic and natural. As we discuss the differences between British and American Jewish culture, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with Jewishness in British books or films, compared to American ones. “There’s a whole genre of American literature that is adamantly, clearly Jewish. And European literature, of course,” Gemma says. She mentions British books that explore the Jewish faith, culture and community: Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience, for example, and David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count, in which he talks about the stereotypes of Jews as either all-powerful or the lowest of the low. How do British Jews deal with this projection? There’s also the writing of Howard Jacobsen and Charlotte Mendelson. These writers all explore what it’s like to be both British and Jewish, to have these two strong identities. It resonates for me as a British Asian woman, who was brought up both Hindu and Christian, and I’m curious about how a similar sense of shame or confusion about identity manifests for white, British, Jewish people.
Gemma tells me, “Baddiel talks about British Jewish shame. A sense that Jewish people have internalised the distrust from other people: either you’ll be dismissed or subject to violence, so it’s better not to be visible in any way. That resonated with me hugely. Could I have chosen not to explore this aspect of myself? I don’t think I could because I’m at a point in my life where I want to explore the whole self. Everything I write has a Jewish context because it’s me writing it. It’s just that until now I hadn’t named it.”
80 000 words to 5300
The second story in her collection, ‘Other Esther’, was originally a novel. I ask what it was like to cut it right down to a short story. Gemma describes the different versions of it – a novel, a longer short story, a play – and the research she did, including learning ventriloquism and interviewing puppeteers. I’m surprised by the vast amount of work she put in behind the scenes; it feels like the literary equivalent of Margot Robbie learning figure skating for the film I, Tonya. Eventually, Gemma came to the version in this collection that she is ultimately happy with. It feels finished, she says, which the novel never did.
“When I was writing the novel, I didn’t get to the point where I thought I’d said everything I wanted to say. When I distilled it, cut it down from 80,000 words, reduced it and cut whole sections out, reduced whole chapters to a sentence – once I’d done all that, what was left made the most sense. I love that. But this is the work of being a writer. Trying to make these decisions, trying to see clearly what your work could be.”
It reminds me of Jeanette Winterson destroying one of her manuscripts, then starting again from scratch. I found that anecdote alarming when I read Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, but as someone who’s gone through a similar process, Gemma says, “I love hearing those stories of writers who’ve abandoned their work. Because part of the creative process is about trying to let things go.”
When I ask if she would consider doing the opposite and extending any of the short stories into something longer, the answer is a carefully considered but definite no. “I wouldn’t want these stories out in the world if they weren’t finished.” This fits with Gemma’s embrace of slow and quiet in a loud, fast-paced world, and also with her love of the short story format which, she says, she only realised she had when she was following Marie Kondo’s method of tidying and organising her belongings. When she put her books into a pile, she realised that she had so many short story collections, but hadn’t noticed until then what her passion for short stories looked like visually. But there it was – a tower of them, taller than her piles of other kinds of books.
It was also this tidying process that ignited the desire to collect the pieces of her own writing that were currently sitting in her notebooks and laptop. As she started putting them together, she noticed there was a strong theme of women in cities and friendship. She continued writing short stories, trying to fill in the gaps, saying things about female friendship and relationships which she hadn’t explored yet.
In the first story in Ways of Living, ‘Too Close and Not Close Enough’, we are introduced to Sadie and Juliet, childhood friends who we meet at different points in their lives – as children, teenagers, and women – with no explanation as to what has happened in the gaps. Their love-hate relationship is fascinating and relatable. Gemma reflects on this: “As women, we’ve internalised the messages about being competitive with other women. That’s how society’s set up: we’ve absorbed that. We see women as a threat or we judge them on how they look, because we are in a society where we are judged for how we come across and how we look.
“I’m interested in how that plays out even if you resist it. Even if you know you do want to be friends with somebody or you do love your friend, you’re still having to grapple with what you’ve been taught as you’ve been growing up and what messages are blazing around us. I think a great deal about how we as women treat other women. A break up in a friendship is as devastating as any kind of romantic or family break up, but we don’t see it depicted so much in films or literature. Whenever I’ve had conversations with friends about ending friendships, it’s so complicated because we don’t have a vocabulary to discuss it. The messiness of friendship is what I like exploring.”
As we talk about the stories, we come to ‘Parched’, about a woman who cries openly during Zoom meetings and the only story clearly set during the pandemic. Gemma talks about her experience of going for daily walks during lockdown, and how quiet it was outside in public spaces. “Our homes became a public space, doing our communication on Zoom, and outside became private. Crying has a different flavour when you’re with people on Zoom, compared to when you’re in person or on your own outside.”
She talks about research she did into crying and how emotional tears (as opposed to tears caused by hayfever or getting dust in your eye) have more protein and they run down your face quicker. It’s about the urgency of communicating with someone, of letting someone quickly see that you’re upset. “But on Zoom,” she asks, “can we always tell if someone is crying? Especially if they have their camera and microphone turned off.”
I bring up the idea of crying being manipulative, an accusation that is particularly thrown at women, and I mention the episode of the American sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David’s best friend is dating a professional crier. Gemma reflects that maybe it’s about where you get your power from as women. It provokes a response. It creates sympathy. In ‘Parched’, crying is seen as some women’s superpower.
As the conversation moved on, Gemma talked about friends who were visiting every location for each story in her book. They went to the Brick Lane bagel shop featured in the first story ‘Too Close and Not Close Enough’, then found a café, which happened to be the exact café that Gemma had written about. As she told me about this, I felt touched by the act of love her friends had carried out, and was surprised to find tears in my own eyes (having just been talking about crying). How incredible to have a book that has just been published and already people are going on tours!
“That’s my biggest wish for this book, that people find it meaningful. I love the idea that people are savouring it.”
Gemma is a flâneuse – taking so much pleasure in walking around London (she also loves New York), observing people and places, finding homes for her observations in her writing. City and travel writing has traditionally been the domain of middle-class men who had money, time, and freedom. It’s refreshing to find a woman like Gemma, who has an ability to really observe and listen, making her own space in this kind of research and writing.
During lockdown, Gemma spent time on Google Maps working out the distances and connections between different places in her stories, and thinking about the boundaries (or containers, as she puts it) in which the characters would remain. “I felt very grateful to have this project to do when lockdown took place. It was hard to think creatively when everything was so unstable around us. And short stories are great to wander around.” When we were allowed to travel for leisure again, she went to a road in Clerkenwell that was in ‘Other Esther’, almost laughing with exhilaration at the freedom and joy to physically stroll around London again. “You can be anonymous and just wander through the streets. I love when you almost lose the sense of your body, you’re just merging with the pavements and the buildings.” But there was also an element of retraining a body and mind that were out of the habit of wandering, an element of finding your city confidence again. I felt a similar sense of excitement and nervousness in my first trips to central London after shielding for months.
I ask Gemma about the city writers she likes. There’s Virginia Woolf, of course, and Rebecca Solnit. There’s Jamaica Kincaid who I hadn’t heard of. And Grace Paley, who wrote short stories of people and city life, voices and humour. Her work has a bright, fast energy; the world she writes of is alive, the language vivid. There are mothers, Jewish characters, clamour and noise, and the physicality of the city. We also talk about two books we’ve both read: Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, about women writers in cities, and The Virago Book of Women Travellers. During our conversation, I begin to get a sense of how a flâneuse like Virginia Woolf might fare, were she suddenly plucked from her lifetime and thrown into ours. Gemma clearly loves this noisy, busy city, and memories of the walks through it fed her writing during lockdown.
“But I think what I’m more interested in is the vision of two or more women. We don’t see it enough. The model is Sex and the City. They gave us a way of viewing female friendships: four women walking down the road, taking up that space.” Of course there are problems with the show: the lack of diversity in terms of race and wealth, and the main character’s obsession with men are very apparent twenty years later, but we also discuss the things that were revolutionary about it and that made us connect with it (we don’t mention the films) – four women being strongly rooted in the city, having difficult conversations about things like work and money, abortion and religion, anguishing over fallouts with each other. “The city is almost a backdrop to women’s frustrations,” Gemma notices.
She mentions one line spoken by the main protagonist, Carrie: “If you only get one great love, New York may just be mine.” That episode was written soon after the September 11th attacks, when there was a colossal sense of loss and a renewed rush of love for the city. I wonder afterwards if this relates to Gemma’s love of London, renewed after an enforced separation thanks to lockdowns, within the context of a pandemic that hit London really hard. As I write this, approximately 15,000 people have died of Covid-19 in London hospitals since the start of last year, and the national memorial wall near St Thomas’s Hospital has hand-drawn red hearts to represent the lives of more than 150,000 people.
Write & Shine
Ways of Living is not the only meaningful project that Gemma has created. For five years she has been running Write & Shine, early morning writing workshops that are a terrific, gentle way to get you writing and thinking creatively. Pre-pandemic, they were in person, taking place in London cafés and the Quaker library. When I attended, sometimes I would be on such a roll, often with a piece of writing I’d struggled to start by myself at home, that I would wander around Covent Garden for a while afterwards and find a café to work in for another few hours. That community felt special, and helped me to find strength in my identity as a writer.
During lockdown, they started in a new form on Zoom. Like any translation, it’s not a perfect replica, but it’s something new, something that fits this strange new world we’ve been living in since the first lockdown. I booked one retreat at the end of last year and noticed a few things: there were a lot of new faces and some were joining as far away as Scotland and Germany. It wouldn’t have been possible for them if it was still a 7.15am start in London! There were no more conversations in pairs or trios while gathering or leaving; Zoom has a “waiting room” which doesn’t have the qualities of a physical room. Yet it turned out it was still a space that worked.
This summer, Gemma organised her first Write & Shine Summer Salon, a week of evening talks and morning workshops, including an optional hour of quiet writing time together at the end of the morning. She invited me to join in and I was glad – five days is a decent length of time to focus when you’ve been struggling to connect with writing or people. There were talks by poet and writer Nina Mingya Powles on swimming, immigration, and favourite bodies of water; choreographer Katie Green on creating links between reading and dance and what it was like returning to the studio after lockdown; and novelist Sarvat Hasin on renewal, change and reimagining classic stories. The morning workshops that Gemma led were thought-provoking and generated new work on trees, bodies of water, and our own bodies. And, as I observed during the optional writing hour one morning, that human connection was a huge part of what made Write & Shine so meaningful to many writers during the pandemic. One writer called Gemma a saint. Another shed tears because the workshops were the only time they talked to other people. It moved many of us to tears as well.
I didn’t ask her about this when we met, but I wonder if Gemma realises the impact of what she has created, not just in terms of helping writers to write, but soothing loneliness, helping people – and it is mainly women, for some reason – to connect with each other and find their feet in the world? Perhaps, like short stories and books, things take on new meaning and significance to others once they’re out in the world.
Even if Gemma doesn’t know the power of her workshops, she does know how beneficial it is to find a group that feels nurturing and safe. She attended a Zoom silent reading club set up by Naomi Alderman during the pandemic. As she describes it, it sounds like a reading equivalent of the Zoom writing retreats that she organises. They may appear odd to an outsider, but the human connection of reading “with” other people seems like such a perfect solution to lockdown detachment.
As we leave the church and walk back towards the train station, there’s the bustle of city workers out for their lunchbreak. It’s somewhat disconcerting after a year and a half to be in the thick of this: normal London weekday life, looking pretty much like it did pre-pandemic.
“Men in suits!” we exclaim, when we’re out of earshot. What a novelty.