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Odds Are On The Anxious Girls - Sherie Posesorski speaks with Zsuzsi Gartner
by Sherie Posesorski

Zsuzsi Gartner's first short story collection, All The Anxious Girls On Earth (Key Porter Books), has hit a critical nerve in reviewers. The clever, contemporary, playful, inventive, verbally hyper-energetic, idea-driven, apocalyptic tales have set them raving-with excitement and admiration. The anxious girls are caustic, self-aware, high-strung, and prickling with nervous energy. They worry their way through the stories, surviving by their wits and wit, at home, seemingly, only in language. For certainly they are not at home in the bush, as in "How to Survive in the Bush", where a city woman plays at being a country wife to the pilot she lives with in the East Kootenays. Nor at a city newspaper, where the unnamed narrator works the graveyard shift as a copy editor (a.k.a. girl rim pig). Nor in the upscale soap shop or high-rise apartment to where a former film programmer has retreated after witnessing a woman set herself on fire when her terrible video is refused entry in a film festival. Nor, most definitely, in the Vancouver apartment a woman shared for seven years with a lover who had her iron his formal clothing before he took off to marry someone else.

Gartner admits to being an anxious girl herself. "I'm a worried person. I've always been a worried person," she says with a laugh. "When I was a kid, my mother bought me a worrywart bird charm for my charm bracelet."

Born in Winnipeg, she grew up in Calgary where she received a B.A. in Political Science at the University of Calgary. She then got an honours degree in Journalism at Carleton University, and an M.F.A. from the University of British Columbia. Her first job was as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Since then, she has worked as a chase producer for Canada A.M., the books editor at The Georgia Straight, a freelance magazine writer and reviewer, and Senior Editor at Saturday Night magazine. All the while, she's been writing short stories which have appeared in various literary magazines. She's gone back to freelancing and now lives in Vancouver with her husband, John Dippong, who works in the film industry.

I met with Zsuzsi Gartner in April at the offices of Key Porter Books.

SP: The reviews for All The Anxious Girls On Earth have been wonderful. The Calgary Herald has stated that you are "able to see through [contemporary culture] and mock it while also showing the essential conundrums of life in the late 1990s", and The Globe and Mail has called you "a brilliant, ball-busting, mind-expanding writer, the kind who sneaks up on you with her darkness, her wit, her imagination, her humour, her political savvy".

ZG: I'm thrilled. Ann Ireland said to me they're the kind of reviews you dream up when you lie in bed as a seventeen-year-old writing geek dreaming of what your reviews will be like. What I really liked was that the reviewers all got the book. When I read the reviews, there was none of that weird..that's my book?

SP: The anxiety in your stories is more than your everyday neurotic anxiety. It comes across as a millennial, apocalyptic anxiety. You've really captured the particularities of this time.

ZG: I was specifically writing about the end of the nineties. The people in these stories are drawn into this vortex, this swirl of displacement. There's millennium anxiety, but it's not morose. It's jittery, worried.

I like black humour, satirical, pyrotechnical fiction with lots of information in it, like you see in Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes-fiction where there is a concern with the contemporary world. How can you ignore the world?

When people who have worked in journalism for a long time have written fiction, they'll get these reviews that say, you can really tell this person's a journalist, and the reviewers mean that in a bad way. But having worked in journalism has opened up my mind.

I don't like hermetically sealed fiction. It can be beautifully written fiction, but so what? I feel like saying, open up the door, the world is out there.

For example, the story, "The Tragedy of Premature Death among Geniuses", could have just been the story of the woman and the young boy. In the story, Pearl, who is mildly retarded, becomes the guardian of her precocious five-year-old nephew, Edgar. She hovers protectively over him, fearing that she will lose him because, as she learns, geniuses like Shelley and Mozart die young, and because he will inevitably leave her far behind intellectually. How I opened the story up was to bring in her concern with the premature deaths of geniuses, and the commentary on the canon and feminism, and also by bringing the media in (Edgar has been nicknamed the cheetah boy by the press since his late parents sent a video of him to a local TV station showing him outracing a speedy dog who was a TV star). I could have just done the relationship, but to me that relationship had to be in the world because it affects their relationship. It isn't just those two people. Besides, she has to protect him from the world.

SP: This anxiety, along with being a product of life in the nineties, also seems to be in the tradition of Canadian literature's preoccupation with survival that Margaret Atwood examines in Survival. There she writes about how our fiction is filled with this "intolerable anxiety... [O]ur stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience." You see that in your stories, like in "City of my Dreams", where Lewis tries to find a way to live after personally witnessing a woman set herself on fire, and in "Odds that, all things considered, she'd someday be happy", where the mother whose daughter has died in a terrorist bombing becomes a forgiveness guru on TV.

ZG: My characters do things. They get out there after going through grotesque tragedies and awful experiences. They don't just sit there at the kitchen table, looking out at the ice floe, saying, my life is doomed. Their anxiety is a positive energy force.

And I try to maintain the energy in the stories. It's not that I sit there going energy line, energy line. It's making sure that what's in the stories has energy. I don't like minimalist, anaemic writing. I like to cram in as much as I can. So if I use characters who have lively minds, even if they are annoying or weird, I can do that.

SP: You use your humour the way Lorrie Moore does in her stories: to fuel and defuse anxiety.

ZG: That's exactly why you use humour. Otherwise, how do you write about these serious things without making the story too grim or boring? 

Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.


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