We are thrilled to feature Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky as our August select! We caught up with Sarah in Prince Edward County (where she even signed copies for our subscribers). She shared insights on social media, connection/ disconnection, and digital age spiritualism.
Can you tell us what sparked the idea for the novel that became Radiant Shimmering Light?
There’s a story called “Go-Manchura” in my first book, This Cake Is for the Party, about a character named Lilian who was having difficulty with friendship and intimacy. Lilian was involved in a multi-level marketing company, selling nutritional products to friends.
The themes I explored in that story – friendship, trust, and marketing – became even more interesting to me in recent years. So I wasn’t finished with Lilian. I kept imagining her life and wondering what she was doing after “Go-Manchura”. What would she be doing for money now, in her forties? With her background in multi-level marketing, how was she using her social media accounts? She could try to sell to more people now as her circle of friends would have extended with Facebook. Would she be working on her personal brand like everyone else, and following all the influencers on Instagram?
Also, there was a character in “Go-Manchura” named Eleven who never actually appeared in the story – Lilian just talked about her a lot. I changed the name to Evelyn when I published the book (I did that for my niece, who had just been born). But I always wanted to write more about Eleven. Lilian was so excited about this mysterious woman who said she was going to come to her cottage that weekend. She was almost obsessed with her. Why? I wanted to explore that – who was Eleven, and what did she mean to Lilian?
Also, around the time I started this book, there were stories in the news about yoga teachers and spiritual leaders (male) who had caused harm by abusing their power, often sexually. This was years before #metoo (this was before Instagram). I was curious about what would happen if a spiritual community of women was led by a woman, instead of a man. How would the power dynamic play out?
I love how you were able to able to capture the allure as well as the less “instagram- worthy” edges of social media, spiritual self-help gurus. What kind of research did you do into the area?
We live online now. We stare into the face of a screen more than we look into other human faces. We do everything through our phone – everything. I wanted to create the visceral experience of what it means to live online. The constant connection/disconnection, and what that feels like in the human body. That’s what this story is about—connection.
Lilian, who is more socially anxious than most of us, is especially vulnerable to the problems that arise with seamless and constant digital living. I couldn’t show the wholeness of the problem by writing a token text here and there. The experience had to be immersive, the way Lilian lives it. Writing this story in any other way would have felt false.
In some ways, I researched Lilian’s life by living it — and if you’re using social media, you know what I mean. This was sometimes very difficult. I experienced imaginary online interruption and overwhelm every day, because of the story I was writing. Then, coming back to online living in my real life could feel pretty bad. Exhausting. There were days I wanted to throw my phone in the lake. When I felt really fritzed and terrible, I told myself to use that feeling – put it into the writing. Give those feelings to Lilian. There’s a scene where Lilian looks at her phone and her body flinches, as if it’s giving her an electric shock, just looking at it. That’s real—I’ve felt that flinch.
My mom was always reading spiritual and self-help books when I was a kid, so I think I came to that fascination naturally. When you’re a writer, you can create a lot of self-doubt! So I love reading therapeutic reassurance in all forms. Meditation has been a part of my life for many years; I rely on it. But for this book, I did have to learn more about MLMs and why they work. That world is still fascinating to me — I know so many women who are buying or selling nutritional shakes, jewellery, nail gels, and face cream to their mommy groups and friends. Why wasn’t someone writing about this?
When I started this novel, I was trying to imagine what would happen if a trusted spiritual leader used multi-level marketing to build her following. Now life coaches and their inspo-memes and their essential oil sales pitches hit my Instagram feed all day long — it’s happening IRL.
Eleven commanded sold-out audiences and devoted followers. What do you think was the core of her appeal?
Eleven brings sparkle and possibility into every room, and she knows how to project her energy. She believes everything she says — that’s the special thing about her. She’s not lying or trying to scam anybody. This high level of authenticity is really seductive. Especially now, when we’re all craving a feeling of hopeful connection. Eleven knows how to make someone feel loved and seen — and this is what everyone really wants. When someone is caught up in that enchantment, especially when they’re in a group of other people who are also caught up — it’s catching. Eleven is casting spells with her charisma. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s known how to make the ordinary feel extraordinary.
In many ways Lilian achieves a serious lifestyle upgrade under Eleven’s wings. But something is missing, when she doesn’t make time to work on her art. Is that just how it is for artists?
Gah! What a question. Well, yes: if we don’t make time for creativity, we don’t feel right. We are inherently playful, creative beings, and no matter how well we’re doing financially, if we aren’t creatively engaged in making something (whatever that is), something will feel missing. For artists, that means making art. For writers, it’s writing. For some, it might be cooking, or singing, or parenting. I think of creativity as collaborating with the unknown — it’s a mysterious process of discovery and curiosity. It is not persuasive or goal-oriented.
One of the disappointments of a capitalist culture is that it doesn’t understand a person is valuable unless they start producing something that can be sold. Success is so often framed by financial value. Art isn’t meant to work in that framework. Artists are part of the gift economy, not the market economy. So this is the struggle we have, as artists. How do we live in the market economy, and still achieve the fulfillment of self-actualization?
Have you ever met sometime who could see animal auras?
No! But I had so much fun imagining what it would be like. I know there are people out there who claim to see human auras. At a book event earlier this year, someone from the audience came up to me after the reading and told me she could see my aura (it was white, apparently). I was so shocked upon hearing that, I forgot to ask her about animals! Maybe she can see those, too!
We know all great writers are readers. Why do you think reading and storytelling is so special?
When I read a book and fall into a story that touches me on a deep level, I feel like I’m not alone. I think this is why we read. It’s such a solitary activity, reading a book — and yet it’s the place where I can feel most connected.