Mime as the Medium: Zilla Jones in Conversation with Sara Mang

Sara Mang

Open Season Awards fiction judge Zilla Jones talks with Sara Mang, winner of the 2022 Open Season Fiction Award with her story, "The Circular Motion of a Professional Spit-Shiner." They discuss mime as a tragicomic mastery of silence, choosing a military college as the setting, and fully immersing yourself in a project. 


Sara Mang is a storyteller from Labrador. Her work has appeared in journals across Canada, the US, and the UK, and in 2021, she received a nomination for a National Magazine Award in fiction. Sara is an alumni of the Bread Loaf Writing Conference, the Banff Centre Writing Studio Program, The Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon, and UBC’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Ottawa with her husband, three children and coonhound.

Read what judge Zilla Jones had to say about her winning story.

I recall reading your story “G-LOC” that was a winner in Prairie Fire’s fiction contest. “G-LOC” also had a military theme, as it told the story of two “army brats.” “The Circular Motion of a Professional Spit-Shiner” is set at a military college. What is it about the military experience that interests you and inspires your writing?

I completed a chemistry degree at the Royal Military College (RMC) in 2000 and served as an artillery officer in the Canadian Forces after graduation. I’ve since retired to be at home with my three children and focus on writing, but my husband is still a member of the RCAF, currently deployed to Kuwait.

I like to think about the military as a submerged world with a historically unique set of rules. Support persons such as spouses and children play a critical role in the military establishment, although these roles are not formally recognized. In recent years, I have been particularly interested in the lives of military children and spouses, how elements of their subjective well-being such as income, healthcare, education and housing are fulfilled, while transience and the ever-present uncertainty of military life often contribute to isolation and instability. There’s a detachment that goes along with having to start a new life in a new place every few years, and this detachment can become a default in new relationships. I like to think about the complexity of these dynamics and explore how they unfold (unravel) in narrative.

What struck me most about this story is that it is about the body, and specifically the female body. Joyce has a personal history of trauma in her body, through the sexual assault Fourth-Year Gibbs perpetrates upon her, and through the bulimia that appears to be one of her coping mechanisms in the aftermath of the assault. I was struck by the line, “It is not that she has to make herself believe that she is on a tightrope; she has to forget the tightrope isn’t there.” What is the significance of mime in the story, and why did you choose to have Joyce participate in mime specifically?

This question touches upon the very origins of this story. I participated in a writing challenge hosted by NYC Midnight and received three prompts: mime, obsolete and ghost story. I wrote a story that was set at the RMC in Kingston, and one of the characters, Fairbanks (a ghost) was a member of the Old Eighteen—the first eighteen gentlemen cadets to graduate from RMC in 1876. Fairbanks shadowed Joyce, providing advice from the context of his time. Although well-intentioned, his advice was old-fashioned and patronizing and as I researched anecdotes of RMC from the late 1800s, it was fascinating how the valorous tone, the bravado and gallantry had been preserved over the course of a century. As I researched mime, I fell deeply in love with the physical and physiological expansiveness that accompanied the tragicomic mastery of silence. I watched many videos of Marcel Marceau, the great French mime and war hero who saved at least 70 Jewish children through undercover border crossings during World War II. There was an exciting connection between Marceau’s life and work, and the story that was evolving in my mind.

Joyce appeared in the earliest stages of the story as a feminine being within the masculine environment of a military college. It was impossible for her to express herself authentically in this environment because the very framework of the military college system encouraged a particular style of leadership that was incongruent with her nature. I wanted to explore the bewildering experience of a female protagonist who is ambitious and intelligent, but also young and uncertain. The story evolved and gradually lost the magical element of ghost Fairbanks, but mime served as the medium through which I could explore Joyce’s personhood, her body and its non-verbal ways of communicating emotion, of coping. Mime satisfied the main narrative tension which involved Joyce’s ability and inability to ignore elements of her surroundings. She had to imagine a world in which she might survive and even thrive, because her reality was a place that lacked the support and nourishment she needed.

I love Joyce’s friendship with Roy. It is a very sweet and innocent relationship where none makes demands of the other. As Joyce says, “Roy is an infinite source of generosity.” Yet as is so often the case, Roy doesn’t seem to “get it” when it comes to Joyce’s past trauma. What do you see as Roy’s role in the story? Did anything in particular spark his creation?

Thank you so much for this question. Roy is loosely based on my dear friend, Liam, who was a fellow officer cadet at RMC. Liam joined a drama club at Queen’s University and I attended many of his plays. A few times, we took the train from Kingston to Toronto to watch the ballet, and I remember during The Russian Imperial Ballet’s rendition of Swan Lake, Liam fell back into his seat, gasping in astonishment. Liam was a person of tremendous generosity and feeling and understanding. Tragically, he drowned a few weeks after graduation. The scenes with Roy are invented, but I wanted him to bring an element of joy to what is a bleak story. Even though he isn’t entirely aware of what is happening with Joyce, he provides a connection for her in an environment where her primary experience was one of disconnect. My friend Liam’s gentle personality definitely contributed to the creation of Roy’s character, and I’ve reached out to his family and dedicated the story to his memory.

I see that you also write poetry. I admire people who can write both poetry and fiction; I seem to have a brain that can focus only on fiction. How do you switch between the two? Is your process the same or different when you write a poem as compared to a short story?

I read poetry more than I write it. I would like to write more poetry, but I find it difficult to multi-task in writing, and in the last year I’ve been focusing on fiction. I have found that an excellent practice for me is having one of my characters write a poem. I have unveiled important and surprising underbellies of my characters with this exercise. I connect with poetry that feels vibrant and unexpected and fresh, and I appreciate the sometimes-fragmented nature of a poem, its ability to leave me with questions instead of answers. For me, there are stages of story creation that require orchestration; it can feel like a slog sometimes, a hyper-management of time and space. I’m prone to severe stiffness of the neck and shoulders during this stage of writing, and one of my favourite professors, Doretta Lau, once scolded me (gently) about the importance of body breaks and stretching during these periods of intensity. Poetry might sometimes offer a release from this hustle, providing notions of spontaneity, zooming in on an incident or a concept to reveal deeper feeling and meaning.

My process is similar when writing both fiction and poetry in that the work thrives when I let go—when I am able to maintain a sense of abandon and an acute focus. The processes differ with respect to my relationship to clarity, my relationship to the suspension of disbelief. I allow more fragmentation in poetry than I do in fiction. Fragments have their place in fiction, especially short fiction, which expands beyond the container of the story, but for me, the best short fiction has a sort of scaffolding that supports the overall structure. I rarely consider structure in poetry.

Do you have a particular writing routine? Has that changed during the pandemic?

My writing routine is dependent on the activities of my young family; I write when I’m not parenting. I do most of my writing when my children are in school, so during the school closures of the pandemic, like many parents of young children, my work routine was disrupted. When my kids are at home, I write early in the mornings, a routine I enjoy because what’s more inspiring than a sunrise? I struggle with depression if I go any length of time without writing, so I make it a priority to carve out time in my day to at least visit the work.

Reading is an indispensable part of my writing routine and I am ruthless about audiobooking. The nature of parenting involves random pockets of time: shuttling the kids to gymnastics/piano, folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, peeling vegetables. I have an audiobook or a fiction podcast at the ready at all times and I can’t imagine my writing life without a daily dose of audio fiction.

Another important part of my writing routine is recognizing when a story needs an intensive—a period of immersion. When a story starts to take flight, when its form begins to emerge, I arrange a period of solitude away from the interruptions of family life so that I can dedicate sustained attention to a work in progress. I spend a few days without a clock when I can sink into a story and take stock of what it is trying to achieve. These brief getaways are a lifeline for my writing and my mental health. My husband, who is also my first reader, works with me to make these getaways possible, and I have a few good friends who permit me the use of their homes when they are out of town. I am more than a little gross during these periods, going days without a shower or a change of clothes, sleeping in spurts, eating too much cheese and too many crackers, but I am infinitely grateful to be able to immerse my whole self into a project.


Zilla Jones

Zilla Jones

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