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The Banal and the Profane: Shawn Syms

The Banal and the Profane: Shawn Syms

Author: William Johnson

July 6, 2015

 “Through fiction we are often trying to solve—or at least somehow address—the problems and contradictions that preoccupy us in real life. In crafting a novel about compulsive gambling and fetishistic sex, that’s definitely what I’m doing.”

“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s column comes to us from writer Shawn Syms.

Syms, who lives in Toronto, has written over twenty-five years for more than fifty publications. He wrote the short-fiction collection Nothing Looks Familiar, a National Post pick for the Top Books of 2014, which was recently seized by the Michigan Department of Corrections because it “may encourage criminal activity.” He’s currently at work on a novel, Money Changes Everything, about the power of filthy lucre, fetishistic sex and compulsive gambling.


On a good day, I am psyched and honoured by the work I get to do—writing on queer and unusual topics, and creating strange characters that wouldn’t otherwise exist on the page. But some days, I get overwhelmed—wondering why I said yes to so many literary commitments and how I will ever get to my various creative, marketing and admin obligations on top of my day job.

Tonight, my mind reels as I consider the week ahead—a creative-writing workshop to develop and deliver, promotional stuff for my debut short-fiction collection Nothing Looks Familiar, research for my new novel, and so on. And a grant application for the novel is due tomorrow, of course. I’ve stocked up on paper and ink, as I worked over the weekend to update my CV and finesse my excerpt. I take a deep breath, reminding myself the notion of “multitasking” is a myth. All any of us can do is one thing at a time. So right now, my focus is on stuffing envelopes. Earlier, it was on revision.

My novel-in-progress, Money Changes Everything, is about a pair of best friends and their complicated relationships to the almighty dollar. Karyn is a gambling addict poised to lose her house and, possibly, her daughter. Her bisexual ex-boyfriend finds himself coming into money hand over fist as he meets sexual partners with an unusual sexual fetish, though he is not turning tricks. Is this the sort of thing that government-funding bodies should be signing cheques for?

I’d say so. I used to feel ambivalent about applying for grants when I have (and need) a day job—but not anymore. I run my writing as a business—and it virtually always loses money, when you think about all of the hours and associated expenses compared. I pay taxes, and I don’t always agree with how governments spend them. But I have no qualms about applying for the meagre amounts set aside to support writers. This allows us opportunities to take time off from our day jobs to focus on completing our creative work, and to appreciate the validation of being selected for recognition by juries of our peers. I reach for another handful of paperclips and get ready to collate.


“Your book is now officially dangerous!” I’m greeted by these tongue-in-cheek words from my publisher as he emails to let me know my short-story collection Nothing Looks Familiar has been seized by a mailroom censor en route to a prison in Michigan.

The prisoner is a book critic named Curtis Dawkins who reviews titles for Bull: Men’s Fiction. According to the notice received by my publisher, Nothing Looks Familiar is in violation of Policy Directive 05.03.118 of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

That’s because some details of my story “Family Circus,” about a woman plotting her escape from a drug-addicted fraud ring, “may facilitate or encourage criminal activity.” There’s a scene in which one woman teaches another how to use various solvents to remove the ink from checks so that they can be fraudulently rewritten. I got these details off the Internet. It’s intended as a piece of literary fiction rather than as a how-to guide, but the prison code says such materials “may interfere with the rehabilitation of the prisoner.”

This is upsetting on a bunch of levels. As someone from a working-class background who’s had a few hard knocks myself, I don’t see prisoners as “the other”—that is, a group of people that has included members of my family. This censorship strikes me as arbitrary and problematic; I hate that the guy in the mailroom can read my book and decide that the guy behind bars cannot. My book was just released in the U.S. Getting attention and reviews feels at once so important and so elusive. And here is another precious review opportunity down the drain, as well. But I’m acutely aware that unlike this reviewer, I get to sleep in my own bed every night.

On my lunch break, my best work buddy drives me in her car to the place where I need to drop off my grant app, and my mind is whirling. Is there a way I can draw attention to this censorship? It sucks that it happened. But maybe, the attention could help the book otherwise. As a Canadian, bi/queer, small-press, literary short story writer, I need all the help I can get!


I know I have that writing workshop coming up on the weekend, but I just don’t have the energy to work on it tonight. And Pride is coming up. No out-of-town houseguests this time, but every year, people look forward to hanging out at our house and using it as a base of operations for the Sunday parade; we are a half-block from the parade route. Personally, I have not been big on the parade since the days I marched in it a few decades ago.

I know it can get a bit wearying when people bemoan the corporatization of Pride, but it’s true. Products and corporate interests have come to dominate our Pride Parade in Toronto. We did inject a bit of life back into it a few years ago when the Pride Coalition for Free Speech emerged to challenge a sell-out Pride committee’s attempts to ban the activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. But otherwise, if we didn’t have so many folks who want to hang out on Sunday and watch the parade, I would skip it in favour of the far more vibrant Dyke and Trans Marches that precede it.

Back to that workshop. A regional writers’ guild has asked me to speak on the art of short fiction. It’s almost one hundred miles away, and I don’t drive, but I was honored to be asked. They have billed me in the promotional materials as “The Master of the Short Story.” I am flattered if a bit intimidated. Canada has indeed produced some true masters of the short story form: Mavis Gallant and Nobelist Alice Munro come immediately to mind. I’m just a guy who just had his first book published, and it took a decade for me to write!


I still can’t bring myself to get started on the prep for my talk and workshop. I’ve done a million presentations and have no worries about that. I have attended and participated in dozens of writing workshops, but I’ve never created and led one of my own, so hen it comes to designing and leading them, I have to figure it out as I go along. I already have a description to work from; I made it up off the top of my head when they needed copy to promote the event. I’ve always been interested in the tension between the free-associative mindset required for drafting new creative writing versus the rigorously analytical one needed for revision. So I decided to call the workshop “The Dreamer and The Butcher.”

Sitting on the couch unwinding with the hubby after dinner, I reread a chapter of the book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll, which is one of the inspirations for my novel-in-progress. My father was in many ways my utter hero. He was also a gambler whose addiction led to the loss of his health, his finances and ultimately his life just over a year ago. Through fiction, we are often trying to solve, or at least somehow address, the problems and contradictions that preoccupy us in real life. In crafting a novel about compulsive gambling and fetishistic sex, that’s definitely what I’m doing.

Addiction by Design is compelling input into this new fiction project. It describes how every aspect of casino design, from the way the CPU chips in slot machines are programed to the inviting slope of the sidewalk, is engineered to attract problem gamblers and suck every available penny out of them as efficiently as possible. As a sceptic of capitalist society, nothing I read in this book should surprise me, but still, I find it devastating. I remember my dad telling me about a trip to Atlantic City. How he just kept on winning. How they offered to give him a free hotel room for the night. How it made him feel special. And all of the losses that came after. The bankruptcy. The stroke. The heart attacks. Closing the book, I have so many questions for my late, beloved father, and no direct way to ask them. So I have to write this book.


In the morning, I get an email from one of my favorite editors at an online lit journal. I’ve been writing reviews and serving as a consulting editor. The pay is low compared to some of the newspapers where I review books, but the website has a spunky reputation for eschewing politesse and offering solid and substantiated critical comment. They want me to take more of a leadership role in helping run the publication, along with several other folks who have been contributing for some time. I really want to do it, but I think one of my volunteer gigs as a reader at another online lit mag may have to go by the wayside, as a result.

Over a sushi lunch, I sketch out a format for my short fiction talk for Sunday. About twenty people are expected, and I am going to have to assume there are both neophytes and veterans in the room. I decide on a fairly high-level overview of short fiction—the history, how it differs from other forms, characteristics of strong stories. After all, I am a working writer rather than a professor, and there are many theoretical books on this stuff that could nail all the details better than I could in an hour. I decide to devote a big chunk of time to practical concerns: how to hone your skills, how to network, and how to be laser-focused when submitting for publication. I think it will be fun.

I check my emails, which include a few from Master/slave fetish websites that I have explored as part of research for the “fetishistic sex” aspect of the novel. Again, this storyline was influenced by a personal experience: being approached on a vanilla gay social app and exposed to some unusual sexual desires I had never even heard of before.

As I read a horny email from one of the “slaves,” I think back to controversies about S&M in queer communities when I was in my twenties. How can we even use terms like “master” and “slave” given the historical legacy of slavery in the U.S. and internationally, many asked? I recall buying and reading a chapbook by Irene Reti called “Remember the fire: Lesbian sadomasochism in a post Nazi-holocaust world,” which attempted to link modern-day consensual S&M sex to the Hitler regime. But I also remember many Jews and people of colour, among others, arguing that their kinky desires were complex and valid, and that it was their own decision whether to engage in them and how to name them.

In his email, the slave tells me he has a fetish called macrophilia; he is aroused by fantasies of being physically much smaller than the master whom he serves. He has some very interesting ideas about how the fantasy can be played out on cam using Skype. Fascinated, I vow to get in touch with him.


I don’t know what I was thinking, leaving all this work to the last minute. Despite the impending presentation, last night, I was so tired that I just crashed. I knew I had a lot of work to do, but after a full workweek, I also knew that I was too tired to think. Despite a couple of social encounters today that are necessary and can’t be easily moved—including a 10K run with my best friend that I desperately need, I mean to get this all done.

By 10pm, I mostly have. A forty-page PowerPoint deck that distills the most valuable information I can think of regarding my experiences as a short-story writer, in terms of both craft and marketing, is done. And the workshop as a whole is about 75 percent complete, as well. I’m too tired to go on, so I set my alarm for 5am so I can polish off the last few bits before I have to pack up and hop onto the bus towards my small-town destination. Though I’m completely worn out and have kicked myself for the perceived procrastination that made today so intense, I think back to the book reviewer behind bars who couldn’t even read my work at all, and I’m left with a feeling of incredible privilege that I can share my words, my thinking and my strange stories with the rest of the world.


My anxieties aside, the talk and workshop with the Writers Community of Simcoe County is a huge success. The group is friendly and welcoming. I worry that some of the information or advice might be repetition for more experienced authors, but everyone seems engaged. I hope it doesn’t seem cheesy that I pepper the talk with examples from my own work, but it’s fun to talk about characterization when your stories feature female meatpackers, adult babies and housewives who have public sex with bikers. No one seems to mind. I bring some copies of Nothing Looks Familiar, and all of them are sold.

I fear it might depress people to know some of the realities of a published short-fiction writer: pay is far from luxe, and it can be so hard to get any attention for your work in a crowded market. But in the end, we focus on the impulse that drives us forth as writers in the world: to share, to be heard, and to be understood. It may have taken me two hours to get there to meet these fellow storytellers, but it was worth every minute.


Photo via


William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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