Editorial Assistant Evan Jurmain’s interview with Winter 2023 contributor Kyra Smith on her story "Shiver"
Evan Jurmain: “Shiver” is one of those pieces that I couldn’t help but keep thinking about long after I had finished reading it. Portraying the impact of caring for a loved one as they succumb to dementia or Alzheimer’s can be quite challenging, but here you’ve provided us with a story that faces the extremely difficult questions that surround these end-of-life illnesses head on. Would you mind telling us about what inspired you to write “Shiver”?
Kyra Smith: Years ago, as a child, I overheard a group of adults talking about someone they knew whose parent was suffering from advanced Alzheimer's. One man, a farmer, shook his head and said that if he was ever in a similar condition, he didn't want his loved ones to have to care for him or try to extend his life. He said he would rather be dressed in a t-shirt and left to wander in the snow until he succumbed to the cold. Since then, I've witnessed my own family members and those of close friends suffer from various forms of dementia. I observed the trials of people caring for loved ones with the disease and their varied approaches to coping with it. Through it all, that one man's decisive - and for some, disturbing - end-of-life wishes kept ringing in my ears. I kept wondering what his wife thought and how honouring his wishes would impact her. When I decided to explore this idea in the story I essentially stole his words and put them in George's mouth.
EJ: Quite fittingly, “Shiver” seems to deal heavily with the idea of remembrance. Did you have any difficulties deciding what to include when writing about George and Joyce’s remembered past? Was there a moment that you had wanted to include but ended up cutting or changing?
KS: I briefly considered making one of the names that George mistakenly calls Joyce that of his ex-girlfriend, from decades past. I pretty quickly dismissed that idea since I felt that the added drama was unnecessary and not only cluttered up a story of this length, but also distracted from Joyce's already substantial internal conflict. Otherwise, writing about their remembered past was probably one of the most natural parts of the process, thankfully.
EJ: The silver eyeshadow in particular feels like it plays an important role in representing Joyce’s path forward as well as being a crucial piece of her remembrance of George. Could you talk for a moment about what it means and why you chose to use it in the story the way you did?
KS: Alright, full disclosure: the silver eyeshadow was not my idea. The first version of the story was written for a class. Our professor, Carolyn Smart, gave us a set of four conditions to abide by. Three of these happened to provide an excellent framework on which to construct the story. Silver eyeshadow was the fourth, so I worked it in to comply with the assignment requirements. It ended up fitting quite well, and took on more meaning through subsequent re-writes. In fact, what at first seemed like an awkward necessity became such a natural part of the story that I barely had to think about its meaning at the time. So, in order to answer your question, I am going to pretend I am back in Grade 12 English, writing a literature response for homework:
I think her use of the silver eyeshadow is an act of acceptance. Throughout the story we see that Joyce, while capably dealing with reality when faced with it, prefers to avoid uncomfortable truths when she can. In the flashback to their conversation in the car, when George raises the issue of dementia, she does not want to think about it. When he calls her the wrong names, her initial reaction is to downplay it. When Melissa says that George needs long-term care, Joyce knows she is right but does not want to admit it. The eyeshadow is no different. It was some of the first concrete evidence of George's decline. It remained untouched partly because she does not wear eyeshadow but mostly because she preferred to hide that painful reminder in the recesses of her cosmetic kit. But that morning, with her husband vanished and her life upended, nothing can be avoided any longer. That little shimmery, silvery square, hidden away and ignored, is brought into the light. By finally using the eyeshadow she accepts his gift and the loss it represents.
How did I do? A? A+?
EJ: What I found most compelling in your story is the way that it explores love and loyalty. Joyce clearly cares very deeply about George, and you introduce her to us on the same page we are introduced to many of the material difficulties of caring for him. In the end, when George wanders off, I would argue it could still be considered an act of love. I find the way you wrote Joyce in those final pages to be excellent. What were your goals, or what was your approach, when you went about writing her in those final moments?
KS: Well, thank you, that's very kind. Especially since I still question if I achieved what I wanted to with Joyce's character at the conclusion. My goal when writing her was to elicit feelings of uncertainty and guilt that caregivers might struggle with after the passing of their loved one, even after doing all that they could. Did I make the best choices? Could I have done more? Did I honour my loved one's wishes? If I did, was that the "right" thing?
When you say that George wandering off could be an act of love, do you mean on his part, or Joyce's? Because, that depends on whom we assign responsibility. Was George aware of what he was doing? Did he unlock that door himself, and wander out to seek the ending he wanted and thereby relieve Joyce of the burden he believed himself to be? Or was he confused and attempting to check the sap lines again? Did Joyce leave the chain unlocked? If so, was that accidental or intentional? Was she, on some level of consciousness, cooperating with his wishes? Of all those scenarios, which one is "right"? I don't know. Joyce doesn't know. Readers might reach their own conclusions, but most probably don't know, either. If they feel as confused and conflicted as Joyce, then I guess I achieved what I set out to do.
EJ: This question is less directly related to “Shiver,” but your blurb says that you’ve recently moved to Italy for your studies. Has the move changed your approach to your writing or inspired you in ways that you didn’t expect?
KS: It has changed my approach to writing in unexpected ways. When I moved here, I anticipated that my writing would be fuelled by the many novel experiences, big and small, that come with life in a new country. I thought that my stories would become bigger and more exciting, to reflect my broadening horizons. Instead, I began to focus on life at home. Perhaps it was the new perspective given by distance or the vicious bouts of homesickness, but I was increasingly motivated to write about the land, people, and culture that defined my first two decades of life. My writing got smaller and included mainly vignettes of life in southwestern Ontario. My reading habits changed, too. While I had once craved tales of big adventures in new lands - which I still enjoy, but seek out less — I found myself turning to Canadian authors. Stuart McClean, Deborah Willis, Elan Mastai, and for a true taste of home, Alice Munro. Who knows? Maybe in another 20 years I'll write about studying at Dante's alma mater, crying in the post office, or dodging flying oranges in a medieval piazza. Vedremo ("We'll see").
Kyra Smith grew up in rural Southwestern Ontario before moving to Kingston to study biology. There, she wrote creatively in several genres and capacities — even when she should have been writing lab reports. She is currently living in Italy, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in sustainable development.