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An Interview with Author Sami McKay

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Sami McKay (she/her/they/them) is a Canadian illustrator and writer. Her work is deeply symbolic and leans on themes of curiosity and exploration, (dis)connection, and navigating the human experience. Fixated on the abstract and strangeness of our existence, Sami looks to share the paradoxical, existential, and confusing aspects of life, death and coping with the conditions of being. She aims to display through art and writing, the rawness, complexity and beauty of existence.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

There have been countless moments and individuals that have sparked some drive within me to write. First and foremost, it was my oldest brother bringing his own illustrated storybooks to the dinner table. Witnessing the sort of imagination my brother had at such a young age pushed me to want to first, learn to read and write—because I was only 3 or 4 when he started sharing these stories—but also to use words to evoke some sort of connection with a listener or reader. Beyond that there have been a lot of works that have contributed to my interest in writing. Namely, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Both introduced me to a style of writing that felt closer to life than life itself, one that was raw and exciting and sometimes real, bitter, and mundane.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

My book is a collection of what was probably over a thousand individual works narrowed down into probably 300 or so pieces. Each was inspired by something a little different. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there was not one single thing that pushed me to write this book. Instead, it was a million little somethings, pieces of life and love and curiosity and loss that somehow crystalized into words. I started writing some of these pieces as young as 15, so most of the works just highlight experiences of growing up and learning about the world. Others are deeply inspired by grief—I think most of them are. But even so, 300 or so variations of that feeling, inspired by 300 or so different experiences of the same thing.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title came last. I had a couple in mind over the years, I wanted something that I thought could encapsulate the sort of message and tone of the work (obviously). I was originally writing these pieces to be a sort of guidebook for myself, things I felt were worth remembering and learning from. Originally the book was much more rooted in my relationship with nature. This was important to the development of the book, so 90% of the workshopped titles involved some kind of flower reference. Words for the Living came out of a sort of newer realization that most of my pieces were just calls to the wider growing pains of living. I wanted to see a sense of continuity between my pieces, which I felt could only be developed truly if they were understood for what they were: evidence of being alive. So, the title came last, after I was able to say ‘Here! It’s done!’ and I could step back and see the humanness of it all. All the discomfort, beauty and tenderness could all be chalked down to evidence of being human and our capacity for tremendous waves of grief and suffering but also love and tenderness.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

This is such a great question. Anything by Palace, maybe “Lost in the Night.” “Take Care” by Beach House. “I Wanna Be Good” by The Walters. Oh, “Garden View” by Hales Corner. There are a lot of artists that I feel could fit the vibe of Words for the Living: Crumb, The Marias, Peach Pit, Indigo De Souza, boygenius, Faye Webster, Claud, SALES, anything with a sort of considerate softness.

Describe your dream book cover.

I have thought about this a lot recently. I am also a visual artist, so I’ve debated creating a cover for myself. But I am also an appreciator of the arts and have considered commissioning a painter. Art is all I know for sure, something delicate and beautiful. I like those covers where there’s a hint of elegance to them, where the cover knows something about the work that even the words can’t fully explain.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’ve worked in so many different jobs—food service, pet care, retail. I’m an illustrator and artist. I just completed my undergrad back in June and I might go back to school—who knows? I sort of find myself everywhere, doing all sorts of things. Maybe something they wouldn’t know is that I’m a passionate environmentalist, which means I show up in a variety of different ways with my community. For me, this means working with groups that are tackling bigger questions about how we function as a society and the current systems that exploit people and the natural world. You could maybe sense that from my work—I’m not sure.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

I read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction. I read about the world, about love, about hate. I read about dialectics and ethics of care. I read about meaning-making and embodiment. Notable works for me would be The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi and Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. I read an interesting anthology called Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language that really stuck with me. Tons of pieces that explore humanness and social paradoxes. I’m sure I am forgetting some—I started writing this nearly ten years ago, and there have been many things read and enjoyed since then.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I just hope readers see themselves in it. I hope there’s a sense of ‘Hey, I’m here too, I’m alive, this discomfort is normal. Love is complicated. Life is too.’. The book could be seen as existential, there are a lot of big questions, a lot of stripping life down to nothing and building it into everything, sometimes even at the same time. I would like to think someone might find solace in some of the words, even the tough ones. I don’t think my work is in any way universal, but because of the foundation of this book rooted in the humaness of existing –losing and finding meaning, I think most could see themselves in some of the pieces. I don’t know if there is a perfect reader for this type of piece, maybe just anyone who has sat and asked themselves ‘why?’

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