Sian Prior is no stranger to the public eye. As a journalist, broadcaster, teacher, musician and now memoirist she’s been getting up in front of people to share her work for years. What makes this even more remarkable is that every time she does it, she’s winning a battle with excruciating shyness. In her memoir Shy, Prior faces her shyness head-on, questioning everything from its cause to its potential benefits, all the while coping with the grief that comes with a broken heart. Emma Marie Jones spoke with the author in the lead-up to the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Shy introduces us to two selves that are constantly struggling against each other: Shy Sian and Professional Sian. How do you switch between the two?
I don’t really understand it myself. The very first time I remember that switch happening was like being taken over by an alien. Suddenly this other person emerged. It’s always been this moot point: which is the real me? It was just such a relief to me to discover that confident person was there, but also sometimes I think it’s a bit of a trap: it really enforced my sense that I’ve just got to get rid of the shyness so that I can always be that impressive, fearless person.
At the end of the memoir you pit Shy Sian against Professional Sian and have your two selves interview each other. In this section you talk about the truth as something flexible, something that can be edited both as it’s happening and as it’s being written. How did these politics of truth, memory and fiction play out for you as you were writing Shy?
The whole book is like a series of questions, and while I was writing it I was trying to answer those questions: what is shyness? How can it explain my life? As part of that confident questioning and backtracking I felt like I had to constantly question myself and the versions of my own history that I was relating. In part I think it was a reaction against what I perceived as the untruthfulness of what the “Tom” character was up to. If I was going to be quietly critical of him then I needed to constantly do what it seemed like he wasn’t doing, which was to try and be as honest as possible.
Do you think you’ve achieved that honesty?
As much as I could. I’m very aware of the fact that as writers we are constantly crafting, putting things in and leaving things out, depending on what story it is we want to tell. So it’s not the whole me. It’s truthful, but only insofar as the stories I tell serve the particular purpose of the book, which is to trace a life through shyness.
The structure of the novel really grabbed me from the start, particularly Part 1, which is made up of short essay-like chapters that read with a narrative arc. Shy started out as an essay (‘Shy Young Thing’, Meanjin 68.2, 2009) and the complete work includes a few of your other essays. Could you tell me a bit about the process of writing this book? Did you always envision it as a novel-length memoir?
I always envisioned it as a full non-fiction book. At the beginning I just did what I knew how to do, which was to write these short episodes, but I was really lacking a structure. And then the relationship breakup happened. I’ve described that event to a few people as being like a sort of hideous gift for a writer, because it gave me the option of a narrative arc. If the book is about that epiphany that shyness is essentially the fear of rejection, and what happened to me was the shy person’s worst fear, which was that rejection, then that became the thing that was at stake. The last third was written very much in the immediate aftermath of those events. It was incredibly painful.
You speak about that loneliness and fear of rejection that comes hand in hand with shyness. In your research you talk about Dr Susie Scott’s idea of a “negotiated social order” in which everyone is complicit, and the spaces between desire and loneliness, shyness and shame. Was that something you wanted to untangle in Shy?
The project of this book became one of trying to exorcise my own shame, and I guess I’m really hoping that shy people reading it will experience at one remove the same exorcism. As for loneliness, maybe that’s actually what the book is about. It’s called a book about shyness but actually it’s a book about grappling with loneliness and the fear of loneliness. That’s just such a universal fear, and it’s the basis of distress for shy people. It might look like they’re doing it just fine – people probably look at me and think “she’s doing it just fine” – and now I want people to look again and think, what are they actually feeling?
Since it’s a writers’ festival, and I’ve just finished your book, have you got any book recommendations for me?
I’m hosting a session on memoirs at the Festival, so I’m reading a very beautiful memoir at the moment by Ben Watt. He’s a beautiful writer. The memoir is called Romany and Tom, and it’s about his relationship with his aging parents. He’s a very insightful, empathic writer, and I’m always interested in empathy.
Catch Sian Prior talking about Shy at the MWF on Saturday 30 August at 1pm.
Digital Reporters is run in partnership with the Emerging Writers’ Festival.