Sydney Warner Brooman, BA’18, still recalls “thesis day” in their final year of honours specialization in creative writing and English language and literature. “Most people wrote 10,000 words max,” they said, “I arrived with a book of short stories.”
What Brooman poured on paper was a processing of their childhood, and the first iteration of their soon-to-be-released debut short fiction collection, The Pump.
The Pump is the nickname of the small southern Ontario town where Brooman’s intertwining stories take place. It’s home to a tainted water supply, an apathetic mayor and a collection of characters “navigating the swamp of their own mortality.”
The town is also set on land intent on killing its inhabitants: Boy Scouts, queer church camp leaders, love-sick teenagers, and beavers – carnivorous beavers.
“The beaver was really the only element of the entire book that was completely fictionalized,” Brooman said. “I wanted a Canadiana image of nature turning back on the people that had harmed it.”
The beavers seem less of a threat than the town itself. Brooman explores its looming isolation in a style reminiscent of Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson, while also touching on the liberation of queerness and making sense of one’s upbringing.
Living and leaving small-town life
“Small towns often tell us – as cliché as it sounds – if you’re different there’s something wrong; there’s something that needs to be fixed,” Brooman said. “If you do something differently, you’re outnumbered. You can either change or you can leave. In some places, people choose to leave. Or some people can’t and won’t.”
Brooman first wrote The Pump as Western’s student-writer-in-residence, three years after leaving their own hometown of Grimsby, Ont.
“I was in my fourth year, really trying to make sense of my childhood and my time there. As I came of age in a larger place with more people with different opinions, it gave my mind and body time to exhale and process everything that had happened in the past 17 years, and figure it out through this book.”
It’s a subject Brooman still grapples with.
“I’m incredibly interested in this concept of whether we, as people, have the ability to separate where we come from, from who we are, and I don’t have an answer to that question. My younger self would say we do; ‘cut the cord, leave and never look back.’ I’m obviously affected enough that I wrote a book and am still processing my experiences.”
Brooman has put pen to page to process and share her thoughts for as long as she can remember.
“I started young with these weird little non-fiction books where I would pretend very confidently to be an expert on things,” they said. “I made ‘My Big Book of Art’ and ‘My Big Book of Jacob,’ about my little brother. My breakout book at age seven was, ‘My Big Book of Dolphin-friendly Tuna.’ I drew signs and tried to sell my books at Food Basics.”
Brooman credits Tom Cull, their thesis supervisor, for encouraging them to listen to their instincts. “When I told him I wanted to write a book of short stories about beavers who eat people, he said, ‘I trust you.’”
Cull, who now sees Brooman as a collaborator and friend, said his faith resided in the talent he saw grow throughout his first- and third-year writing courses.
“I believed in Sydney’s work because they have such a unique and wonderfully weird and engaging voice, and the kind of creative ambition and work ethic that is necessary to see a book project through from its inception to completion,” Cull said.
Those traits served Brooman well when their first publisher, Insomniac Press, faced financial trouble. Months before the book’s scheduled release, they received an alarming phone call: they had six hours to either cancel their contract or risk not getting published.
“I had press ready, book reviews ready and the book was legitimately on its way to the printer,” Brooman said.
They took to Twitter, describing the finished book, offering it to “anyone who would want to publish it.”
“This was at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night, and by 8:00 a.m. Friday, I woke up to an email from Invisible Publishing. It was a harrowing few hours. To say I was lucky is an understatement. It was a miracle.”
In advance of its release on Sept. 7, The Pump was recommended in the CBC Books Fall Fiction Preview. The book’s first story, “The Bottom” was previously shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2020 Open Season Awards.
Brooman is currently working on their second book, while promoting what they hope will help others feel liberated and less alone.
“Writers have a lot of different roles,” they said. “I feel one of my important jobs as a writer is to make people like me feel seen, heard and understood. I want to inspire them to write about their own experiences. To make more space for more art after me.
“If I can inspire one person who is queer, grew up without a lot of money, and had weird or traumatic experiences in their own small town, and can read this and find themselves not only in fiction but see that they can tell their own story, I will have done my job correctly.”