Interview with Sybil Baker

Today, I am delighted to share an interview with Sybil Baker, author of Talismans, an anthology of short stories inspired by Sybil's travels around the world. Sybil is participating in a Blog Tour with Women on Writing.

Sybil Baker spent twelve years teaching in South Korea prior to accepting a position as an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after earning her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. During her extensive travels throughout Asia, she became increasingly interested in the allure and alienation of American travelers and expatriates, and this has heavily influenced her writing. She is the author of Talismans (C and R Press, 2010) and The Life Plan (Casperian Books, 2009). Her short stories and essays have appeared in Transnational Literature, Upstreet, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere.

Learn more about Sybil by visiting her website, and her blog, An Ex-patriate's Musings on Writing, Teaching, and Travel.
Sybil's writing captivates the reader, drawing them in.  I started scanning her first story, but before I knew it, I had read the first three stories!  I hope you enjoy the interview.  Leave a comment and be entered into a random drawing for a copy of Sybil's book.

Hi, Sybil! I am so excited to have you visiting my blog. I read in your bio that you have traveled extensively. In fact, your travels heavily influenced your book, Talismans.

Travel is a wonderful way to learn about other cultures. Travel breaks down the barriers of “them and us.” Travel allows people to find the sacred in each other. Could you speak to these statements?

Travel is a wonderful way to learn about other cultures—IF you get out of the tour bus and engage with the locals. If you stay on a carefully planned tour where you look at cultures through your bus window, you might end up reinforcing stereotypes, instead of really learning anything about that culture.

Travel breaks down the barriers of “them and us.” Again, I think this is sometimes true, especially if you can develop friendships or encounters that go beyond the basic tourist experience. Sometimes traveling can increase barriers—through language misunderstandings or culture shock. Many Americans have no idea how differently most of the world lives from us.

Travel allows people to find the sacred in each other. I think that any encounter or experience—even one in our own neighborhood or backyard can allow us to find the sacred in each other. It really depends on your awareness and your attitude. Travel can enable us to see the world and ourselves in a different way, which then opens up possibilities for different approaches and interactions that we might not have been aware of.

In your travels, where did you find connections to other cultures?

I found many connections to cultures in surprising ways. Two were through family and food. For example in Korea, people refill glasses before they are empty, and they share side dishes from the table—both reflect their group-oriented culture.

Families are important in every culture, but that importance is expressed in different ways. When I first came to Korea, it was important to put the well-being of the family over any personal interests a person might have, while in the States, finding your own personal happiness was considered more important than how that might affect a family’s dynamic.

In general, I found that people in other countries are eager to share their culture with visitors, but do expect us to respect their differences.

What are your fondest memories of your travels abroad?

I have so many! My fondest memories are those when I spent time with local people in a setting beyond a prescribed itinerary. For example, I went on a jungle trek with two local boys as guides—we rafted on a boat made of old tires and boards and slept under a “tent” made of bamboo stalks and garbage bags. Another time, I spent two weeks with a guide and driver going through Mongolia—because it was just me and my husband on the tour, we were able to have a lot of good conversations with them.

What was most difficult about traveling abroad?

The most difficult thing with traveling is learning that you will have ups and downs. Not every day is a great adventure. Some days you’re frustrated—with yourself, with the locals, with bureaucracy. It’s important to be patient and appreciate the difficulties and setbacks.
Can you describe how you wrote as you travelled? What made writing easy or difficult for you during travels?

I actually didn’t write much at all when I traveled. I may have written a few journal entries here and there, but the fiction writing comes after the travels. It takes a while for me to process a new experience, to think about how I can or if I should write about it.
I have read the first story of Talisman (you pulled me right in!) and glimpsed at several others. How much of the character, Elise, is you?

This will sound like a cop out, but it’s true: there’s some of me in all my characters, yet they are definitely not me.

Elise feels disconnected to the world, and I have often felt that way, especially when I was her age. I, also like Elise, have traveled around Asia and the countries I write about (S. Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar). Unlike Elise, I have two brothers, and my parents were happily married until my father died a few years ago. So, I didn’t have the abandonment issues that she has.
For my readers who are also writers, could you tell us what you see as the most essential elements of a short story?

Again, not to sound trite, but you need a beginning, middle, and end. This advice is not as facile as it sounds—it’s actually easy for a story to fall off course and lose its momentum.

In other words, stories should have a character with a want or goal (the beginning). Then create obstacles to reaching the goal (the middle). The character does or doesn’t reach the goal (the end).
What advice would you give young people about traveling in today’s world?

Don’t be afraid or intimidated. You’ll be surprised at how many people travel widely with little money. The more you see the more you’ll want to see. Start off small—perhaps go to a new town or city or even a new neighborhood. Get a decent guidebook. Be open to new people and experiences. Learn to travel without air conditioning and other amenities most of the world doesn’t have. You’ll be surprised with how little you need.

Who are the authors who have most influenced your writing?
There are so many, as I go through phases, and I often forget ones in the moment. But this is the list I came up with recently of my top 15 influential fiction authors:

James Baldwin
Virginia Woolf
Flannery O’Connor
Franz Kafka
Simone DeBeauvoir
Thomas Bernhard
Herman Hesse
William Faulkner
Ernest Hemingway
Milan Kundera
Jane Austen
Paul Bowles
Samuel Beckett
James Joyce
Cormac McCarthy
How did you find a publisher for your short stories? Do you have any tips on how to go about publishing short stories for the readers?

The first thing someone should do who has a short story collection is to abandon hope of it getting published. Then, when you’ve done that you can approach the publishing business with a bit more equanimity.

The second thing you need to do is get your stories published individually. I think eight out of the ten stories from Talismans were published in either anthologies or literary magazines. If you publish in a top tier journal, you might attract the attention of an agent—who will probably ask you if you have a novel written.

Only after you’ve published some stories from the collection (preferably all of them) should you think about approaching an agent or publisher. Small presses are more amenable to publishing short stories, so I’d start with them.

For my part, it was fortunate that C and R Press, which has previously published only poetry, was open to publishing short fiction collections. I submitted my manuscript, and luckily, it was a good fit for them.

Thanks so much, Sybil for your visit. I wish you great success with your book, Talismans. Are there any last thoughts you would like to share with the readers?

Thanks for having me! I’d love to hear from anyone who does read, Talismans or my novel, The Life Plan. Please send me an email (, friend me on Facebook, or put up a review on Amazon. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
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Sybil said…
Thanks for the interview! Sybil
Peg said…
I love your take on travelling...being in the experience and engaging with locals where they actually live. I am not much of a tourist but I love going to new places and meeting new people. I have not read Talismans, (or The Life Plan), but shall watch for them at my local bookstores. Thoroughly enjoyed your interview! Thanks for sharing with us. Peg
Linda said…
Thanks for your comment, Peg! Engaging is an important part of life...whether it is with the locals of a new town or a foreign land. As the poem says, "No (person) is an island." Talismans is all about this.
Lisa said…
Dear Sybil,

The grace and intelligence of your thoughts in the interview make me very eager to read your work. The cover photo on Talismans is stunning and intriguing. Did you choose it?
Mich said…
Revealing interview. It was interesting to hear about both the author's inspiration for writing her stories and tne business aspect of writing and publishing. Thanks to Sybil for her insights and to Linda for her thought provoking questions.
Linda said…
Mich, Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, Sybil's stories are fun to read and inspirational.
Sybil said…
Thanks everyone for your comments.

Lisa, I love the photo as well. I did choose it--a friend of mine is a professional photographer and I asked her if she had something for the cover. Her website is I encourage you to go there and look at her other work.
Anonymous said…
I haven't read the book yet but I your interview peaks my interest. I love to travel and to explore various kinds of culture. From what I've read so far, I'm sure Sybil's stories will inspire and inform the experience of travel. Thank you for bringing this author to our attention.

Maggie d
Linda said…
Thanks for your comments, Maggie. I think you would really enjoy this book.
Anonymous said…
Keep write, write, writing because I want to keep read, read reading !!! A very-satisfied Reader (and Writer, too!)
Linda said…
Thanks, Hannah! You are the best kind of cheerleader!
Linda said…
Congratulations! Lisa is the winner of the book give away!

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