Riddle Fence 29

Riddle Fence 29

The newest issue of Riddle Fence is out and I've got a story inside. It's called When the end came and it's probably the most Townie piece I've ever written. I took as many quirky things as I could find in St. John's and shoved them into a story that is ostensibly about quantum computers but is really about anxiety. (Or is about cheeseburgers? YOU BE THE JUDGE)

Are all writers like this? I get preoccupied for short, intense bursts on very specific things and then I work my obsessions out by grappling with them in short stories. When I first started writing, it was around the time that everyone I knew was either pregnant or had very new babies. The anecdotes my friends told me about pregnancy, infertility, and new motherhood were absolutely riveting and of course I shamelessly took a lot of what they shared and funnelled it straight into my work. Butter Tea at Starbucks, Miloslav, Quickening, and Gliding, Weightless (along with a couple more that will never see the light of day) were drafted in these years.

And then I got obsessed with long dead artsy bohemians (the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group). A Drawer Full of Guggums was written during this period along with two other stories that I am personally really proud of but no one wants to publish. (Hello! Will someone please say yes to these stories?)

Riddle Fence is where art and literature meet

Right after that, I went through a crucial rite of passage and became obsessed with theoretical physics and wouldn't shut up about black holes and string theory and wave-particle duality. I harangued all Tom's colleagues at dinner parties and forced them to tell me about their research. And then I wrote a bunch of linked stories until I got the physics bug out of my system. When the End Came is the first of the set to make it to print. Hooray! Hopefully this means I can get the other three out there too.

Riddle Fence 29 is beautiful as always. Stand outs for me in this issue are the cover art, Karen Stentaford's three prints, and David Ferry's short story April's Fool. If you're not in St. John's, don't have a subscription, and can't find a copy at your local indie book shop, you can buy a back issues online. Issue 29 should be available to purchase there soon.

Sredni Vashtar

I read a few short stories this week - mainly from Carmen Maria Machado's enthralling collection. But the one that I loved the most was Sredni Vashtar by Saki. I first heard it while grocery shopping. The podcast I was listening to ended and my player skipped directly to the latest episode of the Guardian Books podcast where Susie Grimshaw read the story. I was trying to track down olives and frozen spinach and knew I wasn't giving the story my full attention but still it captured me. I wanted to savour each and every individual word. I ended up listening to it again on the walk home and then again a third time at home, giving the prose my undivided attention. It's a fantastically hilarious story and each word is a gem but, perhaps because the protagonist is a small boy, there is something fairytale like about it, something that seems to come alive when it's read out loud. And maybe that is part of why it resonated with me. I wonder if the connection would have been as strong if I'd read it on the page.

In any case, have a listen. It's a deliciously wicked tale.

Butter Tea at Starbucks

I'm something of a method writer. In the sense that I will do all kinds of weird things to get into a character's head as I'm writing. Like act out movements to block a scene. Or spend the weekend drinking mojitos in order to get the description of the taste just right. When I was writing the story Butter Tea at Starbucks, I thought about drinking butter tea. I even looked up a recipe but then wimped out at the last minute.

There's no real point to this anecdote, to be honest. The only reason I'm writing this post is to say that The New Quarterly has posted the story on their site and you can read it now for free.

Journey Prize

Two of my stories have been long-listed for this year's JOURNEY PRIZE. TWO! They are: Butter Tea at Starbucks (originally published in The New Quarterly) and Reading Week (originally published in PRISM international).

The Journey Prize has been on my writer's bucket list for a while so I was pretty happy back in January when both publications said they were putting my stories forward. My live-in mathemagician (every writer should have one) crunched some numbers and told me I had a 60% chance of getting one story on the long list and a 20% chance of getting them both on there. Take that, slim odds!

The long-listed stories get published in a collection - Journey Prize 29. You can pre-order it here. Finalists are announced in the Fall and the winner is named in November. HOORAY FOR CANLIT!


Kill your darlings

Late last summer the Newfoundland Quarterly approached my writing group, The Port Authority, with a challenge. Take an old headline "When Newfoundland Saved Canada" (found in an old issue of the magazine from 1949) and make it new. Could this curious statement prompt 500 fictional words? We were given free reign and five of us sharpened our pencils.

The NQ online has been publishing each of our pieces this Spring and this week my story went live. Flash fiction is not my forte but this piece was a total joy to research and write. I'm pleased to share it and the fabulous accompanying illustration by the very talented Kevin Kendall.

Sense of an ending IV

On the subject of endings once again, here is some wisdom from writer Ethan Canin who believes our job, as writers, through the course of the story, is to engage the reader so fully and deeply that emotion overwhelms intellect and the reader is carried along: "At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion's enemy." The idea is the ending should make the reader think about all that has come before and he draws a parallel with films that end with a camera tilt up to the sky. Canin is musing here, more than providing concrete advice perhaps but his thoughts are illuminating, nonetheless. Read the whole exchange with him over at The Atlantic.




Sense of an ending III

I'm always, always, looking for writing advice. Is this because I haven't got an MFA? Or because I'm a master procrastinator? Both? Either way, I recently found these gems from an old interview with Lorrie Moore.

...the ending of a short story spins and looks back over the short story and so it’s more retrospective in a way.
— Lorrie Moore

Have a look at her thoughts on endings. I'm obsessed with endings which, in my experience, are either instinctive and automatic or impossible roadblocks that stall everything. I always knew how my novel would end; I even had an epilogue in mind which I decided not to write because it would be superfluous. But short stories are hit/ miss and lately I've taken to not committing a word to the page until I have a sense of the ending. (Though this might be a habit I need to break this year)

So I'm always on the look out for easy tricks and here's one from Lorrie Moore: take something from the middle of the story and move it, out of order, to the end.


Butter tea at Starbucks

My story, Butter Tea at Starbucks, is out in the most recently issue of The New Quarterly (issue 140).

The story is set in 2008 in the lead up to the  Summer Olympics in Beijing. It's about sisters and postpartum depression, the politics of Tibet, and the excruciating uncertainty of quarter life. But it's also about fire and water, circles and balance.

Butter Tea took a long time to write and rewrite (and write and rewrite and write and rewrite and write and rewrite) but I'm really proud of how it turned out.


Bullet in the brain

Last month I taught a writing workshop for teenagers. I stuck to the basics: Aristotelean arc, point of view, character, plot. It was only a three hour workshop so we barely scratched the surface but I was thrilled with how much the students seemed to absorb and the quality of group discussion.

Much of the workshop was spent looking at excerpts of short stories, teasing sentences and paragraphs apart to see how all the different aspects of fiction (point of view, character, sensory detail) work together. We ended with Tobais Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Find it at The New Yorker or allow Wolff to read it to you on this episode of This American Life.

Fair warning to anyone who doesn't know the story: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Wolff's story was the perfect end note, bringing together many of the things we had been discussing all afternoon. But the interesting thing about the story is how Wolff both follows and flaunts convention.

Bullet in the Brain goes like this: A man walks into a bank moments before two armed men hold the place up. The plot is compelling. Right away something dramatic happens and the tension climbs and climbs to a climax. And the pace is quick. The men with guns storm in on page two and by the top of page three one of those guns is shoved into the protagonist's midsection. So far, so conventional.

But then there's this: the protagonist is an ass. A book critic, Anders is known for the "weary elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." He's arrogant. He's elitist. He can't keep his fool mouth shut, not even when there's a gun shoved into his gut. This is a risk. Because when I paused the reading to ask the fifteen young writers, not one was rooting for Anders. And neither was I.

Another thing Wolff does is he subverts the Aristotelean arc. In a conventional story the denouement and conclusion follow in short order after the climax. Some stories dispense with the resolution altogether and end on a cliffhanger. This makes sense of course; once the big blow up happens, there's little reason for the reader to hang around.

But in Bullet in the Brain, the climax happens at the bottom of page 4 and there are still three more pages left to go...nearly half the story! After the present tense action, the compelling narrative that has keep us glued to the page, ends, Wolff pulls us into flashback and character development.

What?! Character development is meant to happen in the first act, during the "introductions" stage. Flashback is used to develop character of course but also to pause the narrative and draw out the tension. It's not used at the end, after the gun has been fired and the main character is a goner.

Or is it? Wolff doesn't just make the unconventional work, the story works because he flips convention. The drama of the robbery - which we are tricked into thinking is what this piece is all about - is only there in service to the real story. The real story is a tale of character development, how this man Anders became the surly goat he is today. The real story is embedded in the flashback. And then the turn happens. Not in the action on the page (the outcome of which is foreshadowed by the title), but in the mind of the reader. At the end I asked the students how they felt about Anders. They were surprised to find they sympathized with him.

Room 38.4

A few years ago I was reading an agony aunt column. An older woman - retirement age or thereabouts - wrote in to say that she and her husband had met a younger couple at a party. The letter writer and her husband liked their new acquaintances so much they extended several invitations, all of which were accepted then broken at the last minute. Or they'd made calls that went unreturned. The particulars are fuzzy. What I do remember clearly is reading the column and thinking "huh. I wonder what's going on there."

This is sometimes how it begins. The initial spark. The tiny germ. The single cell, that with time (and words and tea and long walks and squares of milk chocolate dissolving on the tongue) divides and divides to eventually become a fully formed story.

Love you, bye was written and workshopped in 2012 and is now in print in Room 38.4: Fieldwork. If you don't know Room, it's a wonderful literary and arts journal dedicated to featuring prose, poetry, and visual art created by women. Based out of Vancouver, Room turned forty last year. And (little known fact), it was the very first print publication where I submitted work. That was back in 2010 and I still have the rejection email, which was thoughtful and kind and, strangely, made me feel bolstered. How's that for praise?

More than just enjoying the work they publish, I respect Room's mandate. It's 2016. Do women still need special spaces, rooms of our own?  Yes. Absolutely. What planet are you living on?

Reading Week

My story, Reading Week, is in the new PRISM international. Jo is studying for midterms when her estranged brother Jeremy comes knocking on her door. Reading Week is a story about siblings, memory, and re-invention. I recommend reading it while playing Moist, Portishead, and Prodigy in the background.

Reading Week was first drafted back in 2012 and was subsequently long-listed for the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Short Story Contest in 2013 (which means a bunch of my most favourite musicians read and liked my story!!!). I then sent various drafts of the story to several magazines only to have it bounce back each time like a boomerang. Then finally: acceptance!

The good people at PRISM have been a joy to work with and I'm so thrilled that after several rejections, they finally accepted one of my stories. (This is NOT AT ALL a slight on PRISM. Just wanted to point out that rejection is part of the process, just like revision and perseverance). So when editor Christopher Evans asked for an interview, I was chuffed! You can read it here.

Also, how stunning is that cover?


Grain 43.1

The newest issue of Grain Magazine is out and includes my story, The Frog. Alex travels to Turkey with his girlfriend, Leyla, for a dreaded "meet the family" visit. It's 2013 and protests are about to erupt on the streets of Istanbul. There's food poisoning, a circumcision party, and a badly timed kiss.

Grain has helpfully compiled a list of places that carry their mag but you can also get your copy from them directly. I'm so proud of this story, an early excerpt of which was featured on Sarah Selecky's website. It was such a pleasure to write and found a home with Grain on the very first try. Yep…this is the only story I've written that has never had to circle the block several times.

Katherine Mansfield

                Image via Katherine Mansfield Society   

The year was 1921 and Katherine Mansfield was dying of tuberculosis. In a chalet high in the Swiss Alps she retreated to write, to try and recover. The Montana Stories, a collection curated and published by Persephone Books, is a mish mash of published stories, incomplete pieces, letters, and journal entries. Everything Mansfield wrote during this nine-month period at the end of her life.

More interesting than the finished stories, are the unfinished ones. The fragments of scenes, the false starts, the unedited dialogue. Here is a rare glimpse into works-in-progress, mysterious middle drafts. It's illuminating. And comforting.

Yes! Even fantastic authors write junky first drafts. Beautiful stories don't arrive ready made and fully formed. All that effortless prose? It takes effort. And involves heaps of self doubt. In a letter to a friend (pg.  310) Mansfield confessed her stories were too simple: "I don't believe they are much good."

On the bottom of the manuscript of The Garden Party, she scribbled: "This is a moderately successful story, and that's all." (pg. 317-318)

Mansfield was a perfectionist, obsessed with truth. About a story called An Ideal Family, she complained: I worked at it hard enough, God knows, and yet I didn't get the deepest truth out of the idea, even once… This looks and smells like a story, but I wouldn't buy it. I don't want to possess it - to live with it. NO."

Of a story called Mr. and Mrs. Dove, she said: "It's not inevitable….it's not strong enough. I want to be nearer - far, far nearer than that. I want to use all my force even when I am taking a fine line."

There is a gap that exists between the promise of a story - the platonic ideal, magnificent and vague, that shimmers just in front of you - and the actual piece that you full-body wrestle onto the page. Zadie Smith writes about the disconnect. And Mansfield grapples with it too, grasping to define, to pin down, exactly what it is that she senses is lacking in her work.

And what of procrastination? Perhaps you think, being in Death's antechamber, in a time before the internet, in a remote scenic location…surely this is the antidote to idleness.

Of her time in the Alps, Mansfield wrote: "M. [her husband] and I live like two small timetables. We work all the morning and from tea to supper." How disciplined it sounds. How productive. But her journal entries and letters paint a different, more honest, picture. Again and again she laments her laziness.

"I have had an idle day. God knows why. All was to be written but I just didn't write it."

"There is so much to do, and I do so little. Life would be almost perfect here if only when I am pretending to work I always was working."

"Look at the stories that wait and wait just at the threshold. Why don't I let them in?"

Here was the great Katherine Mansfield, at the untimely end, hearing the clock ticking down her last days, and still she stalled and frittered. We are, all of us, procrastinators. To the bitter end.