We check in with fine writers across the country to find out where Canadian stories are at.
In 2011, a group of Canadian writers declared the Year of the Short Story (YOSS), “to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” In the years since, in notable short story developments, Alice Munro has been awarded the Nobel Prize and Lynn Coady won the Scotiabank-Giller Prize for her book, Hellgoing. So we decided that now would be a very good time to take stock, to check in with some fine writers across the country to find out where Canadian stories are at.
49thShelf: Does the short story still need defending? Championing? Does the short story even care?
Megan Coles: If the novel is CanLit King, then the short story is our second son; the sexy, irreverent Prince who is liable to get naked and fly fighter jets. Originality is always in need of defending as its merits aren’t readily understood and people are instinctively adverse to risk. The form is inherently daring and untamable. That’s what makes it so exciting and integral to innovative Canadian Literature. The short story is limitless: tight and expansive in the same breath, generous and ruthless in the same beat. The short story is its own champion. It can’t care in a pragmatic sense. Anxiety would inhibit which is totally counterintuitive to the form. Instead, the short story takes off its pants and boards a plane. Just to see what will happen.
The short story takes off its pants and boards a plane. Just to see what will happen.
Andrea Routley: I think most people first encounter the short story in high school English classes where many teachers focus on symbolism, where reading a short story just means figuring it out. It can be satisfying to unlock meanings, but there are other ways to approach reading a story. Writers also tend to treat the short story as the “practice wife” (terribly offensive term, I know). We practice writing fiction through the short story—it’s a manageable length. We can get to the end of the story relatively quickly, see the whole thing, shape it. Then we graduate to a novel, right? That’s not what I think, but that’s the general trend.
Matthew J Trafford: The short story may not care, but short story writers and readers do, and should. While there might—and I stress might—be a slight upswing for short stories right now, they still play poor cousin to the novel. As one example, Canada Reads routinely excludes short story collections. Why is that? I say we call for a short story edition of Canada Reads in 2016. [Editor's comment: Take note! Trafford is a visionary He was one of the founders of YOSS in 2011.]
Kevin Hardcastle: I recently saw that Maclean’s article about the short story, and its supposed lack of success and appeal in the publishing world, but the most important part of that whole misguided piece was the point that they missed in writing it. They were looking at the short story and its success as measured by book sales and profits with major publishing houses, in comparison to what they make off a novel. Anyone who took that article seriously as any kind of value statement on the short story has likewise missed the point of why we do what we do.
As far as I can tell, the short story is doing just fine, and is the real proving ground for the best writers in this country. Almost every writer I know who has real skill (especially amongst emerging writers) is accomplished at writing short stories. There are many fine independent and mid-level publishers putting out collection after collection, and they do not seem to be unhappy with the results. Their idea of success is being able to find a space for the best writing in this country, make a modest profit, and continue to preserve that space for writers and readers of the short form.
Lisa Bird-Wilson: I don’t know if she cares—she’s a careless beauty. She takes it for granted that heads will turn in her direction. I love that the short story has been enjoying so much attention the last couple of years. Anything that promotes the form is welcome and well deserved.
I love that the short story has been enjoying so much attention the last couple of years. Anything that promotes the form is welcome and well deserved.
Doretta Lau: Maybe the short story is like the honey badger and it don't care, but a little publicity doesn't hurt. There is always going to be the unfortunate idea that writing short stories is practice for writing a novel due to the publishing industry and the market. By choosing to write stories we're championing them.
49thShelf: What is “the short story” anyway? Such a diversity of style and form falls under that umbrella. What in particular about the form appeals to writers? And to readers?
Doretta Lau: Every time I write a short story I'm trying to figure out what it is through the process of writing. The form appeals to me because I can think about the entire work, sentence by sentence, from start to finish. As a reader, I like the punch of a story, the burst of emotion, that quick discovery of a world.
Every time I write a short story I'm trying to figure out what it is through the process of writing.
Lisa Bird-Wilson: I think the appeal is in the compactness, the careful selection of words, ideas, and images—what gets included has to count. The best short story is like a great speed date—it cuts the preamble and the long goodbyes, drops us into the middle of the ruckus, and makes what we’re looking at instantly recognizable and engaging.
Andrea Routley: For me, I like the focus of a short story. Because you are evoking an entire world in just a few thousand words (shall we say up to 10,000?), every element of the story must be working hard to develop character, move the plot forward, convey theme, tone, everything. In a novel, there is more room. You can circle around an event a lot more. It is discursive. And as someone who reads mostly short stories (when I read fiction), I get impatient with novels. Get to the point, I want to say. A chapter in a novel that offers background into a character’s experience in the hospital after a bear attack, say, may only get a paragraph in a short story. So what beautifully deft and inventive trick will you use to convey this same information?
Kevin Hardcastle: My friend Tamas Dobozy has told me more than once that the short story is the definitive form, and it is all he writes (as it has been with many other exceptional authors). I write long-form fiction as well, and I value the novel considerably, but I think the distillation of elements in a short story, the intensity of the form, is what makes it definitive.
The flexibility of the short story is remarkable, but that intensity, and that ability to have a shorter work of fiction stand in for a much greater thing is the key. The economy and precision of language that is required, and the great degree of difficulty, consistently turns out the best prose and the finest sentences. I think many writers worth their salt know this and respect it when they read it, and welcome the challenge of writing short fiction for this very reason. For readers, the brevity or the individual nature of a story can be a draw, but I think the writing quality necessary for a good short story to work shines.
Megan Coles: A short story is a story that is short. We needn’t overthink it. In fact, its lack of definition is part of the appeal. It can be anything the writer wants and this breadth and freedom allows for ingenuity. The short story should appeal to readers because they are being offered a concentrated shot of potential. You are given the opportunity to discover the beginning of an idea and/or evolution of a voice. I liken it to finding yourself at the first Stones show in 1962. But for literature nerds.
Matthew J. Trafford: Tongue-in-cheek, like the boy Bitzer defining a horse in Hard Times, I would say the short story is piece of prose fiction under 25,000 words. But the particularity of the form that appeals to writers and readers is a near-poetic focus on language. Short stories can speak in a voice you could never maintain for the length of a novel. And of course, stories are unique in that they can be read completely in one sitting.
49thShelf: What Canadian institutions (journals, prizes, publishers, communities, etc.) have been important in supporting your work as a short story writer?
Kevin Hardcastle: The literary journals in this country are extraordinary, and punch well above their weight class, despite being underfunded and often embattled in some way or another. I sent an old prof of mine in the UK the first story I had published here, and it blew him away compared to what they’re dealing with. The US has a system of literary journals that has many enviable traits, but it seems that writers have a real hard time getting collections done there properly, unless they are already successful or have a name, so I think our journals, as a farm system for world-class short fiction, are very effective in that regard. I have had great experiences working with The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, PRISM, EVENT, The Puritan,Little Fiction, Joyland, and more.
The literary journals in this country are extraordinary, and punch well above their weight class, despite being underfunded and often embattled in some way or another.
I have also had stories submitted by these journals for The Journey Prize, the National Magazine Awards, and the Western Magazine Awards. Getting into the Journey Prize Stories anthology twice, and the connections I made through those experiences have been extremely beneficial at this point of my career. It follows that I have received great support from The Writers’ Trust of Canada and McClelland & Stewart, both artistically and financially, and have developed meaningful and important relationships with other Journey Prize authors and members of the jury. I have likewise received grants from the Ontario Arts Council, and those have actually flat-out kept a roof over my head.
Andrea Routley: Of course the publisher, the undergraduate classes I took from wonderful writers like Madeline Sonik and John Gould, and definitely literary magazines.
Perhaps the biggest supporter of the short story are the creative writing programs. If you want to learn to write better fiction in these programs, chances are you will write short stories. This is very practical. Who has time to write and revise a novel in a semester? Who has time to read those novels and give editorial feedback? I suspect many people entering these programs would like to write a novel, but must practice with short fiction, instead.
There are certainly prizes that celebrate the form—the O. Henry, the Journey Prize, Danuta Gleed Award (sometimes the Giller, sometimes the GG etc). But most of these prizes have very little impact on bringing the form to a "larger audience." In fact, many bookstore owners have never heard of the Danuta Gleed Award (even when the winner is a local author). For my own book, being a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award (an international prize for queer English-language lit) meant nothing in terms of readers (unless libraries saw a spike?).
Megan Coles: I’m a playwright, too. Did you know that? I also write plays. Some better than others but what can you do? Anyway, I went to the National Theatre School of Canada. My time there was invaluable. It is also where I met my long-standing dramaturg Emma Tilbaldo of Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal. At home in Newfoundland: my publisher Creative and the publisher I work for, Breakwater Books.
Doretta Lau: I can't say enough about the importance of literary journals in Canada. I got my book deal because my publisher, Silas White at Nightwood Editions, read one of my stories in Event. That same story was shortlisted for the Journey Prize.
Independent bookstores have been incredibly supportive as well, including: Pulpfiction Books and The Paper Hound in Vancouver; Type Books in Toronto; and The Bookshelf in Guelph. University programs and literary festivals have given me a platform to share my work: I could go on and on about all the incredible writers, professors, and programmers who have made such an impact on me this past year. My writing life in 2014 was made possible due to a Canada Council grant.
Lisa Bird-Wilson: This is like the big thank you at an awards night…there are so many: my writing group (Viz Ink); the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild; the Sask Art Board and the Canada Council who award really helpful grants; the Saskatchewan Book Awards; Grain magazine (who took my very first story for publication); and so many individuals who have acted as mentors and supporters, like J. Jill Robinson, who literally was my short-story mentor, and Warren Cariou, who edited my collection and was so darn into the work—it’s hard to ask for more than that.
Matthew J. Trafford: My first journal publication came when I won the Far Horizons Award from the Malahat Review, which was a great way to start, and ended up earning me a National Magazine Award nomination as well. Beyond that, I received an Honour of Distinction for the Dayne Ogilvie Award from the Writers’ Trust, which recognizes emerging queer writers. I have to say the queer community has been incredibly supportive of my work and my career in general.
49thShelf: But the short story is not all glory. When you’re reading, what’s the first sign that you might reading a really bad one? Or writing, I guess, for that matter...
Andrea Routley: Almost all of my stories feel terrible when I begin. Every page is painful. I groan. I say, Oh god that is so bad. But I just assume I’m writing my way into something. It’s just the awkward get-to-know-you chit chat. I had a really awkward interaction with a woman at a pizza place recently. It’s like that. But I trust that, eventually, I will find out what the story is about, and when that happens, I will actually look forward to working on it.
Matthew J. Trafford: There are a lot of stories that are pale copies of stories that have preceded them, so the feeling you’ve read it before is an early warning sign—and that goes double when you’re writing. I would also be vigilant against the stereotypical literary-short-story-ending: so vague that it leaves readers flipping around, wondering if they’ve missed a page.
Be vigilant against the stereotypical literary-short-story-ending: so vague that it leaves readers flipping around, wondering if they’ve missed a page.
Kevin Hardcastle: I talked about the precision and skill needed to write good short fiction, and how successful short story writers really shine. Well, that cuts the other way too. If you do not bring your best, and write half-assed, hollow lines that you might get away with a little in longer work, you are done for. Also, I mentioned that a good story figures in for a greater truth, but you have to get there organically in that short space. If you force the work, or stuff a message in there, it reeks of it and will turn off a good reader. Likewise, I believe readers that love short stories are some of the most passionate and most clever out there, and they will call you on your bullshit fast. And rightfully so.
Doretta Lau: If the language is lazy, I usually stop reading. That doesn't mean it's a bad story. I'm just a very particular sort of reader. When I'm writing, my work always starts out as a garbled mess; I just have to trust that if I reach the end I can always write another draft.
Lisa Bird-Wilson: When I’m reading (my own work included) mid-sentence and suddenly I’m thinking about flossing my teeth…
Megan Coles: Stopping & skipping, respectively. I am notoriously dogged. It is part of my rural Newfoundland heritage. I’m a bay-girl whose brethren decided to set down stakes on the northern most peninsula of an already trying island. We’re a persistent lot. So if I quit reading, it has to be bad. Painful. Likewise, I read my work aloud to myself. It is a half measure/half habit I developed while at theatre school. If ever I skip a line, a paragraph, even a word; I know that it’s not working. I skip it because it doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t even want to roll it over my tongue. So that’s what I return to, the parts I want to heave myself over.
49thShelf: What defines a good short story collection, beyond just being a collection of good stories? How should a collection function as a whole?
Megan Cole: A good collection has guts. Does it make you think your thoughts and feel your feelings? Yes? Well good, that’s the point. I can’t abide apathy, mediocrity, the uselessly cautious or the excessively polite. A collection should feel like a house on fire, something you cannot turn away from regardless of whether it is an example of thrilling brilliance or a hot mess. If it’s forgettable, it’s failing. Don’t be boring. I have no time for it. No one does.
Kevin Hardcastle: I think some sort of cohesion as far as tone and theme goes is fine, and in style (even though narrative voice and point of view may shift a fair bit), but the stories don’t need to be unified by some specific message or aim. Most importantly, I look for a real, strong voice that drives each story even when they are very different. All the writers that I love are present in every line of every story they write, no matter how they change in subject or style. A good collection tells parts of the same underlying stories we all have, over and over, and has permanence to it. As if they are a significant glimpse into a larger narrative about what lies underneath that has been told before and will be told again. There was a time when the connected collection was pushed hard by the industry, but that always seemed forced to me. If a writer with a strong voice, and some heart, can consistently perform for ten or twelve stories, that is enough.
Doretta Lau: A good short story collection announces a writer's preoccupations and their fantasy of what fiction should be. Every story in the collection works as a kind of manifesto on fiction.
Andrea Routley: I don’t know the answer to this. My collection is apparently “wildly diverse,” in a good way, but also considered “uneven,” in a bad way. The stories all explore in some way a search for belonging in the places we inhabit. I am obsessed with class, our dis/connection to place, and how we struggle to make sense of who we are in our surroundings, what our role is—especially when we are members of an invisibilized group. I think it is probably impossible for the stories in a collection not to be connected, either in terms of style or theme, because they are the work of one author—that individual’s obsessions will inevitably appear throughout.
It is probably impossible for the stories in a collection not to be connected, either in terms of style or theme, because they are the work of one author—that individual’s obsessions will inevitably appear throughout.
Lisa Bird-Wilson: I learnt so much from my first short story book including the importance of how the collection is structured. That first story in the book really sets the theme for the reader and you will want to blow the reader away with its brilliance (ideally). I also leant that if a story’s not great, not really plump and juicy, then save it for revisions and another collection. A good editor will help weed that out and structure the collection in a way that makes it cohere.
Matthew J Trafford: In a word, variety. I think a good collection presents a mosaic of voices, characters, forms, styles, and points-of-view, and yet holds together with some kind of thematic or tonal glue. Each story should stand alone, but reading them together should colour and deepen the meaning of them all.
49thShelf: Is the relationship between the short story and the novel necessarily adversarial? (In general, and also inside one writer’s mind.)
Lisa Bird-Wilson: Totally. Let the games begin.
Kevin Hardcastle: It really shouldn’t be, at least not from a serious writer’s perspective. A writer should use the form that best suits whatever narrative is getting them out of bed in the morning. I know good writers who only write short stories and those that only write fiction, and while they might have a strong preference, they are certainly not against the other form. Most writers I know write both, or are open to. You just have to be careful you don’t get corralled into that shit where they see your collection as a warm-up to novel after novel, if that’s not what you want.
I have written novels and will write more, but I’ll always write stories and seek out a home for them. Luckily, in this country, we have publishers that will print those stories, and a writer can do that and still go big game fishing with the novels if they like. Certainly you can drive yourself nuts if you try to overanalyze marketability concerns and the expectations of big-publishing in this country (which is, of course, not dictated by Canadians in many ways), but if you know the worth of your work you might rather have less fancy success and utilize the form you prefer and a publisher that is on the same page. There is also nothing to say that short story writers can’t go big once in a while, especially if they keep at it with the form that best fits their work.
Megan Coles: It’s the classic sibling rivalry. The novel and short story are closely related and bound to one another by love and admiration, as well as a great deal of respect. Yet, such rivalries persist. There are a slew of reasons: the contrary belief that one is being underappreciated or discounted, perceived feelings of superiority or inadequacy, jealousy, both warranted and petty. I have three sisters; I could run this analogy right off the wharf. But I gather you get my meaning so I won’t waste your time.
Matthew J Trafford: It’s not adversarial at all in the abstract. It’s only once the fiction becomes physical—words in a document, a book on a shelf—that the problems start to arise. I still maintain, as we espoused with the YOSS manifesto, that it’s mainly a marketing problem, and an unnecessary one at that.
Andrea Routley: There is some idea that novels get all the glory. I would like to reassure everyone that no work of literary fiction is really getting any glory. If you are not a big name, then hardly anyone will read your book, regardless of the length of your fiction. So the relationship should not be adversarial. We are both very unpopular.
Doretta Lau: To me the short story is a sprint and the novel is a marathon. I've never been able to finish a draft of a novel, though I've started many. I have a tendency to compress time and action when I'm writing, so it makes it a bit difficult to complete something the size of a novel. Mostly I'm trying not to let the novel form psyche me out too much and just continue to write.
49thShelf: What Canadian short story writers do you admire? Any forthcoming collections you’re looking forward to?
Kevin Hardcastle: Alistair MacLeod is the best short story writer we ever had in my estimation, but that is very much a personal feeling. Alice Munro is overwhelmingly skilled and perceptive and we owe a great deal to her for sticking to her guns as a short story writer. I felt that Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13 was a masterwork of craft and weighed a ton. Most of the other heavyweights I admire are American writers, but we won’t talk about them here.
There are a number of excellent writers with collections being published in the next while, many of whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet or become friends with over the past few years. I’m very much looking forward to collections from Kris Bertin (Biblioasis), Andrew Forbes (Invisible Publishing),and whenever Amy Jones publishes another book (I’ve heard rumblings). Unlike the other writers in this roundtable, my collection is yet to exist, but the first is being published this fall from Biblioasis. It’s been a long time coming and I’ve had some very good mentors and fellow writers help me out along the way. So I’m very interested to see what people make of it. Shameless plug, but hey, if your first book isn’t the one you’re most interested in seeing out there, you’d better check your pulse.
This year, I'm looking forward to Kevin Hardcastle's Debris (Biblioasis) and Andrew Forbes' What You Need (Invisible Publishing). I know that Trevor Corkum, Naben Ruthnum, Clea Young, and Souvankham Thammavongsa have stellar collections ready for publication (hint, hint publishers).
Matthew J Trafford: I’m really looking forward to Laura Trunkey’s debut collection, Double Dutch, forthcoming from Anansi in Spring 2016. I also can’t wait for whichever press is lucky enough to snatch up Trevor Corkum’s collection, When We Die.
Andrea Routley: Did everyone else say Alice Munro? Because obviously Alice Munro. I picked up Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy because of the spectacular cover illustration. I had not heard of him before (he is only an award-winning Canadian short story writer, after all), but his stories are rich, and totally nourishing at the sentence level, complex, expansive. I’ve been wondering lately if my preference for these kinds of sentences is connected to being a west coaster—spare, simple prose makes no sense in the context of my location. It is pissing outside right now, fat, oozing puddles all over the property, sword ferns, slimy trees, the septic tank kind of smells... It hasn’t snowed yet this winter, but I wouldn’t brag about that. It’s as if the temperature only enables the whole rainforest to ferment. I would like to read more stories that are gross in some way.
Megan Coles: Lisa Moore is a writer I really admire. Open is one of my favourite collections. My copy is tattered as a result of personal and professional devotion. I read Nancy Lee’s collection, Dead Girls, while trapped overnight in the Halifax airport one Christmas. Stanfield is an undeniable vortex of weird but the collection made a lasting impression despite the unfortunate circumstances under which it was consumed. I’m looking forward to Heather O’Neill & Mark Anthony Jarman’s new collections. And Breakwater has an anthology of short stories coming out this spring featuring a crowd of hot Newfoundland writers. Both Winters, Grant, Moore, Crummey, all-stars, the lot of them. See what I did there? Shameless plug at the buzzer. I’m a hard ticket, I am.
Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Saskatchewan Cree-Métis writer whose work has appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Bird-Wilson’s fiction collection, Just Pretending, was a finalist for the national Danuta Gleed Literary Award and won several Saskatchewan Book Awards, including Book of the Year, Aboriginal Peoples’ Writing Award, Fiction Award, and the Aboriginal People’s Publishing Award. Bird-Wilson is currently working on a collection of poetry inspired by residential school archival photos and documents. She has poems forthcoming in the anthology Cîhcêwêsin(Hagios Press), edited by Neal McLeod.
Megan Coles is a graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland and the National Theatre School of Canada. She is co-founder and co-artistic director of Poverty Cove Theatre Company. Megan is currently working on The Driftwood Trilogy, adapting Lisa Moore's short story "Grace" for the stage and writing debut first Theatre for Young Audience piece, Squawk. Her completed plays include Our Eliza, The Battery and Bound. Megan, originally from Savage Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, currently resides in St. John’s where she works as the Sales & Marketing Coordinator for Breakwater Books. Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome is her first fiction publication.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been published in journals including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Little Fiction, The Puritan, PRISM international, EVENT, Joyland, and Shenandoah. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and has twice been published in the Journey Prize Stories anthology. He also has short fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Best Canadian Stories 14, and The Walrus. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, will be published by Biblioasis in Fall 2015. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis, likely in Fall 2016.
Doretta Lau is a journalist who covers arts and culture for Artforum International, South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal Asia, and LEAP. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, Event, Grain Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, Ricepaper, sub-TERRAIN, and Zen Monster. She splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is at work on a novel and a screenplay. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Journey Prize. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, her debut short story collection, was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by TheAtlantic as one of the best books of 2014.
Andrea Routley’s work has appeared in literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine, and in 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women, which received praise from magazines like Bitch, Herizons, Prairie Fire and the Vancouver Sun. In 2012, she completed a degree in writing from the University of Victoria. Her debut short story collection, Jane and the Whales, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, an international English-language award for LGBT literature. She pays the bills by working as a book publicist.
Matthew J. Trafford is the author of The Divinity Gene and has had stories anthologized in Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrowand Best Gay Stories 2012. He has taught short fiction at the Banff Centre as well as online. He is currently working on a set of stories about queer fertility, and another set about animals that eat human beings.