Today on The Chat, we continue our conversation with this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners. I’m pleased to speak to Guy Vanderhaeghe, winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his collection Daddy Lenin and Other Stories (McClelland & Stewart).
Guy Vanderhaeghe has published five novels, four short story collections and two plays, including The Last Crossing (winner, 2004 CBC Canada Reads), The Englishman’s Boy (GG Award, shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award1996), and Man Descending (GG Award, 1982). He is a recipient of the Order of Canada.
Dory Cerny, writing in Quill and Quire, had this so say about Daddy Lenin and Other Stories:
“These are stories about boys becoming men, about screwing up and starting over, about looking back and moving forward, and – above all – about what it means to be a man. There are no sensitive, metrosexual, kowtowing guys in these stories, though they all have crosses to bear and, often, painful histories. These are complex characters who embody a particular literary strain of working-class, straight-talking, hard-drinking male, even when only the last qualifier applies.”
THE CHAT WITH GUY VANDERHAEGHE
This is your third Governor General’s Award for fiction. You won in 1982 for the short story collection Man Descending and in 1996 for your novel The Englishman’s Boy. Can you talk a little about how you approach writing short fiction compared to a novel? How do you know, in the early zygote stage of writing, what form a project will take?
For me, the process of writing short fiction is a process of distillation, boiling down the narrative until (if I’m very lucky) I get close to something that is more akin to poetry than the novel, can reach a point where an image, a snippet of dialogue, or a gesture can snap everything into place and the reader gets a flash of insight that allows her or him to understand the story instinctively.
On the other hand, for me the novel operates differently, understanding is cumulative, a gradual gathering of knowledge about situations and characters which helps the reader navigate the meaning of the story related, the “slow reveal” as opposed to the lightning flash.
I instinctively decide whether the zygote is meant to be a novel or a short story, although with hindsight it would probably be possible to construct a rough checklist that would suggest what genre would best accommodate the material.
- If you want to deal with many characters, many points of view, radical location shifts, and a long time frame, then there’s probably no point in even attempting to shoehorn all that into a short story.
- If your focus is on one or two characters, if the action is limited to a matter of a few hours or days, and if you are less reliant on plot than on a sudden revelation to shape your narrative then the short story would likely serve the purpose.
Of course, there are plenty of literary works that contradict these crude rules of thumb.
Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Many of the stories in your collection tackle the complicated terrain of masculinity. As you worked on this collection, what emerged as the statue—the energy, the mood, or the main theme/question—that you wanted to explore?
What consistently directs my work is the energy of the characters. Once I have a sense of what “they want” and give them a push down the path of pursuing it I let them lead me. I believe themes (a word I’m highly suspicious of) are not a blueprint for fiction but something that emerges out of the writer’s imagined world. You discover what you’re writing about only by writing it.