The Chat with Kris Bertin

tagged : Short stories
Kris Bertin by Nathan Boone3

Kris Bertin is back. The Halifax-based writer’s highly anticipated second collection of short fiction, Use Your Imagination! is out now with Nimbus Publishing.

In a starred review in Quill & Quire, Robert Wiersema says the dark and often devastating stories in the collection demonstrate that the “contemporary short story is in solid, skilled hands.” Kris has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his latest work.

Kris Bertin is a Halifax-based writer of novels, short stories, graphic novels, and screenplays. His first collection of short stories, Bad Things Happen, won the 2016 Writer's Trust of Canada's Danuta Gleed Award. He is a two-time winner of the Jack Hodgins ‘Founders’ Award for Short Fiction and his stories have been published in The Walrus, TNQ, The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and many others. Kris Bertin's graphic novel, a surreal mystery story set in a remote east coast village (co-created with artist Alexander Forbes), The Case of The Missing Men, was nominated for a Doug Wright Award. He and his screenwriting partner, Naben Ruthnum, have projects in development at Oddfellows Entertainment.

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THE CHAT WITH KRIS BERTIN

Trevor Corkum: Use Your Imagination! is your second collection of short fiction. What do you love most about the genre? When does a short story work best, from your perspective?

Kris Bertin: For me, the act of writing short fiction has always been about answering questions. That’s why I haven’t been able to stop writing them: I’ll see something that I can’t stop thinking about (usually because I can’t explain it) and will soon after find myself writing about it as a means of sorting things out. This, I think, is why my work has so much ambiguity and often waffles back and forth between different explanations, moral arguments and interpretations. I’m asking myself what I think about the world, and building a little model with characters and places and situations in order to make a guess.

For me, the act of writing short fiction has always been about answering questions. That’s why I haven’t been able to stop writing them.

What I love most about short fiction is the way that it takes a snapshot of smaller moments, or a piece of some larger world and asks the reader to help form the rest of it. My favourite short fiction is the kind that asks a lot of the reader, but gives them plenty to work with. Reading is always a collaborative, imaginative effort, and when a writer gives me a story I can’t stop thinking about, it’s usually because my brain’s been put to work, and has strangely somehow taken part in the act of creation.

In my estimation, the very best stories are the ones that do exactly that, where you become a part of it, and it becomes part of you.
 
TC: The eight stories in the collection are for the most part longer than in your last book. They’re verging into Alice Munro-length territory, and shifting nimbly back and forth in time and perspective. Can you talk more about this move into longer story territory?
 
KB: In Bad Things Happen, two of the stories were around this size—somewhere between 10 and 13,000 words—and those were among my very fav

useyourimagination

ourites. The rest of the pieces in that collection were smaller, but only because those were the requirements of the magazines and journals I was submitting to at the time. In Use Your Imagination! I set out to write the stories I wanted to write, and forgot all about length altogether. I wanted to explore the different facets of a story (without meandering, I hope) in a way I wasn’t able to when I was trying to be the Published-In-Every-Magazine Kid. The constraints of CanLit magazinery can sometimes end up being creative constraints, where there’s not a lot of room to explore a concept, or at least not as extensively as you can without them.

As for the moving back-and-forth in time and shifting the point of view on a story, that’s maybe the whole reason I wanted to write longer stories (several of which are from the point of view of much older characters, who have had time to think about their stories). If you’re going to give readers more to think about, you’ve got to spend even more time considering your own story. Letting the narrators invert their own stories and wring them out in a search for meaning just felt like the right way to do that.

Calling this collection "stories about stories" really is accurate: what’s at stake in all of these is the storyteller’s sense of responsibility over a story, and the impact it will have if they misunderstand any part of it. That’s something we all struggle with, because stories are powerful and important. They give shape to our lives, our identity, our past. They affect people around us to a degree that is almost difficult to fathom. In this collection, it seems everyone is doing it: the neighbour trying to make sense of the newcomer, the self-help movement that got someone killed, the friend trying to satisfactorily define a friendship that’s coming to an end, the prison warden who wants to straighten out a fanciful self-aggrandizing propaganda piece written by an imaginative convict.

What’s at stake in all of these is the storyteller’s sense of responsibility over a story, and the impact it will have if they misunderstand any part of it. That’s something we all struggle with, because stories are powerful and important.

TC: The stories are still very dark, but there’s also more outward emotional expression, more acknowledged remorse and regret and existential confusion. In the opener, for example—“Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air and Rain to Move In”—Frank visits his terminally ill best friend Luke, near the end of his life, and his messy, very human grief is palpable. In what ways do you see or understand your characters differently, this time around?

KB While I can say that I wanted to explore things from a different perspective, it’s also true that I’m just different, too. I try to avoid talking about my personal life, because the stories are the things that matter here, but I’ve changed, and I know it. Some of the stories in my last book were a little angrier, maybe because I was, but anger is always really just sadness with a muscle shirt pulled over it. Now that I’m a little older, with a burgeoning family and a lot more in the way of responsibilities, I think a lot more about the ramifications of my decisions, and therefore my characters do too. It’s sort of inevitable.

Some of the stories in my last book were a little angrier, maybe because I was, but anger is always really just sadness with a muscle shirt pulled over it.

It’s also true that there was a point—somewhere around the time when Bad Things Happen came out—that some kind of emotional dam broke for me. This is because I was finally growing up and getting over things: self-doubt and poverty and ancient family trauma and whatever else is wrong with me. Like a lot of young men, I was pretty numb and walled off. When things are horrible, it’s easy not to feel things, because it protects you. That things are better means there are suddenly stakes that weren’t there before, and I really can’t help but feel happy or terrified when those things are on the line.

What this meant for my stories is that, especially in getting away from the Angry Young Man thing (that I’ve been terrified of being saddled with for the rest of my life), I’ve focused on characters who are more self-aware, more doubting, and more cautious. I’ve always had sympathy for the imaginary people I write about, but I think I have a lot more these days.

TC: Which of these finely-drawn characters was most difficult to create?

The final piece in the collection, “Missy’s Story” is about a piece of family history that the narrator becomes enthralled by. In it, a mute and totally naked mentally disabled woman stumbles onto her family’s property in 1890 and is looked after for the rest of her life by them. Where this woman (called Missy) came from is a complete mystery, and our narrator spends most of her life thinking about it, trying to make sense of and understand what it says about herself, and about her entire family.
 
This was maybe the hardest thing that I’ve ever tried to write, not only because it dealt with the distant past in a way I’m not used to touching on, but because it really is a story about trauma. To go back to your last question, I felt so bad for this character (who, of course, I created, so I felt extra bad) whose whole existence was suffering and pain, and who never had a chance at becoming anything. The narrator’s sadness and sympathy for this mysterious figure is very much my own, too, and it was really difficult to write something like that.

I promise (for anyone who hasn’t read the book) that there are also stories that are funny and strange and charming, but this one was tough, because it’s really about inherited trauma. It’s as much about the relationship with a dysfunctional mother as it is about this lost girl—in fact, Missy ends up becoming a representation of cyclical childhood abuse—which, of course, is not an easy thing to write about. Personally, this was a story that made me really face a lot of my own psychotic family history, which was rewarding, but extremely difficult.
 
TC: You’ve also gained rave reviews for your work in graphic fiction with illustrator Alexander Forbes. What’s it like to balance short fiction with your work in graphic fiction? What’s next?

The comic book work is maybe the most fun I have. It’s not that the work is any less demanding than anything else I do, but especially with HOBTOWN MYSTERY STORIES, it can just be a breath of fresh air to write something that’s trying to be sweet and spooky and funny all at the same time. It’s also the case that even though I’m the writer and not the artist, I have to use my visual-spatial skills in imagining how to frame a scene, how to get people to act, what things look like. It’s a totally different set of brain-muscles, and using them is really fun and challenging. Writing panel descriptions is strange. If a story is a big stick of pepperoni, a comic book is a thousand razor-thin slices of it, carefully excised from the whole, laid out perfectly, side-by-side, just-so, in order to tell it correctly.

The act of collaborating with someone as brilliant and creative as Alex is the real treat though. When I do something like describe an evil Colonial made of cheese-like ghost energies, I get to hit enter and move on. The real work happens in his cramped little studio, where he manages to create something truly astounding (which, for this example, became a cross between a deep-sea shrimp and Halifax’s much-reviled Lord Cornwallis).

Our sequel to The Case of the Missing Men is called THE CURSED HERMIT, and it’s about two of our intrepid sleuths (Pauline Larmier, and Brennan Hale) getting drafted for an extra-credit program at a secluded school just outside of Hobtown, where some funny business is afoot. There’s a ghost, a hermit, and a pair of ageless ghouls trying to groom, brainwash, and ultimately pair-up the attending youngsters in unholy matrimony. It’s a bit like The Shining, or Suspiria: more ghost story than whodunit, a psychedelic Hobtown phantasmagoria.

It’s going to be out very, very soon, in Fall 2019, just in time for Halloween.

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Excerpt from “Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air and Rain to Move In” from Use Your Imagination!

Frank opens the screen door, sweating, his shirt already ruined.
There is a note by the handle:

Doorbell terminally ill
Try knocking

The note is new, but has nothing at all to do with the doorbell, which has never worked. The note is a joke, which isn’t funny.

Everyone has been counting their visits—counting each moment—making note of the decline. Everyone has told Frank this week is the worst one yet, and to be prepared. He’s looking bad, they told him. This is probably it, they said. That the lights are off seems to confirm this. When Frank looks inside the dark glass, all he sees is himself. His shining silver head, floating in blackness, like something at the bottom of the ocean. He takes a deep breath before entering.

Inside, it’s dark and smelly—the musk of someone trapped indoors—but there is at least music. Frank identifies the record immediately as one he gave Luke years ago, when he was a FM radio DJ. He knows his friend keeps all his records upstairs, and for this one to be playing means Luke went up there—all ninety-eight pounds of him, wracked with terrible pain—found the record, then took it back down, just for Frank. Just so his friend could hear some music.

After two more very deep breaths, Frank makes a sound. A croak. In the front hallway, he covers his face and cries.

He tries hard to stop but then he sees a framed poster on the wall. The cover of Luke’s DVD, all blown up. Luke with muscle and stubble and a black T-shirt like every other stand-up comedian. A mic in his hand, his mouth open, his face pulled back in a roar. Comedy Central Presents Luke Baumgaertner: Why Anything?
Sobs come out of Frank, one after another, hot sounds into a clenched fist.

Reprinted with permission from Nimbus Publishing

©Kris Bertin, 2019.

June 19, 2019
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