October 28th, 2013
I’m using up all my good news in one burst–another story, and possibly my last of the year, out this weekend–”Loneliness” is in the Fall issue of Compose Journal, which is online now for your enjoyment. “Loneliness” is actually a reprint of a story that originally appeared in The Big Dream, but never did get published as a stand-alone story, so I’m really happy it’s in Compose. If you’ve never read it, maybe take a look! There’s tonnes of other great stuff in the issue, too!
I also wrote a blog post about the origins of this story and, more interesting, what happened to it after I wrote it…that will be posted soon on the Compose blog, too!
October 25th, 2013
So, yesterday was a good day for awesomeness–the new and gorgeous issue of The New Quarterly arrived, containing a story called “Marriage” by yours truly, and another called “The Man Room” by Mark Sampson, aka my husband! We’ve never been together in a literary journal before and it feels pretty cool!
Also cool is the Who’s Reading What section of the TNQ website, where you can find out what I and the other contributors have been reading lately.
Another great thing yesterday is that the wonderful Kelli Deeth quoted me in a piece she wrote for the National Post Book blog on short stories. Such a compliment to be mentioned next to Lynn Coady and Shaena Lamber–all three of these other ladies say cool stuff in that piece. Go read! In fact, Kelli’s been guest-editing the NP Books blog all week and all here pieces are wonderful. I especially liked A Writer Who Writers What She Wants. Enjoy!
All this, plus it’s Friday–amazing!
September 30th, 2013
The harder I work on writing short stories, the more I read of them. I do it partly for professional reasons, of course: I like to see other interpretations of the form, be inspired by the successes and learn from the missteps. Sometimes I’m searching for specific clues and tricks, actually looking for problems similar to my own so I can see how others solve them. Sometimes I’m just generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in my world. And my world is short stories, no doubt about that, at least literarily speaking.
But thank goodness, I have not lost my ability to just enjoy short stories as a reader above all else. And honestly, the more I learn through my work about all the different pitfalls and pratfalls and challenges of the short story, the more I’m able to fully appreciate it when an author gets it really right. And when that happens, I lose my ability to read like a writer, looking for the technical bits, the seams and strings that allow the story to work the way it does. I just read like a reader, and live inside the stories. (This is one of the many reasons I’m bad at reviewing.)
Such is the case with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a wonderful collection of short stories about the small town of Crosby, Maine, and the various folks who live there. Some are happy, many are sad, but all of them are acquainted with the title character. Olive, her husband, and her son are central to many of the stories in the collection–many are told from either Olive’s perspective or her husband’s. In others, though, Olive, Henry, and their son Christopher are just passing through in the more central drama of other lives. In each story, though, one or more of the Kitteridges are *seen*: undestood, imagined, fathomed, or interpreted by the other characters, often in wildly different ways from one story to the next. Thus we see Olive is grim and fearful math teacher, or a wise inspirational one; as a grumpy wife or a good neighbour; or, in the end, a mixture of so many different personas, as we all are.
*Olive Kitteridge* is more than the sum of it’s parts. All short story collections should have pieces that mutually illuminate each other, even if they aren’t linked on the level of plot or character. This should occur even more strongly in a collection that *is* linked. Even if there are some individual stories that didn’t really work for me, I still saw how they worked in the context of the whole book. I simply could not buy that a teacher would recognize a former 7th grade student she hadn’t seen in 20 years through a car window and, moreover, would go and sit in his car with him uninvited AND divine that he was contemplating suicide AND attempt to talk him out of it. But in the context of the book as am exploration of Olive’s whole character well…yeah, ok, this is poignant, this is interesting, this expands what I know and how I feel about this character.
And what I said earlier, about not being able to see the seams and strings applies especially to Strout’s writing style. She thins the veil of author interpretation until it seems to disappear: I completely forgot about *reading* and just felt like I was living inside the book. It’s hard to go back and analyze the style; I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s a style, too.
I have started going over to Goodreads to see what others think after I finish a book. A lot of apparently very young people found the book too dark and grim, and too much focussed on older people. I was surprised at this Gilmourian naivete, that what one personally prefers to read is objectively what is best. I actually thought it was refreshing to read about people in their 60s and 70s who weren’t consumed by reminiscence, but instead actually living out their present lives as if they were actual fascinating dramas: which of course they are. Too often, the elderly in novels are reduced to stage props of wisdom or nostalgia, rarely characters in their own right. Without getting all preachy about it, Strout goes a ways towards remedying the problem.
This is a bit piecemeal, which is why it’s just “thoughts” and not a review. But I really did enjoy *Olive Kitteridge*–grim at times, but a definitely pleasure to live so closely with such a fascinating character. I may read it again, possibly while sitting in an uncomfortable chair, to see if I can figure out how it all *worked*.
September 8th, 2013
I’m pleased to say that my story Ms. Universe is now posted on Joyland for your reading pleasure. This is one of my weirder pieces and I was so worried I wouldn’t find a home for it–very grateful to Emily M. Keeler and Brian Joseph Davis for liking it and publishing it. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think!
February 20th, 2013
Every year I see a posting for a Broken Pencil short-story contest, click on it with interest and then recoil in horror. I am not Deathmatch Material. I like to think all us short story writers are our own special flowers, and though every reader might not like to sniff every flower, there’s room for all of us in the garden.
Broken Pencil’s Short Story Deathmatch posits a winner-take-all, hateful-comments-weed-out-the-week mentality, at least on the surface. In reality the comments from Canadian readers and writers aren’t *that* harsh–more, the commenters often seem to really engage with the stories. So though I quail from entering myself, I annually find myself drawn into a public-opinion-based literary contest that is actually about the literature.
Because, let’s face it, most public-opinion book contest *aren’t* about the books. At least, not as a “contest” is normally interpreted. Every few months, I’ll get an email or see on FB that an author I know/like/admire is in contention for one of these readers’ choice things, and could I please vote? Usually, I do it if I’ve read the book and liked it–I draw the line at voting for books I’ve haven’t read, no matter how much I like the author’s previous works or personality. But still, even if I know the book well and love it, my vote isn’t really fair, because normally I’ve read few or none of the competitors, so I don’t actually *know* the book I’m voting for is better.
In the interests of fairness, I should really go out and read every book in contention, at least a few chapters and skim to the end, before I make a bold claim that I know which the best one is. But let’s be honest, who is willing to do that without being paid? And who is paid–judges. That’s why I contend that the best people to judge contests are always the judges. It’s not because I’m elitist snob who privileges certain opinions above others; it’s because the only people who are going to read dozens of books in a year that they didn’t select for themselves, some hard to find, obscure, very long, or about topics that don’t interest them–are the folks on the payroll. The “popular” way isn’t even close to fair.
Amazingly, near as I can tell, the Deathmatch *is* fair. Of course, you can’t stop people voting without reading and the writers with friends working office jobs, who can set their phone alarms and go online to revote every hour, are going to do better than folks whose friends are teachers and construction workers. But it works really well. Each quarter final pits only two short stories against each other–it’ll take you maybe half an hour to read both, and then you can make a totally informed decision. You can choose to vote in any number of quarter finals–1, 2, 3, or 4 rounds. The semi-finals pit the winners against each other in 2 more rounds after–get this–everybody’s rewritten their stories to incorporate the feedback they got the first time around. How cool is that?
I voted in a couple quarter finals, but didn’t think to share the love. Now we’re in the semis, but it’s not too late–you can vote until Sunday midnight in the first semifinal, and all next week in the second. Start here and enjoy some weird fiction.
December 10th, 2012
While I’ve been busy not posting on the blog, I’ve done any number of other things, mainly uninteresting and related to the course I finished taking last week (gag! death! disaster! doom!) The one cool thing was two Saturdays ago we hosted a party to celebrate a) having such nice friends and b) the making of How to Keep Your Day Job. We screened the film for said friends, some of whom had been so excited about it for so long it seemed no longer fair to keep it from them.
As far as I could tell, everyone loved the film–it was really satisfying to sit and watch everyone laugh, wince, and nod at the protagonist’s tribulations. At the end, I got many compliments, most of which were waived because I had nothing to do with the film other than the baseline story and a lot of enthusiasm. But it was still great to hear, and I’m sure the filmmakers, home with colds, felt the love even from afar.
One especially interesting compliment came from a partygoer I know less well, who surprised me by announcing that she loves short stories always, even when she’s not at a party hosted by one of their practitioners. I mentioned my pleasure and surprise at this, as it’s not the general attitude towards short fiction. She said perhaps it was because she’s a lawyer–she likes details only if they exist for a reason, and everything extraneous to be thrown out.
I thought this was such a great way of expressing the lure of the story–that leanness, efficiency. Some short-story proponents come dangerously close to anti-novelism with similar discussions, and that’s not my aim. Novels do something our friends in science fiction (hi, Scott!) call “world-building.” Novels create a whole life for their characters–clothes and rooms and jobs and friends (ok, a lot of characters in novels don’t have friends–separate post) and the ticking sound the car makes and love of romantic poetry. You are far more likely to know which way a character votes and whether s/he believes in God in a novel than in a short story. Which is awesome in the way that that’s awesome; and short stories are awesome in a different way.
I was just pleased to hear it described so well, is all I’m trying to say here.
June 17th, 2012
I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s *A Visit from the Goon Squad* when it first came out, even though I heard it was very good and won a lot of prizes. There’s just too many books that’s true of, and I didn’t know who Jennifer Egan was anyway.
Then I heard a rumour: even though *Goon Squad* had “a novel” on the front cover, that was a marketing move. The rumour had it that it was a short-story collection in disguise. But unlike short-story collections that sales considerations force into the guise of a novel, apparently this one didn’t semi-suck–everyone seemed to love it. I was intrigued.
As soon as I started reading, I realized I did in fact know who Jennifer Egan is–I had read three of the first four stories previously, when they were published in the *New Yorker*. And they were very very good stories, which had impressed me at the time and did even more so in the book. I blame the fact that I never noticed they were all by the same person is that the voices are so various.
The reason for the “even more” love in the book context is because the stories illuminate each other–there’s layers of facts, character and context from one that make the next make sense in different ways than it did standing alone. And as I say, they were pretty darn strong standing alone.
By the time I was four stories into the book, I had realized that *Goon Squad* wasn’t a book of stories, and it wasn’t a novel–it was genuinely and truly both, which is pretty much the equivalent of a plate made of spoons. Nothing the world necessarily needs, or so it thinks, but when you see it done well, it makes your eyes pop open, makes you think about at how you’ve always defined both the plate and the spoon and if both couldn’t do quite a bit more than those limited definitions.
If they’re Jennifer Egan’s plate and spoon, they can.
This book is fucking amazing. It is the best thing I’ve read in years, so good I stopped thinking about how it was working and had to go back and read bits again for the technical lessons I knew were hiding in there. So good I loved and hated the characters and actually teared up for Sasha at one point (I never do that) and always wanted Benny to do better and genuinely love these people.
This book is *bigger* than most novels–its reach is larger, extending from the late 70s to the mid 2020s (and with that future tilt, the tiniest touch of science fiction). But not just temporal reach–there are at least 15 fully fleshed, vivid, active characters–as opposed to the 2 or 3 you get in so many novels, surrounded by a cast of “secondaries” that too-obviously know their place. The real joy of this book is that no one is secondary–everyone is firmly ensconced in their own lives, living as best they can through each day, through each story.
No, no, the real joy of *Goon Squad* is that it is a new kind of book, one with various focii, various voices, enormous ambition and no consideration at all of what shelf at the bookstore it will sit on. It’s stunning, and both inspiring and deeply deeply daunting to those of us trying to write in a similarly fearless way.
June 8th, 2012
I bought *The Book of Other People* (edited by Zadie Smith) in Blackwell’s Books in Oxford, because it is the best bookstore I’ve ever seen and I had to buy *something* but not more than one thing because I was in the midst of a long and thrifty trek around England, and anything I bought I had to haul upon my person.
I bought it partly because it seemed an apt souvenir of England–I’d heard Smith interviewed on the radio once so I know from the accent that she’s English, plus the price on the back was in pounds. But mainly, of course, I bought it because it looked like exactly the book I have been dreaming of all my life. I love character-based fiction–to me who people are is the essence of plot because it’s the essence of life–my brother once made me a t-shirt that says, “Character is destiny,” and I more or less believe it, with a few exceptions for happenstance, acts of gods, etc.
Mainly, I was right–*The Book of Other People* was a great pleasure, starting with a title second only to The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes for good titles I have known. The privilege of meeting a stranger, someone completely unknown and completely unlike me, is why I read fiction. I love other people.
And many of these people were fascinating folks. I truly felt for the pathos of Daniel Clowes’ pretentious film critic “Justin M. Damiano” (the characters’ names are, in most cases, the stories’ titles as well). The next story was in A. L. Kennedy’s much darker style, but her “Frank” still echoed Daniel’s pathos in an achingly sad say. I was charmed and horrified by Hari Kunzru’s “Magda Mandela”–it’s not quite so politically correct as it ought to be, certainly if this were a Canadian book, but somehow that allowed the full bawdy glory of it to be apparent. Vendala Vida, whose work I hadn’t encountered before, brought the full frustration of being 11 rushing back to me in “Soleil.”
In fact, there were actually very few pieces in this collection that I didn’t like. There was Chris Ware’s impenetrable “Jordan Wellington Lint,” but I never understand Chris Ware–I feel like we’ve sort of agreed to disagree over the years. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” was slight and stereotypical, with exactly one original moment–yet it was a stereotype I recognize and love, so I liked it. Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey” also struck me as pretty silly, though silliness I enjoyed, right up until the deeply heartfelt and mature ending. Who knew? Also, Nich Hornby and Posy Simmonds “J. Johnson” is surprisingly inane and, I think due to badly placed page break, incoherent.
So, yes, I enjoyed the book as I read, but after I finished a number of pieces I felt a bit ill-used. Can you guess why from what the words I’ve used above or, rather, the one I didn’t–story. The book jacket bumf doesn’t bother with that nicety–the back cover says, “A host of extraordinary characters in all-new stories by our best contemporary writers,” but “story” is certainly secondary to “character” there–the form is not made as much of as the content. In the introduction we see why–instructions were unclear. “The instruction was simple: make somebody up.” But Smith does use the word stories in her intro, seemingly as a catch-all for “piece of fiction under 20 pages.” “Magda Mandela” is a sketch not a story, albeit a brilliant one, as is Jonathan Lethem’s “Perkus Tooth.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece is too, without the brilliance.
Sure, those some of those pieces are great to read and might well be the gas that eventually powers a story with a tangible structure, plot, action, other characters, etc. But it seems unfair to compare them to the fully realized, complex and powerful stories like Edwidge Dandicat’s “Lele” (sorry, WordPress isn’t having the two accent aigu that word needs) or George Saunders stunning, devastating “Puppy.” If you are a fan of Saunders (I know some people can’t stand his work), this story stands up to the best he’s written. Zadie Smith herself contributes a story, though she, like many of the writers here, have no reputation in story-writing. Her “Hanwell Snr” is interesting but meandering, with the most interesting points petering out in gestures to another story not on the page. Which, though I haven’t read it, I think actually exists.
This is part of a larger tantrum I’m having over the fact even The New Yorker seems lately to think that readers can’t tell the difference between a self-contained story that provides action, insight, and a degree of resolution on one hand, and a random wad of prose of the same length on the other. If you follow that link you will get the *prologue* to Ian McEwan’s next novel, which TNY ran without any labelling as such, though clearly the excerpt is grossly unsatisfying on its own. IT MAKES ME INSANE–short stories get a bad enough rap for being enigmatic and open-ended without marketing chunks of novels as the same thing. AHHHHHH!
I digress. This is a fun book and pleasant reading, with a few genuine gems of stories (I will return to the Dandicat and the Saunders, I have not doubt). If it had just been marketed as a book of sketches and stories, or if I hadn’t overthought myself into a rage, this would be a glowing review.
*The Book of Other People* is the sixth/June book in my 2012 To Be Read Challenge.
September 29th, 2011
If you’re in Windsor this afternoon, you can listen to me chatting with Bob Steele about the Women of the Short Story tour, the Year of the Short Story, and the nature of truth. If you happen to unfortunately not be in Windsor to listen on Thursday afternoon around 4:40 today, you can stream it live at the CBC Windsor site. On the homepage, scroll down until you find the “audio” section in the right-hand column, click on “97.5 FM CBC Radio One Live” and that’s it–you’re listening.
And yes, I realize this is again a link-not-content posting; it’s coming, it’s coming!
September 27th, 2011
Hi again! My story “How to Keep Your Day Job” is on the Storyville App, which means if you subscribe to the app–for iPads and iPhones and perhaps some other things–you get my story as well as many other wonderful-looking ones, for $4.99 for a 6-month subscription. I think short-story apps are wonderful, and quite possibly the way the form will wind up going. Sort of makes me want to get a cellphone of some kind.