Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: The State of Short Fiction in Canada (Part 5)

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Conflict of Interest

Read parts One, Two, Three and Four of "The State of Short Fiction in Canada."

We knew this would happen: The middle of poetry month and a slew of hot fiction titles get released. It happened two years ago, though a few weeks earlier, but you know, the same month. It was April 1st, 2009, a glorious spring evening and Stuart Ross launched his eventual ReLit champion title, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (hey that's short fiction!), at Clinton’s to a jam-packed audience and cunningly reminded the stir-crazy audience that it was in fact the beginning of poetry month. And the crowd of course, went wild.

So here we are, staring into poetry’s lovely, vulnerable soul, while admiring the sexy line-breaks and in the distance hearing the cat-calls from the crowds of "Check out his long dash yo, damn!" and Bang! Crash! Boom!

Some much-hyped Canadian short fiction be storming da beach as they say — nowhere.

But that’s okay, poetry-maniacs. Because all of the agents, editors, publishers, bloggers and bespeckled super-fans have given fair warning to the community that this was all going down in mid-April — brothers and sisters.

This month at Conflict of Interest, we decided to focus on two very special guests who are about to launch new collections of short fiction this Saturday and next Wednesday. So get out your BlackBerrys, calendars and other note-taking equipment, the info follows my friendly interrogation.

So.

"Who are these mystery authors?" you ask. "Mystery!?" I reply. "Don’t confuse things!" I say, and continue to baffle you all for a few more seconds until it is revealed, with a large dose of glee, that we’ll be chatting with Julie Booker, author of Up Up Up (Anansi), and Jessica Westhead, author of And Also Sharks (Cormorant), on these very pages. That’s right, two collections of short fiction, both of which are, as we speak, accruing local buzz. Why, it’s hard to go anywhere in our beloved lit trenches and not hear about these two.

Julie Booker’s debut short fiction collection, Up Up Up, is poised to dominate the water-cooler chatter of the OMG book gossip troughs this season with its understated yet enigmatic cover and title, accessible contours and characters and her seemingly innocuous bio in which she reveals her height at five feet tall and that her car is equally small.

Perhaps fitting (and a genius marketing plan, short stories, Year Of the Short Story, short author, I'll stop) that her collection deals with small investigations and portraits of the human condition in all its clutter, mischief, desire and emotional roulette. Booker explains that the stories one finds in the pages of Up Up Up are culled from a decade's worth of material. "I don't plan on taking that long with my second book," Booker confesses.

I ask the author about one of her stories in particular, "Scratch," and see if I'm right about its purpose, focus, or if, as is the case sometimes, I'm completely off my futon. I offer the premise that the story appears to deal with the power of discovering language in unusual places, graffiti. In the age of electronic excess, how to these cave-like inscriptions define our culture? In many ways, they are the beginnings or minor detours into larger stories for our own lives? I ask Julie if she agrees. "I think graffiti's kind of like YouTube; it's an accessible, inclusive medium of expression. The imagined 'who' behind graffiti is definitely a gateway to story. I think Rob Ford's clean-up Toronto campaign is shortsighted by including wall art with tagging and other forms of graffiti."

Both Westhead and Booker are no strangers to the magazine market in Canada. A quick tour of the end notes or acknowledgements in their collections reveals some dedications to various journals and magazines that had previously showcased their stories.

However, recently poet Michael Lista wrote a piece in The National Post about the fate of literary magazines in Canada and suggested perhaps it was time for a new model of reality. "Lista may be right when he says there's more supply than demand," Booker muses, "but literary magazines are part of the structure that promotes emerging writers and helps establish this country's identity. It's the way up the Canadian ladder: get published in some literary journals, win some literary contests and your name starts to circulate."

I touched on the importance of social issues (domestic violence, body image, etc.) in her work, and if there was ever a time when she wanted to make a statement about something in particular, but for whatever reason, it didn't fit in the story.

"If I set out to make a statement it would make for a very bad story," Booker explains. "I write about those things because it's how I control the stuff that overwhelms me about this world. Many of my characters never get what they want. By containing my angst in a complete arc and sending it off into the world, somehow I manage to take care of that one thing, that one issue, that's gnawing at me. If I can nail a feeling in a story then I'm saying to someone up there: See? I'm paying attention. I don't need bad stuff to happen."

Though industry rumours are flying off Twitter feeds that one can watch Julie via podcast on the Anansi page during the launch and after, I suspect, if you are able to, why not join Julie Booker and Anansi in physical reality at the Toronto Women's Bookstore on Saturday April 16 from 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Jessica Westhead is no stranger to the Toronto literary scene, having spent over 10 years making cameos at local zine and small press fairs, reading series and other noble outreach programs. Westhead's debut novel was released in the fall of 2007. Pulpy & Midge, published by Coach House Books, was a local and otherly-beloved tale of office neurosis and barbed vocational politics.

Westhead takes a moment to dissect the different process for preparing her novel and her forthcoming short fiction collection. "I've published one novel, Pulpy & Midge, with the amazing Coach House Books, and I'm still very proud of that book. I do feel more excited about And Also Sharks, though, because the writing is darker. I think I felt I owed it to readers to give Pulpy & Midge a happy ending, because they had invested all that time reading all those pages — how could I possibly leave them feeling sad? I didn't feel any such obligation when writing the stories, though. Plus, for me, writing short stories is way more fun than writing a novel. Not to say writing short stories is easy — it's not — but I personally found the process of writing a novel much more laborious than writing short stories." Adding to the pleasure Westhead says, is the sense that after each story is complete you can celebrate, whereas with a novel you have to stick through and revise things "draft after draft."

Flash-forward nearly four years and Westhead is back with And Also Sharks, which is already garnering early buzz. With its well-crafted humanist focus and the usual Westhead confluence of charm, timing, suspense and hilarity, it could end up vying for one of the sleeper-hits-of-the season-status by the time we’re all in flip-flops. I was curious about the collection -- since it's been a few years since Pulpy was published -- and just how old some of these stories were, and for that matter, how young. "The oldest story in And Also Sharks is 'Some Wife,'" Westhead confesses, "I wrote the earliest draft of this one in December 2002, and a version of this story also appears in what was technically my debut story collection — a three-story chapbook published by Greenboathouse Books in 2006, called Those Girls. The youngest story in the collection is 'Community,' which I first started writing in June 2010."

The topic of the Year of the Short Story (YOSS for those in vogue) cropped up. Since one of Westhead's long-time conspirators and compatriots is Sarah Selecky, I thought I'd get some insight into the manifesto from someone close to the camp. "I think when both Sarah Selecky's This Cake Is for the Party and Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting were shortlisted for the Giller last year, people started to take extra notice of short fiction in general." There have always been devoted short story readers, but with YOSS, we're hoping to reach more of them. I've heard some people complain that short stories 'end too soon' — a reader will get to know the characters in a story, and then they're gone. I think it's a good thing to leave people wanting more — it's way better than overstaying your welcome."

When asked the marvelously entertaining question, "What character would you wanna meet the most and why?" Westhead balks at first, then narrows down her choices to two varying characters, not an exact culprit. "It's a toss-up between Graham, the supporting co-worker character in 'Some Wife', and Shelley, the protagonist in 'Coconut'. Shelley is totally unaware that her world view is bizarrely skewed, so it would be fun to follow her around for a day and see what she gets up to. And I'd love to go for beers with Graham because he just cracks me up."

Being entertained by one's characters shows a deeper understanding of the craft and a passion that goes beyond navel gazing and the superficiality that can sometimes be found when people discuss their work or "creative process." So this insight into what we have to look forward to from Westhead's latest book is refreshing.

The launch for And Also Sharks is this coming Wednesday from 6:00pm to 9:30pm. "For sharky ambiance, we're going to play silent shark movies on the Toronto Underground Cinema's amazing big screen. So that things aren't too quiet, Ricky Lam from The Panic Manual will be providing a soundtrack of excellent tunes."

Guests can expect a quick reading, and two book trailers. "The previews are always the best part of going to the movies, right?" Westhead muses. The first trailer has already been circulating around the highly popular internet) while the second one, which will "premiere" at the launch features artistic renderings from Westhead's stories as interpreted by Evan Munday, Rob Elliott and Aaron Leighton.


Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Wrong Bar (finalist for the 2010 ReLit Award for best novel). His Conflict of Interest column appears monthly. For appearance inquiries, media and authors can contact him via www.nathanielgmoore.net.

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