Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: The State of the Short Story (Part Three)

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Conflict of Interest

By Nathaniel G. Moore

Read "The State of the Short Story (Part One)" and "The State of the Short Story (Part Two)".

As part of the ongoing investigation into the world of short fiction, I spoke with Nick McArthur, author of Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences, a collection of odd and passionate stories from Montreal’s Punchy imprint from DC Books.

Nathaniel G. Moore:

What is your official statement on the state of short fiction?

Nick McArthur:

Times are both good and bad, I think. Obviously people don’t read like they used to. And in terms of literary short stories, I’m not sure anyone reads at all anymore besides lit majors and aspiring writers and their immediate families (and even then most of them are lying). But I also think a lot of really great writing is being created these days and in this country, and in a wide array of styles and forms. Writers are engaging the weirdness of contemporary life in exciting ways. A collection of stories like Selected Blackouts, for example, by John Goldbach, covers topics as diverse as reality television, charlatan stop-smoking guides, polyamory and violent, six-foot-tall turkeys. It swings wildly between sincerity and absurdity, and it accomplishes all this using the living, evolving languages of second-rate TV, Internet chat and barroom rants.


In general, how do you approach writing short stories?


I normally try to come up with one or two lines that I find funny or strange or interesting in some way. If those initial lines are actually any good, I think they’ll suggest some vague blueprint for a story, and my job becomes to decipher that blueprint and follow it to a satisfying ending. This normally takes at least a couple of tries and sometimes a lot more than that (I’ve got teetering stacks of abandoned stories). I’ve tried being more methodical — writing plot outlines, character descriptions, elaborations on theme, etc. — but, for me, that always kind of sucks all the fun out of the writing.


How did you approach each one for you book? Do you have a different approach?


The stories in my book were written in pretty dramatically different ways and over a long period of time. The earliest was written (or at least drafted) during my first year of university, when I was about twenty. The most recent ones were written four years after that. For a few of them I sat down and cranked out a draft in a single afternoon, but the majority didn’t come so easily. Most of the time I would sit down and put things together carefully, one sentence, one paragraph at a time, while also taking an embarrassing quantity of breaks. Working this way, I would finish anywhere between a half a page and a page and a half in an eight-hour working day. Later on I still spent several months editing and rewriting everything. I’ve never been what anyone could call a prolific writer.


Where do you send them?


I don’t much — or at least I haven’t in a very long time. Some of my favorite lit mags to read, though, are Joyland, Lies with Occasional Truth, Danforth Review (RIP), Matrix, McSweeney’s. I like any magazine that publishes formally innovative, adventurous, fun, funny and not excessively long stories.


What other books you enjoy in the realm of fiction?


I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz last week and found it pretty mind-blowing. And I have my old favourites — Delillo, Foster Wallace, Roth, Nabokov, Gogol, Barthelme. George Saunders exerts what is probably too great an influence on my writing. Ditto Kurt Vonnegut. Also, I read more pulpy Science Fiction novels than any earnest young student of literature should ever admit to reading.

Please visit the DC Books website for more information about Nick’s book.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Wrong Bar (shortlisted for the 2010 Relit award for best novel). His website is

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