Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Interview: CBC Canada Writes Jurors Colin McAdam and Kathleen Winter on What Makes a Great Short Story

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Kathleen Winter and Colin McAdam

The 2014 incarnation of the CBC Canada Writes short story competition received over 3,000 submissions — more than seven million hopeful words from emerging and established writers across the country.

After a team of readers narrowed the initial volume down, the final decision was up to three acclaimed writers — Helen Humphreys, Colin McAdam and Kathleen Winter. Judging the career-boosting contest (which is the biggest of its kind in Canada) is a huge responsibility and the CBC certainly found the right people for the job.

The jurors are no stranger to being on the other side of the prize equation; between them the three jurors have won or been nominated for The Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize, The Governor General's Literary Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, CBC Canada Reads, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the City of Toronto Book Award — to name a few.

We're thrilled to speak with jurors Colin McAdam and Kathleen Winter today about what they look for in a short story, lyric vampires and a shape shifting novel.

You can read the story that Helen, Colin and Kathleen crowned as the winner, "Smiley" by Jane Eaton Hamilton, on the CBC Canada Writes website.

Open Book:

What are you looking for in a short story? What makes a piece of short fiction truly great in your opinion?

Colin McAdam:

In short or long fiction I like to be surprised — by the plot, diction, scope, the circumstances, walks of life I don’t know, unexpected views of familiar things. And I like to see completely familiar things described with confidence. But I don’t like to pretend that I go into things ‘looking for’ something. I just know what I like, which is what can make this position of juror seem arrogant and arbitrary.

Kathleen Winter:

I’m not looking for anything. But I’m waiting for something. I’m waiting to feel a meaningful jolt, or see something I’ve never seen before — something wrenching or explosive or bold and strong, mysterious but familiar. I’m looking to be put under a spell but not an ephemeral spell, a spell made of real live entities connected by a thread to all humanity — maybe sometimes the thread has broken.

OB:

Is there any difference between what you look for as a reader and what you look for as a juror?

CM:

I don’t think so. I make judgments as a reader regardless of why I’m reading. The difference for me between reader and juror is that as a juror you have to take into account the reactions of other jurors. Prize judging always involves some sort of political compromise that has nothing to do with an individual’s private appreciation of a story. I think that’s a shame on an aesthetic level — it’s the opposite of reading — regardless of how well a jury gets along or how similar everyone’s taste might be. But I can’t think of any literary prizes determined by just one person.

KW:

I guess the only difference is that as a juror I might be asked to think about the piece after reading it in order to explain why I chose it. While I’m engaging with the piece my relationship with it is bodily. I’m stocking up on intangible bodily fluids. I’m a lyric vampire.

OB:

What themes or subjects did you find came up most often in your reading for Canada Writes?

CM:

I suppose, to generalize, there was a common concern with identity — a lot of the stories asked questions about regional, gender or linguistic identity.

KW:

There seemed to be a lot of wild animals and blade-like objects symbolically tearing or slicing into people’s previously restricted existences.

OB:

Tell us a little bit about your favourite of your own short stories, and about a favourite short story by another writer.

CM:

I haven’t written many short stories. I loved a story by Alexander MacLeod in Light Lifting about de-lousing his family. That stands out in my memory as something moving and smart — a small moment looked at in a way that makes the world feel big and surprising.

KW:

A favourite from my forthcoming collection is about meeting, in the park, a homeless man who turns out to be a flamenco dancer. A favourite by another writer… well, that’s hard, because I love so many, depending on the weather… but I love the stories in Gabrielle Roy’s Rue Deschambault, which I haven’t exactly read, but my Francophone husband cuddles up with me on the couch reading them paragraph by paragraph in French then explaining to me, in his own English translation, what just happened. Together Jean and Gabrielle have me in tears, sometimes of laughter and sometimes deepest sorrow.

OB:

What advice might you offer emerging writers working on short fiction?

CM:

I think emerging writers of any sort should sing their hearts out and ignore advice whenever possible.

KW:

I guess I could say that concrete images can contain surprising intangible implications. I think you have to make friends with revising. Inspiration and the first draft are delirious enjoyment, then comes the technical fine-tuning that can be exhausting, but you have to do it. Except now and then a story comes forth needing hardly any revisions — a sort of gift from the inkwell.

OB:

What are you working on next?

CM:

A novel whose shape and subject change every goddamn week.

KW:

I’m working on editing the last few stories in a collection coming out with Biblioasis in the fall, The Freedom in American Songs, edited by John Metcalf. And I have an arctic travel memoir coming out with Anansi, also this fall, called Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.

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Colin McAdam has written for Harpers’ and The Walrus. His novel Some Great Thing won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the U.K. His second novel, Fall, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and awarded the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennon Prize. He lives in Toronto.

Kathleen Winter is a novelist, short-story writer and scriptwriter. She is the author of the story collection BoYs, as well as Annabel, which was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. She lives in Montreal, Quebec. Visit Kathleen Winter's blog: http://kathleenwinter.livejour... and follow Kathleen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/supreme...

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