Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing Short Fiction: An Interview with Carolyn Black, Dennis E. Bolen and Andrew J. Borkowski

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Readings with Carolyn Black, Dennis E. Bolen and Andrew J. Borkowski

On Thursday, September 22nd, Books on the Radio, Open Book and Type Books are joining forces to present an evening of short fiction by three wonderfully talented writers from Toronto and Vancouver. Carolyn Black (The Odious Child, Nightwood Editions), Dennis E. Bolen (Anticipated Results, Arsenal Pulp Press) and Andrew J. Borkowski (Copernicus Avenue, Cormorant Books) will be reading from their new short-fiction collections at Type on Queen Street. See Open Book's Events Page for details. Open Book spoke to the three writers about the readings, their books and the perfect short story.

The event forms an unofficial part of YOSS: The Year of the Short Story

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about the story or stories you'll be reading at Type on September 22nd.

Carolyn Black:

I will be reading an excerpt from my absurd story "Hysteria," which begins with a woman's head separating from her body. After this, the head and body continue to function, and the story is about the antagonistic, catty relationship they have to one another as they visit a series of doctors, in an attempt to figure out whether an illness is "all in the head" or "all in the body."

Dennis E. Bolen:

I have a couple I keep ready. Which one I read depends on the crowd. If they are 40 and younger I read the "Boomer self criticism rant" sections of the book. If they are a gray and/or white-haired bunch, I do "Clean or Dirty," a weepy tale of familial estrangement familiar to their demographic.

Andrew J. Borkowski:

I'll probably be reading "Twelve Versions of Lech" from Copernicus Avenue. It's my party piece, because Lech, the main character, is a party, and because this event is going to be a party! Lech is the story that got the ball rolling after David Carpenter (as fiction editor at the time) published it in Grain and the story was picked up for Journey Prize Stories 19. I like it because it touches on a confluence between the post-war Polish sensibility in contemporary art and the Canadian situation. We are the absurd nation, and it's time to celebrate the fact.

OBT:

How do you feel the stories in your collection work together? How did you decide on the order of the stories?

CB:

I've been told the collection has a coherent, alienating tone that makes readers uncomfortable, so apparently the stories are working together, although not in a way I intended. As for the ordering of the stories, please see answer number three below, "game of chance."

DEB:

It’s not for me to say if my stories work, together or otherwise, though I’ve had fun reading the debating critics (re Steven W. Beattie in the NatPost vs. Robert Wiersma on Canada.com) on whether or not the book is in fact a collection or a loosely structured novel. I arranged the order after painstaking consideration and on taking the input/advice of my trusted pre-readers. The idea being to take advantage of the short story form within a kind of novel. So there you go, Steve and Bob.

AJB:

In the end, chronology won out. The stories in Copernicus Avenue are loosely connected. They follow a family from Poland at the war's end to Roncesvalles Village in Toronto, from the fifties through to the millennium. A happy consequence of the chronological order was that it put "The Trees of Kleinsaltz“ — a very powerful story, according to a lot of the readers I've spoken to — at the beginning. But I've never seen it as a seamless, or even as a complete, narrative. I wanted a disjointed quality, like randomly arranged stepping stones across a stream. Some stories are first person, some are third person. Some are written in past tense, some in present tense. In some stories, the family members hardly appear at all and background characters are brought to the fore. I thought of it as a collage, with lots of space left in to allow the reader to make the connections. I liked Jim Bartley's description of the book in his Globe and Mail review. He described it as "a series of panels." It's wonderful when you read a review of your book and think, "Great! He gets it!"

OBT:

What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a short story?

CB:

Because I take a logical, controlled approach to writing — often posing a question to myself at the outset and letting the story unfold as an argument — I like the moments of surprise, when I reach an unexpected conclusion, when the story reveals itself to be a game of chance not under my control.

DEB:

As compared to novels? You don't have to devote a major hunk of your life to the piece to see if it is/was a good idea in the first place.

AJB:

The refining process, making every word count. For me the fun really begins on about the third draft and some of the Copernicus Avenue stories have had as many as fifteen drafts. I think of writing as sculpture. All you're doing on a first draft is coughing up the block of marble that you're going to spend the next few months whittling down in stages, to find the story that's really in there.

OBT:

Recently, many short story collections have received a great deal of attention and some have been nominated for major literary awards. Why do you think that the idea persists that short stories don't sell or aren't as "readable" as novels?

CB:

If "readable" implies ease, then perhaps a whole collection is not as readable because the readers must be always starting again, and starting again. To start again requires effort. Of course, in our online lives — following links, reading tweets, answering 50 emails at a time — we seem to desire constant starts, so maybe our choice of literary form will begin to reflect this. Or maybe we will read even more novels, seeking rebellion or respite.

DEB:

I believe this phenom is fading. One of the most influential books of our time — Generation X — is a short story collection. As with my book, more and more collections are developing into semi-novelistic serializations. This garners the best of both forms — the concision of the short story stowed within the deeper psychological commitment of the novel.

AJB:

Beats me. I can only put it down to bean-counter logic in the industry. Sales flag for a couple of years and the accountants proclaim that short stories don't sell. It becomes self-perpetuating: as the big-time marketers stop marketing short stories, people stop buying them because they don't know they're there. And yet, in newspapers and magazines, everything's getting shorter — so much so that it's almost impossible, as a journalist, to do anything other than regurgitate a press release. Popular novels like The Da Vinci Code are being written in chapters that are exactly 20-minute subway ride in length. If that's the zeitgeist, then short stories make perfect sense. Not to mention that Canadians write the best short stories in the world and have done for a long time. Thank God there are still publishers like Cormorant who recognize that.

OBT:

Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? What story have you read that's come closest?

CB:

I've been asked this question a few times, and it continues to strike me as odd, which must mean my answer to the first question is "no."

DEB:

As art will never achieve perfection by virtue of the impossibility of completion (In theory, anyway. I believe this to be true.), I would opine than the short story will approach greater perfection than the novel ever will because of the greater energy, thought, creativity and craft that can be proportionally brought to bear on each word.

The best short story I can think of is Hemmingway’s "Up In Michigan" — one of his earlier works, written in 1923 — because of its objectivity in presenting an appalling yet commonplace human happenstance. It was banned in many places for overt sexuality and a legal debate over whether the events portrayed were rough seduction or outright sexual assault.

AJB:

Thankfully, no. Short stories do too many things. They can spin a yarn and pack a wallop, or they can simply conjure a mood, capture a colour, or set a string vibrating inside your head for days. Raymond Carver, in stories like "Feathers" or "Cathedral" does this; he's a master of subtext, the implied back story. For classic tales with a twist, give me any one of Italo Calvino's stories in Difficult Loves or Adam, one afternoon.

OBT:

What's your next project?

CB:

I don't have Projects, but sometimes I write.

DEB:

I’m currently working on a poetry collection that concerns itself with childhood/adolescence in 1960's and 1970's Western Canada.

AJB:

It's a novel set in northern England during the 1980s — the decade it all went wrong. It's set in "the Potteries" — Arnold Bennett country, and follows a band of working class English loonies (and one Canadian) seeking shelter from the ravages of Thatcherism in a derelict country mansion. But I've got more Copernicus Avenue stories in the works, too. People are asking for more.

Buy these books at the September 22nd event at Type Books, at your local independent bookstore, online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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