Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing Short Fiction, with Claire Battershill

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On Writing Short Fiction, with Claire Battershill

Claire Battershill's witty and quirky writing voice first reached a widespread audience when her story "Circus" won the 2008 CBC Literary Prize (now know as CBC Canada Writes).

Now readers have a chance to get more of Claire's excellent work with Circus (McClelland & Stewart), a short story collection that contains and takes its title from Claire's prize-winning tale.

Today we speak to Claire about Circus and the art of the short story, and she tells us about a family legend involving a child who ran away from home with nothing but cheese and the short fiction that has shaped her as a reader and writer.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book of stories, Circus.

Claire Battershill:

Circus is a collection of nine short stories. The spirit of the circus with its various acts and odd cast of characters runs through all the stories in different ways. A reader of the book will get to know a shy lugist and his quiet way of loving, an awkward grandfather who is obsessed with the Northern Lights, a middle-aged school teacher who is waiting in an airport lounge to face a life she won’t recognize once she gets to her destination, and various other characters working their ways through the world.

OB:

Your title story won the prestigious CBC Literary Prize. Tell us a little bit about how that story came to you.

CB:

That story actually started with its first sentence: the outlandish premise of Susan’s grandfather the circus bear. The opening family legend is an exaggerated version of a rumour in my own family about my great grandfather running away at age twelve to join the circus as a wrestler. Apparently he left home carrying only a round of cheese. My actual relative was a human, though, not a bear.

OB:

Do you have any writing rituals or talismans that are a part of your process? And when you hit rough patches while writing, do you have any go-to techniques?

CB:

I don’t think I have any particular talismans, but like many writers I do have a collection of notebooks that I’ve been filling over the years. They’re motley crew: all different sizes and colours and kinds of paper. Sometimes when I’m stuck I flip back through them to see if I can find a bit of dialogue or an idea I want to explore. As for rituals, I run my academic life on a very strict program of daily word counts and structured time, but I do not impose that structure on fiction until the first draft is done. For me writing fiction requires a separate way of thinking than criticism, so I create different habits around the two kinds of work I do. I’ve recently started drafting in a program called OmmWriter, which blocks out all the visual distractions on a computer: it’s just a pale grey screen with no formatting tabs or wifi icons or clock. It delivers on its promise of zen.

OB:

What makes for a great short story? What are you looking for in your own work as a writer, and what do you look for in short fiction as a reader? And is there any difference between the two sets of criteria?

CB:

A great short story leaves space for the reader to nestle inside it. In stories I love, there is a kind of energy in the unsaid that allows you to come away feeling like you know somebody new or you’ve seen a new thing, but that feeling is elicited as much by what’s left out as what’s actually in the story. As a reader, I like all sorts of work and I’m quite open to new styles and techniques: I try to inhabit whatever space the story opens up for me rather than “looking for” things before I read. In my own work, I just try to write work that sounds like mine, even if it might not sound like me, which is a fine distinction but an important one.

OB:

Tell us about one or two of your all-time favourite short stories.

CB:

One that I have read so many times I know it nearly by heart is “Black” by Anabelle Lyon. It’s about a fragile little girl, Suzy, and her guardian, Morris. It is a quietly odd story and at first it seems to be about childhood and all the things you think about when you’re a kid, and all the things you think about when you’re taking care of a kid, but then as it goes on the chronology unspools and suddenly you have Suzy’s whole life, and Morris’s death, and Suzy’s death. You’re in the future tense, then, when you get to the deaths. That small thing, that tense shift, changes the whole story. I admire the prose style, too, which is laconic but still generous enough to be beautiful. Another story I love is Miranda July’s “The Swim Team,” which is about a woman who teaches three elderly semi-strangers how to swim in her living room. It’s as magical as that sounds.

OB:

What are you working on now?

CB:

Too many things!


Claire Battershill won the 2008 CBC Literary Award for Short Fiction for the title story from her debut collection, Circus, and was recently named the co-winner of the 2013 Canadian Authors Association's Emerging Writer Award. She was a Junior Fellow and apprentice printer at Massey College, and, in 2008, she was a research assistant for Margaret Atwood's Massey Lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Battershill has a PhD in English Literature and Book History, and has taught English and Creative Writing at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art and Design. Born in Dawson Creek, B.C., in 1986, she has lived in Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto. She now lives in London, England, where she teaches at the University of Reading.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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