Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing: the Short Story Edition, with Carolyn Black

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Carolyn Black

Carolyn Black is the author of The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions), a collection of beautifully bizarre stories. Her work has also appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology (McClelland & Stewart).

Carolyn Black talks with Open Book about her book, the perception of monsters and experiments in stripping away the elements of language.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Odious Child.

Carolyn Black:

On the cover, Nightwood called it ‘urban fantasy,’ which I like. It is urban because the stories are set in unnamed, populous cities, and it is fantasy because things happen that would not happen in an Alice Munro story, for instance, a sick woman’s head separates from her body or a beautiful man is surrounded by a group of men in an alleyway and his body disappears. Also, I did not intricately detail the emotional responses of characters, which to many contemporary readers might seem fantastical.

OB:

You write about parenthood in this collection, and the tension between expectations and reality. As a writer, how did you become interested in the subject?

CB:

It is true that one story is about an unsmiling baby and another about a feral child, but these two children perform a function similar to that of characters in the other stories who are not children: they are vulnerable and terrifying because of this. I’ve realized many of the stories feature physical monsters, although these monsters don’t have fangs, and it is sometimes their beauty or desirability that becomes monstrous. The unsmiling baby is monstrous in the mother’s eyes, but she, too, is monstrous when placed with the baby, for she has such potential to do it harm. Monstrous aspects vacillate between the monster and the character perceiving the monster, as does vulnerability.

OB:

You employ some innovative techniques in the structure of your stories. How you feel form and content work together in your writing?

CB:

I take pleasure in thinking about the rhythm of language in a sentence, and thinking about ‘form’ is an extension of that. I enjoy creating rhythm by means of structural shifts, for example, shifts from the first person plural to the first person singular (I think that might be one technique you have in mind). This does not seem a different impulse from the desire to work at the smaller level of the sentence, which is why I cannot always think about form as separate from content.

OB:

How did you go about fitting the various stories in your collection together? How did you choose which pieces to include and where they appear?

CB:

A person could study the collection using tree-ring dating because early stories ended up at the centre and recent stories, at the edges. I am fonder of the recent stories, so I put them at the beginning and end as a kind of protection of the earlier work.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?

CB:

Sex. At a rate of every seven seconds.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (directly or indirectly) your writing life?

CB:

I’ve recently named Kazuo Ishiguro, A.M. Homes, Sheila Heti, Nathanael West and Muriel Spark as influences, although this changes depending upon what day you ask me.

OB:

Is there a story you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?

CB:

I just discovered the darkly funny and surreal Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, a collection of translated short stories by Yasutaka Tsutsui. The very short story ‘Don’t Laugh’ is about a man who invites a friend to his home to tell him he has invented a time machine, and as he tells the friend this they both keep bursting into laughter, in part because the idea is so implausible. Even while they are climbing the stairs to the loft where the machine is, they are laughing, and even while they are standing in front of the machine, they are laughing, and even while they are sitting in the machine, they are laughing, and all the laughter is transcribed in line after line (in the English version as ‘Wahahahahaha’) until almost all its joy transforms into a menacing desperation. This transcribed, desperate laughter appears throughout Tsutsui’s collection; not only do his stories inspire such laughter in the reader, they feature it.

OB:

What are you working on now?

CB:

I am working on trying to remember why I write. So far, I’ve stripped adjectives, adverbs, character and simile from my fictional writing. These are just experiments. I don’t know what they will become. I’m perhaps fatigued by the glut of language I encounter online every day. The idea is, I think, that if I keep removing elements, I will arrive at some essence, and I’d be curious to see what that looked like. What would be left? Could I love it?


Carolyn Black’s stories have appeared in literary journals across Canada. “Serial Love” was published in the prestigious Journey Prize anthology, and “At World’s End, Falling Off” won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards. The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions, 2011) is her first collection of short stories.

For more information about The Odious Child please visit the Nightwood website .

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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