Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing: the Short Story Edition, with David Helwig

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David Helwig

This summer Open Book checks in with short story writers and publishers to celebrate and explore a genre in which anything is possible. David Helwig, one of Canada's most beloved writers, talks to us today about the special alchemy needed to bring a character to life, the allure of the short story and his new collection, Mystery Stories, recently published with The Porcupine's Quill.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Mystery Stories.

David Helwig:

The title tells most of it, I think. Mystery Stories is a collection of short fiction (though some of the stories come close to the length of a novella), and most of the stories have some kind of enigma to them. In one case it is the appearance of new paintings by a long-dead artist. None is exactly a whodunit or a ghost story, but either in the plot or the telling there is often something puzzling and suspenseful.

Every story in the world explores the possibilities of made-up situations, but some of these play games with form and with the possibilities of invention, belief and disbelief. In fiction, of course, anything can happen. If you write “Yesterday the world ended,” it’s true, at least on the page.

Mystery Stories is a big book, and it includes stories written over many years. The most recent story, one of the longest and one of my favourites, “La Rue du Chapeau Perdu,” was written in the spring of 2010 and is constructed, odd as it may
sound, around tales of lost (and found) hats.

OB:

What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?

DH:

Every story poses its own problems. I suppose the challenge of the shorter stories was to make something significant happen in a very few pages; the challenge of the longer stories to maintain interest. I also took a while to make the final arrangement.

OB:

How do you know when the germ of an idea will be the right fit for a short story?

DH:

I think you make your best guess and hope you’re right. An idea comes and asks to be worked out and embodied, and each story that demands to be told comes with some feeling of its size and shape. Something in your mind and imaginings gives you the energy to make a start. Then you plunge in and hope that a small miracle will happen.

OB:

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

DH:

I think the greatest pleasure of writing fiction is the involvement in the lives of the characters, but there is also the fascination of getting the construction right, the artistry — inventing a form with suspense and surprise and intense emotion and sometimes comedy. Every day brings its own surprises, and that makes it all worthwhile. In a long story, I am, at the end, often left feeling lonely for the people I’ve been living with.

OB:

How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?

DH:

I think that characterization is the greatest mystery of all in fiction and drama. People can’t be invented in cold blood. You have to love them. Over a lifetime you meet hundreds of people, and in writing fiction you can only hope that you have looked and listened and cared enough to give your characters weight and veracity. There are no tricks. Your inventions live or they don’t. You have to trust the things your imagination tells you.

One section of Mystery Stories is called “Domestic Arrangements” and contains the most realistic stories in the book, where much of the effect depends on the weight of character. In those stories the voice that embodies the character is crucial. “Housebound, 1969” is about a petty criminal called Wicker who is stuck for the winter in a cold house on an island with two crippled animals. What comes to life about Wicker, I hope, is the way he sees the world and how he keeps going. His determined sense of humour, his affection for the animals.

OB:

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

DH:

It’s possible that all the stories in the book are in one way or another love stories. The haunting of life by mysterious presences is one way this is expressed. Obsession itself is one of the recurring themes. How life and its possibilities grab you by the throat.

OB:

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

DH:

I’m not sure that "perfect" is a useful word in judging literature. Many stories are extremely well put together, but it often takes more than that for a story to remain in the mind, to move us as we read it and as we remember it. Some imaginative magic. I’m not sure I could name one story. When I was young I read and reread Hemingway’s stories, and “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” has an aura that’s hard to forget. Very different but equally astonishing is Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Little Dog.” I did a translation of it twenty years ago. And then there’s Alice Munro…

OB:

What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?

DH:

Novels carry us away into their invented world for a long period of time, and that’s one of the reasons people read them. But just because you like watching a full-length movie you don’t necessarily refuse to look at a great photograph. And some of these stories are in fact quite long and have some of the characteristics of a novel. On the other hand, I’ve mostly made it a practice in life not to try to talk anyone into anything. I can only hope that my stories have their own power of seduction. They seduced me into writing them.


Born in Toronto in 1938, David Helwig attended the University of Toronto and the University of Liverpool. His first stories were published in Canadian Forum and The Montrealer while he was still an undergraduate. He then went on to teach at Queen’s University. Helwig has also served as literary manager of CBC Television Drama, working under John Hirsch, supervising the work of story editors and the department’s relations with writers. In 1980 he gave up teaching and became a full-time freelance writer. He has done a wide range of writing — fiction, poetry, essays — authoring more than 20 books. Helwig is also the founder and long-time editor of the Best Canadian Stories annual. In 2009 he was named as a member of the Order of Canada.

David Helwig lives in the village of Eldon on Prince Edward Island, where he is the third Poet Laureate. He indulges his passion for vocal music by singing with choirs in Montreal, Kingston and Charlottetown. He has appeared as bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mozart’s Requiem. Find out more by visiting his website, davidhelwig.com.

For more information about Mystery Stories please visit the Porcupine's Quill website.

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

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