Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing: the Short Story Edition, with Mike Barnes

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Mike Barnes

A literary Renaissance man, Mike Barnes has written a memoir, two novels, two short fiction collections, two collections of poetry and appeared in numerous Canadian anthologies and journals.

His most recent publication is The Reasonable Ogre (Biblioasis), a collection of short fiction that pairs Mike's stories with illustrations by Toronto-based artist Segbingway.

Mike talks to Open Book about the unique enterprise of short fiction, the power of fairy tales and how a short story is like a meal.

You can catch Mike reading at the launch of The Reasonable Ogre on April 26, 2012 at Type Books in Toronto. Check out the event details here.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new collection of short stories.

Mike Barnes:

The Reasonable Ogre, a collaboration with the artist Segbingway, is a collection of twelve illustrated fairy tales. Written for adults, though fine for younger readers too. “Fairy tales” is a default genre, simply because each story has at least one “magical” element — creature, power, event, situation.

OB:

What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?

MB:

I find the main challenge with any story is to pay attention and not jump to structure too early. The process is like putting your ear to a wall to hear what’s going on in the next room, trying to piece out what’s occurring and what laws might govern it. The extra challenge with fairy tales is to relax the logical judge in the brain and accentuate the curious listener. And to be patient, since they seem to come — or these ones did anyway &mddash; on their own schedule. If you’re willing to wait receptively, what has to happen will make itself known. The fairy tale world is very lawful. People think so-called realism sticks to fundamentals, and in fairy tales anything can happen — but in fact it’s the other way around. The opposite of magic isn’t realism, it’s whimsy.

OB:

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

MB:

I don’t know. But I’ve written poems and stories and novels, and from the first the idea has always come with a given form. Germ is form: new germ, new form. They’re not convertible — “oh, let’s try that poem as a story” — at least not for me.

OB:

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

MB:

The listening at the wall I described above. Trying to make out what’s going on from murmurs and snippets. Though the wall should have some random holes punched in it too — small windows that appear and disappear — because clear visual glimpses are also a key part of the discovery.

OB:

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

MB:

Ultimately, I don’t know. There’s no can’t-miss formula — otherwise, it would work every time. “Firsts” is a principle I’ve found useful: if you close your eyes and let a character approach, what’s the first thing you see? Hear? Not what’s central, what’s most important — what comes at you first? That, and energy. Interest. Not what you think should interest you, but what actually does. They can be hard to distinguish.

OB:

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

MB:

Well, there are things in The Reasonable Ogre that have never appeared in my writing before: a reasonable ogre obviously, devious sprites, jailed wizards, even an evil tooth fairy. But these could just be the forms that old familiars take this time. Over time, writing reveals a kind of x-ray of your basic makeup, the psychic bones. I seem to be drawn to threshold states, especially paradoxical or disguised ones. Endings that start something, closed rooms that actually open out. Sickness and recovery. Outsiders, strangers to power — and the strange powers of outsiders. Reversals of the given order is the common denominator, I guess. Loopholes.

OB:

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

MB:

That’s like asking if there’s a perfect meal. There are lots of them. It depends what you’re in the mood for. A hamburger? Sushi? Tacos and beer? Perfection isn’t the question: it’s whether a well-prepared dish meets the right diner with the right appetite. It’s craft, mood and sensibility all coming together without a hitch. It isn’t a rare thing, just completely satisfying. Literature’s the never-closed kitchen with a million dishes and a thousand helpful waiters. Hungry for exhaustive realism? Try the Tolstoy platter, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” A side dish of thrilling fantasy? We have our J.G. Ballard special, “The Garden of Time.” You’re not sure — or you’ve lost your appetite? Go back to Grimms’.

OB:

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

MB:

Don’t try to read a whole volume of them. Don’t even try two in a row. Find a time when you’ve got fifteen minutes to half an hour. Read a story. Close the book and don’t read another right away. Don’t try to think about it (unless you really want to). Let it sit with you. Just go about your day and let it ride along.


Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about The Reasonable Ogre please visit the Biblioasis website.

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

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