With Alice Munro's recent Nobel Prize for Literature, short fiction has received a boost in interest, and not only in Canada. Short story writing and reading is "in" – “finally”, and “high time”, as may long term aficionados are saying. I have to admit, I have come to appreciate short fiction only recently. With more time on my hands I am enjoying short fiction more and for a range of reasons. Canada is rich with diverse short fiction writers, as pointed out during the early part of the discussion at this Writers Festival event. It appears to be a genre that attracts more women than men, at least in Canada, though this contention deserves to be further explored (as I am just now thinking of short fiction by Joseph Boyden, Steven Heighton, and Alexander McLeod, to name a few, which has been showcased at the Ottawa Writers Festival in very recent years). Still, our panel members gave a range of good reasons why they are attracted to short story writing, ranging from particular topics and ideas that attract them to write a story to exploring and honing their writing skills and test out new ideas.
Lynn Coady, shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize with her collection Hellgoing , treated us to a short story that drew her back to her childhood, and many in the audience may well have compared her (fictional teacher) “Mr. Hope” with experiences in their own youth.
Journey Prizewinning author Cynthia Flood's new collection of short stories, Red Girl Rat Boy , from which she read the title story, addresses a wide range of human experiences. Nancy Richler, author of The Imposter Bride , says, "There's a rare honesty to Flood's writing. Her eye is unflinching, her language energetic and precise, her vision bracing, passionate and entirely lacking in sentimentality." Her book will certainly get onto my reading list sooner rather than later.
Kelli Deeth's new short story collection, The Other Side of Youth , is a collection of stories "about missed connections and unrequited desire, in which characters struggle internally and with each other over issues such as marriage, childlessness, adoption, adolescent longing, friendship, and death," according to the author’s website. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto. Her description of limited time available for writing every day led to a broader discussion on writing disciplines among the panel. Each author has her own approach to time and how to organize it. Lynn Coady admitted that her energy moves in waves and depends on the subjects and stories she works on. Taking the discussion further, Kate Heartfield, herself a published writer in addition to her work as a journalist, asked what many in the audience likely wanted to know: “How do you start? What makes you decide to write a story on a particular topic? Are certain subjects particularly suited for short story treatment?" Lynn Coady explained that for her, stories tend to come intuitively, often "with a jolt". Cynthia Flood added that she doesn't necessary decide on the length of a story ahead of time. It depends. Kelli Deeth also said that it is difficult to explain what makes her want to write a particular story. This brought the panel back to the question of how, for example, do you get into the mind of a ten-year old child and capture her thoughts? This led to a broader discussion of how to capture the voice and perspective of a young person or child, a challenge that all three authors had experienced. Coady, for example, took a year to work with the voice of the girl in “Mr. Hope”, the story she had read earlier. She had to dig deep into her own memories, and at some point it became easy to recreate the voice. Flood added that all our memories exist somewhere in our brain, but we have to find ways to access them to bring them alive again.
Having discussed ideas for stories and how to begin, the discussion moved to endings. How do the panelists decide that a story is finished? What makes them decide to close at a particular point? Is it more appropriate to end "with a bang" or write a more subdued ending? Obviously, the answer varies story to story but I found interesting what Lynn Coady added: There can be a point where it is "safe" to leave the story and leave the reader with his or her own imagination. Sometimes she may have an ending in mind, but then as she progresses into the story she ends it at a different point…
One challenge for any collection is the order in which the short stories are selected for the publication. Sometimes, a chronological order is the most obvious, especially when the stories are linked in some way. At other times the stories are quite diverse and a natural order doesn't impose itself on the author. All panelists related to this challenge and suggested that at times it takes a trusted outsider, a first reader or an editor, to bring order and structure. As readers we benefit from it – or do we at times mix up the story by other criteria?
I would like to leave the panelists and the moderator with a great “thank you” for a very interesting and delightful discussion.