Edna O’Brien wins 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award

Congratulations to Edna O’Brien, winner of the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.

Since her debut novel The Country Girls Edna O’Brien has written over twenty works of fiction along with a biography of James Joyce and Lord Byron. She is the recipient of many awards including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Art’s Gold Medal and the Ulysses Medal. Born and raised in Co. Clare she has lived in London for many years.

 Articles and reading guides related to Edna O’Brien at the Guardian

Interview with Edna O’Brien in the Paris Review

O’Brien at Faber

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Good luck to the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award Finalists

Tomorrow (Sunday, September 18th) will see the winner of this year’s Frank O’Connor Short Story Award announced. As a reminder, the shortlistees are:

  1. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li (Beijing-born, American Resident)
  2. Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Canadian debutante)
  3. Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien (Irish)
  4. Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca (American Debutante)
  5. The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín (Irish)
  6. Marry or Burn by Valerie Trueblood (American)

I’d like to congratulate all of the finalists for making it this far and wish each and every one good luck.

Results will be posted live on the blog tomorrow during the ceremony which starts at 7pm in The Ballroom, Hotel Metropole, Cork.

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Readings at the Cork International Short Story Festival

When you come to literary festivals, you come to experience something new; to witness the short story form in all its brilliance and to come out the other side, having felt or learned something which you can’t quite put your finger on. You expect to be pulled into the stories, carried along and jolted out of the other side having changed inexplicably (as described perfectly by Valerie Trueblood in her interview). And this change is all thanks to a few minutes of pure indulgence; the chance to listen and be entertained by a moment… a snippet of an event or glimpse of a life. Thankfully, this has been made possible by the variety, excellence and dedication that is at the heart of the Cork International Short Story Festival.

As an audience we have journeyed along the surreal and brutally comical path of Michal Ajvaz’s The End of the Garden, tracking the internal struggles of a man faced with lewd and violent monitor lizards, musings on the misfortune of philosophy, books written by demons and unlikely journeys through a series of bizarre events. We have sympathised and worried throughout Siobhan Fallon’s Inside the Break; an emotive account of the struggles of a serviceman’s wife left at home, musing over how to deal with her husband’s suspected affair in the light of his heroic role as a serviceman.

We have travelled across oceans and through time to view the cold realities of modern Beijing through the piercing honesty of Yuyan Li; to the beautiful yet unpredictable Canadian wilderness (Deborah Wills) and the devastatingly contradictory yet colourful streets of Vancouver City (Michael Christie). We’ve experienced what it’s like to be reckless, daredevil teenagers and considered the plight of lice (Alexander McLeod) and we’ve lived as a lonely old lady finding solace in inanimate objects (Ethel Rohan).

We’ve chuckled along with the caustic thoughts of Suzanne Rivecca’s struggling counsellor intern and laughed loudly with emerging writers P. G. Connor (winner of the 2011 Sean O’Faolain Award) and Mary Costello (The Stinging Fly). But we’ve also watched with awe as international bestselling Irish authors  Edna O’Brien and Colm Tobin share their talent on stage.

Every story has emanated surprise, intimacy, honesty and energy. In turn, the stories have beguiled, taunted, teased, shocked and comforted. But, most importantly, they have entertained. Throughout the festival, there’s been a huge sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief that the short story can still find a place where it is respected, applauded and celebrated. In short, the Cork International Short Story Festival has proved that the art of short story writing is alive and well.

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Panel Discussion: Short Story Anthologies

A look at the pros, cons and possibilities of short story anthologies and publication with Declan Meade, Orfhlaith Foyle, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Tania Hershman, chaired by Billy Ramsell.

Orfhlaith, there have been three major anthologies published in Ireland recently – by Faber, Granta and the Stinging Fly – and you’re included in the Faber book. How did that come about?

O: I was in the midst of trying to write my second novel and I found myself writing bits of short stories instead. Nuala was the editor for Horizon Review and she suggested I sent something in. -I wrote and sent in The Secret Life of Madame Defarge. I had to put the novel aside to complete it, then sent it off to my editor at Lilliput press as a kind of proof that I was still writing. He sent it on to Joseph O’Connor and that’s how I was included. Joseph asked if I had anything else. I’d been wrestling with another idea and wrote The Summer in Minnesota. It had been part of this novel outline but when I saw it in its nugget form, I was able to write it as a short story in a couple of weeks, fully expecting not to be included. It was beyond my dreams to be included really. It was a great boost because it told me I’m still a writer; you do get very down days as a writer because you sometimes feel you’re just repeating themes and writing them in the same way. Writers have a theme and although you try to get away from it, it’ll drag you back.

How would you describe or identify the themes you write about?

O: I think my themes are quite visceral; it’s love, it’s sex (even though my family think it shouldn’t be), death, loneliness and wanting to belong or not having the ability and failing at the last moment. Redemption, failing yourself. I was quite surprised to find family and ruined families are big themes – but families are a microcosm of the world; everything that happens can be related back to family Sometimes I wish I could be more of an academic or political writer but there’s no point trying to be what I’m not.

Declan, what was your procedure behind The Stinging Fly anthologies – how did they come together?

D: With both of those early anthologies we had open submission calls. The magazine was set up in 1998 and in 2005 we decided to set up the book publishing imprint. The short story has always been central to what The Stinging Fly does. With the press, we printed a special fiction issue of the magazine; it was part of establishing the identity of the press, to show it was going to continue its commitment to the short story. I edited the first two anthologies – so it was what responded to, what I thought was good, not in any way going for a theme, that got included. The interesting bit for me is trying to place the stories, create a logic behind the sequencing.

Do you suggest changes to authors?

D: Yes. In the very early days I was more tentative about the editing process – in Issue 4 I had one writer who was horrified that I’d suggest changes and refused flat out that any changes could be made. I’m not suggesting changes for the heck of it; I’m trying to tap in to what the writer is trying to do; it’s usually tuning into the voice and making sure the voice is consistent throughout. Some stories come in and you know that you want to publish them but you can see that they still need a lot of work – but there’s a kernel there and you want to publish even though you think the story isn’t ready at the moment. In that situation, I go back to the writer and say go again – send in a completely revised draft – and that usually works. It’s an opportunity for the writer to go at their story again and the writers appreciate that opportunity. There’s deadlines etc and sometimes they might have rushed it to get considered.

What did you think of the Granta Anthology?

N: I really like the Granta anthology – and I love Anne Enright – but what annoyed me was that no one under 40 was included; which is suggesting to people outside of Ireland under the age of 40. I was annoyed for young writers who are doing their best; though in Anne Enright’s defense, she read a huge number of stories and she was very thorough in her work. She ended up with her selection which she did say in the foreword. She did a panel on the anthology recently and the lack of Irish language was brought up – Anne admitted she did ignore Irish language stories and perhaps would have done it differently if asked to do it again. But the Irish language is something that all Irish anthologies, and festivals, should be taken into consideration. Also, new writers need to be included. There are plenty of people who buy anthologies to discover new writers. So when people come to this and all they’re getting is the people they already know about; where’s the helping of the newer people? It’s important to look past writers but it’s important to talk about writing today. that’s why Stinging Fly is important because it’s committed to new writers (not ‘young writers’) and that’s how it should be. Why ignore or exclude good writers because they’re not yet famous? But saying that, I do love it; I have it on my bedside.

The other night, Alexander McLeod talked about how Canada has too much geography and not enough history, but in Ireland there’s an over supply of history and short supply of geography…do you think Irish literature reflects modern society?

N: I’d say for myself, or for Orla, or Pat Cotter as a poet; we look outwards rather than inwards. My stories will be set in America, for example, and so sometimes your work won’t be included in anthologies because they’re not considered Irish enough. This is frustrating.

D: In relation to the urban-rural writing, there were 500 plus stories last year sent into The Stinging Fly and there was a distinct lack of contemporary Dublin stories. There was no great sense of the city whereas the country appeared time and again. Going back to what Nuala said, there are quite a few story writers have consistently fallen outside of that expectation of traditional ‘Irishness’, and the expectation of style. That’s why we need as many people as possible to take up the challenge of getting involved in publishing or editing. We had a guest editor for our third anthology – so that brought in new writers that wouldn’t have submitted if I had been editing – so it’s important I keep that avenue open.

Tania – could you tell us a little about the Short Review?

T: It happened in 2007; in June of that year I got the life-changing news that Salt wanted to publish my first short story collection and I was in so much shock that I couldn’t write! So I thought; I’d like to do something for the short story. I realised that short story publications don’t often get reviewed so I thought I’d set up an online journal that reviews all such books, new and old, and now we publish ten reviews every month. It’s a totally random selection and we try to interview as many of the authors as possible as well. Even big name authors have been happy to get their collections reviewed because despite their popularity, they’re struggling too in this genre. Every time I despair a bit about how much time it takes for me and my deputy editor to set it up, I’m just so happy about the number of anthologies out there.

Nuala, when you were interviewing Valerie Trueblood, you mentioned charity anthologies in a negative light…

N: I was talking about the type of charity anthology that invites celebrity authors and invites people who don’t write at all. They wanted light and frothy. These get huge publicity and people buy them – and we wonder why people don’t like short stories – it’s because they’re not necessarily reading good short stories. There are two anthologies coming out – Dedalus’ Shine On and one by Console which asked the like of Colm Tobin and Anne Enright to be involved; they’re doing a charity anthology in the proper way. I don’t think non short story writers should be asked to write short stories to fill gaps. But there are also great things you can do as a writer such as the recent 1000 Stories for Haiti where you donate a story – it’s great to be able to help out with a world catastrophe like that.

(Audience question) There’s a problem with long short stories getting long stories (8000 plus) published – what is the panelists advice?

N: There’s One Story in America, and Picador Shots but it’s hard; even if you get a story in the New Yorker – you get it cut down. You can try to ask editors to be lenient with upper limit – if your story blows them away, they might include it. Editors are all the time thinking about space. Do you give one person an 8000 word spot or three people a 2500 word slot each? It’s difficult.

Is there a danger that there’ll be a number of writers who never truly emerge because they’re shackled by writing short stories to satisfy editors?

D: The writer must decide – the writer has to get the work out there but a writer cannot exist by thinking an editor will like such a style/story/length etc so that’s what I’ll write. That’s not sustainable for anyone. You have to carry on and write the stories you want to write in the way you want to write them. You have to make your stories the best they can be – that’s the only route you can take. You’ll come across obstacles, of course, but that’s life.

N: …and being in anthologies is unusual – it’s not something that happens early in your writing career. It comes after a few years.

D: Anthologies like Faber are under pressure to have names in there and to showcase new people; but it’s not an open call. It’s down to how a big publisher will operate; it’s hard to sell a book anyway, never mind a book of unknown writers. People are hesitant about embracing new writing; they need to be nudged towards it. The Stinging Fly has built up it’s name so people have come to trust something from their press. It’s business.

(Audience question) As short story writers, can you live behind your work or do you have to be out there to promote it?

T: I was interviewed recently about the concept of literary platform; when my book came out I did everything I could – blogs, website, blog tours, interviews – and it can go on and on and seem endless. But I don’t think the book would have sold at all if I hadn’t. Blogs have been so useful to me and Nuala…

N: You spend so long writing the stories but you’d be mad not to come out of the cave and promote your work by getting behind it. People act as though it’s new but Charles Dickens was a notorious self promoter. You have to support your work.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

O: Growing up, I loved short stories. Some people want resolution at the end of a resolution at the end of a short story and you don’t get that in a short story; you make a razor cut into a characters life and all you see is what’s in that cut. They’re not necessarily depressing but they make people think and feel; there are plenty of people out there who love short stories but they’re not publicised enough. I just think it’s a pity that short stories aren’t lauded enough – it’s the same as literary fiction. There are marvelous writers out there and they’re undiscovered and that’s where The Stinging Fly comes it. I remember being delighted when I had a story accepted by The Stinging Fly. I love it when an editor comes back and suggests changes; it means they’ve been reading my work.

T: It’s lovely to talk about short stories. I want to talk about some of the most exciting anthologies I’ve come across, like one that I was included in that was inspired by string theory. It was an incredible thrill because I thought I was alone in taking inspiration in science. I’ve been writer in residence in a bio chemistry lab so I’ve been hanging out with scientists for a year and it’s been incredibly inspiring. I applied for a grant for short stories based on science and about 50 short shorts. All linked to bio chemistry in some way. I highly recommend any writer to experience these worlds of the lab. It’s like another planet and they use beautiful words. Being there as a writer, I don’t have to know what they mean – I can just take them and use them. The range of anthologies is huge; there’s the ‘best of’s’…then there’s things like The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction, Victorian Vampire Fiction, Getting Even revenge stories, Master’s of Technique (short stories inspired by chess) etc. There’s a whole wealth or anthologies. Being part of an anthology is very exciting and the small presses are so enthusiastic and vigorous and you feel like you’re part of something; more so than when you publish your own book and are solely responsible for the promotion. There are lots of calls for submissions on themes – it’s inspiring for me to work with these themes because even if it doesn’t get published you have a new piece of work. And, you do get paid – which is great for any writer – even if it’s a tiny amount.

Recommended anthologies from the panel:

N: My Mistress’s Sparrow – a collection of love stories (wedding present) and Cutting the Night – an anthology of Irish women writers
T: Freedom by Amnesty International and a range of Flash Fiction titles including Sudden Fiction and Sudden Fiction International
O: The recent Faber anthology
D: Best American Stories (various years and the decade edition), The Art of the Story, The Art of the Tale (for the brilliant range and international reach), Frank O’Connor edited Irish Short Story, British Short Stories edited by Malcolm Bradbury.

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Sean O’Faolain and Hennessy Emerging Fiction Awards

Congratulations to P.G. O’Connor, winner of the 2011 Sean O’Faolain Award for his story The Haggard. Sean O’Faolain Award judge, Ian Wild, said that he chose The Haggard as the winning story because of it’s distinctive voice, original prose, earthy characterisation, compelling storytelling, clever use of recurring motifs and narrative drive.

And further congratulations go to Eileen Casey, winner of the 2011 Hennessy Emerging Fiction Award for her story “Macaw”. Eileen Casey’s fiction has also received The Maria Edgeworth Award, Listowel Writers’ Week Short Fiction Prize and The Cecil Day Lewis Award. To date, her stories have been published in the Moth, Verbal Arts Magazine and the Sunday Tribune, among others.

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Yiyun Li discusses two Cork writers

When I travel to a specific country/city, I would like to bring a book connected to that place. For instance, I traveled to London with VS Pritchett’s London Perceived, and to Denmark with the letters of Izak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) sent from Africa to her Danish family and friends.

However, there are two Cork writers whose work have accompanied me on all these trips, as they belong to the second category: writers with whom I have constantly conversed, and I strive for my work to talk with their work. These two writers are Elizabeth Bowen, whom I discovered the last time I came to the festival, and William Trevor.

I was reading Bowen’s Collected Stories on the flight from San Francisco yesterday. And here’s one story, titled I Hear You Say So (what a beautiful title!). The story was about one evening–“this tense and aimless, tired and tender evening–in London immediately after WWII was over.

Since it is a story without a plot, I don’t feel the danger of giving anything away. The story follows several pairs of characters, almost all made anonymous by the darkness of the night, and the vignettes of their dialogues and interactions, harmlessly seeming at times, all of a sudden led to this question: “But can people live without something they cannot have?”

As a reader, I was  caught unprepared by the question. Bowen always does that to you, and once the question is asked, you realize that nothing is as it seems. And that, to me, is the beauty of Bowen’s writing: she makes you look at things twice, and more than that, she makes you understand what you haven’t been able to see when you are looking.

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The RTE Francis McManus Award

The competition, which was founded to commemorate the writer and broadcaster, Francis Mac Manus, has been a source of encouragement and inspiration to thousands of emerging writers over the years and continues to offer a platform for the best of new Irish writing.

This year’s Francis McManus Award received 810 entries which were eventually whittled down to a shortlist of 25 short stories by panelists Molly McCloskey, John MacKenna and Alan Titley. The three finalists are:

  • Austin Duffy from Dudalk, the Francis McManus Award winner with Orca (read by Diarmuid Murtagh)
  • Patrick Griffin from Kilkenny City, in 2nd place with Platform 17, Grand Central Station (read by Susan Zalouf)
  • Andrew Fox from Skerries, Co. Dublin, in 3rd place with Seven Steps Home – (read by David Croakly)

Congratulations to the finalists for demonstrating that the short story and literary tradition celebrated in Ireland is well and truly alive.


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Valerie Trueblood interviewed by Nuala Ni Chonchuir

For those who couldn’t make it down to the Hotel Metropole this afternoon, here’s a taster of the interview with Valerie Trueblood:

Your stories all have arresting openings…such as; “Our father married a woman who took an axe to a bear.” Are these openings fully formed to you? Is that your starting point?

The starting point is usually much vaguer than that; its a scene, perhaps something heard, something in a song – but the openings do come rather soon afterwards. They just kind of pop up. I’m glad they appear; sometimes they may seem like gimmicks but I hope that overall they don’t, because they’re not. A scene will demand to be written and I’ll be writing the scene and then the opening will come to me.

In one of your stories, Paloma, a prison guard, is a minor character but becomes pivotal to the story and how the other women view themselves. In your books, the minor characters will sometimes speak one line but become incredibly important; how do you master these characters?

The minor players become our husbands and wives, they’re the people that sue us or pull us out of a flood. In stories, we’ll give the minor characters the germ that kills someone – they get the centre spot. For example, in Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, the minor player is Jesus Christ. Minor characters come forward in life and so I like to see them come out in a story. They’re no longer minor. They’re everywhere.

You’re very good at dropping in a seeming unimportant situation which them becomes central to the plot – how does this weaving and saturation occur?

I can speak specifically about the bear in my story; the bear is already a bear to me because every year my husband and son go out into the back country to hike and I stay at home to learn everything there is about bears. The bear is like the being of a short story. The part of a short story that you can’t put your finger on, that’s at the centre of the short story. The bear acts as that; it’s not a symbol – I don’t believe things should symbolise each other – but a crux. A way the grief of the characters can be shown. In a short story, anything is possible; a tree can come to stand for the whole story.

There’s a lot of humour, an undercurrent of glee throughout the book – how important is humour to you as a writer?

Humour is very important. I think of myself as someone who has a tragic view of life – and I think I do have this tragic view – but I also have this childish desire to make fun of it. The wish to laugh at life does go with the tragic… I think one protection against tragedy is when everything can dissolve – it’s like the humour people need at a wake.

But you don’t think there’s room for irony in short stories – can you explain this?

I think many people would disagree and would be able to name short story writers using irony that they love. For me, irony is when a writer knows more than a reader and hints at it – I don’t think the reader is our crony and we should be winking at her. I don’t think the writer should ever try to summon a reader by meeting the reader’s eyes – though metafiction at the minute is doing this well and while I’m making this claim, it’s all changing. I guess I mean the more general, overarching irony which draws the reader into a conspiracy with the author almost against the characters; into some judgement that excludes the characters from the relationship between the reader and the writer.

Let’s talk a little about titles – the individual titles of each story – does titling come naturally to you?

I love the titles of books and stories, and with my own they come to me. Sometimes they’re quotes – in a new story I have – sometime they’re serendipity and they just seize me – but I don’t know whether they’re good or not.

I wonder how much readers take in story titles?

Sometimes titles are the clue to the whole story – like with poems. Sometimes you wont realise until you’ve finished and go back but I’m not sure that stories are the best form to demonstrate this – if they’re as good as a poem for initiating that spark.

Your stories are long and you say they all seem to take a long time to write – can you talk a bit about the process?

They do take a long time and my problem is I go back to them forever and continue to edit them again and again – I wish I could edit them when they come out but I can’t. I do have short shorts, I can write them; when I write a 50 page story and cut to 30 page story I realise I’ve cut it to the bone and wish I hadn’t published it originally as it was in its longer form. All stories have technical problems and I don’t think anyone is ever ready to let them go…you want a story to be one thing and then it turns into something else and the there’s such a feeling of regret. The short story has a limbo that the novel doesn’t have – like a vacuum cleaner bag – that you have to realise when you reach. It’s the limitation of the short story that is part of it’s greatness. We don’t have to observe unities in a short story; it can cover a lifetime or a day – the time in a short story can be long but some magical limiting factor has to work on it.

When we were emailing each other you talked about the mental thrill of a short story. Can you talk a little about this?

I don’t know how you aim for it but as a writer you always hope for it and you recognise it in the things you’ve read. The short story has more of this thrill than a novel – it’s not a contest but in some ways I see it as that… in a short story, you’re not heading towards the resolution or the clue you saw in the opening section; it’s like going on a ferris wheel. It’s going to turn, you’re not going anywhere but something is going to happen to you. It’s a circle; a circle that contains a thrill that a trip down a road or a trip down 40 chapters doesn’t have; it’s the thrill of your feet leaving the earth. It’s the experience of knowing that there’s something in store for you. It can never be a poem – but it aims for the same thrill.

Research is integral to your stories. For instance, in The Magic Pebble, the woman is taking a trip to Lourdes but she never gets there; but you still researched two books about Lourdes. It’s crucial to your art but why is this?

I love research; the internet has almost been the death of me. I’m infected with a love of tracking things down; not to explain them but just to know about them. So that kind of research very much interests me and there’s an endless amount to find out about now we have the internet. But as writers, we do all this work and then it doesn’t fit anywhere; we sort of know things and then it doesn’t fit into the story. You absorb bits into the story but then it becomes all about the story. Research is very vaporous in my mind; it doesn’t come to any fruition but it’s a kind of fiendish enjoyment.

Do you show people your work or share it in groups?

My writing is pretty solitary – I don’t show anyone any works in progress. My husband, two friends (one a writer and one who isn’t) and my agent see work when it’s so-called finished. The friend who isn’t a writer is more my audience; a non writer is able to give a whole perspective and reaction like a real reader in a bookshop. She’d say things like “this story interested me on page 13”. I’m argumentative and I’d argue the first 12 pages need to stay but that instinct from a loving reader is useful.

Colm Toibin said that short stories are about sharing secrets. I think this reflects your own thoughts on the form…

The short story really is about the nature of life, and it tackles subjects which the novel can’t tackle as well. For instance, death; a novel can’t go on for 500 pages about death. I do think at the end of the story, you should have some feeling you didn’t go into the story with. It’s not a secret like in a novel where you go back and find out the hidden secret; I don’t think in a short story you can summarise it. You apprehend it and learn it but it’s still secret. The secret is an illumination which you can’t convey except by giving someone the story to read.

In your essay, The Short Story, you said “It seems fair to say the average short story is not as hospitable to readers, to modern people with their own ideas, as the average novel, nor as open to looseness and imperfection.” Is the lack of resolution the reason why readers find the short story hard and unsatisfying?

I think everyone at this festival wonders why there is this resistance to the short story – don’t they like beauty. Don’t they like butter? What is wrong? I think in the States it’s the longing for a solution to everything and the inability to accept the absence of that in the short story. It’s the result of our history and Hollywood – it’s a simple way of reading.

Is there any way to get the general public to want collections, the way they want novels?

I think we just have to give people collections and anthologies, talk about, write about and share them. It must be this lack of outcome in the modern short story that’s the problem; older short stories used to have a resolution. I think people who have this resistance don’t know what the form is – but how you introduce people to this form? Make them perceive it as more than just a shortened thing? I don’t know. Publish more of them. Some people say when are you going to do a full length work? What is this full length people talk about? I don’t know!


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Reading with Deborah Willis and Michael Christie

The international feel continued into the evening as Michael Christie and Deborah Willis followed their excellent interviews with readings from their short story collections.

Michael took to the stage first, thanking the organisers and audience for the invitation to such “an idea-loaded, committed and vibrant festival…” Michael jumped straight in with an excerpt from Emergency Contact; an unusual and intriguing story about a lonely woman in love with a paramedic, who phones 911 compulsively in hope of bringing the paramedic to her house. We pick up the story at a point where she’s lying on her back, (“the rowing slave in the galleon of my body”) faking recovery from a faked heart attack, trying to find a way to make sure that she isn’t exposed as a fraud so that she can continue with her ploy. Through the interaction between the desperate woman and the exasperated paramedic, Michael masterfully interweaves various aspects of the human condition; hope, fear, weakness, unexpected strength and power struggles. With careful observances and insights into his characters (“I paused because pause means deep consideration”), a beautiful command of language (“they teetered on my eyes like cars do on cliffs in movies”) and fabulously sharp dialogue (“I’m going to stop myself breathing” “And how will you do this?” “With my mind”), Michael drove the story forward at an exhilarating pace; stopping before the end to leave the audience hungry for more.

Continuing with an entire piece, The Quiet, Michael displayed more of his deep insight into the complexities of human nature. This story focused on the relationship between a driving-obsessed boy who “as long as he’d remembered, he’d found contentment in the world’s quiet places…” and his louder, gang-member brother. The story explores violence, necessity, expectation, and how the past can shape the future, amongst other themes. Culminating in a chance meeting in a gas station between the boy and a middle-aged woman, the story brings you on an unexpected road trip, revealing a glimpse of the value of an unlikely friendship; a friendship which brings momentary respite for both characters. In moments, “the roads empty as black sheets of paper” seem to shift and you witness the pair evolve, with “dawn lifting shadows from the weary shoulders of everything”. Michael certainly gave the audience a taste of why he has gained so much acclaim for his “strong and vibrant” debut collection, demonstrating his ability to address “the human condition in a way rarely seen in literature”, where his characters “become your new friends”.

Deborah Willis followed with a contrasting story, The Weather, set in a rural environment. Written in two voices (an older man, Brayden, who is a rancher and his daughter Edith), the story examines the developing relationship triangle involving a father, his daughter and the daughter’s new friend. Set against an amazingly interwoven backdrop, filled with a “blush of trees” and drastically changing weather, Deborah unfolds the depth and drama of chance encounters and how human beings affect each other in the most unexpected of ways. The story began with the first time Edith meets the unusual girl, (“I asked her if she was lost and she said she was lost on purpose…”) and then moves to when she brings her new friend home. The new friend is immediately portrayed as a girl that the father neither likes nor approves of, who is “built like the spindly birch we use as windbreak”. However, as the story unfurls, there is a shift in attitudes and an air of something almost sinister unfolds as the father falls for the girl.

Through the twin voice structure, you gain a keen insight into each character’s understanding of events; their helplessness, desires and hopes at the time of the event, combined with their vision of self and others which has been altered by time. Cleverly contrasting the two voices, using dialogue and imagery which reflect their years, as well as their understanding of the world, you get the feeling that neither of the narrators have any control over events; they’re being powered along by their own unexplored natures, like the environment they live in, with the clouds that “spooled and unspooled themselves”. Together they’re unwittingly faced with the effects of the tornado-like friend. We follow the father and daughter as they are helplessly driven along by chance events and they struggle to make sense of events outside their experience. The innocence of his daughter combined with the helplessness of her father creates an overwhelming sense of how no event can ever be completely controlled, or witnessed in the same way by any two people. Deborah had the audience hooked, displaying her talents as “one of those writers that make fiction feel less of a genre”, laying bare the powerful consequences of our choices.

An excellent reading in terms of both mastery of the craft and delivery; and an outstanding example of Canadian short story writing talent.

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Suzanne Rivecca interviewed by Patrick Cotter

On your interview over on the festival blog, you expressed your annoyance at the initial reaction of your book…

Yes. As a bit of background, the book is mainly female protagonists; tries to be frank and open about issues not usually explored with much candor; sexuality, sexual abuse, relationships and their Initially there were some reviewers who hit the same refrain al of the time; seeing the characters, as twisted and neurotic…I felt it wouldn’t have had the same reaction if the protagonists had been men. I feel men’s suffering in literature is seen as universal; shedding light on the human condition. But if it’s a female character, there’s a squeamishness… it really irritated me because my book was being looked at through a gender-specific lens.

You’re becoming very famous in America now but here you’re relatively new; can you describe a little about your background?

I have a very boring background, growing up in Michigan in a middle class family, with catholic schooling. I don’t think my family was a factor at all in my urge to become a writer; it always felt inherent. My parents read to us a lot, but they didn’t really read fiction for pleasure; it wasn’t part of our daily routine. I’d always felt compelled to write; it was very urgent and personal to me, very private, my escape.

The Bronte’s started writing about their brother’s toy soldier collection. When did you start writing?

I have written for as long as I could remember. There was a certain age when I started saying vocationally that I wanted to be writer; when I understood that it was a category which you could use to identify yourself. I always wrote prose fiction; I tried poetry but I was the worst, wordy poet and realised quickly that prose fiction was what I should work with.

You had a distinguished college writing career – did you have anything published beforehand or did you have to provide a portfolio?

I had to provide a portfolio and it was very bad work. Those were the days when I had an immense allegiance to and feel for words and language, but I didn’t have any idea of how to create a character, how to convey a narrative. My characters were just a voice which was a talking head without any concept of what was going on around her. Objectively, I guess it was my use of language that they saw in me because that was all I had going for me at that time.

Compare and contrast the situation of being part of an MFA course, and then a stigma fellowship.

They’re actually different in a way that you wouldn’t expect; I found my MFA programme to be quite alienating in its atmosphere, and quite competitive. That was when I became quite disillusioned with academia as a whole – petty politics consumed and had nothing to do with writing. I wrote while people got drunk and tried to impress the famous people on the faculty. Then when I got to the stigma fellowship I discovered the social side of writing; I discovered how people come become better writers using each other as an influence. I had conversations about writing and literature which I hadn’t done before. There was a certain purity to that which I found validating. It was very much treating writing in pro-active rather than analysing writing in the abstract.

You can’t judge a book by its cover clearly isn’t something publishers believe in – there’s an interesting story behind the hard back version of your book.

When we talked about the cover, I asked my publishers, please, whatever you do, don’t make the cover of my book a photo of a woman gazing into the distance, or wistfully walking down a lane in a sundress or a shot of a woman from the thighs down. I specifically asked that that not be done. I asked that a tiger somehow be incorporated into the cover because one of the stories contained a tiger. They listened to me and were completely respectful and created a beautiful cover which I thought was emblematic of the book and the collection; I was disappointed the tiger didn’t make it to the paperback but they gave me so much leeway before, I was happy to let it go.

The book is dedicated to a tiger, and why is that?

In 2007 a tiger escaped from the enclosure in the San Franciscan zoo and attacked three young men who had been bating the tiger; the tiger escaped, killed one and injured the other two. The police came and shot the tiger and killed it. When that incident happened, my sympathies were with the tiger and it seemed such a waste of life to me; towards mysteries in general. There are certain things that are mysterious because that’s what they should be and this mythologised creature is one of those things and shouldn’t have been placed in the path of those men in the first place

There’s no genius without humour – can you relate to that saying?

Yeah – humour is so much a part – whether it’s appropriate or not – it’s integral to how human beings process things that happen to them. Loss of humour in a story would be doing a disservice to the scope of human experience.

I think you’re right; and it’s also asking the audience to react in the same way. Your individual way of telling the story of child molestation – is it primarily driven by your concerns as an artist or as someone motivated by rebelling against the disservice.

For a very long time I’ve had visceral reactions to template portrayals on media, tv shows and literature, of child molestation. I think on the one hand it was a very instinctive decision – there was no agenda – but there a fierce mission to express some kind of truth which I didn’t feel had been done. There is an accepted narrative; this is what it is, this is how it affects people and that’s it. It’s formulaic and damaging.

Where in the process of composing the book did you write the stories with younger protagonists?

With the title story “Death is not an option” that’s the oldest story in the book and thats the only one from my MFA that made it into the book. The one with the girl in the early twenties was a bit later. Some reviewers in America think the title story is too glib or is trying to sound too hip; others love it because it’s the most immediate and most visceral. People either love it or hate it.

So now you’re writing about Walt Whitman?

Yes. The novel I’m working on is written (so far) in the first person and I’m trying not to think too hard about how audacious that is – and I’m also trying not to emulate his voice. It’s the bewildered, disaffected part of his life that I’m focusing on; the type of protagonist I’m always attracted to – someone trying to establish themselves in the world.

Audience question: How has it been for you having a book published and affected you as a writer?

There have been positive and negative affects; I was so used to writing for me by blocking out the idea of readers – and so the book being received as an object that doesn’t belong solely to me has been disconcerting as well as validating; but now I realise there are external expectations. I always wrote solely for my own gratification; but the reality of the reality has put a gloss of attachment to my work now. The only way I can deal with it is to artificially construct for myself that mentality that I had before my book. I have to think about why I’m writing and follow the bit that resonates to me and focus on that.

You were asked in an interview what you’d like to ask a reader and you replied that you’d like to know what they thought the last story in your collection was about. What does the final story mean for you?

It involves an encounter with the tiger; I guess that story has always meant a person’s ability to confront in normal time the ability to distill mystery – something unknowable that only retains its mysteries if it always stays unknowable. I think there’s an element in every person that has that mystery, that is unknowable. That story is representative of that; we should keep that mystery because it’s so integral to us, not for ourselves or others to understand.

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