What is it as a reader, and a writer, that attracts you to the short story?
I make little distinction between my reading life and my writing life in terms of what attracts me. The joys and sorrows I unearth when reading a great story are the very same that I try to cram into my own. The attractive part is that the short story can create very unique effects in relation to other literary forms. There is something about a short story that feels like it’s already ending, even halfway through the first sentence. Though there have been a multitude of brilliant TV series recently (i.e. HBO’s The Wire), I much prefer the form of a feature film to this kind of protracted, episodic unspooling. I love to know that the film I’m watching is going to end, that here and now, no matter what, it will be settled (this may be why I usually avoid sequels). I loathe the idea of a narrative going forever, as long as the series is renewed and there is advertiser interest, etc. I also grow tired when I feel like I’m being narratively hooked and strung along, which is how I often feel reading novels. With short stories this is never the case. You are constantly worried that you may get too little, but never that you will get too much.
Your collections is described as “darkly comic and intoxicating stories, gleefully free of moral judgment…” – How do you maintain a non-judgemental, comic stance when dealing with such tricky characters and situations? Are there any other writers that you think do this particularly well?
I really love fiction where it feels like an alternate moral system is at work. Chekov is perhaps the greatest example of this. The way he can rattle off a complete inventory of a person’s faults, while simultaneously conveying a genuine love for them, is what renders his fiction so heart-wrenching. Underneath it all he seems to be whispering, “Yes, these people are terrible, you are terrible, I am also terrible, but isn’t it beautiful nonetheless, don’t we all deserve at least some forgiveness…” I think all great writing forgives.
In a more contemporary vein, writers like Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Edward P. Jones and Miranda July, who style-wise all hugely differ, but share in this same lack of judgment. And as far as comedy goes, as soon as you start describing people with any accuracy, things get funny quick. Often the trick is dialling this back to a point where it’s not distracting or cruel. “Love your characters” is a writing-program cliche, but it really is true.
What benefits and challenges did you come across when writing your series of linked short stories? Was this pattern intentional from the start?
I had a loose idea that I wanted to write a linked collection from the beginning. I’ve long admired books like Joyce’s Dubliners or Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City (a solid-gold masterpiece, in my opinion) that take a city as their central character. My book, The Beggar’s Garden, is very much about Vancouver, where I lived for many years. I think a linked collection can tackle a modern city in a way a novel can’t. Narratives are suggested in the spaces between the stories, and life seems to teem outside the margins–more lives than could ever be described or known. Collections of this kind emulate our fractured and disjointed existences, which remain so even with us packed together in such tight quarters (like in a book!). The challenge specific to this approach is the same as a non-linked collection: write good stories. And what a challenge that is.
Readers like to imagine that the stories they read are about themselves or the author – to what extent did you base your stories around your own experiences and the people you know?
This one is always tough. In Canada, Margaret Atwood is kind of culturally ubiquotous, and even from a young age I remember her chastising interviewers for drawing inferences between her own life and the lives of her characters (I recently watched a National Film Board of Canada documentary where this happened the entire time!)
To me, it seems almost narcissistic to insist that your imagination is greater than, and separate from, ‘you’. I believe the ‘you’ in your work is inescapable. We imagine in the language we’ve learned, through the lens of our personality, with only the tools of what we already know. What we write does speak about us, but the real problem is the kind of inferences we draw from this. Of course if you write about rape you are not a rapist. But isn’t it true that a certain sort of person writes about rape? Still a good, kind person, certainly, but probably someone who is thinking about the interplay of sex and power and male oppression.
Fiction is exciting because it exists somewhere between autobiography and pure imagination. Really, I think we just need to enjoy this mystery, rather than try to solve it. So in my case: I worked at a homeless shelter in Canada’s most impoverished neighbourhood for six years, and my book features drug dealers and users, thieves and people from all walks of society. Some of the book I could never have imagined, and some of it I did. I leave it to the reader to do the math.
Were you expecting such a huge response for your debut collection – and how has the reaction affected you as a writer?
It has been both surreal and wonderful. I would’ve been equally thrilled with much, much less of a response. Actually, the Beggar’s Garden was just longlisted for the Giller Prize, and to be on a list–any kind of list!–with someone like Michael Ondaatje is such an honour that it’s borderline absurd. I’m not sure how it’s all affected me so far. I suppose I feel slightly more confident as I begin my next project, which may or may not be a good thing. We’ll see.
To write a damn good short story, what fundamental elements are required? And what would you say are the most common errors that people make, that let their stories down?
I often find myself comparing writing to music. Very simply put, the short story must, as a song must, carry the listener/reader’s attention and offer them pleasure. That’s it. A story doesn’t necessarily need all the old English 101 elements (character, setting, theme, plot, climax etc.), much the same way a song doesn’t need every instrument (often just a solitary voice can be enough), but what is there must be working on many levels, that is key. For a voice to successfully carry an accapella song, there must be an interesting tension between the performance, the lyrics, the vocal tone and the recording technique. For a writer, the most essential skill to develop is an ear for whether something interesting is actually happening in your work. This is the skill that beginning writers often don’t have yet. But it comes with practice.
What’s next for you and your writing career?
I’m working on a novel now. Not because of any agent or publisher pressure, rather because it’s the next story I feel moved to tell. I’ve managed to arrange some time to write in the coming months, so that’s what I’ll be doing, happily. Working on my book, watching snow pile on my windowsill.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
No, thanks. I feel I’ve already written too much…
Michael Christie will be interviewed on Thursday, 15th September at 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will read later in the evening at @ 7.30pm in the same venue.