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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Deborah Willis, Michael Christie and Alexander MacLeod interviewed by Clare Wigfall

As writers. you all debuted with short stories – which is surprising to me as an English author. In Canada, is it easier to publish short stories or this an exceptional occurrence?

Deborah: It does happen very often that writers debut with short stories, with the expectation that they’ll follow with a novel.

Michael: I’m currently writing a novel but no one believes me that it’s my decision; not my agent’s or publisher’s.

Alexander: Canada, like Ireland; many of our literary greats and literary exports are short story writer. It’s an advantage in our literary market place; you can make a go of it, not much of a go of it, but a go of it all the same; with more leeway than in England or the States.

Did writing short stories give you a certain amount of freedom that wouldn’t have been possible if you’d written a novel?

Deborah: I believe it did give me more freedom; I got the chance to explore a lot more voices.

Michael: My book is set in Vancouver; it’s very urban book, although it does extend beyond the city; and so there was a sense that I was breaking the rules. Canadian literature (CanLit as we call it) is very rural and all about women trying to escape the past…

It’s interesting that the urban setting would be seen as so out of the norm…

Michael: it is interesting seeing as most people live in the city and most of our literature is not based there.

Do you know why this is?

Alexander: Canada is the second or third most urbanised place on earth and there’s an amazing separation between Canadian lived experience and Canadian art – it comes from our artistic past. Sometimes people say Canada has too much geography and not enough history; people have been gathered in the city and gathered a garrison type ideology. But this is changing now.

Michael, your stories are interlinked; can you talk a little about this structure and how this helped you to portray Vancouver?

Michael: My father’s favourite book was the Dubliners and he put it on a pedestal; so my linked collection was very much an aim from the start. A linked collection can portray a city in the way that a novel cannot. Vancouver City is jaw-droppingly beautiful, cosmopolitan, but then it also houses the worst neighbourhood for poverty, drug abuse etc; it’s right next to where the movie stars live and frolic on the beaches. It’s an incredibly paradoxical place and the short story form allowed me to investigate that, in a way that a novel wouldn’t have let me tackle that situation.

Deborah, talk a bit about the structure of your stories; how much you think about structure?

Deborah: I do think about structure a lot and so this could be another example of how writing short stories may give more freedom. I think of the story in pictures; I believe stories can be a circle or it can travel backwards – but then I do think about it abstractly as well. In the story with my main character, Tabatha, I started somewhere else but then thought about what might happen in the future; and that’s when it became a story that could be told. That’s the thing I love about short stories; they can encompass a whole live or a just a moment.

Alexander, violence pervades the stories, but it’s very different to you; can you talk about why that appears in your work and what your intention with that is.

Alexander: I’m interested in the various ways that violence functions; I don’t think they’re ever gratuitous but they’re sometimes surprising. I was interested in the way that physical events arise; they arrive and usually arise very quickly. If you go out every night and drink nine pints and get in a bar fight three nights a week, then that’s almost not violent – it’s just the norm. If you have a very strenuous physical job, things happen that are considered just part of their work. I think I was more interested in fragility or contingency; where everything seems to be domestic or seems to be in control but a violent event is always a millimetre away. There’s a veneer where most polite conversation and life is journeying along but there’s always this ‘other’. I liken it to sunburn; how if you’re not paying attention you’ve suddenly got a third degree burn and you’re in pain, but it seems accidental. It’s that kind of violence, or contingency or fragility that I used to structure plots. I was interested in the moment where an event suddenly became significant and lead to a physically violent reaction.

Peter Murphy asks: “I love it when anyone writers outside of the university; I wonder what, aside from personal interests, leads you to write about something that would seem to have nothing to do with your everyday life.

Deborah: I work in a bookstore so I don’t tend to write about that very often; I tend to put books on shelves then take them off and sometimes put them back on again… I don’t know what compels me  to write a certain story except for, maybe, a character will draw me; an unusual encounter or the idea of someone doing something. It doesn’t have to be something I’ve physically seen.

Michael: I’ve thought about this a little bit and I can trace back in myself a kind of interest in the human mind and the cracked perspectives on the world, including my own. That’s at the heart of my book; many different voices, some from a very ill place; they all share a very unique view of themselves and their events. I guess it’s something that I’ve always been obsessed with; the fact that everyone in the world believes that they’re doing the right thing and that their own version of life is true. I guess it’s because I know my own understanding is so limited. Fiction is capable of showing that lack of understanding in a beautiful way.

Alexander: I feel more out of place inside the university than I do in other places. When you teach in university, there are fabulously strange combination of people wandering the halls and working behind the doors; but they’re all only held there temporarily. There’s nothing more boring than the plot of the department meeting; then there’s this issue of middle class and suburban angst and these sorts of dramas which writers can do a great job with – but it’s not something I can work with in a useful way. What do I look at? Love, ambition, frustration, children; just trying to follow these universal themes and how to pull the resulting story off in style – it’s about how it’s done rather than what they’re writing about.

Deborah: I try to write about anything other than myself; its very much a way to escape from who I am and what i do – its the opposite of “write what you know.” For me, using my imagination is a very central part of fiction.

How difficult or is it possible for you to read other works without analysing them?

Deborah: I think it becomes increasingly difficult. One of my teachers said it’s a loss of innocence and you can’t read again like when you were a kid. I find that this way of reading happens rarely now but when it does I savour it; this just happened with a recent translation of Madame Bovary. It’s magical now. I really appreciate it when it happens.

Michael: I have an uncle who works in construction and every time he walks into somewhere new I can see him seizing up the beams and kicking the walls; when I’m reading I become my uncle in that way.

Alexander: I don’t have any problem reading; my students all want to be writers but they don’t read. I ask – do you see the problem here? I love listening to music because it’s not my field. No one is going to win music; no one is going to kick the ass of music with a song. You just try to get in the stream; and that’s all I’m trying to do with my stories. So when I read, most of the time I’m interested in how something is working but I’m also just looking for something that hits me in a way that only literature can do. As a reader, I’m looking for the same moments I’m trying to produce as a writer.

And how mindful are you of the reader?

Alexander: Henry James – said he had one job; and that was to be interesting. If you’re writing something good then the audience will stay there. You don’t have to worry about, say Shakespeare; you have to worry about Facebook. Is your story better than Facebook? When writers get self indulgent then I say ‘what is your reader getting from this? If you’re delivering, then they’re sitting. If not; they’re free to wander’.

Deborah: I didn’t think about readers; because I felt slightly hopeless about getting published. After my book came out I got a feeling of self-important pressure for a while but now I’ve gone back; I realised people don’t often care and you have to make them care. In the later stages when I think about pacing or about when things are being revealed I might consider the audience.

Michael: I tend to please myself because I often grow bored; so I use that as my measure.


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Excerpt from The Double Life by Deborah Willis

In one of my lives, I’m a writer. This means, essentially, that I contemplate the human experience while wearing my pajamas. The writer in me constantly reads and writes and thinks about stories. This writer––let’s call her Deborah Willis––has spent whole, pleasant days worrying over commas. She prefers to be alone. If the telephone rings while she’s working, she stares at it, horrified, and refuses to answer. Her shoulders are hunched from bending over a notebook, her eyes strained from the computer screen, and she recently developed carpal tunnel in her wrists. Who says the writing life isn’t strenuous? It can lead to, among other disorders, self-obsession and a Vitamin-D deficiency.

Fortunately, there’s another me, and she gets out more. She works in a bookstore, which means that she’s always on her feet, carrying books up and down stairs, putting them on and taking them off shelves. She can recommend children’s books, Canadian fiction, and foreign-language titles. She makes change, deals with till-tape, runs debit cards though machines, sends special orders, and receives magazines. For her, books are to be displayed, alphabetized, and sold. This is an exaggeration, of course––books are not only products. In fact, her work has made her love them more. But she has been a bookseller for almost five years, which is long enough for the job to become an identity. She wears it like a second skin. Her name is Debbie, and she would be happy to help you.

The bookstore where I work, Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC, used to be a bank. It is grand, spooky, beautiful, and almost as untidy as my apartment. It’s an old building with character, part of what guidebooks accurately call Victoria’s “historic and picturesque” downtown. It has marble countertops, art on the walls, dark wood shelves, creaky floorboards, and a reputation for being haunted. My favorite part of the store is the part customers never see: the basement, which is made up of a series of steel-and-concrete vaults.

When Munro’s was a Royal Bank––during that era before banks were housed in huge, anonymous buildings––these vaults must have held receipts, checks, and safety deposit boxes. Now, they’re where we keep the overstock. It’s like something Lewis Carroll might have imagined, if Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a booklover’s fantasy. Vaults with heavy metal doors open onto to other vaults, and each one is filled with books. There is something romantic and wonderful and completely backwards about this: finance replaced with literature, scurrying bankers replaced with scurrying booksellers, the sterility of numbers replaced with the unruliness of words.

I fell into this job in the same way I’ve always fallen in love––by accident. I needed some income to pay the rent during my last year of university, so I dropped off a resume and spoke to the owner, Mr. Munro. I believe he hired me partly because he found my resume amusing (my list of accomplishments included scooping ice cream at a shop called ‘Wonderlicks,’ and getting fired from a barista job because I didn’t take the ‘coffee art’ seriously enough).

On my first day, I was given the keys to the store, taught the combination to the safe, and told to call Mr. Munro by his first name. It turns out that Jim is an exceptionally kind, trusting, and generous man. To be hired by him is to be immediately welcomed into his family. He runs an independent, old-fashioned business, the kind of place that big-box stores and the Internet can never replace, but often do. It’s the kind of place where employees stay for decades. One clerk even identifies himself as “Steve from Munro’s,” as though the store were his hometown.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a museum piece, since Munro’s is a profitable business. I also don’t mean to romanticize the work. A job is a job, after all, and anyone who has worked in retail during the Christmas season knows that customer service can be its own particular hell. And though it’s one of the best jobs I can imagine, a bookstore can terrify a writer. The sheer number of books makes me feel nervous and unnecessary. Classics, mysteries, romances, essays, histories, poetry––they arrive in box after box of hardbacks, trade papers, and mass markets. Then, a year or so later, many are returned unsold to publishers, to be remaindered or pulped. This is the stuff of writers’ nightmares. When faced with it in reality, it’s hard for me to convince myself that the world needs another book, especially mine. Why bother? I often think as I put labels on the newest page-turner about a vampire shopaholic, or the latest novel hailed as “a triumph, full of wry wisdom.” These are the moments when the bookseller in me is in conflict with the writer. Why do you get up in the morning? she asks. What’s the point?

You can read the rest of the essay “The Double Life” on Deborah’s website. Deborah will be interviewed tomorrow (Thursday, 15th September) at 4pm, in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading later in the evening at 7.30pm in the same venue.

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An interview with Peter Murphy

Unfortunately, I can’t make it through to the festival until tomorrow and so I’m missing the first evening’s events. However, I did get chance to catch up with one of the writers who will be reading tonight – Peter Murphy – for a short Q&A session before the festival began. Here’s what Peter had to say…
How does writing a novel compare to writing a short story?

They’re similar in terms of intensity, but the novel requires more stamina. A short story is a song. A novel’s an album.

What different techniques or mindset do you need to employ and how do you make the switch?

Short stories are unforgiving. There isn’t much scope for divergence. The novel comes with a different set of demands:  story engineering, modulations of tone and tempo, resolution.

When you start writing – what’s the starting point? Is it a theme, a plot, a character name – or does it change each time?

For me it’s usually a title or an opening line or maybe a fragment of the narrative voice. Character and story tend to grow from that. And there’s usually some sort of innate mystery or riddle that resists explanation.

Music is an integral part of your life – how does your music background influence your writing?

Mostly mood. A lot of times I’ll write a scene or a story because I’m attempting to replicate the feelings or images inspired by a piece of music. Throughout the writing of my second book I was listening to a couple of Doors songs, ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and ‘Yes the River Knows’, and also Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town album. And I was recording with the Revelator Orchestra throughout, so a lot of the music we came up with looped back into the writing.

You said in an interview that John the Revelator wasn’t the book that you meant to write. When you’re writing fiction, do you instinctively know whether the piece is going to be a novel or a short story – or do you come away surprised?

I usually know before I begin. Although sometimes I’ll write what I think is a short story, only to find it wants to integrate itself into a longer narrative. The book’s the boss.

How do your characters manifest themselves? Does this differ depending on whether they’re contained within a novel or a short story?

Short stories are more about capturing a protagonist at a moment of great change. The event defines the character. With a novel, you live with them for a few years, watch them evolve.

Your career shows that you thrive on variety – so what can fans expect next?

I finished the second novel about a month ago, so I’m going to read and make notes and let the bucket fill up for a bit before deciding what next. Regarding variety, I love Stanley Kubrick. Every film was completely different, but each one defined its genre – noir films, war films, period dramas, black comedies, sci-fi and supernatural yarns.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m very much looking forward to the festival.

Peter Murphy will be reading tonight, Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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An interview with Michael Christie

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.

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