Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Month-end (Mostly Short Fiction) Round-up

It was my plan this month to do a series of ambitious posts on short fiction, with author interviews, story serializations from forthcoming and recently published collections, links to reviews, and much else. But May is, as always, the cruelest month around the Bibliomanse, and even with Tara taking Congress off of my hands -- she is currently in Fredericton manning a booth for us at the Congress Bookfair -- this month has proved more than the three of us in office could manage. Yet a range of things short fiction related have been happening these past few days, so I thought I'd just round them up here.

1) The 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award Longlist was announced today, and two Biblioasis collections made the cut: Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting and Clark Blaise's The Meagre Tarmac. Congrats to both. More information on the longlist can be found here.

2) As mentioned in another post, Cathy Stonehouse is guest-hosting The Afterword this week, and her second post, Lucky, is now up. Read it here.

3) Cathy Stonehouse was interviewed by Dan McPeake on SFU/CJSF's Encounters on Monday, which can be listened to here.

4) Reviews keep coming in for Light Lifting, including a few online at Corduroy Books
Mostly Fiction
The Malahat Review
Foreword Reviews (not online, but the reviewer writes, in part: "Alexander MacLeod … writes with a devastating command of tone…. He isn’t afraid to leave his readers uncomfortable; he knows they’ll return for more lessons about loss and its hair’s-breadth distance away.... Quietly brilliant, brilliantly determined, these are stories that stay in the mind long after the book is closed."

5) It's worth mentioning that though Light Lifting did not win the Danuta Gleed Award -- that honour went to Billie Livingston (congrats!) -- it was one of the finalists. Congrats to Alex for that as well.

6) Another excellent review of The Meagre Tarmac was published recently in Quill & Quire. Not up yet, alas. But how many excellent reviews does a book have to get before you part with 19.95? It's had enough? Well, then: you're in luck, as Clark will be launching in Toronto -- alongside his wife Bharati Mukherjee -- at the Dora Keogh next Monday at 7 pm. It'll be one of the year's highlights, as far as I am concerned. And there will, of course, be books for sale.

7) Steven Beattie has continued his now yearly 31 Days of Short Stories, and he spent one of them analyzing Alexander MacLeod's story The Loop. You can read that essay here. The rest are worth checking out as well.

8) I hear that there is a very positive review of Terence Young's The End of the Ice Age in the current Fiddlehead, where it is suggested that this collection confirms the reviewer in his opinion that we are the press for the short story in Canada. We're thrilled, but really: who else would even want that title?

9) In non-short fiction news, Biblioasis poet Shane Neilson has been shortlisted for the Trillium Award for Poetry for his subsequent collection Complete Physical. Congrats to Shane!

10) A preview/excerpt of our forthcoming Wage Slave Glossary can be read in the July issue of Harpers.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Of Badgers and Bookstores

Cathy Stonehouse, author of the just-released short-story collection Something About the Animal, is hosting The National Post's Afterword this week. In Of Badgers and Bookstores she wonders what will happen in a world where we don't have independent bookstores as cultural centres, as places where we can get our literary bearings:

I don’t go to church or frequent many bars but I do go to bookstores. I love the fact that they are so anonymous: the perfect place to fondle the raw edges of new paperbacks or discreetly sniff stuck-together pages for that new ink smell. I go there for the sensory overload, the sense of company, to trawl the shelves for serendipitous findings or just to remind myself that books are still there. I prefer not to talk, although I like the companionship of other customers, each on their own erotic quest, seeking companionship, a quiet, yearning restlessness in the air.

The crazy crowded logic of Jimbocho, Tokyo’s bookselling quarter, that tiny store in the Japanese town of Kushiro with its half shelf of English language books, the subterranean alternative bookshops of 1970s Manchester, the antiquarian delights of Charing Cross Road. Whenever I travel I seek out bookstores as entry points. I also visit them for moments of peace.

A good bookstore is a matchmaking enterprise. Rifling through musty volumes in Vancouver’s Macleod’s Books one day several years ago I chanced upon an old green leather-bound volume entitled The Life Story of a Badger, by J. C. Tregarthen. Inside the front cover was a bookplate stating it belonged to a Mr. and Mrs. Brooke. Pasted into the back was a yellowing newspaper clipping on “Men and Badgers,” alongside penciled-in notes about the Brooke family motto. Slid into the pages were several newspaper articles and postcards depicting badgers.

I am a badger-phile. These tenacious, occasionally ferocious black and white creatures that shy away from humans fascinate me, not least because they are native to where I grew up. So I seized on the book with great delight. Its melodramatic tale of a badger named Brock, who escapes being hunted and trapped, is a piece of writing few would perhaps appreciate, yet clearly the Brookes were inspired by this fable of their namesake. I will treasure it also.

A good bookstore is not just a place where books are sold but one where connections are forged between past and future. It’s also a place where literary community is formed. When I arrived in Vancouver twenty years ago I knew nothing about West Coast Canadian literature. I also did not have many friends. But browsing the shelves of R2B2 Books in Kitsilano I overheard fascinating literary conversations. Dawdling in the aisles of Octopus Books on Commercial Drive I learned about local readings, got to know local writers. In People’s Co-op I browsed the rotating chapbook stand. In Duthie’s I surveyed the vast range of Canadian fiction titles, and in Ariel, the Women’s Bookstore and Women in Print I learnt about SKY Lee, Dionne Brand and Ethel Wilson.

Would I be able to do any of this online?

To read the rest of her post please go here. And please check back at The Afterword over the following days for more from Cathy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Phil Marchand Reviews The Meagre Tarmac

Just in from BEA in New York, an exciting if absolutely exhausting stretch away from the office, of which more anon. But I wanted to draw your attention to today's Post Review of Clark Blaise's The Meagre Tarmac (of which more anon.) Phil Marchand starts:

The Meagre Tarmac, a collection of short fiction by Clark Blaise, is a naked instance of appropriation of voice — a literary felony justified in this case by the results. If you’re going to appropriate someone’s voice, you better know how you want that voice to sound, and Blaise has spent his life and his career tuning his ear to foreign rhythms. Born in North Dakota of a French Canadian father and English Canadian mother, he grew up in various locales, mostly in the United States, and then spent 12 years teaching in Montreal with his wife, the Calcutta-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee. After a brief stint in Toronto, he and Mukherjee moved back to the U.S., where they have remained since. In 1989, he became director of the International Writing School at the University of Iowa.

Enriched by experience, knowledge of variegated literatures and personal contacts, Blaise’s fiction spans the globe, exploring themes of diaspora, rootlessness and cultural identity. Two great historic cultural shifts in particular drive his work, the migration of French Canadians on this continent, and the struggle between tradition and modernity in contemporary India. The latter is the basis of The Meagre Tarmac, a sorrowful chorus of voices, men and women trying to bridge distances between India and the U.S.

To read the whole review, please go here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Josh Trotter, podcasted from Santa Cruz

Tune in to The Poetry Show to hear Dennis Morton read three poems from All This Could Be Yours, to great (and slightly creepy) effect. Josh's poems start around 34:56.

Podcast available here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 6

Classical convention prescribes an arc for the writer's career. One was to begin, as Virgil did, with smaller forms, and with modes that require you to know little about the world (like the pastoral). It's only as the writer matures that he or she was encouraged to tackles longer forms and more worldly subject matter. Then, at the peak of his powers, the writer may produce an epic (which, as Amanda Jernigan pointed out a couple weeks ago, is supposed to contain all the knowledge in the cosmos).

I mention this because I think there's a commonplace in the literary market these days, which suggests that a short story collection is only a preamble to the greater accomplishment of the novel. There's also been a lot of talk about the self-sufficiency of the short story as a genre. Where do you fall in this discussion? Should one master the short story before attempting a novel? Do you find you are encouraged to privilege longer forms in your own writing, and if so, by whom? How does one's approach to short fiction change if the form is seen as an end in itself?

Rebecca Rosenblum

I am not too fussed about this one, though I do hear a lot about it. The fact is, short story writers and novelists have the same aims: to push language, characterization, structure, and theme into something that a reader can see and hear and *feel* off the page. It's hard to do; I don't think you get a free pass in any format. If you move from one genre to another or keep plugging away at the genre you started with, you still need to grow and improve as an artist every time you approach the page. I definitely think that an immature novel has more in common with an immature short story collection than with a mature and successful novel.

Cathy Stonehouse

I fall firmly in the camp of the short story—and the short story collection—being an end in itself. This is not to diss the novel, which is a mighty form. However I believe “the novel” has become dominant simply because it is an effective economic product, a handy thing to buy and sell. Novels are the current literary currency. Fiction writers are encouraged to produce novels because these are the literary creations that are most economically recognized, easy (or easier) to sum up, promote, advertise and sell. Short fiction collections are simply harder to convert into sound bytes. This affects all levels of the literary community. I have written reviews for a serious literary journal that does not review short fiction collections because they are supposedly impossible to critique. In short, I do not believe novels are innately more serious, or larger in scope than stories, they just go on longer. Stories have a longer human history. Nevertheless some fiction writers are novelists: the novel is their form. Unfortunately many are not, but they write novels anyway because this is the acceptable literary coming of age.

Short fiction works differently from long fiction. It’s harder work to read, often, and involves more metaphor. It makes greater use of the unsaid, and by extension, makes more demands on the reader’s imagination. Good short fiction is dense and long-lasting, even though it may be deceptively slight. A drawing teacher once told me that a lot of Renaissance artists preferred their initial sketches and preparatory drawings to their final paintings, but had to produce the paintings because that was what their patrons wanted. The painting or fresco was the artistic currency of the day.

I have attempted to write novels, and hope to crack this nut one day, but not as a replacement for writing stories. It’s just a different genre. My imagination is pretty baroque, so I need strong limits to work in. It’s kind of like the three bears. I can’t fit my mind into poems so well any more but stories are just about right.

Stuart Woods talks about Biblioasis and Book Expo America

"The Canadian contingent may be small at BookExpo America," writes Stuart Woods of Quill & Quire, "but one Canadian press attending the annual trade show and conference for the first time is benefiting from some early buzz."

Today was Biblioasis's first day as an exhibitor at the colossal BEA, and it was exciting to say the least.

To read more about us and the trade conference, you can look here. And if you're a bibliophile in New York City, you should come say hello to booth 4507!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Light Lifting Wins Atlantic Book Award

Last Night Alex MacLeod's Light Lifting won The Margaret and John Savage First Book Award at the Atlantic Book Award gala. Light Lifting was also nominated for the Thomas Raddall Award, won by Biblioasis-alumni Kathleen Winter for Annabel. Congratulations to both Alex and Kathleen.

Waiting for Romesh

So you haven't yet picked up Clark Blaise's brilliant The Meagre Tarmac? Well, Douglas Glover's Numero Cinq is going to let you test-drive one of the stories, one of my favourites in the collection, Waiting for Romesh. Douglas introduces the story this way:

Meet Cyrus Chutt Chutneywala of Baroda, Gujarat, waiting for a friend in the the Factory Tavern on Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh. His friend, Romesh, calls the bar to let Chutt know he’ll be late and the waitress inadvertently hits the speaker phone and public address switch and lets the entire clientele know she has a hard time getting past that name, Chutneywala. Thus begins Clark Blaise’s comic story “Waiting For Romesh” from his brand new collection The Meagre Tarmac, just out from Biblioasis.

Clark is an old friend (dating back to the early 1980s and dg’s Iowa Writers Workshop experience) who once made the mistake of inviting dg to stay the night. Clark and his wife, Bharati Mukherjee, were sharing an appointment at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and living in palatial splendour in a huge house on Circular Street with an octagonal carriage house and mistress apartment in back. DG somehow managed to stretch that night into three months (this was in the days of dg’s impoverished apprenticeship, um, actually, he is still an impoverished apprentice), the walking definition of a Horrific Guest. Clark moved away, dg stayed in the house til it was sold. He wrote his story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” in the little glassed in conservatory.

Clark Blaise is brilliant story writer and memoirist, intelligent, cosmopolitan, a master of point of view. He has lived multiple lives and written about all of them, from his impoverished childhood in Florida, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg to his extended sojourns in India and his long and eminent teaching career. He is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has taught writing and literature at Emory, Skidmore, Columbia, NYU, Sir George Williams, UC-Berkeley, SUNY-Stony Brook, and the David Thompson University Centre. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003), and in 2010 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Nowadays, he divides his time between New York and San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Bharati Mukherjee.

To read 'Romesh', please go here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

31 Days of Short Stories: Steven Beattie on MacLeod's The Loop

Over at That Shakespearean Rag, Steven Beattie continues his 31 Days of short stories by focusing on one of Alexander MacLeod's, from his Giller nominated (Danuta Gleed-nominated; Commonwealth-nominated; doubly Atlantic Book Award nominated) Light Lifting:

Alexander MacLeod’s story The Loop is about borders: between young and old, between safety and danger. It is narrated by Allan, a 12-year-old boy who makes bicycle deliveries for a local pharmacy. The title of the story refers to the boy’s delivery route, which usually begins with Barney, a shut-in who “had everything wrong with him. Diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, a liver thing and some kind of circulation issue that made his feet swell up so badly that he couldn’t wear shoes and could barely walk.” Rumours swirl around town that Barney “had a thing for kids and couldn’t keep his hands off little boys.” MacLeod’s descriptions of Barney are grotesque in their detail: he is “horrible, fat, nearly naked,” usually clad only in “a pair of nylon track shorts that almost disappeared when they got sucked between the folds of his rolling gut and his wide, hairy thighs,” and in the humid summers his “whole body would get this greasy sheen.” But Barney is renowned for one thing in particular:

He was famous mostly for his hernia. It was this red pulsating growth about the size of a misshapen grapefruit and it bulged way out of the lower left side of his stomach. It seemed like something impossible, like one of those gross, special effects from an alien movie that was supposed to make you think there was a smaller creature in there. Just the shape of it, and the way it stuck out of him, and how it seemed to come right at you, could make a person squirm if they weren’t used to it. But he refused to get it fixed and he was always making a big deal about how tough he was and how it didn’t bother him at all. He thought it was funny to pull back his shirt and scare the little kids as they walked by.

It is perhaps natural that a 12-year-old boy should fixate upon the hideous physical deformities of an older man: this is, after all, exactly the kind of thing that captures a pre-adolescent male’s attention and imagination. Still less comfortable is the boy’s admission that he is charged with taking new issues of various skin magazines with him on his rounds, magazines that Barney has no compunction about sharing with his young visitor: “‘Look at that one,’ he’d say and he’d hold up some crazed picture of an orgy that was supposed to be taking place in a working garage with five or six people, men and women, all tangled up around each other and bent over the hoods of cars.” The fact that Barney devours heterosexual porn tends to suggest that the rumours about him are exaggerated; nevertheless, there is something creepily disconcerting about his willingness to engage the 12-year-old delivery boy in discussions of sexual subject matter (one of many borders that get crossed in MacLeod’s story).

For his full analysis please go here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On the Newsstand: CNQ

Speaking of The Globe and Mail, James Adams picked the latest issue of CNQ - #81 - as the best of the rack in his weekly round-up:

No. 81/Spring, 2011

CNQ is dedicated to exploring the alleys and roads less travelled of Canadian literature. No fawning profiles of hot authors, in other words. No reports on six-figure advances or who’s travelling to Pyongyang on behalf of PEN or what publisher is earning 70 per cent of its revenue from e-books. What matters here is the backward glance (the latest issue contains a lengthy interview with Anna Porter from 1998), the appreciation, the rumination, the memoir.

Indeed, one of the highlights of its spring edition is Marko Sijan’s frequently ribald account of his Sisyphean struggle to get his first novel published by Toronto’s defunct Gutter Press. It’s a tale of big egos and little money, delay and prevarication, self-loathing and sex, told with a refreshing and brutal frankness. Sijan’s a rogue and not necessarily a lovable one: At one point he writes that it took him two years to “refine” his novel’s 132 pages “because I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students. And smoking pot. A lot of pot.” BTW, the novel, now called Mongrel, is set to be published 12 years after Sijan first pitched it to Gutter.

So: head on down to your closest newsstand and pick up a copy. Or better yet, subscribe.

Canada Hits the Poetic Jackpot: Or, the Globe & Mail Reviews Simic's Snowman

In today's Globe & Mail George Murray reviews Goran Simic's latest collection, and first originally in English: Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman. From the review:

The poems seesaw between the intimately personal and the universally political, tipping sometimes line to line, between melancholy love poems and profoundly painful reminiscences of the strife-torn country from which the poet came.

For instance, in the extraordinary poem An Ordinary Man, Simić writes in one stanza:

I’ve met many people and they all resembled me.
Some hid in the breathing bodies that were already corpses,
others hid in corpses in which
an attentive ear can catch a breath.

and then in the next:

Sometimes from the window I notice breadcrumbs
in the hair of women I once loved.
But they are now someone else’s women
and that is someone else’s bread.

It is the oscillation between the universals of love and intimacy in the second excerpt that allows us in the “warless” West access to the same spirit of the poet that endured the hardships of the first. For a poet working for the first time in a second language, it is amazing how adept Simić is. In fact, in the acknowledgments, he describes the English text of Sunrise as language “learned by listening and reading.” If this is the case, then it seems we English-language poets could stand to eavesdrop and read a bit more.

For the whole review please go here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 5

A new addition to last week's discussion (see below). The next DE installment will also be up shortly.

Patricia Robertson

I can't continue writing a short story until I get the first paragraph right. That paragraph establishes the voice, the tone, the mood, the rhythm -- in short, the world the short story will occupy. And of course the first sentence is the door that opens onto that world. An instructor of mine (or perhaps I read this somewhere) claimed that the first paragraph of a short story is the story in microcosm. I'm not sure this is always true -- some stories build slowly from unpromising beginnings -- but for me the best stories have opening paragraphs that function as the "unexploded metaphor" of the story (the term is Adele Wiseman's, in relation to poetry)

Whenever I bog down in a story, I go back to that first paragraph, and first sentence, to re-discover what the story wants to be. Finding the tone and voice and rhythm is key. I often read aloud to establish that rhythm in my head, though it has to be a subtle and improvised one, not a steady beat. The whole area of rhythm in prose is woefully under-explored by critics. For me it's an essential element in the story's scaffolding.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 5

Happy May, all! This month is short story month on the Biblioasis blog. And so, without further adieu:

Clark Blaise begins "How Stories Mean" with the following paragraph:

"The most interesting thing about a story is not its climax or dénouement - both dated terms - nor even its style and characterization. It is its beginning, its first paragraph, often its first sentence. More decisions are made on the bases of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part, and it would seem to me after having read thousands of stories, and beginning hundreds of my own, (completing, I should add, far fewer), that something more than luck accounts for the occasional success of the operation. What I propose is theoretical, yet rooted in the practice of writing and of reading-as-a-writer; good stories can start unpromisingly, and well-begun stories can obviously degenerate, but the observation generally holds: the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified."

1) How important is the first sentence to your own writing or reading process?


2) What are one or two of your favourite first sentences (of your own work or someone else's), and why?


This quotation from Mr. Blaise, whom I truly do revere, is puzzling to me. Does he mean the first sentence I write of the story, or the first sentence that, in its published, allegedly final form of the story, that the reader reads? To me, those are two separate entitities that do, occasionally, coincide.

The first sentence I write is very important to me. I'll often have a first sentence for a story in mind long before I know what the second sentence or anything after will be. As often as not, these first sentences will turn out to be just the germ of an idea, a mechanism to create the whole story. Later, like supports falling away from the space shuttle, the whole initial mechanism will be cut, and only the story it spawned will remain. I'll cut it myself, or an editor will, or something from the middle or ending of the story will get fished out and put up front.

There's also another set of first sentences that I've written that just turned out to be personal fetishes that went nowhere--the sentence was s nothing more than a sentence, portending...nothing.

That's me as a writer. As a reader, I think of opening sentences in "finished" stories as I imagine an architect might think about doors--you can't get by without them, they serve a definite structural purpose, and while there are infinite choices to be made in a door's or first sentence's construction, if it fails in its purpose of allowing ingress, then it isn't really a door at all.

Did that make sense? What I mean is that I want a first sentence to be interesting enough to make someone keep reading, but also containing information actually useful to the rest of the story. Short stories are short, and usually begin in medias rez without much time to explain; every sentence counts and I can't waste even one on something merely stylish.


1) The first sentence means everything to me, as a reader and a writer. Personally I know I am better at beginnings than endings. I can’t even start a story until I have the right first sentence. It sets the tone, the rhythm, establishes the voice. It can be light, faux throwaway, with a sting in the tail, deliberately obtuse, or an image that stands in for the entire story, a kind of thesis statement.

I like to begin without preamble or explanation, drop into complexity and hack my way out. I have files of first sentences and first paragraphs in search of development. They are like unsolved puzzles, unopened gifts. Sometimes I am afraid of opening them in case what’s inside proves disappointing or doesn’t work.

I relish a good first sentence; roll it around in my mouth.

Occasionally when I’m too busy to read I take a few minutes to sit with a book of stories and read their first sentences, or the first sentences of novel chapters. It can be almost as satisfying as reading the whole thing (but of course not quite).

2) “It still counts, even though it happened when he was unconscious.” Miranda July: “The Shared Patio.”

“When my mother died, my father’s early widowhood gave him social cachet he would not have had if they had divorced.” Amy Hempel: “The Afterlife.”

I love the disconnection in both of these, the understated normalizing of bizarre points of view. Each statement implies an entire life, & immediately sets up a situation, character/relationship and outlook a writer could take years to fully explore. These examples happen to be from American writers, but there are so many it’s hard to pick! Rebecca Rosenblum in particular has some great ones.