August 23rd, 2018

#tbt The Anonymous Party

I’m going to do something writers are never supposed to do–it’s gauche, it’s self-serving, it’s proof you should have written better. But whatever, just this one little indulgence after all these years: I’m going to explain a story in public.

The logic goes that a writer writes what she writes with whatever intentions she may have, but then releases her work into the world–she cannot accompany it. And a reader reads whatever they read into or out of the work–if they don’t interpret intention “correctly,” then it’s not there for them, the story has a different meaning for that reader than it does for the author. Better, worse, more boring, more enigmatic, it doesn’t matter–writers cannot possibly follow our work around on kite strings, explaining it to each individual reader. It must stand on its own as the words on the page.

I largely adhere to that, even when asked directly by a student or an interviewer or a friend “what did you mean by x?” Often I meant something quite specific and I really hope you get it–equally often I was just rolling with the characters and whatever the reader can come up with is as good what I do. Either way, I feel like it’s unfair to say–unfair to the reader, who was hoping to create an imaginative world for her own self. And unfair to the work, which I did rather hope was good, good enough to speak for itself. But in this case, no one ever mentioned getting this one joke, so I’m going to speak for it.

The story in question is “The Anonymous Party,” from my second book, The Big Dream. That book came out in 2011, but I can see in my submission records that I was sending the story out to journals as early as 2006, so it’s even older than that–let’s say conservative estimate 13 years. I amassed 8 rejections according to my Excel sheet before it got published in the book and I couldn’t send it out anymore.

I actually think it’s a really good story and I’m not sure I understand about the 8 rejections. I just finished reading it a minute ago and while some of my older work makes me squirm a bit, I still feel really proud of this one. It’s about a young woman named Yaël who is a brand manager at the magazine company that later turns out to be Dream Inc. She is only in her early twenties but bright and successful. She’s also very pretty and quite concerned with her appearance. The whole story is about different worlds colliding, and the first half is about Yaël coming home to very old-fashioned Jewish family, telling them about her work day, and preparing to go out for the evening with her girl friend who is also secretly her girlfriend. One of the things I would do differently if I were writing this story today is not make the family quite so old-fashioned. I still think there’s a lot of truth and sweetness in that section, but having the mom wear a housedress is hitting it a bit too hard. Also Yaël has a cellphone and even uses it properly–quite an accomplishment considering I didn’t own one myself at that point–but we don’t see any technology at all until much later in the story, which doesn’t quite seem accurate for a character like that.

Anyway, the dichotomies of the scene are what interested me–Yaël’s polished clothes with the roughness of language she uses with her family, her elegance and her parents’ schlumpiness, everyone’s bafflement with each other and their genuine kinds and interest in each other. I really like that family and had actually hoped to write a bit more about them later, but no further stories ever came to me. Sadly.

Yaël leaves for the party and here is the joke that I want to explain. She buys a bottle of wine to give as a hostess gift at the party her girlfriend Sasha’s friends are giving. She, both in her family circles and in her professional ones, is used to the courteous gift given to anyone so kind as to invite you into their home. What she doesn’t realize is that Sasha is a grad student and this is a grad student party. As soon as she gets there, she offers her wine, but not only can she not find the hosts, grad student etiquette is that everyone drinks their own alcohol unless you are close friends, so no one will even take it from her. She gets annoyed having to carry the wine around all night and eventually abandons the bottle under the sink in the bathroom. Anyway, just to wrap things up, the story goes on with Sasha and Yaël finally connecting at the party.

That’s the joke! I have to assume someone somewhere got it, though no one ever mentioned to me nor in any of the reviews the book got, positive or negative. The few times anyone did directly reference the story to me, they did say they liked it–especially the name Yaël, which is not something I can really take credit for. The wine joke was not the point of the story–nor the name Yaël for that matter. But sometimes I just realize that that thing I thought was so clever, no one is probably ever going to know about unless I tell them, so here I am, telling you. You probably still don’t care, which is very natural. This has all been hugely self-indulgent and truly it was kind of you to even read this far, if in fact you have.

December 4th, 2015

Way back: Grade Nine Flight

I don’t usually go on about my old published work–I figure if anyone wanted to buy my books they could figure out how, and if they wanted to read a particular story they could google it or check my “publications” link above and try to find it. But there’s a few stories that didn’t get into a book and aren’t available, or aren’t easily, on the web.

Grade Nine Flight was my third acceptance ever, and my second publication (because of how speedy online publishing is. It came out in the December 2006 edition of the old version of The Danforth Review, that wonderful online mag but out by Michael Bryson (the new version of The Danforth Review remains wonderful, but does not include the archives of the old one. Rather, those archives are housed at Libraries and Archives Canada, which is a wonderful service but doesn’t appear to be google-search-able. So if you were looking for this story that way you wouldn’t find it, but why would you even be, because who has heard of this story I published nearly 10 years ago?

So here it is–the link above should work, if you’d like to read the story. I read it over lunch, and even though it’s so different than the stuff I’m writing nowadays, I still really like it. Is it bad to admit that? I feel so distant from the person I was when I wrote like that, saying I like it doesn’t even feel like vanity–that writer is another person entirely, I feel.

Yet, I know I wrote it, and I remember why: my brother was travelling abroad for a year, and I missed him. Even though none of the characters are based on anyone I know, the vibe of kids living in a house together is definitely something I am personally familiar with, and some of the games they play and conversations they have and tv shows they watch are things I remember fondly from my childhood.

It’s weird that I’m nostalgic for the person I was when I wrote “Grade Nine Flight,” but that person was nostalgic for a yet earlier period. We never get done longing for things, it seems (though I am very glad my brother lives nearby now).

If you read the story, please let me know what you think!

October 2nd, 2015

On Order

This past weekend, I went to see my husband participate in a panel on the short story at Kingston Writers’ Fest, alongside Priscila Uppal and Mark Anthony Jarman. It was a fascinating discussion with great readings alongside. In fact, the whole festival (we stayed all weekend and saw a grand total of 7 events) was fab.

But the discussion on order in short-story collections was not long enough for my liking, so I thought I’d extend it here.

So! I care about order in collections. I also care about order in albums, where it is arguably more important. Rare, in our iTunes days, that one track will actually lead into another by blending music from one to another (there was a recent Sloan album that did it, making it mind-bogglingly weird to listen to on shuffle) but usually there’s at least a bit of a gestured segway, even if the track change is marked a moment of silence. You want to carefully plan any dissonance between songss, ditto big tempo changes, keys, moods, etc. It’s not that these sorts of juxtopositions are inherently bad–or good–just that they need to be thought through. Same with stories.

Mavis Gallant said that story collections aren’t for reading straight through–one should read a story, then close the book. Stories are for thinking about, and then after a while, the next day, when you’re done thinking you come back for the next one. But realistically, I think each story primes the reader to read the next one, and it’s nice to put them in an order that’s pleasing, that creates some variety, tension, interest. There is absolutely no reason someone couldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich followed by a single oyster followed by a tablespoon of relish, but most of us don’t consider that a meal, or pleasant.

Which is why most short story writers really work hard to structure their collections. This is true even if there are no linkages, even if the stories aren’t taking place in the same “universe” or with the same characters. In fact, my second collection The Big Dream was easier to structure than my first Once, because the stories were linked. They didn’t all move forward in time–there were a bunch that covered the same events from different angles, and a bunch more that it didn’t matter where exactly in time you were situated. But it the stories where time mattered or was obvious, it was easy to order them. In Once, where the stories were unlinked, and had almost no crossover characters, I didn’t have any temporal line to fall back on, so the structure is all about contrasts in tone, subject matter, characters. I didn’t want two really similar stories up against each other, but I also didn’t want say, a really dark ending to precede a silly, goofy story. That’s why “Massacre Day” is the last piece in the collection–I think it’s one of the strongest pieces, but also one of the grimmest–it would be hard for anything to follow it. And it may well require the most thought from the reader, so it’s good that there’s space there to think if you want to.

I’m not saying that I got these choices right, just like I’d never even claim that the stories themselves are awesome–merely that the ordering of the stories was part of my creative process, part of what I chose to present to the reader. A novelist (a thing I am currently attempting to be) decides on structure for novel in approximately the same way, though it’s more complicated. A linearly told novel is very different than one that flashes back and forth in time, and that is clearly a creative decision; the decision to order stories one way or another is too.

So…I like to read stories in the order the author (and editor!) chose for them. A few people at the reading protested the idea that of being “told” to read stories in order, since they preferred to flip through a collection and choose to read whatever jumped out at them. Which is of course fine–and I believe it’s what Alice Munro does, someone who obviously knows what she’s doing regarding short stories. Often stories will be anthologized solo or published in magazines solo, but again an editor is making a choice to insert them in a certain spot, before and after certain other material. I am interested in those choices, in seeing how well they work form as a reader and learning how I might make better ones myself as a writer.

A collections order is not *an* order to the reader–it’s a suggestion, the author and editor’s best suggestion of how the stories might be read. Just like you are not required to look at every piece in a gallery exhibit no matter how carefully curated–there’s still lots of pleasure to be had in alternate viewings. Or in songs on shuffle, or best-of collections. But I am interested in the author’s own intentionality, and willing to be guided by his or her choices most of the time.

February 26th, 2014

A few more things…

Man, I’ve got to get snappier subject lines… Anyway!

I have, as I mention above, been up to a few more things. CBC Books surveyed the Canada Writers readers on our favourite short stories–I would advise reading pretty much everything on this list.

And my story “Ms. Universe” is now posted on Byliner. If you’d like to read it there, and/or other stuff on Byliner, follow the link and than scroll down to the end of the page to get a 14-day trial of the site for free. Enjoy!

February 18th, 2014

Last Fall

Last fall I read about 550 short stories in two months for the CBC Canada Writes contest. I was a big crazy slalom, but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot. If you’re not familiar with Canada Writes contest, it’s pretty prestigious and pretty challenging–I read that many stories and I was one of TWELVE readers. In addition to the very stiff competition, the word count on the contest makes it all but impossible for me to even enter–1500 words MAX. I’m not really that kind of writer lately–I felt like I’d all but forgotten how to write an effective story in that tight a space and I was hoping that helping out with the contest would help me relearn that skill. It did, to some degree, but all really good short stories are truly just their own thing and while there’s a glimmer of “oh, I see how you did that” mainly the spell remains unbroken.

Anyway, the long list was announced on Monday–from that list of 36 it’s up to the judges to determine the shortlist. I do not envy them the task. There was plenty of dross in my pile of stories, of course, but when I passed on my selections for the long list they were all pretty damn amazing–any number could have won in my book.

If you want to read my thoughts on the three stories I chose that made it to the long list, you can do so in the little interview CBC did with me, Amber Dawn and Michael Hingston, two of the other readers. More of those interviews will follow in the next few weeks.

So now you know why I was always stressed and carrying a big pile of papers last fall….

October 28th, 2013

Loneliness in Compose

I’m using up all my good news in one burst–another story, and possibly my last of the year, out this weekend–“Loneliness” is in the Fall issue of Compose Journal, which is online now for your enjoyment. “Loneliness” is actually a reprint of a story that originally appeared in The Big Dream, but never did get published as a stand-alone story, so I’m really happy it’s in Compose. If you’ve never read it, maybe take a look! There’s tonnes of other great stuff in the issue, too!

I also wrote a blog post about the origins of this story and, more interesting, what happened to it after I wrote it…that will be posted soon on the Compose blog, too!

October 25th, 2013

New awesome

So, yesterday was a good day for awesomeness–the new and gorgeous issue of The New Quarterly arrived, containing a story called “Marriage” by yours truly, and another called “The Man Room” by Mark Sampson, aka my husband! We’ve never been together in a literary journal before and it feels pretty cool!

Also cool is the Who’s Reading What section of the TNQ website, where you can find out what I and the other contributors have been reading lately.

Another great thing yesterday is that the wonderful Kelli Deeth quoted me in a piece she wrote for the National Post Book blog on short stories. Such a compliment to be mentioned next to Lynn Coady and Shaena Lamber–all three of these other ladies say cool stuff in that piece. Go read! In fact, Kelli’s been guest-editing the NP Books blog all week and all here pieces are wonderful. I especially liked A Writer Who Writers What She Wants. Enjoy!

All this, plus it’s Friday–amazing!

September 30th, 2013

Some thoughts on Olive Kitteridge

The harder I work on writing short stories, the more I read of them. I do it partly for professional reasons, of course: I like to see other interpretations of the form, be inspired by the successes and learn from the missteps. Sometimes I’m searching for specific clues and tricks, actually looking for problems similar to my own so I can see how others solve them. Sometimes I’m just generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in my world. And my world is short stories, no doubt about that, at least literarily speaking.

But thank goodness, I have not lost my ability to just enjoy short stories as a reader above all else. And honestly, the more I learn through my work about all the different pitfalls and pratfalls and challenges of the short story, the more I’m able to fully appreciate it when an author gets it really right. And when that happens, I lose my ability to read like a writer, looking for the technical bits, the seams and strings that allow the story to work the way it does. I just read like a reader, and live inside the stories. (This is one of the many reasons I’m bad at reviewing.)

Such is the case with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a wonderful collection of short stories about the small town of Crosby, Maine, and the various folks who live there. Some are happy, many are sad, but all of them are acquainted with the title character. Olive, her husband, and her son are central to many of the stories in the collection–many are told from either Olive’s perspective or her husband’s. In others, though, Olive, Henry, and their son Christopher are just passing through in the more central drama of other lives. In each story, though, one or more of the Kitteridges are *seen*: undestood, imagined, fathomed, or interpreted by the other characters, often in wildly different ways from one story to the next. Thus we see Olive is grim and fearful math teacher, or a wise inspirational one; as a grumpy wife or a good neighbour; or, in the end, a mixture of so many different personas, as we all are.

*Olive Kitteridge* is more than the sum of it’s parts. All short story collections should have pieces that mutually illuminate each other, even if they aren’t linked on the level of plot or character. This should occur even more strongly in a collection that *is* linked. Even if there are some individual stories that didn’t really work for me, I still saw how they worked in the context of the whole book. I simply could not buy that a teacher would recognize a former 7th grade student she hadn’t seen in 20 years through a car window and, moreover, would go and sit in his car with him uninvited AND divine that he was contemplating suicide AND attempt to talk him out of it. But in the context of the book as am exploration of Olive’s whole character well…yeah, ok, this is poignant, this is interesting, this expands what I know and how I feel about this character.

And what I said earlier, about not being able to see the seams and strings applies especially to Strout’s writing style. She thins the veil of author interpretation until it seems to disappear: I completely forgot about *reading* and just felt like I was living inside the book. It’s hard to go back and analyze the style; I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s a style, too.

I have started going over to Goodreads to see what others think after I finish a book. A lot of apparently very young people found the book too dark and grim, and too much focussed on older people. I was surprised at this Gilmourian naivete, that what one personally prefers to read is objectively what is best. I actually thought it was refreshing to read about people in their 60s and 70s who weren’t consumed by reminiscence, but instead actually living out their present lives as if they were actual fascinating dramas: which of course they are. Too often, the elderly in novels are reduced to stage props of wisdom or nostalgia, rarely characters in their own right. Without getting all preachy about it, Strout goes a ways towards remedying the problem.

This is a bit piecemeal, which is why it’s just “thoughts” and not a review. But I really did enjoy *Olive Kitteridge*–grim at times, but a definitely pleasure to live so closely with such a fascinating character. I may read it again, possibly while sitting in an uncomfortable chair, to see if I can figure out how it all *worked*.

September 8th, 2013

“Ms. Universe” now on Joyland

I’m pleased to say that my story Ms. Universe is now posted on Joyland for your reading pleasure. This is one of my weirder pieces and I was so worried I wouldn’t find a home for it–very grateful to Emily M. Keeler and Brian Joseph Davis for liking it and publishing it. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think!

February 20th, 2013

Deathmatch

Every year I see a posting for a Broken Pencil short-story contest, click on it with interest and then recoil in horror. I am not Deathmatch Material. I like to think all us short story writers are our own special flowers, and though every reader might not like to sniff every flower, there’s room for all of us in the garden.

Broken Pencil’s Short Story Deathmatch posits a winner-take-all, hateful-comments-weed-out-the-week mentality, at least on the surface. In reality the comments from Canadian readers and writers aren’t *that* harsh–more, the commenters often seem to really engage with the stories. So though I quail from entering myself, I annually find myself drawn into a public-opinion-based literary contest that is actually about the literature.

Because, let’s face it, most public-opinion book contest *aren’t* about the books. At least, not as a “contest” is normally interpreted. Every few months, I’ll get an email or see on FB that an author I know/like/admire is in contention for one of these readers’ choice things, and could I please vote? Usually, I do it if I’ve read the book and liked it–I draw the line at voting for books I’ve haven’t read, no matter how much I like the author’s previous works or personality. But still, even if I know the book well and love it, my vote isn’t really fair, because normally I’ve read few or none of the competitors, so I don’t actually *know* the book I’m voting for is better.

In the interests of fairness, I should really go out and read every book in contention, at least a few chapters and skim to the end, before I make a bold claim that I know which the best one is. But let’s be honest, who is willing to do that without being paid? And who is paid–judges. That’s why I contend that the best people to judge contests are always the judges. It’s not because I’m elitist snob who privileges certain opinions above others; it’s because the only people who are going to read dozens of books in a year that they didn’t select for themselves, some hard to find, obscure, very long, or about topics that don’t interest them–are the folks on the payroll. The “popular” way isn’t even close to fair.

Amazingly, near as I can tell, the Deathmatch *is* fair. Of course, you can’t stop people voting without reading and the writers with friends working office jobs, who can set their phone alarms and go online to revote every hour, are going to do better than folks whose friends are teachers and construction workers. But it works really well. Each quarter final pits only two short stories against each other–it’ll take you maybe half an hour to read both, and then you can make a totally informed decision. You can choose to vote in any number of quarter finals–1, 2, 3, or 4 rounds. The semi-finals pit the winners against each other in 2 more rounds after–get this–everybody’s rewritten their stories to incorporate the feedback they got the first time around. How cool is that?

I voted in a couple quarter finals, but didn’t think to share the love. Now we’re in the semis, but it’s not too late–you can vote until Sunday midnight in the first semifinal, and all next week in the second. Start here and enjoy some weird fiction.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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