Globe and Mail profile
Please tell us about your interest in the short story by
(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)
I wrote the stories in Stopping for Strangers over the past ten years or so which is about the same amount of time I've been a parent--my eldest daughter just turned eleven. As you might expect, during that time, I often found myself writing about family. If there's a unifying theme to Stopping for Strangers that's probably it: Most of the stories in this book touch on family in some way.
I think the approach I take to short stories is another reason family comes up so often in this collection. Conflict and tension drive stories forward. Time and again I found myself using family relationships as a way to ratchet up the tension and magnify the conflict, increase what's at stake in the story. After all, these are the ties that bind us most closely. A family's fault lines—and in this I include husbands and wives—have always been more interesting to me than the fault lines between friends or lovers.
It's hard to pick a favourite story, but I think of "The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale" as the story that got the book published, so it has a place close to my heart. The truth, of course, is that “Cale” really only got the editor's attention, the entire manuscript is what got the book published. Getting noticed though is an important first step. After I met Andrew Steinmetz at the Writers Trust Awards in 2008, he read the story, liked it, and contacted me about the collection. It took a while to sort out the details, but that's ultimately what brought the book to Vehicule.
(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)
I just went up and looked at my shelves, and I've got to say it's hard to just pick one book to talk about. It's tempting to mention something by Raymond Carver--both because I admire his work and because some reviews have recently compared Stopping for Strangers to Carver's writing; however, I'm not going to do that today.
VS Pritchett is another favourite of mine and I'll recommend him in part because I think on this side of the Atlantic he doesn't get all the attention he deserves. A good book to start with is the volume of Selected Stories published in '78 which includes some of the best stories from collections he published in the 60s and 70s. It was the first book of his I read. The unadorned prose and the clarity of voice held me.
While I didn't particularly identify with the 1960s England he wrote about, he brought a truly compassionate and unflinching eye to commonplace characters and situations. I couldn't put the book down. As a story writer, I think he's up there with Ernest Hemingway.
(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?
I love this question. But I'm also struggling: we're in a time of amazing acceleration and change; it's hard to predict ten years let alone a century. One trend I see is that people's disposable time is getting shorter and also getting chopped up. All these time saving devices, gadgets and appliances and we're busier than ever before.
I often hear people say the short story is perfect, I can read it in one sitting. Our ability to now deliver books on portable electronic devices from iphones to Kindles helps too. It can make the short story and short story collections easy companions for commuters or people who find them selves with blips of time here and there.
With that said, another interesting trend is the decline in our attention spans. I've been watching some HBO TV series lately and it's the crack cocaine of video. Now when I sit down to watch a quiet French coming of age film, I don't think I've got the patience I used to have. What does that mean for the short story?
I was discussing this with my friend and fellow writer Craig Boyko a while back. He pointed out that a short story actually takes an increased level of attention. Every word counts, they're densely packed works of prose. With a novel you can skip a few pages and still get it. You can't do that with a short story. A public with shortened attention spans isn't a good match for the short story form.
So there you go: two trends, one suggests the next few decades will be good to the short story, the other suggests there's challenges ahead. I'm peaceably on the fence.