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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Interview: Matthew Firth

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?)

It’s a new short story collection called Shag Carpet Action, published by Vancouver’s Anvil Press: ten stories and a novella.

The novella part is new to me. I’ve never written (successfully, at least) anything longer than a long short story. The book came about the usual way. I write slowly, or maybe sporadically is a better way to put it. I go long periods of time not writing anything. This is fine by me. I like to wait until the engines are firing, rather than try to stoke them to life when they’re not in the mood.

So I wrote this book over about four years. I’m like most small press writers in that I have a day job, family and life outside of writing that eats up my time. I write out of a sense of urgency; when I have time and wherever I can. On the bus. At work at lunch. Early in the morning over a coffee before my kids wake up. That sort of thing. I never have sustained periods to ponder, pick, and scratch. I think things over on the bus, on my bike, maybe on a train if I’m travelling for work, and then lay it down when I have the time.

There is no recurring theme in Shag Carpet Action. Some stories are first-person narratives, others third. Some protagonists are sexually-ponderous 40-something housewives, some are horny teenaged boys, some are truculent, blue-collar workers with drug problems. The shortest story is about 350 words; the novella is 25,000 words. Shag Carpet Action takes readers all over the place. But I’d say the writing style and tone is what links the book, that and the subject matter to some degree.

The tone is bare-knuckled, sparse, urgent and direct. Nothing flowery or wasted. It’s driven by character action and dialogue. The subject matter tends toward the darker pockets of our hearts: to violence, lust, longing, loss, sex, and yearning for some change or some tilt in characters’ lives that will make their lives more bearable and infuse it with some minor joy before that is washed away by something more foreboding and shitty.

I don’t really have a favorite passage or story, although I’ve been getting a kick out of re-reading my story “Greeks” in Shag Carpet Action that I find funny. It’s more humorous than most other parts of the book. Humour is important in my work. It adds light and is important for keeping any type of fiction human and humane. “Greeks” makes me snicker lately. Maybe in this post-holiday mode, humour is more vital than usual right now.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I’ve read a few really good ones lately: If Only by Peter Stockland is superb. I like it because its characters are truly plausible and Canadian – in a contemporary way, rather than the cliché, surviving-on-the-prairies way. The Snows of Yesteryear by Len Gasparini because of its humour and honesty. Anticipated Results by Dennis E. Bolen because I love his damaged characters. The Mountie at Niagara Falls and Other Brief Stories by Salvatore Difalco because Difalco’s fictional bursts are blazingly insightful, humane and humorous.

Older collections I always go back to and admire: anything by Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Daniel Jones, Dan Fante, Laura Hird, Jim Christy, Dennis Cooper and others.

(b) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

Yes, of course. I don’t see anything that suggests the short story is endangered. But I also don’t buy into clichés about shorter attention spans and quicker and more abrupt forms of communication (i.e., Twitter and all of that) somehow making short fiction more palatable and popular. Short fiction is as credible a literary art form and expression as any other. It will persist so long as people tell each other stories.

I cannot stand the arrogant perspective some novelists have that short stories are inferior and some sort of warm-up to writing a novel. This is a common sentiment in Canada in particular. No one tells poets, songwriters and playwrights to knock it off, grow up and write a novel, but this criticism is often fired at short story writers.

Short fiction is viable, vital and vibrant. I also don’t buy all this moaning about books being dead or reading being dead. It’s defeatist for one thing. Narratives are part of humanity and so long as we’re living and breathing – though that does get more difficult every day it seems sometimes – we’ll have fiction in one form or another, short and otherwise.

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