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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Interview: Heather Birrell
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?)

The stories in Mad Hope (Coach House, 2012) were written over a period of ten years -- during that time I went back to school to get my BEd, became a high school teacher, worked on a novel, and had two children, among many other things. 

I certainly didn’t have any kind of connecting thread or theme in mind as I was writing the individual stories.  It wasn’t until very late in the process that I came up with the title for the collection, which is taken from a line of dialogue in the story ‘Geraldine and Jerome’. 

I had a number of different ideas for titles, but I always feel bad selecting a ‘title‘ story -- I think it puts a lot of undue pressure on that story to somehow be representative of the collection, and I don’t like the (perhaps inevitable) ranking (this one strongest, this one least successful, this one most meaningful) of stories it perpetuates. 

And while many of my working titles felt fitting, none truly captured the collection’s spirit. 

But once I had chosen Mad Hope, and done some shaping and ordering of the stories with my editor, it really did seem wonderfully apt. 

So while I would say the stories are quite different in setting and character, perhaps their common ground is in their belief in ‘mad hope’ -- a crazy, over-the-top, unbridled yearning for a better day despite desperate or desperately sad circumstances.    

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

One of my favourite stories of all time is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”.  A subverted quest narrative, it tells the story of Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian on the streets of Seattle attempting to buy back his family's powwow regalia from a pawn shop.  It is strange and funny and heart-rending and has one of the most gorgeous, soul-soaring endings I have ever encountered.

Favourite collection(s)?  That’s difficult.  I love Grace Paley (anything by) for her voice and authenticity and commitment to politics and women’s issues and strangeness and wild leaps of empathy and imagination.  And Deborah Eisenberg is an enduring inspiration for me.  I find her thoroughly modern and marvellous and so adept at tracking the tiny calibrations of sensation and thought that occur in a character -- and yet her ‘concerns’, for want of a better term, are large and outward-looking.

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

I think the short story is a good match for any century. 

I love short stories because they do the mess of a consciousness in flux so ably, so nimbly, and they are not restricted by some of the big canvas concerns of a novel. 

There will always be people who are interested in examining and mining small, distilled ‘short story’ moments for meaning.  These are my people.

Also, I don’t really buy the whole notion that the short story is a good fit for our technology-obsessed, shrinking attention spans because

a.) I think eventually we will OD on the skittering bouts of engagement required by social media and its like and crave (or possibly fetishize) a deeper, more sustained relationship with narrative/text and

b.) I think short stories often require more (and more intense) concentration and work than novels (or at least some plot-driven novels) do. 

So maybe I am saying it’s a good fit for the 21st century!

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