Reconciliation: Book Club Q & A

How do you decide the arrangement of stories for a collection?

I usually try to put what I consider the best story, or my favourite story, first.  It’s important to convince the reader immediately of the collection’s strength.  The first story, in my mind, should also give an impression of the overall tenor and voice of the collection.  I like to finish with one that has a poignant ending, one that stirs the reader’s emotions.  In between, I try to mix the humorous stories with the serious ones, so the going doesn’t get too heavy for the reader.  In the case of this book, the final story, “The Prime of His Life,” was the longest one, and that is another reason I placed it at the end, to give extension and ballast to the collection.

You use dialogue more sparingly than some current writers – Elmore Leonard, Roddy Doyle.  What decisions do you make about this aspect of narrative?

Dialogue is fastest kind of prose to write and fills up a page quickly.  That is why you see so much of it in formula or escape fiction.  It also makes characters living, breathing beings more convincingly than any other technique.  However, I find that if there is too much dialogue, the story does not have depth and breadth.  Because of the brevity of the short story, it is important to be able so ‘sum up’ the character’s history and his/her current predicament, and also, in places, to condense events into a few paragraphs.  In addition, setting is always very important to me – it almost serves as a character in and of itself.  I need space in which to create the physical environment as it appeals to the senses and sets the stage for the character’s journey.  Finally, I lean toward “reflective” prose, meaning I like to be able to overlay the narrative with some insights, as well as to enter the character’s mind and emotions.  All of these preferences and imperatives reduce the amount of space available for dialogue.  I tend to use dialogue in the hardest-hitting way I can, that is, to cut to the core of a character’s emotions, desires and conflict.  Passages of dialogue in my stories therefore tend to be short.

Your sentences are direct, uncluttered and can seem simple and straightforward in comparison to Anita Brookner’s or Toni Morrison’s.  Recently you have praised the sentences of Annie Proulx.  What do you admire in her sentences and how do you write and revise your own sentences?  What is your objective, sentence to sentence?

I do not like long, flowery sentences, what I see as “over-writing,” because they are, in my view, artificial, manipulative and egotistical.  Some writers are  stylistic show-offs.   Such writing interferes with meaning, buries the reader in unnecessary clutter and makes the prose claustrophobic.  I prefer more direct sentences because they seem to me closer to the natural human voice.  They do not throw up barriers to meaning and emotion.  I continue to admire the prose of Hemingway (aside from his dialogue) because its directness has an honesty and a power to it.  I do like Annie Proulx’s sentences because they are clean and hard as steel. They can be long but they are never decorative.  She is able to pack into one sentence an entire personal history – one individual’s life pared down to the bone.  Consider this sentence beginning her story, “The Half-Skinned Steer”:  “In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”  I cannot explain how I construct my own sentences.  In beginning a story, I am searching, like all writers, for the right ‘voice.”  As soon as I have that, everything begins to flow, and I am not conscious of shaping each sentence.  The majority of my stories are written in the first person, simply because I need to engage emotionally with the narrative.  If I don’t identify with a character through voice, I can’t get the story off the ground.  Speaking in the first person triggers this for me.  If I have a sentence-to-sentence objective, it would be to sustain emotion through voice. This seems to be what my writing is chiefly about.

Among your metaphors in this collection, a number caught my attention:  “no drama to their colour, just a quiet golden dying;” “hung like a cliff-dweller between sanity and madness;” “who seems to slide through life like the sun’s rays through the branches of a tree.”  Can you comment on how metaphor finds its way into your prose and how to exploit/discipline it’s use?

I’m not sure how these metaphors came about.  They seem to arrive in a sudden visual flash.  Sometimes, though, I search for them, particularly when there is an aspect of a person’s character I want to emphasize or a landscape I want the reader to see very clearly.  I studies art history, and I believe my interest in the visual may stem from that.

To what extent are these stories/characters the pure product of imagination and to what extent the product of observation?

I don’t think any fiction is written out of thin air – i.e., pure imagination.  In my case, most of my stories, because they are character-driven, begin with a character very loosely based on a person I have known or heard about – some essential element of their personality, usually an undermining one, that will ultimately bring them down. For example, in “Clemency,” the protagonist’s obsession with things military eventually destroys his marriage and his career.  Sometimes the conflict bears a slight resemblance to fact; other times it will be purely invented.  There are, of course, exceptions to where a story begins.  In “Surcease of Sorrow,” the departure point was a newspaper account of a car accident.  I then selected someone I know to be the protagonist.  My question:  how would such a terrible event affect the life of this particular woman?  Always, to discover the motives and emotions of a character, the writer must search deep within herself/himself.  This is why it is said that all fiction is to some extent autobiographical.

Is any of these stories what you would call “autobiographical?”

There are two stories in this collection that come out of my childhood.  “A Penny to Save,” was inspired by a friendship of my father’s, a man I vividly remember, transformed here into a sexual predator.  But for me this story was equally about post-war poverty and unemployment, the landscape of the Victory Home neighbourhoods, the popularity of the yoyo, skipping songs, the innocence of youth, and my own father’s rebelliousness.   In “Your Youth So Tragic,” I wanted to recreate the gulf between older and younger sister that I experienced as a child in a family of seven children whose births were spread out over eleven years, as well as the latent desire to rebel against the taboos of the Catholic Church.  Church and family were the two big influences in my life.  More than any other stories I’ve written, these two portray where I came from.

Can you comment on your writing methods?

I use a method of discovery and development called “freefall,” which I learned from W.O. Mitchell at the Banff School of Fine Arts.  It is a process of free association, wherein the writer lets thoughts float up onto the page at random: snatches of dialogue, narrative bits, description of setting, a loose working out of plot and motive.  It avoids the tyranny of the blank page, because in this initial phase of writing, the author is just exploring or “playing” with the story.  Before he/she knows it, the central theme has manifested itself, the characters have come alive, and suddenly there is a body of material to begin to work with.

I find that I often have to take several cracks at a story to make it work.  I might write for a week or two and then find I need to set the story aside and let it percolate in the back of my mind.  I begin another story, then set that one aside and go back to another.  From what I’ve read, this is a common experience for short story writers.  A story is not always ready to reveal itself to the writer.  Sometimes it can take years to get it right.  In a way, it’s like developing a new friend.  You have to make several visits before you really understand the person.

You have written both short stories and a novel.  How does the writing of these two forms differ? Which do you prefer?

I like to compare these two narrative forms to bodies of water.  Short stories are like lakes, self-contained, free standing, finite, yet rippling with intensity.  A novel, in contrast, must flow like a river:  long, relaxed, meandering, with many vistas along its shores. I was very conscious of this big difference when I began to write my novel, The Wife Tree.  It is a whole different way of seeing Life itself.

When executing a novel, the author approaches the writing every day over several years, knowing the plot, the setting, the characters and the world in which they live.  It’s a relief to have this familiar territory to turn to every day.  With short stories, on the other hand, the writer must reinvent all these elements every time a new story is begun.  It is a lot of work, and there is much trial and error.  This is why it takes so long to write a story collection.  There is something very satisfying about sticking with one character over many years.  It’s like having a good friend on a long-term visit.

Your stories have been called “dark.”  What is your reaction to this?

There are times when I look back at my stories and think that they are pessimistic.  Other times I think:  well, this is what people can be like, so why not write about it?  I am just as interested in the less admirable qualities of human beings as I am in the admirable ones. We all have our dark corners.  There are a lot of ugly realities in this world – war, genocide, torture, rape, child abuse.  Isn’t what I write about mild compared to these?  Most people, sooner or later in life, face a big challenge – failure, divorce, illness, loss, death.  I can’t ignore these important events.

What major emotion do these stories evoke in you as a writer?

I would have to name two emotions:  sorrow at the loss my characters experience, and amazement at their ability to step into the next day with hope and strength.

Which of these stories is your favourite, and why?

“A Penny To Save,” is my favourite.  I like the balance between humour and seriousness.  I like the antipathy between West and East.  I like its size, shape and density:  what is conveyed in a small number of pages.  This is one of the older stories in the collection and it seems to me that it not only has greater tightness and energy than some of my more recent writing, but also that it follows more closely and successfully the “rules” I learned in writing class about “showing” versus “telling.”

Where do you get your inspiration?

I’m going to differentiate here between inspiration and ideas.  My inspiration comes from reading the best short story writers – such as Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant (her earlier work), Ann Beattie, Jane Gardham.  My ideas, on the other hand, come from people I know, on whom I loosely base my protagonists, anecdotes I’ve been told, personal experience, observations about how life works and unfolds, articles from newspapers.

How do you choose your characters’ names and do they have a connection to the story line?

Ever since I started writing, I’ve kept a “little black book” of unusual names I come across.  I go through this book carefully when I begin a story.  For me, a name has to suggest the essential nature of a character.  I don’t like stories where people are named Mary, Debbie, John.  These names don’t tell me anything.

Is there always a part of the story taken from personal experience?

I would say all understanding of a character’s emotions, motives, desires comes from a writer’s deep search within herself/himself in the process of getting the story down.  Only by recollection our own personal moments of sorrow, disappointment, anger, loss, betrayal can one write convincingly and with truth about those of her or his characters.

One reviewer called the book “an anti-fairy tale.”  Do you agree or disagree?  Is there any “happily ever after” in this collection?

I don’t know if that question can be answered in the case of short stories, as they are just small episodes in the characters’ lives.  I suppose they could be seen as “hopeful ever after,” in the sense that each protagonist emerges at the end with greater self-knowledge, which is a useful tool for coping with whatever else life may present.

You artfully combine comedy and tragedy in your characters’ journeys, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction.  Do you find this method comes naturally in the flow of the story, or are you challenged to find a balance between the two?

I would say that seven out of the fifteen stories in this collection contain humour and pathos.  For me, the humour arises easily and naturally from the characters themselves, most of who are ironic or outrageous.  That is why the humour is usually contained in the dialogue.  I often do search for these moments as a deliberate attempt to lighten the story, but usually the characters provide me with the words quite readily.

When you write a collection do you develop the stories so that they are somehow linked, or is each short story an entity unto itself?

I would very much like to write a book of linked stories, because it would have the feel of a novel, and therefore would find a broader readership.  But unfortunately, my collections develop randomly, and over many years.  I have files of story ideas, through which I pore when I am beginning something new.  I never know what triggers my selection, but somehow one story seems to be “right” for the moment – it touches me in some way.  Perhaps the idea has just matured enough in the back of my mind to be workable, or perhaps my skills have developed enough to handle it.

Which characters in this collection do you sympathize with most, and least?

I have to empathize with every protagonist in order to write from his or her point of view (either first-person or limited omniscient.)  However, in looking back, my sympathies may now be less strong for those characters in this collection who are angrier than some others:  Pilar in “Made-Up Stories,” Joyce in “Reconciliation,” Louise in “The Sins of the Father,” Catherine in “Altered States.”  These four women, while vulnerable, seem destructive.

How do you think your writing has evolved since your first collection?

Thematically, my stories have “matured” as I’ve aged, that is, fewer of them are now from the perspective of a child and more are about middle-aged or older adults.  This is both a question of bringing one’s experience to bear on one’s characters’ lives and the evolving interests of the writer.  I believe that my style is sparer now, perhaps less textured, the language plainer, the techniques less influenced by the dictates of writing classes.  A couple of stories here – “Do No Harm” and “The Prime of His Life,” please me because I find them less artificial in their structures and rhythms and therefore more like real life.  I would like to strive more for this effect.

How do you decide if a story is worthy of being included in a collection?

Usually a story sits around for a long time before a collection has been amassed.  If it still moves me emotionally and rings true and satisfies me stylistically, I will include it.  It also helps if it has been published in a literary journal, giving it a “stamp of approval.”  It is important to have a resonance between stories in a book. I try not to put in anything that doesn’t “fit,” in terms of subject or voice.

What is the significance of the collection’s title?

I think the word “reconciliation” (which is, in fact, the title of one of the stories) expresses the struggle of all the characters in this book to come to terms not only with the challenging events of their lives, but also with aspects of their own personalities from which they cannot escape and which they must accept in order to be at peace.

Who have been the biggest influences on your writing?

My parents and the lives they lived have been the biggest influence on my work.  Both grew up on farms during the Depression, endured World War II, and, as the parents of seven children, always faced economic stresses.  I see their lives as difficult, but I know that they did not share this view.  My perspective on my roots could account for the seriousness of my subject matter.

Are there any writers who have shaped your work?  Who do you read now, for inspiration?

Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Elizabeth Spencer were all models for me when I began to write.  Now I like the stories of the American writer, Ann Beattie, because they are loosely structured and seem to me to feel like real life.  I also like Ellen Gilchrist’s stories because of their humour.

Has writing these stories changed you – broadened your perspective?

It has been said that authors of interpretive fiction write in order to give meaning to life, which itself has no meaning.  It is a way of organizing experience.  If we accomplish this, one’s perspective on life should be a little calmer.  For me, the process of writing nourishes and sustains my soul.  It is my spirituality, replacing the Catholic faith in which I was raised and which I have abandoned in adulthood.  I hope that writing has made me a better listener and a close observer.  Though the isolation of writing is a difficult challenge, I have grown to understand how lucky I am to have the privilege of spending my professional life in the act of creating.

What is your favourite sandwich to eat while writing?

This tongue-in-cheek question posed to me by my niece is not so frivolous as it might first appear on the surface.  There is a great deal of curiosity among the public as to the working habits of writers.  “How many hours per day do you write?”  “Do you write in the morning or the afternoon?”  “Do you write on your computer or long-hand?”  “How much do you produce per day?”  “How many drafts of a piece do you do?”  I think such technical questions reflect a general reverence for the ability to create fiction and the mystery surrounding how the creative process works.  Such questions are often asked by aspiring authors wondering about the best way to go about writing.