Category Archives: Fiction

An Interview with Gillian Wigmore: on what it really takes to write a novella

Gillian Wigmore has dried food all over her house. She and her husband are taking their two children, 11 and 12, on a kayak trip through the Broken Islands. As well as being a poet and fiction writer, a wife and mom, and her job as a full-time coordinator at the Prince George Public Library, she’s helping to organize dried meals for the family’s two-week holiday. Partway through our interview she mentions something in passing and I have to ask her to repeat it to make sure I heard correctly: she’s also working on her MFA through UBC. So, yes, she’s busy. But she is also gracious and gives up a half-hour lunch to talk to me about her new book Grayling, which we reviewed here.

Gillian Wigmore grew up near the small town of Vanderhoof in central BC and the largely rural and agricultural setting shows up in her writing. She has been described as a poet of place and noted as someone who pays careful attention to the specific plants and animals that inhabit her landscapes. In her 20s, Gillian spent some time as a guide for river rafting and ocean kayaking (“but canoes are the best!”) out of which grew her lifelong passion for such trips.

I asked her if she had any hobbies and immediately regretted the ridiculous question. When would this woman have a minute for anything else? And why, in such a full life, would she need a hobby?

Then she said, “Playmobil.”

Playmobil? She laughed and said, “Yes, I’m addicted to those little things. I say I buy them for my kids, but really I think they’re for me!” Did not see that one coming. But it makes sense — that a busy writer would enjoy an excuse to play with colourful little characters, that, as a mom, she must be constantly picking up.

In a telephone interview, a person’s voice is all you have to get a sense of who she is and what she’s like. Gillian Wigmore’s conversational speech is articulate and thoughtful. I got the sense that she takes everything she does seriously, but in a practical way. She’s a woman who gets things done but doesn’t make a big deal about it; competent, not overweening. I am left with the impression that I could talk to her about anything, from intellectual and  spiritual matters to the best type of manure for my garden (not that that isn’t a spiritual matter, I hasten to add). In short, Gillian Wigmore is the kind of person who would make a great companion on a long kayak trip.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

What has it been like to have your first novella published?

GW: It’s been wonderful. We had a great launch here in Prince George and all my friends and family came out to support me. Then I had a wee mini tour of Vancouver and Victoria, for my publisher [Mother Tongue].

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Are you pleased with the attention Grayling is getting?

Yes! The thing about fiction writing is that you actually get reviews, sometimes even before the book is out. But with poetry you’re lucky if you get even one review, two years after the book is published. It’s such a shame.

What was your inspiration for Grayling?

GW: I wanted to go back to the landscape around the Dease River because of a trip I took there with my family in 2007. My son was three and my daughter was four then and it was the beginning of our life on the water. It was a very important trip for our family. It was so beautiful there and I hadn’t seen that landscape in literature before. It just seemed a privilege to get to try and do that myself.

I know you’re going on a two-week kayak trip soon –

GW: We leave this weekend! We’ve been busy dehydrating dinners this week and we still have to get my son a new life jacket. You should see our house, there’s stuff everywhere!

Do you bring a notebook with you on those trips?

GW: I do take a notebook but it’s more of a journal, to record the events. But I did go back and mine old journals for landscape details for Grayling.

What about the story itself, where did the inspiration come from?

GW: I let the characters introduce themselves to me and let them take me on the journey.

Oh dear. You do realize that at least half of our followers will stop reading at this point? Jealousy is ugly that way.

GW: [laughs] But it’s true! I just started typing. I knew if I put a fellow on the river, eventually he’d have to get off that river.

That reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut quote, “somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

GW: Exactly!

How long did it take you to write Grayling?

GW: It took three months to write and then years to edit. The three months was so much fun. Every night was a journey. I’d head down to my desk in the basement and it was like, “here you go, Jay.” I read every sentence out loud, many times, to make sure I got the sound just right. I rewrote the whole book a few times myself then I worked with an editor for Mother Tongue, Jack Hodgins, for at least seven more drafts. Jack is such a great teacher and I am so grateful for the experience but it was hard work. After I sent him my first revised draft, he sent me back 30 pages of single-spaced notes. And then I cried! The next time he said “Great draft” and sent back 20 pages of single-spaced notes. And for each draft I wept – at  how hard it was. But after we’d whittled it down to four pages of notes, we knew we were close.

You are a published poet – why the move to fiction?

GW: I am first and foremost a reader and I read a ton of novels. I just wanted to try, to see if I could do it. I like a challenge! But it’s quite different in that I had to approach the writing of fiction more like a job and make myself do it every night. I had to be meticulous about sitting down and doing it. Whereas with poetry, I never force it. I just let them come – then of course I do a lot of editing. But that initial poem just has to arrive. And novellas are addictive, they’re so much fun to write. There’s more room to move around in a novella than in a short story. Short stories require a certain kind of succinctness, an epiphany that leads to a particular ending. I don’t think I can write anything with any answer already set. Grayling felt like a question I didn’t know the answer to.

You have published two books of poetry and you have one coming out in the fall. How would you say that Grayling, as a work of fiction, is different from your poetry?

GW: My poetry is really effusive, it doesn’t hold back at all, but Grayling is spare. I wanted it to be a spare story. The landscape seemed to call for it, a judicious use of language and small sentences. I didn’t want to editorialize at all. I wanted the place to speak for itself. This was part of the difficulty with all those drafts, trying to strike some kind of balance between fleshing out the characters and describing the landscape, but staying true to my vision.

When I read your interview with poet Ariel Gordon, I couldn’t understand how it was that you could write at all, your life seemed so full and busy.

GW: [laughs] Well it was very busy then and for a while I just didn’t get much writing done. But now I’m really trying to fit it in. I’m finishing up my MFA right now through UBC and I work full time. In the next six weeks, after I get back from the kayak trip, I’ll get up really early and write for an hour in the morning. I’ve usually been a nighttime writer. When you start your day writing, it turns you into such a dreamy person for the rest of the day. It’s hard to come back to reality.

Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore, at home on the water. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore is a BC-based poet and fiction writer. She has published two books of poetry, home when it moves you (2005) and Soft Geography (2007), for which she won the ReLit Award and was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her third collection, Orient, will be available this fall with Brick Books.

 

Between the Shores of the Sacred and the Profane: Descant’s Jack Hostrawser Reviews Grayling

Grayling, Gillian Wigmore’s debut novella, follows a man on a canoe trip and personal journey through a dark night of the soul. There’s not a lot more I want to or can tell you about it, specifically, and this is what Descant reviewer Jack Hostrawser and I debated before agreeing on a suitable style for his review, below. Like the northwestern British Columbia landscape in which it is set, Grayling often camouflages more than it reveals.

number of pages, MotherTongue Publishing...

Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore, Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages. Cover painting by Annerose Georgeson.

But there are two scenes I will tell you about. One involves Leonard Cohen. No, not in a sleeping bag (sorry to interrupt your fantasy). The main characters in Grayling have a protracted conversation about the academic and existential meaning of Cohen’s poem-turned-song, “Suzanne.” The scene sticks out and I wondered: What was this long discussion doing there? Why “Suzanne”? Then I remembered — it’s exactly the kind of conversation friends have on a long camping or canoe trip like the one in Grayling. Someone starts something, apropos of nothing, and suddenly everyone’s an expert and wants to weigh in; as though we crave intellectual stimulation but nothing too serious. These are conversations that feel tinged with a sagacious quality simply because they are happening on water, or under stars; they mean everything and nothing. (You know that they’re half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there). But there is another reason why this scene does in fact fit in so well, but I didn’t see that until I’d finished the book. And then it took a while again, until the book was finished with me. Grayling echoes like that.

There’s another scene that I understood immediately and profoundly. The main protagonist bathes a woman in a makeshift bath he has invented for her near the shore. He washes her body carefully, methodically. If you have ever washed the body of a parent or an ailing spouse, you will understand the attention that Gillian Wigmore pays to the gestures in this scene to evoke this deliberate act of devotion. And yes, it’s even more powerful because it is a man washing a woman.

I like how Jack has quoted longer passages of Grayling in his review, rather than excise a sentence here and there. Gillian Wigmore is a published poet but I agree with Jack that Grayling isn’t self-consciously poetic. Like the river landscape in which it’s set, Grayling winds an enigmatic story between the rocky shores of the sacred and the profane.

**

Chaos Theory: A Review of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling

by Jack Hostrawser

In Grayling, Jay sets out in a canoe on the Dease River, trying to make a clean break from his past. A mysterious woman, Julie, saves him from hypothermia then talks her way into the canoe, interrupting his isolation and sending the trip in new directions. Throughout their voyage the book tries to navigate our relationships with intimacy, meaning and the wilderness itself.

“He thought of deer leaping over bushes, out of the path of the fire. Animals too small or slow to get away from the flames occurred to him: beaver and rabbits, their twisted forms vivid, black and red, in his mind. He shivered and paddled on, away from the burn.”

Gillian Wigmore moves from the big questions to focus on detail and character, and she has a poet’s eye for details: her real-life outdoors experience is evident immediately, as well as her talent as a writer. The book is built of a focussed prose that sets to work with energy and draws the meandering river patiently. Her writing has a patience that allows the novella to feel fuller than its few pages suggest.

As the active, observant prose accumulates you realize that the novella is managing, in only one hundred and eleven pages, to carve out a multi-levelled parable that addresses our relationship with sexuality, nature and existentialist fears. Gillian Wigmore crafts a two-person story with depth and convincing, hard-earned humanity, whose characters’ individual needs and desires tangle compellingly. Jay lives a bitter coping strategy that evolves quietly across the narrative in a frustrating and poignant way. Julie begins as an enigma but reveals herself as the two grow closer. These are two people as stubborn, hopeful and frustrating as any of us.

“He looked at her and wondered if she’d decided something while he was sleeping. She didn’t look decided, she just seemed tired and a little dirty. Her hair under her bandana was tangled in clumps. She had soot in the crease of her nose. He saw her small hands around her mug, no rings of dirt under her nails, and he saw her lashes against her skin as she watched the fire, and he felt like there wasn’t a time before he knew her. His world had shrunk to the state of her body and their minds and the particular gravel bar they’d beached upon.”

Gillian Wigmore seems to be a visual writer more than she is a musical one and I think her sentences sometimes miss the mark, overplayed by narration that momentarily loses faith in its ability to enact the emotions it describes. But it was never the individual sentences that made me like this book; it was her reach. The ideas are big — so big I missed some the first time I read it (a certain blog editor had to enlighten me) and I had to reread it immediately to see everything I had missed.

Grayling aligns the minutia of fumbling human relationships with a wilderness that has been both predator and muse since we first tried to lift our heroes into the stars. It takes courage to risk an ambition like that. Gillian Wigmore stands fast and determines to do things I didn’t think could be done in the short space of a novella. And despite the size of the task, she pulls it off.

The final scene enacts a twist that puts everything before it into question. Her conclusion opens new possibilities as it steals away our expected ones; there is never a perfect, clear answer to our questions or our demands. Instead it is simultaneously sun-baked granite, dark pine trees, rough water and the “cold contracting muscle” of a glimmering grayling. You have to leave your calculations and preconceptions at the shore. In the chaotic rush of the Dease, even the pearlescence of a common fish could be sacred.

 “Another him, one from even a year ago, would have exclaimed at the sight, would have even appreciated exclamations from others, but he stayed quiet, trying to soak the sight in: the swath the river cut into the earth, inarguable, ageless, so enormous and unapologetic he felt as dwarfed and bent as the trees. He couldn’t hold his eyes open wide enough to see it all: the scooped expanse of sand stretching skyward, the small birds swooping out from holes in the cliffs and soaring. The sound of rocks breaking off and crumbling into the river echoed down the valley. In the bow, she was still and silent, too.”

Grayling is a careful but slippery, quiet but brash and ultimately beautiful novella.

**

Jack Hostrawser received the York University President’s Prize in short fiction and is published in Existere, Steel Bananas and The Quilliad. He sometimes chases tornadoes and is being taught patience by an old motorcycle. He is currently production editor at Descant (for the fall 2014 Berlin issue), when not working on his first novel.

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[And now this, because you know you need it.]

 

 

The Novella: neglected middle child of prose

A canoe is not a small ship, a shrub is not a miniature tree, a child is not a pint-sized adult and a novella is not a short novel (sorry Merriam-Websters). It is the middle child of prose, defined against the (longer) novel and (shorter) story. And like a middle child, it is often left out and therefore free to make its own discoveries and carve its own path.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

We’ve all read a number of novellas. The list of possibilities is impressive and includes: The Awakening (1899, Kate Chopin), Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad), The Metamorphosis (1915, Franz Kafka), Of Mice and Men (1937, John Steinbeck), The Stranger (1942, Albert Camus), The Little Prince (1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), Animal Farm (1945, George Orwell), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, Carson McCullers), A Clockwork Orange (1962, Anthony Burgess), Black Water (1992, Joyce Carol Oates)… Goodreads has a list (of course) of the “greatest novellas.”

Historically, some consider that English novelist, dramatist and spy, Aphra Behn, published the first novella. Oroonoko, a love story about an African king, slavery, dismemberment, decapitation and death was published in 1688 (she died the next year, at age 49). Of course the Russians made the novella into an art form. Ivan Turgenev published the autobiographical novella First Love in 1860, about a young man in love with a woman that he eventually discovers is his father’s lover (in a creepy scene involving a riding crop) and everything ends horribly (misogyny alert).

A novella is defined, in part, by its length — somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words (whereas a novel is generally somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words). This translates to about 100-150 pages. While length isn’t everything, it does limit and guide structure. The novel has the luxury of more pages with which to explore sub-plots; a novella does not.

Novellas tend to focus on the personal, psychological journey of one main character, through one point of view, and usually over a period of just a few days.

Although, there are exceptions. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie covers 20+ years (1969, Muriel Spark). Like the novel, the poem and other written forms, “although, there are exceptions” could be added to each of the points I make here. Language is slippery like that. So are writers.

A novella does not usually have chapters. Like the short story, passages of time or changes of location are differentiated with extra paragraph spaces, or sometimes a blank page but not chapter numbers or titles.

Novellas are not easy to sell. I once came across what I thought a comical piece of advice to writers on a well-known publisher’s website. In answer to a writer’s question about how to get his novella published, the expert responded with something like, “my first piece of advice to you is to expand your novella into a full-length novel.”

Novellas are often published with other short stories, such as the case with Mavis Gallant’s The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Stories (1984) and Stephen King’s Different Seasons (1982), a collection of four novellas, three of which ended up on the big screen, including the popular “Shawshank Redemption.” Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin,” considered by some to be a novella, was published in her short story collection Open Secrets (1994). By my rough estimate, this story is about 17,000 words, so a bit on the short side for a novella. And it’s much more complicated than many novellas in terms of passage of time, so again not neatly a novella. (But that’s Alice Munro for you. For each rule writer’s learn, any Alice Munro story can be held up as an example of breaking it).

Years ago, Descant sponsored a novella contest. Unfortunately, the time and money required outran the staff and volunteers at hand, so we didn’t keep it up. But our very own Michelle Alfano, now Descant’s assistant-editor-in-chief (administration), published a novella. Made Up of Arias won the 2010 Bressani Prize for Short Fiction. Michelle managed to pack a lot of character into the slim volume:

Lilla, Joey and Clara Pentangeli, their father Salvatore and their mercurial mother Seraphina live on Paradise Street behind a giant billboard, in a charmed world filled with operatic heroines. Seraphina idolizes Maria Callas. Between bouts of housework, she re-enacts Violetta’s death scene from La Traviata, dresses in a kimono like CioCioSan in Madama Butterfly, and concocts outrageous tales for her three enchanted children.

The Malahat Review sponsors a novella contest every two years. Their next deadline is February, 2016. Not many literary magazines will publish a novella for the obvious reason that they take up so much space. Publishing one writer’s novella means not publishing several other short story writers. But here is a link to a list of places that do consider novellas for publication.

Quattro Books Logo

Quattro Books, in Toronto, consider themselves “the home of the novella” (literary only, not genre). Their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest inspired my idea for this blog post. From June 1st to July 31st, 2014, they are accepting submissions for their novella competition. If you win, your  manuscript will be published this fall — yes, you could go from an idea to a book-in-hand in less than six months. Of course, in that same time, Stephen King will have written two blockbuster bestsellers, but don’t think about that. Think about the launch party and how great it will feel to be both a contest winner and an author, all in one fell swoop. (Just make sure you avoid clichés like that). One of Quattro’s Ken Klonsky Novella Contest winners for 2012 was Terri Favro, for The Proxy Bride (in which there are chapters). Writing tip #54: Always a good idea to read the work of previous winners before entering a contest.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

I’m rereading James Joyce’s novella The Dead. If a short story is something to sink your teeth into and a novel something to which you lend your heart and soul, The Dead suggests to me that a good novella merges these two experiences. A novella is intense, like a short story, but it also refracts and extends your vision, similar to a novel. And, recalling the ending of James Joyce’s brilliant story, I want to add that the novella can bring you, suddenly, to your knees.

 

 

 

 

Descant feature volunteer interview: Jann Everard

One Sunday afternoon each month, Descant volunteers, interns, co-editors and staff meet to read submissions and discuss the business of running a literary magazine. Sometimes people ask me about the kinds of people at these meetings (I know what they’re really asking is: what kind of people are judging my writing?!). There have been up to 30 of us at these meetings although generally it’s closer to 20. Some have degrees in English, though certainly not all. Some are interns, and come from a publishing program at Ryerson or York University. And some, like Jann Everard, come in off the street — Word On The Street, that is.

Michael XXXX, Descant's Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous WOTS spot.

Michael Chen, Descant‘s summer 2013 Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous Word On The Street spot, September 2013.

When we set up our tent for the annual event last fall, in Toronto, I grabbed a bunch of colourful flyers and started pacing our allotted 12 feet, looking for a friendly face to accost, in a literary manner. One of those faces turned out to be Jann’s and soon enough she and I and Michelle Alfano, now our Assistant-Editor-in-Chief (Administration), were chatting about writing and mutual friends and, of course, Descant. Jann came to our next launch and then editorial meeting and has come to each one since.

Jann Everard is well published — that is, she has been published often and in good places. She has had three essays published in The Globe and Mail, “Facts and Arguments,” she’s had short stories published in Grain and The Antigonish Review (this spring), as well as Room, The Fiddlehead, The Dalhousie Review, and at least a dozen other publications. In fact, reading her writing resumé could be considered a good introduction to Canadian journals! Here is just a selection of her publications.

Her answers to the following questions about being a writer are candid, useful and funny. While she admits in this interview that she struggles with getting to the page, in the eight months I’ve known her, I’ve come to regard Jann as a serious and dedicated writer. She is also, as other serious writers are, a great support to all her writing friends.

And of course, she’s a great addition to our Descant family.

***

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

When (or how) did you first know you wanted to write?

JE: I suspect that every avid reader has a moment when they are inspired to give writing a try. I took a break from employment to be with my kids when they were young so I tried my hand at writing children’s books first. I took a course with Sharon Jennings, author of some of the Franklin’s First Readers. All those early efforts still sit in my files. Children’s books are harder to write (and get published) than people think.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

JE: I don’t have much discipline. I don’t get up a 5:00 a.m. to write. I don’t write every day. I fit writing around the rest of my life. But years ago I went to a CANSCAIP event and the keynote speaker said something that resonated. I don’t remember her name but she had four young kids, a full-time job and had published five or more books. She said it was important for her to see herself as “a writer who is a mother” not “a mother who writes.” I still fall into the latter camp. But I see a time, very soon, when I will finally be a writer first.

What do you find easiest and hardest about the writing life?

JE:  I didn’t start writing seriously until after a 14-year career in the Ontario Ministry of Health and a few years at home. I have an MHA, not an MFA. At work, I spent a lot of time writing briefing notes and policy papers. So I had a steep learning curve when it came to creative writing. I took some courses and went to workshops to help me get started but, for the most part, I learned through trial and error. It was hard to figure out who I was as a writer. After children’s writing, I explored travel writing and poetry. I sent a couple of personal essays to the Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” and they were accepted. So then I looked into creative nonfiction. It wasn’t until writer/editor Deb Loughead rejected a piece I’d submitted for an anthology, with a kind note suggesting I submit it to Room Magazine, that I started to look closely at the adult short story as a form. It took me a long time to get to that point. Others may be surer from the start.

The easiest part of being a writer? What’s better than sitting in the local pub listening to other writers read to you?

What do you know now that you wish your first teacher or mentor had told you, but didn’t?

I’m sure my early writing teachers told me everything I needed to know. But did I listen?

One of those early teachers was Sarah Selecky. I told Sarah I had trouble revising my work. So Sarah developed a course on Deep Revision. She was very gentle. We sat in her living room with soft lighting and herbal tea. She guided us through various techniques to help see our work with fresh eyes. At one point she suggested we cut our MS into pieces and physically rearrange it. I couldn’t do it. I was still in love with my imperfect draft. I wish she’d beaten me over the head and forced me to hack at it with scissors! I still find revision hard.

(Btw, Sarah has been offering much of that instruction free on her website as part of the run-up to her contest deadline.)

What are 3 things you think a new writer should know?

JE: 

1) Your work will be rejected.

2) Your work will be rejected, even though it is good work.

3) You will rarely be given a reason why your work has been rejected.

Corollary: I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding a group of people who will provide constructive criticism. Treasure those people. Buy them drinks. Return the favour when they need feedback. Analyzing someone else’s work hones your own skills. It forces you to ask what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s also important to recognize that the kind of feedback you will need (or can give) will change and evolve with time. In my early career, all the people in my critique circle were women. I purposely sought out some male writers to help me later on. I needed to know that my male characters rang true. Some of my original writing friends are now working on, or finishing, novels. I feel less equipped to help them with structure, but I can still offer them copy editing.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

JE: Meeting other writers. They are a diverse and interesting group, for sure! I’ve made some close friends in writing classes. I obtained my current part-time job (totally unrelated to writing) through a connection I made in a writing class.

What is the thing that (negatively) surprised you most about being a writer?

JE: That what I spend on paper, ink, postage, journal subscriptions and books is always so much more than what I am paid as a writer. While I was flattered to discover recently that a college in NYC had used a story of mine in a workshop, I was disturbed to find out that 1) it was available to them online through an academic listserve without my knowledge, and 2) creators are not compensated when universities make these arrangements.

Have your parents ever read your stories and what do they think/say?

JE: They have read a few. By the time a story makes it to print, I’ve moved on. It seems anticlimactic and I’m not good at self-promotion. If it’s near Christmas, I’ll slip a journal with my writing into my father’s stocking. He has written several military history books and, at 87, is still a prodigious reader. He thinks my short stories lack proper endings.

What’s the longest you’ve waited to hear back from a magazine?

JE: Up to a year. I’ve also had stories rejected that I’d previously withdrawn. And one journal rejected the same story twice, even though I hadn’t resubmitted it. That felt harsh! But these moments have to be laughed off. Journals are often volunteer-run. We all make mistakes.

What’s your advice to new writers about handling rejection?

JE: Have lots of dark chocolate on hand. I mean lots.

***

Jann Everard is new to Twitter! You can find and follow @JannEverard.

 

Confessions of an OAC Juror

Dickens did not take critique very well either.

The e-mail appeared in my inbox along with the usual make-money-from- home spam. It seemed I had been chosen to be a juror for the Ontario Arts Council. All I had to do was read a few manuscripts and give my opinion about the relative literary merits of each application. For this simple task I would be financially compensated.

Naturally, I did not believe the legitimacy of this e-mail. Why me? I was hardly a famous author, just someone who had published in a few literary magazines. I goggled googled the name of the e-mail’s sender, John Degen, and he was indeed the Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council. Perhaps this really was a genuine request to adjudicate this year’s grant applicants.

I eagerly accepted the assignment, and soon two boxes of manuscripts were delivered to my door, each box stuffed with the aspirations and sweat of some one- hundred- thirty-five struggling writers. Just how many hours of collective gazing-into-a- monitor did these stacks represent? How many agonizing rewrites and how much head banging for just the correct word? Each deadline the OAC Works in Progress program only ever has enough money to dispense less than two-dozen grants. Thus the statistical reality is that the majority of these submissions would receive a rejection letter, and although we writers are accustomed to rejection, no one finds it painless. I was beginning to regret having accepted this responsibility.

There were four jurors assigned to adjudicate the literature category, which consisted of short-fiction, novels, non-fiction, young adult (both fiction and non-fiction) and graphic novels. The competition is anonymous; each entry is marked only with its title. Each juror was asked to read every word of all the manuscripts, making notes on each entry on a special form sent to us, along with our vote of either, a yes, a no, or a maybe. A meeting had been set up at the end of September where all four jurors, along with the Literature Officer, would gather to reach a consensus upon which few would receive a grant this year.

The manuscripts had arrived in late July (delayed by a postal strike) and that meant there was less than two months to read all the manuscripts and still do them justice. And as luck would have it, I was flying to the UK for three weeks smack in the middle of this intense reading period. This is where a writer’s discipline is useful. I worked out that if I could read six manuscripts a day, I should be in good shape before the scheduled meeting with the other jurors. Submissions are allowed to be forty pages, plus up to three pages of bridging material and a one page summary. However, the majority of submissions seemed to be over forty pages. A few even attempted to pack in more pages by shrinking the font (most were disqualified by OAC but a couple did slip through). The jurors, just like publishers and literary mags, are inundated with submissions they need to read before a deadline. Any writer who adds stress to that process does do himself any favors. Personally, I made a conscious decision to not read anything past page forty of any manuscript sample: there is nothing in the remaining four pages that is going to alter my opinion about the writer’s clarity with structure, the prose, the dialogue, the plot and characters that he has not demonstrated in the previous forty.

The OAC also allows writers to include a summary of the book they are attempting. Although this page is not mandatory, I discovered that many of the entries included two or three pages of summary, much of it full of hyperbole, as though these pages were a pitch meant to make me want to read the sample. Jurors are obliged to read all samples. A hyped up summary, to me at least, served as a wish list for what the writer hoped to achieve in this book. The attached sample then, spoke of the writer’s ability (or inability) to reach that goal. I later found out that some of the jurors did not read the summaries at all. My advice would be to not include a summary of the book. I know from picking up books at libraries and book stores that by reading the first page I have a pretty clear idea of what the theme of this book is and whether or not I will find it engaging. Your sample writing is there to speak to the juror about the themes and conflicts in your book, as well your style.

The adjudication meeting itself turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the whole process. The OAC has been doing this a long time and they have honed it to an art. As the title of each submission was called out, the jurors gave their vote of either yes, no, or maybe. Any manuscript with four yeses (about 10%) needed no further discussion. These entries were brilliantly skillful. They had rhythmic sentences, which flowed effortlessly into concise paragraphs. Such manuscripts were notably free of grammatical and spelling errors (perhaps proofed by a professional editor?). Similarly, any manuscript that garnered four nos was destined for a rejection letter (about 40% in our batch). A few of these were clearly amateur, more a demonstration of vanity than talent. Others were bizarre derivatives of au courant fiction (think teen vampire superhero who attends wizard school), or they were so experimental as to be abstract and indecipherable. It was the remaining 50% that we the jury spent the day discussing. Each of these entries had potential that was cluttered by clumsy writing. Some manuscripts had passionate champions among the jurors (both for and against) attempting to persuade the other jurors to change their votes. The debates were lively, but respectful to both the writers and to the fellow jurors. It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints and all the jurors benefited from having his or her biases and justifications challenged. Often the writers were very close to having a winning manuscript but were making one or two fatal mistakes in the writing process. It is unfortunate that at present the OAC does not have a mechanism for submitters to benefit from that discussion (they are working to rectify that).

After listening to this insightful discussion, we were given a chance to review our votes for the remaining undecided entries. By 5 o’clock we had narrowed down the 50% into a consensus of yeses small enough to match the available funds from the OAC.

John Degen mentioned at the end our session that in his time at the OAC he had not encountered a jury which had discussed the manuscripts with such depth as we had and he felt we had given each writer his just due. I believe he meant it. I too was impressed by my fellow jurors. Despite the sometimes arduous reading schedule, all the jurors agreed that we would accept to adjudicate should we be asked again.

Pradeep Solanki

Please check out new blog on http://awarenessisfree.wordpress.com/

REVIEW: ‘The Third Reich’ by Roberto Bolãno

There is perhaps no better testimony to the current widespread appeal of Roberto Bolãno than The Paris Review’s recent decision to serialize the Chilean author’s most recent release, The Third Reich (according to The New Yorker website, it is the first time the magazine has serialized a work of fiction in over forty years). From the inventive The Savage Detectives to the epochal 2666, Bolãno’s body of work has created a sensation over the last decade and made Bolãno himself a posthumous icon. As The Third Reich reminds readers, there is substance to the hype.

Written in 1989 and allegedly unearthed amongst the Chilean author’s notes, The Third Reich is centred on the first-person account of Udo Berger, a renowned German war games expert vacationing in Costa Brava with his girlfriend, Inebord. Rather than basking in the hot sun of coastal Spain, Udo—a man driven by rules, motives and strategy—opts instead to spend his time indoors perfecting a “variant” of his favourite war game, The Third Reich.

Soon Udo and Ingebord befriend another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who in turn introduce them to an enigmatic collection of local characters, including a shadowy beach dweller named El Quemado (literally “The Burned One”). When tragedy strikes (or at least appears to), Udo’s perception of the world around him begins to adopt a darker, more bizarre hue. His waking life slips seamlessly in and out of dreams and he begins to suspect those around him of deceiving him.

What results is a quietly brilliant novel that unfurls steadily like a mystery in search of a crime. Clues abound as do suspects, but the object of investigation remains hopelessly elusive—both to readers and to Udo. It is this ever-looming abysm of unknowability, however, that truly interests Bolãno. At one point, Udo, upon discovering the inconsequential factoid that El Quemado is not in fact Spanish but South American, comments: “I didn’t feel deceived. I felt observed. (Not by El Quemado; actually by nobody in particular: observed by a void, an absence).” The novel equates this “void” with a sort of ominous evil lurking in the negative spaces between a cause and is effect, a person and his or her motives. For Bolãno, it seems, existence itself is tantamount to deception. It’s esoteric stuff, but that’s why Bolãno remains such a force: His books coextensively compel and confound.

As expected, The Third Reich doesn’t carry the weight of The Savage Detectives or 2666, but it serves as a fitting and elucidating prelude to both works, providing hardcore Bolãno disciples with what may be the most direct entry to date into the author’s thematic, philosophic and aesthetic interests.

The Third Reich is published by Penguin Canada. Translated from the original Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

DESCANT Fiction wins Silver at the 2010 National Magazine Awards!

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We are happy to announce that Adam Lindsay Honsinger‘s short story, “Silence,” has earned a Silver award in the Fiction category at the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards — held last Friday at the Carlu in Toronto.

Steven Heighton’s “Shared Room on Union” won the Gold prize for Fiddlehead journal, while Honsinger’s “Silence” earned a respectable Silver position, beating out other nominated entries from Event, Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, Prairie Fire and Vancouver Review (you can preview all the nominated works, including “Silence,” here).

“Silence” first appeared in Descant 145: Private Worlds, Public Exigencies, our Summer 2009 issue, an exploration of the boundary between the self and the other. To order a copy of D145, visit our website here.

To download a pdf file of all the 2010 winners and nominations given by the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF), click here.

DESCANT Fiction nominated for 2010 National Magazine Award!

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Congratulations to author Adam Lindsay Honsinger, viagra 60mg whose short story, Silence, has just been nominated in the 2010 National Magazine Award’s “Fiction” category.

Silence first appeared in Descant 145: Private Worlds, Public Exigencies, our Summer 2009 issue: an exploration of the boundary between the self and the other.

Adam Lindsay Honsinger has had fiction and reviews published in a number of publications, including Exile, The Malahat Review, Other Voices, paperplates, Pottersfield Portfolio, PRISM international and SubTerrain.

The National Magazine Awards Foundation is dedicated to the recognition of excellence in Canadian Magazines through its yearly awards program. This year’s Awards Gala is set to take place on June 4, 2010, at the Carlu in Toronto.

Congratulations, Adam, and good luck!

To order a copy of Descant 145, visit our website at here

To view the full list of categories and nominations, go here

 

 

Edith’s War by Andrew Smith (Axiom Publishing Co., 2010) 380 pages

In Edith’s War, Andrew Smith sensitively and deftly shifts from the present day somewhat strained relationship of two brothers named Will and Shamus Maguire traveling in Venice to the secret history of their mother Edith during WWII when countless Italians, some born in England, were interned as enemy aliens. I was lucky enough to read this book in manuscript form before it was published.

The Liverpool born brothers could not be more different. The eldest Will is taciturn, cold and unsociable. Shamus, a few years younger and now living in Canada, is gentler, sensitive but obviously a bit cowed by his older brother’s volatile personality.

Shamus is still mourning the death of his partner Luke. Will is divorced and seems embittered by his life. Both men seem emotionally adrift. They spend the day reminiscing (and bickering), taking in Venice and awaiting their mother Edith’s visit. Family life was an emotionally stilted and unpleasant memory for Will. Shamus has a less angry recollection but is still intrigued by the speculation of the true relationship between his parents Edith and Joe (whom both brothers refer to by their first names).

The two generations are bound together by their connection to Italy and it turns out Edith’s romantic past is much more complicated than they know.

Far from being the cold, prim fish that the brothers presume Edith to be, she has had a tumultuous emotional and romantic history in Britain during WWII while husband Joe was off to war and she was pregnant with her first child Will. While Edith lived with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law she became friendly with the Baccanello family next door.

Anna and Gianni Baccanello have three sons Carlo, Paolo and Domenico and a close relationship with the Maguires. There is a sweet and understated attraction between Edith and the eldest son Carlo who lives with his wheelchair bound wife Isobel.

This attraction becomes more intense when all the Baccanello men are interned as aliens and possible threats to security by Churchill’s orders once Mussolini declares war on England in 1940. This reflects a true historical event that few in the West know about (I certainly did not). Edith, intelligent but politically apathetic, is galvanized into aiding her neighbors when the the men are interned and then ordered to be transported overseas for indefinite incarceration on The Arandora Star.

On July 2, 1940 the ship, which held nearly1,200 German and Italian internees, was torpedoed by a German submarine U-47, and 800 men were killed or drowned. Carlo survives this harrowing experience as does the youngest son but other family members do not.

Even though Carlo survives, his ordeal is not over as he is then shipped to an internment camp at Woolfall Heath. Some historical detail about the camp from “Wartime camps in Huyton”, BBC Liverpool:

The camp, first occupied in May, 1940, was formed around several streets of new, empty council houses and flats and then made secure with high barbed wire fencing. Twelve internees were allocated to each house, but overcrowding resulted in many sleeping in tents. Initially the camp was only meant to hold the internees until they could be shipped to the Isle of Man. However, largely in response to the torpedoing of the transport ship ‘The Arandora Star’, with the loss of nearly 700 people, the deportations ended. 

Brave, resourceful Edith stands up for the Baccanellos against British authorities and struggles largely in vain – even combating her bigoted brother-in-law and the suspicion of neighbors and friends in their small village. But she makes a fateful choice which will link her to the Baccanellos forever.

It reminds me that we often lose sight of what our parents were before they became our parents – their acts of courage, their youthful passions and sometimes transgressions. They were (are) as passionate and hopeful as any of us.

In the present day, the Maguire brothers bicker and piece together bits of forgotten family history in Venice. They meet an enigmatic stranger named Armando Belli who captivates Will. He carries a cigarette case which intrigues Will and triggers a long buried memory about the presence of Carlo Baccanello in his early life. Without saying too much to spoil the plot, a secret resides in Edith which we learn of only at the very end.

The scenes set in WWII are compelling and meticulously recreate the atmosphere of fear and paranoia which plague the two families under siege by both the German bombardment and English racism and xenophobia. 

This book is politically relevant today as it reminds us that the perceived enemies within our midst are often the pawns of horrific historical circumstances beyond their control. And before we assume that this is a phenomenon confined to other nations, let’s remember that the exact same situation happened with Japanese-Canadians during WWII. My own mother-in-law, who was a child younger than my daughter, and her whole family, were interned at Lemon Creek.

Closer to our own time, think of the Muslim-Canadians wrongly accused and incarcerated today. We are doomed to repeat these mistakes unless we are vigilant. And this book helps us remember that.

Save the Date: DESCANT 148 Launch!

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Descant 148: The Search for Happiness / Descant Spring Issue Launch

Monday, April 19, 2010 / 7:30pm
The Victory Cafe (581 Markham Street, 2nd Floor)
Free!

It’s that time again, literary ladies and gents! Descant is launching its 2010 spring reader at The Victory Cafe, featuring readings by contributors Emi Benn, Roo Borson, David Day, Larry Frolick and Alex Pugsley.

Entitled The Search for Happiness, this issue tackles one of life’s greatest struggles for the unobtainable through poetry, fiction, memoirs and travel essays. Can a person ever obtain genuine satisfaction? Contributing editors Mark Kingwell and Rosemary Sullivan delve thoughtfully into the topic, while long-time Descant writer Larry Frolick offers up his memoir-in-progress, “Dark Side of the Moon.” Descant 148 also features portfolio and cover art from acclaimed artist Anitra Hamilton, and portfolios from American sculptor Jim Hake and Canadian media-artist John Massey.

Expect another bang-on event of delectable ideas and riveting readings! Don’t forget to RSVP to the Facebook event.

You can catch a sneak peek of our beautiful new issue on our website HERE.