Writers Talking

by John Metcalf, Claire Wilkshire
ISBN: 0889842744

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Writers Talking
by Jeremy Lalonde

As I'm sure you already know, The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe won this year's CBC Canada Reads competition. For the purposes of this review, I'm less interested in Vanderhaeghe's success than the manner in which Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman was summarily shelved on the second day of the contest. The deciding vote belonged to the mediator, Bill Richardson, who claimed it was too difficult to contrast Munro's collection of short stories with the four novels in the competition.
This is an interesting claim, given that the four novelists (Thomas King, Monique Proulx, Mordecai Richler and Guy Vanderhaeghe) have written numerous short stories over the course of their careers, crossing between genres with remarkable alacrity. Keep that old Sesame Street game, one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others, in mind; difference in this context is subtly encoded as inferiority-you're different, you lose, in other words.
The fact is, Richardson may very well like short stories-but until we set up new narrative ground rules, the short story and collections of short stories will continue to suffer through unfair comparisons with the novel. What we need, in short, is a definition of generic difference that accounts for the individual strengths of the short story and the novel. To this end, Guy Vanderhaeghe has developed a working definition of his own:

"great short stories are chiseled and cut and refined and faceted in a way that makes them-and this is not a dismissive phrase-like a fine cameo. Whereas novels I think have to have a certain amount of baggy trousers to them. In fact, novels actually have to have slack stretches in them, and the pacing is very different from that of the short story."

This brings me to Writers Talking, which charts the continued significance that the short story form has for Canadian writers. Writers Talking showcases eight contemporary Canadian writers of short fiction who have remained "curiously invisible" in the words of the editors: Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Steven Heighton, Mary Borsky, K.D. Miller, Terry Griggs, Elise Levine and Annabel Lyon. The book itself, published by Porcupine's Quill, is a lovely edition (too often, anthologies of this sort end up looking like high school readers). Although all of the writers (with the exception of Moore) have previously published books with Porcupine's Quill, the stories in this edition are culled from literary magazines and short story collections published by other presses (read: this edition is more than an advertisement for other books from Porcupine's Quill).
Each story is framed by an interview with the writer and a brief afterword in which the writer outlines the compositional history of the story or directs the reader's attention to some matter of structural or thematic importance. These afterwords are the equivalent of the extra feature on many DVDs that allows you to watch the film along with running commentary from the director: you may not like them, but they will invariably increase your respect for the craft involved.
The interviews are a mixed lot: at their best, they experiment with the interview as a genre and move beyond pure autobiography; at their worst, the interviews will still appeal to scholars who are interested in these scarcely interviewed writers. Indeed, the word interview' doesn't do many of these documents justice; in each case, the interview was conducted through correspondence and the interviewer's questions have been excised, thus conveying the sense of writers talking about their writing without any editorial mediation.
The interview with Lisa Moore is worth the price of admission alone; Moore pushes the limits of the interview format, offering a sequence of autobiographical vignettes on themes as varied as Marshall McLuhan, Harriet the Spy and naked skydiving. Terry Griggs comes across as somebody you'd like to sit down and have coffee with; her tone is conversational as she conveys details about her childhood, literary influences and even her impressions about the reception of her own work. The whole thing works because of the intimate tone Griggs establishes, helped along by good amount of self-deprecating humour.
At the other end of the spectrum, Steven Heighton offers a far more conventional portrait of himself as a young man, gravely concluding: "That someone as marinated in books and culture as I was should have gone on to be a writer is no real surprise, and frankly brings me no great credit for independence of direction." Despite Heighton's obvious gifts as a writer (his "Five Paintings of the New Japan" is one of the highlights of this anthology and Flight Paths of the Emperor has recently been reissued), this interview isn't as engaging as a narrative in its own right and may not appeal to the general readership that Metcalf and Wilkshire seem to be targeting.
The individual interviews are designed to complement the real strength of this anthology-the stories themselves. In particular, Terry Griggs's "Momma had a baby" seems to follow quite naturally out of her discussion of Manitoulin Island as "a source I draw from, a place I inhabit imaginatively." "Momma had a baby" mixes elements of the gothic and the absurd; the final scene, in which one ambulance is shared by a dead woman, a pregnant woman and a man who has "swallowed his pencil stub while working on a crossword" functions as a masterfully executed set piece.
Annabel Lyon's "Watch Me" is a story pared down to its essentials. Lyon lets her characters' dialogue tell the story and she follows a straight narrative line; this is an exceptional story in an anthology where first-person narrators and stories that shuttle back and forth between the past and the present are the norm (strangely, Lyon is the only writer that the editors do not discuss in their foreword). In "The Ukrainian Shirt", Mary Borsky's narrator, Irene, returns to her mother's home with her new husband, a gloomy snob of an anthropologist, in tow. The story charts how the narrator's initial self-consciousness about her Ukrainian-Canadian heritage gives way to embarrassment over the presumed cultural superiority of her academic husband.
Lisa Moore's "Craving" is an intoxicating story. In part, this is because Moore's prose has a dreamy quality about it that reflects her narrator's state of mind (she's smoked some pot and had a few glasses of wine over the course of one evening). Following the narrator's associative patterns of thought is like pursuing a soap bubble with inertia (to borrow a phrase from musician Paul Jago). "Craving" is a story about the constant flux of many lives and the rare moments of revelation we "recognize in a flash." How we act on these impulses determines who we are-whether we opt for "mild love" (as the narrator does) or pursue our desires (like Jessica), consequences be damned. Lisa Moore is a writer who clearly deserves the recent attention her work has garnered.
This book captures something of the lively debate that surrounds the status of the short story in Canada--a debate that is very much ongoing and shows no signs of abatement.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us