Pam Houston has done it. Salmon Rushdie has done it. Come on, everybody. Jump onboard. Which short fictions have had the most impact on you?
Here are some of mine:
Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story, Russell Banks
People Like That are the Only People Here, Lorrie Moore
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
A Worn Path, Eudora Welty
The Year of Getting to Know Us, David Leavitt
A Small, Good Thing, Raymond Carver
Meneseteung, by Alice Munro
Edison, NJ, by Junot Díaz
Hills Like White Elephants, Earnest Hemingway
Selway, Pam Houston
My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn, Sandra Cisneros
Nashville Gone to Ashes, Amy Hemple
We Walked on Water, Eliza Robertson
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer, Melanie Rae Thon
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, Joyce Carol Oates
White Angel, Michael Cunningham
Why I Live at the P.O., Eudora Welty
Gold Star, Siobhan Fallon
a sketch by Jane Eaton Hamilton 2013
I wonder (without having read this book) if my perspective on this is different. With increasing age, I feel more free than ever to create. I’ve already dealt with the certainty of my mortality, I don’t have children at home, my disability anchors me to a desk, and of course 4 years ago I was turfed out of my marital home and lost everything (house, home, garden, pets, best friend, lover, marriage, income, friends, health, my predictable future). So what I have left, what I’ve struggled to put together since that horrible betrayal, is precious to me. But even were it not precious, it would still be full of arm-chair zest.
Jane Eaton Hamilton, sketch, 2014
Cooking in Montreal, eggplant à la Kathleen Winter, and not very successfully: something she did with mustard? But the dish, cooking, looks like whale skin over blubber, so contemplations in her new book “Boundless,” about her sojourn through the Northwest Passage, come to mind, floating on my mental northern sea beside her watercolours (and the Franklin ship, just located). I want to read it.
As I write, neighbours on every side of me here near rue de Charlevoix are fighting. Above, on both sides, and below, and then at distant spots as well.
I’ve just finished reading “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews, which I admired and towards the end, loved.
Artistically, it has been a significant month in Montreal. I have been too ill most of the time to venture out very far, so of the city, I’ve seen nothing, and I’ve regretted in particular not finding guinea pigs on whom to practice my French. Yet as far as authorial productivity goes, I honestly couldn’t be more pleased if gourmet meals had fallen out of my fingertips. I don’t even know how it happened, since when I’m running along at full tilt (something I haven’t been able to do in more than a decade), I can only complete a story every month, but these last weeks I’ve written two essays and seven short fictions.
Several of the stories are CBC-contest length, so just 1500 words, but others are on the short-end of full length. The essays were about traveling alone and my father’s suicide. In the stories, my protagonists have ranged from a teenager involved in rural Connecticut in the 1920’s ivory trade, to a refugee teen in northern Thailand itching to get papers so she can emigrate, to poorly-married lesbians on vacation in Tanzania, to a woman whose mother, owner of a Quebec doll hospital, has just died, to a funambulist in love with a storm chaser in Missouri, to a broken-hearted woman at a Quebec cottage for a weekend, to parents of a two-year-old girl thought to have drowned. Only one of these isn’t finished (though “finished” in a writer’s hands means something quite different than in, say, an accountant’s hands). As well, today I will round the corner on 19,000 edited words of my silly romance novel, as well. It doesn’t escape my notice that having to edit this book has provoked the stories–a sort of retaliatory pleasure since in short fiction I can leap and somersault and trampoline through language in a way that just isn’t possible for me in novels.
I am in head over heels in love with short fiction. Always. All ways.
I’ve taught myself now to work completely on the computer. Since my first computer, in the 80s, I’ve printed drafts, edited long-hand, then laboriously input changes, but the last few years I’ve been able to managed editing on-screen. Thus the entire process has become a pleasure. I would not really even be able anymore to delineate drafts because they are always morphing here, morphing there. And anyway, I write over them.
I’ve thought numerous times that I could not write stories–recent stories–without the web. Pre-web, the research simply wasn’t available fast enough. For the story about the Thai refugee, I needed to know things like which was the stickiest cut fruit and what was the local name for meth. For the story about the storm chaser, I had to research tornados and circus aerialists. For the story from the 1920s, I needed historical data as well as information about the ivory trade.
And for me the process is akin to writing in a storm, or maybe in the eye of a storm since I am always completely calm, and I don’t know where the tornado is moving, sentence to sentence, I’m just chasing it. I don’t plan a story. I don’t have a clue about it before I sit down and write a line, which I trust to lead to another line, and that one, another. Eventually there will appear a line that has energy which I can work from, and the pre-writing will go, and the story begin.
I need so many esoteric facts I couldn’t foresee. In paragraph one, I don’t know what I’ll need in paragraph two, and without the successful research for paragraph two, paragraph three wouldn’t even be suggested. The story quickly changes direction in surprising ways, so if I couldn’t get to the information instantly, the stories would collapse like a house of cards. One research solution directs the story to another research necessity–the details become the fulcrum around which the characters spin.
And I am one of them! Click on each title to read about it and find links to the CBC award-winners.
So a friend in Montreal sent me Shelagh’s book, The Water is Never Blue, by post, which I am this weekend hauling back to Montreal completely unread (and yes, with plans to speedily remedy my appalling oversight), but in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to read Shelagh from other sources, and in addition Shelagh’s read to me–her lovely birthday gift chased with clafloutis aux cerises in a cottage in a woods.
Anyone who knows me at all well knows I lost my best chum, the queer writer Candis Graham, to an aneurysm some years ago. She and I–she in Ottawa, me in Vancouver and on Saltspring Island–shot handwritten letters to each other in a fever that began in the mid-80s, until we had towering mounds of hundreds. She visited me there after a Women and Words retreat; I visited her in Ottawa when I was there doing readings. During the last years of her life, as we switched to computers and she moved to Victoria, we weren’t as prolific with each other, but our love remained boundless, and she was, in 2003, best woman at my wedding. I miss her every day of my life–her stubborn optimism, her grouchiness about CanLit, her solid good politics, everything we talked about at such length, our trust and gifts, our perspicacious support no matter what circumstances we landed ourselves in. When life required that I had to start missing her instead of having her by my theoretical side, it was the details that did me in, how each of her letters was on yellow paper and began with a weather report and a description about where in her menstrual cycle she found herself. And I missed the big stuff too. I missed that she wouldn’t write any more of her stories that were so bang on and beyond her time. We passed our work by each other. We shared submission lists. We appeared in the same publications. We published in the same queer anthologies (usually from Women’s Press or, later, Second Story). We published first and second books around the same time.
You don’t replace a woman like Candis Graham.
But sometimes another writer shakes herself out of the Montreal chill, and says hello, and that is how it was this spring when I was at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival for the CBC Awards. Shelagh and I started gabbing, and that was pretty much it–three drunk hours later, not only had we shut down the awards ceremony, but we were fast (and dare I say it felt like old) friends. Like Shelagh, I don’t make friends in the writing biz easily (probably because I am shy and hide behind pillars), but this one seemed not just easy but gratifying. Shelagh and I had occasion to meet up again in July for my 60th birthday, and again we had more than one of those long, rambling talks writers need (so their loved ones don’t go mad). Though I’ll miss her this trip to Montreal, while she knocks around Ayers Rock in AU, we’ll meet again in November when I’m east to launch my new book, when Shelagh and I will be reading together along with Deanna Young and Michael Kenyon at Drawn and Quarterly Books.
Shelagh, me, Kari: at the cottage, 2014
You can find more about Shelagh’s toned, nuanced work by following her blog, and here are her blog tour answers:
What am I working on?
It’s been almost a year since my first book, The Water Here is Never Blue, hit the shelves. Since then I’ve been kept busy writing about that writing and dealing with the sometimes difficult and occasionally delightful journey that a book takes once it’s been launched. I haven’t had the wherewithal to start the writing of a new project, but ideas, images, and narrative threads have been dancing around, pairing up and shattering apart, percolating, and gestating in the background of my mind for months. In one week I will be in Australia, and there, in the Red Centre of that far away place, I will begin, in earnest, something new.
Something new, yes, but what exactly I am not certain. Fiction, yes, a novel, I think likely, but I also have the skeletal plan of a book of nonfiction, something that would be labelled “memoir” again. And, I also have a slew of essay and article and short story ideas that are all getting pretty impatient about being kept silent in the corners of my mind.
How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I like to think my writing has a unique voice and that I write nonfiction that reads like a novel – hence the tag “creative” and “literary.” In The Water Here is Never Blue I set out deliberately to write about the politically tumultuous places and times covered (Guyana just after independence and Timor during the Indonesian invasion) from the perspective and with the limited understanding and wonder of the naive child I was at the time. I think I managed that. I think it was an approach that differed from what others may have done with the same material. I was both rewarded and punished for my choice, but it’s not one I’d change if I were embarking on the same project today.
Other writers, some reviewers, and quite a few readers who have sought me out have had nice things to say about my writing. It’s been described as very lyrical. It’s been said that The Water Here is Never Blue is a “highly original concept” and that it “glitters like a literary novel.” Linda Spalding wrote that it “is a unique story, beautifully told,” and Donna Morrissey that it is “multi-layered” and “told in the raw yet innocent voice of the narrator.” All very cockle-warming and pleasant and, dare I hope, honest. If nothing else, such praise inspires me to slog on with the next project.
Why do I write what I do?
I write because I always have. I write because I love playing around with words, shuffling verbs, making paper dirty with those 26 letters granted by my mother tongue. I write because when I don’t (and I’m proficient at avoidance) I start to growl and bare my teeth. I write because I believe there is value in illuminating the small wonders that we all experience and which bind us despite our infinite and sometimes monstrous differences.
How does my writing process work?
Writing, for me, is fraught with myriad antithetical impulses. I love it. I hate it. I dread it. I don’t want to shake myself back to reality when I’m rollicking along the sentences I’m building.
But, long before that stage, the actual writing stage, I begin with a concept – some philosophical conundrum or moral complexity. This is the fermentation stage and during it, because I find the farthest end of the abstract spectrum a bore, I start gathering concrete details that I think will help reveal whatever concept has me by the throat. My mind is never not thinking about the project. Sometimes that mental activity is going on deep in the background and sometimes it is in the foreground, but it never stops. Things seen on a walk, a word overheard or seen on a page, a flash of colour, a particular sound, a smell detected on a subway car, these are all building blocks to something that will be written. This stage usually includes a lot of ideas that start off as small bits and pieces but gradually gel into larger, more complex things – maybe characters, maybe narrative threads.
When the time is available, when the funds allow, when I can’t stand not writing any longer, I start off. I try to keep to a regular schedule, I commit to spending the allotted number of hours in front of the computer. I write longhand when I’m stuck but find things flow better on the computer. I try not to count words until I’m well into the process. The writing usually builds in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back manner so that by the time I’ve finished a full draft it’s fairly polished. I’ve begun to realize that I produce more in the afternoon than in the morning, but on writing days I always make myself begin in the morning. I try to take Hemingway’s advice and leave off in the middle of something that is going well so that the next day’s start is made a little easier.
I was posting somewhere about novels I’ve recently admired and enjoyed and thought I should list them here: The Enchanted, Rene Denfield; Alligator, Lisa Moore; Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill; The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews. Reliable for literary pleasures.
I’ve been reading Ethan Canin and David Leavitt this week in short form, geniuses both, along with Tessa Hadley’s new New Yorker story which I quite liked.
I finished the (first draft) of an essay for a collection on women traveling alone, wrote a piece after Robin Williams’ suicide about my father’s suicide in 1973 (a piece I have wanted to write for 40 years), then this Monday wrote a short fiction called “Castaways” about two women struggling to keep their love whole on an island off the east coast of Africa, and another called “The Bleaching Houses” about a young girl growing up in a town in Connecticut during the ivory trade of the early 1900s. At first I included a passage from Ulysses which fired my character’s imagination, only to remember somewhere along the way that Ulysses hadn’t been serialized yet in the Little Review, which meant that I had to either find an alternate passage that would work as well, or move the entire story to the 20s (not as booming a time for the ivory industry). I did the latter, but that meant deleting the World’s Fair in St Louis in 1914. I don’t know how historical writers like Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters do this (well, of course they do it by researching ahead of time).
I love when I have no notion that I am about to write something, and then, hours/days later, there it is, a draft, a decent draft, a presence where there was not even, two days before, an absence. My work is almost always gratifying to me these days, and in that, I am fortunate.
I also saw the cover of my new fall poetry book “Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes” as it went off to the printer, and got to see how all the blurbs had come together–the design of the thing. Now I itch to hold it in my hands, but I will have to wait until October sometime. Caitlin Press rocks my world.
Fun to be noticed before publication:
I got the lovely litmag ‘Poem, International English Language Quarterly,’ today from England. My poem “I Was Dead” appears in the section “Chosen by Marilyn Hacker.” I’m kinda stoked. It’s a kick for me, I have to admit. I wrote “I Was Dead” during NaPoMo this spring, so this is double the pleasure for me, it being new and all. The poem talks about a time when I was two and lost and was given up for dead.
I am so happy to announce that one of the writers I’m tagging on our blog tour is definitely in–Shelagh Plunkett from Montreal. I look forward to reading her post.
Shelagh won first place in the CBC awards and recently published the wonderful “The Water Here is Never Blue” with Penguin Canada about her unconventional childhood in Guyana and Indonesia. Shelagh’s story is compelling and reason enough to pick up this book, yet I would also suggest reading this delicate book for her significant stylistic achievements.
Shelagh lives with her partner, Kari, and her two cats and one dog in Montreal.
I have messed up the timing of the blog posts, but stay tuned for Shelagh’s tour answers over at Shelagh Plunkett.
by Jane Eaton Hamilton on July 14, 2014
My colleague Julie Paul asked me to take part in a blog tour in the lit community across Canada; I was tagged by Aaron Shepard. Recently, I was tagged by Cornelia Hoogland.
I am to answer these four questions and tag two other Canlit writers. I don’t know who I’m tagging yet because I dropped this ball, but when I do, I’ll come back here and add them.
What am I working on?
I stopped writing for 8 years, and came back to it just 3.5 years ago.
Most immediately, after an April month trying out NaPoMo for size (that is to say, write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, which I found exceedingly challenging), I decided to try a 31-day mini-novel. I set a goal of 1000 words a day, which brought me to a very concise romance novel by June’s end. Sometimes I battled to get out words until 3 in the morning, but infrequently they were done by 1 pm.
These occasional month-long exercises are what I am doing instead of what I’d call really writing. My capacity for real writing has been stretched very thin by illness for the past 3.5 years. I have little energy, and little ability to concentrate, so writing comes in fits and starts often with long long pauses. Ending points seem to help—I think I can I think I can I think I can for only 30 days before I can let myself drop (and drop the ball).
Have been pottering with a novel, but I don’t even have a second draft yet.
I haven’t challenged myself to write a full-length short story since I’ve been back, but I think it’s a reasonable next goal. Once I do that, I’ll conclude I’m back in the game.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Everyone’s writing is idiosyncratic, but beyond that, I don’t know the answer to this question. Once Linda Spalding called my stories “crisp and clean, tender and dangerous.” I’ve always loved her description and would love to write stories that fit it.
I write mostly queer literature—maybe that’s a difference, at least from the mainstream.
Why do I write what I do?
I write what interests me. Age is a good thing; one of its many prizes is the freedom from caring so much what others think or the marketplace needs.
I am a very personal writer, but I am hardly a memoirist despite having published a memoir. In both poetry and fiction, I am writing fictively, assembling and connecting originally non-connecting materials. It works like those memory trays we used to pass at children’s birthday parties in the 1960s covered by linen napkins. The 30-second reveal: an egg, a lighter, a piece of chalk, an address book, a piece of toast, some white string, a bobby pin, three cat’s eye marbles, four jacks, a hockey logo, a candle stub, five buttons. Write down what you remember. Assembling stories or poems is a matter of taking materials that never before fitted together and building associations between them.
For instance, in writing “Smiley,” the CBC/Canada Writes winning story, I wanted to spend time with weaver birds in South Africa’s Namaqualand. I had spent time there with photographer Freeman Patterson photographing wildflowers, but as on most group travel ventures, I found my interests were elsewhere—in this case I sat under trees colonized by hundreds of weaver birds, where I could watch and photograph their antic lives up close. More recently, I read an article Jonathan Franzen wrote for the National Geographic about the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean; the article has been collapsing the possibilities of my heart every day since. So without conscious thought—or at least without conscious censoring–I conflated those two very separate truths, songbird deaths and thriving weaver birds, though in reality they happen a continent apart. Beyond that, I started with an image of a mother that was loosely-drawn from Charles Schultz, the powerful voice in the background of Charlie Brown’s life. When our mothers disapprove of us, they do seem as huge and strong as wooly mammoths.
Did I tell a real story? Yes and no. When I was younger than this child, in the mid 1960s, before there were LGBT role models, I insisted I was a boy. When I was my character’s age, I bound my nascent breasts with strips from a torn bedsheet during overnights, believing the pressure at night would push the nasty things back in. I made promises to God to stop stealing sugar. Our bathroom didn’t have a lock, so I was always putting the binder on at bedtime, and taking it off in the morning, terrified I’d get caught. So that fragment of the story is more or less true, although my family never found out.
In the story, the little boy experiences a first love, and affixes pendulous bird nests to his genitals as testicles. This isn’t from personal experience, but interestingly, a couple days after I finished the piece, I remembered finding an oriole nest as a little girl, and hatching exactly this scheme for myself—but I hadn’t remembered this even during writing, and I didn’t go through with it.
Even though this story is about a little trans guy, to me it’s just as much a testament to human spirit because of how Jake manages to close the terrifying distance that keeps him from his mother (and therefore her power over him intact). It touched me when his mom finally saw he was a boy and set out to help, rather than hinder.
How does my writing process work?
My favourite of my stories to write are highly voice-driven, such as ‘Hunger’ in my collection Hunger or ‘Too Young Boys’ in my collection July Nights or ‘Cripples’ or ‘Easter’ in my fledgling story collection. They’re a hoot because as a writer I’m just chasing along as someone gregarious takes over my page. Inevitably, these are women I wouldn’t much care for in real life, but as characters they’re lively and flawed, very interesting to work with.
Process, though, depends very much on genre.
When I write novels, I set word limits per day and am very disciplined about reaching them.
If I’m writing a full-length story, and have a very compelling character who is unfolding the narrative well, I’ll try to write it through, full-length and weak, in one sitting (generally a 10-12-hour day). If I am writing a story that doesn’t arrive fully-fledged, I’ll write and tweak for a month or so. I often can’t figure out stories, though, can’t make them yield, in which case I might not come back to one for years.
If I’m writing poetry, my process is all over the place—sometimes it involves long days, but other times I’ll just quickly jot a line I want to come back to at some point.
Non-fiction is the hardest for me. I have no talent for it. I always strive to lift it out of the mundane, but this is for some reason nearly impossible for me.
My editing process is rigorous, but even there, process varies—some pieces go to an outside editor before initial submission, while others don’t. Periodical or anthology editors have their own two cents to add. The important thing for me is to be open to editing (which is easy for me). Editors in my lengthy experience don’t wreck mss. Editors fix them. Editors are artists with large marble boulders, chinking away until they find the statue—the statue I carved—inside.
. Links in the Literary Procession .
Here is a poem for Monday.
Our Terrible Good Luck
The spot inside the sick boy’s brain
burrowed there pale as a tuber
stubborn and engorged. His hair lifted
from his scalp like angel fuzz; his eyes
gleamed and struck us
We watched him
teeter to the lip of the nest, his skin traced blue with veins.
Fledgling, we thought, and gathered our children closer, under
shivering arms. The sick boy wanted Christmas
cards and he got thousands, maybe millions
a Guinness record, cards enough
to fill warehouses, from everywhere
There was his father, his mother
his sister and brother, the cards
and there was his brain cancer
spreading like a bleach spot
towards September and death
knew something dangerous that glowed
We almost saw reflections of silver in the mirror
But then we only saw ourselves, lustrous
as poster paints, our terrible good luck
Here, from the New Yorker, is Ray Carver’s original version of “Beginners,” the story that became, under Gordon Lish’s hand, the brilliant “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This shows all the editorial interjections and deletions, and I would say represents pretty typical story editing, myself, but I know others, including Carver and his partner Tess Gallagher, considered it drastic. (Long) after Ray’s death, Tess published the book “Beginners” (Vintage 2010) that restored not only this story but 16 others to their original condition. Good on her; I’m very glad she did, and readers can decide for themselves.
Oh, here’s a squib about a recent Newsweek interview with Gordon Lish:
I was happy to find that Canadian Poetries this morning published 3 of my ekphrastic poems: the first about Van Gogh, the second about Degas’ sculpture La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, and the third an imagined love affair between art collectors Etta Cone and Gertrude Stein.
By the way, one of my pet art-world peeves is the reluctance to name (fairly obvious) dykes. It’s homophobic. We wouldn’t be reluctant to call someone straight, but there seems to be some sort of politesse about calling someone queer without proof, like it’s shameful, or distateful, an icky thing to be.
For instance, despite the inescapable conclusion that most people have or had a sexual life, women like photographer Vivian Maier are completely de-sexualized. Wtf? So irritating to me.
From correspondence between Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone, it seems more than evident that Etta was thrown over for Alice and was quite hurt, and that Gertrude extended consider effort to mollify her.
And also, while I’m ranting, it now seems evident to scholars that Van Gogh came out/was more actively bisexual in Paris and was seriously over-the-moon for Gauguin, a bisexual (and total heel/wife-batterer). During their time together in Arles, it looks like Van Gogh got clutchy and Gauguin rejecting and Gauguin, a fencer, chopped off VG’s ear. My take on it is that VG, after a young religious life, was likely tormented by his inclinations–and perhaps this was a big part of what was considered his madness. And perhaps part of why he was killed in Auvers, if indeed he was shot by a young bully as is now thought.