Kathy Page on the short story, an interview with Trevor Corkum

http://www.malahatreview.ca/interviews/page_interview.html

TC The short story form is chameleon and shape shifting, filled with infinite possibility. The best short fiction, I think, comes into being seemingly fully formed, completely original, sui generis. Who are the short story writers you admire most? What short fiction writers have had the biggest impact on your own work in this form?

KP  Yes—one of the wonderful things about the short story is the scope it offers for formal invention, how infinitely various and startlingly new (and at the same time ancient) it can be. Of course, the novel is a shape-shifter too, but brevity makes innovation and radical experiment more feasible, and it certainly makes it possible (though not required) to play around with the way plot is put to work. The short story, in its intensity and in the ways it is structured and read, is as much related to poetry as it is to the novel.

Oddly enough, many of the short fiction writers who have meant most to me have names beginning with C: Carter (Angela), Carver, Calvino, and Chekhov… These are writers who do very different—indeed, almost opposite—things with both the story and the sentence. Carter, for example, plays with folk and fairy-tale motifs but writes in an intricate, baroque fashion, whereas Carver is distinguished by the pared-down style he and his editor arrived at, and by the sheer ordinariness of his characters. Calvino is playful enough to tell a story from the point of view of a mollusc. Chekhov’s characters are so convincing that he can get away with anything: think of the ending of “Gusev,” where the protagonist dies and the perspective shifts to a shoal of fish, a shark, and finally the ocean itself. British writer David Constantine, just beginning to be read this side of the pond, is another C, and then of course there is Joyce Carol Oates, and (moving on to other letters), Kafka, J.G. Ballard and Olivia Butler. Since moving here I’ve encountered wonderful Canadian short fiction writers—to name just a few, Caroline Adderson, Alice Munro, both of the MacLeods…

 As for your “fully formed” hypothesis, this is probably a very personal thing. For me, some stories arrive almost complete and others are a struggle to excavate (it’s often a matter of stripping out extraneous parts), but I don’t think you’d be able to judge which is which from reading them. 

TC  You’ve had a varied career—teacher, carpenter, therapist, lecturer, just to name a few. You’ve also lived and worked in several countries—the U.K., Finland, Estonia, and now Canada. How do the various threads and themes of our lives make their way into fiction? How should we, as writers, treat this real-life source material? Why fiction and not memoir, for example?

KP  I don’t think there is a “should” here.  What you do with your material and how much you use your own life experience or observations of others depends on whether your interest is in the story and where it can go, or in coming as close as you can to the experience, or the facts, and the meaning they have for you. Intention is important, but I’d argue that even when we try very hard not to, most of us write some degree of fiction. Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” pretty much sums the situation up, I feel. I’m by nature a fabricator. I sometimes write memoir, or stay close to my own experience in fiction, but I tend to feel uncomfortable doing it. I want to shape things, edit and exaggerate, and I feel restricted if I don’t, and sometimes guilty when I do. It’s better to feel free.

TC  If you could spend a full day with one of your literary heroes, who would you invite, and what would you do?

KP  Perhaps I’d go for a hike with Edward Thomas, an English First World War poet with “Eco” leanings. He figures in my forthcoming set of linked stories. My caveat is that we’d go in the landscape of his time and place, not mine. Thomas wrote a few short stories, though his poetry is on the whole more interesting than they are. He’s a fascinating character. Often depressed and conflicted at home, he was at his best outdoors, walking or cycling, and was supposedly a great wayfaring companion. Like most heroes, he might be a disappointment, but the landscape would not.

TC In your own career, you had early success, and then stepped away from writing for a time, disillusioned by the publishing world in the 1990s. Eventually, you found your way back, and have enjoyed great success and recognition, winning or being shortlisted for major literary awards. Dire prognostications of the future of books have been sounding in the literary world for some time—publishers going under, bookstores closing, reading numbers seeming to decline in the age of the virtual world. Given this backdrop, why continue to write?

KP  I did step away from writing novels, or I tried to. I flirted briefly with writing for film and TV, and looked into a career in social housing management… However, I continued to write short fiction, and in many ways those years were very productive since the screenwriting side of things taught me a great deal about structure, and I made real progress with my stories. A big part of my problem then was that I was with a big publisher who was then bought by a bigger one. I didn’t really satisfy them in terms of sales. The industry was becoming much more focused on the idea of each title being very profitable, rather than the business simply making a profit over all, as in the old days. So I had a feeling of being a disappointment to them: Could I not just do something differently, though they did not know exactly what, and would I please never write a short story again?  I felt bad about it. Now, none of this seems so problematic. Short fiction may not be viable in the new hyper-commercial atmosphere, but nonetheless,  I and others (including a few very wonderful publishers) love it, think it’s of huge value and know that it connects powerfully with readers: so yes, this is very much worth doing. The readership may be smaller than it is for best-selling novels or blockbuster movies, but that does not mean its cultural value is lesser. We’re so used to the Hollywood model that we irrationally assume everything should be measured and valued that way.

With a novel, the reader steps into a vast and fully imagined world and may stay there for hours or days on end, pulled along by the emerging storyline, character development and so on. I think this is what many of us want a lot of the time, and it can be a wonderful thing. Short stories ask something different of the reader—a particular, concentrated kind of attention and the ability to sense and absorb the story as a whole. Reading a good story is both intense and very satisfying, but it is not the same as being “carried along.” It’s more like a dive into the lake.

Of course, in the current market, short fiction is unlikely to pay the writer a living wage for the time put into crafting it, and yes, there are many competing forms of entertainment. Even so, I think that the important thing is to make good work and get it out, to build and sustain a short fiction culture, which is exactly what we’re doing here, with this contest.

TC  In a follow-up question, what do you think is the state of short fiction in Canada today? Are you optimistic about the short story’s future?

KP  Yes. I see many wonderful short story writers and a great deal of respect for the short story in Canada. There’s a tradition of story writing, and some pride about that tradition. Canada’s wealth of independent presses, and journals like this one, are a huge force for the good, ensuring that a huge variety of short fiction can appear. There’s a sense of the Canadian short story moving beyond its traditional confines, especially in terms of subject matter. So all in all, I think the ecosystem is very healthy.

TC  You’ve written successfully in both short fiction and in the novel. How and why does a project find a particular form for you?

KP  My novels often arise out of a combination of a character or characters who won’t go away, a predicament of some kind, and a big question that needs to be explored and elaborated (rather than answered). The beginning of a novel is rather like making a snowball: more and more seems to stick to what I already have; the thing accumulates, grows, and eventually begins to move, still growing as it rolls along. In a novel, I’ll often be interested in the fruits of a particular action over time. My short stories tend to foreground shorter periods of time, and even when they are full of event they are more likely to focus on the architecture, quality and meaning of a particular experience. I always know when I am beginning something whether it is a story or a novel. Once, I did return to a published short story and use the main characters and events again in a novel. In that novel (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which comes out in Canada this fall), the material from the story is not much changed, but there are many other characters and a much longer timeline which stretches either side of the original idea.

TC  Finally, what are you looking for in this year’s contest? Any tips for the short story writers who will be entering their work?

KP  I want to be surprised, moved, or made to think, and perhaps all three—to read vivid, original stories that have a powerful effect of some kind, whether that is achieved by subtle or spectacular means.  One tip: Leave as long as possible between revisions.

 

Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man

 

Is the (paper) book dead?  What is its fate?  Will writers survive?   Will the next generation read?

And if so, which platform/reader will they use? These questions, along with related topics (blogging, how to promote your book using social media etc.) were hot  panel topics at the book festivals I recently attended, rivalling the staples such  as the fiction non/fiction divide and how to turn your  own experiences into  a story.   Writers and other professionals dissected trends, ranted, doubted, pronounced, prevaricated,  eulogised. Some said, Fear not: surf the digital tsunami, open yourself to the opportunities and creative potential of the medium – one way or another, stories are our lifeblood and they will evolve and survive. Others said, Beware: writers and readers are being being dumbed-down and forced into a model of production and consumption which suits manufacturers and distributors,  rather than bodies and minds… Perhaps, some suggested, the way out of this techno-tangle is to regenerate our oral traditions – perhaps the internet  will even help us do so? Actually, others insisted, it’s both: Fear not and Beware, simultaneously.

After a few days of this, my feeling  (and yes, my newer titles will soon be  e-books, but no, I don’t yet have a reader: ipad, too heavy;  Kobo, too tacky; Kindle, better – but still, like all of them,  too stiff, and too expensive)…   My feeling is that this dizzying blend of excitement and anxiety,  this concern with the mechanics  and balance sheet of the book, not the book itself,  not what is inside it, is   Continue reading “Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man”

Seven Minutes

Here is a  brief  reading from The Find made for a book club site.  I postponed making it because I expected, and dreaded, techno-trauma, but it turned out to be very easy – I simply talked to  my laptop about my two main characters, read a little from the novel and and then saved the result.

See what you think:

The Find, reading by Kathy Page


Continue reading “Seven Minutes”

Why fiction?

What’s the point of fiction? Why make things up?

Throughout history, some people (and Plato was certainly one of them) have distrusted fiction. Periodically, and often when in the grip of a repressive government or ideology, a whole culture seems to go through a phase of feeling that way. If it didn’t really happen, the argument goes, it’s not a fact.  And  if it is not a fact, it must be  the opposite:  a lie or an illusion,  and  therefore of no value and quite possibly harmful, should you start to believe in it, or use it to distract yourself from reality.

Too much pure entertainment or outright escapism may be unhealthy, but in my opinion there’s nothing essentially wrong with it , though that’s  not what I want to talk about right now.  I think that fiction is one of the most useful things we have, precisely because  it’s fabricated.  One of the many things  all good stories (real-life or made-up or in  between)  do  is prompt us to think and imagine beyond our actual experiences and the choices we have made.  When I engage with other lives, situations and choices—including imaginary ones—I expand my understanding and I often find myself thinking  with greater clarity and passion and excitement  about my own life.  I become more aware; I make comparisons and connections, stretch my sense of what is possible both out there in the wider world,  and for me in particular.  I may even find myself striving  to make  more satisfying choices, to  engage more with who and what is around me, to express myself more completely, or aim higher – in short, to write a better story for myself. The desire to see some kind of satisfying shape in one’s life is a basic and powerful one.

But don’t we have enough real-life stories to satisfy us,  reality being  so much stranger than fiction, after all?   Continue reading “Why fiction?”

Flight

winged manReaders often ask about imagery: is it  consciously or unconsciously created – and the answer is both. For example, the idea of flight, of leaving the ground and swimming in the air is a recurring one in The Find, and in writing the novel I was aware of it, but I was certainly not aware of the extent of it.

Anna  was, until her move to the museum, a specialist in flight, and the fossil she discovers at the beginning of the book is that of a huge, winged  lizard.  Other winged creatures –  ravens, hummingbirds, insects, etc. populate the book, and mechanical flight features too – helicopters and  float planes,  airports…  Here, Anna is flying  back from the site in a float plane:

“The roar of the engine was both deafening and soothing and the vibration and noise together seemed to scour her mind clean. The ocean below looked more than anything like the skin of some enormous animal, though as they progressed its appearance became more complex. Huge quantities of deep green algae formed viridian clouds, shifting and billowing beneath the surface. A school of thirty or so porpoises, dwarfed by distance, leapt and sank back into the water in apparent unison, sewing their path through the sea. The plane passed over forested and rocky islands, harbours cluttered with yachts and docks, and then they were approaching the delta, the water suddenly smooth, shallow, and heavy with reddish sediments.

For a moment Anna let her eyes close, and allowed herself to imagine a huge winged creature, downy with brownish hair, its legs tucked up, its neck folded down, slowly beating its way through the air and tracked by its shadow on the water below. Its sight, far more acute than human vision, allowed it to see beneath the water — warmer back then and far more profuse with life, home to car-sized turtles, enormous squid. For a moment, she saw what it saw — and then the floatplane, rejoining the water with a bounce, jolted her back into the now…”

Even before he meets Anna, the other protagonist, Scott, has an emotional, rather than an  intellectual interest in flight.  He yearns to  soar away from his life as it is.  The base jumpers he  thinks of on page 88 were inspired by this clip, sent to me by a student of mine.

base jumpers in bat suits

winged manI’ll admit there is something personal in all this. Flying – specifically, the human experience of it –  has always fascinated me. I  still  recall the full page reproduction of Draper’s Lament for Icarus (the son of Daedelus, who flew too close to the sun and melted his man-made wings)   in the  twenty volume encyclopaedia  kept in the study of my childhood home. I studied it many times and at length. I enjoyed the lushness of the picture, the vast feathery wings, the beautiful naked, sun-burned youth, the pale nymphs – but the myth was so tragic (think how Daedelus must have felt!) that it made me cry, and it seemed to be some kind of warning  against trying to be more than you were… I still do not really like the story, even when it is told so that Icarus makes a choice, rather than a mistake. I like to think that not all flights will end this way, that it is possible to go almost as close to the sun as he did, survive, and bring back the story, too.

FAQ

The following FAQ are archived from an older version of this site. Feel free to use CONTACT (left menu)  if you have a question about writing or  about Kathy Page’s books.

Q. Is Simon Austen based on a real person?
I have met several people who were in some ways like him. But, like most fictional characters, he is an amalgam of  different parts of many people I have observed, large doses of imagination,  and my own conscious and unconscious projections.  Perhaps all this could be analysed to show exactly what went into the making of him, but  I’m not interested to do it! The  experience with Simon was very much of him arriving whole, and seeming to me, as I wrote, to be ‘real’.

Q. Why do you end Alphabet where you do? I wanted to know what happened next!
Some people love the ending and others  are frustrated by it. I picked that moment because it is a decisive one. You can see Simon has moved on, but also that there is plenty of potential for trouble ahead of him and the outcome isn’t clear.   That blend of hope and  difficulty – a  sense of his continuing struggle – was what I wanted to leave the reader with.    I have to admit as well that writing with very limited settings is hard. I  don’t think I could have borne  to stay in prison much  longer, but he has to.  If I were to continue his story, some of which I do have in my mind,  I  think I would take it up many years later, after  his release, and fill the intervening years in from that vantage point. Continue reading “FAQ”