For years, I carried the idea of a new short story collection in the back of my mind, yet did nothing about it. Procrastination? Of course, but in my defense, short stories are far harder to administer than novels are. Scattered in the filing system, they lurk in various degrees of completeness: published, unpublished, in progress, embryonic, forgotten; some are crying to be sent somewhere, and others for help, which may include radical surgery or even dismemberment prior to use elsewhere. Add to this that agents and publishers tend to discourage the production of short fiction, and you’ll see that it’s easy to let a year, or three, or five go by, and so I did, until a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Biblioasis, a dynamic indie publisher described in the Canadian trade press as “the gold standard for short fiction.”
Encouraged, I gathered my stories together and began to arrange them. There were two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and something else rather hard to describe – stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like, quality. I liked both kinds, but had to admit that they did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.
It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.
I sent both books to John Metcalf, the editor at Biblioasis. Within a week he made contact to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t read it. Three months later, we began editing The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, John agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.
“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”
Asked for an adjective to describe my writing process, I’d have to pick slow, which may not at first sound attractive, yet has hidden depths and merits: consider slow, as opposed to fast food. Years sometimes pass between the idea for a story or a novel and its first draft, and although occasionally a story comes out almost whole, others demand numerous drafts and then insist on lying dormant before I can finish them.
Not surprisingly, given its themes, many of the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere originate in journeys I’ve made for personal or professional reasons. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, it has a powerful and lasting effect on me. I look carefully and think about what I find abroad, and so you could say that I am a hybrid of the two sisters (one stay at home, one traveler) in my story “I Like to Look.”
One story, “Low Tide,” was written in 2013, but has its origins in a journey that took place five years earlier when we attended a family wedding in California, and took the opportunity return slowly home to British Columbia using the coast road. On one of our many stops we visited the lighthouse at Cape Blanco in Oregon. I have always liked lighthouses – the isolation, the potential for drama – and Cape Blanco is a particularly beautiful example, with its shell-like spiral staircase and, at the top, a multi-faceted Fresnel lens. It was a bright but windy day with good views of the wild coast there and I did not want to leave. The lens in particular fascinated me. That evening, I recorded the visit in my notebook, adding that at some point I must write about a lighthouse, and the idea promptly drifted out of consciousness until John Metcalf and I began to edit Paradise & Elsewhere. Two of the stories were, he felt, weaker than the rest and he suggested that I replace them. Although this was hard to hear, I knew that if I accepted his praise, then I should also listen to his more critical thoughts. I was nervous, though, about writing to order, but soon realized I had plenty of ideas slowly maturing in the back of my head.
Every story arises from a variety of elements and comes together through a kind of alchemy. In the case of “Low Tide,” I began with a feeling that the book, which features several stories set in deserts, needed water. This led me to an image of a beach at low tide, and to the selkie stories from Orkney. I’ve heard these tales since childhood and there are many variations, but the essence of the story is that a woman (or it can be a man) emerges from a seal’s skin and is taken my a human lover, who hides her pelt so she cannot return to the sea. The selkie cares for her human lover, but still yearns for her own kind. I was interested in the idea of a seal-woman who actively sought out her transformation, as opposed to being caught. From there I found my way back to the lighthouse and its keeper, who would be her lover.
Much of “Low Tide” takes place inside the lighthouse and it was a huge pleasure to write about one at last (not exactly Cape Blanco, but close) and to include the Fresnel lens: “A glass beehive, he called it, though also, I thought, it could be a gigantic insect eye. In daytime, the lens glittered and took on the colours of the sea and sky; at night its many planes glowed, so that it appeared to hover in the room: a hallucinatory vessel, a ship that might have travelled from beyond the moon.”
Each story has its story, and this slim book contains many years of work: the ingredients have matured, then been combined, refined and distilled. I have come to accept that the process is long, as with making wine, fine cabinetry, a garden or any number of worthwhile things. It’s pointless to yearn for speed. On the whole it works best for me when experience is slowly mulled over, absorbed and almost forgotten, then later retrieved and combined with other unexpected ingredients to make something new. I certainly do procrastinate, but in the end (which naturally takes a good long time to reach) that seems to be a good thing.