Short fiction, big stories

Laura Boudreau Laura Boudreau • photo ian brooks

Three writers tour Ontario to prove the short story thrives creatively

Jouvon M. Evans

Josh Kolm

Even with a supportive audience and receptive publisher, writing short fiction in Canada remains a challenge.

Writers Laura Boudreau, Rebecca Rosenblum and Cathy Stonehouse, whose books are published by Emeryville-based Bilioasis, recently completed a book tour that started at Phog Lounge in Windsor on Oct. 2.

The Big Dream

Rosenblum's The Big Dream, available now from Biblioasis

Dubbed “The Bibliolady Tour,” the six- night venture around Ontario was meant to emphasise the creatively exhilarating nature of short story writing and the accomplishments, not only of female writers, but of short-fiction writers as well.

Laura Boudreau’s Suitable Precautions is her first book of short stories. While characters’ lives may be derailed, re- claimed, celebrated or questioned, what holds them together is what also binds the stories in this collection.

“There are thirteen stories in the collection and they are not necessarily related to each other,” Boudreau said. “I think what ties these stories into a group is the voice. My authorial voice and my way of kind of looking at the world. There is humor, often very dark humor that runs through the book and that is certainly characteristic of my work.”

Based out of Toronto, Boudreau has spent a great deal of time on the road in recent years. Apart from the trains and airplanes she has to write and edit on, she doesn’t think it has changed her writing.

“It can actually be quite a dislocating feeling. You could theoretically be anywhere in the world doing the same solitary activity,” Boudreau said, adding that actions are a bigger motivator than place.

“I try very hard to make my characters do things. That might sound like a very simplistic thing to say, but if you spend all your time in a room alone, thinking, all of your characters are in rooms alone thinking, that doesn’t make for very exciting fiction.”

“It’s not following a set of rules,” fellow author Rebecca Rosenblum said of the book. “Some stories have this constraint and some stories don’t, and some of them are much closer to what we would observe in the everyday world then others. But that’s not what is the basis of a success. It’s how much the story resonates and how interesting and how funny it is that makes it brilliant.”

In Rosenblum’s own new book of short stories, The Big Dream, people are struggling to do more than their jobs at a lifestyle magazine publisher. They struggle to fall in love, be good parents, to have friends, to eat lunch and to answer the phone.

Something About the Animal

Stonehouse's Something About the Animal, available now from Biblioasis

“All the characters work at the same company, but there is a bit of a larger arc in terms of what is happening in their working lives,” Rosenblum said. “So you could just read one story or you could read them all. Each one would stand on their own.”

From the 17-year-old cafeteria worker to the 63-year-old retiree, Rosenblum attempts to show the full spectrum of office life, drawing on her own post-university experiences and those of friends she met in the working world.

“I didn’t take anybody’s particular anecdotes, but I still wanted to hear those,” Rosenblum said. “There is a certain way that people talk about something that they know really well but that they don’t necessarily find interesting.”

Rosenblum won the Metcalfe Rookie Award for her book Once, and she noted there was some pressure to succeed with The Big Dream.

“For a short story writer in Canada that nobody’s ever heard of, [Once] got a lot of really positive attention and people were really supportive of it,” Rosenblum said. “The thing is, you don’t want to let them down. So that was really scary but in the end you can only write the best book that you can write.”

Being a successful short fiction writer is difficult, as the genre receives far less attention from leisurely readers than fiction, biographies and even poetry.

“I think short stories demand a lot of their readers,” Boudreau said. “[Michael Winter] said it’s like walking into a room after a conversation has started and you leave again before it is finished, so you kind of get the meat of it but you don’t get this nice, cosy bookend. There’s something incumbent on the reader to bring his or her experience and interpretation to it.”

Cathy Stonehouse is a guest editor at the National Post and former editor of literary journal EVENT. In her first collection of short fiction, Something About the Animal, the world keeps coming apart at the seams. The stories concern human consciousness in crisis and explore the edges of what it means to be human.

“I’m interested in the unsaid and unsayable, so maybe that’s what takes me there,” Stonehouse said, noting the focus on mental illness in the stories was completely accidental. “I bridle at labels like ‘abused’ and ‘mentally ill,’ which seem aimed to pigeon hole and trivialize certain intrinsic human experiences. It’s a way of saying ‘this has nothing to do with me.’”

Suitable Precautions

Boudreau's Suitable Precautions, available now from Biblioasis

Books from the small press, such as Bilioasis, are routinely short-listed for some of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, but it’s their focus on originality and creativity that makes these books so appealing to writers.

“I feel extremely privileged and blessed that Biblioasis were willing to invest in this book and in me,” Stonehouse said. “There was … some amazing support from [editor] John Metcalf, and nary a mention was made about the subject matter, only how it was written.”

“It’s such a privilege to be teamed up with these two ladies,” Boudreau said about the tour with Stonehouse and Rosenblum. “I’ve never done a book tour before. I feel a little bit like a rock star and I’m enjoying that feeling.

“It’s wonderful to think there is that sort of support out there for literary short fiction. Proving all those people wrong who said that short stories aren’t marketable will be a nice feeling.”

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