Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

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Rhubarb Crisp

By some trick of heredity, or upbringing, or brain chemistry, my greatest talent lies in finding the negative in what should be uniformly positive experiences. I'm generally on the hunt, when presented with a silver lining, for the dark cloud at the heart of it. Know thyself, they counsel. Well, here I am, routinely skittery when placed in scenarios with outcomes I can't control. Which is hilarious, when you consider that not only am I a writer, but that I have three kids, meaning that I can't really control anything in my life.

Bobcaygeon

This is a damned weird country. Culturally and geographically, it has some peculiarities which rest not off to the side but squarely in the middle of our shared national consciousness. There is a rib of Precambrian rock which juts out of the earth and runs through much of the middle of the country, a hard and barren interruption. What do we do? We build cottages on it, run highways over it, paint pictures of it. A band emerges from a city made of limestone and sings songs about Canadian novelists and Elvis's manager and tragic hockey figures. So what do we do?

The Long Odds

I used to keep a Word document detailing where I'd sent what. Now it's a Google spreadsheet, colour coded, sortable. It lists the titles of completed stories and their word counts, tells me where I sent a certain piece, on what date and, eventually, the decision rendered by the outlet. A white row means that, for whatever reason, I have not yet released that piece out into the world to be judged. A row bathed in yellow means I am in the midst of the frequently months-long wait to learn of the editors' decision. Green means a piece has been accepted, and thus retired from the submission circuit. Red means rejection.

There is a lot of red.

Work

In January the flu raced through our house. It hitched a ride home from school on one child – one of the senior kindergarteners or the fourth grader, who can say which? – and in turn each of them took ill. When it was done with the third child, it revisited the first, and we did it all over again.

One clear, bright, frozen morning during this seasonal quarantine, my boy T, who'd been up most of the night losing the contents of his stomach, woke bleary and hot, his skin flush and damp. His fever was high, and it was immediately clear he'd be spending the day home with me.

Faking It

Writers' early careers are characterized by a sort of inconsistent confidence, a herky-jerky belief in themselves and their divinely appointed mission interspersed with paralyzing instances of clarity wherein they recognize that they have no earthly idea what they're doing. They'll be infatuated with an historical literary moment and stay up all night imitating its exemplars. Kerouac frequently figures in this process. Plath, too. It'll all mean a lot of false starts and questionable efforts, but there'll be a high volume of output, and the law of averages allows that some small percentage of the yield might not be half bad. Somebody in a position of so-called import – a “real” writer, a teacher – will say as much, and the young hopeful will be flush with a sudden filament-hot belief.

Public Exhibitions of a Private Act

A great many things in life that I expected to go one way have instead gone another. Imagine my surprise. Maybe this has happened to you, too. As example: I thought I'd know when I became an adult; that maybe somebody would contact me to say, “You're an adult, you can now do adult things.” Instead, I just kind of had to guess, though the mortgage was a pretty big tip-off. Second case in point: I figured I could avoid having to speak to people if I sequestered myself in a room with a computer and wrote all the things I couldn't or wasn't able to say aloud. Turns out if you do that, and someone else publishes those things, then people sometimes contact you and ask you to read those things in public.

Arguing Balls and Strikes

I always come back to baseball. As subject, I mean. Each time I think I'm done writing about it, or that I'd be better off focusing exclusively on the production of fiction, something occurs on a green diamond somewhere, or a trading card memory beckons, and before I know it I'm banging out a thousand words on the matter. This is not meant as complaint. I kept coming back to writing about baseball and after a few years I had enough material for a book of which I am extremely proud. It might ultimately be a trifling thing, this game, but it is a pleasing trifle.

Strength in Brevity: A List for Short Story Month

Maybe it's fitting that I'm the Writer-in-Residence for May, since somebody, somewhere decided this is Short Story Month, and the short story is far and away my favourite literary form. In the past, Steven W. Beattie has taken the occasion to cast his critical eye on a story a day, resulting in a spotlight being shone on thirty-one deserving subjects in turn. He seems to have taken a well-deserved month off this year, which I'm not about to begrudge him, but in the interest of celebrating stories I've compiled a list of my own of fifty short fiction collections that I believe worthy of your attention.

On Doubt

It'll be your constant companion. You won't know a day without it. It will defy cold logic and your efforts to cultivate confidence. It will be haughtily contemptuous of your desire to focus on positives, and it will handily dismantle the techniques you learned during cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. You'll try to wait it out. It will prove more patient than you.

You'll have a few wins. Pieces published, a story nominated for a prize, kind words spoken publicly, a book released. A second book. It'll take those little victories and subvert them, making you feel that you've snowed everyone. It'll make those victories seem very small. It's not like you're saving lives, it'll suggest. They're just books. It's not as though you have any idea what you're doing.

Where We Do What We Do

The first stories of any quality that I produced were written at an old white melamine desk in the windowless furnace room of my future in-laws' house in suburban Ottawa. The hot water tank clicked and hummed, and fluorescent lighting buzzed over my head while I hammered away at a PC keyboard, writing pieces for a creative writing workshop at Carleton University (and strenuously avoiding coursework for other classes). The reasons I was there would require a lengthy explanation involving a bad apartment, a broken lease, a month-long road trip across the American West, and the house my wife-to-be and I would soon buy. It was among the least-inspirational spaces I've ever inhabited, but it was, for a time, mine.

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