On Writing: The Short Story Edition, with Julie Booker

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Julie Booker (photo credit: Denis De Klerck)

This summer Open Book will be checking in with short story writers and publishers to celebrate and explore a genre in which anything is possible. Julie Booker, whose debut collection Up Up Up (House of Anansi Press) has just been released, talks to Open Book about trusting her gut when first tying together the elements of story, delivering twins during the editing process and facing the various other challenges of a short story writer.

Julie Booker will read from Up Up Up at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre at on Wednesday, June 8th. Visit our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Up Up Up.

Julie Booker:

It's 20 stories. Dating, abuse, eating disorders, children's cruelty, infertility. Y'know, fun things. Dark themes with humour.

OB:

What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?

JB:

You mean besides going into labour with twins while editing?

Five years ago I sent it to Lynn Henry at Anansi and she said they debated long and hard before ultimately rejecting it. So I took a year off, wrote a hundred or so new pages and worked on it with a mentor through the Banff Wired Writing Studio. Then I sent the whole manuscript back to Lynn Henry the very week she left Anansi for another publishing house. I thought, that's it, it'll be in a big slush pile slated for the garbage. They announced the new fiction editor: Melanie Little. My husband, who runs Mansfield Press said, "Do you know who that is? I'm publishing Peter Norman's poetry book this month. Melanie's married to Peter Norman!" I thought, right, we'll have them over for dinner and after dessert I'll subtly mention the manuscript. But I didn't need to; the following week I got an email with the subject line: An Offer. The sender: Sarah MacLachlan, President of Anansi.

OB:

How do you know when the germ of an idea will be the right fit for a short story?

JB:

I have an intuitive sense when an idea holds a lot, enough layers to be interesting. It usually starts as a visual image or images, then the work is to translate that into language. I think it's only a matter of time before Mac invents a program where you can drag an image-laden-plot from your brain onto your screen and it's there in perfect little sentences.

OB:

What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a short story?

JB:

Not the initial draft! When everything's sitting on my palette, waiting (characters, scenes, conflicts) the difficult task is to combine them, knowing my gut put them all together for a reason, trusting that it'll all be something in the end.

OB:

How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?

JB:

I tell the truth. And by that, I mean, I keep checking in on the internal struggle or voice of a character. I learned in art college that the crappy artist assumes she knows what something looks like then looks down at the page to draw. The real artist keeps her eye on the subject, looks less at what's being composed on the page.

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your short stories?

JB:

Travel, Buddhism, characters trying things they've never tried before, art, dating.
And geraniums. The line editor, who also worked on one of Lisa Moore's story collections, asked if I'd done it on purpose as a kind of a nod to Lisa, whose work I admire greatly. Geraniums appeared in one of her books, too. It was actually an unconscious nod to my grandmother who loved the flower.

OB:

Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? What story have you read that's come closest?

JB:

Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." It holds up on the re-read and the re-re-read.

OB:

What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?

JB:

I'm not sure I can convince them. Don't get me wrong; I think short stories are the quickest way to change how someone sees the world. But they're an intense experience which requires paying close attention, and not everyone wants that. When I taught grade seven I used to say something once and if the students weren't paying attention I'd say, "That's your problem! Ask someone the assignment or figure it out!" I thought they would become better listeners that way. I write short stories the way I taught grade seven.

Then I taught kindergarten, where it's all about saying the same things over and over. I think novel readers are like kindergarteners, in the best sense. They want the luxury of keeping up with the story even if they've missed a few details.


Julie Booker is five feet tall. She lives in a Toronto row house and drives a tiny car. She has a toy poodle and twin baby boys. She teaches small children. She sees the world in pithy arcs, nicely contained. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including the 2010 edition of Best Canadian Stories. She won the Writers' Union of Canada's Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers in 2009.

Read more about Julie Booker in Nathaniel G. Moore's Conflict of Interest column.

For more information about Up Up Up please visit the House of Anansi Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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