How did your UVic experience prepare you for or shape where you are now as a writer?
UVic taught me what kind of writer I wanted to be, how I wanted to write, and what I wanted to write about. Without it, I wouldn’t have realized that you can write about your hometown and that it could be engaging fiction – that you don’t have to write about something exotic and fantastical for your writing to be exotic and fantastic.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better writing undergrad anywhere: the teachers care in a way not many other institutions can boast: there’s a level of careful attention, the thorough and thoughtful feedback, and the compassion -- where else do you get that?
As a UVic alumnus and former Malahat fiction board intern, how does it feel to now be judging a Malahat writing contest?
A bit like coming home.
What is your take on literary contests? How much weight did/do you put in them as an emerging writer?
Tough to say. I suppose your odds of winning a contest are both better and worse than just getting published via normal submission; smaller pool, more likely to be a deluge of submissions that haven’t quite been polished yet, but at the same time you’ll be up against other peoples’ best work. Probably evens itself out if you were to break it down into pure math, but I’m no mathematician.
As an emerging writer I submitted to them when they came along; you’re reading (or should be reading) the lit mags anyway, and you get a free subscription (usually) upon submission and payment of the entry fee, so there’s really no reason not to. They also make good deadlines.
Nowadays, my entire career in the UK is due to winning the BBC Short Story Contest – so they’re important, though not all-or-nothing.
What are you going to look for in a winning piece?
A confident and developed voice that intrigues me, keen attention to line and the way words can sound and play off each other, characters that ring authentic and affecting and whose emotions are palpable without being stated, and of course that je ne sais quoi that makes good fiction good fiction.
Who are some of the fiction writers you admire? Why does their work appeal to you?
Richard Ford for his tragically flawed characters and the Man-Bible that is The Sportswriter; Tim Winton for his sentences, his evocation of landscape and place with a voice that is unconquerable and night inimitable, and the compassion he exhibits for even his darkest creations; Marilynne Robinson for all the above and more.
What do you try and keep in mind or strive for when you're writing your own fiction?
Tough call. The easy one-off is to say “Sad Man Fiction” but I think that’s to simplify it too much. I’m interested in loneliness and heartache and the gap between masculinity and emotion – how impossible it is, often, for men to bare themselves to anyone. I suppose I’m trying to capture that certain way that men can be alone – and I can’t possibly tell you what it is, here. Taped to my laptop is a quote that I come back to because I think it somehow epitomizes what I want to write about: “Tonight there isn’t any light under your door / I guess you must be somewhere breathing.” (The National, from “Patterns of Fairytales”)
When you were first coming through the ranks and honing your craft, what was your approach to trying to get published early on?
Shotgun strategy. Make sure every magazine has a story under consideration and just rotate them through. To hell with “No Simultaneous Submission” signs and threats of blacklist. The few times I had a story accepted somewhere that was under consideration elsewhere, I just sent a polite email withdrawing it from consideration – and except in one instance I got a quick “Thanks for letting us know,” even from mags that threatened to send highly trained kill squads after me if I did just that.
And of course, write endlessly, read endlessly. I still do these two. Probably, that won’t change.
You're going to make someone's day when you choose their submission as the fiction winner. At this point in your career, what award or accomplishment would make your day?
The Giller and/or Booker. I also wouldn’t turn my nose up at the UK’s Sunday Times Short Story Award (and the nice 30000 quid that’d come with it)
Once You Break a Knuckle was recently shortlisted for a B.C. Book Prize (again, congratulations on that). What's the next step for you now? What are you currently working on?
Attempting to finish the second draft of my novel, Ballistics, which comes out in early 2013. Also apparently doing a PhD over here in the Old Kingdom, which finishes up next October. Until then, I’m doing my best to not pick up a British accent.
Would you have any advice for those students and alumni who enter this contest and who might want to pursue writing in the future?
Write constantly. Read deeply. Do your best not to despair but in moments of darkness know that every successful writer has shared that same darkness. As in all things, persistence beats resistance.
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Check out the guidelines for our University of Victoria 50th Anniversary Prize.