Malahat volunteer Jack Crouch talks with our 2015 Far Horizons Award for Fiction contest winner, Mark Rogers, whose story, "Heaven and Back Again, or The Goddit," was chosen for the $1,000 prize. His story will be published in Issue 192, Autumn 2015.
Of Rogers' winning story, contest judge Elyse Friedman called it "a strange, modern-day fairy tale about children who escape the control of their parents—and the earthly realm—only to return as shells, their essence gone."
Where did you find inspiration for your Far Horizons Award-winning story, "Heaven and Back Again, or The Goddit"? What struggles did you encounter before getting it to where you wanted?
In the story, some children find a side door into heaven, which lets them in and then back out again. They can come back. It's not a gift—it's actually dangerous and threatening—and this notion of a magical ability that is really a curse taps into some elemental fears and storytelling themes. That's what I had to start with. That, and a blank page.
It took a couple of years to get from there to the finish line. Firstly, I had no sense of know how to describe heaven, which was a bit of a problem given the subject matter. Then I could not get the right emotional build-up to the final scene, an increase in the emotional stakes. I wanted to spring-load the narrator's fragility. The solution, to place an intimate sex scene (the narrator and his wife) right before the closing moments, took me a long time to unlock.
When I finished, I was quite happy sentence-by-sentence. But something wasn't right; I didn't know what. I sat on it for another year and did not submit to any magazines or competitions. When a friend referred to it as that story with the hockey concussions in it, I knew what I had to do. That wasn't the main idea: it's not about the concussions. I had somehow let setting and background smother essence. The resulting cutting job was the most severe I've ever done. I cut the story in half. I took out 3,000 words.
Do you have any particular influences when it comes to writing short stories? And what are the advantages and disadvantages for you personally when writing a short story?
For about five years—this is a long time ago now—I was part of a group of writers. We called ourselves The Bedford Group. We met up every week, shared the writing we were working on (reading out loud), and we allowed each other to be frank and, if necessary, deeply critical of the work that was presented. This period, which was very supportive and fun, but which was also about setting and demanding really high standards for ourselves, has had by far the strongest influence on all my writing.
I've developed an approach where I'm never satisfied with something if it's only the first idea I've had. This can be a premise for a new story, or a technique to solve some problem that's cropped up in the writing. There is a risk if you get too protective of your first thoughts and your gut reactions. When some concept pops into your head out of nowhere, it's easy to believe that this must be inspiration (and therefore inspired), maybe even genius, and is at least a unique product of your own imagination. So you nurture it, build on it. But you can also end up clinging to it. I am suspicious of anything that comes too fast. If instead you reject the first thing that comes in and spend an hour working up alternatives, you can find something much better.
The disadvantage of this is that my writing process is a slow one. I'm basically a one-paragraph-an-hour type of guy. Then I might throw out the paragraph.
Like most stories, the first read does not give the narrative justice, but your "careful crafting" and "crisp sentences," as Elyse Friedman put it, really stand out, and sometimes require more careful reading to really appreciate the finesse. Is this something you do in all your writing, or do you find that the constraints of the short story form require this almost poetic style?
Thank you. I always feel a bit chuffed when someone says something like that about my writing. It's a great compliment. I do spend a lot of time on how the words sound off each other, the little half-rhymes, ways to create a catch or a jump in the rhythm of a paragraph. I do that with all my writing, not just short stories. I think that's what writing is, as opposed to... I don't know, as opposed to jotting. It's a constraint of writing, not a constraint that's peculiar to the short story form.
But I hope most readers don't consciously register what I'm up to, that they only enjoy the end effect of it. My biggest success is if I write a story that sticks—not for everyone, but for a few readers—and then stays like a burr in their heads. Like the feeling you have at the end of a great movie, where you want to sit in the dark, not leave immediately, let the credits roll. That would be the pinnacle of achievement for me, to get enough into a reader's head that they have to spend time letting the story settle. Unable to sleep for a bit, or needing to tell someone else about it. Ian McEwan does that for me. And Douglas Adams.
The ending of the story does not offer any great twist or surprise, rather, it concludes softly, lingering in the reader's mind. Did you know how the story would end when you started composing it, or did you figure it out as you wrote?
I never do know how I'm going to finish. (I sometimes don't know how I'm going to get off the first page.) I think that's what essays are: where you know where you're going, where you have an argument and something very clear to articulate. But a story can go anywhere. I don't understand these authors who write the last paragraph of their book years in advance, the first thing they finish, then write their way toward this ending. I've tried this. When I get there, the original paragraph has vanished. And the best endings are palimpsests: the writer's original plan for the denouement gets erased by what happens on the journey, has to make way for a different text.
What current projects are you working on? And what else do you have planned for the future?
I'm writing a novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Sweetecok, Prime Minister. It's a political thriller, set during an alternative imagining of Victorian England (King Victor is on the throne; he's amused by everything). It's a bit of a Sherlock Holmes / House of Cards mash-up. I love that period of history, although I'm making most of it up. And I am really enjoying the main character, who's turning into a bit of a 'magnificent bastard.' No idea how it ends.
For the future, I have a few more novels and stories careening about. I want to do a science story (particle physicists). There's a character loosely modelled on Beethoven that I want to place in modern London to see how he gets on. But he won't be a composer, he'll be a forensic pathologist or a quantity surveyor or something. I might also go back to work I've done that didn't get published, see whether cutting it in half does the trick.
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