Malahat volunteer Will Johnson talks with 2013 Far Horizons Award for Fiction judge Alissa York about contests, fiction, and what she's looking for in a winning entry.
What was the first short story you can remember making a lasting impression on you? Why does it stick out in your memory?
It would have to be "Kaa's Hunting" from Kipling's The Jungle Book. Imagine being kidnapped by monkeys, swung through the high canopy and held hostage in the ruins of a lost city, only to be rescued by a bear, a panther and a rock python some thirty feet long. In the book, the Dance of the Hunger of Kaa is nothing like the goofy Disney version: for one thing, Kaa is a protective, rather than a predatory, figure in Mowgli's life; for another, his hypnotic powers are terrifying.
When you're judging a literary contest, what is your process? Do you find it challenging to compare wildly different pieces to one another?
I do my utmost to evaluate each entry in relation to what I believe the writer set out to accomplish. That said, I read with the following criteria in mind: meaningful content; striking (which is not to say overwhelming) style; depth of idea; emotional veracity; evidence of an original mind. Those stories that strike me as the most successful, I read again. The ones that stay with me after a second reading – those that continue to claim space in my mind and in my heart – I look at again. In the end there's always one that makes the deepest impression.
Your short fiction collection Any Given Power came out in 1999. Since then, you've been focusing on writing novels. Do you still write short fiction? And if so, when can we expect to see another collection?
The only short stories I've written since the collection came out are a few commissioned pieces; otherwise I seem to fall down the well of one novel after another. I love writing short fiction, but I have a really hard time splitting my focus. I envy those fiction writers who can switch with ease between projects.
Would you rather read a story that is technically precise, with impeccable language and structure, but without a compelling plot OR an engaging, original story with interesting characters that lacks precision in its writing style?
I suppose I tend to favour the former, though in truth this strikes me as a false dichotomy. Successful yet wholly "plotless" stories are few and far between, especially when we consider that literary plots tend to hinge not on the "what" but on the "why," and I'm not sure one can create truly compelling characters with imprecise language.
Other than Alice Munro (because that's too easy), who do you think are some of the best Canadian short story writers working today? Can you name some of your favorite collections?
Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting is a recent favourite. MacLeod Senior's short fiction has a special place in my heart too – especially "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun" and "In the Fall." Otherwise, I'm a big fan of Lynn Coady's Play the Monster Blind, Madeleine Thien's Simple Recipes and Sandra Birdsell's Night Travellers, to name a few.
When you were a fledgling writer, what was your experience with literary contests? What role do you think contests play in the contemporary Can-Lit scene?
I had the good fortune to win a couple of short fiction contests in the early days, and there's no doubt that it had the effect of bolstering my confidence and opening a few doors. Contests are helpful when they sell copies and raise awareness; they're harmful when they narrow the scope of reader interest. They can provide a much-needed impetus to polish and submit one's work, rather than leaving it in the drawer. Occasionally they come with significant cash awards – a big deal to serious writers, for whom money always equals time. In closing, they're lovely when you win and lousy when you lose. Best not to let the former circumstance matter too much, or you'll find the latter does too.
What advice do you have for writers who are just starting to submit their work to literary journals and contests, but who haven't been published yet?
1) Take your work seriously; give it priority and believe in its worth even when others don't.
2) Be professional in how you present your work. Punctuation is part of language; spellcheck is a beginning, not an end.
3) Writing is, in part, a physical act, so sit down and get to grips with your pen (or keyboard).
4) Turn off your WiFi for part of every day – the writing part. If you need to research something on the web, make a note and do it later. Ignore the voice that tells you you can't write without constant internet access; it's the same voice that tells people they'll never enjoy another meal if they can't follow it with a cigarette.
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Full guidelines for the 2013 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction here.