I N T R O D U C T I O N
This is a short book. A harmless-looking thing. Feel the easy weight of it in your hands, its modest heft. What could such a slim volume possibly contain? A book this small could slip into the back pocket of your jeans and still leave room for gum. It could bang around at the bottom of your knapsack and you’d never notice. Or it could just sit there for a few weeks, quiet and still, in the stack beside your bed. But don’t get too comfortable with it. This little book holds ten of the best short stories published in Canada this year, and it introduces you to ten of the most exciting new writers in this country. You can almost feel the potential trembling inside. Where are these new artists going to take us? Who are we going to meet along the way? How much can they achieve with the short story form? Crack the spine of this skinny little book if you want to find out.
Although we enjoyed putting this collection together, it didn’t turn out exactly the way we planned. When we first started this process, we thought we’d be making a bigger book: something . . . busier. We thought it might work like one of those British roundabouts, a circular point of intersection where many different vehicles travelling along many different routes converge at the same time. We thought our anthology might be able to bring a variety of elements together, coordinate them, and synchronize all this wildly varied movement into one perfect loop where each story maintains its own autonomy while simultaneously contributing to the efficient function and form of the whole.
Think of it: such happy comingling, such coordination and interdependence. Wouldn’t it have been great if our book emerged with that kind of balance and precision? Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have made everything fit together without any conflict or tension, without any sharp edges jutting out? Maybe, but that’s not what happened here. “Forget about good,” wrote the designer Bruce Mau. “Good is a known quantity. Good is what we all agree on. As long as you stick to good, you’ll never have real growth.” In our deliberations, we searched for new growth in Canadian writing.
Instead of the safest, smoothest work, we sought out arresting pieces that defied expectations and interrupted the flow, stories that made us stop and wonder, stories that showed us new ways of the seeing the world. We wanted to find sentences that excited us and stories that moved us. We wanted to feel changed in some way. And then we all had to agree on what that felt like.1Was that asking too much?
In the beginning, we independently read through a stack of almost one hundred stories – more online journal submissions than ever before, we were told – and then we emailed each other with our long lists of contenders. Overall, we were a compatible group of jurors. For the most part, our opinions overlapped.
And yet! Despite our general agreement, there were some careful quarrels. In the end, it turns out that editing a literary anthology is not a job for peacekeepers. In this business, where every aesthetic choice really matters, a testy scrap is always more valuable and interesting than tepid consensus. As we hope these selections will demonstrate, a good story needs conflict and tension and commitment. It needs to make us think and feel in powerful ways.
Several stories appeared on all three of our long lists, and though we often appreciated them for different reasons, not all of those first selections made it through to the book. On the other hand, there were some stories that appeared on only one or two of the opening lists. When we looked at them again, though, they gained more support as we moved through our deliberations, and some of those initial outliers eventually made the final cut.
Often we felt that a story was close, almost perfect, but lacking in one essential element or another. And so many of the submitted stories felt the same. So it was tempting to choose the innovative stories first. We wanted to reward these audacious, deviant stories. We loved that they were brave enough to find new ground, that they broke out of that claustrophobic Canadian Prose terrarium. “But the author tried something different,” we’d say as we presented our case. The response, inevitably, was: “Okay, but did they succeed?” Then we’d put on our teaching glasses, peer at the page, and talk about how we’d have edited it if given the chance.
It was also tempting to choose stories that were competent and well-delivered. They didn’t give off light, perhaps, but they had been edited and polished to a satisfactory shine. Most of the stories in the stack were solid in this way. But when we were pressed to defend them, to really get behind them and explain why we loved them, we had to admit we had chosen them because we couldn’t find anything wrong with them. And that was not good enough.
When it came time to make our lists, we agreed on almost everything. Almost. On the toughest choices, we stated our cases and argued for and against. For the stalemates, we agreed to disagree, and then we voted and stood behind those decisions.
Nobody got everything they wanted, and nobody got completely shut out. It worked the way it should, and we produced a book that accurately reflects the shared and sometimes conflicted vision of our group. Ultimately, there were only a small number of stories that lifted us out of our world and kept us there, aloft. So we agreed that we’d rather be more selective in choosing the contents of the anthology this year, and showcase those standout stories. That was the biggest surprise, the end result of all our reading. Out of the whole stack, out of almost one hundred stories from all across the country, we could only find and agree on ten.
There are advantages to being this selective, though. In previous introductions to The Journey Prize Stories,
the jurors could usually only gesture toward the book that follows. When space is tight, they have to pick and choose, and be strategic about which stories will get a little extra attention, a few intriguing lines to whet the reader’s appetite. In our case, we have plenty of room, and since we stand behind all these pieces, we decided to give each one a few precise words of praise.
Seyward Goodhand’s “The Fur Trader’s Daughter” is a good place to start. This story bewitched us with its weird steampunk magic and sentences to swoon over. It is a kind of postmodern fairy tale we’ve never quite seen before. Goodhand has written a world studded with incongruities and anachronisms, a time that is neither entirely the past nor entirely the present, a story that captivates us because it is both utterly weird and dangerously familiar.
Moving from the postmodern to the ancient, Ross Klatte’s “First-Calf Heifer” reads initially like a story plucked from deep in the archives of Canadian fiction. Klatte works with some powerful raw materials in this piece: light and dark, life and death, innocence and experience, fathers and sons. This story of one day and night on a cattle farm brings us through opposing rites of tenderness and terror, and is structured around one pure and visceral scene that sticks in the reader’s mind and refuses to go away.
We appreciated the subtle restraint of Michele Serwatuk’s “My Eyes Are Dim.” Her detailed description of the days after an earthquake is clear and unmediated, conspicuously precise and composed. When you read it, you feel that the sentences themselves have become the very consciousness of the narrator: she is in shock.
When we read Jay Brown’s description of making ice on cobblestone laneways – “The ice accumulated like tree rings, each blanketing the other with surety and fastness – a molecular perfection” – we knew we had stumbled upon gold.
“The Girl from the War” is written with skilful and striking narration. It is also paced exceptionally, right up to its astonishing finish.
Beautiful pacing and writing also characterize “Toupée” by Michelle Winters. The first sentence alerted us that we had found something fresh: “I saw him on the subway for the first time the day I brought the meat bomb to work.” But the most moving part of this story about a disgruntled employee is the exquisite and powerful turn in the last line of dialogue; the deft use of a sad refrain made us wince (in a good way).
Similarly, the narrator in “What I Would Say,” a sassy, clever monologue by Jessica Westhead, produced both laughter and cringing. In six short pages, Westhead manages to draw her protagonist in her flawed entirety. She seems eerily familiar, reminding us of other people we’ve known and of the darker, unacknowledged side of ourselves.
The protagonist in Fran Kimmel’s “Laundry Day” had us rooting for her as she struggled against difficult odds. An evocative and deceptively simple story, “Laundry Day” is packed with vivid, visceral details. The pacing and tension are also excellent, culminating in a big exhale at the story’s conclusion.
The main character in “The Extra” by Michael Christie is likewise disenfranchised. An unreliable narrator who is inevitably done wrong, he draws us immediately into his world. This story is heartbreaking and compelling all the way through: the ending packs a huge emotional punch. We expect to see more great things from Michael Christie in the future.
“The Dead Roads” by D.W. Wilson presents a cast of three vividly drawn characters hurtling through the Rocky Mountains at eighty miles an hour in a ’67 Camaro. Their story teeters on the edge of those chasms that stretch between loyalty, friendship, and desire. Carried by the sometimes sad, sometimes elated voice of its narrator, this piece grapples with change and desperation and the ultimate selfishness of love.
Miranda Hill’s “Petitions to Saint Chronic” focuses on a different kind of shared desperation, a different kind of worry, and ultimately, a different kind of faith. What does a true miracle look like? Can a man really fall from twenty-four storeys and live to tell the tale? Where should we place our belief and why? In this nuanced story, Hill’s modern-day pilgrims keep vigil in a hospital waiting room, and we as readers stand right there with them, holding on for deliverance.
This is where we leave you now, waiting on the cusp of a reading experience that will reflect this particular moment in Canadian literature and our hope for its future. We understand that any jury process is flawed, and that another jury might have – would have – produced a different book. We have no doubt left some stories out that others would have included. So it goes. We trust, in the end, that good writing will eventually rise to the top, and that all these writers will get the recognition they deserve. This may be a little book, and it may only contain ten stories, but we think it’s pretty damn good. Alexander MacLeod
Copyright © 2011 by Selected by Alexander MacLeod, Alison Pick, and Sarah Selecky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.