Heather Birrell is a short story writer and the author of the collections I Know You Are But What Am I? and Mad Hope (Coach House [link]).
CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions.
What is your opinion? Do the novel and short story have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?
HB: I don’t want to sound like someone who refuses to leave her garret, but as a writer, I try not to think about this too much. I’ve chosen to write fiction, or it’s chosen me, and it’s part of the way I tussle with and honour the world. I also have a young family and a full-time teaching job, so often there is not a lot of room left in my brain to consider these questions — and when I have a pocket of time, I usually want to spend it reading authors who excite me, or contemplating my own writing projects.
I do have a certain amount of faith that my work will find readers and have come to understand that the quantity of those readers is much less important than the quality of the connection to the reader — i.e. — that the readers who end up with my books in their hands are those who are yearning for the kind of stories and prose I can deliver. Also: my writing is never going to make me the big bucks. Having a day job, while often all-consuming and time-sucking, can be freeing in that respect; I am not dependent on my writing or writing-related gigs for my livelihood and that, to me, really gives me permission as a creator.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Deborah Eisenberg (a fantastic and accomplished American short story writer) for the on-line (and sadly no more) bookninja. She said:
If most fiction is made according to a general idea of what fiction ought to be, then most fiction is going to be fairly predictable. And people who want, and are accustomed to, predictable fiction are unlikely to be good at engaging in the very active process of reading – they merely want their expectations met, and are perplexed when their expectations aren’t met. So it’s a self-perpetuating, actually a self-generating, situation, and I think it’s a fine thing to meet it head on with a simple refusal.
I love that: a simple refusal.
As for the short story! I adore the form, to read and to write. As a short story practitioner I have definitely been well-served by small magazines. I think it’s tragic that they have to struggle the way they do; small press workers are the unsung heroes of our age. They work so hard for very little recompense or glory and serve an invaluable role in fostering new writers and bolstering more experienced writers. They are a vital part of the literary eco-system and deserve our protection.
CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?
HB: I don’t think they’re having an effect on the writing — people who want to write will find a way to write. Anybody who writes with a notion of what will sell as his or her prevailing impetus — well, I don’t think that’s exactly artful, authentic writing, is it?
These are easy things to say, I realize, while you are in the throes of creation; it is more difficult have this same conviction when you are trolling for a publisher. Of the eleven stories in my second collection, seven had been previously published in respected literary journals, one had won the Journey Prize. I had some short story street cred going into the submission process. And now that it’s seen the light of day as a book, Mad Hope has been well-received by readers and critics alike. I am thrilled with my publisher — both the editorial and publicity/marketing support I’ve received have been stellar.
But the book’s road to publication was rocky. Before Coach House welcomed me back, I got a lot of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ from editors who professed to admiring the manuscript but not knowing how to sell short stories or finding the prose too ‘writerly’.
It can chip away at your soul, this pitching/pining, watching/waiting process, and hold you in its unhealthy thrall for protracted periods. To my mind, it is, quite simply, anti-art. Having said that, it seems to be a new fact of life as publishers are less willing these days to take leaps of faith and commit to authors (especially if they are being stylistically or thematically adventurous) for the long haul.
CBT: Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
HB: Yes, I think so. But the small presses are filling the breach in amazing and nimble ways. This is reflected in critical response (the amount of space/air time dedicated to books from smaller publishers) and prize lists (which used to be dominated by the larger more moneyed publishing companies, but are increasingly populated by books from independent presses).
CBT: Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?
HB: I do have an author’s website. I have no idea if it helps me sell books — I’m not sure how I would or could measure that and I honestly don’t want to.
CBT: How do you feel about running an author’s website? Do you feel its a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
HB: I have mixed feelings about it. I recently had the website re-designed and built so that I could update it on my own and incorporate a blog element. On the one hand I like that I can control my presence — to a certain extent — on the web, and I also like the freedom a blog affords, the opportunity to describe, riff of, and link to things that pique and hold my interest as a writer and as a mother and teacher and human being engaged in the world around me. I think a blog can be a really wonderful way to form relationships with other readers and writers, and a lovely complement to a writer’s body of work. On the other hand, I am still grappling with what it means to present and shape a presence on-line. I hate the notion of personal branding (that thing people do to cattle and used to do to slaves) with a passion and sometimes trying to figure out my boundaries around ‘sharing’ just makes me want to unplug completely and take a nap. And yes — updating the site can feel like an annoying imposition at times, especially since my life is pretty hectic at the moment. But I do feel a responsibility to, at the very least, let readers know about upcoming publications and readings and provide a portal to my writer-self.
CBT: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
HB: I’m going to do that thing people do when they’re stalling, taking time to think about the question, which is to repeat the question: Is the selection system fair? I think it depends on the publisher and editor in question. I’m not sure making the judging blind would help — if you’re suggesting some people get published because of who they are or more importantly, who they know, I’m sure you’re right. But I think more often, big publishers are looking for the all important ‘hook‘ that will make them money, more than anything else — so the hook might be the very fact of the author — his/her history, looks, job, but it might also be the book’s subject matter or political relevance, or the headlong pace of the plot. It’s not often stellar prose, acute psychological insight or brilliant experimentation are seen as hooks that will make a publisher money…. because they’re looking to appeal to a broad swath of people and their wallets. Is this ‘hook‘ business more true lately? It seems to me it is, simply because big publishers’ decisions are more dependent on marketing strategies and revenue potential.
CBT: According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
HB: I don’t own an e-reader, and have no plans to, but this is not because I have any strong feelings against them. I do have an i-phone and do a lot of reading of periodicals on there while commuting or lying next to a napping baby. It saved me from total annihilating boredom during some marathon breastfeeding sessions in dim light. I have read some short stories on my phone through an app called Storyville that delivers a new story every week, and that was nice. But I still love a good old fashioned book and Coach House did such a good job making my old fashioned book look like a very current and beautiful object. For the most part, I think the more avenues that lead to the written word, the better.
Oh, and piracy. I’ve had my work available on-line, and have given away an e-version of one of my stories for free. Before I agreed to the latter, I did have some reservations, but decided (after polling some readers I trusted) that it was a pretty fantastic opportunity for potential readers to get a taste of who I am as a writer, and, to use a hackneyed metaphor, be lured into buying the cow after having had a taste of the oh-so-delicious-and-nutritious milk.
CBT: What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren’t?”
HB: I’m not sure they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion although I do think they have an effect on how we think about what’s out there… The problem, I suppose, is that I live in pretty cloistered world, full of people who like to talk and argue books all the time — so the creation of lists and the naming of winners is always cause for a broader discussion and disagreement re: who belongs, who was omitted, whether a winner is deserving, what machinations might have prompted a shortlist or a win. The readers I know who are not so sunk in this literary world do care about prize winners, I suppose, but they also go to their friends and to favourite blogs (and I think the proliferation of book blogs is a great boon for literary conversation and critique) for help in curating their reading lists.
I have benefitted directly from two literary prizes: the Journey Prize and the Edna Staebler Award. The Journey Prize (co-sponsored by McClelland & Stewart and the Writer’s Trust of Canada) is awarded to the best story published in literary journals in the previous year (nominated by said journals’ editors). The nominated stories are then winnowed down by a jury, who chooses a longlist (that becomes the anthology), a shortlist, and a winner. The winner receives $10,000 and the nominating journal $2000. To me, this seems a wonderfully healthy type of literary award. It draws attention to a broad swath of accomplished stories and (often emerging) writers, and supports both the writer and the journal/editor that helped brought the writer’s work to light. The ‘Edna Award’ is an in-house honour administered byThe New Quarterly. You can’t apply for it or enter to win. It originates in a wonderful and whimsical tradition that Edna Staebler (a southern Ontarian journalist, cookbook author, and well-loved free spirit) herself initiated — a writer/philanthropist, she would send cheques of a thousand dollars to students and individual writers she admired, with the simple note reading “Enjoy! Edna.” attached. TNQ has used a generous gift of $25,000 that Edna Staebler gave the magazine in 2006, the year of her death at age 100, to recognize outstanding essays published in the magazine in the previous year with their version of Edna’s flash-generosity. The recipient is chosen by a judge selected from past winners. Both of these awards, it seems to me, reflect the type of solidarity and spirit that contribute to a thriving literary culture and community.
CBT; What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
HB: I’ve just finished an essay for an anthology-in-the-making edited by Kerry Clare (of www.picklemethis.com), (M)Other Stories: Dispatches from the Limits of Maternity. I’m excited to see what other women have to say about this seemingly inexhaustible topic.
And, like every other person in the coffee shop, I’m working on a novel. I have been alternately excited and excoriated by this project for more years than I’d like to admit. I’m in an excited phase right now, and hoping it will feel like a workable draft soon. It’s set in the eighties in Toronto, and it’s also about Cuba, a draft dodger, how families are made and unmade, a tire plant shut-down, young love and idealism, and the fumbling techniques and tactics we use to rescue each other and ourselves.
Bio: Heather Birrell is the author of two story collections, Mad Hope (Coach House, 2012) and I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004). Her work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and has been short- listed for both National and Western Magazine Awards. Birrell’s stories have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including The New Quarterly and Toronto Noir. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Toronto, where she teaches high school English. Learn more at www.heatherbirrell.com