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Book Reviews

Writers Talking

by John Metcalf and Claire Wilkshire, eds.

For this new Porcupine’s Quill anthology of short fiction, John Metcalf and co-editor Claire Wilkshire have selected eight stories by eight different authors: Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Steven Heighton, Mary Borsky, K.D. Miller, Terry Griggs, Elise Levine, and Annabel Lyon. Each story is prefaced by an extended literary-biographical interview with the author, and followed up with a brief author-penned commentary on the story’s origins.

Metcalf, who has worked with most of these authors in his capacity as the senior editor at The Porcupine’s Quill, says that the book is meant to do two things: to provide insight into the writers’ “methods and motivations” and to move these authors “towards the centre [of Canadian writing] where they belong.” It succeeds beautifully on the first count. As for the second, the stories in Writers Talking are certainly compelling advertisements for their respective authors.

The book’s eight interviews provide a mini master class on writing and living the writing life. Strictly speaking, they are personal essays rather than interviews: all have been heavily worked, most with the editors’ questions removed to make for a smoother read.

Michael Winter, who opens the collection, has some gorgeous things to say about the importance to his writing of little details, like “the rustling of the paper in the bags of food that you’re bringing home to feed your friends.” K.D. Miller suggests some unconventional and interesting techniques for creating character and voice learned in her previous life as an actor. And Steven Heighton speaks with great honesty about the problem of inspiration (and the agony of its absence).

Aspiring writers will find much to glean from these informative and enjoyable pieces. My least favourite interview was with the much-lauded Lisa Moore, whose pronouncements – “I think of words as having texture. Lugubrious has the texture of baked okra” – often sound rather pretentious.

The stories themselves can be read either as case studies for the master class or simply as works of art to be innocently enjoyed. They succeed on both counts, and it is rewarding to find that stories by less-established contributors shine just as brightly as those by more familiar ones. Mary Borsky’s “The Ukrainian Shirt” is a lucid, dryly ironic domestic piece about a woman who brings her painfully cerebral anthropologist husband to meet her more earthy Ukrainian-Canadian family.

Elise Levine’s “Always the Snow” is a deliciously dark, oblique triptych portrait of three rather nasty upper-middle-class Canadian WASPs: a man, his controlling mother, and his unhappy wife. The collection contains one bona fide classic: Steven Heighton’s well-known “Five Paintings of the New Japan,” an achingly sad meditation on desire – for connection to people, to the past, to foreign cultures – and the nature of translation.

The stories here are good, no question. And their similarity of vision at times make the anthology feel almost like a collection – even a novel – by a single author. It’s an impressive testament to the precision of Metcalf’s eye (and perhaps to the sharpness of his editing pencil). And yet there are many moments when clarity of vision shades into narrowness of focus. Almost without exception, the stories in Writers Talking are about the domestic minutiae of the lives of average European-Canadian families – parents and children, spouses and lovers. The stories largely dispense with plot, instead teasing us forward with dim glimpses of chaos and unhappiness beneath calm surfaces. Their sentences are lavished with multiple layers of suggestion and quasi-poetic rhythms. They snap to a finish with quick-cut, New Yorker-style endings. It is somehow telling that the collection’s standout story least fits the paradigm, veering off in a different direction altogether.

I’d be happy to see each of these highly talented authors moved closer to “the centre” of Canadian literature. As Metcalf
puts it, they deserve the recognition and respect. But I can’t help hoping that they never dominate our literature, as it would become a conservative place indeed.