READING THE 2010 JOURNEY PRIZE STORIES
A CONVERSATION WITH PASHA MALLA, JOAN THOMAS, AND ALISSA YORK
ALISSA YORK: There’s so much to say about the jurying process. It was an intense, immersive experience, reading and evaluating all those diverse narratives; at times my mind swam with characters and settings, images and events. In the end, though, I believe we all zeroed in on those stories that really stayed with us – the ones that not only moved into our hearts and minds, but stuck around to unpack.
JOAN THOMAS: When you think about it, all we read was the equivalent in pages of two or three novels – and yet there were all those separate imagined worlds to enter. The writer of a short story has so few pages to set up the rules of the game and then play it out. I found I had to do my reading in short sessions to really savour the concentrated force of each story.
PASHA MALLA: One thing I think we were all looking for was to be surprised. And I hope readers of this anthology will find surprises – whether in language, structure, voice, emotional oomph, or in the unexpected twists and turns of a well-told story.
AY: Absolutely – good fiction surprises us the way life does, which is odd, given how easily a story can fail by sticking to “what really happened.” I find the sweetest surprises are often the small ones, such as the moment in Lynne Kutsukake’s “Mating” when the protagonist focuses on the whorl of greying hair at the crown of his wife’s head and feels “an inexplicable tenderness for this secret spot, a sudden urge to protect it with the palm of his hand.” Nothing like getting swept up in a character’s unexpected rush of love.
JT: It was remarkable to see what different stories two writers could produce on similar subjects – in the case of “Mating” and Carolyn Black’s “Serial Love,” a subject as specific as speed dating.
“Mating” beautifully juxtaposes traditional Japanese cultural attitudes with contemporary dating practices, and “Serial Love” listens in on a first encounter between a man and woman and reveals menace in every word and gesture. It’s a story of such precisely balanced ambiguity that its possibilities surprise you with every reading.
PM: And then there were those stories that grab you by the throat from the first line. From their cracking openings on, every sentence of Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Laud We the Gods” and Mike Spry’s “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren” is visceral, unsettling, uncompromising, and astonishing. Both are told in the sort of voice that needles its way into your brain and stays with you long after the story is over.
JT: I’ve come around to thinking that point of view is everything, how fully you inhabit it. Devon Code’s “Uncle Oscar,” for example, pleased me with every detail that fell under the alert eye of the thirteen-year-old protagonist: the upsidedown milk crate that served as a footstool in the basement tv room, a Sepultura T-shirt and an Ibanez guitar, the smell of the unbathed uncle (“a sweet smell like brown bananas”) – it’s Leo’s eye on ordinary stuff that aligns us entirely with his experience.
AY: Yes, and those same details often serve as evidence of an original mind at work. Among others, I’m thinking here of “The Dead Dad Game” by Laura Boudreau and “Ship’s Log” by Eliza Robertson, both of which deliver fresh, even startling, takes on the popular theme of childhood loss and grief.
PM: I think that sort of originality is what really set these twelve stories apart from the rest of the pack – which is saying something, as I don’t think there was a single one of the seventy-four submissions that wasn’t a solid, well-crafted piece of writing.
AY: I love the fact that the search for the “best writing” led us to such diverse styles: the mad aria of “Laud We the Gods” at one end of the spectrum; the haunting plainsong of Andrew Boden’s “Confluence of Spoors” at the other. So different from one another and so perfectly themselves.
JT: And, of course, to diverse worlds – it’s always a small miracle to find a world created whole within a short story. I was especially struck by writers who used settings we know and managed to disorient us by peeling back that sense of the familiar. “Confluence of Spoors” did it in a stroke, as a hunter follows a trail of blood into Vancouver’s East Side. Danielle Egan’s “Publicity” did it too, giving us a barely futuristic and surreal Vancouver.
PM: “Confluence of Spoors” is a good example of a story, too, that deserves and benefits from repeat readings. To me that’s the mark of a truly strong piece of short fiction: something that engages on the surface, but then, when you go back to it a second (and third) time, gets richer, more nuanced and layered. I feel the same way about “Ship’s Log,” which is immediately captivating and charming, but sneaks up on you emotionally; you finish, gutted, and want to go back and figure out what was really going on the whole time.
JT: Then of course there was our conversation the day the jury met to discuss the stories, which opened up all sorts of new meanings in the stories. “When in the Field with Her at His Back” is one of the stories that I thought especially rewards a second look. You’re aware of the buried past as a diplomat returns to postwar Eastern Croatia to look for an old lover. Revisiting this story, I realized how skilfully Ben Lof had knit his characters’ lives together through the image of unexploded landmines.
AY: I agree, the landmines worked beautifully – a perfect underlying symbol for a story about the fragmented, dissociative state so many suffer in the wake of war. I’m fascinated by the power of well-chosen objects in many of these narratives: the soggy picture of Marilyn Monroe in Andrew MacDonald’s coming-of-age piece, “Eat Fist!” (“I find her pulpy corpse floating in the drinking fountain.”); the perfectly creepy Curious George poster in “Five Pounds Short and Apologies to Nelson Algren.” And Pasha, I remember you brought up the impact of the tights-as-tourniquet in “The Longitude of Okay” by Krista Foss – devastating!
PM: Yeah, and also, in the same story, the belt used to secure the classroom door – there’s such power in the dramatic repurposing of everyday objects, imbuing them with sudden, unexpected narrative and emotional resonance. That sort of thing always sticks with me, and maybe speaks more broadly to what I often love in fiction: seeing the familiar cast in a new light.
JT: What moved me most about “The Longitude of Okay” were Krista Foss’s characters. This story, about a school shooting, could so easily have been contained and prescribed by its subject, but it became instead an insightful exploration of the teacher’s self-doubt. And the students are deftly drawn in a few strokes. They’re so real.
PM: The last thing I wanted to mention, and which we haven’t touched on, was humour. Being funny is so hard to do well, as it relies so much on surprising the reader, and “Uncle Oscar” and “Serial Love” have some killer lines that totally cracked me up. Devon Code’s thirteen-year-old narrator imagining cocaine to “feel like taking 500 dumps all at once” is so perfectly hilarious, and I laughed out loud a number of times at Carolyn Black’s wonderfully dry descriptions of speed dating.
AY: So often those moments that make us laugh (or cry, for that matter) occur when the writer has hit the nail on the head, getting a character’s voice, thought, or action exactly right. It’s perhaps the fundamental challenge of writing convincing, compelling fiction, this business of spinning people out of the air – a challenge that the contributors to this year’s edition of The Journey Prize Stories
meet and exceed with style.