Saturday, October 30, 2010

Re: Giller

I came across this piece on the Biblioasis blog and found it really informative re: some of the things I was thinking about a few weeks back. Namely, what this year's Giller shortlist means. Since I'm by no means in the know about anything, really, it was nice having a lot of the tangible publishing and sales questions I had answered.

I recommend it with heartiness and good cheer.

Read the post.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An aside.

Looking over my freelance assignments, I think I take on way too many extra-curricular stuff. But I love free books. And writing about free books. And about authors. And whatnot. The books don't even need to be free for me to write about them. For example, I'm reading Michelle Berry's newest novel, This Book Will Not Save Your Life, which I paid for and which I want to write about.

However, I'm already writing about too many books. And no editors have asked me to write about this book for them.


Bird Eat Bird by Katrina Best, etc.

Do you like funny things that are also secretly serious? And stories? And stories that are funny and secretly serious? I do. Which is why I gave Katrina Best's Bird Eat Bird such a positive review in the latest issue of Broken Pencil! Follow this link to read the review. It includes words like 'indelible' and 'panache.'

Speaking of Best, I'm also doing a profile on Katrina, which is very past deadline. I'll have it done eventually, and when I do I'll post some of it, all of it, or a summary of it on here. Katrina Best is a cool person. Trust me. And funny.

On the subject of funny books, I also reviewed two books that aren't really funny for past issues of Broken Pencil. The reviews are below.

You should still read those books, too. Not everything has to be funny.


Isobel and Emile

In the opening pages of Isobel and Emile, poet Alan Reed's debut novel, the eponymous characters wake up, get dressed and go to the train station. While Emile hops on a train, Isobel stays behind, assuming squatter's rights over her now ex-lover's apartment and the menial grocery store job he left behind. After arriving in Montreal Emile reconnects with Nicholas, an old friend who silently offers Emile a place to stay, and Agathe, a sultry scenester who arranges to have Emile's short documentary film about marionettes debuted at a local cinema.

Readers accustomed to narrative dynamism will be disappointed by what they find in Isobel and Emile, a short novel where something as simple as the unloading of cabbages can span several pages. Consider this, one of many scenes in which an aimless Isobel feels trapped in Emile's old apartment: "Her dress is on the floor by the bed. She walks over to where her dress is. She bends down. She picks it up. She puts it on the bed. She looks at her dress lying on the bed." Here, as elsewhere, Reed strives to make the subtle act grand, training his lens on the mundane in an effort to capture it from every angle. While Reed's militant commitment to the subject-verb-object sentence construction can get tiresome, Isobel and Emile manages to accomplish something quite impressive, pairing a story of two estranged lovers stuck in a rut with a strangely hypnotic, and ultimately complimentary, writing style. That combination means you'll either find Isobel and Emile tedious, repetitive and unimaginative, or the rarest of things: a thoughtful, poetic synchronicity between content and form.

Pitched as "a story of what happens after a love story," Reed's elegiac debut novel is for contemplative readers who don't mind walking in circles, provided the view is nice. (Andrew MacDonald)

by Alan Reed, $18.95, 165 pgs, Coach House Books,

[published in BP, issue 48]


Front Porch Mannequins

Rebekkah Adams' debut novel Front Porch Mannequins centers on the bleak, bruised lives of Nan, Alice and Lily, three women living in small town Ontario. The novel begins promisingly when Nan hatches a plan to improve Lily's marriage to her abusive husband by mowing him down with a car. The scene is grotesquely brilliant and, perhaps more impressive, utterly realistic -- a testament both to Adams' skillful world-building and her mastery of her characters. At the movies we'd call this kind of thing the inciting incident -- an event of such gravitas that it can't help but bring about epic narrative change. Instead of propelling the narrative forward, however, Nan's plan ends with a disappointing fizzle. Too often Adams takes extended dips into the uniformly troubled pasts of her characters: lengthy interludes that leave their present incarnations stuck, like Delane the mannequin, in the purgatory of Alice's front porch. I kept waiting for something to jolt the trio out of their communal stupor until finally, in the last 30 pages or so, the discovery of a severed hand precipitates the solving of a mystery I didn't even know existed.

A capable writer with an eye for finding hope in the places we least expect, Adams handles the novel's final pages effectively, serving up a credible, redemptive ending with grace and panache. Expanded, these moments would make for even finer narrative fodder. As it stands, they are too little, too late, making Front Porch Mannequins a commendable, though flawed, debut. (Andrew MacDonald)

by Rebekkah Adams, $16.95 176 pgs, Signature Editions PO Box 206, RPO Corydon, Winnipeg MB, R3M 3S7,

[published in BP, issue 47]

Friday, October 22, 2010


Rumor has it some creative non-fiction I wrote will appear in an upcoming issue of The Pinch. What is The Pinch? Glad you asked.

The Pinch, formerly called River City, is one of the oldest literary journals in the country. It publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, art, and photography. Sponsored by the University of Memphis and The Hohenberg Foundation, The Pinch appears semi-annually and has published people like Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Mary Oliver, Robert Penn Warren, and Margaret Atwood.

Am, as the title of this post suggests, 'pinched.' Har har. The issue is due out in Canada around February 16th. So, you know, mark your calenders and stuff.

On Canadian Journals and US Journals

I guess this might be as good a time as any to meditate on the difference between Canadian journals and journals in the United States. Though recently I've set my sights on writing for, and about, my homeland, this isn't the first time I've published down south. And something happens every single time I publish work outside of Canada - I feel obligated to change my contributor bio, the 50-some-word description thingy that appears at the back of the book, magazine, etc. Part of me really wants to erase the selected list of places I've been published and say something like: ANDREW HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN CANADA, SURE. BUT ALSO IN THE STATES! IN YOUR COUNTRY! TRUST HIM, HE HAS!

Is that unpatriotic? I feel like it might be. Maybe it's only natural to feel like America's sad little brother when it comes to the international publishing scene. We don't have a long, star-spangled literary history; people from Britain make fun of us (see Glendenning, Victoria); most of the time we don't even know where 'here' is, ontologically, and spend way too much time prancing around trying to figure it out (thank you, Margaret Atwood, for establishing Canada as a nebulous blank bereft of identity).

I think there are real, tangible differences between the journal / magazine scenes here and in the US, and anyone who's written a story and wants to publish it and wonders if maybe they should expand their horizons beyond Canada's border will probably have to confront these differences eventually.

Many are the advantages to publishing locally, in your own country. It means that I can walk to the bookstore and find something I've written there. People I know can, and often will, read my stories, essays, or whatever. Plus it sort of builds a base for you in the place where you're most likely to seek publication for a book later on in your career. You're also eligible for Canadian awards, which is good (because there's a smaller pool of published writers to draw from, you have a better shot at getting an award nod) and bad (because, well, there aren't many awards in the first place).

On the other hand, we just don't have that many venues for writers, especially now that the Federal Government seems hell bent on snuffing out artist grants (which, I should probably mention, is another reason why I'm happy to be a writer living in Canada; where else can artists in the early stages of their careers get funding to help them develop?). It's a handful. Before sending a story out I pull out my handy dandy list of places in Canada I'd like to publish. Beside every name is a tally of how many times I've submitted to them in the past.

And I have submitted to each and every one, at least once.

Let's be honest: America has hundreds of journals. Aside from the biggies (New Yorker, here I come!), I can't keep track of them all. And again, this is good AND bad. It's good because it affords more opportunities to be seen by more editors; it's bad because a lot of great, great publications get lost in the mix simply because the mix is too, like, mixed. There are reasons why that's the case. Population size could be one; more people means more readers means more demand for reading material. Legacy could be another. And the number of academic institutions willing to foot the bill for a quality magazine or journal is exponentially higher in the US than in Canada.

For the record: I am happy, boundlessly so, to be a Canadian writer. Even though I like her biographies of other people, I really do think Glendinning is wrong about us. There are a wealth of Canadian writers producing exceptional, and exceptionally risky, work, and I think our smaller publications - our New Quarterlies and our Fiddleheads, our EVENTs and our Prisms and our Geists and our . . . - are every bit as good as journals published down south.

Is it harder for younger writers to get published here? I don't know. Canada has fewer journals to choose from, which makes competition stiff. But I think good writing is good writing and will, with some elbow grease, always find the home and readership it deserves.

Monday, October 18, 2010

JPS22 Review

Kerry Clare, the reader-reviewer-writer behind Pickle Me This, recently reviewed The Journey Prize Stories 22. Interested parties can amble on over and giver a read.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Final Fist.

Votes are in: "Eat Fist!" won the Western Magazine Award for Fiction. Hearty thanks to Rick, Ian, and Elizabeth at Event for support, faith, and overall greatness. It's flattering to even be nominated.


How am I going to celebrate?



Vintage Punch Out!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can the Giller screw you?

So the shortlists for two of the three biggies in Canadian literature have been announced. Even though crowd favourite Michael Winter is nominated for the Writers' Trust Award, the Giller Prize shortlist is by the far the more interesting of the two. The Giller shortlist:

The Matter with Morris, David Bergen (HarperCollins)

Light Lifting, Alex MacLeod (Biblioasis)

This Cake is For the Party, Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen)

The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau)

Annabel, Kathleen Winter (Anansi)

Anyway, this year's selections have caused something of a minor bruhaha. For the first time in, like, ever, it's a battle of the little guys. That's right: no Random House, no M&S, no Penguin, Knopf, etc. etc. HarperCollins has a single title on the list - David Bergen's latest - and Anansi has a title, too, though I don't think you can fairly call them one of the big boys / girls.

Past titles shortlisted for the award have benefited the so-called 'Giller Effect,' a substantial boost in sales, media attention, etc. With few [quote / quote] names on this year's list, there's some speculation as to whether or not the GE will happen. Which kind points to the shady subject of practicality.

I don't know if you know this, but Gaspereau (to use the most glaring example) prints their own books. And apparently The Sentimentalists, their Giller-shortlisted title, is almost out of print. If you were a bigger press, that would mean putting in an order for a second print run, complete with nifty Giller stickers embossing the covers. But what if you print high quality books in low numbers? What if you manually print each and every book (with love) and in order to fill out requests for your Giller shortlisted title you have to push back your Fall publishing schedule to have another run printed? And, God forbid, what happens if the Giller Effect DOESN'T quite work with titles from smaller, less known presses without the marketing and PR budget to paint the town red for their titles?

I mean, seriously. What happens if a smaller publisher sells out its original print run but doesn't sell enough copies of print run two (2) to make it fiscally prudent? Having stacks of book at the front of bookstores costs money. So does having them displayed face out on the shelves. Snazzy promotional materials cost money, too. You bet your ass that David Bergen's book will benefit from such things, because HarperCollins has the infrastructure to take an award nomination and spin gold from it.

But where does that leave Gaspereau? Or Biblioasis, for that matter? For the former, in the worst case scenario, potentially delaying their catalogue to print a book that SHOULD sell but doesn't for all the wrong reasons - lack of promotional budget, high production costs, an infrastructure that can't handle the kind of demand that the Giller nod will probably get them.

To be clear: all of that is speculation. Maybe I'm underestimating the resources (and resourcefulness) of the presses nominated this year. In which case, I can stop talking. I really can. It's just, man. How screwy is it that getting shortlisted for the Giller might actually lose a publisher money?

All of which is not to say that I think we should be nominating the so-called 'major presses' and say peace out to the rest. I'm happy that smaller independent presses are getting their due. It seems like in recent years award nods have been the great equalizer that makes smaller publishers more attractive than they might have been in the past. And kudos to the (tellingly, mostly international) trio of judges for choosing the titles that appeal to them based on content, not some misguided notion of who SHOULD be on the list.

I'm just really, truly curious to see how it plays out this year. As for who I think will take it, I'd put my money on Kathleen Winter, and not just because I'm reviewing her novel Annabel for the next issue of Matrix Magazine in Montreal. It's a good book, plain and simple

Monday, October 4, 2010


This year's incarnation of the Journey Prize Stories is out and can be purchased here. Do imbibe - there are some fantastic stories in here. Recommended reading: the story by Krista Foss. Great stuff.

What follows is an interview thingy I did for the National Post. You can find the original here.


The Journey Prize is one of the country’s most prestigious awards for young and emerging authors. The prize, which was endowed by the American author James A. Michener, who donated the royalties from the Canadian edition of his 1989 novel Journey, honours the best short story published in a Canadian literary journal each year. The award has served as a launching pad: past winners include Yann Martel, Alissa York, and Timothy Taylor.

Each year, the finalists are collected in The Journey Prize Stories. This year’s anthology, #22, was chosen by judges Pasha Malla, Joan Thomas, and Alissa York. While the three finalists for the $10,000 Journey Prize will be named on Wednesday, when the nominees for the Writers’ Trust Awards are revealed, we asked all of this year’s authors to answer a few questions about their craft.

Here’s Andrew MacDonald, whose story Eat Fist! was first published in Event.

What’s your story called?

Eat Fist!

When did you write it? How long did it take?

I wrote the story in parts three years ago. With editing, the process took about five months.

What inspired it?

Eat Fist! grew out of three disparate, terribly flawed short stories. The first was a ten page narrative documenting my inability to master Ukrainian, the language of my forebears, and how incredibly depressing it feels to fall short of familial expectations. An old workout partner inspired the second story, which featured a lesbian bodybuilder and her attempts to whip a spindly-armed kid into shape. Finally, I always wanted to write something about comic books, so I worked on this whimsical story about a guy who falls in love with Wonder Woman and, predictably, has his heart broken.

While none of them were particularly good, they somehow joined forces to form the the story included in this year’s anthology.

Was it rejected by another literary journal before finding a home?

Event, the story’s eventual home, was the first (and only) literary journal I sent it to. I am grateful to Rick Maddocks and the Event team for their faith and guidance, and to Larry Garber for support.

What’s your favourite Journey Prize-winning story? Why?

My Husband’s Jump by Jessica Grant, a weird, wonderful account an Olympic skier who hits a jump and never lands. I’ve read the story a half-dozen times, trying to figure out how Grant takes an idea so ostensibly silly and transforms it into an affecting meditation on faith and the grandness of life’s mysteries. Saleema Nawaz’s My Three Girls is a close second.

The prize was made possible by James A. Michener; have you read his novel, Journey?

I have. Nothing beats a well-spun klondike yarn.

All of these stories were originally published in literary journals, most of which recently had their funding slashed. Why are these magazines vital to young writers?

Literary journals offer hope, professional editorial feedback, and – most importantly – a much audience for emerging writers. Moreover, I’d wager that the majority of Canada’s internationally-recognized literary writers cut their teeth by publishing in smaller magazines. For example, every single Canadian to win the Booker Prize published in literary journals before hitting it big, and early work by both of Canada’s Booker-nominees this year appeared in journals like The Fiddlehead and Event. More than half of the finalists for the Giller Prize have resumes that include publication in literary journals, too. Journals are, in short, a vital resource for writers, readers, and purveyors of Canadian culture.

William Faulkner prioritized writing forms thusly: “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” Do you agree or disagree, and why?

I hate to disagree with Big Bill, but I think elevating one form over another is silly. As someone who has tried, and failed, at all three, I can tell you that there’s nothing intrinsically more demanding about one than the other. You might enjoy working in a particular form, depending on temperament and taste, but each is, in my opinion, equally masochistic.

Give us an example of a perfect short story.

To me, it doesn’t get much better than Neil Smith’s Bang Crunch. The story follows Eepie Carpetrod, an eight year old girl with Fred Hoyle syndrome, as she ages a month daily until she’s so old she can barely walk. From there, the process reverses itself. I think the best stories contain the world in all its befuddling complexity, and Smith manages, in less than 12 pages, to say more about love, laughter, and loss than most novels.