St. John’s scribe Russell Wangersky is never short on words. Along with his day job as editor at Newfoundland-Labrador’s flagship newspaper The Telegram, the prolific penman has been busy plying his trade as the award-winning author of The Hour of Bad Decisions and Burning Down the House. Recently he spoke with AE about his latest effort, an eclectic anthology of short-stories called Whirl Away.
What inspired you to put this collection together?
I've had a number of short stories simmering away for a while – some ideas just work so much better in short story form that I do them up that way. Or else I start, thinking they're going to be longer then they actually turn out being. I like reading short story collections, because I think the people working in the form in Canada – and some abroad as well – are some of the most disciplined, in-control writers we have.
What dictated which stories would appear?
I wanted a central theme that was available in all the stories, but that was discrete as well. The idea was that the stories could be in different geographic locations, have male or female protagonists, but share the central concept that something the characters hold as a skill could actually be a big part of their downfall.
Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
I don't know if any book is quick – it never feels quick. My problem is that I had another five or six stories that also would fit – but that if I had included them, would have made for a whale of a book, as well as being slightly derivative to the central theme. In this book, the time was in the stories themselves, and I've been working on some of them for years.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
The most challenging part, strangely, was trying to push a book of short stories forward at a time when they whole book industry is in flux, and everyone from publishers on down is scratching their heads and trying to figure out what the right and wrong steps might be. There's a great paralysis in Canadian publishing right now – no one seems to know what's right, and everyone's terrified of being wrong.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
For me, the most rewarding part is a strange one – it's looking at cover choices. I like that best of all – all the hard slogging is done, you're looking at the best possible representations for the book, and there's none of the fear of what reviews will be like or whether there will even be reviews. You're at a point where you don't have to worry yet about whether a publisher will take your next book, and everything's shiny and bright and new and full of possibilities.
What did you learn during the process?
Maybe more, what did I re-learn – nothing ever goes as fast as you want it to, and there are always little hiccups that you forget about. The business of writing a book involves a ton of things that have to be done, remembered, ordered, launched. It makes the writing part seem very far away.
How does it differ from writing a full-length novel?
One big difference is that you can hold a whole story in your head while you're working on it – you don't have to move back and forth through the text trying to sort out where and when things happened in the text. Holding it all fixed in your head makes the narrative much easier to control, and the voice of the main character clearer. It lets you feel much more like a stage manager behind the scenes, and much less like you're on a forced march.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
Echo. I like that monstrous little boy, as hard-edged as he is.
What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
The repose has been good – sometimes, very good. It's had a couple of strong reviews, and for me, the interesting experience of someone asking, on the basis of "Family Law" where I'd done my legal training. Made me think I got the character right.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I'm finishing the first draft of a novel, all in the first person, narrated by a more-than-a-little dishonest man. Will it actually get published? I don't know. It is quite a strange piece of work.
What made you want to be a writer?
I have wanted to be a writer on and off since I was a fifteen-year-old growing up in Halifax. What made it possible for me is working in newspapers – tight deadlines, the need to hold full concentration in often-noisy surroundings, the regular calisthenics of working with hundreds of thousands of words a year. I don't have to search for words, or wait for concentration, and I think newspaper writing brought me both of those, along with a love of a good story.
What makes a good book?
The ability to completely subsume wherever you are – a good book is one that draws up its own surroundings in your head, and lets you walk around in there. And books like that come from everywhere – the American short story writer Dan Chaon's Stay Awake, for example, or Ferdinand von Schirach's Guilt. ZsuZsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. You walk right in and wear them like your own (sometimes scary) skin.
Why do you think that Newfoundlanders enjoy such a strong storytelling culture?
This place is all stories – from the weather to the neighbour's dog to the price of lettuce. Everyone has a story, and plenty of them seem to love telling them, too.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
It's sort of a variation of "write what you know," and that's "write what you're meant to write." People like to tell you that you should write like this writer or that one, but you're really restricted by the way you see the world and the things that are important to you in it – write like yourself, as if your main job was explaining clearly what you see and feel. You can steal scraps of lives, but you can't borrow someone else's eyes, thoughts and upbringing. Write the world you know best, and write often.