After the success of her first two books, The Watermelon Social and Going Fast, Nova Scotia scribe Elaine McClusky is again receiving rave reviews for her latest effort Valery the Great, a supurb selection of 19 short-stories that will hit close to home for Maritime readers. Recently, she spoke with AE about the new work and other things literary.
What inspired this collection?
Eleven of the 19 stories in this collection had appeared in literary journals -- from Vancouver to Fredericton -- but were, until Brian Kaufman of Anvil Press in Vancouver decided to pull them together, living apart. Maurice, the story of a bad-tempered dwarf from Prince Edward Island, appeared in subTerrain and caught the attention of Brian. That started this book. He asked if I had a collection and I answered “yes.” Maurice grew out of a story that my father, who was born in Charlottetown, told me, a story which was, like all of his fantastic tales, part fact and part fiction. I lost my father, Tom, during the editing of the book, but his humour and – some of his stories – can be found on the pages. Doll and Snooks is a nod to his decades in the world of boxing.
Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
The book came together smoothly. I started with 20 stories and Brian ditched one, deciding it was not a good fit. I fully expected to have a story or two cut, but oddly enough, that wasn’t the one. After that, we changed the order of the stories and I worked – with editing notes from Anvil – on better developing the main character in two pieces. I think the characters make more sense now and hopefully readers care more about them.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
All of Anvil’s suggestions made sense. I would have to say that writing the stories was more challenging than producing the book. Two of the stories were contest winners so I had put a great deal of effort into them.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
I was thrilled the day that the book’s cover showed up on my computer. It was like, “Yes!!” I had nothing to do with the cover. Anvil left that to an artist named Carl Wiens and he exceeded my expectations. There was another pleasant surprise when I received the back cover of the book and saw a small drawing of a monkey driving a car. My family owned a monkey when I was a child and this was serendipity.
What did you learn during the process?
Anvil is in Vancouver and I am in Dartmouth, so I learned that a few expressions that I use are East Coast. In two stories, I had people “driving” bicycles, for example, and Anvil said they should be “riding.” Maybe that is not a Maritime thing, but just me. Lol. I also learned that, on occasion, I can sound harsh and that is not my intent. I never want to lose sight of people’s humanity. I was relieved that the humourous parts were still humourous to people out West and that it was not regional.
What is the biggest difference between writing short and long fiction?
Short fiction delivers more of the instant gratification that you receive in journalism (where I worked for many years.) You can deliver a message succinctly. You can describe a character in two or three paragraphs and then use that character to illustrate your point about – for example – jealousy, longing, or misguided ambition. You can wrap it all up in a bow. Writing a novel takes more patience and it can be difficult to keep track of the story line and how everything ties together.
How did you feel when the work was completed?
I felt satisfied. This is me, this is what I have to offer, and I think Anvil has presented it in a charming way.
What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
People have been very positive. They find some stories very funny, some shocking, which is a good thing. Surprise is hard to pull off in writing and I think that I surprised people in places. I am sure that I will offend someone somewhere, but I will have to live with that.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I am back writing a novel and I am 88,000 words in. I thought that it was done and I have just decided that there was something lacking in the main character, so I am placing her in a different location and giving her an altered perspective. Hopefully, that works. I also have three new short stories written.
What made you want to be a writer?
As a child, I loved to draw and read. Once I discovered an author (Louisa May Alcott, Dickens) I would go to the Dartmouth Library and take out everything he/she had written. I always kept a journal. I had no idea how I was going to make a living as a writer, so I studied journalism and worked for many years in that field. That gave me discipline and speed. I also discovered, along the way, that I saw things that some people did not see – details, absurdities -- and I felt things that not everyone felt, which made fiction writing a good fit for me. I am wired a little differently.
What do your family and friends think of your vocation?
My friends and family are wonderfully supportive. My mother made lobster quiche and meatballs for my book launch. My son, Paddy, is an observer like I am, and I have more than once asked him: “What kind of clothes would this person wear?” or “What kind of music would they like?” and he has the answer, the detail. He made my website. My daughter, Hannah, reads all of my writing and is teaching me to Twitter. My husband, Andrew Vaughan, is a news photographer and took the author’s photo for my book. They are amazing.
What makes a good book?
Scenes and stories that are real and have a visceral impact on people. Every writer has individual strengths. My father told me that he liked me best when I was able to find the humour in life’s dark moments. It took away the sting. Many of the stories in this book attempt to do that, to gently mock ourselves and the moments that could otherwise crush us. If anything, that is what I am good at. Other writers are good at other things that I can’t do.
What are your thoughts on Canadian literature today?
I think Canadian literature is, at times, brilliant. There are so many great writers. Many of them are in Atlantic Canada.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid of stories that are too real, too immediate, and too us. Start with a strong feeling and work from there. Don’t be demoralized if you are rejected because everyone is rejected and sometimes for the wrong reasons. Always seek the ring of truth and don’t write what you think people want to hear. Be surprising.