One of Atlantic Canada’s finest scribes, Elaine McCluskey, launches her latest collection of short-stories tonight. Recently we spoke with her about the challenges and rewards of piecing together Hello Sweetheart.
How did this collection come about?
Many of these stories had already appeared in literary journals. The opening story placed second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Contest in Ireland, winning me a week at a writer and artists’ retreat in West Cork. Other stories appeared in journals such as The Dalhousie Review and Riddle Fence. My job - with my publisher, Enfield & Wizenty - was to pull them all together.
What was the most challenging aspect of piecing it together?
Balancing the dark and the light. Some of the stories deal with grave issues -- death and betrayal -- while others are simply absurd. One story consists only of Rate My Doctor comments for a pot-smoking physician named Dr. Chestnut, who moved to Nova Scotia after losing his license in New Brunswick. I like the balance of dark and light: in a book, and within a story.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
Seeing the cover, with Hello, Sweetheart lit up like a purple/pink neon sign.
What did you learn during the process?
Life -- I have come to believe -- is nothing if not random. Most of the horrible things that happen to people are not their fault. My opening story contains this sentence: “I nod, knowing we all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chest.” So.....shag it.
How did you feel when the book was completed?
Happy. I wanted some of the stories in this collection to interlock, with shared characters and settings. When I saw the completed book, I felt that it had worked.
What has the response been like so far from those who have read it?
So far - so good. This book is riskier than my last collection (the opening story is set in a porn store.) I may lose my senior readers.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
There is a story entitled Pollock Press Wants Your Stories. It consists of pitch letters written by hopeless writers to a publisher seeking submissions. I enjoy absurdity, and this story if full of it. I am also very fond of the opening story, Something Pretty, Something Nice, which connects with other stories.
How have you grown as a writer since Valery?
I was never a self-conscious writer, but I think I take even more chances now. Many of my stories are satirical, and most readers get that. Valery contained a story about a search-and-rescue official who planted drunk or elderly people in the woods so that he could meet his search quota. That set the bar, I guess, for this book.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I am working on a novel. It is set in the fictitious town of Myrtle, N.S. It looks at media agendas and the divide between rural and urban Canada. It looks at the dynamics of family. It deals with schadenfreude, and it studies grief. It is also funny. One of my favourite characters is a secondary one: Al, a small-time drug dealer who watches The History Channel on TV, learning about major events such as Jonestown or the Titanic for the first time. He then feels compelled to explain these events to strangers.