Short Story Prize
Meet the reader: Jen Sookfong Lee
As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read 500 short stories in search of the best. Here's Jen Sookfong Lee on on the stories that made her laugh, think or cry.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Vancouver in a very old, partially renovated house. If you’re driving by a house with scaffolding and 10 guys trooping in and out with plywood, that’s where we live. I write fiction, mostly novels, including my newest one, The Better Mother.
What's your day job?
Mom. Freelance broadcaster. But I consider writing to be my day job.
What's your literary street cred?
I’m not sure if I have any! I was the Westcoast Words columnist for On the Coast at CBC Vancouver for three years, and I currently develop a column for The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers. Does having an English degree count as street cred? I used to write a cooking column for seniors.
Why did you want to be a reader for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize?
I like reading, I like aspiring writers, so it was an ideal match.
What do you like about short fiction?
How important a clear narrative arc is. You can read 80 pages of a novel and never seem to be getting anywhere, but in a short story, if the action doesn’t occur right away, the reader has lost interest. It’s a demanding genre because of its brevity, but it still has enough room for a few decorations here and there.
Where did you read the short story entries?
Everywhere. On the bus, in my bedroom, at the dining room table. I have no work space at the moment, so it was a portable situation.
When you're reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Mostly, I’m looking for stories that are compelling within the first page, have dialogue that both propels the story forward and reveals something about the characters, and a protagonist I want to stay with. The really exceptional ones make me laugh, think or cry super, super hard.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
If I can hear the dialogue or see the landscape or recognize a character, then it’s a yes.
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as stand-outs?
"Look How Pretty" is a rare story. Very few writers have the ability to develop an idiosyncratic first person voice and make it simultaneously accessible, sympathetic and clear. This is the story of an elderly woman with dementia who is slowly losing her ability to process the world around her, and who knows that something is amiss but can’t figure out what. Heart-wrenching, absurd and literary all at once.
"The Certainty of Landing" is about a woman in her 30s whose existence is no longer enjoyable or interesting, and who fixates on a cottonwood tree she can see from her bedroom window. It becomes both a talisman and the only immovable, beautiful thing in her world. Until, one day, someone decides to chop it down. A story of everyday preoccupations that grow bigger than life, "The Certainty of Landing" speaks to the dissatisfaction and unease in all of us.
Having read all these stories, do you have any tips, any dos and don'ts, for short story writers?
Don’t report dialogue second-hand. Do go after the big emotions. Don’t write anything you don’t feel passionate about. Do remember your readers. Don’t stress too much about publishing success. Do make time and do keep trying.