Short Story Prize

Meet the reader: Michael V. Smith

As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition about reading 500 short stories in search of the best. Here's Michael V. Smith on looking for a story that makes him forget to breathe.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I've been living in Kelowna, BC, the Okanagan Interior, since summer 2008. My most recent book is a novel, Progress, which concerns itself with how we treat each other, in the disguise of what it means to be a citizen.

What's your day job?
Half the year I'm a writer and DIY filmmaker. The other half, I teach creative writing at UBC in the Okanagan.

What's your literary street cred?
Can I skip this one? I wonder if I have any street cred.

Why did you want to be a reader for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize?

I love a good story. There's no better reason to want to read over 500 of them.

What do you like about short fiction?
There is a wonderful diorama quality to a short story, a whole world packed into a small space. I love the narrative force in good short fiction, the immediacy required in a narrator's voice, a kind of urgency, or, in the quieter stories, a strength of will. In short work, the language becomes more dense, the necessary details carry a heavy load, with a life balanced on the head of that narrative pin. The short story is thrilling because it's merciless.

Where did you read the short story entries?
I mostly read them at home, both in bed and on the couch, forgetting to drink my glass of water for hours at a time.

When you're reading about 500 stories (500 stories!) what are you looking for?
I'm looking to have my heart moved, simply. I want a story that makes me forget to breathe.

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
If a story is well-written, I forget myself while I'm reading it, and then, when it's over, I come back to myself, changed. That can only happen if the writing is clean, I think, meaning the prose needs to have no distractions. No grammatical errors, no confusing syntax, no messy hands of the writer moving this or that about. The words need to make clear pictures in my head that seem to rise out of the depths of myself, rather than being pushed in from a foreign source. In that way the writing is remarkable for being unremarkable. I'm looking for the voice to be easy to follow, like someone speaking to me in the quiet dark, like a new dear friend making my acquaintance, or an old one reminding me where we met.

Having read all these of stories, do you have any tips, dos and don'ts for short story writers?
As the writer, if it doesn't make you cry or laugh or rail against the injustices of the world, if it doesn't make you celebrate the great fortune of being alive, if it doesn't move you somehow deeply, it's not a good story. If it doesn't make you think you might lose your mind or break your heart or split a gut in the discovery of it, if it doesn't somehow vibrate through your body, if you don't inhabit it or if it doesn't inhabit you, you're writing from the wrong place.

And then, edit. Edit as if you might remake your own life in mending the story's details. Edit with the wisdom that every word has been polished by all the people who've ever handled it. We will understand you, and know you, and care for you if the story is deeply yours. Only if the story is deeply yours will it also be deeply ours. We are here to share ourselves. Share deeply, because what's the alternative, really?

What did you enjoy most about the experience of  being a reader for the CBC Short Story Prize?
I most enjoyed the chance to read a whole huge whack of stories to see what people are writing. That is a great way to discover the current stereotypes. There were a number of stories, for example, about very conventional priests, and many others where the narrator thought to announce, "I'm going to tell you the worst thing that happened to me, here it is", or "what happened next was unbelievable", which is unfortunate, because the writer's job is to make it believable, right? So don't tell me otherwise. Seeing so many stories that didn't work because of cliché or a flatness to the world, with two-dimensional characters, is a great litmus test for those that do work. It's exciting to walk into a story that compels us to believe in its myth.



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