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Short Story Prize

Meet the reader: Rosemary Nixon

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. Rosemary Nixon wants stories that leave her open-mouthed and blown away.

Tell us about yourself.
I’m a writer living in Calgary, Alberta, where I have lived for years between stints living in Belgium, France, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Spain, and Salmon Arm, B.C.

I am a novelist and short story writer. I have published two short story collections, Mostly Country, and The Cock’s Egg. This past spring my novel Kalila was released. I am three-quarters of the way through another interconnected short story collection.

What is your day job?
I work in the schools teaching teachers how to teach writing creatively, then work with them in their classrooms. I edit people’s novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. I teach creative writing classes. I judge competitions.

What is your literary street cred?
Years of teaching creative writing and freelance editing. Studying under wonderful writers:  Robert Kroetsch, Lisa Moore, Zsuzsi Gartner, Karen Solie, Aritha van Herk, Paulette Jiles. Winning Howard O’Hagan Book of the Year. Passionately reading for years, and doing a mental stylistic analysis on every book I read because I am incapable of not.

Why did you want to be a reader for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize?
We in the community of writers, have a responsibility to each other. I have judged different competitions:  the Grant MacEwan Author’s Award, the Brenda Strathern Late Bloomers Award, the Alberta Book of the Year Literary Awards to name a few, as well as literary competitions for other provinces. I understand the importance of recognition, and that this recognition wouldn’t occur without volunteers, paid or not, who give their time. Winning the Grain Post Card Story Competition and the Howard O’Hagan Short Fiction Book of the Year Award, made me aware that people out there had given their time to carefully read my work. I like to give back to the community.

What do you like about short fiction?
I have written two short fiction collections and am presently finishing up my third. I love the unruly perfection of good short fiction. The pleasurable recognition that every line is there for a reason, even as these lines rear their surprising resonating heads. I’m not interested in satisfactory short fiction, but in short fiction that leaves the reader open-mouthed, breathless, blown away by the inevitability of its ability to startle, to take the reader to unexpected heights.   

Where did you read the short story entries?
I read most of them curled up on the wing-backed chair in my study, looking out on tiny fat birds bobbing about on my evergreen tree. I read some in Vancouver on Granville Island, some at the University of Windsor in Ontario, and some at the University of Michigan as I travelled to festivals to read from my new novel. 

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for? 
I look for fiction that reveals its risk. For the opposite of predictable. Even satisfactory but predictable doesn’t cut it. For a story that hooks me in unusual ways. The ability to surprise, unnerve. I look for uniqueness of voice. For that risk in idea and in language, in the greater structure, and the sentence structure within that.  I look for the right form emulating the story’s content. For startling combinations within the language that makes it resonate. Word play. Syntactical rhythms. Humour. Paradoxes. Surprising dialogue. Attention to defamiliarized detail. I look for a story I can live in, one that makes me forget that someone wrote it. 

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
All of the above. As well: a story I plunge into and experience, forgetting it is a story someone has written.  A story that makes me look at the world differently after experiencing it. And an ending that feels recognized, rather than constructed. An ending that leaves you breathless with its rightness, yet one you, the reader, had not expected. 

Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts?
“Rowing To Cuba” impressed me in so many ways. The snappy sentence fragments that underlie the irritable voice of the narrator. The author does a great job of maintaining voice.  I liked the juxtapositioning of the harsh tone with a poetic rhythm to the sentences.

“Ten Beautiful Moments Before Giving Up.” The structure intrigued me. Ten numbered headings. How the story progresses precisely through so much dialogue, and how much is accomplished in a line of dialogue in this story. The unique descriptions:  “Crisply starched doilies of snow trembled…”  Or “Her eyes fell on the bright torch of a dandelion.” 

“And Yet.” The interesting beginning, and periodic repeated structure of  dialogue devoid of any tags, no indication who is speaking except for the content. The voice directed to the second person, You, the very use of which indicates how emotionally connected to the “you” in a one-way sense the narrator is - all without saying.  

Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Make sure it’s good enough before you send it in. Ask yourself what makes it unique. What makes it different from any story you’ve ever read. What makes its telling essential. Look at the ways you’ve risked, broken rules, or rather, need to risk and break rules, in order to create the greatest emotional power/effect. If there is nothing unique, even if it’s satisfactory, do a major major rewrite, or better yet, start over with a story that is shrieking to be told. Look at all the comments responding to the above questions, and strive always for that uniqueness, resonance, voice. Also, I put so many promising stories on the no pile because the ending just didn’t carry the weight of the story. 

What did you enjoy most about the experience?
The joy and excitement of coming across a story that, while not perfect, leaped out in its unique telling, in a voice that caught me, in language play that delighted, in a surprising structure that so fit the tale. I was flooded with delight when this happened. 



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