Short Story Prize
Meet the reader: Steven Mayoff
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 Steven Mayoff on finding the stories that invoke a sense of wonder.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I was born and raised in Montreal. Later on I lived in Toronto for 17 years, where I met my future wife. In 2001 we moved to Prince Edward Island (she is from here). We live on the western part of the Island in a small rural community called Foxley River. We are on twenty-two acres of wooded land and our house is right by the river. We are relatively secluded and it is very quiet, very conducive to the writing life, or as I perceive it at any rate. I do all my writing in a small office in the upper floor of our house. My window looks out at trees and the river. Although I spent most of my life in cities, I can't imagine writing anywhere else. I write primarily fiction, but I have also occasionally produced some poetry and song lyrics and collaborated on scripts for the stage and radio.
What's your day job?
I'm at a very fortunate time and position in my life where I am able to write full time. For many years I worked at various jobs - messenger boy, factory worker, animal caretaker, booker in a modelling agency, answering service operator, etc. — while also trying to hone my craft. But when I hit my mid-forties it was as if life said to me: "Time to put up or shut up" and so that is what I'm trying to do. I've been doing it for ten years now and in many ways it feels like I'm only beginning.
What's your literary street cred?
I don't even know how to begin to answer that. I can't imagine anyone less "street" than me. Living in the country, I'd say I have "road cred" or at the very least, "lane cred." But in the time I've lived in PEI I have published fiction and poetry in magazines (print and on line) across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. I have one fiction collection, Fatted Calf Blues, which won a 2010 PEI Book Award, was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit Award and was a Top 5 Finalist in the 2011 CBC Cross-Country Bookshelf for the Maritimes. I've been trying to adapt the title story into a film script and a one-page original screenplay, The Dim Sum of its Parts, that was filmed can be seen on Youtube (it's had over 400,000 viewings). I have a novel manuscript which is still looking for a home and I'm currently revising a stage play (the first I've written on my own) that will be produced by the Cape Breton Stage Company in June.
Why did you want to be a reader for the 2011 CBC Short Story Prize?
To be brutally honest, I needed the money. But in the past I have judged a couple of short story competitions in the Maritimes, so I was also curious to witness and be part of the complex process of a national competition, especially one with such a rich history. Who knows, I may have read something by the next Alice Munro!
What do you like about short fiction?
I like the economy of language, but also the sense of something larger going on before the beginning and after the story has ended.
Where did you read the short story entries?
I read all of them in my office. I couldn't imagine taking them outside or even into any other part of the house. I wanted a level playing field for them.
When you're reading 500 stories (500 stories!) and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
In a way it's about what I'm not looking for. Because I'm dealing with the stories in quantity I try to leave myself open to something unexpected. Within the first paragraph I can say to myself: "Okay, this person can write" but then I need to be shown something, rather than just have a story told to me. Very often it could be a little thing, maybe an image that somehow lifts the story off the page. I need to see what is driving the author to write the story in the first place.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
Again, because there are so many stories to get through, there is no time to ruminate. So I rely on a gut feeling, something that says to me there is more here than meets the eye. A sense of wonder that I can't put a name to at that moment.
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as stand-outs?
"Mother's Day" was one that stood out most for me. First of all, I like the set-up: in Cuba the prisoners are allowed out of prison on Mother's Day to see their mothers. I have no idea if that's true, but it doesn't matter. Because the narrator has no mother we are privy to his wandering around the city all day, just experiencing the simple freedom we all take for granted. I found the writing had a natural flow. At the end of the day he has to return to prison and the narrator reveals he could not visit his mother because he is serving a life sentence for her murder. A twist ending for sure, but one that had, for me anyway, a great existential resonance. Even though I had to push on and continue reading the other stories, that one stayed with me. I also liked "Photograph From Amsterdam." It had a rich mysterious atmosphere. My gut definitely told me that it had something that was worth passing on to the next round of judging.
Having read all these stories, do you have any tips, any dos and don'ts, for short story writers?
If you are submitting a story to any competition or to a magazine, please watch your formatting. 12 point font in Arial or Times New Roman, double spaced with indented paragraphs is the norm (unless the submission guide says differently). Unfortunately, I got some stories that were in a 16 or 18 point font with some strange bold-face script and huge spaces between paragraphs. It was a strike against the story even before I started reading it. Also, some of the stories read more like essays. I wondered why they were submitted to a fiction competition when it seemed they might have a better chance in a non-fiction one.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I enjoyed coming across those stories that really spoke to me, the ones that stood out from the crowd. I have to admit that there were times I felt like I was caught on this reading treadmill, so when I discovered a story that really stood out it put everything in perspective and made me remember the purpose of the job.