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Short Story Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Karen Hofmann

There are ten names on the shortlist for this year’s CBC Short Story Prize. But before we announce the winner, we want to let you know a little about the writers whose stories rose to the top. 

Karen Hofmann grew up and lives in the Southern Interior of B.C. Her story, "The Burgess Shale”, is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Short Story Prize. 

1. Tell us about yourself 
I teach in the department of English and Modern Languages, at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia.  I also chair the department.  I have three children, all at home.

2. What do you usually write?  
I write poetry and short fiction.  I’ve mostly published poetry.  I’ve written a novel that I’m hoping to have published.

3. Have you submitted to the competition before?  
No; this is the first time.  

4. What is your story about?  
A woman who is just on the edge of elderly retires from her job and drives alone from Montreal to B.C.  She has some adventures.  Her views of things change a bit.  

5. What was the inspiration for your story?  
A few things—it was a bit of story that didn’t fit in my novel, a bit of poem that I could never finish, and a book I read (A Round-Heeled Woman, by Jane Juska).  I am interested in the parts of women’s lives before adolescence and after menopause, the parts popular culture doesn’t pay attention to, and in how people change.  

And I’ve always been fascinated by the fossils of the Burgess Shale: all these life forms that existed for so long, that seem to have no connection to what’s around now.  The diversity.  And the difficulty for palaeontologists to figure out what some of them looked like, because their basic structures are so unfamiliar to us.  They aren’t sure how the pieces fit.

6. How long did you work on the story?  How many drafts did you write?  
Several drafts.  The first draft, years ago.  I accidentally lost both the first and second drafts of the story, so I had to start again, twice, from memory.  That doesn’t usually happen to me—I keep drafts carefully.  I think having to rewrite this way made me work differently than usual—I couldn’t get stuck in a bit of prose I was too fond of.  It was really hard to keep the story short enough—I like to have about 5,000 words to work with—and I had to rewrite and rewrite to get the story down to its essentials.  

7. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?  
I’ve been making poems and stories since before I could write—my mom used to write them down for me when I was three or four.  I haven’t always had the discipline or focus to ask:  Now, how is this working and not working, and what do I need to do to it?  Which is what it takes to get things published, usually.  That and many drafts.

8. Who's your favourite Canadian writer and why?  
Right now I’m in love with the novels of Nino Ricci.  I’m learning from him about paying attention to things, and about how sentences can do subtle things with voice and tone, and about taking characters to emotionally risky places.  When I got to the end of The Origin of Species, I started reading it again right away.  I realized that I had been through an intensely interesting experience, in the novel, and I wanted to get back there and to work out how he did that.

9. What's your favourite short story ever written and why?  
That’s a hard one.  One story I carry around in my mind, like a polished stone, is Caroline Adderson’s “The Chmarnyk”, from her 1993 collection Bad Imaginings.  It’s a perfect short story—it’s economical, and packed with resonant concrete detail, and ordinary and mysterious at the same time.   Very sensory and grounded, but also containing a bit of magic, a bit of ambiguity.  

Karen Hofmann completed a B.A. and M.A. in English at the University of Victoria, and teaches English and creative writing at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.  In 2007 and 2012 she won the Okanagan Short Fiction Contest.  Her first collection of poems, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in April 2008.

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