Creative Nonfiction Prize
Meet the readers: Kaitlin Fontana
We're introducing you to the 10 talented Canadian writers who helped narrow down the 2,300+ entries for the 2011-2012 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize into the longlist.
The National Magazine Award-winning writer gives us her do's and don'ts master list for creative nonfiction.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I very recently relocated to Brooklyn, NY to write and work. It was time to make a change, and I find that living in different places has a healthy and profound effect on my writing—which is, for the most part, essays, music journalism, and literary nonfiction.
What's your day job?
Another facet of the move: I am an Editorial Assistant at Continuum/Bloomsbury publishers here in New York. They publish academic works, and a series of awesome music books called 33 1/3. I recommend them (and I am biased, but nonethless).
What's your literary street cred?
I'm not sure I know what this means, but I suppose my answer would be my book, Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records, which took two years to write and entailed interviewing over 90 people involved in the life of Vancouver indie record label Mint Records. I stared down hundreds of hours of transcription and won. Is that street cred? Can writers have street cred?
Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize?
On one level, pure curiosity. I wanted to see what kind of nonfiction writing was happening out there, and compare it to my own and that which I've read in magazines and books. Canada has some amazing talent, not surprisingly. On another level, it was an honour to be asked to be part of such a storied competition for the Mothership!
What do you like most about nonfiction?
Its sheer power. Its beauty. The idea that the truth is stranger, and all of that. The tricks that memory plays, and the ways in which we all see the same things differently. Nonfiction captures the greatness and terribleness of humanity in a way that other genres can only do metaphorically.
Where did you read the entries?
All over—on the bus, at my desk, in cafés. Wherever and whenever.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Not to be overdramatic, but with that volume of work you're really looking to be slapped in the face by something. It doesn't have to be a shocking story, by any means, but that sweet spot between an incredible story and the uniquely perfect manner in which is told is electrifying. And more often than not, you feel it in the first few paragraphs, or you never feel it.
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts?
"Floored" stands out above all because it takes this terrible event—an elderly parent falling and being trapped on the ground for a long period of time—and weaves an entire narrative around it that is fantastic (in both senses of that word) and terrifying. "Long Distance" did something similar with the death of a child. And "Mike" took the story of a best friend gone bad and carved it to its minimalist best—by showing us mere snippets we were left to see how Mike became Mike without being told directly. Like a good piece of silent cinema.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
What I liked about each "yes" was the beautiful and unique voices that came through, as well as the literary manner in which they were treated. Nonfiction is most certainly about telling the truth, but it's also about doing it well. It's not enough to have a "crazy" story—in fact, some of the best nonfiction is about the smallest moments—it's also about how you tell it. The details, the scene, the voice. When those things met in a way that made me sit up straight, I put it in the yes pile.
Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
Proofread, people. Spell check. (But you know that already, right?) I always tell nonfiction writers to read their pieces out loud before submitting them. You hear what works and what doesn't, and where you've repeated or left something out. Other tips:
- DO tell us your amazing/crazy/incredible story.
- DON'T assume the story is enough—tell it well (that "well" will be different depending on you, the story, and that magical something that makes all of it hang together).
- DO write about your life, no matter what it is.
- DON'T assume that the "creative" in "creative nonfiction" means you can make anything up—you can't, and if you do you're writing fiction. Period.
- DO read, read, read—as much as you can, even stuff you hate.
- DON'T leave your writing in a drawer. Share it, or else it's not real.
- DO submit your work far and wide.
- DON'T do so without researching where it's going to make sure it's the right fit.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Feeling all of these amazing, terrible, messy, frustrating and harrowing feelings while reading the stories of Canadians from across the country, different ages and backgrounds. The stories we have to tell as a country are incredible.
Kaitlin Fontana is a National Magazine Award-winning writer. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Event, Room, SPIN, RollingStone.com, Sound, and Exclaim!. In 2010, Kaitlin was awarded the Emerging Artist prize in the category of Literary Arts at the Mayor’s Arts Awards. She was chosen by nominee Evelyn Lau. In 2011, she published her first book, Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records.