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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Meet the readers: Valerie Compton

For the next two weeks, we'll be 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.

We talk with East Coast author and journalist Valerie Compton on where to be generous in your writing—and where to be miserly.

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Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Halifax, in an old house furnished with many reading chairs and bookshelves. Mostly I write fiction, but I love the essay form and hope to find time for it again as soon as I’ve finished writing Novel Two.
 
What's your day job?

I don’t really have a day job so much as a patchwork of small jobs. Until a few years ago I wrote freelance nonfiction reviews and articles. Recently I’ve spent more time editing and teaching fiction writing, work I love almost as much as writing itself. 


What's your literary street cred?
If I have any street cred, it’s because I owe some literary debts. I’ve been publishing short fiction since 2001, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, many of this country’s unsung literary heroes—talented and devoted literary journal editors like Kim Jernigan at The New Quarterly (who is just now stepping down after years of service). I reviewed for ten years before that and, lucky me, my first editor was witty, independent-minded Lynn Van Luven (then in charge of the books pages at The Edmonton Journal, now Associate Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria). 
 
Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize? 
CBC’s literary prizes have been so important to literary culture in Canada, bringing attention to the craft of writing and encouragement to individual writers for decades now. I was really honoured to be invited to participate in the process. I love doing this kind of reading because it helps me understand the elusive alchemy that makes good narrative work. 
 
What do you like most about nonfiction?
I love the challenge of it. A nonfiction story is difficult to write because you can’t make stuff up in order to amplify its drama. The success of a piece depends entirely on the writing itself. 
 
Where did you read the entries?

I carried bundles of stories around with me for weeks. To the couch, out to coffee shops, to a rocking chair on my deck one unusually warm winter day. I think I dragged some along on a reading tour of Alberta and BC. I read whenever, and wherever, I happened to be.

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?  
The important thing is not to be looking for some quality in particular but rather to be open to surprise. Often the best stories are the ones that seem a little odd at first, because great writing is never familiar—it’s new.
 
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts? 

The stories that made the longlist were a varied lot, but all had one thing in common: they made me sit up in my chair within the first few lines. There is a confidence in good writing that announces itself in rhythm and word choice and colour. “Holy Bald-Headed” declares its certainty in its title and compels until its final devastating line. I love the careful detail and thoughtful narrative progression of this story, and I love its surprising amalgam of tenderness and ferocity. The story addresses a huge but often invisible social issue with profound insight and empathy. “The Man Who Invented Journalism” uses vivid anecdotes to recreate a complex character. Its unsparing gaze exposes the illusions of a painful relationship with admirable clarity and bravery. 

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
The writing. In the end, everything comes down to the writing. If a story is compelling it can seem simple, but that simplicity is the result of the thought and labour necessary to achieve an elegant structure, wisdom and clarity.
 
Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
Read widely and revise endlessly. Consider the cadence of your sentences and the shape of your narrative. Think hard about the heart of your story. Write from a position of emotional generosity, but spend words like a miser. 
 
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I enjoyed a sense of being connected to a large community of passionate writers. So many of these stories were wonderfully empathic and surprising. A story that needs revision may not make it into the YES pile, but may still be very moving and gratifying to read. 


Valerie Compton’s novel Tide Road is nominated for the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Her short fiction has appeared in such journals as The Malahat Review and The New Quarterly and is forthcoming in Riptides: New Island Fiction. Her nonfiction work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Gourmet and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Anna-Lisa Jones



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