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.
We chat with the Banff-based PRISM international prizewinner on the crucial matter of where to begin a story.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I am so fortunate to live in Banff, Canada's first National Park. I write creative nonfiction, and short fiction, and long fiction—my first novel, More In Anger, came out in May.
What's your day job?
Writing, mentoring, editing, mothering my 16-year-old son as much as he'll let me.
What's your literary street cred?
I've been writing and reading literature for a long, long time.
Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize?
It was an excellent opportunity to see many, many examples of the kinds of things that are being written in creative nonfiction across our country.
What do you like most about nonfiction?
I'll narrow the focus a bit to why I like creative nonfiction in particular: I like how the tools of fiction can be successfully applied to the writing of nonfiction, bringing real life experiences out of the realm of the tedious and monotonous reporting of "this happened and then this happened and then this happened," and into vibrant, living story.
Where did you read the entries?
Sitting curled up in my favourite overstuffed chair in the living room, pausing from time to time to reflect and to gaze out my window at Mt. Norquay.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Fine writing that affects me deeply in terms of both heart and head.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
Emily Dickinson said once that if certain writing made her feel as though the top of her head were blown off, that it was poetry. I feel; the same way about prose. If I am stopped, stunned by the prose, the way the subject matter is handled, the surprises in the language and/or content contains, the way the piece develops—then it is put in the YES pile.
Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts for story writers?
Two things: Make sure the beginning is actually the beginning. Often the actual beginning is a paragraph or two farther on. Also, try to break away from chronological order—sometimes the order in which things happened is not the most effective way to structure the piece. Locate the heart of the story you want to tell, and try working from there.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
I felt honoured to be allowed into the worlds people created, and privileged to read the intimacies they shared; I was truly astonished by the wide, wide array of stories people felt compelled to write, and by the deep desire that drove writers to get the narratives down. That desire, that urge was almost palpable more times than not. So many experiences people wrote about—experiences that illustrated both the bigness of the world and the smallness.
J. Jill Robinson is the author of
four collections of short stories and one novel, More In Anger. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The Antigonish Review, The
Fiddlehead, Event, Prairie Fire and The Windsor Review. Robinson has won two Western Magazine Awards, two Saskatchewan Book Awards, two prizes for creative nonfiction from Event magazine,
the PRISM international Fiction Contest and the Howard O'Hagan award for short fiction.
Photo credit: Laura Vanags