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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Meet the readers: Mary Soderstrom

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.

Below, the prolific Montreal author reveals the bane of a creative nonfiction writer's existence: "I" trouble.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Montreal and I write both fiction and nonfiction that frequently are hybrids of the two genres. Example: my novel The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1838 has 198 footnotes, while all my four nonfiction books use a lot of fictional narrative techniques.

What's your day job?
Writer. That's what I say to myself, anyway. Over the years I've done a wide variety of journalism, mostly freelance. I also do book groups in libraries. But, as I tell young writers who ask for advice, it really helps a lot to have a partner with a good day job if a writer 
want to eat regularly.

What's your literary street cred?
Whatever I've got is due to the fact that I've been around quite awhile: 12 published books (four novels, three short story collections, four nonfiction books and a children's story), a few prize nominations, and lots of work in writers' organizations like The Writers' Union of Canada, the Quebec Writers' Federation and the Electronic Rights Defence Committee (a class action against The Montreal Gazette that's been going on for 15 years.) For the last several years, I've been blogging too: Recreating Eden has been going for five years now, and I've got a couple of other blogs on political topics.

Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize?
After a hiatus of a couple of years, I'm about to embark on a new nonfiction project, and I was curious to see what and how people are writing nonfiction these days.

What do you like most about nonfiction?
The audacity of the idea that a writer can tell the truth.

Where did you read the entries?
In my bedroom: reading the entries was a kind of reward I gave myself at the end of the work day.

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
I began by looking for what should not be there: sloppy writing. For example, improper use of the subjective case after a preposition (as in "Fred gave it to Alice and I") or Spell Check mistakes ("We went to the bitch") sent a story straight to the "no" pile. Then I made "maybe" and "yes" stacks, based on my visceral reaction to the facts of the story and the language used to tell it.

Can you describe any stories that struck you as standouts? 
"My Friend Super J." The story could have been a sentimental  melodrama but the writer captured the energy of an autistic man and his minder with enormous verve.

What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
Vigorous language that tells me something new or that tells me something old in a new way.

Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don’ts 
for story writers?
Don't rely on Spell Check, because a word may be spelled right, but it still isn't necessarily the right word. Try some other voice than the first person singular: after a while I began to have "I" trouble from all the interior monologues and self-centeredness. Put what you've written aside for a week or more, and then return to ask yourself: if I didn't know anything about this, would the opening paragraph suck me in?

What did you enjoy most about the experience?
Seeing glimpses of other people's worlds.

Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent novel is The Violets of Usambara, while her most recent nonfiction is Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure. Currently she's working on another novel called River Music, a short story collection called Desire Lines: A Geography of Love and is in the planning stages for a nonfiction book entitled Road Through Time.

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