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Short Story Prize

Reader Q&A with Cherie Dimaline

As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize, we're asking the readers for the competition what it's like to read hundreds of short stories in search of the best. Here's Toronto's Cherie Dimaline on how the best short stories are like the most innovative and striking of pieces hanging in a gallery.

Cherie Dimaline credit Robin Sutherland.jpg
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Toronto with my husband, our three kids and a collection of animals the aforementioned children keep bringing in. My main form of writing is short fiction, but I have been known to pump out news articles and longer fiction pieces. I'll try anything, except poetry. Some of my favourite work in the world happens to be poems, but I am destined to never write one. I've tried. Hallmark would hide from these stinkers...

What's your day job?
I literally received Wonka's Golden Ticket in terms of day jobs; I'm the Writer in Residence for First Nations House at the University of Toronto. I get paid to write, talk about writing, encourage writing and teach writing. I win!

What's your literary street cred?
My first book Red Rooms was released in 2007 and picked up Fiction Book of the Year at the Anskohk Literary Festival. Its going into its third printing now. My novel The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy will be released this May 2013 by Theytus Books. I've written pieces for several anthologies including a contribution to a gothic collection published this year in the UK. Last year I had the pleasure of contributing work for two McGraw Hill Ryerson high school texts. In between the first two books, I wrote a children's story for Indigenous kids, which is used in classrooms on reserve. I also get the be the editor for two great Aboriginal magazines, MUSKRAT and FNH magazine.

What are you working on now?
I have just finished a collection of short stories and am about half way through a new novel about a graveyard, a stone baby and a morbidly obese chihuahua. 

What do you like most about the short story as a form?
Short stories are my absolute favourite form to work in. Done right, they're like the most innovative and striking of pieces hanging in a gallery; framed-in so that you can appreciate each one individually and get completely lost in a relatively tiny piece of geography. I love that indulgent shock when you wade in; like being a kid and jumping in a puddle only to find out its super deep and soaks you over your boots. Awesome! 

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
The short answer is: an immediate punch. I know this is one of those things your writing teacher tells you over and over but its true, like "show, don't tell" which, by the way, is another sage piece of wisdom to consider. Seriously think of how many submissions the readers and jury has to go through. If yours doesn't reach out and grab them by the collar, or slap them around a bit, how are they going to take notice? That's not to say it needs to start with scandal or violence but make us pay attention. A good solid start with a strong narrative that zips you through and tosses you out at the end will always stand above. 

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
I have to say that I was a bit concerned for my fellow Canadians reading these submissions; so much death! So much despair! I mean, the fact that people were willing to share and were still around to write it out was encouraging, but it was hard to be happy in light of so much darkness. I am not surprised though; writing is medicine and people seeking to heal are drawn to the art. 

Has being a reader for the Short Story Prize changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
Definitely! If I were to submit to the competition, I would make sure that I had a character-driven story that really spoke from a place of unique perspective and personality. I would make sure that every sentence was beautifully stitched and exacting; after all, it is a short story which means every line needs to be perfect and every mistake will be glaring.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts? 
What really stood out for me with the stories on the longlist were the voices. Each story had a strong, forthcoming voice. Even if I didn't recognize these characters as populating my own every day life, I sure would recognize them now. The images in each one were startling, and like those pieces hanging in the gallery, each one made me stand still and pay attention. And at the end, when they finally let go of my collar, I wondered about them, how they were doing. I wanted them to come back for tea. This is what a good story needs to do; stay with you long after the paper is shuffled and the files shut. 

Cherie Dimaline was a reader for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. Find out more about this year's competition here.

You can follow Cherie on Twitter @writeoncherie or visit her website www.cheriedimaline.com

"And a story will show them the way," by Cherie Dimaline was featured in our 8th Fire series. 

Photo credit: Robin Sutherland, MAAIINGAN Productions

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