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Short Story Prize

Reader Q&A with Michael Murphy

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 Halifax's Michael Murphy on looking for an original voice, his bout of fisticuffs with Alistair MacLeod, and why the best stories aren't about issues or themes. 

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Halifax, NS, and I write fiction. 

What's your day job?
I just finished law school, and I'm now articling at a firm in Halifax.

What's your literary street cred?
I once got into a bout of fisticuffs with Alistair MacLeod. He won, of course.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a scattering of things. Mostly, I've been working on short stories, though with the intention of pulling the disparate pieces together. Eventually. Somehow.

What do you like most about the short story as a form?
The length.

When you're reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Mainly, I look for an original voice. Especially with stories as short as the ones that were submitted. The stories that stood out were the ones that, in just three or four pages, gave the reader a snapshot of a world, a scene, a moment. Creating a voice for a story has everything to do with writing quality, and almost nothing to do with plot, or what you might say the story is about (though of course all those elements are inter-related in some form or another).

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
It seems like a lot of the stories were about death, mental illness, drug addiction, and abuse. Very heavy themes; I blame our long winters. The best stories, though, weren't about issues or themes; when you read them, you thought only of the characters in their time and place.

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?
I don't know if it's changed my approach to writing, but it has definitely given me some perspective. If I were to submit anything to the competition, I would focus on ensuring that the story  was conservative in its goals. You've got three to four pages to make an impression; keep it tight, keep it simple.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
My favourite three stories all impressed me for very different reasons. "Viaduct" blew me away with its prose style, and the beautiful, careful portrayal of a singe moment in time; "Assembling"  had perfect pacing, and ended with a heartbreaking hopefulness that I didn't see coming; "Make the Soup" was just flat-out awesome—a perfect blend of form and content. All three stories did wonderful things, and did them really well without getting lost in  the weeds. 

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

Follow Michael Murphy on Twitter: @theblazingworld

Photo credit: Joanna Thurlow

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