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Short Story Prize

Reader Q&A with Suzette Mayr

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. 
Novelist Suzette Mayr talks about being surprised by how many stories ended in death and the importance of understanding your medium. 

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Calgary, and I am primarily a novelist.

What's your day job?
I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary in the Department of English.

What's your literary street cred?
I once did a reading on an outdoor stage during a blizzard. I wish I'd had my mittens.

What are you working on now?
I can't say. As in, I literally can't say because I don't know. I need help.

What do you like most about the short story as a form?
Unlike a novel, a short story has to be condensed and sharp. It's more of distillation, more like a jewel. There's room in novels to be a little flabby if you don't watch out.

When you're reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
The ones that show an understanding of language as a medium—just like clay or paint or metalcontaining possibility and newness. A lot of prose writing just slops the writing around, using clichés and dead metaphors, for example; there's no freshness with regard to what language can do. And boring language is directly connected to boring character and plot.

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
Hmm. A lot of stories ending in death and people named Michael.

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?
Like I said, I can't believe how many stories ended in a death! Of course death happens in real life, but that shouldn't be all that carries a story, and if there is death then it has to be handled in a way that makes it unique and important. I'll probably have to reconsider my endings from now on. That said, one story that made my short list did end in death but the death was surprisingly handled and I couldn't have predicted it.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
I just have to say that I spent a long time vacillating to figure out my short list, and leaving some of the stories behind really broke my heart. But stories such as "The List," "The Challenger" and "The Story of a Man and Hat that Wasn't His" (among others) don't follow predictable patterns and plots, and they are self-aware in terms of language and characterization. They stuck out because of their originality and complexity on every level. I felt challenged as a reader.

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

Visit Suzette Mayr's website: http://suzettemayr.com/.

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