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Short Story Prize

Reader Q&A with Tess Fragoulis

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 Montreal's Tess Fragoulis on how a good short story is like a punch to the head.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
Though I was born in Greece, most of my life has unfurled in Montreal, a city that suits my temperament. I've spent the last decade and a half writing fiction, two novels, and two collections of stories—the second still in progress. There have been a few non-fiction pieces for magazines and newspapers as well, but they are more of a sideline.

What's your day job?
Like a lot of writers, I teachmostly creative writing at Concordia University, but also literature on occasion. I try my best to keep this a part-time compromise. I also edit for arts organizations, which I find inspiring.

What's your literary street cred?
My first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp,1997) was nominated for the Quebec Writer’s Federation Best First Book Award.  My novel, Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown 2001) was nominated for the 2003 IMPAC International Dublin Literary Prize, and received an honourable mention for the Books in Canada/Amazon First Novel Award. I edited Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature (Véhicule, 2004). And my latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, was published in Canada by Cormorant Books in Spring 2012, and in Greece by Psichogios Publications in Fall 2012.  That's it so far...

What are you working on now?
My last project was very long, both in time and in page count, so right now I am just incubating a couple of ideas—one fiction, the other non-fiction, but related to fiction. Sorry to be vague, but I don't like to talk about new ideas for fear of draining them of nascent energy. I've also got a short story collection that may be near completion (I haven't decided yet), called "In Love with the Dead," which is sort of fairy-tale-like or Fellini-esque. Flights of wistful fancy for adults.  

What do you like most about the short story as a form?
The precision, the intensity, the length. The frame it puts on the most important moment in a character's life. The freedom from filler and time logistics that need to be considered and carefully balanced in a novel. The punch it can pack. I always say a short story is like a punch to the head. I naturally think more in short story form than in novels, though I do appreciate the space and pace of the latter. Stories are like fantastically wrapped packages that can contain just about anything.

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
A great beginning, an even better last line, and a storyline that shows me something I've never had access to before, or gives me new insight on something I have. I want it to sweep me away from the first line, to intrigue me throughout, to make me feel something. I also require exact, interesting, beautiful language. Going through the stories for Canada Writes, I was inspired to write a blog post about exactly what I was looking for and not looking for.

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
There were a lot of stories set in hospitals, and a lot about aging family members. That stuck out to me the most. The usual bad relationship stories, a few murders, justified and unjustified, and a lot of coming to Canada stories. There was also a small dose of genre fiction, not overwhelmingly so, but recurrent.

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 would follow my own rules. I try to anyway.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
The stories that ended up on my list of contenders had all the qualities I stated a above, but also surprised me in that they drew me into characters and situations I might normally not be drawn into. "Big Bear Lake" told me a story I really didn't expectit subverted all my expectations by being about something other than what the characters, plot, and ending initially pointed to. And it sort of broke my heart. "Sweet Dynamite's" jazzy,powerful, yet controlled language carried me through from first line to last. I knew almost immediately when I first read these stories that they would be on my list.

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

You can follow Tess on Twitter @fellinigirl or visit her website www.queendomofodd.com.

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