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Short Story Prize

Reader Q&A with Tom Abray

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 Tom Abray on how there really is no margin for error when submitting to a literary competition.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I'm originally from rural Ontario, but I moved to Montreal in the late '80s and have been here ever since. I write mainly fiction, but also poetry and a few short screenplays.

What's your day job?
I teach English and I'm a freelance videographer. And once and a while I get paid to write something for somebody.

What's your literary street cred?
I've published a few stories and poems. Some of my stories are collected in a book called Pollen, which in 2012 was long-listed for the Relit Award and nominated for the QWF's Concordia First Book Prize and the QWF's Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. I don't know if any of this should give me street cred or not, but for better or worse I have immersed (sometimes drowned) myself in literature since I was six years old.

What are you working on now?
Long short stories, and poems.

What do you like most about the short story as a form?
A short story can contain the essentials. I find they're well suited to expressing and contemplating my own experience of existence. You could argue that they fit between lyrical poetry and the novel, at times exhibiting the best of both forms.

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
A story that throws a few balls up in the air, juggles them deftly and then catches them all in the last couple of sentences. If there are signs of insight, wisdom, or honesty as well, I get a particularly strong urge to share the story, which in this case meant that I put it on my short list.

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
Cancer, aging loved ones, the meaninglessness of life, and failed romance. Mortality, despair and sex—classic themes.

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 became acutely aware of how there is no margin for error. With one false step (or note), the illusion is broken. When you're writing, you wish this weren't true, but when you're reading a lot of stories, looking for the best, you see that it is. If I were to submit, I would try (TRY) not to settle for a sentence or an emotion that wasn't as close to perfect as I could get. That's what it takes to win, I think.

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
"Keeping in Touch" is very smart and original in how it deals with what you might call a post-apocalyptic setting. It's subtle, wise and mysterious, a very convincing portrayal of what still matters after "the grid" stops working. You could almost read it as a response to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. "You Can't Win If You Don't Bet" dramatizes the tensions that occur during an afternoon date, then pulls back to show where its essentially one scene fits into the lives of the two main characters. By the end, I share the narrator's wistful curiosity about the girl he once took to the races. "The Three Times Rules" moves from panties and porn magazines to butterflies and tears. It's another one-scene story that manages to bring a character to life, give her depth and evoke empathy. I'm also impressed by how the author used the character's internal reflections to move the story toward a moment of insight.

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

You can follow Tom on Twitter @tabray or visit his website www.swink.ca.

Photo credit: Ivan Abray, 2012

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
set count up final date: 11/01/2014
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