CBC Short Story Prize
"Surprise your readers with your punches"
Kelowna, B.C.'s Alix Hawley has officially become a Canada Writes triple threat. She's shortlisted for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize for her story "Jumbo," about a zoo elephant in Victorian-era London. She was also shortlisted for the prize in 2013, and won our BloodLines writing competition, inspired by the Massey Lectures. We caught up with Alix about finding time to write between a full-time job and raising young children, her upcoming novel and the best writing advice she's ever received.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Kelowna, B.C., where I teach English Literature and Creative Writing at Okanagan College. I have two sisters and a brother, a husband, and two young children. No pets, though I find animals interesting in theory.
What do you usually write?
Fiction: short stories and novels.
What is your story about?
Love, death, elephants. Big things. The story is part of a novel I started researching when I lived in England. I’ve been slouching towards finishing it for ages. Now I want to get back to it!
What was the inspiration for your story?
A photograph of Obaysch, hippopotamus of the London Zoo in the Victorian era. I was drawn by the expressions on the spectators’ faces, particularly the young girl near the right, who is looking straight at the camera. Obaysch morphed into an elephant for my story, and I kept the girl.
What is your connection to the elephant? What was it about this animal that lent itself so well to the telling of this story?
It’s a branch of my general nerdiness. I wrote my D.Phil. thesis on Victorian children’s literature, which led to an interest in nineteenth-century photography. I dragged my husband around the London Zoo when we lived there a few years ago, hoping to catch a whiff of the past. The Canadian connection caught me, too—Jumbo was a real zoo elephant who did end up being killed in Ontario.
What is your writing routine?
Wailing and pleading for writing time! If I get any, I pace around, then plunk down and pour out stuff in fits and starts. It usually starts with something sketchy, then blossoms into an overblown mess, then gets a good pruning.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Surprise your readers with your punches. Don’t punch them constantly.
This is the second time you’ve been named finalist for the CBC Short Story Prize. You also won our BloodLines challenge. How does it feel to receive all this attention?
Better than receiving my children’s attention while I’m in the shower. Great!
You’ll get even more attention as Knopf’s New Face of Fiction in 2015. Your book, All True Not a Lie In It, is a first-person account of Daniel Boone’s captivity and adoption by the Shawnee. How long have you been working on it? Where did the idea come from?
Boone’s life as a pioneer and trailblazer is wildly gripping, and I’ve been working on figuring him out for a few years (and about four major drafts). The first-person voice eventually fought its way out. I’m excited to have people read it! Again, it started for me with a picture: I remembered an old National Geographic illustration of Boone holding his son’s body. I should confess that I liberated the magazine from the college library archives. Maybe they will get it back one day, but I haven’t been able to let go of it yet.
Photo credit: Mike Hawley, courtesy of the author