Arts

For book lovers, Christmas comes early thanks to the Short Story Advent Calendar

Patton Oswalt's a fan, and it sells out every year. The brainchild of Alberta publishers Hingston & Olsen is back for a third edition.

The brainchild of Alberta publishers Hingston & Olsen is back for a third year

A sampler pack of authors. The Short Story Advent Calendar, created by Alberta publisher Hingston & Olsen, is back for a third year. (Hingston & Olsen)

He's a writer and the co-founder of a publishing company. So yes, Edmonton's Michael Hingston gets plenty of books for Christmas.

"I have books my parents gave me 10 years ago." (He says he loves them, by the way. Totally grateful.) "But I still haven't quite gotten to it yet, you know?"

There's always something else to read. This is the book lover's dilemma.

But in 2015, Hingston and business partner Natalie Olsen published something engineered to stay on top of the pile — at least through December 25. And after selling out every year, it's a burgeoning holiday tradition among devotees.

Do not open until December 1. The 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar is designed from scratch every year by Natalie Olsen. (Hingston & Olsen)

The Short Story Advent Calendar is exactly what it sounds like. In a world where advent calendars dispense beer and LEGO and cosmetics and jewellery — and waxy chocolate, too — Hingston & Olsen hit upon the idea of launching a literary version of the Christmas countdown.

The first year, they printed 1,000 copies. It sold out within a month. This year, Hingston says roughly 3,000 are available online and through a few indie retailers in Calgary and Edmonton. It's topped the Book Publisher Association of Alberta's local bestseller lists the past two weeks in a row. 

The collection includes 24 short stories. Hingston serves as editor, reaching out to his pick of favourite writers. Past authors include Heather O'Neill, Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler and Sheila Heti.

To keep up the calendar conceit, each booklet is individually sealed and collected in a special case that Olsen designs from scratch. That way, readers can rip open a new story every day, and every day, they can find others doing the same thing. There's a hashtag (#ssac2017) that groups all the spit takes and un-boxing pics, in addition to daily author interviews.

Margaret Atwood's tweeted about it in the past, but the book club's most influential member is Patton Oswalt. The comedian ordered himself a copy last year, and tweeted his full progress. He's such a fan that he even pitched Hingston & Olsen a similar, Halloween-themed project — The Ghost Box — which they published in the fall.

But why short stories?

"As a reader, what I like about them is that they can be weird," says Hingston. "They can be whatever they want."

A freelance journalist and former books columnist for the Edmonton Journal, Hingston says his job exposed him to a wealth of short-form fiction — work that the average reader might never discover. Stories get hidden away in literary journals or overlooked collections. It's partly what inspired the idea in the first place. "I thought it would work because I knew that writers had these cool stories that were out there," he says.

As such, the collection doesn't feature "holiday fare." It's more that short stories are a seasonally appropriate length — sampler-size, just like anything stuffed in an advent calendar. Or, per Hingston's preferred analogy: "I think of it more like a box of Quality Street chocolates. They give you a bunch of flavours that you like, and there's some flavours around the edges that you maybe weren't expecting."

"[Readers] come into it knowing that a couple writers that they like are in there, but they come away with a bunch of writers they didn't know before that they're now fans of."

Says Hingston: "That gateway effect is the best case scenario."

What's new for 2017?

There's an uptick in the number of stories written especially for the collection. Hingston says a third of the pieces are brand new, though commissioning all original work is not the long-term goal — and this time, they reflect a more international range of talent.

Anton Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle were included in the past, but for the first time, Hingston says there are a few contemporary European authors in the mix. More Americans are featured this time, as well. It's not a strategy, he says, just a result of the fact that the calendar's profile is spreading beyond Alberta.

As for teasers, there's this at least. Five authors are already revealed: Kelly Link, Jim Gavin, Carmen Maria Machado, Ken Liu and Maggie Shipstead.

But that's it. No spoilers! Surprise is the point, after all.

The 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar, by...? Hingston & Olsen, $55. hingstonandolsen.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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