Books·How I Wrote It

Bill Gaston on how an ordinary writing routine can produce extraordinary results

Giller Prize-nominated author Bill Gaston returns with a short story collection featuring characters defined by the secrets they keep.
Bill Gaston has been a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. (Douglas & McIntyre/Jen Steele)

Novelist, playwright and short story writer Bill Gaston ranks among the country's greatest storytellers. Gaston won the CBC Short Story Prize in 1998 and his previous two short story collections — Gargoyles and Juliet Was a Surprise — were finalists for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

A Mariner's Guide to Self Sabotage is a collection of short stories populated by the lonely and alienated, holders of secrets, members (or would-be members) of shadowy organizations, screw-ups, joyriders and runaways.

Gaston, who lives in B.C., but who grew up living in Winnipeg and Toronto, reveals how he wrote the engaging A Mariner's Guide to Self Sabotage.

The sum of its parts

"I wrote these stories over a period of three years. It wasn't written as a book; it as written as a bunch of stories as they came to me. So they were all done completely discretely with no connection whatsoever. Every story announces itself to me in its own way —  and certainly without any connection to a story that came before. And once I've had enough of them, I'll send them off to the publisher."

The truth of your reality

"You know that expression 'write what you know?' I kind of take it to heart, but it's also about writing what you know to be true. So that lets me branch out a bit. Living in British Columbia, I was a fishing guide and —  I almost I hate to say it — but I was a logger for a while, helping deplete B.C.'s natural resources.

"So I know about those worlds somewhat and I didn't have to research any of that. Although, one of my son's best friends is a commercial diver and he worked for a couple of years a couple of summers at specifically those remote fish farms cleaning their pens. We spent an afternoon together — I had a lot of questions about it and he supplied a lot of answers."

Novel writing versus short story writing

"A lot of my short story characters aren't the kind of people you'd necessarily want to hang around with for a novel's length of time. Some of them are a bit unsavoury or problematic in some way, and I don't want to hang out with them either for longer than it takes for the story to unfold.

"A novel is quite different because I can stay very alert, aware and curious about what's going to happen to this character and they grow on me. I get quite fond of them and I care about them — even though I kind of torture them by laying out a bunch of obstacles and pain. I'm kind of torturing them but also very fond of him at the same time. I want to see how they how they act, how they respond, how they survive or not. How they cope. Either way, I'm writing the book — whether it is a novel or a collection of short stories — that I would most want to read right now."

Routine and regularity

"I do try to write every day. On the other hand, I try to almost perversely try to avoid making it special. I try to write in a crowded cafeteria, for instance, or if I have a whole house to write in, I'll write at the kitchen table instead of going to a nice desk, that kind of thing. I want to make it feel work-a-day right, like nothing special. I get up, I get my coffee, and I start in.

"I've found a writer tends to be more prone to writer's block if we treat it as a special activity —  waiting for the muse, that kind of thing. Often we feel like need our special cup for coffee, or our special pillow behind our back, so I want to make it as much a regular work day as much as I can. It seems to work better when I don't get hung up. I just start typing and I trust that something good might come."

Bill Gaston's comments have been edited and condensed.