David Huebert: How I wrote the winning entry in the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize
This isn't David Huebert's first time trying to write something for the CBC Literary Prizes — but with his short story, "Enigma," it's his first time winning it. As it turns out, it's also his first time setting out to write something precisely with the CBC Short Story Prize's very short word count in mind.
In his own words, Huebert shares how he wrote his gripping, mournful, award-winning story about whales, horses and human connection.
Eye on the prize
"I actually targeted the prize while I was writing this story. I've always wanted to submit to the CBC Short Story Prize, but I didn't have anything that was an appropriate length. The short stories I write are usually longer — 3,000 to 5,000 words. So this time I decided to write something specifically for the CBC Short Story Prize word count, which is 1,500 words maximum. Writing specifically to get into this prize was a valuable exercise. It really teaches you to economize language and use different storytelling techniques to write shorter.
"I wrote the story as densely as possible, and I had a feeling it was going to be pretty spot on in terms of word count. It was, as it turns out. Every other time I had submitted to a CBC Literary Prize, I had a story that was too long and had to cut and cut to make it fit. This was the first time I still had room to write more, but I really felt that it was good as it was. I had a bit of breathing room, which I suppose is a good thing, because I did what needed to be done."
"I'm really interested in animals and I'm always thinking about them as I'm moving through the world. In fact, the PhD that I'm currently completing at the University of Western Ontario is on animal species in American literature.
"It was on my mind for a while to write for this prize, but I didn't have a subject in mind. Then my sister's horse died. And though the woman in my story isn't my sister, that's where the story came from. I have just one sister, Rachel, and we're very close. When Rachel's horse, Oreo, got sick, she went into full emergency mode so she wasn't really answering her phone, and I wasn't able to contact her. That was painful for me, to not be able to help. I guess that's part of what I was writing through — my own attempt to empathize with her — through the writing of this story."
Touching the void
"'Enigma' was really born at the point that I realized I would mix two images: the horse dying and the narrator's revelatory whale-watching experience. It was a clash of images that I thought was novel and strong and would be able to cut through what would otherwise be in danger of becoming a pathologically sentimental story. At first, I started with the description of the whale watching, and that was the first part of the story for a while. But it needed something else. And then I had this idea of the narrator's boyfriend, Serge, talking to her. And once I had that first line — the question 'What more can I do?' — the rest just flowed out. What I really wanted to capture was a couple in love who come across this moment where their empathy cannot do its work — where empathy is basically unachievable. And grief often does that."
Into the labyrinth
"I wrote this story in my office at Western, where I'm also writing my dissertation. I decided to take a week off from my PhD and focus on this story. It's not a very luxurious office. It's a small windowless room in a giant windowless corridor in the basement, which I call The Labyrinth of Fruitful Pain. Students have a hard time finding it in this rigmarole of corridors. I really like working there, actually. There are no distractions — that's why it's a Labyrinth of Fruitful Pain, because I get a lot done in that space."
David Huebert's comments have been edited and condensed.