Books·In Conversation

How winning the CBC Short Story Prize in 1999 influenced David Bergen's writing career

The Winnipeg author spoke to CBC Books about his short story collection, Here the Dark, which is a finalist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
David Bergen is a Winnipeg novelist and short story writer. (Thies Bogner)

David Bergen has written nine novels and two collections of short stories. He won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel The Time in Between in 2005. He was also a finalist in 2002 for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction for the book The Case of Lena S. His novel The Age of Hope was defended by Ron MacLean on Canada Reads in 2013. 

Bergen was the 2018 recipient of the Matt Cohen Award, which is given to a writer who has dedicated their professional career to writing, in celebration of their entire body of work. 

His latest book, the short story collection Here the Dark, is on the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist

Here the Dark includes the story that won the 1999 CBC Short Story Prize, How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2020.

The Winnipeg author spoke to CBC Books about Here the Dark and his writing career.

Can you remember what inspired you to enter the CBC Short Story Prize 21 years ago?

"It was the second time I had entered. I was teaching high school at the time and I had a brilliant class that year. They were incredibly active and their minds were quick. I also knew a math teacher there who kept telling me stories about math and he was a wild teacher. I put the two together — that class and that teacher, and I turned him into a literary teacher who falls in love with a math teacher. The story came together and it flowed out in one piece.

"Then I entered it, and got a call to say that it had won the prize. It was an absolute shock. You do these things and you hope they will bounce back in some way — usually the bounce back is through rejection. But this was a lovely bounce back."

What impact did winning the CBC Short Story Prize in 1999 have on your writing career? 

"It is an incredible impact on anybody who wins it. Attention is paid to the writer and the story elevates the profile of the writer.

It is an incredible privilege to be shortlisted for prizes and to win prizes. It's something that I never take for granted.

"For someone who is just starting out, it's an incredible lift — people call and they are interested in other work you may have. It's a fairly lonely life, a writer's life, and you never know what kind of response you're going to get. A response like this is an incredibly positive one."

You've won numerous awards over the last 24 years. Do awards still offer validation at this point in your career? 

"Yes, they do, and they always will. It is an incredible privilege to be shortlisted for prizes and to win prizes. It's something that I never take for granted."

Author David Bergen speaks with CBC Manitoba's Marcy Markusa about his Writers' Trust Matt Cohen Award win. 5:43

When you were younger, you attended Bible college in British Columbia. Did that experience influence your writing?

"There is a character in my first story of this collection who goes up north and works on a construction crew. Suddenly, he decides to set up this camp for young people and he has a religious bent. I'd say that was probably me.

"My father was a preacher, so I was definitely influenced by the Bible and religion. It shaped how I write and what I write about and the moral quandaries my characters face."

How did you approach compiling the short stories for Here the Dark?

"It's a discussion that takes place. The editor and publisher, Dan Wells, had some clear ideas on what should come first and what should come next. He would show me the order and I would look at it. Then we decided to re-group it according to location. There are two stories with head trauma, so we have the two head trauma stories separate from each other. It's a very practical way of looking at what looks best. Should the novella come first? Should it come last? In the end, we decided to put it last. 

"I like the way the collection is. I could have published them in the order that they were written, but that is insignificant to the reader."

What is the key to writing characters in a short story? How do you build a character that a reader can connect with?

"I'm going to be teaching a class at the Toronto International Festival of Authors and it's called, 'How to enter a story without knocking.' That comes from Nabokov, who says that Chekhov enters his story Lady with Lapdog without knocking.

"You only have so much space, and you have to be very judicious with the use of that space. You have to forget about the backstory and forget about describing what your characters look like. Go right into the story and drop the reader in. That will get the story going quickly.

Go right into the story and just drop the reader in. That will get the story going quickly. 

"Characters often develop through dialogue — what the character says has real importance, especially in a short story. The words they say mean something and they carry the story forward, so that is crucial as well."

It is the biggest prize in writing in Canada. Today, the longlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize was revealed and Winnipeg author David Bergen has made the cut. He joined Marjorie Dowhos on Up to Speed! 6:43

Do any of the characters in your short story collection, Here the Darkhave a longer story to tell?

"I tried with the story Leo Fell. I liked Leo as a character and I thought he could be more, he could go further, we could learn more about him. But it did not work — it did not make sense, it felt flat and like I was pushing too far. 

"The novella was originally a longer piece. I lopped off the last part and made it into a novella because I thought I was going in a direction that I didn't want to go in."

When you won the Writers' Trust Matt Cohen Award in 2018, in your acceptance speech you said to always find a good first reader. Why are first readers important?

"Sometimes I will hand the story over to my first reader and as soon as I hand it over, I know I handed it over too quickly. You almost need that physical movement of letting go of the story. As soon as you let go of it, you see it in a different way. You see it through the reader's eyes and you think, 'No, I have to change this'.

"It's important to find a good reader — someone you trust, someone who reads, not someone who thinks like you do or has the same emotional make up as you do. When they are reading it, you see it through their eyes and you will start to question some of the things you did. It's making it more external, standing above it, drawing back and having a more objective take on it."

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?

"Don't finish your paragraph — don't even finish the sentence! I usually end my day mid-sentence, because it's much easier to go back into the writing if you just pick up the sentence. I then write a line of notes on a piece of paper, which basically tells me what is going to happen next in the story. If you stop mid-sentence, you have a sense for what is going to come next. But you don't want to use it all up for that day. You want to save it for the next day. It's easier to come in and pick it up than to sit there and wonder where you were."

I usually end my day mid-sentence, because it's much easier to go back into the writing if you just pick up the sentence.

"It's also necessary to sit there and write as well — even if you write nonsense or words you will never use. The act of getting it down, of writing, is good. 

"Also, and it might sound way too practical and banal, but set a word count. Aim for 300 words a day and you'll be surprised that you will pass that, especially with prose."

Winnipeg author David Bergen is on the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his short story collection Here the Dark. This segment originally aired in 2014. 4:16

What would you say to someone who is considering entering the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize? 

"Enter something that you feel really good about — take a chance. If you have time, have someone read it and give you feedback.

"Does it make sense? Does it feel like a whole piece? Do the characters work? Did you cringe in any way when you came to certain parts of the story? You want to be brutal with yourself, and you want your reader to be brutal. 

Take a risk and don't be disappointed if you don't win, because it's the process.

"Don't believe that what you have written is finished, complete and perfect. It's not. It requires writing and rewriting and it requires feedback. Aim for your deadline.

"Get it in before the deadline! Take a risk and don't be disappointed if you don't win, because it's the process. I've had way more rejections than I've had acceptances for my stories, which is something you get used to."

David Bergen's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Read more interviews from our In Conversation series here.

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