How Alix Hawley wrote the story that won the CBC Short Story Prize
Plastic surgery, witches and Charlotte Brontë might not be obviously connected, but Alix Hawley weaves them together in her 2017 CBC Short Story Prize–winning piece, "Witching." This isn't Hawley's first time in a winner's circle — she won the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for All True, Not a Lie in It.
Below, the Kelowna, B.C.–based author discusses the significance behind that title and how she wrote her winning story.
Workspace is a reflection of the mind
"I wrote 'Witching' over a weekend. I worked in my bedroom, which is upstairs in our house in Kelowna, at my desk. It is an antique mahogany table that my grandma had passed down from somebody or other years ago. It's wobbly and I love it. It's all scratched up. I don't seem to be able to keep it tidy in any way. But I think a clean desk is a sign of a too-organized mind.
"My mind seems to work in a very writerly way, in a very disorganized fashion. I tend to find pieces of things and patch them together into a story. Sometimes I almost set myself a challenge like, 'How am I going to put together something like First World War plastic surgery and witches and contemporary life?' I like seeing what you can stitch together that way."
The title has layers
"'Witching' went through several titles. I love having a good one, and this one felt like kind of a throwaway. But I think it also kind of refers to the alchemy of writing: of pulling together these weird disparate elements and fusing them into something else. That's a kind of witchcraft. In the story it refers to, most obviously, the little girls dressed up as witches that the protagonist sees when she's out for a walk. But it's also about transformation. That is what this story is about: when you expect a transformation and it doesn't turn out quite the way you thought it would."
Notebooks don't need to be fancy
"I like the physicality of writing, so I always have a notebook with me. I really like these ones called Decomposition books because they are just cardboard. They are the right size and they have good lines. They are cheap which is also great. Sometimes I think if you have some beautiful leather notebook, it's almost too nice to write in. You want things to be beautifully thought out before you put it down. But I love these because I can scratch all over them and tear out pages.
"I usually have a set of notes going at any time of things that have struck me as interesting. And then, when I want to pull it together into a story, I get the laptop and start going from there. But I always have a notebook on the go at the same time for scribbles of things that I might need to fix or fit in as I go along."
Drafts are tough
"I find drafting quite physically hard, almost. I'll get up after every sentence and walk around the room and do some internal moaning and groaning until it's down. I find that first draft is kind of hard in a bodily way. But I'm pretty used to that now so it doesn't stress me out anymore. I used to think 'I must be the worst, or most unnatural, writer if this doesn't pour forth from me.' Knowing this seems to be my process, I have to forgive myself for how tough it can be and how many drafts it can take. And that's fine."
Alix Hawley's comments have been edited and condensed.