by Suzannah Windsor
When Jane Eaton Hamilton’s short story “Fat Ankles” appeared in our “to-read pile” at Compose, we immediately recognized the author’s name and got excited. Then we read her gem of a submission and got very excited.
Jane is the winner of the 2014 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Short Story Prize. Amazingly, her winning story, “Smiley,” about a South African child struggling with gender identity, was written in just one day: the day before the contest deadline. Though entries are read blind—meaning submissions are free of information that identifies their author—this is the second time Jane Eaton Hamilton has won the coveted prize. Her first win was in 2003.
Offering a substantial sum of cash, publication in enRoute magazine, a two-week residency at the Leighton Artists’ Colony in Banff, and an enviable dose of media exposure, the CBC Short Story Prize entices thousands of writers to enter each September.
In 1999, “Fat Ankles,” which you can read in this issue, was a finalist for both the CBC Short Story Award and the Fish Short Story Award. We’re honored the piece has finally found a home with us, and we asked Jane to take some time to share with us a bit about her writing.
1. As a two-time winner of the CBC Short Story Competition and someone who enters every year, what advice would you give to other writers considering submitting work, or to those who have faithfully submitted for years and have yet to make the longlist?
Entering the CBC contest is a yearly tic for me. When I started, I believe the length limit was 8000 words. Some years it’s all I can manage to just enter the fiction category (though I write across genres), and some years I manage to send to the non-fiction and poetry too. Usually I’m not shortlisted and that’s probably why I don’t spend a great deal of time working on pieces—the odds are astronomically against you. I wrote “The Lost Boy,” which won in 2003, in a day, or a couple of days, also. To me agonizing over a piece for a contest with so many entries would be like waiting at 7-Eleven waiting for the 649 lottery draw. I think these two stories are too short. I would like to expand them into full-length pieces.
There is a funny story about my win in 2003. When I got the message to call someone at CBC, I thought, Oh no. Did my cheque bounce? (I don’t think a man would have reacted like that, especially if he, like me, never bounced cheques.)
It’s possible to write a story in a day if it’s short. If you have a 10- to 12-hour day, you have time for multiple rewrites/edits—even somewhat spaced-out edits. I can’t speak to what I did with “The Lost Boy,” as I don’t recall it, but certainly “Smiley” went through at least fifteen significant edits. Are there things I would have changed if I’d had time to go back to it? Sure. But that’s always true no matter how much time you have.
Advice? How can there be any, really, for this contest? It’s a crapshoot and judges’ choices are idiosyncratic. But take care of basics. Make sure you start your story where it’s already in progress rather than giving us preamble (very common to find someone’s beginning a page or so into what they’ve written. With novels, sometimes a full chapter or two in). Watch your sentences for crispiness (look at each sentence and ask yourself where it’s flabby. Ideally, it needs to be as carved as abs, no fat, no word that doesn’t serve a purpose). Adhere to the length limit because when readers have got that many to get through, they’ll turf you for any small infraction. Tell a story no one’s heard before, or if they’ve heard it, tell it differently. There was an anthology of winning stories, once—maybe get that and devour it. The best way to write good stories is to read good stories. Read masters of the form—Pam Houston, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, Ray Carver, Junot Diaz, Cheever, Chekov, Munro. There are hundreds of brilliant practitioners. Any stories in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Short Stories.
2. In an interview with Open Book Toronto, you say, “I like stories that are like icebergs—ten percent shows but we can feel the resonance of the 90% that doesn’t.” “Smiley” had to be 1500 words or fewer to meet CBC’s writing competition word limits, yet it feels like not a word is missing. How did you go about squeezing 100 percent of a story into just 10 percent of the word-space you could have used?
That’s not my writing theory—it’s Hemingway’s, also called “the theory of omission.” I will be all my life learning it.
Currently the biggest challenge to the CBC is the length limit. Brevity and concision are fine, but they were already pushing narrative limits when the word length dropped to 2500. I believe this does a disfavour to literature and I hope other writers are commenting. (I do write flash fiction, so don’t get on me here about the space needed for a successful narrative. Different discussion.)
I feel the missing words in “Smiley.” The last scene barreled up to me way too abruptly and feels hurried. But I did—do—feel that I could walk into that household and say hey. The mom would pull out a chair, pour me her best plonk, and order her kids around, and the little kids would climb on me like I was a ladder, and the weaver birds would be just outside, yellow/black sparklers against night skies. I guess I’m saying that it’s all about verisimilitude—which is easy to employ in a family story because we’re all human, we’ve all grown up in families of one sort or another and we know the codes like we know our own hands. A writer shows a little; the reader embellishes a lot.
But again, the real power of a narrative is in what’s not told. The accomplished short Canadian fiction writer Alex Leslie understands this—she is our master of nuance. Read her and see how she does it.
The point is, all the hidden material ought to be breathing hot and hard against the text that’s visible. The reader is going to be reacting to it just as humans do in real life—the whole river of sub-text which can make us quail and shiver. The under currents at family holiday meals. That’s the ballast you want.
3. You gave up writing for many years prior to your 2014 win. What was that time like for you? Did you continue to write occasionally, or was it a clean break? What made you give up on writing, and what made you come back to it?
I was struggling hard every day to even get one palatable draft (instead of yet another total rewrite) of a novel about a complicated family in Montana/Vancouver (based loosely on my short story “The Arrival of Horses”). The subject material was difficult to face every day. My heart disease was getting worse. I was crazy in love with the woman I’d been with a decade, and three years earlier, we’d joined the same-sex marriage case as litigants, and I thought I was probably moving towards dying, and I thought WTF am I doing writing? Masturbatory, non-contributing. I would have preferred to go back to school to become a primatologist or ornithologist, but that was out because of illness, and all I had left was a middling career as a mid-list author struggling to stay in the mid-list.
Photography was great, in even the limited way I could manage it. I shot a lot of Hollywood glamour stuff, a lot of travel and newborns. Being around people’s celebrations was joyful. I also worked for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep doing bereavement photography. Being around families as they said goodbye to their young children was agonizing and poignant, and I felt “of use.”
I came back to writing (an old reassuring friend) when my marriage broke up, and I came to it with renewed vigor. By this I don’t mean physical vigor, but rather with an eased approach. I’m laissez-faire now, shoulder-shrugging. I’m old, I’m ill, I lack ambition, but this is good for fiction. I felt myself struggling to silence my voice during all the early years I wrote, to be less than I was, to not be flagrantly queer, to not be a feminist. Now I just write from the fullness of my voice, and reactions be damned. I still thrill to compliments, of course, but I don’t care about pleasing people. A small victory of aging.
4. You write, and are widely published, in both fiction and poetry. Did a love for one genre lead to a love for the other, or have you always written both? Do you consider yourself more a writer of prose or poetry?
Prose, hands down. And not non-fiction which I write but don’t excel at. Short fiction is my first and only true love.
5. What is your writing process like, from idea to first draft to editing? Do you have any unusual writing or editing rituals?
I don’t. Sometimes I have ideas, but mostly I just sit down “to write,” or “to write a story.” I find words to be deliciously allusive. One word suggests another, and that suggests more, and pretty soon you’re rolling along.
I’m a happy slash-and-burner, though, and a huge fan of editors. Take their advice, is my advice. Don’t worry about them wrecking a piece—in a thousand pieces, I’m sure I’ve regretted an editor’s work maybe two or three times, and the rest of the time celebrated it. They get you from potential to realization. Editors set my raw material ticking.
I don’t know where ideas come from. The day I sat down to write “Smiley” I really didn’t have any, other than a burning need to write that day for the CBC contest, but somehow a sentence came out, and then another and another. I had no idea as I was setting the weavers into place what I would be using them for. No idea that my character was trans to start.
I’m just thinking about a piece I wrote in Paris earlier this year called “Will You Ossuary Me?” I was down in the bones under the city, and for about 20 minutes I walked along these underground tunnels by myself thinking I was lost, nitro clutched in sweaty palm, but also realizing being lost was not possible. And so for unknown reasons, I thought about two lovers in the midst of that heavy, burdened, diseased, forgotten death, the two of them hot with eroticism and chilly from the collapse of their love. I gave the assertive partner the lips of a real Parisian woman I knew, but the rest is fabricated for atmosphere.
6. “Fat Ankles” was a finalist for two short story prizes in 1999, but was not published until 2014. What happened to this story in the fifteen years since you wrote it? What made you send it to us?
Nothing happened to it besides my inertia. It wasn’t submitted all my non-writing years. I’ve always had a warm spot for this story because it’s loosely based on my favorite cousin and me, and it seems warm to me, and I’m not sure I write warmly as a matter of regularity.
7. What’s next for your writing?
I have a new book of poetry out called Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes. It has a very beautiful cover image by the artist Catrin Welz-Stein. I am working on novels and stories now.
About the Author
Jane Eaton Hamilton’s eighth book, the poetry volume Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes, appeared fall 2014. Her work has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology, Best Canadian Short Stories, and has been cited in the Best American Short Stories. She has won many prizes for her short fiction, including twice, first prize in fiction in the CBC Literary Awards (2003/2014). She has published in the New York Times, Seventeen, Salon, Numero Cinq, Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, the Missouri Review, Ms blog, the Alaska Quarterly Review and many other places. Jane’s work is upcoming in several anthologies and in Siécle 21 in Paris. Jane is also a photographer and visual artist and was a litigant in Canada’s same-sex marriage case. She lives in Vancouver. janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.