In conversation with Giller Prize nominee Russell Wangersky

On where and how the Newfoundlander gets inspired (hint: while working and running)

Photography by Greg Locke

Our chief book reviewer, Brian Bethune, talked with Wangersky the day he found out his collection of short stories, Whirl Away, was one of the five books shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most distinguished literary prize, which awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English.

Q: You’ve been a newspaper man for almost three decades; have you long been nurturing a desire to write fiction?

A: When I was 14 or 15 I went downstairs and told my parents—it’s a horrible thing to say now—but I had looked at Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies and W.O. Mitchell—and I told my parents that I was going to be a writer because all the famous Canadian writers were horribly old and they were going to die soon. Nothing quite like the hubris of a 14- or 15-year-old! And my parents laughed and laughed because what I didn’t realize, of course, is they were the same age.

Q: That’s right.

A: Impossibly old. But I stopped after that. I went to university—took philosophy—ended up in Toronto doing research for Southam, then I went into the newspaper business in St. John’s and I didn’t start writing fiction and creative non-fiction again ’til around 2001, so yeah, about 10, 11 years ago.

Q: You’ve written one novel, one book of non-fiction, and two collections of short stories. Does any one of these forms come more naturally to you?

A: I think the short stories do, in a way, and the reason is that when you sit down in an evening to work on a short story you can hold the whole shooting match in your head. When you’re working on the very end of it, everything is very clear from the beginning. You can sit down, read through the whole piece and you have a good idea where you are. I’m working on another novel now, and I find novels really quite challenging because they’re so big you can lose your place in it. I mean, the new version of Hemmingway’s Farewell to Arms came out this year with the 65 different endings he’d proposed, and one of the things he said about writing it is every day he would sit down and read it from the beginning before he started writing. And I can understand the need to do that because, you know, you lose voice, you lose nuance, you get to be wandering off in different places. So I think short stories are my favourite because in a way they’re more straightforward. They  they don’t have as much of an audience as a novel, and I think that’s because they are intense and you have to read every word. They are short, and people tend to read for entertainment, so they like to be able to let their minds wander a bit, and I think you get a little more room for wandering in a novel than you do in a story.

Q: I’ve read a couple of yours twice— I’m still trying to figure out Helen in Little World. You use that phrase in the piece you wrote for Maclean’s, little worlds, and writing that, you seemed to be like a lot of your characters. They take snatches of conversation, little remembered things, and they make a narrative in their heads.

A: Yeah, they make their worlds just the way I make mine. It’s funny, because I think the sentence that occurs to me most often is kind of, “What would happen if that was true?” You know, you hear someone say something like… you hear them on the street saying, “I will never speak to you again and I will cross the street every time I see you,” and you think, “What would it be like if that was really the case and these were two people who had to function in the same space?” You know, “What would it be like if something you counted on every day suddenly you couldn’t count on anymore?” and I get caught up in that and start making, yeah, little worlds.

Q: And you’re obviously one of those people, like me, who gets caught up in legal cases, trying to imagine the real life behind them.

A: Well, you know, I’ll often go drifting off through CanLII to see what the latest sort of outlandish drunk driving case is. People are always trying to get out of drunk driving cases because it took the police officer seven seconds to make the demand for the breathalyzer, and that’s unreasonable search and seizure, at least that’s the argument, you know? And there are tons and tons and tons of fascinating cases. There was one in Newfoundland that got a fair amount of press a couple weeks ago about a woman who sued a moving company by herself—she was her own lawyer—because they had lost her painting by the Group of Seven, and the judge said, “You’re sure it was by the Group of Seven?” She said yes, and he said, “Where did you get it?” and she said, “I bought it at a garage sale for $700.” And he said, “Well, who was it by?” and she said, “The Group of Seven.” And he said, “Well, what was it of?” and she said, “Well, it was a tiger.” And the judge, you know because judges I think are sometimes frustrated, put all of this in his judgement. Legal cases are marvellous places to get a sort of a précis through someone else’s eyes of weird stuff going on in the world.

Q: The Giller jury’s emphasis was on how your stories had regrets, mistakes and accidents. Do you agree with that? Did they get you right?

A: I think so. I haven’t seen what they said, actually. I spent a lot of time hiding from it today. But that’s right, you know, what I think of these characters, I think these guys are adrift because the things they count on don’t work anymore. So yes, they’re packed with regret because a lot of them are blind. Although some can’t possibly have regret because they can’t realize where they’re at.

Q: That’s right, they’re all living on borrowed time, but some of them seem to think it and are still surprised by the outcome. Your lawyer, for one, he knows.

A: Oh, gosh, there’s no way, there is no way he can’t know. I mean, he’s telegraphing that he knows, and still shocked. We expect things will be… you know, you keep flipping pennies, and even if one of the pennies flies out the window you still think it’s going to happen.

Q: A lot of things in the stories come from the same well of experience—911 and Burning Down the House are from the same sort of area of your life, the volunteer firefighter, saving lives part.

A: There are three stories, 911, Sharp Corner and The Gasper, and they’re all from different perspectives. One’s from the paramedic, one’s from an onlooker, and one is from the actual victim or casualty, and I think of them as sort of three sides of the triangle, although it’s very, very different events in each one. But yeah, from the experiences I had in emergency services I’m very taken with those few seconds where all things are flying apart and changing all around you, and at the same time if you talk to people who they happen to, for them it’s all frozen, things are frozen and barely moving, and then it’s all moving at once and crashing down. It’s very powerful.

Q: If the small incidents in everybody’s lives are what turn into the fodder of the books, you must put other parts of your life in there too.

A: There are things that grow out of sentences that I hear when I’m out running. Running for me is, well, it’s a way to distil stuff down and keep it, you know, relatively simple – you can only think so long with a shortage of air – but you hear a sentence somewhere and you think, “There’s more to this,” and it’s fun to flesh it out and thread it out. And it’s also from work: in my first book of short stories there was a fair amount from the world of newspapers, too. I get asked a fair bit when I’m going to quit working for the newspaper business and start just writing, and I think, “Wow, then what are my stories going to be about? My stories are going to be about a 50-year-old guy in a bathrobe who watches CSI in the afternoons while eating frozen berries!”

Q: There’s a very intriguing remark in the essay you sent Maclean’s—that when you write, you’re sending a clear message. A lot of writers shy away from saying there’s any sort of message.

A: There’s been a big discussion of this in the last couple of weeks about things like ethical messaging. There was a prize in the States, and the jury commended all five of the shortlisted authors on their ethical messaging, but that’s not what I mean by a message. I really do feel like I’m sending a signal, and the best thing that happens when you send a signal is that you get a signal back, someone sees it or hears it, and they flash their headlights back at you. It’s that kind of message: one that says, “This is what I think,” and I love to hear, you know, what you think.

Q: So not necessarily a careful single interpretation, because there are many ways to read these stories.

A: Oh, absolutely, yeah. One of the things that I’ve heard from people who’ve read them so far is people’s favourite stories are always different ones, and often they’re not the ones that you expect that they would like. The best part, of course, is when someone says, “I know I was this person in that story,” and you’re thinking, “Close! Two stories over.”

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