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by Ellen Kartz
2021 marks the fortieth year for the Alberta Literary Awards, hosted by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta (WGA). And this year, the WGA is introducing two new book awards, one for Nonfiction Memoir and another for Short Story Collection by an Alberta author published in 2020 or 2021. Submissions for the Alberta Literary Awards are due by December 31.
In honour of the new award categories, the WGA spoke with Calgary author and WGA board secretary Lori Hahnel about her collection Vermin (Enfield and Wizenty) and about the process of compiling a book of short stories.
Ellen Kartz: The stories in Vermin hold together through thematic connections—as the jacket says, they are “linked by themes of loss, longing and music.” How did this collection come together? At what point did you realize you were working toward a short story collection?
Lori Hahnel: Since I started writing fiction in the late ’90s, I’ve always simultaneously worked on novels and short stories. I find when writing novels there are inevitably points in the process where you need to take a break from it, and I write short stories in those breaks. The stories in Vermin are ones that I’ve written since my first story collection, Nothing Sacred, was published in 2009. I have not thus far written a story collection with the conscious intent that it be a linked collection, but the stories are definitely linked thematically, probably because I tend to gravitate towards certain subjects and types of stories. For me, after I have a certain number of stories, say fifteen or so, I start putting them together as a collection.
EK: A number of these stories were previously published on their own. Does the reading of a short story change when it’s brought into a collection and how?
LH: I think you’re right: a story in the context of a story collection could be read differently than a single story in the context of a magazine. In working with my fabulous editor, Lee Kvern, we left a number of previously published stories in the original manuscript out of the book. For various reasons, usually related to tone, we decided the collection ended up being stronger without them.
EK: For me, these pieces read at times like monologues, or slice of life stories, even like prose poetry in a way. Can you talk a little about the style of short story writing in this collection?
LH: Interesting that you say that about monologues, because for me what most often sparks a story is the protagonist’s voice. I am very much a practitioner of the Freefall method, where you produce a first draft by writing around your chosen subject over a number of sessions. I often start with some dialogue from my main character.
EK: A number of the stories in this collection are based on historical figures; the opening story, “Dominion,” for example, is based on painter Tom Thomson. How do you approach writing short historical fiction? Do you have a “formula” you go by? How true do you stay to the known/recorded details?
LH: I try to stick with the facts of what is known about the historical figure, while keeping in mind that I am writing a work of fiction, not a history lesson. It also depends on how much is actually known about the person. Ideally I’ll write about a person whose story already has a certain amount of inherent drama or at least dramatic possibility.
EK: The title of the book comes from one of the short stories, but I found myself looking for the Vermin in each story as I read them. Can you talk a bit about the title and what it evokes for you?
LH: You aren’t the first reader to find that. A stranger emailed shortly after the book came out who to say that he was disappointed that I thought all men were vermin. Which shows you how much readers bring to your work, and how much they have their own ideas about what your intent is. The title comes from a line of dialogue from the character Ray, who says, “I don’t need vermin on my property.” That was said by someone I knew long ago who Ray is loosely modelled on. Let’s just say he was a pretty reprehensible person.
EK: Short story collections are usually grouped with novels, though I sometimes find they read like books of poetry. What can an author achieve in a short story collection that differs from other book forms, like a novel or poetry?
LH: Although story collections and novels are both fictional forms, they are distinct genres. It’s been said before, but it’s still true: I don’t understand how short stories are not the preferred form of our time. You hear so much about how people don’t have time to read, and how we apparently all have short attention spans now, so why are short story collections not read more? I think part of the problem is the short stories we read in high school. I remember having to read “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry; these stories might give you the idea that the genre is dreary and depressing and not really relatable for most people, especially kids. I know in high schools now they’re teaching more contemporary short stories, and I hope young people have a better impression of short stories.
With a story collection, an author can use the novel-in-stories approach where each story stands on its own as well as being part of the larger story of the collection.
She can also engage with a wide number of characters and settings and approaches where the stories are completely unrelated, if she so chooses. It’s even possible to try and hit a middle ground where the stories are linked thematically but not in a narrative sense, which is how I hope Vermin came off. I think the beauty of short story collections is in the variety of them; no two are alike.
About Ellen Kartz
For the past seven years, Ellen Kartz has been the Communications and Partnerships Coordinator for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, a BA in English from the U of C, and a professional writing certificate from Mount Royal University. Ellen worked with and for the Edmonton Poetry Festival for many years as a volunteer coordinator, event planner, founding member, and board member. In 2018, she self-produced a stage show and poetry chapbook, both titled The Tenderness of Stone about a trek she made through Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. In 2021, Ellen founded a small poetry chapbook press and launched a quartet of chapbooks by emerging queer Edmonton authors.