It’s rare that a first collection of short fiction comes into the world fully formed, drawing for the reader a precise and detailed map of the author’s unique emotional geography and personal preoccupations. Lucky for us, Andrew Forbes’ What You Need (Invisible Publishing, 2015) does just that, exploring the dark, lonely corners of rural and small-town lives and tracing the erratic routes the heart often takes in pursuit of its underground longings.

This is a collection of stories that has in spades what we look for in good fiction–fully realized characters who find themselves looking back at the strange wreckage of their own lives. The author displays a fine attention to craft, impeccable pacing, and settings that evoke the loneliness and despair that can surround even the most optimistic souls. In particular, Andrew displays a well-honed gift for staying faithful to the narrative tricks we use to make sense of our weird chronologies.

What I love most about Andrew’s work is how he locates and mines those moments of regret and confusion that make us most human. Whether dealing with ex-athletes, former teen lovers, lonely wives, cheating husbands or some combination thereof–his characters are achingly, wonderfully relatable. These are stories to relish and savour.

TC: Congrats on the publication of What You Need, Andrew. It’s a stellar collection and I loved it. How does it feel to have it heading out there into the world?

AF: Thanks so much. Yeah, there are many emotions. Some of them are pleasant. It is, I imagine, like releasing a child into the wide world, only you’re not so certain that child has what it takes to make it on his or her own. Or like looking forward to prom even while knowing your suit doesn’t quite fit, or is a decade out of fashion. Which is to say: all of my happy anticipation is undercut with nagging fear. This is true whether we’re talking about my book or my dinner or my weekend plans. It’s my way.

TC: While the stories vary quite a bit in terms of point of view—male to female, younger and older—there’s a consistent sense of alienation, disappointment, unfulfilled longing that connects the stories. Can you tell us more about how the stories in the collection came together? Did you set you to write a collection that would feel connected thematically? How long have you been working on the pieces?

AF: Typical first-time author response: I’ve been working on these stories my whole life. More specifically, they range in age from about a decade to just a few months. The older ones, of course, were revised to reflect my current sensibilities. But while it is true to say that these stories were not written with a common theme in mind, once it was apparent to all involved—me, Invisible Publishing, my editor—that there was some commonality there, we tailored the collection to reflect or even enhance that. There were stories that didn’t fit, so they were cut. In the end we were left with something that is full of those things you mentioned—alienation, disappointment, unfulfilled longing. This is not to say that I have a trove of happy stories about fulfilled characters lying about. It might be dishonest to suggest I’m even capable of such a thing. But we were conscious enough of the commonalities to recognize the ones that didn’t fit.

TC: You write succinctly and respectfully about small-town and rural lives, exploring communities and worlds that face the threat of being left behind by the growing urban-rural divide. In many of your stories, there’s a sense that escape, while desired, may not ever come to pass. Can you talk more about this sense of hopelessness in the stories? Do you think it’s rooted in place for your characters, in circumstances, or some combination?

AF: This is a big question and I think the simplest answer is that I feel most comfortable in rural settings, so when I write, my characters tend to go there, too. But I think that out-of-the-way places, such as those to which I am drawn, can tend to exert a hold on people, to make change seem monumentally difficult. It can feel as though the world where things are happening is very far away. That, of course, can become hopelessness in short order.

I think hopelessness is a pervasive enough feeling among human beings—perhaps increasingly so, I’m not sure—but there’s certainly an extra element to it when you add isolation to the mix. Writing fiction about people in such circumstances is appealing because it can be a quieter space, a cleaner canvas on which to wreak your havoc. Writing in detail about only two or three characters in a densely-populated city is in some ways artificial. In the country it might simply be the case that there just aren’t more people around.

Having lived for several years on a little acreage in Eastern Ontario—well-water, gravel road, etc.—it was my experience that the space afforded by such places can amplify certain feelings you might have, whether good or bad. Your happiest thoughts seem to be reflected in the beautiful things you see, the lack of clutter, the colour, the size of the sky, whereas your worst feelings seem all the more dire for a lack of voices telling you that you’re in some way a part of things. I live in Peterborough now, a smallish city, and find the difference stark.

TC: While it’s hard to pick a favourite—there are so many incredible stories in this collection—one that stuck with me is “I Was a Willow”, in which a young woman reflects back on the day her first boyfriend is accidentally killed, and considers, obliquely, how her life might have been different had he lived. To me this is classic Andrew Forbes territory—the underground longing, the long look back, the sense that in the end, maybe all roads lead in the same direction. Tell me more about how this story came to be. How challenging was it for you to write from the perspective of a teenage female narrator?

AF: That story had a hard birth. I began it about seven years ago, with me thinking I had what it took to transcribe the feelings and images I got when listening to certain Neko Case songs and shape them into a story. It languished unfinished in a couple of hard drives. I’d return to it periodically, convinced there was something there worth completing, but turn away defeated each time. As the book took shape I realized that I wanted very badly to have that character, her voice and her story, in the collection, so I marshaled some resolve and finished a draft. Then it became the job of my editor, Michelle Sterling, to help me whittle and mold and improve it. Michelle smoothed out the language, simplified the story, and made the whole thing more believable. She really saved that story.

In terms of the perspective, inhabiting that character was really no harder than any of the other characters in the book. It presented the same challenges of fidelity to voice, and the need for some measure of empathy, but I proceeded hopped up on the belief that while our circumstances differ, we’re really not so different from one another, generally speaking.

I think a lot of us experience that, to some degree; it doesn’t have to be extreme, it’s just the way things turn out. The only trick involved in the writing is in presenting the particular details of her life—the setting, the names, the sights and smells and tastes—with enough conviction to seem believable. If a writer can crowd the page with enough of the stuff of a life, a character seems to breathe. Male, female, young, old. It doesn’t require that writer to have everything in common with the character; it mostly requires respect. And a really good editor to tell the writer where he got it wrong.

TC: It’s obvious from the stories that you’re a huge sports fan. Baseball, football, and hockey all make starring appearances. What I love is how accurately and smoothly you depict the importance of sports to the lives of the men you portray—how the closed, adrenalin-fueled athletic world is the metaphoric arena where dreams, hopes, and desires are channeled. In “Cycles”, for example, a teenage boy who’s ashamed of his father and his home life finds meaning and a sense of possibility on the football field. For these boys and men, sports are life, period. What does it mean for you to pull sports and athletics so directly into your fiction? Have you always written about sports? It’s not something we see a lot of in Canadian fiction.

AF: I love sports, and have for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always written about them, since I began writing. And so much of my favourite writing has been about sports—nonfiction, mostly, but I also devoured all of WP Kinsella’s baseball novels at the dawn of my teenage years. And since writing fiction is such a great way to deal with your obsessions, I never saw any reason to keep sports out of my stories.

I also never stop seeing stories in the sports I watch, for a lot of the reasons you suggest. I think that something like baseball presents an alluringly simple, almost binary face to the world, a sense that it’s starkly moral, that the player and team which prepares best, plays hardest, focuses most intensely, will be rewarded with victory. But of course that’s far from true, and the ins and outs of why that’s not true are maybe the place where statistics end and narrative steps in.

To ramble a bit longer, because you got me started, it can also be tempting to think that athletes, because they show us so much of the best of what humans are capable of, are in some way of more pure of character, or anyway less affected, which can make their transgressions all the more startling. Or not, apparently, since we let so much off-the-field behavior go. That’s another question, isn’t it? What do we forgive, and what do we punish? In the athlete, violence and civility are expected to commingle comfortably, but of course stopping one and resuming the other can be a very difficult, almost unnatural thing. These are all things that preoccupy me, things that I’m often thinking while I watch a game, and I’m always compelled to believe them worth investigating through writing, whether it’s straight-up sportswriting, or in fiction.

Or maybe this is me making something out of nothing. That’s been known to happen. It might just be that I’m a big sports fan, and I’m trying to make something worthwhile out of an essentially meaningless thing that I do with an awful lot of my time.

TC: I said earlier that the “long look back” feels like a natural feature in your stories. There’s a sense of deep nostalgia, of an almost painful retrospect that marks your characters and gives meaning to their lives. It’s as if there’s trying to understand what choices and decisions lead them to where they find themselves in the present moment. Why and how is this sense of time and pacing important to your work?

AF: That requires something of a chicken-and-egg response. I studied history, and the residue of that experience is this belief of mine that we’re always trailing tendrils of the past—our own, our families’, our cities’ or states’ or countries’—even when we’re not conscious of it. Did I form this belief because I got a history degree? Or did I get a history degree because I felt that way all along? Hard to say.

But I do believe that memory plays an enormous role in the decisions we make, or fail to make, and then when things don’t go they way we’d hoped or felt they should, we pretty quickly go looking to the past for an answer as to why. Or maybe I should only speak for myself here. How’s this: I tend to spend a great deal of my mental time and energy looking back, so my characters do the same. Also, as I’ve written before somewhere, the past is a safe precinct because it’s already happened and we know, more or less, how it turned out, so it can provide some comfort, or respite from uncertainty, even if that outcome isn’t the happiest one.

TC: Can you talk more broadly about your own writing influences? Do you have any particular writing role models or works that you return to again and again?

AF: The influences shift and vary over time, but there are a few constants. In terms of mentorship, a writer and teacher who means a great deal to me is Richard Taylor. He began as a teacher and is now a friend and guiding influence, an encouragement and a sounding board.

The stories I return to again and again include just about everything by Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. His Rock Springs is probably my most-thumbed book, and in fact one of the stories in my collection, “Below the Lighted Sky,” is a direct reference, and in some way a re-framing, or maybe just a flat-out theft, of his “Communist.” Also Jim Shepard’s collections. Oh, and Jo Ann Beard’s collection of essays, The Boys of My Youth.

I could go on.

TC: I’m certain this collection is going to get some great attention. Moving forward, what do you have planned in terms of a launch and promotion? Any readings or events for us to look forward to in the coming months?

AF: I’m going to be doing launches and events all over Ontario in the short-term, plus Montreal. As the summer wears on I hope to go further afield. I guess the easiest answer here is to suggest people check my events page.

TC: Finally, what’s next for you, Andrew? What projects are you working on currently?

AF: It’s great to have arrived at a point where all the work for this book is well and truly done, and I can actually look ahead to what’s next. First of all, finding places to publish nonfiction is a priority, be it about baseball, or tacos, or other books. I’ve begun a handful of new stories that I’d like to finish, and I’ve got a completed novella that’s asking very politely to be turned into a novel. I’m also editing a novel for Shape&Nature Press, and I’m excited about that. There is no shortage of things to do; there’s only a shortage of time.


Purchase WHAT YOU NEED from:

Amazon | Indigo | McNally Robinson | IndieBound

Read the title story here at Little Fiction:


This interview is published simultaneously at Currently Living, the online home of Trevor Corkum.


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