follow us:

Paul’s work is often fierce and unforgiving. His stories are told with imagination, emotion, and a rhythm that would make the kids in any math rock band jealous. He took a few minutes to talk to us about his award-winning debut collection, his Little Fiction story, and what the worst part of dying in a ditch would be.

The Secret Life of Fission, Paul’s debut collection with Oberon Press, won the 2013 Danuta Gleed award from The Writers’ Union of Canada for best first collection of short fiction. It’s one of our favorite awards — not just because it’s for short stories — but that it also tends to celebrate, or at least doesn’t overlook, independent presses. Heck yeah.

LF: Congrats on winning the Danuta Gleed. How has winning the award impacted your writing career so far?

PC: Thank you. I was amazed when that went down. Oberon published the book, and they're very small. There's no cash for marketing, and the only attention Fission had received previous to the award was a barely lukewarm review in the National Post. So it was a great experience.

It's hard to tell whether or not it's had much impact. I got a new book deal since then, and the award probably didn't hurt my editor's opinion of my stuff, but I was referred there before I'd even made the shortlist. I'm not too sure if lower profile awards have much resonance with the broader reading public or not, but they're great for author confidence.

LF: What are you currently working on?

PC: I have a bunch of stuff on the go. A new collection tentatively called A Plea for Constant Motion, which includes Dream of a Better Self. House of Anansi will be publishing that through their Astoria imprint, probably in 2016, and I'll start the editing process soon. I have a second finished collection of interlocking stories all set in a highrise building in the Northwest Territories. I want to get around to redrafting that. I'm also working on something novel-ish and different short stories here and there.

LF: Congrats on that, too. Can you tell us anything more about the upcoming collection?

PC: Yeah. I'm waiting for the contract to come in the mail, so I probably shouldn't say too much until I sign it and Anansi generates an announcement. But I can talk about the submissions process and the evolution of the manuscript. I was referred to them in January, and I'd just come back from six months of living in Zambia. That was my second time in Africa; I'd spent six months in Ghana a couple years before. I had several stories set in those two countries, and they're what I sent in for the referral. It took seven months or so to get a verdict, so I just kept adding stories to the ms as I wrote new ones. There were maybe fifteen in all, and eight to twelve of them will be published, with specific settings in Canada and abroad, and others that are vaguely North American. Dream probably stands out from the rest in that it's a bit more surreal.

LF: Your stories are often referred to as “ambitious” (the same can be said for your LF story) — what draws you to writing more complex narratives and exploring grander themes in this format?

PC: I don't really know. I think it's probably a character development thing. I have a hard time settling on a clear protagonist. I often wind up developing a story's characters equally or close to it, so then it takes some on-page real estate to set all that down and try and click it all together. I kind of lean toward that whole shuffling points-of-view form, which is maybe good or maybe not — I'm not always sure. But once you've got that many histories to manipulate, you wind up with several themes as well, because each character has different priorities. It makes good internal story sense for those themes to relate to one another, and that kind of takes up a lot of on-page real estate too. I tend to wind up with stuff that's between six and ten thousand words, and there aren't a lot of venues to publish stories at that length, so sometimes I make a conscious effort to simplify and streamline, and then the inverse happens. I end up with fifteen-hundred-word narratives instead. It's probably best not to worry about any of that, though, and just let the stories, at least the first drafts, wear as much flesh as they want to.

LF: What draws you to short stories? What do you like about the form (vs writing a novel)?

PC: As a reader, I like them for many of the same reasons I do as a writer. I very seldom reread novels, for example, because there's so much I want to read and only so much life in a day. Shorts I frequently read two, three and even four or five times, and so I get a lot more out of them as a reader. As a writer, they save me from my shitty work ethic, which I just can't seem to stretch across a single project if it takes me more than a week to get it mostly finished. I get bored of my ideas and lose interest. The novel-ish thing I mentioned above — I've had to conceive of it in four long-form short-story type segments, or I'd just never sit down to even start it. I kind of always get the feeling that I might die before I finish writing something like a novel, too. Just hit by a car or something. And whereas you'd likely come to terms with a lot in life when you're dying on the roadside, unfinished business of any kind could be hard to shrug off. I mean, imagine yourself lying in the gutter with half a pane of glass rising out of your mangled chest, and you're sprawled out down there thinking: “Fuck. Their better selves should've come out of a mirror, not the swimming pool; yeah, that's it.” But then you die.

LF: I’ve heard you say that setting plays a big part in your stories, and that you often draw on places you’ve lived — is there any place in particular that influenced the setting of Dream of a Better Self?

PC: Yeah, for sure. I lived in the Sea to Sky Corridor for almost two years. That's the name of corridor the leads north of Vancouver and up to Pemberton. The Smoke Bluffs in the story are a sort-of-real place in Squamish. There's a bunch of cliffs with that name; people use them for rock-climbing practice. I shored up there pretty broke during the Olympic housing boom. I lived in my car with a buddy, together for about a month, and then another month or so on my own, until I got my shit together to rent a room. The money came from a framing job I had, and there were a lot of subcontractors on site that remind me of Ron in some way. And the whole town was going through this transitional phase. The logging industry that was so crucial throughout its history was waning and in its stead was emerging a different set of economic development priorities, things like the knowledge industry and tourism. So you had this old guard of rustic, hard-palmed natural resource types sandwiched up against a bunch of green-themed new urbanists, and they were contained on one side by the ocean and on the other by the Coastal Mountain belt.

LF: What is your writing process like? Any rituals / habits / tendencies that border on OCD?

PC: There are definitely things that I tend towards as I get more and more experience. One of those is note-taking. I used to just sit down and start typing, but I've found I write pretty poorly when I do that. So I'll sketch out a skeletal notion of what the plot could be, and then I do character sketches, which sometimes include terrible portrait drawings. I do a lot of my revising as I write, like picking over paragraphs before writing the next one. And everything gets read out loud several times because I like things to meter well, especially if there are a lot of long sentences. And then, once a story is finished, I close the file and ignore it for a couple weeks, during which time I work on something else. Once the previous story isn't so firm in my memory, I read it again to see if it makes any sense. Some finished products are submitted, others are so bad I delete them forever, and others just kind of sit there indefinitely.

LF: I love talking about music and writing (it seems to always be involved in my process — I’ll listen to music while reading and writing, and I usually edit stories to the score of Upstream Color), do the two arts forms ever cross path in your writing?

PC: Yeah, for sure they do. It's changed a bit over the years, and it also depends on how much trouble I'm having with something. In my journalism days, I listened to a lot of heavy, attention-demanding music. Mastodon, Fantomas, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and gnarly, obnoxious stuff like that. Something about hurdling towards a deadline really fits with that sort of soundtrack. I carried these habits into my fiction writing process as well, but found them less productive. The tunes kept yanking me out of my imagination. So I switched to more pensive music. Mars Volta can really work for me, but only the first two albums, and in particular the second, which has loads of jazzy instrumental passages. Same with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's movies scores, although he can sometimes unduly affect my tone. The Decemberists can work really well for me too, but some of their stuff is too lamely indie rock, and other songs are just too good; I wind up listening to the lyrics instead of working. I also flip on classical music sometimes, although I don't really know my way around the genre and occasionally find it more annoying than anything else. Increasingly often, though, I just need total silence, or I can't get focused, particularly during revisions. Or if not total silence, then boring talk radio, background noise I don't really care about beyond the fact that it fills the apartment with some other sound than my own breathing and typing.

LF: Your LF story is based on this idea of people’s better selves coming to life through reflections… what reflective surface would your better self come out of?

PC: Hmmmm. Likely a computer screen, though potentially some piece of my bike. Could also be my bathroom mirror; I always get these alarming reflections of myself lumbering out of the shower like some terrible nightmare of skin and bones and beard. A better self would be most welcome Saturday and Sunday mornings, even if he were compelled to kill me, clearing the way for larger advances on sweeter books.

LF: Lastly, do you have any story recommendations for us (individual pieces or collections)?

PC: Shit, yes. All individuals here, some favourites, some recently read and thoroughly enjoyed.

Greasy Lake – TC Boyle

The Artificial Nigger – Flannery O'Conner

The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street – Mavis Gallant

The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber – Ernest Hemingway

Summer of the Flesh Eater – Zsuzsi Gartner

Six Feet of the Country – Nadine Gordimer

The Mysteries of Joy Rio – Tennessee Williams

Reaction-Formation – C.P. Boyko

Eyes of a Blue Dog – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Vampires in the Lemon Grove – Karen Russell

My Mother's Breasts – David Margoshes



Oberon Press | Indigo

Read Paul’s LITTLE FICTION story: