- Can you please tell us about yourself? Where do you live and how is your daily life?
I live in Barrie, Ontario, a city about an hour and a half north of Toronto. It snows there from October 31 to St. Patrick's Day, usually sideways. I teach Creative Writing, Canadian Literature, and Composition at Georgian College where I am a professor of Liberal Arts, and at Victoria College in the University of Toronto where I am a Fellow of the college and teach Comparative Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry, Non-Fiction).
I've published 63 books of poetry, short fiction, literary journalism, photography,, non-fiction (two national bestseller -- The Golden Thread in 2000 and Portraits of Canadian Writers in 2016). I was the inaugural Poet Laureate of the City of Barrie, and received the Barrie Arts Award Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the arts. I've also won the Woolf Poetry Prize (Zurich), the IP Medal for Best Book of Poems in North America (New York), the Gwendolyn MacEwen Prize for Poetry (2015 and 2016), the E.J. Pratt Gold Medal and Prize for Poetry (1980 and 1981), the Alta Lind Cook Award (1981 and 1982) and have been shortlisted for other prizes such as the Carter V. Cooper Prize for Fiction given by Gloria Vanderbilt. My selected poems, The First Taste (a selection from 40 years of my poetry books) appeared in November. Juan de Dios Torallbo Cabellero of the University of Toledo published a book-length study of my poetry, and a book on my poetry and other writings will be appear from Guernica Editions in 2019 in the Canadian Writers' Series. I
'm best known in Canada for my broacasts on the Great Books, Great Poetry, and A Novel Idea for CBC's This Morning, and the cds from those broadcasts (over sixty hours in all) remain the CBC's bestselling spoken-word audio series. I have a wife (retired CBC financial program producer), a daughter who is studying at Georgian College, and a dog who was the subject of a collection of poetry, Dog Days, that went through four printings here in Canada. I also found a missing decade of Canadian Literature (our World War One trench literature) that became the anthology We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War, co-edited with Barry Callaghan with an Afterword by Margaret Atwood. I'm currently have on four collections of short fiction and two more collections of poetry completed that will see the light of day in the coming several years.
-When Did you start writing? How often do you write?
I taught myself to read at the age of three using a tray table that had the alphabet around the edge, wrote my first poem at the age of five, wrote a stack of short stories at six (the teacher tore them up because I'd glued them to both sides of the construction paper and should only have glued them to one side) and sold my first poem at ten. My first book was a collection of interviews with fourteen Canadian writers that I co-authored with Brian O'Riordan, and my first book of poetry was submitted to a publisher by the late Gwendolyn MacEwen. I write every day. When I'm not working in my study that contains 24,000 books (counted), I keep a lap desk beside my bed in case ideas come to me in the middle of the night. Sometimes, when I'm in my wonderful office at Victoria College, I can produce six or seven poems or two short stories in an afternoon. Once they're down on paper, I edit, re-edit, collect, select, re-edit, sort for manuscripts, and throw things out (in a manner of speaking -- I keep files of the material and sometimes go back to them).
I get physically ill if I can't write. My wife encourages me to write and gives me the time and quiet to do so when I'm not marking the work of 180 students (each student produces about a dozen pieces of work and I don't have any teaching assistants). You could say I am addicted to writing; but that said, I try to read more than I write and usually consume a collection of short stories every three to four days or at least a book of poems per day.If you are interested, I can send you photos of my study. I have the life or death masks of Blake, Dante, and Keats on the walls, and have the library sorted into national sections and alphabetized. When I was 18 I became the youngest editor of the oldest literary magazine in Canada, Acta Victoriana, formerly edited by my mentor, Northrop Frye, and writers who supported and encouraged me throughout my career -- Margaret Avison, Margaret Atwood, and E.J. Pratt (who I met when I was three).
- What is the best thing and the hardest thing about writing flash fiction?
I came to it fairly recently. I was in a serious car accident in November of 2016. I lost the ability to read for about four months. Flash fiction helped my recovery tremendously because the pieces are short, they force one to think in a succinct way, and they demand more than a full-length short story of about 2500 to 10,000 words because flash fiction is more about what one must leave out rather than what one can include. Flash fiction, I tell my students, is the reverse engineering of narrative. In any case, flash fiction helped me with my recovery from the near-fatal accident.
- How did you come up with the ideas for your two stories long-listed for the LIS Prize?
Toll was about the knife sharpeners who used to walk the streets of Toronto. I started thinking about kids I knew at school who didn't make it to adulthood. The rest of the story fell into place from there, especially when I recalled moving my mother from her house (she's 89 and lives in a condo now) and finding a box of my grandmother and great grandmother's knives. They were almost tooth picks because they'd been sharpened so much. The grinders or sharpeners were usually new immigrants to Canada who would show you the price on a cardboard chart but wouldn't say anything else.
Alabaster came to me after I bought an alabaster parrot for my wife in a barn sale on Manitoulin Island where I often spend my summers -- it is the largest island on a fresh water lake in the world and part of the island was never ceded to Canada by the indigenous population so it literally is another country -- I often swim across a channel from my brother-in-law's cottage and as I leave I tell everyone I'm swimming out of the country, which is the case. My wife set the parrot up beside our main phone in our living room and one day when I was caught up in a long conference call that wasn't going anywhere I stared at the parrot and the story started to come together for me.
Stories don't have to come from difficult places. What is obvious, what is right in front of you is the best place to start. My friend and mentor, the poet David Wevill, says "the hardest thing to imagine is yourself," and that goes for writing flash fiction. The best material is right in front of you, the little things that you notice when you aren't looking for anything in particular. I just let things talk to me and the story develops from there (not literally talk to me, but you get the idea, I hope). Think about what things are telling you. Rilke had made the point in Letters to a Young Poet where he told Franz Kappus, "write about the life of things." Rilke had the ability to notice the details in life that shoot by a person but are essential to that person's being whether they realize it or not. Noticing things doesn't take time. It takes eyes. I tell my students not to write with paper bags over their heads. I make them carry a notebook. Their notebook should never be more than three feet from their writing hand. See it. Record it. Tell its story. And what you see is not only things but people, moments. You hear words or conversations. That's the fabric of life that escapes us all too easily. Don't let it slip by. You're living it. Carry it with you.
-Can you please give us a few tips about flash fiction?
Keep an eye on your word count as you write. Practice writing flash fiction by learning the art of pure haiku. Like haiku, flash fiction has a very definite set of rules. There are so many things you can't do in a haiku or in a flash fiction story that you learn what you can do and try to develop your material from there. I do believe brevity is the soul of wit to quote Shakespeare. Flash fiction needs to be brief and what it tells me as a writer is that there's a great deal that I can do without. Writing is about selecting. Don't give everything away. Make the reader do some work; or give the reader something that strikes them before it bores them. I'm working on a novel at the moment and it is a completely different beast. Fiction as a broad term is a bit like the word love. Okay. You love something. How do you love it? It is a term that needs to be parsed. Fiction is not just about telling stories but about how they ar told, and in the how resides the beauty of specific types of fiction. Flash fiction is, perhaps, the most demanding form of fiction but when you get it right it is the most rewarding. You can't have a single word out of place. There simply isn't room to manoeuvre. It has to be exact. It is a bit like one of those stacking puzzles. You keep pulling out blocks until your realize you can pull out any more or it will topple. That said, limitations are the joy of expansiveness (my quote), and I'm reminded of what Robert Frost said about poetry -- poetry without rules is like playing tennis without the net up. So, with flash fiction, you learn where the net is. You learn what you can do to return a service, to volley, to aim for that special sweet spot where the story lives, where you can score your point without any questions or doubts on the reader's part, and then forget about the other things. If you don't need them, why bother with them? Flash fiction is expansive because it is the art of leaving things out.
- What's the best thing about having a deadline?
Life is deadlines. We're up against them every minute even if we don't notice them. I love jazz. I love the fact that Frank Sinatra recorded most of his songs in one take. He had to get it right the first time. Deadlines remind you not of what you want or need to finish but about what you want to start next. I have a whole world of things I want to write over the next twenty-five years (if I am lucky and as long-lived as my family members who died of immortality). I have a lot I want to accomplish. Get it down. Get it fixed. Get it right. I also used to work, many years ago, as a journalist for Southam News and the Windsor Star. I'd be given a topic or a subject to interview and told I had to do the interview and make it snappy, and get it exactly to length in 24 hours. That was good training (and the money was very good when an article got syndicated through the entire chain). I was the clean-up man on the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature one summer when I was a graduate student. I paid my way over to England (where I interviewed about 40 British poets) by being given a list of articles that hadn't come in by the Friday deadline. The editor would say "here are the Ds. I need five hundred words on each author by Monday morning." I got them all done. I never missed an assignment, and I ended up contributing about 40 entries to the 1983 edition of the Companion.
- Lastly, do you recommend writers to give flash fiction a go and send it to the LISP?
Absolutely. My only regret is that I finished out of the money, but hey, as they say in Hollywood, it is nice to be nominated. I make my students write flash fiction -- even in courses where I teach Creative Non-Fiction. Why? There's an old saying about holding peoples' attention at public gatherings: be brief, be to the point, and be seated. Flash fiction thrives on the element of surprise -- it is over in a flash, and like a good memory, the ones that stay with you are often those fleeting moments of insight that aren't drawn out. It is the moment that lasts.
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