Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: The State of Short Fiction Part Six: The Crafty Wick of Zsuzsi Gartner

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Conflict of Interest: The State of Short Fiction Part Six: The Crafty Wick of Zsuzsi Gartner

By Nathaniel G Moore

Did you know? Most of Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living through Plastic Explosives (seven out of the ten stories) was written from Victoria Day 2008 to August 2010. The oldest story in the book is "What are we doing here?" and the youngest is "Mister Kakami."

Did you also know? Gartner defended Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version on the CBC's Canada Reads 2004.

Over the last couple of years, one of my closest friends in the writing community and I have been meeting up, and, on occasion, we have engaged in topics of fandom for certain styles of fiction. He often professes that no one in Canada writes in an elongated sentence structure; the kind of writing that luxuriates in a profound and occasionally maniacal system of thought. I was reminded of these discussions while reading Gartner's latest fiction book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, which is pretty much the polar opposite of the normative dosage we are used to having recommended by the expert leaders of Canadian Literature. Whether this will lead to a revolution in how prose is delivered and absorbed in the usual template of writer-reader arrangements remains to be seen.

But hold on, this is Open Book: Toronto and Zsuzsi Gartner is from Vancouver. With an author that far away and with the NHL playoffs winding down and online searches for "Vancouver Canucks," "Zsuzsi Gartner wins Conn Smyth Trophy 2011!" and "Sedin twins look to Gartner for overtime magic" accruing like mad, let me tell you a bit about her before we move on to her latest offering and possibly the best-designed book in the history of Canadian publishing.

Gartner was born in Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver. In 1999, her first collection of short fiction, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, was published. In 2009, she edited Darwin's Bastard, an all-star anthology of speculative fiction, which led to a parade of innovative and entertaining launches. The Globe and Mail praised it, ("Canadians who read this book will be proud to see that their imaginative landscape is as wildly bizarre — and honest to the truth — as ever") and challenged readers to look past the apocalyptic tones for virtue.

"So many things about Darwin's Bastards was fun," Gartner reflects, "but I have to say that the two costume party, cabaret-style launches we had in Vancouver and Toronto were the very definition of a great time. (And I loved using the voice modulator I rented — talking like an alien-overlord — that was fun!)"

Now back to the new book. I found that the stories in BLTPE appeared to be carved from an alchemical and emotional starting point, where the characters are fully formed and in the midst of vignettes of confrontation or interpretation. I asked Zzusi if she had ever heard about the "old future." It's a term they applied to George Lucas for his first stab at the Star Wars trilogy: an aesthetic that is futuristic but is beaten up, established and raw.

"I love the term 'old future'! I'm reading a lot of steampunk stuff right now and it seems to apply to that as well, although that wasn't something I was conscious of while writing the stories in Better Living . . .." Gartner tells me in rapid-fire syntax (special effects via email).

I continued to assault the keyboard with rapid fire queries, like a Dr Pepper-strung-out-high-school-arcade pimp: How do you feel about your characters, did you beat them up enough before final drafting them and putting them out their on exhibit? How drastically do your stories change from early drafts to their final resting place in the virtues of domestic voyeurism and lucid hilarity?

"My characters come to me already 'beaten up' (or pre-distressed?), and then I don't start writing really until I understand most of the story I want to tell (in the form of notes in notebook, and on index cards, and in my head)," Gartner explained.

I usually have my starting point and I write my endings early on, so much of the struggle during the actual writing process is getting from A to Z. Because I usually start each writing day going through what I have from beginning to end and adding and layering and filling in incomplete scenes, I don't so much have "drafts" as multitudinous layers, so by the end there is a (hopefully) satisfying palimpsest (or, as you say: "their final resting place in the virtues of domestic voyeurism and lucid hilarity"! that's a keeper for me.)

Lately, in my Conflict of Interest column, I have been examining the short story, and it is, in my opinion, a vulnerable and possibly endangered species, yet authors such as Jessica Westhead, Sarah Selecky, Black, Matthew Trafford and Hal Niedzviecki are demonstrating that not everyone is "working on their novel." I asked Gartner to comment.

I really don't think it's endangered so much as undervalued by publishers (and marketing departments) who treat it as a warm-up act to a novel and demand a two-book deal from authors with the second book being a novel (which the bulk of the advance goes to) . I want to make it absolutely clear though that neither Patrick Crean, who published my first collection when he was at Key Porter, nor Nicole Winstanley at Penguin with Better Living . . ., demanded a two-book deal. They respected and valued the story collections in and of themselves, for which I am very grateful. If only booksellers and awards lists and Heather R. would follow suit, the readers and customers would follow.

Gartner points out with poise that Jessica Westhead's first book was in fact a novel (Pulpy and Midge), and her latest book is a story collection. She reminds me that Sarah Selecky "is uniquely and strongly dedicated to the short story," while Matthew Trafford is, "I believe, now working on a novel, and Hal Niedzviecki has published novels" (The Program and Ditch). She surmises: "That said, I have no genre prejudices. My next book may be a YA steampunk novel, a book of non-fiction or another story collection or all of the above!"

This of course brings us from the teetering wall of the present literary landscape to the soft doughy vulnerable horizon of the future. What powder keg of literary acumen does Gartner have in store for us down the road? "Ah, I've already spilled part of the beans above. As for daily routine, I currently don't have one as I've just come off a full month of being under the weather, teaching in Banff and travelling in and out of town doing various book launch events. When I am writing, I have to get at it first thing in the morning and am not allowed to check email or Internet at all or answer the phone until three hours have gone by or I've written at least 500 words. I have to be my own bad cop otherwise the mental energy of the day gets squandered."

Nathaniel G. Moore (a.k.a. Notho, N Zero) will be participating at Opium Magazine's Literary Death Match on June 9th (tickets now on sale), which he feels is himself versus a lot of Samantha Haywood clients. He will be reading from a part of his unpublished novel, The Last Savage, which is coming out on Joyland soon.

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