Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Interview with CBC Canada Writes Winner Jane Eaton Hamilton

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Jane Eaton Hamilton (photo credit: Ash McGregor)

Jane Eaton Hamilton's "Smiley" rose above more than 3,000 other short stories to capture the 2014 CBC Canada Writes crown. In one small package, Jane tackles family and food, gender identity and longing, and coming of age.

We had the chance to speak with Jane about her big win, which is in fact her second — she was previously awarded the CBC Canada Writes prize (then known as the CBC Short Story prize) in 2003. Her work has also appeared in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories as well as in publications throughout North America.

Jane tells us about how "Smiley" came to be, which of her characters is like a Peanuts cartoon and how a great short story is like an iceberg.

Open Book:

The voice of the narrator, Jill, in your story "Smiley" is so fully realised in such a short piece. How did Jill come to you?

Jane Eaton Hamilton:

That’s gratifying to hear that you think so. In the alchemy that is creation, Jill/Jake just began to write himself. I was more like a reader in the process, watching him unfurl his life; I scrambled along in his wake. I had decided to write a piece for this competition, as I do every year, and did even in the years I wasn’t writing, and sat down with my laptop in the one day I had available. I put down the first two words and then I was just following this interesting character and I didn’t pause to think about where the story was going or whether it was going to work, just having the overarching word limit in mind so that it wouldn’t veer away from me; I do remember feeling a slight frisson of fear — a signal that something fresh was happening. I was as surprised as anyone about how it turned out.

I saw the mom in the story, by the way, as the mom in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons, a deep voice whose words aren’t really even distinguishable — they’re just authority.


What was your reaction when you found out "Smiley" had won the competition? What did you set out to do in this story?


I was delighted! I stopped writing for 8 years and I’m just now wobbling my way back to it.

I didn’t have an agenda with this story; I had just moved, company was on their way into town, I had a day for this. I had no idea as I went along that the child I was writing about was going to be trans; I didn’t know why he was drying bird nests; I didn’t know a lick more than a reader would know at a similar place in the story. There are two exceptions to this: I was using bird imagery and conflating the plight of songbirds in N Africa and Europe, and of course smileys because smileys are what smileys are — the grinning butchered, and I had always wanted to write about their rictus.


How would you describe a great short story? What do you look for as a reader?


I like stories that are like icebergs — ten percent shows but we can feel the resonance of the 90% that doesn’t. Character-driven stories. Language-driven stories. Intelligent stories, where you can feel the wide-range of the mind that created them. Daring stories. Foolhardy stories. Stories that make me breathe faster.


How did you choose the South African setting for "Smiley"? Is that a part of the world to which you have a particular connection?


I choose S. Africa because of the weaver birds. I have photographed there, in Cape Town and north in Namaqualand. My best memories of Africa beyond its startling beauty is of the bird life — hornbills! Secretary birds!


"Smiley" deals deftly with issues of gender identity. What was your approach to writing about such an emotionally loaded subject?


I don’t think gender identity is any more or less loaded than anything a child has difficulty with, so I didn’t have a particular approach. I’m glad we can tell stories now about gender-queer kids.


Have you had a chance to celebrate your Canada Writes win? What will you do or have you done to mark the occasion?


My celebration will be reading at Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.


What are you working on now?


I have a couple short fiction books ready, a book of poetry coming out this fall with Caitlin Press, and I’m finishing a book of flash fictions. I’m also working slowly on a novel.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry. Her poetry volume Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes is coming out fall 2014. Her book July Nights was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes and Hunger was shortlisted for the Ferro Grumley Award. Body Rain, her first book of poetry, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award, and her chapbook, Going Santa Fe, won the League of Canadian Poets Poetry Chapbook Award. She has published in the New York Times, Seventeen magazine, Salon, Numero Cinq, Macleans, the Globe and Mail, The Missouri Review, Ms blog, the Alaska Quarterly Review and many other places.

Jane is also a photographer and visual artist and was a litigant in Canada’s same-sex marriage case. She lives in Vancouver.

To Read "Smiley" online, please visit the CBC Canada Writes website.

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