Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Peter Unwin

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Peter Unwin

Peter Unwin is the author of the short fiction collection Life Without Death (Cormorant Books). The stories are full to bursting with characters whose lives, desires and questions are complex and thought provoking.

From a woman left with her dying father's secret stash of pornography to a new father unexpectedly discovering a way of connecting to his autistic son, the stories ask readers to consider relationships in fresh ways.

Today Peter speaks to Open Book about Canada's relationship to the short story, the necessity of bravery and some all-time favourites of short fiction.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Life Without Death.

Peter Unwin:

The stories in Life Without Death deal with lived experience; that quality of knowledge, sometimes tragic knowledge, that comes of time and experience. Very often the characters in this collection have “been around the block,” and sometimes more than once. On a few occasions the characters are very young, and about to set out on their own journeys around the block, and sometimes on not the most even of footing. I am interested primarily in those moments when language itself, finds itself capable of capturing the complexities of commonplace existence, and making them visible, or tangible to the reader.


How did the collection come together? How did you decide on the collection's organization? Were there any stories that you decided didn't fit?


I decided on a structure that was loosely circular rather than linear. I wanted the stories to keep turning back on the same characters, or approximately the same characters, at different points in their lives, to reveal the hardening, or perhaps the softening that they had undergone as people.


What criteria make a great short story, in your opinion? Are there things you love about writing short fiction specifically? Are there challenges unique to the genre?


I think the crucial element for me in any writing, and the short story as well, is bravery. There must, for me, be courage in the writing; the courage not to sound pretty, the courage to resist the popular tropes and the language of what passes for successful writing. The second thing is significance; writing, for me, must matter, it must attempt to matter. If it fails, and often it does, I can at least admire it for trying. I tend not to distinguish the “forms” of writing. To me I find little difference between writing a poem and a short story, the two in fact, are very closely related. I particularly like the short story because it is unforgiving, and leaves no rooms for mistakes.


There are a lot of complicated relationships in the collection, especially family relationships. Is this a challenging subject to tackle? What do you enjoy about crafting complex relationships?


I most enjoyed writing the dinner scene in the story “Quintet.” Four people, all with different agendas, different needs, forced to come together in an uneasy community, where for a moment at least, all the different tensions driving them in different directions, are briefly set aside. The dinner scene is a set piece from literature and I tend to stay away from such scenes. In this case I was very pleased with how it turned out.


Canada in particular seems to produce amazing short story writers. Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?


I admire Mavis Gallant a great deal, or course. Again, for her courage, and for the significance of her writing. It is probably right for a young nation to work in a young literary format such as the short story, but the novel is not much older either. If you look back to the 19th century, the pickings are rather slim for the short format. I’m not sure that things have changed very much. The truth is writers love to write short stories. The publishing industry however, particularly the large publishers, are very unwilling to touch them. This is one of those case where the industry sets the agenda, and the writers who are the content providers, find themselves almost forced to move on to a novel, very quickly, perhaps too quickly, in order match up with what the industry desires. I think the short story collection largely exists because we simply refuse to stop writing them.


Who are some of your favourite short fiction writers? Is there a short story you've read that you would consider a perfect piece of short fiction?


A book that was very influential for me was Mikhail Zoshcenko’s Scenes From a Bath House, that luscious, side-splitting irony, the fine ear for dialect and for how people speak. Robert Stone’s Bear and his Daughter, is, in my mind, a tremendous collection of stories. Along with anything, anything at all, by James Salter. If ever I need to go back to understand the mechanics of humour, I will dip into Stephen Leacocks, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.


What are you working on now?


Currently I'm in University taking a M.A. in Culture and Communication, so I am writing papers, on subjects ranging from Beckett to Beowulf. My next novel, Searching For Petronius Totem, is very close to completion.

Peter Unwin was born in Sheffield, England and was raised in southern Ontario. He studied at Carleton University in Ottawa, and then moved to Toronto where he took on various jobs as a grain handler, beer porter, a denture courier and a journalist. He has travelled extensively in Ontario and was once thrown out of Providence Bay by someone who claimed to be the mayor. Currently, he lives in Toronto.

For more information about Life Without Death please visit the Cormorant Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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