Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Tim Conley

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Tim Conley

Tim Conley's newest collection of short stories, Dance Moves of the Near Future (New Star Books), puts the emphasis on "short", with 24 wonderfully weird and witty stories packed into 160 pages. Tim has been praised by author Emily Schultz for his "strange and wonderful" stories that exhibit "humour, imagination and total command" and those qualities are on full display in his newest offering.

To mark the publication of Dance Moves of the Near Future, we spoke with Tim about what draws him to shorter story lengths, the best and worst things about short fiction and the tricky enterprise of writing humour.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Dance Moves of the Near Future.

Tim Conley:

It’s a collection of twenty-four fictions.


What is the central story in the collection, in your opinion? Tell us a bit about how the collection came together structurally for you.


There is no “central story” that I know of, though (unlike in my previous collections) there is a “title story.” As a writer I try very hard not to repeat myself: fiction is all about possibility, and I try to maximize that possibility.


Many of the stories are quite short, which seems to energize the collection. What do you like about creating short-short stories? Why do you think we’re often used to longer short fiction?


There are several reasons why given forms and expectations become standards, and most of them have to do with the marketing of culture. For example, the tendency for pop songs to be around two and a half minutes long is a product of both the expectations of the music industry (your song has to fit in radio’s tight niche between commercials, for example, and perhaps one day your perfectly-sized song will be used in one of those same important commercials) and the more or less willing repetition of this pattern by subsequent generations of musicians. There are likewise recognizable paradigms of short fiction: the New Yorker story is a case in point, but so are insistences made by publishers, editors, professors of literature, and creative writing instructors that a story must have this or that element, from Joycean “epiphany” to emotive resolution to whatever else.

Perhaps the worst thing about short fiction is how so much of it ploddingly follows the same rules, plays to the same expectations, and probably the best thing about short fiction is how free it can be from the generally fiercer restrictions that (often) cage the novel, the essay. How short is a short story? “Story” may well be a bigger problem of conception and terminology than “short” is, and I confess to being not entirely comfortable with calling what’s in Dance Moves “stories” (for me the word “fiction” is more flexible and covers a little more ground). Knowing when to stop is one of the key problems for any artist. You go just as far as you can go and no farther, and sometimes a nod is richer than an hour’s conversation.


You’ve been praised for your humour in this and other work, something a lot of writers find difficult. What would your advice be for writers looking to get some belly laughs from readers?


I don’t know. There’s a story about a man who visits a friend in another country. The visitor has never been there before and so his friend shows him around, introduces him to a few people, and one night takes him out to a party. At one point in the party, someone says very clearly, “Thirty-six.” Everybody starts laughing uproariously, except of course the visitor. A few minutes later another person announces, “Nineteen!” and the whole room cracks up again. “One hundred and twelve.” Sniggering everywhere. “Sixty.” Sheer hysterics. The visitor draws his friend aside and asks what the heck is going on. The friend explains that this group has been friends for such a long time that they know all of each other’s jokes: they have a kind of shared repertoire, and all anyone need do is say the number assigned to a given joke, and everybody remembers it. The visitor, impressed, watches as more numbers are called out and more waves of laughter roll in. Emboldened by his third drink, he steps forward and says, “Forty-three!” Apart from one obviously polite chuckle, silence. He retreats, blushing, and finds his friend. “What happened?” he asks. “Is number forty-three not a funny one?” “Oh, it’s hilarious, one of the best,” his friend replies, “but it’s all in how you tell it.”


Tell us about what your writing space looks like. What would an ideal writing day be like for you?


I have an attic study: ceiling of cedar shingles, dark bamboo floor, books all over the place. That’s where most of the writing gets done, though I do sometimes work on a laptop (or even occasionally by longhand on a yellow pad) on the front porch in summer. The ideal writing day doesn’t exist, or at any rate I’ve never seen one. Any day where a decent quantity of work judged to be more promising than contemptible gets done is good enough and probably all that can be hoped for.


Do you have an all time favourite short fiction collection, as a reader? And what is the best collection you’ve read recently?


I don’t think I have an “all-time favourite” anything, but of course there are collections I love and admire, just as there are individual stories that shine very brightly in my mind’s eye. Idly compiling the dream anthology of one’s own favourite stories is an enduring pastime. But thinking in terms of collections rather than stories is like thinking in terms of albums rather than singles, and we all have albums we cannot help but listen to the whole way through. An edition of Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics published last year has gathered together all of these stories that are a genre of their own (Lucretian love letters, evolutionary family yarns), and it is a joy to reread them all in one volume. Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces and Pierre Michon’s Masters and Servants have been recent, illuminating diversions.


What are you working on now?


More of the same, but different. So maybe another collection in a few years. And there’s a longer project that I whittle away on now and again, but with the knowledge that a publisher would probably have to be fairly crazy to take it on.

Tim Conley's recent books include the poetry collection One False Move (2012), Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (edited, with Jed Rasula, 2012) and Nothing Could be Further: Thirty Stories (2011). He teaches English at Brock University, and has published widely on Joyce, Nabokov and other aspects of twentieth–century literature.

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