Brent van Staalduinen lives, works, and finds his voice in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The winner of the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and the Short Works Prize, his work is forthcoming in Prairie Fire Magazine and appears in The Prairie Journal, EVENT Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, The New Guard Literary Review, Litro Magazine, The Nottingham Review, Agnes and True, and MASH Stories. He is a graduate of the prestigious MFA creative writing program at the University of British Columbia and teaches creative writing at Redeemer University College. You can read more about him here at his website and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Interview by Samantha James
You’ve won several short story prizes including the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and been published in literary magazines and anthologies, but writing was not your first endeavour. What informed your decision to begin writing creatively and what was the journey to success like for you?
Although fiction and creative nonfiction have really been my focus for the past decade or so, writing has long been part of who I am. As far back as middle school, my teachers told me I wrote well, and I continued to write effective essays and other writing tasks right the way through college. I’ve always been a big reader, which I think laid a firm and early foundation for crafting words effectively.
In university I was an English major, and was fortunate to take a few creative writing classes along with my literature studies. However, those courses happened in a bit of a vacuum where, although the lessons on craft and workshopping were excellent, the topic of journal or magazine submission wasn’t covered. As such, after graduation my work sat in storage for about ten years, unread and undeveloped.
It wasn’t until after returning from overseas—where I’d been fortunate to write regularly for Bazaar, a Kuwait lifestyle magazine, thus rekindling my love of creative writing—that I dug out one of those old stories. I thought, “Huh. This is pretty good.” I made a few small revisions, submitted it to a few journals and a contest, and ended up getting an honourable mention in the contest and publication in the sponsoring journal. After that, I was hooked.
Was any of your work rejected prior to publication and how did you find the courage to resubmit?
Heck, yes. I got—and get—rejected a lot. Partially that has to do with volume: I’m not a believer in submitting to one journal at a time and waiting. My Duotrope account—an excellent resource for sourcing and tracking submissions—currently has me running about a 5% acceptance rate from a total of slightly more than 260 submissions. The math is pretty clear: that’s a lot of “No, thanks.”
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was to become best friends with rejection. So I have. Rejection is simply part of the business of writing, so I’ve learned not to take it (too) personally.
That said, if I don’t rush my revisions and make sure what I’m putting out there is the best work I can possibly produce, I know my work is good enough to place. Any courage I might claim comes simply from persistence and continually developing my craft. A bonus is the occasional buzz from seeing the words, “We’re pleased to accept your work for publication.…”
You have also found success as a creative writing teacher. How has teaching informed your writing process?
Teaching writing continually reminds me of how much I don’t know.
One of the most rewarding aspects of helping undergrads or high school students develop their skills as writers is the exposure I get to genres and styles that are unfamiliar to me, and helping writers develop distinctive styles and voices within the stories they want to tell. That last part is the most important part of teaching creative writing, in my opinion—my job isn’t to mould students into a particular style, but to help them find their own narratives, learning to recognize themselves in their “writing mirror.” And I think that focusing on good craft—characterization, plotting and outlining, setting, and effective revision habits—is the best way to make sure that those unique stories are told well.
…and then I turn the mirror around, pointing it back at myself and my own stories.
You’ve written in several formats and genres including creative nonfiction. Do different genres (novel, short story, columns and/or nonfiction, fantasy, realism etc) inform each other in your work?
Absolutely. Craft is craft. The best parts of our writing we can develop in one genre can only help as we cross over to others. For example, I’m often inspired by (and envious of) how well poets can write prose, because poetry is writing in its most focused and intense form. No waste, no fat, no dilution. Just pure words.
While completing my MFA through the University of British Columbia, though fiction was my focus, I was also fortunate to take two excellent creative nonfiction classes with Wayne Grady, a standout Canadian nonfiction and fiction writer. His courses were a revelation—mixing in the traditional elements of fiction with true stories has lifted my nonfiction to another level. And vice versa.
What do you feel is the most important element of writing short fiction and why? (ie character, setting, plot etc)
I couldn’t say. This sounds pat, I know, but I truly believe that every story finds its own way to breathe, depending on its specific oxygen needs and demands. The short stories that resonate most for me illustrate those elements’ infinite possibilities: short, intense stories that focus on a moment or a particular crisis, are sparsely populated, and don’t create easy answers or resolutions.
Your first novel, Saints Unexpected, is due for publication in spring of 2016. You’ve said that the novel was born from a short story. How easy was the move from short fiction to long and which form do you prefer and why?
I wrote the original story in 2009 and Mutton, my protagonist, never really left. She sat in the back of my writer’s brain, periodically elbowing whichever lobe is responsible for fiction to remind me that I wasn’t finished with her. Finally, that cheeky git engineered a break-out in 2012 to run havoc around the first draft of Saints, and hasn’t given me a moment’s peace since.
Before I wrote Saints, a NaNoWriMo project, I wrote two other novel manuscripts—which are sitting comfortably in dark, dusty drawers—that were pure novel projects, conceived and outlined and drafted as novels right from the get-go. Most of the short prose I published in the past two years happened while I was working on my MFA thesis novel and working on the final revisions for Saints.
All this to say that long and short fictions were (and are) happening simultaneously, and I jump between them as needs must. Ideally, I’d dedicate the necessary amount of time to a particular stage of a project and then switch gears after, but more often than not in the middle of a longer project I’ll drop everything for a few days to work on a shorter piece, obsessively drafting to keep me from losing my idea, and then go back to the longer piece, where I realize I’ve forgotten what I was working on there and that I’ll need lots of coffee to get my momentum back, only to find myself staring at cupboards and asking myself why I came into the kitchen in the first place.
It’s a bit like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, but never making it to your table and instead camping out amidst the steam-trays, pasta stations, and DIY meat bars. You find yourself sampling quick appetizers here, settling in for a longer roast beef session there, then in mid-bite realize that you need some ice cream, but just as you take that icy first bite, a server puts a glass of dry red in your hand, and you realize you’d rather be working on the beef after all, and then someone brings out new gravy for the mash.
How easy was the publishing process and how did you begin the journey?
My first novel manuscript landed me an agent and a year of feverish revisions, only to discover that she’d lost confidence in the project somewhere along the way. So we broke up. Meantime, I’d begun my second novel, which was way, way, way too ambitious (6 main characters in a linked narrative, twenty-four years in scope, across four continents) and wouldn’t generate much interest from agents. Then I wrote, revised, and sent out my third novel, Saints, which got some interest, and signed with an amazing, keen agent who was an amazing champion of my work. However, she left agenting for family needs and to pursue her own writing (and rightly so, as she has her own novel on the way: Roz Nay is her name, so watch for her work to burn up the scene), leaving me in the hands of the less-enthusiastic owner of the agency, who submitted to a number of publishers but didn’t do much follow-up. The submissions fizzled. We broke up. So, I decided to try my hand at submitting to independent publishers, which was an unexpected and highly satisfying success—I had a number of full manuscript requests and in the end two firm offers to publish, the stronger by far being from Invisible Publishing. I signed.
In short, not easy. But enlightening. And now there’s a novel coming out in April. The stuff of dreams, y’know?
What things have you learnt about yourself and your writing from your publishing experiences?
That being able to craft words effectively is not only an incredible joy but also a huge privilege—those of us given the opportunity to bless others with our writing have a responsibility, I think, to make sure that our words do something beyond the page. Words matter.
And finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Keep reading. Write, write, write. Revise. Join a small writing group where everyone is better than you and pay attention to what they say. Revise again. Submit, submit, submit. Don’t wait for anything too long, and always have another project on the go. Become best friends with rejection. Repeat.
The Short Story Interview / Samantha James / 11th December 2015