25th Trillium Award

Waiting for the Story: Shane Neilson, on Writing Will

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Shane Neilson

Shane Neilson is best known for his poetry and criticism, but for many years he has had a collection of short stories brewing. Will, published this fall with Enfield & Wizenty, covers expansive territory, drawing from trials in his own personal life, his professional experience as a medical doctor and, of course, wide-ranging reading. Cultural figures from Vladimir Nabokov to Michael Jackson to Alden Nowlan make appearances, as does the iconic World War I poet John McCrae.

Today, Shane tells us about the long road he travelled with this manuscript, and why it was important for him to write — and wait — with patience.

Find out about the book that changed Shane's life in his previous feature, "On Forgiveness: Reading Nowlan's The Wanton Troopers"

Waiting for the Story: On Writing Will

There?s something to waiting. In terms of poetry, I struggled to get published in book format, having appeared in journals for 15 years before finally making the grade in trade with Meniscus published by Biblioasis in 20091. The problem was my desire outstripped my editorial capacity: when I thought I had something together, I sent a manuscript out. And in so doing, I disappointed the aesthetic sense of publishers who, in some cases, were surprised I sent them a book as bad as I did.

I had a core of strong work about an alcoholic father and a farm, but around that core I arranged a rotating cast of also-rans. I just didn?t understand that the whole work had to be as good as it could be before a publisher would take it, before people would read it, before the work got acknowledged. (I even had the necessary group of poems, I just didn?t know which ones they were.) I didn?t understand that the work had to be strong in itself before I?d lose my misgivings about publishing it — the writer?s remorse of publishing a book that represented a great struggle, but which didn?t do justice to the struggle.

Prepublication, I had this question in mind: can I make Meniscus better? I felt I could have, which is, looking back, a rather suicidal way to publish. And it?s true, I could have made each trade book I?ve published thus far better, but the bigger truth is that I didn?t know how. The solution had something to do with waiting, but I might have been waiting for what would never come. I had a drive to publish that made sense then, so it should make sense to me now. One has to get one?s start. And yet ?

But since 1999, there?s been another project that didn?t follow the same publishing pattern, a prose project that wasn?t in a hurry. I?ve been writing short stories (the first I published was in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal in 2000, a brief one lovingly satirizing Leonard Cohen) and I stored these stories away. I used a magazine strategy, sending stories to venues in the hopes of publication and, barring that, feedback. I got some of the former and less of the latter, which is the way of things.

Something bad happened to my children in 2010 and I looked again at my store of prose narrative. I returned to that store, refining it, adding to it. I wrote a story about a sick boy who needs an ambulance. I wrote a Michael Jackson story, which is actually about a philosophical anaesthetist addicted to sevoflurane. I wrote ?JD Accidental?, a modern update of John Cheever?s ?The Swimmer?, except in this case the father moves not from backyard swimming pool to swimming pool but from basement rec room to rec room. I spent three more years on this material, adding stories, resuscitating stories, then palliating stories.

I worked harder than I ever have on a manuscript. And I feel good about that. The self-editorial process was severe and my editor, Maurice Mierau, told me he?s never seen the like of it before. Maurice was kind enough to let me be vicious to myself. He tolerated incessant change. When we were done, I knew that there might still be small errors in Will, things that escaped a proofing dredge, but I also knew that, aesthetically, I couldn?t have made the thing better — I did everything I could. A book has to stop somewhere and this is where it stops. I handed the book in without the nagging sense of doubt, the previous feeling of desperation and hurry. I handed the book in, exhausted. This means I was happy.

Because I?m from the East Coast, I thought I?d adhere to the EastCoastCon rules a little. I wrote about an alcoholic father, a crazy family and, as George Elliot Clarke put it so bitterly in Execution Poems, ?Fredericton — *ucking — New Brunswick.? I tried to make an image of a field iconic in the text, as important to the book as the image is to me personally. Sensing this, the book?s designer put a field on the cover. She made the cover black, which I love, and she put the title standing erect in the field. Though my father?s middle name is Douglas and everyone calls him Doug, including my grandfather and grandmother when they were alive, his first name is William. Having that word — Will — stand up in a dark field wasn?t orchestrated by me, and maybe that?s why it looks so good and makes so much sense. I?ll never forget my father standing in such a field along the Trans-Canada Highway, baffled and defiant. I never told Maurice about this secret provenance of the title, but that disclosure wasn?t key. The title has more significance than my personal one.

I had to wait a long, long time for this hardcover book of short stories. I was supposed to wait, because the stories needed to wait. They waited for me. Now they?re waiting for you.

1Zach Wells was my editor for Meniscus and he saved me from myself on countless occasions. To give you a sense of his guidance, I think I handed him 150 manuscript pages. I don?t do this sort of thing anymore.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick. Will is his first collection of short fiction. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Complete Physical (The Porcupine's Quill), which was nominated for the 2011 Trillium Book Award for Poetry.

For more information about Will please visit the Enfield & Wizenty website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore, online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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