25th Trillium Award

On Writing: The CBC Short Story Prize Edition, with Eliza Robertson

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Congratulations to the finalists for the CBC?s Canada Writes Short Story Prize! The five short-listed authors for the English-language competition are Becky Blake, Mathew Howard, Roderick Moody-Corbett, Eliza Robertson and Jay Tameling. Their stories were selected from a pool of over 2,400 submissions. At stake is the the grand prize of $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a two-week residency at The Banff Centre, publication in Air Canada's enRoute magazine and well-deserved bragging rights. The jury, made up of Can. Lit giants Esi Edugyan, Lawrence Hill and Vincent Lam, will announce their choice for the winning story on Tuesday, March 26.

Open Book: Ontario has caught up with each of the finalists to find out more about their stories. Today, Eliza Robertson tells us about "L'Étranger," a story written in a "greasy hole in Toulouse" and loosely inspired by a trapped garden slug. You can read "L'Étranger" here.

Open Book:

Tell us about "L'Étranger."

Eliza Robertson:

The story is about two women living in Marseille. The narrator has just finished her studies in England. Her housemate is from Ukraine. She has a few ticks, which ultimately involve slugs.


Can you tell us where the germ of the idea for this story came from?


I wrote this story while living in a greasy hole in Toulouse. I was surrounded with so much oily wallpaper that it peeled off into my writing. Slugs invaded the studio every time it rained. I would wake to these glistening trails across my suitcase. A few nights I caught them in action. Often I tossed the things outside, but one night I was too tired or repulsed. I set a yogurt bucket over the slug and went to bed. I did not sleep. I could hear the container scrape as the slug odysseyed across the floor.


What was the biggest challenge you ran into while writing this story?


The honest and boring answer is word count. I wrote this with the CBC contest in mind. My original draft was 2000 words, which was 500 too long. Also, I don?t often write fiction inspired by people I know, or recent experiences, so that was another challenge. The roommate character was based on someone I used to live with. I found it difficult to remain objective. A detail important for me may not be important for the story.


What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a short story?


I suppose what I enjoy most about writing short stories is what I enjoy most about writing in general. It?s that elusive state you reach, on a good day, where you pluck the words right out of the air. On those days, you forget yourself completely. You write through lunch. But that?s rare. I also enjoy the research you do in conjunction with writing. I collect task-bars. By the end of a session, I?ll have twelve or thirteen windows on slug species, say, or the arrondissements in Marseille, or the weekday hours of Carrefour. For example.


How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?


Details! Concrete details. As I said, I rarely write about people I know, but the pieces of people I know do work their way into conglomerate other beings (i.e. characters). Dialogue is important too. And how the character speaks when they?re not speaking.


Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? What story have you read that's come closest?


Probably not. But there are some damn good ones. ?Tell The Women We?re Going? by Raymond Carver is gut-wrenching. One of the few stories I have ever read that triggers a physical reaction in me. (That of a wrenched gut.) I also love his ?Why Don?t You Dance,? for its perfect, simple absurdity. Beth Nugent?s ?City of Boys? is beautiful.


What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?


I think you can be so much more playful with short fiction. You can experiment with style. The smaller word count allows you to try new things without outwearing your welcome. A story is nearer to a poem than a novel is. It requires litheness. The language, characters and plot must be tight. Novels can have lovehandles. Which is fine! They?re not called lovehandles for no reason. But it?s a good exercise to try and write nimbly.

Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver and studied creative writing and political science at the University of Victoria. She pursued her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship and the Curtis Brown Prize for best writer. In Canada, she has won three national fiction contests and has been twice longlisted for the Journey Prize. Right now, she is completing the first drafts of her novel and story collection. Follow her on Twitter: @ElizaRoberts0n.

Click here to read ?L'Étranger? by Eliza Robertson.

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