25th Trillium Award

On Writing: The CBC Short Story Prize Edition, with Jay Tameling

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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, Jay Tameling tells us about "Sweet Dynamite," a story he pared down to its essence from the beginnings of a novel. You can read "Sweet Dynamite" here.

Open Book:

Tell us about "Sweet Dynamite."

Jay Tameling:

My story "Sweet Dynamite" is about a young boy discovering his origins, where — and more notably, who — he comes from. The answers revealed to him, the yearning that runs through his genes, his genes that literally color his perceptions, are an inheritance he cannot decline.


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


Have you ever watched a painter, a skilled tradesman, an athlete in competition and wondered what it feels like to be them, to catch the pebbled leather of a basketball at the apex of some improbably high leap and dunk it with violent grace? I?m that way with musicians. Guitars. Violins. Bagpipes. Trumpets. Oh that beautiful trumpet. The genesis of my story was trying to write a character with musical talent to be jealous of.


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


Because this short story was originally the beginnings of a novel, there were many plot elements and characterizations I wanted to include but couldn?t explore fully or at all. The biggest challenge was deciding which loamy ideas would further the story to its vertical limit and which had to be cut away like alpinists pulling you off a sheer mountain face. Well, maybe not that dramatic. These questions are a challenge.


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


It keeps me focused. Given a word limit, as we were in the CBC Short Story Prize contest, I had to be cognizant that every sentence was put to good use; it furthered the story or looped back to something already important; it wasn?t a throwaway, a loose thread on a knitted sweater. Whether I achieved that is up for debate.


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


The margin for misstep is small when you only have a few pages. I try to focus on one or two aspects of the character and provide as much detail and nuance as possible. If she?s the best mom ever, I will tell you the time when I was five years old and wrecked my bike badly, my leg even worse, and how she nursed me back to health with so much gentle care I thought she?d given me her own leg to use until mine was better. How I imagined her hopping around for days, cooking in the kitchen with the parquet linoleum floor balanced on one furry house slipper. How the smell of lasagna and the sight of kids playing hopscotch remind me of her indefatigable love.


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


I doubt I?ll ever write a perfect short story. It?s as hard as touching a rainbow. I want to edit too much. To the bones. To the marrow. Back to the bone. Instead, I try to write until I?m happy. And then touch it up five to twelve more times.

?The Rocking Horse Winner? by D.H. Lawrence is as close to rainbows as I?ve ever read.


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


I hope it isn?t too flippant, but a short story writer has nothing to lose. If the attempt at short fiction doesn?t work out, if the length constraints feel too urgent, too economical, too decisive for your style, you haven?t (hopefully) wasted much ink. And you can always stretch it into something longer.

I like how short fiction forces me to confront a character or an idea, and relate to the reader quickly, and I?m hopeful that exercises in constraint will only improve my novels in the future.

Jay Tameling lives in Edmonton and enjoys a bed-scotch on a Prairie winter?s night. He has a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta. His forthcoming memoir, From A to Jay: My Life in Circles, will never be made into a movie. He is trying to teach himself the art of bookbinding and recently bought a Japanese etching press to design the covers. He might start a micropress if he develops any sort of aptitude.

Click here to read ?Sweet Dynamite? by Jay Tameling.

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