25th Trillium Award

On Writing: The CBC Short Story Prize Edition, With Mathew Howard

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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, Mathew Howard tells us about "Old Hands," a story written over a period of just two weeks and inspired by the real-life drowning of an elderly man during a flash flood. You can read “Old Hands” here.

Open Book:

Tell us about "Old Hands."

Mathew Howard:

"Old Hands" is ostensibly about an elderly man’s house slowly sinking into the sea. A collapsing house felt like an evocative way to explore loss, grief and letting go; the rest I’ll leave to the reader. I wrote the story specifically for the competition over a period of roughly two weeks. I owe huge thanks to my wonderful husband/first reader, who didn’t hold back telling me what worked and where I had failed miserably, and who encouraged me to submit.


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


A few years ago, I read a news report about an elderly man drowning in his home during a flash flood. The idea of anyone dying alone and in such horrific circumstances hung over me for the intervening years. When I sat to write for the competition, it felt like the right time to spin a story from the threads of that image. The story changed significantly as I wrote, edited and rewrote: The house emerged as a character in its own right and the protagonist grew more complicated, his past more nebulous.


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


I’m at home full-time with my two sons, aged four and one respectively, which is pure joy; however, finding the time to sit and write uninterrupted was (and is) a constant challenge. I had to repeatedly delete, transcribe and rewrite entire paragraphs because they were written in toddler speak. The word limit was another hurdle. A competition like this tests your editing, as much as your writing skills. With this story in particular, it felt as though the house and protagonist were competing for attention in the limited space available. I worked hard to find a balance between them. Readers will decide how successful I was!


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


I enjoy the discipline and lateral thinking demanded by short stories. I relish taking a big idea and distilling it down to its purist form. Every word counts and it’s easy to write yourself into a corner. Often, I’ll have to think quickly and find my way out of a dead end, which can be both frustrating and exhilarating. Saying that, I have piles of half-written stories where I’m still stuck in a dark, dank corner somewhere. I’ll usually abandon them for a few months and come back with a better flashlight.


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


It’s important to discover and convey a character’s essence from the very first word. What are the stakes? What are they up against? There’s no room for excess of any kind. My approach is to write about characters at critical junctures. When you meet a character under extreme circumstances, you see them at their best and worst; you arrive at their truth right away. Given the limitations of a short story, as a writer, it’s imperative I love a character, warts and all, and feel for them profoundly. The force of that connection drives the story and I hope it connects with the reader, too.


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


Before I wrote "Old Hands," I binge read short stories, in the hope of ingraining a rhythm to help me write succinctly. I discovered a good story spikes a reader’s curiosity from the first sentence and buoys them along with every word. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a perfect story; the idea of perfection is too closed and complete, with no loose ends to daydream about or mull over on the bus. Saying that, my binge included Nam Le’s The Boat, which is brilliant and astonishing in every way, and Derek McCormack conjures vivid characters in an absurdly few number of words. His stories provoke, surprise and linger, each a sublime example of how effective good writing and editing can be.


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


Both novels and short stories involve writing to an arc and the most important thing I’m learning is knowing when a story can be told succinctly and when it needs the space and time to unfurl. I’m not sure it’s a matter of convincing someone to try short fiction; experienced writers innately know the bounds of their story and for those of us still learning, it’s a matter of being fluid enough to edit and adapt. Writing “Old Hands” was deeply satisfying; I’m honoured and humbled by the response. More than anything, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it with readers.

Mathew Howard was born in Australia and became a proud Canadian in 2012. He lives in the terrific Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto with his husband and their two sons. Mat has a BA (Hons) from Sydney University and is studying a masters degree in public policy. He has written and directed plays for theatre companies in Canada, Australia, the USA and Thailand, and studied at the Shakespeare Globe, London. He most recently worked as General Manager of Shakespeare in Action, Toronto, and took creative writing classes at U of
T’s School of Continuing Studies. He writes when he can and loves every minute of it. Find out more at www.mathoward.org>mathoward.org.

Click here to read “Old Hands” by Mathew Howard.

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