25th Trillium Award

On Writing: the Short Story Edition, with Dawn Promislow

Share |
Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow's debut collection, Jewels and Other Stories, (TSAR Publications) features stories set in 1970s South Africa, and has been called "a model of clean and uncluttered prose" (The Globe and Mail).

She talks with Open Book about loving the unlovable character, the good kind of germs and the pleasure of capturing life on the page.

For more from Dawn Promislow about Jewels and Other Stories, check out Open Book's 2010 interview with the author.

Open Book:

Tell us about your newest book, Jewels and Other Stories.

Dawn Promislow:

It's a collection of short stories set in apartheid-era South Africa. I tried to capture that time and place, a time and place I lived in. I tried, above all, to see it with fresh eyes, to uncover something in it that I knew was there but hadn't seen or found or even read. The stories are told from the perspectives of a wide range of characters: black and white, old and young, rich and poor. They are fictional stories, but the world the characters inhabit is very real, and this was very important to me, to be faithful to the history of that time.


What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?


The most challenging thing was capturing a time that is long gone, and a place too. It really became an exercise in revisiting, revisiting the past. And how does one revisit the past and bring it back in a meaningful way? It really was a going-back, it took a lot of energy actually, to go back to that time, dig down into it, and answer questions for myself about it. And of course there are no answers, there are just more questions. It was quite painful to do all that actually; it was a painful place to revisit. But I hope I brought something new back from it, some kind of clarity.


How do you know when the germ of an idea will be the right fit for a short story?


I think "germ" is the key word, because in many ways a short story is a germ that remains a "germ." By that I mean a short story retains its quality of being the essence of something. That is perhaps one definition of a short story: it is an essence, first and foremost. Of course that essence evolves into the form that we recognize as the short story, but for me it retains its "essence"-like quality. So I often know quite instantly what will make a short story. I see or feel a pattern in an image or scene, or a character, and somehow that pattern contains every essential element of the story-to-be. It can take a long time for my mind to actually process this and gestate these elements, to evolve them, or integrate them, it can take literally years, but I think at some level I do recognize them right away as being the germ of a short story.


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


The satisfaction is the actual capturing of something on a page. It's like pinning something down, something you thought could not be explained or pinned down; it's a consummation of some kind. It's the moment when you realize that you are managing to transfer an abstract set of images onto a page, and you are also transforming it. It is like giving it a life, a life that other people can also now enjoy, because they can read the short story; so it becomes finally an act of communication which is very liberating.


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


I don't think it's a technical matter, bringing a character to life. I think a character has to be truly alive in a writer's mind, and by this I mean really and truly living, as if she/he was a real person. I know that the characters I have written have lived, truly lived, in my mind for a great deal of time before they ever emerge onto the page of a story. And they are as real to me as any of us are. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, imagining them, puzzling about them, much the same way as one puzzles about real people — and especially, loved people. Because I think love comes into it. Even characters I have created who are unlikeable, or unlovable, or characters who do terrible things, are characters with whom I have identified, and whom, strangely, I love.

But your question was how to make a character vibrant in the brief pages of a short story. I think it is in the selection of details by the writer. And this, too, is not a technical matter, but mostly a matter of instinct. How to know which details about a character to put in that short space, and which to leave out? The wrong decisions about those details, and the story will be wrong; the right decisions, and the story lives.

I'll say one thing: I think the unique way a person speaks, his use of language, is one of the most vivid indicators of his character. This is one reason I like first-person narratives, I like to allow the character to speak himself into life, all by himself. I think of myself as merely a cipher next to my characters, in that light, and I feel most comfortable that way.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your short stories?


Well, I've noticed that each story is a new way, or a new attempt, to understand some of the same old things! It's almost as though the writer is casting about for answers, and in her casting she constantly seeks to change the focus, to move the lens, to change the perspective, in the hope that a different answer, a different facet, will come to light. It's a constant work of hope. Oddly, the image of a jewel comes to mind: the facets that gleam, this way, or that way, now you see them this way, now you see them that way. If you turn it this way, you see something like this; if you turn it that way, you see something else. I think that is why different people's perspectives interest me so particularly, because it is only by changing the perspective on something that you can actually see it differently. And I think I'm constantly trying to see things differently, with a new eye.


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


I think there are many close-to-perfect short stories. The stories I personally like best are those that are most like poems. They are the most concentrated and the most distilled. I don't mean the shortest, I just mean the most economical in their means. The ones that have a perfect coherence within them, and coherences within that, the ones that contain no extraneous images or meanings, only those that organically inhere in the story itself. And those stories, paradoxically, while being so self-contained, have the widest resonance, I find. They ripple with wider resonances and meanings.

There are many perfect stories, but a lesser-known one that I particularly like is Eudora Welty's "Livvie." It is a unique world and characters that are evoked with a perfect unity of voice and tone, and surprising details, all coming together in a magical way. But finally — or perhaps firstly — it is startlingly, dazzlingly original. Its originality opens a vista unimagined before, and you see something quite new, or you see something you perhaps had imagined or knew, but in a completely new way. I guess originality is the essential calling card of a great short story!


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


I think one can appreciate short stories for their form specifically. There's a certain magic to the form, as though the writer had juggled three balls, without dropping them. All the things one enjoys in a novel — character, plot, revelation — one can enjoy all those in a short story, while also enjoying the sheer artistry of the form itself, how the form has managed to embody what it had to say. The sheer skill in the brevity; how much the brevity can actually contain.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories was published in 2010. One of the collection's stories was short-listed for UK-based Wasafiri's New Writing Prize 2009, while the title story was anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be published and launched in South Africa in September of this year, and was recently long-listed for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award 2011.

For more information about Jewels and Other Stories please visit the TSAR Publications website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search

Humber Literary Review