In 2013, I had the happy privilege of a week at The Banff Centre in a short story course with Alexander MacLeod, whose collection Light Lifting had been shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize. I applied for the class specifically because he was the instructor and was thrilled to be accepted.
Besides our sessions as a group of eight, we met with MacLeod individually. I recall asking him in my turn about how to carry what I might call the “burden” of religion in my stories, since they are often set in the Mennonite history and environment I know best. This felt complicated, and I worried, in addition, that they would be too alien to publishers perhaps, the Church being so pervasive, demanding to be critiqued or defended but most of all explained. The gist of the answer, in terms of what he may have said and what I’ve figured out myself, was that you simply let the story swim in its own ocean. Let it unfold, that is, with whatever the story requires, which probably isn’t a history lesson on Menno Simons or doctrines or the schism that accounts for the group to which the protagonist belongs or may be fleeing.
He also gave me a good piece of advice, and that was to read Irish writers, for if there’s a place that’s religion-soaked, it’s theirs. So I’ve watched for them since, and read quite a few. Which brings me to Claire Keegan, whom he praised and whose work I’ve followed, and her newest book, Small Things Like These. It’s a short book, only 114 pages, but perfectly realized in my opinion, just oh so good! I felt I’d held my breath to the end, and then, exhaling, I began again from the beginning. I think that the main character, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, a tender man, both brave and probably foolish, will stay with me a long time. The story is about who he is and about something he discovers when delivering coal to the local convent, which runs one of those Magdalen laundries for so-called “fallen women,” such as featured in the movie Philomena. This isn’t much of a review, I know, but it’s a definite recommendation. I also recommend Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Keegan at Writers and Company, where they talk about the writing of short stories (their difference from novels), and about this book and some of Keegan’s earlier work.
Incidentally, I’ve begun Alexander MacLeod’s newest collection, Animal People. Like his father Alistair, he’s not a prolific writer, but he’s worth waiting for.
Also incidentally, a story of mine, Her Own Self, has just been posted at the online Journal of Mennonite Writing. It’s longish, though not as longish as Keegan’s, and I would be honoured if you put your feet up with a cuppa something at your side and give it a read!
I usually listen to Eleanor Wachtel, but missed Claire Keegan’s interview. Thanks for mentioning her. and including the link. After hearing their conversation I felt like I’d had a mini fiction writing course.
And your story–Her Own Self–Such a great piece that has both breadth and depth. You’ve very skilfully interwoven familiar historic suffering with personal loss and relationships involving guilt , forgiveness, etc and even (new territory for you?) explicit sex. Congratulations on your accomplishment.
We’ll have lots to talk about.
Thank you Sarah, for your kind words. We will indeed have lots to talk about. Looking forward to seeing you soon!
And, of course, there is always Anne Dillard to fall back on.