By Grace O’Connell
If short fiction ever feels comparatively overlooked beside its novel brethren, I can only hope it was in attendance last night at the Journey Prize 25th anniversary celebration, because the event was a fabulous short fiction love-in.
Eight writers who got an early leg-up from appearing in The Journey Prize Stories (including several prize winners) spoke on the theme of “beginnings.” The event itself began with a video created by McClelland & Stewart Senior Editor Anita Chong, followed by an introduction from M&S SVP and Fiction Publisher Ellen Seligman. Thanks were offered to prize patron James Michener and erstwhile M&S president Avi Bennett (who was in attendance), who partnered with Michener to found the prize a quarter century ago.
Booker Prize winner Yann Martel served as host and one of the participating authors, and opened the evening by speaking about his experience winning the prize for his third published story, “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” (which originally appeared in BC’s The Malahat Review and was submitted to the prize by none other than the late Constance Rooke).
Speaking to this year’s jacket image of a lit match, Martel said of emerging writers, “Your flame can easily be blown out—you need people who will blow on it very gently and make it burn brighter.” And the evening’s writers are now burning very brightly indeed, with the Journey Prize as an early and important bellows.
After Martel’s intro, Miranda Hill spoke on beginnings, hers and otherwise (memorable quote: “Genesis is basically one long press release”). She then read a story called “The Idea of Kentucky” which garnered enthusiastic applause.
Steven Galloway took the stage next, and started by wryly warning the packed house, “It’s Halloween and as we speak, your houses are being egged by unhappy children.” He related a story about how his widely acclaimed novel The Cellist of Sarajevo began with a photo he saw in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, capturing that magical moment of an idea’s first spark.
Pasha Malla kept his opening topical, asking the audience to shout out any updates on the Rob Ford scandal, saying “Everyone wants to know” (no news broke during the event, sadly). For his take on “beginnings,” Malla projected an image of his first “published” story—a piece called “The Magic Mittens,” which his third grade teacher typeset for him due to his woeful handwriting. He spoke of looking at past writing as a way of knowing himself: “I’m writing stories partly to leave a kind of breadcrumb trail for my future self.”
The final speaker before the intermission was Elizabeth Hay, who spoke of where her stories and books begin. “Personal stories rooted in the past, set in places that shape character,” she said, speaking to what attracts her. Sharing a story of a cross-country bus trip, she commented on the transformational process of writing and reading. “You’re taken both into and out of yourself.”
After the audience gulped down some wine, they were treated to the final four speakers, starting with the venerable Alistair MacLeod, who served as a judge for the very first Journey Prize. He pointed out that his son, Alexander MacLeod, has also appeared in the collection, as have several of the younger MacLeod’s writing students. “Which makes me something of a grandfather of the Journey Prize,” said MacLeod. After a short speech that got ton of laughs, MacLeod finished with the sentiment of the evening: “We should be grateful for the Journey prize… long may it thrive and make a contribution to Canadian literature and beyond.”
Lisa Moore kept the laughs going, telling a story of the hectic time during which her first book was written, when a false fire call resulted in a fire chief telling her that her house had apparently been ransacked. It turned out that this was just the state of the house Moore shared with her husband, sister-in-law and their combined three children, where writing was prioritized over mundane domesticity. “I think it was a pretty good way to start,” said Moore, whose multiple Giller Prize nominations likely agree.
Alissa York told a different sort of “beginning” story, relating a funny and tender tale of meeting her husband, who gave her this great early writing advice when she first thought she might have a story to tell, late one night. “Then you better get up and write it,” he said. “It might not be there tomorrow. You’ve got to get up and write it.”
Martel returned to close the evening. He spoke of his own literary beginnings, how he first became fascinated by language itself. He admitted to an early attempt at playwriting: “It was a play about a young man in love with a door. It was supposed to be a tragedy.” Even though the play was less than perfect, there was a joy in the writing. “I slowly got better,” he said. “I just kept at it.”
After comparing writing to Crossfit (it was worth attending just to find out that Yann Martel does Crossfit), Martel got serious and closed with the following thought: “Corporations and governments and time—these things don’t care about you. A God though cares about you—and it’s the same thing with art. Because without you it cannot be. A book needs a reader… art is the last bastion of the individual.”
It was an evening full of such wisdom and enthusiasm. The Journey Prize’s fine pedigree was celebrated, but moreover the atmosphere was full of the genuine love the guest authors still hold for the prize. Alyssa York summed up the support and confidence the prize has provided, saying “It felt like I had opened a giant fortune cookie and the fortune inside read: You are a writer.”
Grace O’Connell holds an MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, Quill & Quire and EYE Weekly. She has taught creative writing at George Brown College and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. She is the author of the national bestseller Magnified World.