[Interview] Carol Windley

Award-winning author Carol Windley has worked as a radio station copy writer, a librarian and as a creative writing instructor at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, where she now lives. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, in The Journey Prize Anthology and, on several occasions, in Best Canadian Stories. Her books include the award-winning collection of short stories, Visible Light, the acclaimed novel Breathing Underwater, and Home Schooling, which has been shortlisted in this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Carol Windley spoke about her latest collection of short stories and the challenges short story writers face.

The short stories in your most recent collection, Home Schooling, are set against the rural landscape of Vancouver Island and the cities of the Pacific Northwest. Why is this so? Is there a particular reason for this?

I've always felt incredibly lucky to have grown up on Vancouver Island. The landscape is in one way quite gentle and benign, but it's also complicated and dense and mysterious - an ideal setting, I think, for fiction.

Some of the stories in Home Schooling are set in Washington State because it's an area with strong geographic and historical connections to [British Columbia] B. C. The international border adds a note of interest and complexity - another demarcation, like the edge of the sea.

In these stories, what would you say is your main concern?

I wanted to look at how family is the place where we first learn about relationships and community. Parents hope to give their children a sense of family history as well as certain attitudes and values, and while children are very receptive, very willing to learn, they're also very critical and skeptical.

In a child's imagination, received wisdom can undergo startling changes. And in a family, everything is fluid and mutable, anyway, as a result of personality and temperament and circumstance, so trying to give off a sense of this in the fictional families in Home Schooling became my main concern.

What motivates you to write?

What motivates me, I think, is a desire to capture something of human experience in language. Fiction works like a mirror that reflects our moral and emotional truths and it's one of the few ways available to us to get a glimpse into someone else's interior life.

How long did it take you to come up with the stories that make up Home Schooling?

It took a long enough time that I often felt impatient with myself. I knew I wanted to grow as a writer; I had some clear objectives in mind. I wanted to get more of a sense of movement and activity in my writing - and plot was always a weakness for me.

I think I managed to learn something about plot. At the same time, I wanted the characters in the stories to connect with each other in a way that was energetic and authentic and touching.

Which would you say was the most difficult story to write? Why is this so?

"Sand and Frost" was difficult because it involved two separate stories, that of the narrator, Lydia, and that of the grandmother, Pauline, and the way in which Pauline's story entered Lydia's mind.

I was intrigued by what a horrific event like the one in the grandmother's past would do to subsequent generations, how it would cast a dark shadow. Lydia is young and yearns to be in a loving relationship, but her attempts to connect with people are undermined by what she knows of her disturbing and violent inheritance. She can see from her grandmother's example that survival is possible, but she has to find her own way to transcend her family history.

Which did you enjoy most?

I enjoyed writing "The Reading Elvis," partly because it's the only story in this collection with a male narrator and getting the voice right was a challenge.

In the story the central character, Graham, is always somewhat off-balance, trying to find his footing but not being very successful, and it was a little like a game to keep this going. The story is also about rebirth, in a way, and I liked seeing in how many different ways this image could be examined in the story as part of Graham's life.

How different is Home Schooling to the other books you have written?

The stories in Home Schooling are darker, I think. I hope they're richer and more complex.

In what way is it similar?

All three of my books share a west coast setting and all three are concerned with ordinary people and the way in which dreams and the imagination rework reality. Many of the stories are told from the point-of-view of a young woman and this is true of the novel, as well.

When you look at the history of the short story, you notice that the number of magazines that publish short stories has declined. Why is this?

It's been said people are too busy to invest time in a story that will end after 20 or 30 pages, just as the reader gets to know the characters and setting. Fortunately there are still magazines that publish and encourage short story writers and there are fabulous writers like Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Charles D'Ambrosio and many others who are reaching a wide audience.

How can the writer of short stories make a living from them?

Only a very few writers can make any kind of a living from writing short stories. In fact, most fiction writers have to subsidize their writing at least some of the time with other work or with grants or with the generosity of their partners and families.

From your own experience, how easy or difficult is it to write short stories compared to longer works of fiction like novellas or novels?

I think it's completely possible the same amount of toil and angst goes into each of these forms, although for some reason I have the idea a novella would be the most difficult to write.

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