Pauline Holdstock is an internationally published fiction writer and essayist. She is the author of Beyond Measure, shortlisted for several prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Giller Prize, and winner of the Ethel Wilson Prize for fiction. Her latest novel, Into the Heart of the Country, was longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She lives on Vancouver Island.
BJI: Give us some background on What Endures.
PH: The story’s based on an actual event that appeared in Canadian newspapers as one of those two line news agency items. The two line format gives the story a brutal rendering: Six year-old spends night with dead mother after teacher refuses to believe her. I wanted to dissolve that brutality, go inside the story and find whatever might belong to the six-year old’s world in the way of love, maybe tenderness. I used this process once before when confronted with: 280lb woman accused of murder after suffocating husband. I wanted then to see if it was possible to dissolve the brutal raw comedy of that and evoke compassion – for the woman! The story is called ‘Sitting Pretty’. I think the one-dimensionality of such headlines is dehumanizing. I’m trying, I suppose, to restore some humanity to the barebones awfulness of the things that happen to us.
BJI: What sorts of stories are you drawn to when searching for inspiration?
PH: Never the ordinary, never the everyday. I’m uncomfortable writing stories based on material that’s too close to home. I’m a fiction writer who can’t lie— a terrible anomaly and one that causes no end of difficulties for me. So I leave the everyday alone and go where my true inclination takes me —to high drama, Technicolor! I’m always looking for the extreme situation, the crisis point. My earliest diet in fiction was myth, fable, fairytale, later the ghost tale. I’m still drawn to those forms for the way they wear such outlandish clothes and yet bring us in the end right up against the most basic and the most universal of our impulses as humans. I’ve written several tales and allegories and hope to publish them one day in a single collection. It’s not a fashionable form but with digital publishing now there’s a real possibility of finding a niche.
BJI: What was your process for writing What Endures?
PH: It was really the same process as something that has acquired the name ‘wit-walking’ and is often employed as a technique or an exercise to limber up the creative side of the brain. You start at a defined point – in this case the child and the dead mother—and you start writing without a plan. You have no idea where your wit will take you. The important thing is to just keep walking it. Extraordinary things happen when you write blind like this. All kinds of material can break in to the story, unforeseen connections happen and images blossom. In the case of What Endures, an early memory of a traumatic event surfaced from my own childhood. Of course it went into the story and lends, I hope, an extra dimension to the figure of the woman.
This kind of writing, based on very sparse information and executed without a plan, has always been for me the most successful. That’s to say, I’ve always been most pleased by stories that I set down in a single sitting. They come closest to approaching some kind of truth. It’s as if you’ll only hit the target if you’re blindfold.
BJI: What are the advantages of writing short stories? What are the challenges?
PH: Without a doubt the main advantage is that the reward — finishing — is never too far away from the outset of the work. They are a manageable form, and even if you don’t know where the story will take you, it seems more likely than not that you will arrive at a destination. That’s not always the case with a novel. It seems to me, though this is a great subject for a debate, that there really is only one outcome for a short story that will be the right one for the particular combination of material and voice that you choose to work with.
The challenge of the form has to do with poetry. For me a good short story works very much like poetry. Its constraints demand a strict economy of language and image and a very precise manipulation of the story elements to arrive at an ending that is both pointed and powerful, an ending that is in every way right for the material.
BJI: Last question. What excites you most about online/digital storytelling?
PH: Instantaneity, if that’s a word. Everything about it is instant, most of all the gratification. Order a story or an issue and read it in the next instant, literally.
And the possibility of reaching a wider audience, reaching new audience. It seems to me less…’dusty’ than mouldering in a dark corner of the book store. Though I should not use the word ‘mouldering’ for bound books don’t have time to do that. They have a shelf life, I believe, of less than six months, while digital work can remain bright and shiny in a cyberarchive for who knows? Eternity. The thought!