Between now and our awards ceremony on September 20th, we will be featuring the shortlisted authors for the 2014 East Coast Literary Awards.
This week, we feature Ed Kavanagh, author of the short story collection, Strays. His collection is shortlisted for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award.
Ed Kavanagh grew up in Kilbride, Newfoundland and Labrador, and now lives in Mount Pearl. He received an Honours B.A. in English and a B. Ed from Memorial University of Newfoundland, a B.A. in Music from Carleton University, and an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. He has worked as a writer, actor, musician, theatre director, university lecturer, and editor. His stories, essays, dramatic scripts, and poetry have earned many awards in the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Competition. Ed has taught creative writing through the extension services of both Memorial University and the University of New Brunswick. He is a past-president of the Writer’s Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Describe your ideal writing space.
Anywhere I can comfortably curl up. Chairs, couches—even propped up in bed if I can’t sleep. My music room is also good: I like being surrounded by my instruments. Certainly not a desk. I write with a pencil (usually a Blackwing 602) on pads of yellow paper, so I’m pretty mobile. But I do need quiet, although I’ll sometimes temper that with very soft classical music.
Tell us a bit about your process. Do you work in snippets or do you have a full draft? Are you a planner or do you feel your way through? Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?
Well, we all need what I call a “point of departure,” but for me that doesn’t need to be much: an image, a snippet of conversation etc. Anything intriguing. I can usually tell pretty quickly if it’s something I want to explore. And I don’t worry if the final destination of the story isn’t immediately clear. You don’t write stories as much as you discover them. So my stories are always a revelation, arrived at by embarking on the process. I’m always surprised by my completed stories—especially the endings.
I have one particular quirk: at the top of my pad of paper (sometimes an exercise book) I always write two things: Have faith and Don’t break the dream. Have faith that you’ll eventually discover the story. The second idea comes from the creative writing teacher John Gardner. He stressed that writers create a “fictional dream” for readers. It’s the writer’s job to not break that dream—i.e., pull readers to the surface instead of keeping them submerged in the story. That’s a sobering thought because there are, of course, many pitfalls that can break the dream—poor dialogue, clichés, weak characterization. So trying not to break the dream certainly keeps me on my toes. And, of course, we all need a little faith.
As I said above, I write with pencil and paper until about the third draft. At that point I’ll put the piece on the computer. Putting it on before that makes the work look prematurely finished—to me, at least. And as Holden Caulfield said about why he liked horses better than cars: a pencil is at least human.
Give us the ‘elevator pitch’ of your book.
That’s a tough one when you’re talking about a collection of ten short stories. I’d like to think they’re all different, so I’d have to give you ten different pitches. But generally I’m exploring people who are a little on the outside, a little astray. That might involve a ten-year-old boy or a ninety-year-old woman. I think everyone feels astray at some time or another. But I don’t want to sound too negative: there’s lots of humour in the book!
What was the biggest difference between your first draft and last?
You wouldn’t say they had anything to do with each other. As is often said, the secret to writing is rewriting. And what you see out the window at the beginning of a journey is certainly not what you see at the end. I tinkered with some of the stories in Strays, off and on, for over five years. The longest story in the book, “The Strayaway Child,” is nearly 19,000 words. I don’t know how many words I actually wrote to arrive at those 19,000 but I have stacks and stacks of draft pages. I looked at the first draft page a little while ago and I hardly recognized my protagonist! But why should I have recognized her? She was, after all, just beginning her journey. And journeys always change people.
Do you feel public readings help writers develop their craft? Or are readings simply part of the business of being a writer?
I’ve done some writing for children, and for that audience the readings definitely help. Children are usually a little more honest and forthcoming with their reactions, so you can easily pick up on what they find charming or funny. Adults, however, can be more inscrutable. You might give the exact same reading to two adult audiences on successive nights and get two very different responses. Children, though, are more consistent—whether they like something or not. But public readings do help me get a sense of the rhythm of my work, and that’s useful. My biggest problem in reading from Strays is what to choose. There are ten stories, ten worlds . . . it’s like trying to pick a favourite child. I’m always second-guessing myself.
Many writers have other roles, such as instructors, mentors, editors, cultural workers, publishers. What other roles, if any, keep you busy and do you view them as supportive of your work as a writer?
I teach first-year English at Memorial and that obviously involves looking deeply into some fine stories, plays, and poems. Seeing how great writers have gone about their work can definitely help you with your craft. It certainly makes you aware of the options. I also work as an editor and that helps my work on a technical level. I’m also a musician and my concern with sound and rhythm in writing is probably attributable to that. I read all of my work aloud many times during composition. So musical ideas are never far from my mind.
Your thoughts on Twitter (in 140 characters or less.)
I don’t use it.
What are you currently working on?
Nothing. I’d like to begin a novel but I’m still recovering from Strays. As any writer will say, the final drafts of a book—making those last-minute decisions!—editorial meetings etc. can be exhausting. They certainly are for me. So at the moment I’m just enjoying the short NL summer. Having said that, do writers ever really stop working?
What book out there do you wish you had written?
My next one!
Who is your biggest cheerleader?
I have a number of close friends who make a special effort to promote my work. In particular, my sister is always helpful. The writing community in NL is also close-knit and supportive. The Writers’ Alliance of NL is another great booster. And I tend to get a lot of emails from my readers. That, of course, is the best.
The winner of the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award will be announced in Halifax on September 20, 2014.
Ed Kavanagh's collection of short stories, Strays, can be purchased from your local independent bookseller.