Naomi K. Lewis Recommends a Month of Short Fiction (Depending How Fast You Read)


With my first story collection coming out in September, I decided to spend the month of August reading short stories. My original plan was a book a day; I seem to have too many other things to do, such as my job, for that to happen. However, I have devoured a delicious array of stories throughout the last three weeks. Since I’m thinking about my own next project, and my last one, almost constantly these days, I’m in an intensely self-absorbed state of mind. So, as I recommend these short story collections whole-heartedly, be warned, I will discuss them in terms of how they and their authors have affected me as a writer.

Key in Lock by Rona Altrows (Recliner Books)

Calgary writer Rona Altrows is a friend and mentor of mine; we became friends, oddly enough, after I complained about our first encounter in the Globe and Mail. Key in Lock is Altrows’s second story collection, and she is a passionate advocate of the short story as an art form in itself – not a rite of passage for future novelists (agreed!). Altrows’s stories are compact and wise, always first-person, full of introspection and humour. Many of the tales revisit narrator Irene, who grew up Montreal, and now, in middle age, sells lingerie in Calgary. Irene’s passion for lingerie, and for her customers, echoes Altrows’ obvious passion for short stories and the characters that populate them. She once described her own writing to me as “meat and potatoes” and it’s true that her characters relate straight up what’s eating them – no pretence, no gimmickry, no literary show-offery. What I’ve taken away from Altrows’ writing and her ideas about writing is this: ignore everything you’ve been told. This is a writer who often dismisses, even scoffs at, the truisms we chant like mantras in creative classes. She warns against the corrupting tendencies of workshops, choosing to keep her work to herself as long as possible. She tells as much as shows, and chases narrators down the rabbit holes of their own anxious musings for pages. And it all works.


Standing Stones: The Best Stories of John Metcalf (Thomas Allen)

John Metcalf is known, insofar as he is known, as a brilliant editor and talent scout, and as a somewhat cranky defender of Canadian literary writing against mediocrity. I had a chance to work with Metcalf in 2008, at the Banff Centre for the Arts. There, in one brief meeting, he told me my then recently published novel was “emotionally distant” and that I should stop trying to be clever, to stop starting with ideas, since the role of fiction is to evoke emotion, not to impress (those may not have been his exact words). As though to prove to myself that my emotions were as potent and irrational as anyone else’s, I boycotted Metcalf’s writing for four years (until this month), by which point I’d come to understand exactly what he meant about my novel, and had written another book without trying to be clever in that I-studied-philosophy way (much, I think) at all. It turns out, of course, that Metcalf is revered as one of Canada’s best short story writers for good reason. He’s a master of dialogue, of everyday complaints and torments escalated to absurd, hysterical heights. His characters are vulnerable, articulate and ridiculous, ruled by nostalgia, disappointment and desire. His are characters whose careful little personalities tremble over the seething pits below. Yeah, his writing is the opposite of emotionally distant. And he’s hilarious, too.


No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July (Scribner)

I’ve never met Miranda July, sadly, but in keeping with my self-focused book descriptions, I’ll relate that I discovered her after an old friend recommended her films, telling me July, or at least the character(s) she plays in You, Me and Everyone We Know and The Future was my “doppelganger.” Well, we do both have curly hair and somewhat squeaky voices, but I can only dream of attaining the kind of insight and humour that she does, in her films and in her spectacular short stories. I love this book so much, it’s a love not even tainted by envy. One of my most cherished gems of writing advice is from Finding Your Writer’s Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall; when revising, they say, find scenes, characters, emotions, anything that could be pushed further. If you’re holding back in any way, push push push.

This principle, combined with sucker-punching emotional honesty (now my other most cherished principle of fiction writing), it seems, to me, is embodied by July’s tales, in which characters never hesitate to follow their idiosyncratic reasoning to its inevitable, shocking conclusions. Her story “Making Love in 2003,” which features a dark formless blob as a central character, does not feel qualitatively different from stories like “The Sister,” which is simply about a lonely man trying to get a date with a friend’s sister. July’s tales are achingly real and disorientingly bizarre at once. On every other page is an image or a turn of phrase that grabs you by the throat, spotlighting the familiar and twisting it into something wholly strange.

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Naomi K. Lewis

I Know Who You Remind Me Of, Naomi K. Lewis's first collection of short fiction, appears in September with Enfield & Wizenty. The book won this year's Colophon prize.