Today is the day! At 2:00pm ET, the Writers' Trust of Canada will announce the winners of their emerging writers' prizes, including the Writers’ Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. The prize is a unique one, recognizing the year’s best short story by an emerging writer first published in a Canadian literary journal or anthology. The prize's funding is unique as well: its $10,000 annual prize purse is supported by James A. Michener’s donation of his Canadian royalty earnings from his novel Journey.
We were thrilled to speak with all three 2020 Journey Prize finalists: Lisa Foad, nominated for "Hunting" (published in Taddle Creek), David Huebert, nominated for "Chemical Valley" (published in The Fiddlehead), and Jessica Johns, nominated for "Bad Cree" (published in Grain).
They tell us what it feels like to join the ranks of past Journey Prize nominees like Yann Martel, Heather O'Neill, and Anne Carson; tell us where and how their nominated stories came to be; and share some seriously inspiring and wise advice for emerging writers.
You can watch the Writers' Trust Awards announcement, including the Journey Prize winner, here.
Tell us about the story for which you received your nomination. When was it written and what inspired the narrative?
“Hunting” emerged out of a preoccupation I’ve had over the last several years—women and girls gone missing, women and girls raped and murdered. I found myself obsessively immersed: watching true crime documentaries; searching missing women and Jane Doe databases; combing through news media (and noticing how quickly coverage fades or simply dead-ends); hunting down court documents to fill in (horrifying) blanks; tracking the frequency with which women and girls are targets of violence (inspired, in part, by Anna Merlan’s "This Was a Bad, Gruesome, and Utterly Typical Week for Men Killing Their Partners," Jezebel, June 2016).
Questions began building. What does it mean to live in a culture where women and girls are frequently targets of violence? In what ways is this violence tacitly legitimized? In what ways does sensitization to this violence get blunted? And how does this impact the day-to-day lives of women and girls? What does it mean to simultaneously navigate desirability and disposability? What does it mean to live in a body that’s always-already at risk? What is safety?
I began freewriting "Hunting" in October 2016, but it was a struggle—this was pre-#metoo, and it felt incredibly risky to dive into the world of the story. I found myself circling, and in fact writing away from, the story—so I shelved it. As time passed, however, the characters got louder and louder, relentless, and so I pulled out the old writing and started rewriting. I’m currently working on a novel—Hunting—that builds on the short story. Hunting still scares me, but I know that if I’m not writing what scares me, I’m not really writing.
"Chemical Valley" is set in Sarnia, Ontario, where 62 petrochemical refineries perch on either side of the St. Clair River, closing in around the Aamjiwnaang first nation, which has been gradually reduced in size due to treaties, pressure from energy companies, and dubious land sales. The story is about an operator, Jerry Oliver, who works in the Crude Distillation Unit at the fictional Streamline petrochemical refinery. Jerry works in a dangerous environment with some unsavoury co-workers and lives with a spouse who’s afflicted with a degenerative nervous system disorder. He also has a dark secret in his basement. I wrote this piece in the spring of 2018, inspired by trips to Sarnia to visit friends, conversations with refinery workers, participation in the Aamjiwnaang Solidarity Against Pipelines (ASAP) Toxic Tour, and an ongoing interest in the culture of petroleum and the aesthetics of oil. I think oil is one of the most spectacular, sensational, nefarious, and strangely invisible aspects of our culture. I struggled a lot with this material—at one point it was a novel draft—but I have long sensed that the gothic genre would be an appropriate narrative home for the petro-aesthetics I was pursuing.
I first started writing "Bad Cree" about two years ago. It was inspired by a dream, which is suitable given that it’s a story all about dreams. I wrote it to push back against this institutionally indoctrinated belief that writing about dreams is bad. I was doing my MFA at the time, and an instructor told us, a group of emerging and impressionable students, not to write about our dreams, saying we’d lose our readers and that it was generally not a good practice in literary writing. I felt in my gut that this was bad advice, because dreams for nehiyawak, and for many other cultures, are really valid ways of seeing the world, of knowledge transference, and of communicating. So I wanted to write a story that centred the importance of dreaming.
But once I actually got into writing this story, it stopped being a push-back against this instructor and the institutions that centre white western notions of “good” storytelling, and it just became about re-validating dreaming in my own life. The story went through many iterations where I kept pushing the envelope of “literary” and I just leaned into the joy of writing what I hope is a really rad, weird, and haunting story.
The Journey Prize has an incredibly distinguished list of past winners and finalists. What does it mean to you to be part of this group going forward?
It’s an incredible honour; I’ve read many of the past winners and finalists, and long been a fan of their work—so it’s particularly exciting company to be keeping. It’s also been very igniting—when I’m writing, I’m working in a bubble, and despite my best efforts, I’m usually spending considerable time second-guessing myself (Is this working? This isn’t working. Don’t write that; it’s stupid. Don’t write that either; it’s not good enough)—so to experience a moment of support for my work—well, it’s so much fuel to write forward.
It means a lot to have this validation for the story. That said, it’s something I try not to focus on. There’s a lot of luck, chance, and subjectivity involved in such decisions. I’m very grateful to the distinguished jury, the Writers’ Trust, McClelland and Stewart, and James A. Michener who donated the original funds to make the Journey Prize possible. I’m also grateful to Mark Anthony Jarman and the Fiddlehead for taking a chance on this strange, dark story.
It still feels surreal. So many writers I admire have been winners and finalists, particularly in recent years, so to be in this position is wild.
If you could recommend one collection of short fiction or a single story that you've loved, what would it be?
This is a hard question! There are so many stories I love, and that I revisit because they challenge and inspire me in different ways. I can’t possibly name just one story, so I’ll name two: Helen Oyeyemi’s “i live with him, i see his face, i go no more away” (New Statesman, December 2006), and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Bettering Myself” (Paris Review, Spring 2013). It was years ago that I first encountered these stories, and I still find myself routinely rereading them—for craft, and for mood/feeling—both of these stories thrill something inside of me and make me want to write. As for story collections—can I sneak in another couple of recommendations?—right now I can’t say enough about Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife, and Bryan Washington’s Lot.
This is really hard. I think every reader needs an archipelago of cherished stories, all of them doing different work. But I’ll go with “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s a dazzling, dense, atmospheric story. I love the way heat and sweat become characters, as well as the biblical quality of the catharsis.
Shut Up You’re Pretty (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019) by Téa Mutonji is the short story collection I’ve been incessantly recommending since I first read it last year. I was in a big reading/writing funk at the time; it was really difficult for me to concentrate on anything, but particularly on reading and writing. This collection revived me, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down until it was finished. It got me excited about reading again and inspired me to write more. Even now, when I’m trying to write and feeling really uninspired, I’ll read sections or stories from it for inspiration. I love love love this collection.
What is your advice for writers working on short fiction? If you could share anything with emerging short story writers, what would you say?
Write what scares you—no matter how risky, how unruly, how “monstrous” the material feels. Write the stories that you most want to read. Write the stories that you alone can write.
Turn off your notifications. Don’t focus on external validation. Try writing about what haunts you. Write with a scalpel.
I feel weird giving advice for writing when I don’t always take my own. But if I were to give any, it would be to write with your gut. Write something you know so well that when you put it to the page, no matter how niche it is, everyone else will know it intimately too.
I think it’s important for emerging writers to believe that they know the heart of their writing better than anyone else. So you don’t have to accept every piece of advice or listen to every lesson if it doesn’t feel right for you. Pushing back is good too.
Lisa Foad’s short story collection, The Night Is a Mouth (Exile Editions, 2009), won the ReLit Award for Short Fiction and a Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie honour of distinction. Her work has appeared in Taddle Creek, ELQ Magazine, Poetry Is Dead, and elsewhere, and has been awarded the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of a Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship and a nominee for the Henfield Prize. Foad lives in Toronto and is currently working on a novel and short story collection.
David Huebert’s work has won the CBC Short Story Prize and The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award (fiction) in 2018 and 2019. His fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Prize, and was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. David has taught creative writing at Dalhousie University and is the 2020–21 Writer in Residence at the University of New Brunswick. His second book of fiction, Chemical Valley, is forthcoming from Biblioasis.
Jessica Johns is a Nehiyaw-English-Irish aunty and member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 Territory in Northern Alberta. She is the managing editor for Room magazine and a co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance Reading Series. Her short story “The Bull of the Cromdale” was nominated for a 2019 National Magazine Award in fiction and her debut poetry chapbook, How Not to Spill, won the 2019 bpNichol Chapbook Award. “Bad Cree” won a silver medal for fiction at the 2020 National Magazine Awards.