News and Interviews

On Writing, with paulo da costa

The idiom "small is beautiful" is often true in fiction - from short stories to microfiction, sometimes the briefest glimpses into an imagined world are the most arresting. The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories (Guernica Editions) by paulo da costa is a perfect proving ground for the potential of the short and sweet - or in da costa's case, short and beautifully bizarre, experimental, and creative.

Referred to as "sudden fiction", these sub-1000 word stories have a fable-like feeling, pushing the boundaries between traditional and speculative fiction. The pieces are complemented by a series of original black and white drawings by Portuguese artist, João Ventura

We're pleased to welcome paulo to Open Book today to talk about sudden fiction and The Midwife of Torment. He tells us about curating a collection of stories culled from over two decades of writing, how Ventura's pieces fit into the collection, and the importance of finding natural spots to write in.

Open Book:

How did you organize the stories in The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories? How they interact with each other in your view?

paula da costa:

These sudden fictions originated from separate bursts of inspiration and were written over two decades. They have ripened and aged as a fine Port Wine. To organize the book I identified distinct blocks of thematic concerns and explorations. The reader will find sections concerned with mortality, fatherhood, mysticism, the varied uses of force, explorations of the fantastical, experiences of slowness among others. The reader will also encounter a wide array of genres, human and non-human voices set in a plethora of physical and cultural geographies. I was and am drawn to the energetic tension found in the meeting of Zen simplicity and baroque intensity in a compressed narrative. Those sparks arising from these sudden fictions are reminiscent of fireworks in the night sky. They may appear ephemeral, yet they leave a lasting imprint in the mind and the senses. Each reader will be drawn and draw its own constellation of connections to create their own imaginative map of insights.


The stories in the collection are short in length. What do you like about writing shorter stories? Why did the shorter form attract you for these particular voices?


As no story in the book exceeds a thousand words, such compression is conducive to distil the essence of each narrative. There are sixty servings in a wide variety of flavours to surprise every taste bud willing to be adventurous. Each serving is both simple—in light of their brevity, yet intense insofar as its distillation. The compressed narrative of the sudden fiction engages and inspires me to attempt more audacious feats of storytelling.


The collection includes commissioned, original drawings by João Ventura. How did you decide to include the pieces, and how do you view their role in the book and relationship to the texts?


I have enjoyed the long standing complementary of the written word and the visual arts in books. I have observed in the past few decades that in adult literary fiction the presence of drawings, lithographs, woodcuts, watercolours have become rare. They offer us a pause, a reflection or even a suggested departure from the text. I asked my high school friend and visual artist João whether he would be interested in reading the manuscript and collaborating in this book by creating a visual conversation with the stories. He enjoyed the texts and presented several works. I selected six drawings to open the chapters. João also painted the two eye-catching canvases used for the book cover design of this book.


Where did you do most of the writing for this book? What did a typical writing day consist of for you during this project (if you had such a thing as a "typical day")?


These stories were written while sitting in nature, as occurs with most of my writing. I choose home to be near enclaves of nature even in urban settings. I would walk to a nearby green space, find a sitting niche by a body of water, be it the Bow, Caima or Milk Rivers, Hague Lake or the Atlantic or Pacific oceans and lean on a tree, a boulder or a grapevine before putting pen to paper. Since I write and edit my works by hand and on paper, one of the stories in this book explores that paradox of leaning on a tree while writing on paper, writing on the dead body and skin of the trees. I have planted hundreds of trees in my life to mitigate my engagement in this destructive aspect of the book culture upon the forest.


What is your reading life like while working on this book? Do you avoid or seek out anything in particular, and what were you reading while working on The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories?


While focused and obsessed by story ideas I tend to be pulled deep into the current of the creative process and seek less reading then. Over the span of the many years that brought to life this body of sudden fictions, I most likely was reading books by Mia Couto (Mozambique). However, this journey included years of inspiration, inner arguments, responses or expansions from reading other authors such as Isabel Allende, Thomas King, Clarice Lispector, Robert Coover, and Lydia Davies, among many others.


What will you be working on next?


I am longing to find the mental spaciousness and time freedom to engage in a sustained mode with a gestating novel that takes place in Angola and Portugal. It takes place in the 60’s and 70’s and leading to the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of ’74 which accelerated the liberation of the Portuguese African colonies. I am also itching to have time to tackle a manuscript of creative essays that arose from an extended stay with my partner and our one and four year-old children in Portugal. In this manuscript I want to explore and meditate upon a multicultural family’s sense of identity, culture and language, the evolution of extended family ties and the place of memory in my children’s sense of belonging… as well as my own. Considering the present global issues around migration, I believe this book will have wide appeal. The book might be of particular interest to us Canadians, considering our long-standing tradition of immigration and multilinguistic families, our unique contemporary openess to receive the “other” and our perenial engagement with questions of national identity.


Born in Angola and raised in Portugal, paulo da costa is a writer, editor and translator living in Victoria, BC. His first book of fiction, The Scent of a Lie, received the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. His poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines around the world and have been translated to Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Serbian, Slovenian and Portuguese. His latest book of fiction, The Green and Purple Skin of the World, was released by Broadview Press / Freehand Books in 2013.

Related reading

The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories

The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories is a collection of sudden fiction that compresses its narrative to deliver a variety of stories that alternate the flavour of a philosophical reflection with the whimsical enchantment of a fable with a twist. These stories also often dwell on the strange--and the horror--found in our mundane lives. Stories that, on occasion, also leap as far as speculative fiction or swirl in a lyrical exploration of prose narratives. Divided into six sections, Midwife explores human and non-human voices through narrative weighing at less than one thousand words, and the vast majority weighing at less than five hundred. Included are a series of black and white lithograph-like original drawings commissioned specifically for this manuscript from the Portuguese visual artist, João Ventura.