Diane Schoemperlen knows a thing or two about short fiction. The acclaimed Kingston-based author, who has been honoured with prizes including the prestigious Engel Findley and Matt Cohen Awards from the Writers' Trust and the Governor General's Literary Award, has published a whopping six collections of short fiction (in addition to her beloved novels, mixed media artwork, and a Taylor Prize-nominated memoir).
Given that Canadian writers are known for their short fiction, it's a serious task to select the best stories of the year, and Schoemperlen is the perfect writer to do it. The result of her curation, Best Canadian Stories 2021 (Biblioasis), is a testament to both Schoemperlen's keen eye and the strength of the stories being written across the country right now.
We're speaking to Diane today about taking up the Best Canadian Stories mantle and editing the anthology that has collected the best short stories in Canada annually for fifty years. Her selections include stories by Shashi Bhat, Don Gillmor, Angélique Lalonde, and Sara O’Leary, as well as numerous new voices.
Diane tells us about her evolution from a fan of the series, to an included writer, to landing the editor's spot for the big anniversary, what it was like to read nearly 1000 stories to find the very best ones, and how she looked across the pond for inspiration on pulling together the best of the best.
Tell us about the new book and how you became involved with it.
Best Canadian Stories 2021 is, in fact, the fiftieth edition of this important series. I think its longevity is a testament to its ever-evolving relevance in Canadian literature. When the first edition appeared back in 1971, I was still in high school and just beginning to discover the wonders and power of the short story. By the time I was in university I was thoroughly hooked and writing many short stories of my own. I made sure to get a copy of the Best Canadian Stories anthology every year, with the dream of someday being published in it myself. And I was: I’m so proud to have had my own stories appearing in the 1987, 1990, and 2008 editions. When Biblioasis took over the publication of the series from Oberon Press in 2017, they introduced the practice of having a guest editor each year. Because of my long relationship with the series, I was honoured to be chosen as the guest editor this year, a development which for me felt like a special kind of coming home. Which is not to say that the job wasn’t challenging and sometimes overwhelming along the way... but it was also always inspiring, thought-provoking, and rewarding.
How did you select the pieces for this book? What were you looking for when assembling it?
There was only one way to begin the selection of the pieces for this book and that was to read as many stories as possible. Biblioasis sent me several boxes full of print journals and I searched out as many online journals as I could. I also asked a few writers I know to send me something and I received several stories from other writers whom John Metcalf had asked to submit. When all was said and done, I looked at close to 1000 stories over the course of 10 months.
I did not approach the selection process with a predetermined checklist of requirements. Rather I tried to approach every single story with an open mind and a receptivity to what each writer had to offer. I suppose my one basic criterion at the start was that, as we say in the book world, I was looking for stories that “knocked my socks off.” Beyond that, I found it was in the reading process itself that I developed a clearer and ever-expanding sense of what I was looking for.
What do you need when you’re writing and editing – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
This editing process involved some special requirements. First, I needed a lot of space to spread out all those print journals. And because I am a person who still functions somewhere between the digital and paper worlds, I was printing up a lot of the online stories as well. So I ended up doing this project at my very large kitchen table where there was plenty of room both on the table and the floor. My three cats (aka my assistants) very much enjoyed the mess I was making. I did make a spreadsheet or two on my computer but that was not nearly enough to keep things organized. There were also bankers boxes, notebooks, lists, colour-coded folders, coloured Sharpies, and many many different coloured Post-It notes involved in the process. Yes, it became a very colourful project over time!
What defines a great collection or anthology, in your opinion? Were there anthologies you looked to for inspiration in curating this project?
Generally speaking, I am wary of definitions but in this case, I will say that I wanted to put together an anthology of stories that took risks, that brought to the table forms, ideas, voices, and realities that would address the questions posed by Carole Maso in her book, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire: “Who were we, and why did we live? What is a story and how might it be reimagined, opened up, transformed to accommodate all we’ve seen, all we’ve been hurt by, all that’s been given, and all that’s been taken away?”
This Maso quote is one of two that appear at the beginning of my introduction to the book. The other is from Aleksandar Hemon’s introduction to Best European Fiction 2010: “The short story still has the flavour of a report from the front lines of history and existence.” I looked to this anthology and others in the Best European Fiction series for inspiration. I think we here in North America don’t know nearly enough about what has been happening in European fiction in recent years. Some of the stories included in this series were originally written in English but most are in translation from dozens of other languages including German, Italian, French, Dutch, Icelandic, Armenian, Romanian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, Slovenian, and many more. While I looked at the Best European Fiction series intentionally, I also inadvertently ended up finding inspiration in reading George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life which then led me to reading the 13-volume set of stories by Anton Chekhov translated by Constance Garnett. So as it turned out, I spent many months in an intense state of short story immersion which ultimately informed my choices for the anthology.
What are you working on next?
For several years I’ve been working intermittently on a project called Create More Worry Less which incorporates my work in collage with various forms of text and now also includes a special section of the Covid-19 collages I made in 2020 while also working on this anthology. My goal is to have this book finally done sometime next year.
Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Diane Schoemperlen has published several collections of short fiction and three novels, In the Language of Love (1994), Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001), and At A Loss For Words (2008). Her 1990 collection, The Man of My Dreams, was shortlisted for both the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Trillium. Her collection, Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures won the 1998 Governor-General’s Literary Award for English Fiction. In 2008, she received the Marian Engel Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. In 2012, she was Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.