News and Interviews

Author Nicola Winstanley Shifts Focus in Smoke, Her Stunning Debut Short Story Collection

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Hamilton-based author Nicola Winstanley has already garnered an excellent reputation as a picture book author, receiving plaudits and awards for her work. Now, in a clear display of artistic versatility that will firmly grab new readers, she has shifted her focus to short stories.

The result is Smoke (Wolsak & Wynn), a debut collection of short fiction filled with unforgettable characters and vivid settings, moving between Canada and New Zealand (where the author was born and raised) in linked pieces that explore intergenerational family trauma. Together, these works look squarely at heartbreak, fate, and loss, but hum with an undercurrent of hope and grace. 

We are thrilled to speak with Nicola today, as she takes on our Keep it Short series, which focuses specifically on works of short fiction:


Open Book:

How did you decide what stories to include in the collection? When were they written?

Nicola Winstanley:

Together these stories form the arc of a single life, except that life is divided amongst a cast of characters who were children or parents in the same neighbourhood. Though there are various protagonists they are somewhat alike and have had similar experiences, and I think it was my way of trying to compassionately approach the same questions from different perspectives: what does trauma do? how does it define a person? how can you overcome it? how can you do better for your own children? They were written mostly during my MFA at UBC that I completed over four years. They were written slowly, with many rewrites, and some of them had a genesis many, many years earlier. Doing an MFA provided me with the focus I needed to bring these questions up and really look at them.


How did you decide which story would be the title story of your collection? Why that story in particular?


In “Smoke”, we meet six-year-old Amanda after her mother has died suddenly; Amanda is not sure why her mother has died, or if she is even dead, but she knows her mother smoked two packs a day. When she realizes how alone she is and that no one is watching, Amanda feels free at first “boundless” like smoke, a part of the air she is breathing, connected to all things; but this lack of boundaries soon morphs into a feeling of terrifying disintegration and she loses all sense of safety. Connectedness/disintegration. This paradoxical image appears repeatedly in the stories both concretely and metaphorically and represents the central theme of the book, so it was an obvious choice for me. (As well, the stories start in the seventies, and everyone smoked back then—outside, inside, in cars with the windows rolled up. My memories of that time are literally hazy with the billowing of cigarette smoke.)


What do you enjoy most about writing short fiction? What is the toughest part?


I can’t say writing this book was “enjoyable” but it was very meaningful to me for the same reason it was so tough. All the stories are fictions closely related to my own life or the lives of people I know or knew well. It’s hard to look at that stuff, and it’s hard to make it into something else, to use the material and change it as you need it and not get stuck in the “what really happened.” Life is a mess. Stories need some structure. Making sense of that mess can be difficult, and more than that, making sense of it in a way that speaks to other people is very hard. Also, the endings. Endings are really, really hard.


Did you do any specific research for any of your stories? Tell us a bit about that process.


I didn’t do a lot of research, but there were some very specific pieces. (1) I joined a duck hunting group on Facebook and asked if anyone would help me, and a woman kindly gave me a beautiful description of what it was like and what happens, as well as reading my draft and letting me know where I went wrong. That is the only time I will ever be in a duck hunting group on Facebook. (2) I checked the American Top Forty listing for Smoke, because I really wanted Amanda to hum along to “How Deep is Your Love”. And (3) I researched some of the key names in the book because it was important to me what they meant: Amanda, Rasmus, Victor, Dinah, Ernest, Gabrielle. Look them up!


Who did you dedicate your collection to, and why?


My collection is dedicated to my father, Walter, who is the inspiration for the character Ernie in the book. When I was in my thirties, my father, like Ernie, passed away quite suddenly from glioblastoma and I did not get the time or opportunity to have the resolution I had hoped for. I hope now that readers can see my compassion for this character; he’s not a great character, not likeable, and it’s hard to care about him until his own suffering is revealed in “Will You Be a Christian.” I think of these stories as an apology to him; a request for forgiveness. I know it’s too late, but it’s the best I can do.


Nicola Winstanley is a writer for adults and children. She has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and is the recipient of the Alvin A. Lee Award for Published Creative Non-Fiction. Nicola’s fiction, poetry and comix have been published in the Windsor Review, Geist, The Dalhousie Review, Grain Magazine, Untethered Magazine, and Hamilton Arts and Letters, among others. She holds an MA from the University of Auckland, NZ, and an MFA from UBC. Nicola works at Humber College in Toronto and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Buy the Book


Smoke is award-winning children’s author Nicola Winstanley’s first work for adults and it showcases her ability to create the unforgettable characters she’s known for. This deftly written linked short story collection moves between New Zealand and Canada following the lives of a fascinating collection of characters and considers the impact of intergenerational trauma on them from multiple points of view. Questions of responsibility and fate, and a search for understanding thread through these searing, often heartbreaking stories. Yet even though these are stories of loss, Smoke is ultimately a book about grace, one which calls not only for a rejection of guilt, but also for approaching the world with deep compassion.