Chad Pelley is one of my favourite writers. We first met at Word on the Street in Halifax, in 2010, when he was touring for his impressive debut novel, Away From Everywhere (Breakwater Books, 2009) and I was touring for my first short story collection, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010). Since then, Away From Everywhere has been made into a movie, and he’s written another great novel, Every Little Thing (Breakwater, 2013) and an excellent collection of short stories called Four Letter Words (Breakwater, 2016). We had a chance to chat this week about Four Letter Words, the process of writing short stories, and more.
DB: I love these stories so much. There’s such great characterization, and you really get the sense that as a reader that you’re getting every character’s deepest regrets and what ifs, regardless of the scenario. What was the inspiration behind the collection? There’s actually quite a range in subject matter- would you say there’s a single, central theme? And if so, what would that be?
CP: Thanks for that: characterization is vital for a short story, and I like to build an emotional bridge between the reader and the character so the reader isn’t just reading or seeing someone’s story but rather, experiencing it. It’s always my goal to have a reader feeling what they’re reading, and it’s a slog of revisions to get the language there.
And yes, there’s a unifying motif in the book. All the stories in Four-letter Words feature some longing for something they’ve lost and can’t quite find again. Funny, sad, or funny-sad, the men and women in this collection are all haunted by the four-letter words – love, hate, lust, or loss – that unite and divide us all. The stories are varied in tone for sure, from bleak to funny, but, these stories more or less explore the panic of feeling locked into one life, when we could have led so many others. That’s a struggle close to my heart: so many ambitions, so little time.
DB: (Laughing) Yeah, I totally know what you mean.
So many of the stories have won awards that go back as far as 2008. I remember us talking about short story collections years ago – when it came time for you to compile and put together these particular stories, was the selection process and editing process hard? Were there a lot of stories that didn’t make the final cut?
CP: Oh, absolutely, of the 40-something stories on my computer, 14 made the cut. I wanted to keep the collection short, sweet, punchy, and most importantly, I wanted cohesion in concept among the stories. So, I went looking for some kind of commonality and it turns out the longing thing punched through in a lot of these stories.
The weirdest part was that these stories were all written between 2007-2014, in between writing novels, and as you know, we grow as writers in a 7-year period. By “grow” I don’t mean “get better,” so much as change, stylistically and thematically.
The 2010s writer in me questioned 2000s-me on some stories that actually did quite well in competitions, so I sent 5-6 people 20 stories, and had them rank their top 3 and bottom 3, and used a formula to devise the top 14 of those 20. When you run your own business for a living, number crunching and mathematical formulas becomes your go to for logic.
DB: Right. I absolutely love “Love and Other Cliches.” Maybe I’m biased because of my themes and subjects in For All the Men… but wow. It knocks me out every time I read it. I think my favourite line is: “She kissed like a horse drinking from a trough, and he hated it, or she kissed with a grace that softened his bones.” The whole story is so funny and accurate and self aware and beautiful in how honest it is. Are there any elements of it, or any of the stories that are autobiographical or would you say they’re more based in observation and other people’s stories?
CP: Aw, thanks! I almost didn’t include it, thinking it was too out there, but it’s a lot of people’s favourite. I wrote “Love and Other Cliches,” at the last minute to really diversify the styles of the collection’s stories, and to seriously muck with the short story form, and the idea that every story needs a romantic relationship. So, this “story” is a writer trying to decide how two people met, but he keeps editing himself to make it more interesting. And the ending, yeah, I make fun of myself for a sort of juvenile relationship-wariness phase I was going through.
I don’t write many of my own life experiences into fiction these days, except the odd scene that’s fitting because I can describe it (like the opening of my first novel, when a man hydroplanes quite dramatically); what’s there instead is life attitudes or tackling fears and having a conversation with myself about the world, through a story. In “Love and Other Cliches” I was expressing some cheeky bitterness about the inevitability that love ends so why fall into it. But that’s like saying rollercoasters end, so why get on them? I’m too old to struggle with those questions now. And it’s bullshit anyway. Every now and then someone comes along, and they floor you and they Etch-a-Sketch your brain, and you’re too distracted by the sheer magnificence of this new person’s presence in your life to ponder much beyond: I Want You.
DB: That’s what I thought! That’s great. I like the rollercoaster analogy.
Let’s talk about all the twists in the stories. There’s a lot of surprise turns of events that always manage to veer into unexpected territory. I remember the first time I read “Red” I was devastated by ending. Same with “What The Difference Is,” it was that line: “Her story won’t make my top five” Do you usually have the plot (including emotional sucker punch endings) in mind before you start, or do you get there through the editing process?
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CP: That comes from me being petrified readers will find my books and stories boring. I find a lot of books boring, so I get carried away with emphatic language and surprises and twists and sucker punch endings that leave a mark, because I find they drive home the “point of the story.” And to answer the question, I definitely get there in the self-editing and revisions: that’s my favourite part of writing. I hate the slog of getting it all down, but love poking at a finished piece of fiction. I find I don’t know what the story is truly about until it’s finished. Then I hone the piece with its purpose in mind.
DB: It’s good to be so focused. I can’t believe on top of all that, you’re running the Overcast (a St John's, Newfoundland based alternative newspaper similar to Toronto's Now Magazine) Can we tell Open Book Readers about that too? Why did you decide to start it, and has it been what you expected it to be like?
CP: Well, I could never work for someone else. I can’t do the 9-5 thing. I panic about wasting my life making someone else’s company or dream work instead of my own. There’s a lot going on in Newfoundland in terms of The Arts, food, brilliant people and entrepreneurs, but, our media tends towards Breaking News, not “check this amazing place out!” type media, or conversation-starting media. So I wanted to create a voice here for all that. In addition to our monthly print issues, our website has exclusive, fresh weekly content as well.
It’s going well. 1 in 3 people in greater St. John’s read it, and we’ve won some nice awards. London’s respectable international magazine The Monocle called our “smart, informed and interesting” paper “the one to read in Newfoundland.” But the paper put a serious dent in my fiction productivity 2014-now. That’s all changing, and I am getting my life back this fall. It’s established enough I can step back a little, and, I’ve just made some strategic hires to let me do so, and, to help the paper grow this fall. On a related note, one of those hires was Eva Crocker – keep an eye out for her debut book called High Kick that Anansi will publish in 2017.
DB: Really? I read The Monocle. That’s amazing. I will definitely look out for Eva’s book too. What are you working on these days? A new novel? New short stories?
CP: Actually, in a blend of my two worlds, I’m submitting The Overcast Guide to Newfoundland Beer to a local publisher in September. Some of these beers have been around over 100 years, but there’s so little information about local beer out there it was both a lot of fun to put together, and more work than I imagined. And my beer belly is back. Professional hazard.
After that I’ll get back to my new novel. It’s called Cold Wind Blowing, and it’s a plot-heavy novel about a boy missing in a small town, and the mystery and political nature of his disappearance, and that of plenty of other kids. There’s storms and broken hearts and drones and people pushed to desperate actions and in general a lot going on. Intense, Orwellian stuff.
DB: Sounds great. Good variety, too. Looking forward to reading them!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is the author of three short story collections, Got No Secrets, For All the Men (and Some of the Women I’ve Known) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness will be published in March 2024 by Guernica Editions. She is also the author of the novel Much on the Inside, which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us will be published by Guernica in 2025. She teaches Creative Writing at University of Toronto’s SCS and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers. She is currently writing and illustrating her first graphic novel.