Based in Halifax, Ian Colford writes short fiction, novels, and literary criticism. His first book, the short fiction collection Evidence (Porcupine’s Quill, 2008), won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award and was a finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and the ReLit Award. Since then, he has gone on to publish two novels.
His second book of short fiction, A Dark House and Other Stories (Nimbus Publishing) was released last fall and is nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction.
Congratulations on your nomination for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction. It must feel good being nominated for an award named for Alistair MacLeod, a master of the short story genre. What was your reaction on hearing the news?
I was very pleased and enormously humbled. Having my name associated with Alistair MacLeod in any capacity is a huge honour. I’m proud of A Dark House. I believe it contains some of my best work. But at the same time, when I think of all that Alistair accomplished and his stature as an icon in Canadian letters, my little book doesn’t seem to amount to much. I was also—I can’t say shocked because I do believe my book is good. But I keep an eye on the local literary scene and when I think of the amazing books of short stories that aren’t on the shortlist—books that were published around the same time as mine, that I read and greatly admire—my mind kind of boggles. I can’t imagine the jury members had an easy time of it.
Tell me about A Dark House.
Speaking generally, this is a collection of stories that depict people at times of crisis. The crisis can be moral or financial, or it might be a crisis of confidence or of identity. In each case the main character is faced with a decision, or perhaps many decisions. How is he or she going to approach the challenge they’re facing? How are they going to fix things, or find a path forward, or save themselves and those who matter to them? The story builds as the repercussions of the decision they’ve made are felt. One thing I’ll admit is that, dramatically speaking, I find failure more interesting than success. Readers will notice that some of my characters make very poor decisions and fail in spectacular fashion. They’re trying to do what they believe is the right thing, but through their actions they betray themselves and those they care about. Other characters push themselves forward into the unknown—either bravely or stupidly, who can tell? Regardless of the particulars, I’m always striving for dramatic urgency. I want to create situations that give the reader no choice but to keep turning the pages. And from the feedback I’ve received so far, I think I did a decent job of that in this book.
Writing short stories versus novels. Pros and cons?
The short story is all about short-term gratification. You can finish a story in a few days, give it some spit and polish, and end up with a tight, compact little drama. Then send it off somewhere and with luck and perseverance have a publication credit to add to your CV, all within two or three months. The novel is more about long-term pain. With a novel, you’re making a commitment to an idea and a group of characters that are going to occupy your mind and drain every ounce of creative energy for years to come. The physical and psychological toll is real. It can wear you down and strain relationships. So you really have to think long and hard about making that commitment and you have to ensure you’re up for the challenge. And before you start writing their story, you also have to know your characters inside and out, know them at least as well as you know yourself, and be sure you don’t mind spending a lot of time with them, because there’s nothing worse than getting a couple of hundred pages into a manuscript and discovering that a) you really don’t like these people very much, or b) you have no idea what they’re going to do next. However, if you can get past the self-doubt and teeth gnashing and mental anguish and make it to the end, you’ll find that there are very few artistic rewards that can compete with completing a novel manuscript. Shepherding it through the revision, submission, and editorial stages, and then seeing it published is another challenge altogether. But when you’re holding the finished book in your hand, all the pain will miraculously melt away. In that moment, you’ll forget about whatever misery it cost you and realize that you can’t wait to get started on the next one.
Why are awards like the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction important?
Maybe I’m biased, but I think most people would agree that we need to encourage people to read. But we also have to encourage writers and artists to create, give them as many publicity opportunities as possible, and reward them from time to time. Writers toil in the shadows and it’s common for even frequently published and widely admired writers to remain virtually unknown for their entire careers. So literary awards like this one represent a tiny pinprick of light to battle the darkness. These awards are also a way to highlight some of the best of what our society has to offer. Reading is an activity that has no downside. The more people read, the more imaginative, thoughtful, aware and empathetic our society becomes. Everyone is busy, everyone’s life is full, but if even one person who has never heard of me or my book sees it listed for this award and reads it as a result, then the Atlantic Book Awards has more than lived up to its mandate.
What are three short story collections you would recommend?
On top of all the classic books of stories produced by masters like James Joyce, John Cheever, William Trevor, Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty, and countless others, there are talented short story writers working right now, writing wonderful story collections. For this question I’ll limit myself to three recent books that blew me away. The Sign for Migrant Soul by Richard Cumyn is worth hunting down. The stories are boisterous, engaging and playful. Richard’s prose is filled with cunning metaphors, unexpected wordplay and droll observations on contemporary life. Another recent collection that knocked me flat is Zolitude by Paige Cooper. This collection is, frankly, very strange and disturbing, and all of the stories are weirdly cryptic, eerie and challenging, but in a good way. And then there’s The View from the Lane by Deborah-Anne Tunney, a collection of linked stories that follows the lives of a group of people over several generations. It’s a book that creeps up on you because all the characters seem so ordinary. It’s only when you get to the end that you realize that you’ve just read something extraordinary.
Now that we’re coming out of the pandemic and tight restrictions are being relaxed, what things do you think will stay with you?
The pandemic leaves behind a double-edged story: one of cooperation and teamwork countered with another of defiance and recklessness. I think we’ve done well in Nova Scotia, taming the virus and diminishing its destructive power. It could have been better, but our health officials have generally made sensible decisions and kept things real. But you can’t avoid the reports coming out of other places, particularly the US, where the wearing of masks has been politicized and people regard the health restrictions as an infringement on their rights. Yesterday a headline came across my twitter feed, this guy who used to be a pro baseball player saying that he’d rather die of the virus than wear a mask. It’s absolutely insane. Those sorts of stories will stick with me for a while. And, of course, the complete story of the virus has yet to be written.
– Questions by Marilyn Smulders