Born in 1945, The Fiddlehead, based in UNB’s English Department, is Canada’s longest living literary journal, and honestly, one of the best curated in the country. The short stories, the poetry, the essays, the reviews: all worth subscribing for. As their website states, “Do not look at this journal as old! It is experienced; wise enough to recognize excellence; always looking for freshness and surprise.”
So I talked to two great guys/writers on the Fiddlehead Fiction Team about all things Fiddlehead, and more. Enjoy. Subscribe. Submit. Also, read Jarman and Beirne’s work, like My White Planet, 19 Knives (Jarman) and Turtle or Games of Chance (Beirne).
Note!: In the fall of 2012, The Malahat Review and The Fiddlehead will celebrate the writing of each other’s regions, with the former publishing an East Coast issue and the latter a West Coast issue. Writers with strong connections to either or both regions are invited to submit to the issue that will best provide their work a most apt and safe harbour. As well content submissions are invited for our joint East Coast/West Coast website. Submission deadline is 15 May 2012. For more information go to the East Coast/West Coast: Call for Submissions.
If you had to say it in just few sentences, What are you looking for in a piece of Fiction for Fiddlehead?
Mark Jarman: I hope that we’re open to any kind of story that is compelling and shows intelligent choices. Martha Sharpe was my editor for 19 Knives and Ireland’s Eye and her test was to read on a crowded streetcar and see if she was pulled in despite the distractions. I like voice and work on language and imagery and I like reactions that show the psychology of the narrator or character, eg a piano falls from above: how do they react? I’m a big fan of Carver who shows little reaction, but I also like writing that can imply history and character and layers and knowledge. I appreciate a mix of tones too, like Lorrie Moore who can be sad and funny at the same time. But I hope we’re open to anything that works; that’s the litmus test. There are so many ways to write a story.
Gerard Beirne: “How could you explain a balding man in an ill-fitting suit aiming his clarinet at the sky: Benny Goodman? How can you explain that? And he’s gonna be rocking the joint, he’s gonna be sweatin’, and people are gonna be movin’ to him, and falling in love with him on a deep level. How could you ever plan for that? The only way we can see it is once it’s happened.” – Tom Waits
Just take out your clarinet and play. I’ll listen, and if I start movin’….
Without choosing favourites, what’s a story or two (and by whom) that you’ve published that really fit that bill?
Jarman: The Summer Fiction Issue (2011) has many gems and stars, but I recall “The Lone Wolf” by Wayne McIntyre: something grumpy about the voice and the family that appeals. “Annabelle’s Angel” by Andrew Smith is about a very awkward male hustler. Sheila McClarty’s “Stolen” is the only story I know about stealing horse semen (Winter 2011). Winter 2012 has “Naked Girls & the Grinch” by Christopher Meades and there is a lesson: write about people drinking coffee or write about naked women on stage performing How the Grinch Stole Christmas. These are your choices as a writer.
Beirne: Jill Sexsmith’s “A Box Full of Wildebeest” (Spring 2010). Who could have planned for that? Unpredictable language, an unexpected sequence of events, unimaginable territory. We spend most of our lives doing ordinary things, and yet the act of living is quite extraordinary. Good stories reveal that. Watch out for Jill – no one else writing quite like her. ML West, “My Daughter of the Dead Reeds” (Summer 2011) – created its own world, a murky-swampy sort of place where we stomped in the shallows looking for clarity and ultimately found it. Good stories do that – create their own distinct worlds, pull us into them and point the way back out but with no guarantees for our safety. Sheila McClarty’s, “The Government Ditch” (Winter 2010). Great characters constricted more and more by their circumstances until they have to buckle under or explode, and they explode. Another thing good stories do – constrict their characters, push them up against walls and into corners, box them in. it’s the nature of the form.
How long have you been at Fiddlehead now?
Jarman: I arrived from Victoria in 1999 for what was I thought was a temporary stay. Ross Leckie was working here and Norm Ravvin and Bill Gaston had been editing before us.
Beirne: Just over two years now as an editor – was a reader before that.
Is there anyone you’ve proudly published at the beginning of their career who’s gone on to publish some great book(s) you enjoyed?
Jarman: It’s always nice to see people show up in Best Canadian Stories or The Journey Prize anthology, and I’ve published people that went on to do books with Penguin or M&S, but there are also writers and stories I really like that do not get recognition, so I’m going to skate around this question. My first three poems and two stories were published in the Fiddlehead decades ago when I was in Edmonton; never knew I’d end up here. Many writers started in the pages of The Fiddlehead: Anne Simpson, Atwood, Purdy, Pat Lowther, Carol Shields, Ondaatje, Alistair Macleod, even Anne Sexton.
Beirne: Well Sheila McClarty went on to publish a very fine book of stories High Speed Crow (Oberon Press). I’ve known her work for many years before I was involved with The Fiddlehead – from my time in Manitoba where she is from. So it was a pleasure to see it all coming together so nicely in that story and in the subsequent book.
Some writers seem to stop submitting to journals once they’re “established.” I wish they wouldn’t. What are your thoughts on this?
Jarman: When I was younger I was in an issue of Prism that also had Ray Carver and I was thrilled, so I vote to keep submitting until you die. In the Summer Fiction Issue (2011) I was very happy to have writers like Clark Blaise, Elisabeth Harvor, Bill Gaston, Leon Rooke mix with less established writers.
Beirne: Well, for some writers, there may be what they consider ‘better’ opportunities open to them – magazines with a bigger audience, more money! Some may have agents involved. Others may feel that they don’t need to ‘compete’ in the selection/rejection process anymore, and that’s reasonable. Some may even feel it is unfair to less established writers. So there are many reasons for this. I think it is a good idea for a journal to have a mix of established and emerging writers, beginners too if their story is good enough. That seems like a healthy self-sustaining environment.
How did this East Coast / West Coast collaboration with the Malahat Review come to be?
Jarman: That came from editors John Barton and Ross Leckie wanting to do something together, in a spirit of cooperation, rather than mags competing or undermining each other. I can’t take credit, but I did hire John Barton to be our Writer in Res at UNB and the idea was hatched while he was held prisoner here. By the by, our current writer in res is Sue Sinclair, and starting next September the writer in res will be Joan Clark from NL.
There’s certainly a diversity in the fiction coming out of Atlantic Canada, yet I think a subset of it certainly shares a few traits. Do you agree, and believe there is something of an Atlantic Canadian identity in some of the writing coming out of the east coast? What qualities does it exhibit?
Jarman: I don’t think in terms of regions, though I love it when a place is not homogenized, is noticeably not the same as another part of the country. I’m sure there are traits, perhaps even in setting and dialogue and humour, but writers are individuals. Wayne Johnston seems a different writer to me than Lynn Coady, though both really use the setting, and both are funny. And finally, I’m not even sure that Fredericton is part of the Maritimes. We may be a Swiss Duchy. Not too much squid-jigging goes down here.
Beirne: I’m at a loss here. It’s a bit like asking about ‘Irish’ fiction. I’ll go along with the theory that it can share a few traits, and I do believe that the geographical landscape, climate and overall cultural environment can shape the writing, but the territory of the mind, the imagination, does not necessarily share the same borders – all this coming from a writer born and reared in Ireland, who is also a Canadian citizen, included in an anthology of Manitoba writers, and is now a board director of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.
Ignore that there’s overlap in these attributes: As a reader, what percentage of each of these traits would you allot, in building a perfect short:
1.) Fresh language & shining sentence-level writing,
2.) Originality of story and/or character and/or narrative.
3.) Effectiveness of the author to pull off the story they set out to tell (Did they use the right tone, POV, narrative structure, etc)
4.) Enjoyability / narrative hook
Jarman: I like all of them, but ball park I’ll say 30% each to 1 and 2, 20% to 3 and 4.
You know there must be law against this sort of question, and if there isn’t, there ought to be.
No percentages – but firstly, I want to be entertained (Dubliners is entertaining, Ulysses is entertaining. Finnegan’s Wake is not). I want to get to the end. Very many of the stories I read are simply uninteresting, dull. The characters have little life in them. They may be suffering from some terrible disease, splitting their family apart, but I don’t really care, and I know our readers won’t either. As Richard Ford said in his Paris Review interview, “it’s fiction’s business to try to enlarge our understanding of and sympathy for people.” I am looking for originality/voice something that makes that particular story stand out. And, sure, it’s a combination of all the things you have mentioned above, but there isn’t one particular mix. Ultimately, however, I want that enlargement of understanding. To do that, the writer has to take risks – risks with plot, risks with characters, risks with the choice and sequence of words. By this I do not mean that they should be writing in a weird or abstract way just that they do not follow the worn path. Writing is an act of discovery. It requires courage, feats of daring-do.
How does Fiddlehead hash out which 3 stories it’ll submit to the Journey Prize every year?
Jarman: This is not a science. We ask everyone on staff which they prefer. I like to remember something visual about a story, some hook, or it might be a theme that seems worthy. This year I had input on National Magazine Awards, then Gerry Beirne suggested very different stories for The Journey Prize, which has different rules, and we went with his picks on that one. It can be arbitrary.
Beirne: You know that Randy Quaid line to Ryan O’Neill in Paper Moon out in the backwoods (when Quaid used to just act as a simpleton instead of ….) – “I’ll wrastle you for it.” Well Mark, Ross and I, the woodlot … you get the picture.
No, people just put forward a number of stories they recommend, and usually there is some overlap. If someone cares enough for a story to go to bat for it, they won’t find many objections.