Home > Interviews > “What poetry, plays, & short fiction have in common: the need to carve away, to leave out”: An Interview with Kate Cayley

Cayley-Kate_largePRISM: international’s Prose Editor Christopher Evans caught up with PRISM’s 2015 Short Fiction Contest winner Kate Cayley. Kate Cayley has published a collection of poetry, When This World Comes to an End (Brick Books) and a collection of short stories, How You Were Born (Pedlar Press), which won the 2015 Trillium Award. She is a playwright-in-residence with Tarragon Theatre and has written two plays for Tarragon, After Akhmatova and The Bakelite Masterpiece. 

You can check out Cayley’s award-winning story in the latest issue of PRISM and an excerpt here.

One of the things examined in “The Bride and the Street Party” is casual privilege, which manifests in the story as a kind-of magnanimous competitiveness between the women planning the party. This leaves the protagonist, Martha, feeling conspicuous and deeply unsure of herself. Have you felt this way yourself? Or are their other ways in which your life and Martha’s meet?

My life is like Martha’s only insofar as I have young children and live in a rapidly gentrifying Toronto neighbourhood and indulge some of the anxieties inevitably attendant on those things. That said, the story is inspired by the experience of living in a neighbourhood that is changing and having to acknowledge, however reluctantly, how profoundly you yourself (or rather, I, my wife and our three kids) are part of that swift change. That was one jumping-off point for the story. The other was a piece on CBC about parents with children who may be quite disturbed, and my own thoughts on that as a parent. Your worst fear, your greatest rush to judgment. Trying to raise good people with love and kindness and some modicum of grace can really uncover ugly stuff—about our fears and vanities and our tendency to close ranks. But, in a lot of ways, Martha experiences herself as an outsider because being a person who’s become a parent very young can really alienate you, especially in a milieu in which it’s increasingly common to delay having kids. I have almost ten years on Martha, which allows for more time to figure out yourself, your relationship, you work etc., before all that is called into question by the new world of being responsible for children.

Martha’s foil in the story is Bronwyn, another mother who appears, at all times, to be confident and collected; Martha views her as both a friend and a nemesis. What or who was the inspiration for Bronwyn? Do you have a nemesis?

Bronwyn is not inspired by anyone. In fact, I think of her as not quite a character. She’s a projection of Martha’s insecurities, and the story is written very close to Martha, who isn’t quite capable of seeing Bronwyn clearly. This is especially telling for me in the part where Martha realizes that Bronwyn knows a lot more about the family affected by the street party than Martha herself does. Martha may hold all the correct opinions about gentrification and the displacement of original residents, but Bronwyn is the one who’s actually taken the time to get to know them. I’ve often found this true for myself: that I hold certain “right” opinions that are manifestly not born out in how I live, in the sense of who I know, and what conversations I might have in the course of a day.

What is the most appealing aspect of short fiction to you? Is there a story that has had a notable impact on the way you approach writing short fiction? Or a writer whose work you particularly admire?

Economy. You can fit so much into such a small space. As a child, I was obsessed with my dollhouse. I suspect this comes from the same place. In terms of writers, I don’t know about impact on the way I write, but certainly on the way I read. Perfect examples of the short story form, for me, would probably be Yiyun Lee’s “The Princess of Nebraska,” William Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” Mavis Gallant’s “Four Seasons,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent,” and pretty much anything by Alice Munro. These are writers and stories I keep coming back to, enjoying, admiring, and envying.

You’ve worked in several different genres, and your experience as a poet particularly shines through in the language of “The Bride and the Street Party,” which often has a rhythmic, tumbling quality, such as in the line: “He was failing, a failure of love or patience, a failure, he said, of sympathy, he was not the right father for this easily broken child; he cried.” Are there others ways in which your different genres intersect? How does one genre inform another?

I’m struggling to write a novel at the moment, and really thinking about this question. Because the thing that poetry, plays, and short fiction all truly have in common is the need to carve away, to leave out. So a form that demands expansion, rather than compression, is baffling for me. But I like to think all the forms support each other in some way. Hopefully striving to be a better poet will make for better prose, and the other way around (rather than resulting in overly ornate prose and flat poetry). That particular sentence came out of my experience working on my short story collection: I had just finished the final edit when I started this story. The editing process really taught me to appreciate the semicolon.

You’ve recently been awarded the 2015 Trillium Book Award for your short story collection How You Were Born. What effect does such an acknowledgment have on your work? Does it change the way you view yourself as a writer?

I’m really happy about it, and honoured, and pleased. The recognition is lovely, and the boost of confidence that brings. But I hope it won’t change much about how I view myself as a writer. I ran into someone recently who quoted that Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” You just keep working, and the nitty gritty of the work will not fundamentally change.

What the best piece of advice you’ve received about writing? Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?

“Do not hurry. Do not rest.”—Goethe. I have that on a post-it beside my desk. My own advice, for what it’s worth: read widely. Assume that everything you write will need to be rewritten. Cherish the editorial relationship and process, even when it’s difficult. Keep going. Also, I read something somewhere from David Bezmozgis, who advised to “finish everything you start.” Because you never know, until you’re done, what is the best idea, and what is the worst. Terrifying advice, but good. I’m trying to follow it myself.


Originally from Victoria, BC, Christopher Evans now lives in Vancouver with his wife, young daughter, and two disgruntled cats. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in Joyland, carte blanche, The Moth, and others, and are upcoming in Feathertale, Ottawa Arts Review, and Nashwaak. Review.