Deborah Willis is one of the most exciting and original talents to emerge in the last ten years. Her first short story collection Vanishing and Other Stories (2009) was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and earned several rave reviews. Her most recent collection The Dark and Other Love Stories (2017) was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Her fiction has appeared in Event, PRISM international, The Walrus, The Virginia Quarterly, The Iowa Review and Lucky Peach. Deborah is currently working on a novel and is the writer-in-residence at MacEwan University. Prism international was excited to have the opportunity to discuss with Deborah her most recent collection of unforgettable short stories. Be sure to see Deborah Willis at the Vancouver Writers Fest for How This Story Began and The Sunday Brunch. Check it out at http://writersfest.bc.ca/.
I’ve always been impressed with how your stories linger long after I’ve finished reading them. There are images that stay with me as a reader – the horses in the field in “The Dark,” Alexei and Lana and the kitten on the streets of St. Petersburg in “Hard Currency,” the growing hole in the first of the Steve and Lauren stories at the end of the collection…I was wondering if you begin the writing of your stories with an image in mind? Or do you find yourself working towards certain images you know belong in the story?
I often do start with an image, so am very pleased to hear that some of them linger! I rarely know the plot of a story when I begin, but I often have a sense of the situation and the characters and usually an image that won’t leave me alone. In fact, I often feel guided by images. When I’m questioning the story, wondering if it will ever turn into something that works, I return again and again to the image that’s haunting me and ask why it feels so alive.
Has the process of writing short fiction changed for you over time? Do you have a better sense of how to get to that final draft?
I don’t think it has changed for me. My first book took seven years to complete, and the second took eight. Both times, there were stories that came quickly and easily, and stories that seemed to torture me for years. I wish that I had more sense of ease, but I find that my writing process is always very up-and-down. Sometimes I feel stuck and scared, and sometimes it flows wonderfully.
You mentioned in a Globe and Mail interview that you wrote this collection “about love in all its guises.” Was that your intention from the start or did you discover an overarching theme once you had a few stories written?
It wasn’t my intention. I had a few false starts, and even wrote another short manuscript that just wasn’t strong enough to publish. The theme of the collection emerged once I’d completed about half the stories. I started noticing the word love popping up in several of the stories, and was a bit alarmed by it—it’s such a loaded word, and hard to use without sentimentality. I decided that instead of being cautious, I would explore the theme in as many ways as I could conjure at the time.
In your Acknowledgments you thanked several people for their readings, including your parents, your aunt and – more predictably – your editor, Nicole Winstanley. How important is that process for you of a reader you trust looking at your work before it’s ready to be sent out into the world?
My acknowledgements make me laugh because they’re almost as long as the book itself! I have this urge to thank everybody I’ve ever met. I’m just truly so grateful to live this writing life. But all that aside, yes, it’s very important for me to have trusted readers. I show my work to several writer friends before sending it to my agent and editors. I feel it’s my job to get the stories as polished as possible before sending them out into the world, but writers can never work alone. We all need readers with clear vision to help us see what we can’t.
Are there certain writers you always return to?
I return to Alice Munro often. I reread The Great Gatsby every few years. Right now, though, I’m not returning to many writers. I’m trying to read as many novels as I can, because the form is so different from the short story. I hope to hone my sense of how novels can work.
Colin Sterling is a recent MFA graduate from UBC’s Creative Writing Program. He is on the Editorial Board for PRISM international. He has recently completed a creative nonfiction manuscript that explores the impact of disease on a relationship and a family.