In Conversation with 2017 Peter Hinchcliffe Award Winner Shannon Blake
TNQ’s 2017 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award contest winner is Shannon Blake for her short story “The Mataram Miracle.” “The Mataram Miracle” and other 2017 contest winners can be read in TNQ Issue #144: Meet Me At The Edge. Subscribers can read “The Mataram Miracle” here.
Here we enter the world of modern day missionaries in Indonesia, a vibrant story where humour and juxtaposed ideas mark the experience of a young woman lost in her own kind of wilderness.
Our annual Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award has no word count and all entries are considered for publication. The 2017 adjudicators were Carrie Snyder, Masa Torbica, Gary Draper and Pamela Mulloy
As an emerging writer can you comment on your work and what drew you to the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction contest in the first place?
I’ve been writing seriously since I was a teenager. I worked for a number of years in theatre as a writer and director. I ran my own theatre company. About five years ago I had a directional crisis, trying to figure out why I was spending so much time doing anything but writing when writing was what I loved. I decided to reorient my life around creating space for writing, which turned out to mean a move and a career change. I now teach at a college and I don’t work in theatre. I do write, and I’m happy with how much I write. More recently, I’ve had to add the discipline of sending that writing out.
I bought a copy of The New Quarterly to take with me on my honeymoon, and I saw the ad for the Peter Hinchcliffe contest. This was 2016, and I think I’d just missed the deadline. But I made it to the 2017 deadline.
How did you begin writing? Do you have any writing rituals? Who are your literary heroes?
I remember being a child and wanting to write, but actually disliking the act of writing—I was a poor speller and I think the process was too slow for how fast my brain was moving. I remember that I wanted to record stories on a cassette tape instead. I think I started keeping a journal when I was eleven.
I need a lot of mental space and silence to write. I’d like to get over this, but unfortunately, I’m not over it yet. I don’t write at home. I prefer to write in a space with no windows, no other people visible, no noise, and no internet. I turn off my phone. I actually don’t like to talk to anyone at all before I start writing because that energy interferes with my thought process. I write in the morning; I’m dumber after 11 am.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have a strong influence on you or you writing?
My literary true loves are Annie Dillard, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Michaels; anyone named Anne or Michael, really. I like prose that’s half poetry. I’m quite influenced by Dillard’s The Writing Life, and by Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, though I have never actually gotten to the end of it. My recent work also owes a lot to Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara.
What attracts you to the short fiction genre?
I started writing short fiction because I used to write plays. What I liked about plays was that I could keep the whole thing straight in my head. Short fiction seemed equivalent.
How do you know when you’ve reached the end when writing a story?
I don’t know how I know I’m done. I often don’t know exactly what I’m writing about until I’m nearly finished. When I realize what question I’m asking, I can figure out if I’ve answered that question, and if I have, I suppose that means I’m done. I’m making this answer up. It’s more satisfying than telling you that I know because it’s intuitive.
Can you talk a bit about the major focus or themes in your piece and why they are important to you? What drew you to writing about this?
“The Mataram Miracle” is informed by my experiences with evangelical Christianity. The story is part of an as-yet-unpublished collection entitled You Are His. I was part of a mission organization when I was eighteen, though the events in “The Mataram Miracle” are fictional. I think a lot about how belief shapes actions, how worldview shapes belief. I think particularly about how these things intersect with gender. Someone told me once to write about my obsessions, and that’s been good advice.
I keep a list of concepts, curiosities, juxtapositions—often things I come across in newspapers or in the lives of acquaintances. I don’t use all of these ideas, but they are situations that seem potent to me. I usually start with one of these situations and try to write the piece uninterrupted. The first draft is quick and bad, and then I edit for years. I started “The Mataram Miracle” by writing about flying into the dawn over the Pacific Ocean, which I did once, and how this prolonged the dawn magically. None of that is in the story now. At the end of 2016 “The Mataram Miracle” was so bad I thought I was going to chuck it. I’d worked on it for years and it had just gotten more stilted. But I started to focus on the main character’s confusion, and that turned out to be the through line. My stories work better when I figure out what they’re about.
Was the writing of this story approached in a way that’s typical for you, or does every story have its own approach?
This writing process was similar to how I have written other stories, though “Mataram” took an especially long time.
What made you send this story to TNQ’s contest?
I sent the story to the contest because I wanted to win!