Skelton Key

Writing contest hopes to encourage Robin Skelton’s living legacy

If you’re an inspirationally challenged writer looking for some good ideas, you’re in luck—there’s a new literary contest where an author is offering inspiration from beyond the grave.

Robin Skelton examines LPs at a garage sale
Robin Skelton was an avid garage saler, as reflected in a new writing contest
Photo by Rich Vian

When acclaimed local poet, teacher and author Robin Skelton passed away back in 1997, he left behind a living legacy that would be the envy of any literary figure. Not only did he help establish the University of Victoria’s creative writing department, but he fostered the talents of numerous writers still working today (Susan Musgrave chief among them) and also co-founded The Malahat Review, the long-running literary journal. As such, Review editor John Barton thought it would be appropriate to celebrate Skelton’s legacy for their annual “Far Horizons” short fiction contest this year.

“The fall issue is our 40th anniversary issue, and it’s also a special issue on Robin,” explains Barton, a former student of Skelton’s. “It just seemed a natural fit to make the contest have a Skelton theme.”

Barton says another former student and friend of Skelton’s, Harold Rhenish, found the notes for three short story ideas amongst the author’s papers: “Leave the Chair”, “On the Ferry” and “Sales Service”. While only fragments of ideas—the notes for “Sales Service”, for instance, say, “Garage sale . . . buy object (small statuette) sell Sunday, see it next Saturday, buy it, sell it. Price doesn’t go up. Odd. Keep it a week . . . occurrences”—Barton feels there is enough material to spark an idea in today’s emerging writers.

“I think the three ideas are different enough from one another, but they all seemed typically Robin Skelton,” he says. “It seemed like a really interesting idea to try, and we also felt it would be something Robin would have both approved of and actually enjoyed.”

But Barton also says he isn’t expecting anyone to try and replicate Skelton’s distinct style. “They can just take the ideas and run with them. I don’t want to restrict them in any way, but they have to work as stories. Who knows? Maybe students or aspiring writers will look at his stories and do pastiches, or they may do something entirely different.”

One $500 prize will be awarded, plus payment ($35 per page) for each of the winning stories, which will be published in the Review. The stories cannot exceed 3,500 words and to be eligible you must not have had any short fiction published in book form. Deadline for entries is May 1. (Full details can be found at

But while the “Far Horizons” contest is an annual event for the Review, Barton says this year’s installment comes with an added bonus. “It’s a way of drawing people into the Robin Skelton milieux, because a lot of emerging writers wouldn’t have been writing while he was still alive,” he explains. “We can only carry Robin into the future if we establish him in the minds of the next generation. And if this does cause young writers to go look at his books, in some small way we’ll have accomplished my purpose.”

The special Malahat Review issue won’t be the only Skelton celebration this autumn, however. Given the 10th anniversary of his death, there will be a flurry of events and exhibitions at UVic’s Maltwood Gallery and McPherson Library, as well as the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and Emily Carr House.

“It’s all about his literary legacy,” says Barton—himself a great example of the effect one author can have. “I was a student of his 30 years ago, and he’s had a huge impact on my life.”

That’s a statement with which many people far and wide would gladly agree.

—John Threlfall
Monday Magazine, April 5-11, 2007
Reprinted with permission