Carving Words to the Forefront:
Karen Bannister in Conversation with Andrew Tibbetts

Simone Littledale

Malahat volunteer Karen Bannister talks with Andrew Tibbetts about his 2008 Novella Prize win, and life since being selected. Andrew's winning piece, "Dead Man's Wedding," appeared in Issue #163, Summer 2008.

In your novella story, "Dead Man's Wedding," your protagonist is a young boy. In what ways do you think writing from that perspective shaped the story?

This story isn’t the first appearance of Simon Hebblethwaite. He’s been very good to me! The first story I ever wrote, “Surprised We are Not,” popped up out of nowhere in this character’s voice. And it also won a contest! Well, 2nd place, in This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt of 2003. And it wasn’t his last appearance either. He keeps popping into my head. Three further stories, “Fifteen Escaping Father Stories,” “Nineteen Essays on my Mother’s Nerves,” and “The Hanged Man Café,” have been published in The New Quarterly. He continues to bring me luck as TNQ nominated me for a few other prizes for these pieces. Recently Existere published a fourth, “Froth, with Razorblades,” which didn’t get nominated for anything, but hasn’t made me love Simon any less.

I think all the stories are written from the perspective of a much older Simon. There is no way he would have had all the insights that he appears to have at nine years old in “Dead Man’s Wedding.” But I think that is quite true of memories. When we tell stories about our childhood, they are stained by the experiences we’ve had since. Memory occurs in the present. It’s incredibly unreliable as a source of unvarnished fact, but I like to think these errors can be felt by the reader as revealing of character. I hope they get a kind of hologramic impression—of Simon as a nine year old and as a forty year old, working simultaneously to co-create this tale. I, Andrew Tibbetts, also helped a bit.

When you look back at winning the contest, what do you remember about finding out the news?

I don’t remember finding out. I wonder if that means on some level my life began with winning The Malahat Review Novella Prize! Which makes sense! It’s a big deal. I try to get my friends to introduce me as “Malahat Review Novella Prize Winner, Andrew Tibbetts,” but they won’t. I’m sure many writers are like me, wanting to think that it doesn’t matter a fig what anyone thinks of our work, and at the same time, being embarrassingly thrilled when it turns out they like it.

Simon learns a lot about himself in "Dead Man's Wedding." Did you similarly discover aspects of yourself in writing it, and has that changed as the time from when you wrote it gets longer and longer?

Oddly, although I write fiction, I do feel that I am finding out things about myself in the process. Of course, Simon’s life is very close to mine. He’s the dreaded autobiographical character. The fact that he’s fiction means I can make stuff up, but that stuff comes from my imagination, and so I find things out about my desires, my emotional life, etc… that I probably wouldn’t have discovered if I’d written a memoir.

I do reread my published stories every once in a while. I’ve heard some writers don’t. I can’t imagine not being curious. I’m always surprised at how good I find the writing. When you’re working on something, you’re consumed with the problems of the piece, everything that’s going wrong with it, all the technical achievements you’ve set yourself and are failing miserably at, all the worries that this particular section is boring or that particular sentence is overwritten. There are a zillion alternatives as you are grasping to put something down on the paper; the ones you are not choosing are very much alive. When you re-read it, all those roads-not-taken have dropped away; you are able to see what you’ve actually got there. The more time has passed, the less the writing feels like my struggle, and the more it feels like a thing that made itself. I like that sensation.

What impact did the contest have on your writing life?

It was very affirming. I’ve had more confidence as a writer ever since. It’s also awesome to be able to put the win in my bio, and mention it in passing at the grocery store. I should also add: working with Malahat editor John Barton was an amazing experience that improved me as a writer. He is fabulously picky. I think there is one sentence in that story that we emailed back and forth at least twelve times, four of which were just about the placement of a comma. That sort of thing is heaven to me. Polishing is my favourite part of writing. Weighing words. Carving things out to bring what’s important to the forefront. And moving commas around. I could move commas around for days without eating, drinking or sleeping.

Can you comment on "novella" as a form, and how it helped shape the story?

Some of my favourite writing in the world is in the novella form—Thomas Mann please and thank you! And in this instance “form” just means length, because there isn’t really anything else defining about a novella; its contents could be anything. What is it about that length? When it works, it combines the precision of the short story with the expansiveness of the novel—something that should be impossible.

What are you currently working on?

It’s funny that these questions should come to me now. I’m working on two things, and one is a new novella! At the same time, I am trying to pull together all my Hebblethwaite family stories into a book length project. It’ll be a cross between a novel and set of stories. I like that form, too: linked stories. It’s been a very successful form lately. I’m thinking of “Olive Kitteridge” and “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” But I’m also thinking of past books like Eudora Welty’s “The Golden Apples,” Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” and even Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” Those five books couldn’t be more different! But they share something that fits beautifully with the post-modern imagination: a de-centralized narrative, intersubjectivity, and the escape from the monolithic grand arc that leaves out more than it lets in.

What great things, if any, have taken place since winning the contest?

The first great thing was after winning the contest, “Dead Man’s Wedding” went on to win gold for best fiction at the National Magazine Awards. When I was working on it, other writers thought I was crazy. A novella? Where the hell would you publish that? Why waste your time? It’s turned out to be the most money I’ve ever made from my writing. Almost 15 cents an hour! So, young folks, write novellas!

Karen Bannister

Karen Bannister

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Read details on how to enter the 2014 Novella contest, judge biographies, and interviews with past winners.