WW: Amy Reiswig, writing in Focus Magazine, said that The End of Me is a hybrid of haiku and short story. Do you like that definition?
JG: I do, I do. It’s illuminating because it’s actually how I came to write in this form. I was reading a lot of the old masters of haiku, and writing haiku, just sort of playing around, and I realized I was having more fun doing that than writing stories. Somehow getting closer to what I wanted to do in fiction. So I decided to try to see what the haiku of fiction would be. What if I brought some of the same principles, the quickness and lightness, the openness to paradox and irony, and just this huge pressure on concision that you find in haiku—what if I brought that to my stories? It was later on that I realized that there were other people working in the very short form, that of course there’s a history to it.
WW: That’s so interesting because your sudden stories have got all the elements of fiction and they’re powerful enough to handle philosophy—just like poems and haiku. How do you achieve this in such small spaces?
JG: I don’t know, is the short answer. I think writers looking to try it should, as with any form, do a lot of reading, and spend a lot of time experimenting. In a short story the idea is to begin in the middle. In a very short story you really have to begin very close to the core moment of the story, right? A lot of the skills of a short-story writer would be sharpened by the extra compression required of the very short story.
One thing I’ll say about my approach is that it may be a bit distinctive, even heretical. Most writing guides these days tend to encourage a writer to do a whole bunch of writing, get heaps of material down and then start weeding through—start cutting back to locate the good stuff. In my case, I actually do a fair bit of the work of compression before I start writing. My sense of haiku is that you don’t sit down and slog at it, you don’t pound out fifty lines and then cut it down to three. It’s more about an attentive, open waiting for an experience to coalesce in some way that you can articulate. There’s a waiting and a preparation, and for me, that’s an important part of the process of composition. I’ll have something on my mind, something that’s puzzling or unsettling, a human predicament that intrigues me. I’ll sit with it for a while, trying to let that idea find a way to be expressed. Through what character, in what fictional situation, in what voice, and so on.
When I do start putting words down, I want there to be quite a bit of force behind them. So, again, the idea of the haiku is to try to execute it in one go. That doesn’t mean you nail it right away, but you try to get the essence down all at once. Then it might be months or years of work, not just tinkering but continuing to drill down into the material. With flash or sudden fiction, I think the process of revision is extra important, because there’s a huge premium on language. You have to make it count, and keep finding a way to go deeper.
WW: I really like that idea. Thank you, John, for spending time with me. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Giller—I wish you every other success with the book too.
Visit johngould.ca to find links for three films by Corey Lee of enriquePoe Moving Pictures adapted from Kilter: 55 Fictions.
A useful resource for people in BC is Vancouver Flash Fiction and their FaceBook page run by Karen Schauber.
Interview edited for length.