Shelia McClarty

An Interview

Gerard Beirne

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Sheila McClarty of Oakbank, Manitoba, Canada has had her short fiction appear in Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, Crannog and Carter V. Cooper anthology. Her collection of short stories, High Speed Crow (Oberon Press), won the 2011 Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for best first book by a Manitoba author. Sheila is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers.

Gerard Beirne: Sheila, I have admired your work for a long time now. You seem to have an innate sense of the power of the short fiction form. What appeals to you about this form?

Sheila McClarty: I like the entry point of a short story, how it opens close to the plot, divulging only essential components of the characters and setting with every detail carrying a heavy load. To me, a good short story opening is like walking into a party late and quickly surmising the dynamics prior to arrival.  

Short stories often are a single event or interaction in a character’s life, but at the same time can provide a layered understanding of the main character. I think this mimics reality, the way we experience, recall and analyze our lives in individual scenes.

Because of its brevity and concision, the short story can also afford the writer the use of balanced exaggeration and enhancement of characters without becoming tiresome. Also, I really like how the short story format allows for experimentation with form. I can toy with structure and narration, and when it doesn’t work, which is often, I can tell myself, it is only one story. And then I can move on to another story.   

GB: Are you ever tempted by the longer forms – novella or novel?

SMCC: Always.  I have tremendous respect and a great deal of awe for novelists. They work long and hard on one piece never knowing what will become of it. Although I have never started a novel, I do find my stories increasing in length with the average being between five and eight thousand words.

GB: I know you write flash fiction also. It has become very popular in recent years, but you were writing it way back before this popularity began. I seem to recall you winning competitions with magazines such as Grain. What is it about the even shorter form that resonates with you?

SMCC: Yes, I did start off with flash fiction, and my first publication was in Grain magazine (honourable mention) and I am still grateful to the judge and Grain! I think it relates to what I said above, the word count being more manageable for the new writer.  I like the punch of flash fiction, how it distills the characteristics of a short story even more. That being said, I think it is a very difficult format because its significant shortness doesn’t tolerate any mistakes. 

GB: Who are the short story writers you admire most and what are the qualities you admire in their writing?

SMCC: There are many short story writers that I admire. For the sake of brevity, I will list three authors I turn to in times of writing distress. I find Margaret Atwood to be a masterful story teller and I turn to her collection, A Stone Mattress, for examples of where and when to divulge information about a character, and to study her opening sentences. When I am looking at writing style, I reread Alice Munroe stories for their grace and elegance hoping it will somehow transfer over to me. And I know that now, Elske Rahill’s short stories will be on my list of collections to turn to, keeping an eye on her pacing and word us. 

GB: I remember you telling me once that you were reading Raymond Carver and it left you so frustrated with your own writing, you flung his book across the floor. Do you recall that? Do you have any comment?

SMCC: When I first started writing I was enthralled with Raymond Carver’s short stories and remain so today. I naively thought the stories seemed simple. And if I could imitate them then I would produce a good short story. I spent hours trying to dissect his short story, After the Denim, and it remains to this day one of my all time favorite short stories. I counted the number of scenes in the story, counted the number of sentences in each scene, copied the layout of white space, imitated his brevity, even tried to emulate his characters, on and on and on, always resulting in failure. And thus, frustration to the point of tossing the collection across the room. Finally, it struck me: the by-product of perfection is the appearance of simplicity.

Still, I think it was a good exercise and that I did learn from doing it. I think there is value to imitation, especially in terms of finding your voice, and most disciplines do use this as a training exercise. But like everything else, you need to learn when to stop.

GB: I am always a little biased in these questions, but are there any Irish writers that you particularly like. If so, what impresses you about them?

SMCC: This is a timely question because in the last two weeks, I read two books by Irish writers, whose work I had never read before. I will discuss their work, but please know there are many Irish writers that I admire. My impression is that Ireland celebrates their authors with good reason. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney, captivated me from start to finish, it is brave, provocative, complex, insightful, intelligent and lives up to all of the attention. For me it was an eye-opener and at the end I had an understanding of the Millennial generation and their unique struggles.

Elske Rahill’s collection of short stories, In White Ink, almost knocked me over. I found her prose so muscular and fast paced, that I had to consciously slow down my reading. Usually, I read a collection of short stories from start to finish, but I had to take breaks between her stories because they were so powerful and unforgettable. She takes on sensitive issues with force and magnitude and somehow with an understatement that is almost baffling. I will never forget her story, Toby, which to me exemplifies showing as opposed to telling.  

GB: Your debut collection, High Speed Crow (Oberon), won the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book at the 2011 Manitoba Book Awards – and many congratulations on that. How important are awards such as this to a writer or are they important at all?

SMCC: Thank-you. I do think awards are important to writers and to readers. Awards increase the profile not only of the winners and nominees, but also acknowledge the importance of books. Awards produce a level of excitement and awareness in the public. Readers turn to award lists to discover new writers and increase their knowledge of writers from other countries than their own.    

GB: I know this might sound like a strange question - you have a herd of horses where you live in Oakbank, Manitoba, and I know that horses are very important in your life. Have they in any way affected how or why you write?

SMCC: I have never been asked this question before, or pondered it myself until now. So, thank you for asking it. I don’t think the horses have motivated me to write, but after time they did start appearing in several stories. At first, I shied away from including horses and the horse world in my stories, probably because my world seemed so commonplace to me and I couldn’t imagine it would interest anyone else. Then I wrote a story titled, Stolen, and in fact it was the lead story in my collection. I was shocked that it was the story people asked me about the most. I guess this gave me the license to think more about the horse world and include it in stories. Like any other group, the horse world has a stereotypical sub-culture. Often the horse comes first, over and over again people sacrifice their emotional and financial status for the horse. In my story, The Diamond Special,I used this whereby the main character tries to abstain from horses and lead a normal life, but in the end, well you guessed it, the horse wins over love. Truthfully, I don’t think I consciously thought of the theme before writing the story, but looking back it is exactly what I did using fictional characters and events.

GB: What are you working on now in your writing or are you writing at all? (Maybe I am asking when we can expect to see a follow-up collection of stories.

SMCC: I am close to the finish of a collection, but whether or not it amounts to anything is questionable.

GB: We live in a time where a lot of writers spend a lot of time promoting themselves on social media etc. You, however, seem to keep a low profile. How important is this to you?

SMCC: This is a tough question; I do keep a low profile and have never even been on Facebook. This isn’t because of any deep philosophical beliefs; in fact, I think it is very important for writers to promote their work. Part of it is laziness and another part is the time-drain it would place on me. I am the type of person that would spend hours online. Maybe in the near future, I will take the plunge. 

GB: Have you any advice you would offer a younger writer?

SMCC: It is well worn out advice, but I believe reading and reading and reading is top of the list.  And given the opportunity, hire a mentor, take courses and talk with other writers.  Also, I would encourage new writers to take advantage of the contests sponsored by literary magazines.  Often, they include a subscription to the magazine, you are guaranteed to be read, and they have the motivating deadline.  Celebrate your successes.