I am honoured to be one of the jurors of the 2014 Toronto Star short story contest. Joining me on the jury are Toronto’s city librarian Jane Pyper, the Star’s books editor and writer Dianne Rinehart, as well as author and Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian. Deadline February 28! For more details, go here. Have at it, budding short story writers! I look forward to reading you!
I am so pleased to announce that Mad Hope is now available as an audiobook through audiobooks.com and other online booksellers. Just in time for long summer road trips or dockside lounging!
More exciting news! ‘No One Else Really Wants To Listen’, from Mad Hope, will be reprinted in the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, edited by Shawn Syms, and featuring short fiction that explores the ways in which we use technology to connect (or not). Very much looking forward to reading this — work by established and new writers alike, and an intriguing premise. Available this fall — more later!
Mad Hope has been nominated for an ‘Overlookie Bookie’ as part of the CBC Bookie Awards. If you are a person who is okay with survivor-style book-boosting, then please go vote in this and other categories for books you deem deserving. If voting for stories feels weird to you, then put your lit-loving energies into buying or borrowing books that turn your readerly crank.
Scroll down to end of list to find Mad Hope (I kind of like the idea of Mad Hope at the bottom of the list — like, we need it, but we sometimes don’t remember until the last minute to scrawl it down, y’know?).
I am very pleased to be reading not once but twice at Toronto’s fabulous Word on the Street Sunday September 23rd. I’ll be at the Great Books Marquee at 11:30 for the early risers, and then at the Toronto Book Awards tent reading as part of Diaspora Dialogues sometime between 2 and 3:30 (specifics to follow). The Word on the Street is one of my very favourite festivals for its September sunniness (fingers crossed) and carnival atmosphere. I hope to see you there!
If you’re not in Toronto, or you think you might want to chat about the stories in Mad Hope with other readers, consider joining The Next Best Book Club on goodreads for their October discussion of the book. I will be on hand to answer questions electronically too!
The stories, he understands, won’t make the same splash. When he told a friend about them, “an image sprang to mind, which was the look on my grandparents’ faces when somebody told them a daughter was born. They were … happy,” he says, offering a disappointed half-smile. “If you’d seen their faces when a son was born, you would’ve known something they were happy about. Writing short stories in a culture like ours is like giving birth to girls in a Dominican conservative family in the fifties.” But that doesn’t mean he subscribes to the hierarchy. “As an artist, I know what I have to do. I have to fucking do this book. And I loved it. I love girl children.”
— Junot Diaz, in New York Magazine, on his new collection, This Is How You Lose Her
Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor. I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form. I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment. She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind. She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes. How could I write anything that would even come close? I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by awe. But the problem remained; I still wanted to write. So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness. I wanted to be transported AND to learn.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes. The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja. Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character. The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:
It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.
Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.
I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me. And I’m that much of a pirate. But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books. How could I have missed these? (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.) I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night. Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways. These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us. Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself. These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise. If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out. You can start with these incredible stories. I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
I will admit to experiencing a bit of Mad Hope hangover. I’m happy to be meeting readers, whether virtual or, um, human. But life with two small children is busy and dervish-like and fulfilling and frustrating — and the children, thankfully, do not (often) truck with the literati. So there are two worlds spinning around and inside me. And sometimes they clash and sometimes they just whizz way too fast so that when I lie down in my bed at night — even though the baby is sleeping through the night (She really is! I’ve said it aloud a few times now to no discernible/deleterious effect.) — I can’t sleep. And in the day I often have the sensation of being asleep with my eyes open.
But the best kind of antidote to any kind of hangover has got to be the gals over at the Keepin’ It Real Book Club. They reviewed Mad Hope, in a live video, in 140 seconds. The review is fab (Feel the Mad Hope!), but their connection and banter also remind me of a wonderful pre-partner and kids period; time and space for long exchanges with close girlfriends, finishing and hijacking each other’s sentences, reading and talking about books in a manner I now know to be luxurious and productive and free. Go check out their vids!
In the last couple of weeks, Lindsay Reeder at Reeder Reads also showed MH some love, and I got the chance to hold forth on the short story form over at The Danforth Review and tell everybody about my favourite colour, how I want to die, and why I hate shrimp in the Proust Questionnaire at Open Book.
Also, here are some photos from the Indie Lit Night in Waterloo. That drink — cursed, beautiful thing — is called Mad Hope in a Glass and it was conceived by bookseller extraordinaire Caroline Wesley (of Waterloo’s Words Worth Books). The green thing on the side, perched next to the lime, is a gummy frog! And that’s me and Carrie Snyder, lookin’ like ladies on the lam from the fams.
It is so gratifying to see this book finding its readers. A bit of an embarrassment of riches in the last week or so, but an embarrassment I’m happy to endure… Also, the Mad Hope blog tour has made recent stops at Open Book, The Rusty Toque, and Grace O’Connell — drop by for a visit!
From Bella’s Bookshelves:
No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking,These stories are perfect.
— Steph Vander Meulen
From The National Post:
(…) a collection of 11 stories that beautifully illustrate the fragility of existence. Death is a recurring character, as is birth, motherhood, grief and resilience.
The book could be described as a collection of fictional reflections on the search for truth in grief, yet the stories are never dreary. They transport the reader to emotionally corrosive places, yet are alive with a sense of levity even within their darkest passages.
— Rachel Harry
And from The Winnipeg Free Press:
Toronto writer Heather Birrell has tapped into our dark Canadian psyche like a country witch with a crooked divining rod.
Her sublime stories are drawn from the margins of society but they are sure to capture a wider audience. Mad Hope, her second collection, is a sure-footed and mature exploration of modern life.
Mad Hope is best read during the clean light of day. You don’t want to miss any of the nuances, dense language or caustic political commentary.
Read it one story at a time. This collection requires quiet concentration as each tale resonates like a tiny, perfect novella. Mad Hope is hopeful yet realistic, wordy yet sublime. It contains everything a demanding reader wants from her short fiction — wickedly accurate, open-ended portraits drawn from life.
— Patricia Dawn Robertson
Mad Hope will be hopping from blog to blog this month, visiting with book enthusiasts and reviewers. The book has already landed at the Book Fridge and Bella’s Bookshelves, and will also be making appearances at PickleMeThis, Bookside Table, Grace O’Connell, Reeder Reads, and The Keepin’ It Real Book Club. Stay tuned for more updates. And if you’re interested in a little Mad Hoping on your blog, please let me (or Coach House Books) know!
Birrell is a writer with audacity, flair and vision. Mad Hope hosts a sense of whimsy, a keen eye for details and precise crafts- manship. Birrell has an exceptional knack for the short story. Where the cast of characters in I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004), sought meaning, Mad Hope captures the sheer madness of it all.
— Sandra Webb-Campbell
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