Bristol Prize

Interview with our 2015 winner, Brent van Staalduinen

October 15, 2015   Joe Melia

Brent van StaalduinenThe 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize has been won by Canadian writer, Brent van Staalduinen. His haunting story, A Week on the Water, thrilled the judges.

Sara Davies, chair of the judging panel, says that it is “a story that perfectly illustrates the art of narrative understatement. On the surface it’s about fishing, but as it unfolds in measured, controlled prose, its real, horribly dark subject emerges.”

We are delighted to welcome Brent to our website and ask him about winning this year’s top prize and his writing.

 How did you feel when you found out you had won this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize?

Elated. And torn. I work part time at the Hamilton Public Library and I was behind the desk at the Locke Street branch—our smallest—when I learned about the win, so although I was bursting, I had to tone my reaction down to avoid freaking out the patrons. I do recall saying, “Wow! Oh, wow!” a lot, which means that in addition to keeping things sedate, any sense of verbal eloquence I might possess had completely deserted me.

But beneath all that was an incredible sense of gratitude and awe that my little story had somehow managed to shine bright enough to get noticed over 2400+ other entries. A Week on the Water was, as I remote-mentioned to those assembled for the ceremony, a story that had been form-rejected a number of times and that I’d almost given up on. Thanks to the encouragement of two key people—Canadian standout writers Lawrence and Miranda Hill, who live in my neighbourhood and sat through what might’ve been the story’s last reading—I decided to polish it up a bit more and see where it landed.

(For the record, after my library shift ended, I did get the chance to cry Victory! to the heavens and celebrate with a very nice bottle of Bordeaux, which I had to work through on my own, due to the fact that my uber-supportive wife is gorgeously pregnant with daughter #2.)

In what ways will winning the 2015 BSSP influence your plans for writing in the future? Will it encourage you to write more short stories?

I think that winning such an important contest, in addition to the prizes and cheering rights, forces a writer to look even more Vol 8 frontseriously at how he or she practices the craft. It’s a vote of confidence, of course, but it’s also a clear dose of reality: if I believe that words matter—and I believe few things more strongly—the next time I sit down in front of my computer to create, it’s my responsibility to reach for excellence. (In the long term, of course—first, I have to get through all those gloriously shitty first drafts!)

On a practical level, it also provides an opportunity to present a more accomplished face to the world—i.e. adding “Winner of The Bristol Short Story Prize” to websites, Twitter, Facebook, and every biography I send out with journal, publisher, and contest submissions. This will help this writer get noticed, which is becoming more and more difficult to do in the mad stampede of our ultra-connected world.

And yes, it makes me want to keep crafting more and better short stories. I think good storytelling is world-changing, and those of us who have been blessed with the ability to arrange words in new and interesting ways have an artistic—and even moral—responsibility to put our words out there for others. I certainly have more stories to tell.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I have this hazy recollection—which probably just means that my mind has made it up—of a teacher telling me in grade seven or eight that I should write more because I was good at it. I did write a story about that time that described a snowball fight descending into anarchy—I recall writing that a particularly nasty snowball “pulped” another kid’s skull—that no one ever read.

After that, I only wrote what I had to for school until I returned to university as a 24-year-old mature student and realized in my senior year that I was starting to arrange everything around my creative writing. When my wife and I moved to Kuwait to teach at an international school, I sort of fell into the rhythm writing a monthly piece for a local lifestyle mag (I’d tackle sensitive issues indirectly, due to the restrictive censorship Kuwait suffered under) and I was hooked.

How has teaching creative writing affected your own work?

Shepherding others through the writing process continually reminds me how much I have yet to learn.

Which short story writers have had the biggest influence on you?

I studied all the greats in university, and of course owe a lot to the groundbreaking work of Updike, O’Connor, Hemingway, Nabokov, and the rest. For the past couple of years, though, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of contemporary writers, both of notable international fame such as Munro, Saunders, Link, Egan, and the like, but also the stories of my lesser known but accomplished Canadian contemporaries such as Alexander MacLeod, Saleema Nawaz, Lynn Coady, and Douglas Glover.

I’ve been particularly enjoying the work of fellow up-and-comers in the lit-journal scene as well as writers I’ve met at readings and through my MFA studies. If I could pick a few names to watch, I’d tag Andrew Forbes, Kevin Hardcastle, Collette Maitland, Royston Tester, Amanda Leduc, Trevor Corkum, and Liz Harmer, all whose work makes my prose-sense tingle.

It’s amazing to see what everyone else is doing with the short form. That said, when I write it’s just me, my ideas, and the blank saints unexpectedscreen—I let their influence work obliquely, and in the end just write the kinds of stories I’d like to read.

Your debut novel, Saints, Unexpected, will be published next year by Invisible Publishing; please may you tell us more about that and its road to publication?

The novel is a work of urban magical realism about a girl named Mutton who is recalling the incredible things that happened to her and her family in her fifteenth summer. Although it won’t be released until April, Invisible has just made it available to preorder, and here’s the teaser blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Mutton is robbed at gunpoint while working in her mother’s Hamilton thrift store, the thief makes off with an item that Mutton knows isn’t meant for him, hurling Mutton and her family into a summer of remarkable and heartbreaking events. From fighting unscrupulous developers to first loves to the anguish that comes from never knowing what your final words to a loved one might be, SAINTS, UNEXPECTED reminds us of the magic that comes with each opportunity to begin again.

The first seeds for the novel came from a short story I wrote called Second Chances, about a quirky girl whose infuriating mother takes her and her awesome grandmother shopping at a thrift store, where the grandmother dies while the mother is trying on clothes. Mutton as a protagonist stuck with me, and I found myself filling my notebooks and Evernote with things that happen to her. Those jottings became the outline for a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, where I crunched out 55,000 words in thirty days. Ordinarily I’m a pretty slow, methodical writer, so barreling forward with no time to self-edit was liberating and terrifying.

After leaving the first draft in a drawer for a few months, I spent some time revising it and queried a few agents about the project, then entitled Chance & King. Roz Nay snapped me up, helped me polish the manuscript some more, and then just before our submissions, left agenting to pursue her own writing dreams (which was the right decision, and I’m super exited for her: her novel is due out from a major Canadian publisher in Spring 2017). My novel was taken on by the owner of the agency, who fulfilled the basic requirements of my representation contract, submitting to the major and medium-sized Canadian publishers. I had some nibbles, but no offers, so the agency and I parted ways, thus freeing me up to submit to Canadian small and independent presses.

I had fantastic interest from my slush-pile submissions (which was unexpected and incredible), receiving two firm offers. However, Leigh Nash at Invisible won me over with her enthusiasm, discipline, eye for detail, and an incredibly detailed plan of attack for the novel. Plus, in addition to Leigh’s awesomeness, Invisible makes gorgeous books and has been instrumental in publishing the first works of a couple of Canadian award-winning authors, so choosing Invisible was an easy decision. I’m really excited and blessed to be working with them on SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, which will be released on April 15.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed my MFA through the University of British Columbia, an incredible program and far and away Canada’s best. The deadlines and genre requirements for the program forced me to write my ass off for a couple of years, resulting in a body of short prose work that has seen a number of publication credits, as well as much grist for the lit-journal-submission-mill. anthologiesAnything that hasn’t been accepted is either in revision or still on submission.

I was also required to write a fiction thesis for the MFA, which in my case is BOY, a novel about an eighteen-year old air cadet whose final year of high school is crashing down around him in flames. When he meets a homeless man who can stop time…

In BOY, I’m again exploring magical realism and the universal conflict in teenage life. My final revisions for SAINTS will be completed in November, so my plan was to begin querying agents about BOY—which was mentored by Miriam Toews and Timothy Taylor—after that. Being shortlisted for the Bristol brought a couple of unexpected agent inquiries into my inbox, which has spurred me to begin the process a little earlier than anticipated. And now with a couple of 2015 contest wins under my belt, I have that much more to “sell” myself with.

But I’m looking beyond BOY, too. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve received is, “always have a next project to move on to,” advice which has helped me make sure there’s always a story or piece for the next contest or simply something to write. These days, I think it’s a rare thing when a writer can put all his or her faith in one project and succeed, and in truth there’s something about the label “working writer” which appeals to me. In my case, I’ve received some funding to work on my next novel project, which will be exploring Canada’s conflicted peacekeeping role in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s.

In short, stay tuned—I’m excited to see where my wordsmithing takes me next!

Brent’s brilliant winning story plus the other 19 shortlisted stories from this year’s competition are available in the
Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 8 which can be ordered from this website here.


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