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Talks

Mitchell Toews

My first question is about your neighborhood. How would you describe it? Do you consider it as a perfect place for a writer?

My wife and I are retired, and we live in a beautiful location next to a small lake on the fiftieth parallel in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park. To imagine the landscape, think of the paintings of the famous Canadian Group of Seven. We live in the boreal forest in a lightly-populated part of the province. 

In many ways, this location is perfect. It is serene, beautiful, and inspiring. The downside is our distance from urban centres where writing groups, libraries, and other literary resources are located. It’s a fair trade-off and I make do, mostly thanks to the internet.

I’ve read most of your short stories in online journals. Let’s highlight three of them only. Which three of them do you pick as your finest works (so far)?

The dominant influences in my early life are depicted in “Nothing to Lose” (Dad), “So Are They All” (Grandma T), and “Fast and Steep” (Mom.) These three are among my most-commented upon, the most vivid, and each comes close to allowing me—through fiction—to accept and understand these wonderful, größer als das Leben (larger than life) loved-ones whose invisible, umbilical guidance direct and nurture me still. 

Ask me this question in a year and the answer may be different, but the underlying precept will remain the same, from Van Gogh: 

That which is done in love is done well.

Van Gogh

I have around 80 published stories. See them here: https://mitchellaneous.com/write-clicks/

What makes you feel proud as a Canadian citizen? And if you weren’t Canadian, which other countries would you choose to live in?

This question is hard for me to answer without comparing Canada to the USA. Living as we do, about two hours drive from the border, I have grown up in the shadow of America. I’ve been to the States hundreds of times for work and play. Employed by U.S. companies, I’ll always have a soft-spot for baseball, JFK, Steinbeck-Hemingway-Vonnegut-Harper Lee (and more), and great institutions like the Peace Corps. All flawed, all breath-taking in the scope of their endeavour.

But… beginning with the Vietnam War and Kent State, my opinion has been changing and now—in view of recent events—my esteem has fallen to an historic low. 

Within this context, I feel proud of the Canadian approach to diversity—a patchwork quilt versus a melting pot. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an extraordinary document and it gives me confidence that my two daughters live in a place where their ability to achieve equality, although still far from perfect, is on the march. Canadian spirit, our spectacular physical land from sea-to-sea-to-sea, our place in global leadership are also touchpoints for me. And let me list Miriam Toews-Richler-Kinsella-Mowat (and more) on my all-Canadian bookshelf.

Canada is all ten of my top-ten choices for a place to live. But, having only visited, not resided or been a citizen anywhere else, my opinion is subject to change.  

Do you also write non-fiction stories? Do you have some non-fiction pieces published in literary journals?

I have had a few short CNF essays published and I plan to continue to expand this side of my writing.

+ Read Our German Relative by Mitchell Toews

How much time do you typically spend on writing every day? Do you have a fixed schedule for writing (and reading)?

I write every day, except for times when we are travelling (mostly to visit the grandchildren in BC) or when I have a construction or a fix-it-up-chappy project here at home. Our house is 70-years-old and frequent repairs and upgrades are needed, especially in winter.“Our plumbing defines us,” is something James Joyce never said, but he might have if he had lived in our cottage.

I tend to write most in the morning.

How can a writer improve her/his works? I know we must read, write, and edit. Is this enough? Shouldn’t we enroll in a writing class or join a writing group?

Great questions. There is balance required, so the quick answer: “Yes, to all,” is not necessarily true, in my limited experience. Would I be a better writer if I had first equipped myself with an MFA? Sure, but the way editors and readers have responded to me most often is to say that my rough style, “untarnished by too much constrictive education” is a unique attribute. So, I carry on, “metaphors blazing,” in my own “raconteurial high vernacular,” as editors David Cramer and James Mcknight have, respectively, described it. 

I use my life experience, long and varied with learn-by-doing boot-strapping (aka “blunders” or, Flaubert’s more elegant, “tentation of tribulation”) and I incorporate this personal narrative as a central ingredient in my creative process. From early on, I have been faithfully observant of characters and strange plot twists drawn from real life. This, and my imagination, a little humour, and some snippets of Plautdietsch (Low German) serve me well.

Could I use more study and attention to craft? Yes, no doubt about that. At my stage of the game though, I am borne up by associating with friendly, knowledgeable, skilled, and honest people from whom I learn by osmosis and by their frank critiques. 

I participate in as many writing circles as I can manage. I do prose readings often and I’m aggressive in seeking opportunities. I draw enormous satisfaction from live reading/open mics and find my true, inner self-confidence is most durably built through this uncomfortable but rewarding exercise. (When they are quiet — listening intently… when they laugh out loud… when they all take a big breath and shift in their seats, murmuring as the story ends.)

Finally, can you take a class to learn how to rip yourself open and spill out absolute truth and reckless honesty? If so, sign me up.

We talked about your three top short stories. Let me narrow it down. If we wanted to read an excerpt from one of your works, what part would it be?

In “Fast and Steep”, I bravely go… attempting to put myself in my mom’s size-small shoes. How can I understand her, or any woman? How can I see the parts in me that poured out of her, filling me, and altering the other constituents—much of it “sound and fury”— whether I knew it or not? 

Here’s a passage where the main character, a young woman, newly married and with a toddler, considers her life and the path it may follow:

[…] “I love you, Hart,” she wants to say, just like that. She wants to tell him that and how their little family is everything for her now, even the prairie winter and Funk’s noisy damn tractor. All of this. Now and forever, she’d tell him, but she knows that’s no good, that he’d just stiffen up and crowd her out. Give him time. He’s still just a boy, really. Mom says these years go by the quickest, but I’ve got to let him get used to it at his own pace. Look at Funk. His wife died inside of a year after they were married. Her and the baby both gone and her just seventeen. 

She sucks air in between her teeth and it seems like they might crack from the cold. Looking at Hart, she can feel him through her thick clothing—no need for words. She senses his pleasure in her and in their son. It’s there like a cat purring in her lap. Even if she found herself, a lifetime later, pushing a walker, hair in a grey bun, and with Hart long gone to his man’s grave and beside her no more, at least she would have had this. Petal, leaf, and stem — growing as one. It’s more than most and today is mine forever, she thought. Come what may. Come what may. […]

(I have an urge to edit this passage—filler words and repetitions—but the emotions and the insight are, I’m told, not far off. And I like the prosody of it, something I listen for.)

Are you working on your “serial story” these days? Do you think you might one day write a novel, novelette, or novel-/novella-in-flash?

The serial is circling the airport right now. I was recently awarded a small grant to create an ekphrastic artbook. (Manitoba Arts Council.) My photographer-collaborator, Phil Hossack and I will begin gathering stories about Manitoba people and places soon — once the covid restrictions are released and it’s safe to travel and mingle. 

I also have completed the second full edit of my novel (almost two years on the rough ride of that corduroy highway!) and hope to begin an uninterrupted and comprehensive third edit this fall. 

These two major projects will gobble up all available time, together with the daily run-of-press short story conceiving, writing, editing, submitting, reading, and bleeding that has been a mainstay for me since 2015.

I have a sci-fi novella up there in a holding pattern too. It’s a fun piece but needs attention before it can be cleared for landing. 

What has been the most heartwarming comment that someone has left on one of your pieces?

Maybe not heartwarming so much as a sure signpost that I am on the right track. Literally Stories editor-contributor Leila Allison wrote this in an interview she did with me a while back:

Your stories seem, to me, situation driven. Yet the characters aren’t under-developed paper dolls who just serve the conceit.

Leila Allison – An Interview with Mitchell Toews

This comment crystallized for me the style and voice that I was working towards but had not yet sufficiently defined. 

To backtrack, my stories are the product of a fond part of my life, when storytelling became a tonic for me and an eclectic group of friends. Driving from our little country town to the city of Winnipeg and back to compete in sports was a regular beat for me from my teenage days until a few years ago. These road trips, including our ritualistic re-hydration at the bar afterwards were highlighted by the stories we all heard and told. A “good story” it seemed to me was one that had an interesting and uncommon premise; that had unique and memorable characters; that was brief but delivered the key elements in sufficient detail; and that finished with a clash of cymbals or concluded in a way, “both implausible and inevitable,” to paraphrase Ms. Flannery O’Connor.

Most profound in these midnight revelations were the times when self-truths were revealed and judgment set aside. Windows frosted, sitting in two rows, all facing forward in our still-wet sweats, speaking in ways that were to us a secret totem, a way to shed shared burdens that complicated our lives. 

It was, at its core, a strange church, where inhibitions were reluctantly sacrificed.

In your opinion, who’s currently the most successful Canadian short story writer?

There are a few undeniable pat answers (Alice Munro, chief among them) but let me give you a list of lesser-known, but truly wonderful artists in command of skill and daring-do. I won’t put them here, but you will find a good, hefty pile of them by joining the Facebook group, Mennonite Lit. Writers.”

Besides writing and reading, what other activities are you crazy about?

I try to be physically active. I windsurf or row almost every day the water is not frozen. Janice and I hike, particularly in the fall, and in the winter we are avid cross-country skiers, huffing and puffing on the rolling, curving trails across the road from us, out in the bush

Beyond that, per Winslow Homer, the stunning American water-colourist, I strive to, “travel broadly, experiment boldly, love deeply.”

Are your family members and relatives interested in your stories? Do you find their feedback helpful?

My wife and I maintain a healthy distance as far as my writing goes. I try not to drone on and on, she tries not to roll her eyes. We both need to improve these skills. She has wonderful intuition and talent as a painter and I hope she can build on this and together we’ll create a portmanteau of art.

Many of my cousins and old friends from the little town where I grew up are avid readers and feel like they have an insider’s viewpoint as they lived the situations with me. Increasingly though, my stories are drawn from further afield and in present-day settings, so I am connecting with disparate readers and write for a more anonymous “ideal audience” than I did when I began.

Many readers and fellow authors have helped me with beta reads and critiques. I try to reciprocate and find this a rich and secret part of the writer’s life.  

Everyone feels down and unhappy sometimes. What do you normally do to feel happier when you feel gloomy?

I am an optimistic guy. That is, when I am lucky enough to have a choice, I choose optimism. Sometimes life does not permit this luxury. When I consider the times I have lived in, and the places where I have resided, and the position in society into which I was—no credit to me—born, I have no business being anything but optimistic. 

My children, their spouses and my grandchildren lift me up. Always. My stoical and abiding wife too. My bare-knuckle life filled with Nick Adams-style adventures (with a distinct Mennonite accent and flavour, mind you) is good for some cheer-me-up nostalgia, now and then.

Can you picture Mitchell Toews in 2025? What are some goals that you’d like to achieve in the next five years?

Well, I am inclined towards the answer, “Who knows? Who cares?” believing in my dad’s motto that, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” but… Here’s a few circumstances I would not mind:

The Manitoba artbook in print and selling…ditto for my novel… on my way to publishing a collection of short stories… a Pushcart nomination or three (I have one)… a collaborator to adapt my Mismaloya trilogy to a screenplay… twenty or so stories/flashes/essays published each year, several in markets where the air is thin and the editors have literally read 10,000 stories and end up choosing… one of MINE!

And, if a crafty lit fic agent shone her ever-lovin’ light down on me to help make all of this schiet happen, that would be cool too. 

And to end our talk, would you please share your most favorite quote and/or piece of poem with us? Thank you!

My old friend from North Carolina, via NYC—one of the numerous (!) Americans I hold dear, Cory Hughes, upon hearing that I had sold my soul to prose offered this advice:

Hey, Toews… shut up and write!

Cory Hughes
Categories
Talks

Jennifer A. Howard

Jennifer, if we could meet in person, where would you choose to sit and talk? A cafe? A bench facing the ocean? Your place? Or somewhere else?

Being out in the world sounds amazing these days. Can you imagine, a cafe! I do have a nice backyard, with a firepit. We could throw horseshoes, and sometimes deer visit. Let’s hang out there. (P.S. I don’t know that the ocean would ever come to mind. I’m a lake person. My town sits on Lake Superior, which is pretty glorious. Instead of sitting in my backyard, we could walk along the lakeshore and geocache.)

Somewhere I read, “Jennifer A. Howard is a first-generation Yooper”. What does that mean?

That statement is a little tongue-in-cheek. People in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the UP (or “Yoop”) are called “Yoopers,” and sometimes old-timers can be very rigid about who they consider a real Yooper. I was born here, in Escanaba, on the Lake Michigan shore, but since my parents were from downstate Michigan, I wasn’t really an insider like folks who’ve lived here for generations. I feel less of an outsider these days, though, living in Marquette, which is a college town with more influx of people from all over. In fact, maybe I’m an old-timer myself now.

Let’s talk about Passages North. You currently work as their editor-in-chief. Is that a full-time job? Would you please describe your workplace for me? What exactly are your responsibilities there?

My job as EIC of Passages North is a third of my full-time job. I’m a professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University, where I teach fiction writing and run the magazine. I get to work with grad students and undergraduate interns to build the magazine together, and it’s the best, most delightful part of my job. This year will be different, with a lot of our editing work moving online, but in regular times, we have a lovely office on the third floor with huge windows for snow-gazing and a blank wall for projecting poems and stories in meetings. I’m nostalgic for office times right now, but I’ll be patient about getting back there.

I know your father was an editor, too. I’d like to know more about him if that’s ok.

Super nice of you to ask. My dad was an English teacher at a community college and a poet. He was part of the crew of young teachers who founded Passages North in 1979, when it was more of a regional magazine, and I was ecstatic to join the magazine crew when I came to NMU, and even moreso to become its editor, because I remembered the days of those editors meeting in my living room when I was a little girl, overhearing adults talking about poems. I was hooked. My dad passed away a year ago, and I’m still — happily, gratefully — going through his papers, his own poems, his notebooks of meticulous and funny lists.

THE LEGACY
(To my daughters)
 
by Alan C. Howard
 
My last will was my first.
What I would give to you
I gave, so long before
You knew I’d know what gift
I’d give, or why or when.
 
There’s no exchange, no blame.
So don’t regret, but know
My will: once you have got,
Forget, beget, and give,
And give again, your gift.
DAUGHTER
by Alan C. Howard

Day darks, night brights, my mind thinking indrinks
      you in your crib justsleeping, breathing sighly,
      undriven dreaming, and I clockstuck grasp refracting
      rainbowed mindbeams of your justbornness,
      and I brainstrobe laughcries.
 
My brainstrobe timeprobes, kaleidostops,
      lasers by brightnow, rightnow flashes as I
      reeling touch you feeling my alwaysness—the
      of-my-self Eastermornborn newdawn no! -denial smile of
      you in your crib justsleeping—slidelike stillframed,
      sealedbeamed and everyhued.
 
But brainbeams also black refract, and I,
      forwardfilming, shuttershudder the toofastflicker,
      dreading and stalling the cradle-and-all downfalling
      and farewelling the nowmine mindpeace of
      you in your crib justsleeping, while I shun
      the gray, dark, dun someday youknow of myworld,
      insecuring and fearing your howcomes,
      and my dontknows
 
Dontknows die though, unthings unseen unsought
      by the reflecting spectral under-ultra, over-infra
      pastel prism of birthshine, and I breathe
      an aura of aurora’s child—
      you in your crib justsleeping—dawndreaming in your liferise,
      swaddled in tomorrowness, the echo of futurity
      and voice of starlight.

And you have some published works. As far as I know, they’re both short story collections. Right?

I have two chapbooks: How to End Up, published by New Delta Review, and You on Mars: Failed Sci-Fi Stories, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet. A third — Flat Stanley Reports Back to His Third-Grader — is completed but unpublished.

“I didn’t have a big idea for a book, so much as a series of little ideas over many years that grew like a tunnel of hard skin around a massive splinter in my finger. Or, to be less gross about it, I only realized I was heading toward a book when I decided to frame the fact that I wrote about a lot of the same concerns – motherhood and heartbreak and doubt — over and over again as a positive.”

Jennifer A. Howard on her flash fiction chapbook collection selected as the winner of NDR’s Annual Chapbook Competition by Jim Krusoe.

Jennifer, I do enjoy writing stories that take place overnight and it’s always raining in my works. Is there anything in your stories that appears again and again deliberately?

I realize you didn’t mean to limit me to weather, but I’m in love with snow on the page. Snow in stories, and in music, on TV. People are more beautiful with snow in their hair, snow makes everything more romantic and nervy. Can’t get enough of it. (Though I can certainly get enough of it in real life, especially when it’s spring other places and the UP is expecting yet another blizzard and I am in no mood to shovel yet again.)

Besides your published books, do you have some other works (available online) that readers can read for free?

Here’s a Flat Stanley story from last year: http://www.smokelong.com/flat-stanley-trusts/. Most of the Flat Stanley stories deal with true crime, but this one is a little more personal. 

Which one is more challenging? Writing or editing? And which one do you like the most?

Oh, writing is so much more challenging. Editing the magazine is finding other people’s magic and being the lucky person who gets to share it with the world. I hate the blank page. If I could write a first draft in my sleep and then get to only be conscious for the revision part (which I love), that would be ideal.

Do you talk with yourself (to elucidate everything) when you start writing a new piece? Or do you just keep quiet and scribble down the work?

Definitely keep quiet. I don’t want to mess myself up by being articulate or clear about anything early on. 🙂

Do you think writers (because of the stories they read & the worlds they create in their minds) study every human as a distinctive character? Do you examine and study the people whom you meet?

Maybe a little, but I don’t walk around consciously thinking of people as characters. Though my stories don’t always have traditional characters. They feel more like little meditations. Certainly relationships with people build empathy and expand (I hope) stories beyond my own narrow brain, and sometimes people use fabulous and unusual phrasing that I’m happy to steal for the page, but nah, I think the people around me are mostly safe from being transcribed in my work.

And my last questions: what is Jennifer A. Howard like? (How would you describe your own character?) And who could be your close friend?

What a difficult question. I’m an introvert, I like a quiet routine and a close circle of friends. A person could become my close friend by actively and attentively playing in my fantasy football league, by only rarely being late when we have plans to meet, by going on a road trip with me and not making me listen to new music I don’t already know but instead playing some sort of crack-the-case game with me. Though I’m sure there are other ways in too.