Interview with our prose contest judges, Connie Voisine and Rus Bradburd.
Passages North hosts two prose contests every other year: the Waasnode (Anishinaabe for "Northern Lights") Fiction Prize for short stories up to 10,000 words and the Neutrino Short-Short Prize for prose (fiction, nonfiction, hybrids, and prose poems) up to 1000 words. Meet this year's judges, Connie Voisine and Rus Branburd, two brilliant writers who also happen to be married to each other. (Submit your stories here. The deadline is March 15, 2014. Every entrant receives a copy of the contest issue. $1000 prize for each winner. One or more honorable mentions may also be published in the magazine.) Here, get to know what Connie and Rus are looking for in a winning story.
PN: How awful is it being married to another writer? Connie: Well...not so awful. The dishes actually do get done--it seems that fiction writers like to do dishes!--but other day to day tasks might linger, such as replacing batteries in the remote. The garden always regards us with a bit of disgust as we drive away to readings. It is wonderful to know that you can talk books as much as you like, not only at work, but at home, the restaurant, and on vacation.
Rus: it's great for me, and the big reason: we're in different genres and I don't feel like I have to be in competition. Which is a competition I'd lose, incidentally. Connie is a far better reader of fiction than I am a reader of poetry, or at least since we've met. I used to spend a lot of energy reading Bobby Byrd, the great border poet, and talking to him about poetry. I kind of thought that would continue when Connie and I got married, except it'd be her and I. Instead, we talk about fiction or movies more. I'm not being falsely modest: I benefit from the deal a lot more.
PN: What are your writing habits—do they differ, or do they depend on the other? Connie: Rus is the "coach," meaning that his years of being a basketball coach at the college level instilled excellent work habits. I am a bit more peripatetic in my work habits, but also with a small child, our habits do depend on each other--a struggle for time.
Rus: It's interesting that Connie would say that, because one of the first things she told me was, "you have to sit your ass in the chair for two hours a day." Pretty modest demands. Now I stand, I have a standing desk. On days I don't teach, I stand, pace, circle my arms. For me, it's very physical, writing. I type, and it's a physical act. And I lie to myself, as I did when I was working out: "I'll just do a little bit today." I do think that being a bad basketball player was a huge advantage for me: I learned how to work hard for long periods with little to show for it.
PN: What elements of writing do you find most alluring? Connie: I love to get lost, to be someone else, somewhere else, some other time. A writer who can convey the richness of experience always wins my heart. I love writing as an activity when I am losing track of time. Some of it is not as pleasurable, but certainly has its own appeal--the way surviving the wreck of a cruise ship can be fun. You feel a bit desperate, strung out, dirty and then the ice cutter shows up in all its glory.
Rus: I'd say the same thing: living in a story or novel that I'm working on, thinking about it when I'm not at the computer. And I've grown to love the puzzle of unraveling what's on the page, revising endlessly, yet feeling better about it each time. I like the day to day, and the aloneness. In retrospect, I liked that best about basketball: you could go practice by yourself, which is impossible in a lot of team sports. I remember Robert Boswell telling me (I remember everything he told me, quite literally) that having a book published would change my life. He was correct, of course, but what has not changed: I like the day-to-day of writing. A writing day is a happy day. Yet, unlike him, I have about a four hour limit.
PN: What do you find unforgivable in writing? Connie: Obscurity for obscurity's sake. A demotion of feeling. A disparaging of the human scale and all foibles associated. Neglect of children, daffodils, and small animals.
Rus: I love stories that take me into a world that I don't know -- I think Dagoberto Gilb's short stories do that as well as anyone. I'm also attracted to smartly structured stories, fiction that has a shape that makes sense in retrospect for the reader. In my view Antonya Nelson is the master of that-- you could nearly draw a diagram of her stories. And I admire fiction that can put it's toes right over the edge of sentimentality without falling off. Stories like "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, "Death by Landscape" by Margaret Atwood, or "No River Wide" by Robert Boswell. We often talk about sentimentality as a taboo in class, but it takes great courage and control to approach sentimentality without ruining a story.
PN: Is there any way you could find yourself forgiving an unforgivable trait? C: Every day. Good writing gets away, sometimes, with all kinds of unforgiveable traits. A lack of music? hate that--but they Anne Carson comes along. Awkward sense of line? then our man C.K. Williams writes ones so long that my idea of line is adjusted. Obscurity? Hart Crane muscles me out of that one every time.
Rus: I will say that I learn more from my students than they do from me. And they often push things at me that they think I need to read, to get out of my old school niche. And sometimes I surprise myself. I was absolutely delighted with Mat Johnson's novel, "Pym," although if I'd read the back cover first, I would have said, "I pass."
Connie and Rus are looking forward to reading your stories and short-shorts. Enter our Waasnode Short Fiction Prize and/or our Neutrino Short-Short Prize here.