Here comes the judge…an interview with Russell Wangersky

March 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm  •  Posted in Articles, Interviews, Welcome by

EVENT’s creative non-fiction contest deadline is only a month and a day away! To help you with that last push to the finish line, we called upon our final judge for the 2013 contest, the one and only Russell Wangersky.

We’re delighted to have this award-winning, genre-crossing writer on board for this year’s contest. Wangersky’s won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction (plus lots of other awards and nominations) for his book Burning Down the House. His work in fiction is equally lauded: the Giller-nominated The Hour of Bad Decisions, and the BMO Winterset Award-winner The Glass Harmonica. His latest book, the collection of short stories Whirl Away, was recently nominated for the Giller Prize.

Russell Wangersky

As our readers and past entrants already know, the contest judge’s essay always appears in the issue alongside the winning entries, but this time we thought we’d gather some insight into the judging process—even before the reading begins. We sat down with Russell (if by ‘sitting down’ you mean corresponding from Vancouver to St. John’s and back again) to get his take on his esteemed role, and what you might want to consider before you lick that envelope and cross your fingers…

EVENT: As a judge, what are you looking for when you’re reading these finalists?

RW: I’m looking for a flair with language and a real sense of pacing—writing that knows how to play with timelines for effect, and that grabs me and drags me right into the text. Take-no-prisoners writing.

EVENT: What other judging experience have you had?

RW: I’ve judged bids for fire equipment and ranked emerging writers for the Canada Council. Project grants and barbecue sauce. And once, quite tragically, a spelling bee where I had to step in and arbitrarily break the heart of a 14-year-old. But that’s a non-fiction piece all on its own.

EVENT: As a guy who does a lot of non-fiction writing in his professional life (as an editor and columnist with the St. John’s Telegram), what do you think sets good creative non-fiction apart from the not-so-good?

RW: One single thing makes a huge difference: many people make the mistake of writing terrifically strong pieces, and then losing their nerve at the end and deciding to undercut the whole thing by writing the equivalent of “But probably not everyone would agree.” Of course they wouldn’t—but why give them space to trash your argument? Undercutting doesn’t work for cliffs or trees or marriages. Why would it work in nonfiction?

EVENT: You’re a man of many genres. What is your favourite thing to write?

RW: I find that I like to move from genre to genre based on what the story deserves—but I like short stories the best, primarily because you can hold the whole thing in your head while you’re working on it. Novels can be a nightmare of “when did Freddie lose that finger?”, shifting back and forth to find out what happened where. Short stories, the whole thing, tone and all, is right in your hands.

EVENT: Anything particular genre you’d never write?

RW: I don’t do poetry. But I can’t say that I’d never write poetry. Except maybe sestinas. Won’t be at that. Damn poets—they always eat all the cubed cheese before you can even get to the hospitality suite.

EVENT: Any words of wisdom or advice to would-be entrants?

RW: Go with your gut, and don’t be afraid to expose yourself—your humanity, that is, not your human bits. You’ll find your audience feels and lives and breathes right along with you.

EVENT: Thanks, Russell! Is there anything else we’ve forgotten to ask you or that you’d like to talk about?

RW: Hmm. I’d like to talk about words like penguin and dunch—they have great mouth-feel. But it really has nothing to do with the competition, except that people should keep in mind that I like words, even odd ones like kegling.

There you have it, folks! Send your entries in today—for more details and complete rules, head over to our contest page.