Literary Gut Punch: From Heather O'Neill's And They Danced by the Light of the Moon

Heather O'Neill's work always has this dreamy, fable-like quality. And They Danced by the Light of the Moon is no exception. Jules is desperate to believe he can escape the collective fate of the town. Manon is the girl of his dreams. For Manon, Jules is something altogether different:

Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.

My Lit Pop winning story Perv Jungle - on shelves now!

Perv Jungle was chosen by Sam Lipsyte as this year's winner of the Lit Pop awards (by Matrix Magazine.) I wrote this story as a way of "conversing with" Forever Overhead, a gorgeous coming-of-age story by David Foster Wallace. It took me years to figure out why I couldn't let this little story of mine go, despite draft after draft that just languished. But I think I just figured it out: while I love coming-of-age stories, my unconscious wanted to talk about the double burden felt by girls at this time. We're feeling the shifts in our biology the way boys are, but that same biology puts us at risk. Our bodies start to become the object of male fixation, even grown men. Therefore, our coming-of-age automatically includes an element of danger. I couldn't give up on this story, and I think it's because I needed to say something about this. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Lindsey Smith's Experience™

I've written about Lindsey Smith before. She's my literary soulmate. The PB to my J. We met while we were students in Sarah Selecky's Intensive, and have been pals ever since. Lindsey's writing is brave and unapologetic. It takes up space in your heart. Recently, her story Experience™ was selected by Lisa Moore as one of two runner ups in the Little Bird story contest. I was not at all surprised. Moore said it better than I ever could, describing the piece as "a canny, lyrical, post-modern, and clever story about romantic love" and the prose as "tight, crisp, and affecting". Without further ado, here's a pretty little punch that clobbers you right in the kisser.

That first time, do you remember? When you said, “Hey,” and leaned into the tilt of the café table to make sure I didn’t walk past? In that instant, I remembered the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. How it looked and how it felt swishing around in my wanting baby mouth. I remembered it even as I knew there was no way I could possibly know anything about the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. You said, “Hey,” and I regressed. Your voice made me do it.

My story 'Perv Jungle' won the 2016 Lit POP Award!

I can't believe it! 
Sam Lipsyte— the Sam Lipsyte— chose my story as the winner of this year's Lit POP Award. I'm honoured and ecstatic and can't think of smaller words right now. My stomach feels like it's hosting a mariachi band.

I know it's not about the accolades or the recognition, but hot damn, sometimes it's a nice feeling to know that something you wrote resonated with someone.

To celebrate: burritos for dinner, and a Jays game.

Literary Gut Punch: From Lorrie Moore's How To Be an Other Woman

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Lorrie Moore is a treasure. She's the kind of writer whose stories make me want to write. To try to create something even half as universal and vibrant and potent. 

In How To Be an Other Woman, she puts the reader in the driver's seat by using second-person POV. 

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Junot Díaz' Miss Lora

I've read Díaz' collection (This Is How You Lose Her) several times over the years. It doesn't matter how many times I've walked the streets in his stories, I still round a corner and get cold-cocked by a universally stunning coupling of sentences.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse and your heart flew out of you.

Literary Gut Punch: From Adam Ehrlich Sachs' The Philosophers

Sachs' story was featured in the February 1st 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I read it sitting in a chair at my hair salon and within the first paragraph, I knew (as much as someone can know a thing), that it was a special kind of sacrilege to keep reading something so beautiful while Ginuwine's "Pony" was being pumped out the speakers. But I couldn't stop.

This story, which is actually a series of vignettes, blew my heart wide open. It reminded me what a story can do. It's been a while since I've encountered a writer who, upon reading a single story of theirs, I want to crawl up inside their mind and play, like a first-grader on a jungle gym.

This entire story is Literary Gut Punch

Soon the madman had talked to everyone worth talking to, seen everything worth seeing, thought about everything worth thinking about, and yet again was left bored and lonely. Even the company of geniuses wasn’t enough; boredom would always be with him, he realized, as long as he had this huge, historic intelligence. Suicide was the only way out. He decided to commit suicide by paradox. He would go back in time and kill his own grandfather—a logical impossibility, as we all know, he said, since killing his grandfather would mean that he himself wouldn’t be born, which would mean that he couldn’t go back in time to kill his grandfather. So this might be interesting, he said. Plus he would get to murder the man who had handed down to him this huge, horrible, historic intelligence.

Literary Gut Punch: From Dana Spiotta's Jelly and Jack

Jelly and Jack was published in The New Yorker in December of 2015. Jelly's consciousness is a painful but enchanting place to be. The story slowly undresses itself, but at the end, it was me left feeling naked. There were many beautiful moments in the story, but when I read this particular passage, I felt all the air hovering at the front of my mouth. I had stopped breathing. So, of course, this is my most recent Literary Gut Punch for the annals. All you need to know is that Jelly is about to listen to a piece of music by Jack. Here it is:


Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back again. She called this body-listening. It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. Some people started to speak the second the other person stopped talking, or playing or singing. They were so excited to render their thoughts into speech that they practically overlapped the person. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response was the only thing they valued.

George Saunders: What stories are "about"

George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.

It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.

My story "Kitten" is featured in Matrix Magazine

I'm so excited that "Kitten" found a home with Matrix Magazine. 

This story has been around for a couple of years, but its needs eluded me for a long time.
Yet, I couldn't quite give up on Barry. I kept coming back to him, hat in hand, every few months. 

The whole story dances on the head of a pin: this small moment where Barry walks in on something he was not expecting.

I hope you like it. Here's a little taste:

The youth began to snore and more than anything Barry found himself craving the Good Old Days he’d been born too late for. The days he had only ever inherited nostalgia for, from books and films. Back when daughters slept in thick, wrist-to-ankle nightgowns, made preserves, and essentially stayed in their bedroom brushing their hair until they got married. And how, when they’d hear a scary sound they’d creep down the stairs with nothing but a tiny nub of a candle, and at first they’d feel brave but they’d ultimately call for their Papa, who’d spring from his bed, boots already on and musket already in hand because men used to be like that, ready for confronting anything, but the sound would only ever end up being the wind riling up the trees or creaking the outhouse door and so they would hug and each go back to bed laughing like loons.

Most Read on Joyland 2015!

I'm dead chuffed that my story 'Swimming through whales' is one of Joyland Magazine's most read stories of 2015! It's also the most read story in Joyland Toronto. 

I was this close to giving up on that story. I felt like it wasn't saying anything.

It had lost its effect on me.

Thankfully I stuck it in a drawer for a couple months, and my brain did that wonderful thing where it hit the reset button on it. When I returned to it, I remembered what I liked about it so much. Particularly her; this distracted, distressed woman. 

I've been so touched by the people who have sought out different ways to tell me how much this story means to them. It makes me so happy I didn't give up on it when my Fuck It energy was at its highest. The story (and me!) just needed some space. To breathe, to ferment.

Thank you, Joyland, for seeing something special in it. I'm so happy it found such a great home.



Literary Gut Punch: from Jill Margo's How to Become a Mascot

The latest in my compilation of Literary Gut Punches comes courtesy of the exquisite, hilarious Jill Margo, whose story— How to Become a Mascot— broke me in the second sentence. (It appears in the latest issue of The Walrus and you can read it online here.)

First, quit your day job and go back to school, even though you're thirty-two already. Do this because your boyfriend is dead and you will never get to run your fingers through his curls again.

I read Margo's stuff closely and with the kind of reverence my Mother reserves for Popes. Margo so often gets me laughing right before she pulverizes my heart. And this story (which is actually based on her real-life experiences) is no different. It's the way the character's resilience coils around her grief that makes this story so compelling. 

Literary Gut Punch: from Lisa Moore's Sea Urchin

I love a sentence that pummels me. I've slowly started compiling gorgeous Literary Gut Punches (LGPs) as I encounter them in my reading life. 

The latest example comes from Lisa Moore's story Sea Urchin which appears in The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore: Open and Degrees of Nakedness. (You can also find it online here.)

The character she's describing is the narrator's father, whose blotchy face becomes such a tender force in the story.

"He sunburned easily and when he drank or became emotional, his skin would break out in red blotches, quickly, like the wind blowing a field of poppies all in the same direction."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

"Swimming through whales" was published by Joyland Magazine

This story is one I'm still really proud of. It kicked my ass for a while, until some talented/generous eyeballs (AKA: Jessica Westhead and Lindsey Smith) pored over it and helped me find the heart of it.

It's been received really well. Kind people on Facebook and Twitter have taken the time to tell them it moved them. One person said "this killed me in a delicate way".

I hope you enjoy it too. You can read it here.

Literary Gut Punch: from Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border

As you know by now, I love a sentence that whomps the reader in the gut. So I've slowly started compiling my favourite Literary Gut Punches (LGPs.). How appropriate that my most recent example actually describes a character getting punched in the face! 

Kevin Hardcastle's Montana Border appears in the June issue of The Walrus. (You can also read it online here.) I swear my testosterone quadrupled after reading it. 

"In the fight he got hit so hard that his molars sang."

Image credit: Alain Delmas (France) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons