BJI: Can you give us some background on The Last Judgment?
MM: It has been with me for a long time!
I wrote The Last Judgment in the mid 1980s, on a typewriter – a Brother electronic model, to be exact – which I loved. I still type on it from time to time because I find it comforting: the action of the keys, the sound, the angle of the keyboard.
The Brother has a backspace feature for little typos but when I first wrote that story, I had to retype the whole thing if I wanted to make a substantive change. It’s distilled from a longer piece, and I think the word is apt because I went over and over it again, gradually whittling away what seemed unneccessary. It called for patience, which has never been my strong suit. But eventually, it became a meditative process and I grew to enjoy it.
I don’t know how much the technology influenced this, but I saw – and still see – the story from the inside, a child’s eye view, and a close-up view. I got my glasses at the same age as the character, Charlotte, and that violent change of perspective on life is something I wanted to explore. The transition into young adulthood is a powerful event and often a tragic one for girls. We talk talk talk about everything and sex is very much out in the open – but that particular time of life is still frought with taboo after all this time.
I’ve sent the story out pretty much every year since I first wrote it, and got lots of positive feedback, but the usual comment was, “It’s too long for a literary magazine.” (I tried cutting it, but ended up adding about 1,000 words!)
Somehow, the length is just right for what you’ve been doing at Found Press, though, which is very exciting and touching for me. Deep down I always believed in it but that time of life is associated with a lot of shame, and I sometimes wonder if some of that spilled over to my feelings for the story when it was rejected so often.
BJI: Comment on the Toronto we see in the story.
MM: Toronto in the seventies: there was a seaminess quite literally at the heart of “Toronto the good.” I have vivid memories of Yonge Street in those days. Sex and religion were being peddled in various forms. To a child it was fascinating and scary. That was mingled with the confusion that reigned in our generation as our parents struggled with changing mores and notions of the family. There was so much going on in a short period of time … back to the glasses thing. With the shock of all that change you cease to see yourself as part of a larger history.
In the story, I deliberately steer clear of the murder of Emanuel Jaques on Yonge Street, in 1975, but I’m hoping readers will sense the tension in the air. The impact of the event was superbly rendered in Antony DeSa’s “Shoe Shine Boy.” God I love that story! After the murder, there were moves to clean up Yonge Street, but Toronto had really lost its innocence.
BJI: Your story is, among other things, one of self-discovery. How much (or how little) do you think people find out about themselves through their writing?
MM: I don’t think we ever really know ourselves, but …
Many years after I wrote The Last Judgment I wrote a memoir, which is just out this month from McGill Queen’s. Honestly, I feel more exposed in writing fiction, and I have a greater sense of looking in a mirror, too. There’s something utterly revealing about the thing you invent, as opposed to the thing you report.
BJI: What are the advantages of working with short stories? What are the challenges?
MM: I find short stories very challenging. At the time I wrote The Last Judgment I believed that you had to master the short story form in order to graduate to something longer. I felt like I was always having to cram my ideas into a small space and the pacing was always weird.
I have immense admiration for the writers who do a great job of short stories. Light Lifting is one of my favourite books and there are so many other great short story writers in this country. Recently (thanks to the Kobo) I have revisited Dubliners by James Joyce. I’ve been reading them on the subway, and I catch myself speaking them out loud because they are so intricately constructed and the rhythms are so beautiful.
At the same time, I can’t imagine The Last Judgment as being any longer – or any shorter.
BJI: Last question. What excites you most about online/digital storytelling?
MM: I really love my e-reader: not just for the portability of it, but there’s something I never expected in a million years I would experience with a digital device. I associate computers with speed, yet on an e-reader I read more slowly and savour the prose more!
There’s something about having a screenful of words in front of you, then proceeding to the next screen, rather than having the whole honking volume in your hand. I think that’s part of the reason why I have enjoyed revisiting the classics on the device, but it’s also especially suited to the short story, and the somewhat longer stories that you’ve taken on with Found Press, as well.
I can imagine that e-readers will bring a new appreciation for short stories.
stories by Maria Meindl