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Write On Ottawa: Welcome to the ideas machine

By Alejandro Bustos on December 4, 2015

Heaven_s_Gone_To_Hell_Front_CoverWhy do you read fiction? Is it to fall in love with an exotic character or fantastic creature? To travel to a new dimension or a specific moment in the past? Maybe what you seek is a strange idea that sets your mind on fire?

Your answer to this question – why do you read fiction? – will likely determine whether you enjoy the writing of Ottawa-born and raised author Andrew Simpson, whose quirky and highly original work cannot be pigeonholed into a traditional literary category.

At first glance, one could characterise his work as being comprised of short stories. This description, however, would not be entirely accurate, as can been seen in his most recent book Heaven’s Gone to Hell, which is published by Hamilton-based BareBack Press.

Like his debut collection The Big Picture, Simpson’s newest anthology is comprised of very short tales that explore an insanely wide range of ideas. There is the support group that allows people to die in groups of four and angels who sell fake passports to heaven. There is the world where you can purchase happiness in a bottle and a woman who kills with kindness. There is the archangel who slept with a mother making her son disappear, and the oddly funny yarn about the roommate who moved in with Doubt after answering an ad on Craigslist.

These literary vignettes, however, do not feel like traditional short stories, but something entirely different. When I raised this with Simpson in an email interview he agreed that his work is unconventional.

“I always struggle to define my writing, because it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard types,” says Simpson, who lived in Ottawa for 36 years before moving to Toronto. “On the one hand, the pieces are fictional, and to that end, they are stories. However they’re often laid out more like an essay: They begin by stating the central premise of the piece, move through an explanation and finally on to a conclusion, and the engine that drives them is the idea and its logical (or illogical) constraints rather than the personality of their characters.”

This focus on a central idea as opposed to character development, scene setting or literary flow is not for everyone. If you like your fiction to be like a romantic painting, i.e. filled with heroes and villains who are caught up in epic battles, then this book may not be for you.

In contrast, if you like to be captured by a fascinating thought, and made to consider things that you have probably never thought about before, then this could be a really enjoyable read.

This focus on interesting thoughts, however, was also present in The Big Picture. So why did Simpson decide to follow the same style in his second book?

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Andrew Simpson

“I feel like Heaven’s Gone to Hell builds on The Big Picture,” he replies. “I still think that there’s something to be said in these short stories that can’t be said in the same way in longer form work, and simply put, I felt like there was more to be said. . . .

“There’s an emphasis [in literature] on character and setting (often historical), and it seems like lost in all that is an interest in analysis, or anything beyond the strictly experiential. It’s not to say that there isn’t good writing out there, or that it’s pointless, but rather that it doesn’t challenge us intellectually.”

As for upcoming works, Simpson tells Apartment613 that he is currently working on a third anthology. Once he completes this project his aim is to start other projects, such as a stage play or short film that he can base on his existing stories.