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Writers Fest: An acrobatic collection of short stories

By Sanita Fejzić on April 27, 2015

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28.  Apartment613 is previewing some of the participating authors in a series of special posts.

A circus: that’s not just in the welcoming title of Ottawa author Rhonda Douglas’s collection of 10 unforgettable short stories, but also a friendly warning and a preview of the sensations you can expect from her shorts.  You will travel with a strange and dazzling company of characters, from a dysfunctional family in the porn business, to a boy so obsessed with the idea of love that he marks himself with the poetry of John Donne, to an unexpected relationship between a paleontologist and an unfrozen Neanderthal, all the way to God himself.

In between, you will discover Douglas’s masterful ability to weave humour with tragedy, to make you laugh, think and consider.

A fragile balancing act that breathes life into the short story form, leaving you with a multiplicity of impressions, effects and feelings — for these reasons and more, Welcome to the Circus is refreshing and audacious in its range.

Douglas’s experiments with form are nothing short of acrobatic — the stories involve spectacular narrative feats.  In the one about the Mata Hari trials, for example, we immediately enter the story from many points of view, including that of the son of one of her many lovers, written in footnotes. His voice mingles with that of his father, judges and journalists, and Mata Hari herself.

That’s another thing about Douglas’s shorts: the variety of voices, whose specific tempos, rhythms and quirks make you question if collections of short stories need to be linked at all.  They often are, at least by narrative style or voice, even if not thematically.  Here the common denominator — which is also the strength and anchor of the collection — is the diversity.

Embrace the unexpected, and you will not regret it: welcome to Douglas’s circus.

Her prose edges on poetry, revitalizing tired story tropes with simplicity and elegance.  The sentence, “Somehow the body knows the questions to ask and the mind then searches for answers,” says so much with so little.  It evokes the contours the character’s unspoken struggle; in Douglas’s hands, the two-sided coin of love, the painful and the beautiful, becomes a dice with six faces, including the ugly, the pathetic, the transcendent and the bizarre.

I met up with Douglas on her first day back to Canada from a trip to Latin America.  It was windy, cloudy and raining but a lovely day nonetheless.  I could smell spring, and as I waited for her in front of the café I suggested — closed on a Monday — I hoped she wouldn’t mind a sudden change of plans.

Dressed in open-toe heels, with a splash of red hair, she was enthusiastic, vibrant and filled with vitality.  It was kind of like being hit with the full force of the sun in the middle of a tired, shaggy grey day.

Photo of Rhonda Douglas courtesy of John W. MacDonald

Photo of Rhonda Douglas courtesy of John W. MacDonald

Talking with Douglas, you get a sense of the author’s way of being which inevitably influences her craft.  She is witty and funny, down to earth. She notices and has a taste for good sentences, which provoke smiles and further conversation.

When I ask her how she comes up with such incredible metaphors, such as, “The Been There column weighs heavy inside her body squatting toad-like just below her breast bone,” in Humanitarian Relief , she chuckles and says,  “I wish there was a simple answer to that.  I wish I could just say there’s some magical formula.”

That particular story, she tells me, came out of her work in humanitarian relief, human rights and social justice causes.

“Just trying to riff off of that,” she says.  “In these stories — because they are so bizarre and eclectic — there’s a lot of, what if I took this crazy idea and made it a little crazier? So that it’s not just a story about a boy who loves John Donne poems, he carves them into his body.”

When I ask her about how she weaves humour with tragedy in such apparently effortless ways, Douglas laughs.

“The people I enjoy the most have really sick, deep, dark, twisted sense of humours and I like stories that do that,” she says.  “There is a sense of humour with tragedy, but I think there’s also a tenderness, a kind of compassion and empathy. . . . One helps you access the other.”

When I pop my trick question: “is there a difference between prose and poetry?” she is hesitant. “Yes, there is,” says Douglas, who is also a published poet, and who has been writing poetry, prose and essays since she was 10.  They’ve always informed each other. When she writes fiction, she’s looking at form first and then the poetry of each line. A lot of the poetry comes to her in the revision stages, after she has laid down the bones of the story.

“But I do the same in poetry. Maybe there is no difference?” she continues.  Two seconds later, she adds, “but there is a formal difference. The inspiration for me is different. For fiction, I start from character. In poetry, I start from a sense of the music of the line.”

In this collection, she made sure that the music of the lines could be heard.  Indeed, some lines even sing.  Their melody is with me still.

Rhonda Douglas will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Tuesday, April 28. The event starts at 6:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street). Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free