A few words with Miranda Hill

A writer of fiction and poetry, Miranda Hill won the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic” in 2011.  Her debut book, Sleeping Funny , is a collection of nine distinct stories on topics ranging from the arrival of unexpected new neighbours to an embarrassing sex ed class to the banality of suburban existence to modern day miracles. "The variety seems to be something that readers really love," says Miranda, "The way the voices, time periods and situations change, from story to story. In each of the stories, the characters are offered an opportunity to step forward, to accept or embrace change, to consider who they are now and who they might become." Miranda hopes the possibility for change and sense of urgency is something readers will find compelling and familiar. We were thrilled to talk to Miranda about living, writing and reading in Hamilton.

Transient

Q&A

Which of the nine short stories did you begin writing first? 
The story I wrote first in this collection was “Petitions to Saint Chronic,” which is also the story that went on to win The Journey Prize. Of course, at the time I wasn’t aware that the story would be a prize winner, or even that it would be published. I was studying creative writing through a distance program at the University of British Columbia at the time, and it was just one of the stories that I was creating, learning how to be a better writer and find my voice. But when I wrote that particular story, I was surprised by what I had managed to do on the page. It felt like there was really something there, that maybe the writer I wanted to be, and the writer I was becoming, had moved one giant step closer.

How has winning the Journey Prize impacted your career? 
Winning The Journey Prize helps to get more attention for my work. Though the prize-winning story is only one of nine stories in Sleeping Funny, I know that the citation from the jury, their enthusiastic words about my writing, will encourage some people to pick up the book. It’s wonderful for giving a previously unknown writer a boost in a market that’s filled with books, and where many consumers are not immediately drawn to short stories.

What does it mean to you on a personal level?
The best thing about The Journey Prize was not winning it, or even being shortlisted, it was being longlisted. Each year, all the longlisted stories are included in an anthology called The Journey Prize Stories. That collection serves as a list of writers to watch, and it’s also a great historical document, because the titles of the past longlisted stories and the names of the writers—people like Yann Martel and Lisa Moore and Elizabeth Hay—are printed each year in its back pages. For nine years, I had studied each volume of the anthology like a bible, returning again and again to this writing that was considered among the best in the country. Finding out that my story had been selected for the anthology, being in that company, was the most exciting moment of my publishing life so far. 

What is the most rewarding part of the writing process?
Those moments when the story really starts to flow, when even if I am away from my desk, my keyboard or even a notebook, I still feel the characters and the situations playing out in my head. At times like that, all I want to do is run back to my office, close the door, and write. Not because I am afraid that I’ll forget something, but for the sheer pleasure of it. It takes a long time for me to get a story to that point, but when it happens, I forget all the hours I spent staring at a blank screen or wrestling out the words, wondering how long till I could justify getting up to get a coffee, or check the mailbox, or book a dental appointment. 

Tell us about Project Bookmark Canada. 
Project Bookmark Canada places text from stories and poems in the exact, physical locations where literary scenes take place. We call these installations Bookmarks, and currently you can find ten of them around Ontario and one in Newfoundland, and later this fall we will unveil our twelfth Bookmark, this time in Vancouver. You can learn more about this charitable initiative by visiting projectbookmarkcanada.ca, but really, the best way for Hamilton residents to get a sense of what it’s all about is to visit the Bookmark our own city: John Terpstra’s poem “Giants,” which is installed at the top of the escarpment, in Sam Lawrence Park. 

What inspired you to start this initiative?
The idea for Project Bookmark Canada came to me when I was a mom to young children, living at the foot of Toronto. I would sneak as much time to read as I could, and when I wasn’t reading, I was walking with my kids through various downtown neighbourhoods. Suddenly, I realized that my reading and my ramblings were merging: I was walking through the settings of the books I had read. That layering of the real and the imagined made my experience of those places and those stories so rich, that I wanted to share it with everyone, to reveal the stories in our shared spaces. It took almost a decade to move Project Bookmark Canada from an idea to an organization, and there are still more stories and poems and places to mark than there is money to do it, and a big part of my role is finding donors to help us expand the possibilities. But we are well on our way to our goal of creating a network of sites and stories, so that Canadians and visitors can read their way right across the country.

What made you move to Hamilton? 
My husband and I had been living in suburban Burlington for four years, a place that accommodated our large, blended family and the kids’ various parental/step-parental arrangements. But we were longing for a more walkable, urban environment, one that allowed us to be part of an engaged and active community. We’ve been here for three years now, and every day we’re glad we made the move. We love it here, and hope the feeling is mutual. To me, it feels like Hamilton is very open to new people in the community. If you want to be part of things, you are completely welcome: there’s a spot for you.

How does living in Hamilton influence your writing?
I think that Hamilton is a perfect place to be a writer. Yes, the cost of living is definitely a factor: you can live larger on less. But Hamilton is a place that doesn’t wear all its attributes on its sleeve; sometimes you have to search a bit to find the best of this city. That complements the approach I try to take in my writing: not accepting what’s on the surface of a thing, but looking longer, finding the layers below, mining for secrets. 

What book are you reading right now?
I have a whole stack! I’m into The Blondes, by Emily Schultz (about a worldwide plague that affects only women with blonde hair); The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam (a family story about the lead up to the Vietnam War, told through the fears and foibles of one man); The Western Light, which combines hockey and questions of female identity and is by Susan Swan, who is both a Canadian literary icon and someone who I can laugh with about really human things—which is a very good combination. A book I can hardly wait to read is called Studio Saint-Ex, and it’s by Ania Szado, a Hamilton girl who now has a foot here and one in Toronto. Her novel is about a young (fictional) Canadian fashion designer who goes to New York and becomes involved with the “It Man” of the 1940s, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a famous pilot and the author of The Little Prince. Unfortunately, I will have to wait for it, as the book isn’t out till the spring. But the manuscript has sold in three countries so far, and the novel promises to be as stylish and well-made as a couture gown.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
You will write badly, before you write well. There is no way to skip that part. Just be brave and write your way through it.

You can buy Sleeping Funny at your local Chapters or Bryan Prince Bookseller.