The Brent Van Staalduen Interview

Cut Road is the fourth fiction book from Brent Van Staalduen, a masterful exploration of the loss and scars that conflict always leaves behind. Where soldiers abandon too much of themselves in war zones, parents relinquish control of their children, and friends struggle with change and tragedy. From the working soul struggling with grief to the wounded veteran seeking redemption in a coffee shop to the sweaty tree-planter fleeing a burning forest, in this collection no one—least of all the reader—is left unscathed.

Brent van Staalduinen is the author of the novels Nothing But Life, Boy, and Saints, Unexpected. His short stories have won the Bristol Short Story Prize, the Fiddlehead Short Fiction Award, and the Lush Triumphant Literary Award and have appeared in numerous literary journals in Canada and abroad. A former high school English teacher, tree planter, and army medic, Brent now finds himself writing, working at the local library, and wandering around Hamilton looking for stories.

What are some great Canadian books you’d recommend?

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and The Break by Katherena Vermette are two books I reach for when people ask me to recommend books that have changed me. The Innocents by Michael Crummey challenges everything about familial relationships, what’s acceptable and not, and is full of his incredible prose. Speak, Silence by Kim Echlin is shattering and gorgeously written. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. Anything by Toews is worth a read, but this is a great place to start: a memorable and impacting story about how we push against our traditions. Our Little Secret by Roz Nay will scratch your thriller and good writing cravings. Debris and In the Cage by Kevin Hardcastle are two gritty books from a writer to watch. All True Not a Lie in It as well as My Name is a Knife by Alix Hawley are two incredible books about the life of Daniel Boone, told in unforgettable and gorgeous prose.

The modern-day small press writer finds themselves in a new world of book media. Almost gone now are the long thoughtful reviews for a book. Instead, a crop of near-criticism, exposure-based opportunities seem to be the common exchange rate – with excerpts, author interviews such as these, short readings on social media, longer Zoom-based readings, short lists of books the author likes and of course, friends reviewing the book on social media, Goodreads or on Amazon. Reviews for a book these days are either trapped behind a paywall, or, more commonly, a book is reviewed nearly a year later in a university-owned literary journal. The process can be emotionally dangerous for a writer who may be expecting something out of a Netflix movie or episode of Sex in the City where authors are being shipped off to the next sold-out Barnes and Noble signing and everyone is drinking Champagne and talking about film rights morning ‘til night. How have those in your life reacted to the news of your new book and it being available to buy?

I have an incredibly supportive network of friends and family who buy my books and cheer me on. This collection assembles in one place many of the stories they’ve read and/or heard about, a one-stop-shopping approach to my short craft. I’ve bugged them all to preorder Cut Road, and they’ll be at every stop on the 42-city international book tour Guernica has arranged for me, drinking champagne and schmoozing Hollywood/Bollywood on my behalf. (Insert LOL here.) Seriously, though: the tour isn’t real, but my people sure are. They’re the best.

What was the editorial process like for Cut Road?

I worked with Michael Mirolla to polish and shape the collection. Most of the stories have already appeared in literary journals and a number have won awards, so they were in pretty good shape even before I submitted the collection to publishers. Still, grammar ghosts and typo gremlins are real, existing purely to lurk in our computer writing folders to mess up the perfect diamonds we craft with patient pressure and loving caress. Michael and I had to exorcise a few of the most stubborn ones from the collection.

In the opening story, we meet a family in the midst of a real pickle. Little time is wasted on getting the reader into the eye of the storm. Why did you decide to open the collection with this particular story? And what was the backstory – if any – for this family’s creation.

I forget who told me this, but they said that arranging the stories in a collection is like planning the perfect music mix tape. That’s the approach I went with, deciding that Dills’s voice would be an intriguing way to introduce my stories and set the tone. I arranged the stories hopefully to take advantage of their rising and falling, the various moods that come about from each piece. In terms of the backstory for “Skinks,” I had an image of a kid waiting outside a hospital where a loved one is fighting for his life, and it stuck. (So much so, in fact, that Nothing But Life, my most recent novel, was written around Jesse and Dills’s relationship, and the hard questions that come about when you love someone who chooses to do unspeakable things.)

What is your process for putting together a story – or describe the process for one story in particular that readers might find curious or appealing in some weird way.

They usually begin as an image or simple situation that I build conflict and stakes around. I also try to capture a moment in my characters’s lives, a brief period that profoundly impacts them and causes them to question everything. In my short fiction, I try for micro rather than macro.

In ‘Drift, Maybe Fall’ we get a glimpse into trucker life. How has your relationship with this story changed since the Freedom Convoy earlier this year taking the nation up into its controversial arms?

In my story, a traveler and a truck driver are forced by supernatural circumstances to stay at the same border motel and end up connecting to conquer their loneliness. These are two people with genuine trauma and real challenges, unlike the entitled pack of occupying idiots who chose to terrorize a city rather than find constructive ways to protest their perceived injustices.

What are you going to work on next?

On and off for a decade, I’ve been working on Blood is Not Water, a novel about Canadian peacekeepers serving in the Balkans in the 90s. I’ve finally put together a draft I’m happy with and am sanding away a few rough edges before next steps. After that, I’ve decided to lighten up a bit and write a climate-apocalypse YA novel about haunted teenagers navigating a shattered world filled with murder and mayhem and tender love shenanigans, and making all sorts of poor choices along the way. They’ll still save us all, though, because that’s what youth do when we older folks mess everything

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James M. Fisher is the Founding Editor of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.

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