Ontario-based author Janet Trull's debut short story collection
Hot Town and Other Stories (At Bay Press), is a compelling small-town Canadian experience full of quirky, complex characters, plot twists and surprise endings that Janet attributes to a "lifetime of eavesdropping." Below she tells us more about her collection, how small-town life shaped her identity, and shares an excerpt from Hot Town.
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INTERVIEW WITH JANET TRULL
All Lit Up: Tell us about your short story collection Hot Town and Other Stories and how it came to be.
Janet Trull: The narratives woven through Hot Town and Other Stories are based on a lifetime of eavesdropping. Conversations overheard in high school hallways, at bus stops, in the frozen food aisle at Foodland. I have a deep respect for my characters, inspired by real people, whose lives are disrupted by loss. These stories have been described as dark. I choose to see them as hopeful, examining the many ways people accept difficulties thrust upon them, and manage to persevere through hard times.
I owe a lot to Canada’s wealth of high quality literary magazines, representing diverse cultures and interests across the country. Through poetry, fiction and thoughtful essays, they connect readers and writers in cities, small towns and along lonely backroads. I’ve subscribed to many of them over the years, and started submitting my own stories thirty years ago. "Hot Town," the opening story in this collection, was first published in subTerrain Magazine and subsequently nominated for a Western Magazine Award. Winnipeg’s Prairie Fire published the original version of my story "Rural Route," also in this collection. I feel privileged that At Bay Press offered to publish the stories. A second collection is currently in the editing stages.
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our physical place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
JT: The small Ontario town where I grew up is contained within boundaries that haven’t changed much in the last 150 years. A river, a railroad track, a downtown with more than its share of dilapidated shops. And mile upon mile of farmland. Cultivated fields and dairy farms and greenhouses full of flowers. I carry this geography with me. It is a tiny perfect world where I can revisit familiar landmarks and describe them in detail. Like my father’s hardware store, with rough wooden floors and a back shop where men smoked and mused about the weather. It was a hub for storytelling. The big flood, the night the mill blew up, the Victoria Hotel fire.
A shared geography and a shared history shapes our identities. I learned to listen beyond the dirty jokes, the sexist remarks, the outright lies. The stories created myths and the myths set a precedent for expectations. This is who we are. We are resilient. We work hard. We are loyal. We are quick to collect money for a family in need. We go to funerals. We support the local kids’ hockey program. We drink at the Legion. We belong.
I seek out the small town in every community I visit. Belonging happens in big city coffee shops and small town arenas and rural churches. Wherever people engage in small talk, share local news, gossip a little. My characters are doing the dishes, feeding the birds, stacking firewood, going to the dump. And then something happens to change the trajectory of their day.
ALU: Who are some of your favourite Ontario-based writers?
JT: As a child, I thought that I would never find a more beloved author than Lucy Maude Montgomery whose novels and short stories brought satisfying justice to nasty people and rewarded good behaviour. Her descriptions of nature, whispering poplars and babbling brooks, made me feel connected and protected, even in the darkest forest.
Then along came Alice Munro, revealing the complexities of her small southwestern Ontario town in deceptively simple narratives. Her characters negotiate unavoidable circumstances while struggling with past regrets. The people next door, unremarkable on the surface, look much different once their hearts are laid bare.
Frances Itani is also a favourite author of mine. I especially like her novels Deafening and Tell. Her extensive historical research of the world war eras and the lingering traumas they incurred, makes her stories richly compelling.
Summer moves through town like a river of slag, heavy and inevitable. Heads crack open on hot cement. Children suffocate in derelict refrigerators. People drown.
It is because of the heat, Jenny thinks, that Warren left. Last night she rolled over in bed and threw her arm over his broad back.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. He took his pillow and went out to sleep on the couch. Near dawn, Jenny awoke and listened to a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance. A sudden breeze swept past her and slammed the bedroom door. Worried that Warren would think she slammed the door in anger, Jenny creeps to the kitchen and turns on the light above the stove, not too bright, just enough light to find her way to Warren and tell him she is not mad. He hates it when she is mad.
But Warren is not on the couch. His pillow is there but Warren is gone. Jenny takes a deep breath. She showers and dresses for her job at a day camp north of the tracks where the houses are slabbed together from odds and ends of plywood and tar paper and desperation.
Most of the children at the day camp are subsidized by the Rotary Club. Most of the mothers who drop the children off are young and slovenly. They smoke. But they are not lonely. Jenny is amazed at the number of boyfriends these women go through. There is a never-ending supply of guys who don’t mind a little baggage in relationships it seems. Perhaps that is why Warren is her first boyfriend since she graduated from high school six years ago. She has no baggage. No children to prove that someone found her attractive once.
Janet Trull is a freelance writer. Her personal essays and short stories have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, subTerrain Magazine, and Geist among others. She won the CBC Canada Writes challenge in 2013 and was nominated for a Western Magazine Award in the short fiction category in 2014. Her debut collection of short fiction, published in 2016 by At Bay Press, is called Hot Town and Other Stories.
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