The throughline in Brent van Staalduinen’s latest short story collection Cut Road (Guernica Editions) is characters touched and shaped by conflict. In our mini-interview, Brent talks about the “waste-no-words” instinct that feeds into short story writing, and we read from “Skinks,” a story in the collection.
May is Short Story Month, and this year All Lit Up celebrates this under-appreciated form with Short and Sweet, a little series featuring 12 short story collections and their authors, who share brief thoughts on the short form.
A (short) interview with Brent van Staalduinen, author of Cut Road
All Lit Up: Describe your collection in under 100 words.Brent van Staalduinen: My book is razor-sharp collection of stories about misfits, devils, and saints struggling to make sense of the world and its perpetually shifting ground. In Cut Road, there are no easy solutions.ALU: What do you love about the short story form?BVS: I love the immediacy of a well-crafted story, and the chance to capture key moments in the lives of my characters. I also enjoy the efficiency of the form: it appeals to my waste-no-words instinct.ALU: Who is your fave short story author?BVS: May I cheat and choose a few? Alexander Macleod, Madeleine Thien, Kevin Hardcastle, Anthony Doerr, and Liz Harmer.
An excerpt from “Skinks”
Jesse doesn’t like it when I call him Dad, but I still do. Two things, he’ll say. One, your dad left a long time ago. Two, although you don’t want to say he’s your dad, he still is. I’m not. Clear?
Clear, I’ll say. But it’s not clear, really. Jesse feels like a dad. He always finds ways to make me laugh, even when I’m sad. If dads aren’t supposed to do that, then who is? Then he’ll say, Clear as mud? I’ll say that back to him, too. Clear as mud. Even though mud’s not clear — it’s muddy.
Jesse always ends his stories the same, with Two Things and Clear as Mud. Or he did, anyway. He’s in the hospital now with all these machines that Mom says do pretty much everything for him, so he can’t tell me anything. Once, I asked him about why he ended stories that way. He put down his beer bottle, the one with the big green 50 on the side, looked at me and then off at the trees. He said, They’re leftovers from the Army — you have to make sure you’re heard and understood. It sounded like he was saying it to someone else. You know what I mean about that? When grownups talk to you and to someone else you can’t see at the same time?I have to talk more to my Mom now. She used to watch a whole lot more than she spoke. While Jesse rode me around on his shoulders or helped me build things in the dirt — I saw buildings and castles and cities but I think they were invisible to him — she’d just watch us play, leaning her long legs over the arms of the camping chair I liked to sit in when she wasn’t home. She liked cold wine and a joint when she got home, not talking.“Dills, I’ve said enough to last two lifetimes. Understand?”“No,” I said. “That sounds too long.”She said, “It does, doesn’t it?” and laughed that good laugh she made when evening came and the sun was almost down.Pastor Van Egmond smells like peppermint but his collars are always dirty. He comes by the hospital to chat with Mom often enough. With me and her already in Jesse’s room, there’s never anywhere for him to sit so he stands and talks, moving his hands around in his pockets like they can’t stand that he’s not sitting either. He hasn’t opened his Bible this time — he just laid it down on the metal heating grate beneath the window — and hasn’t since the first visit when he talked to her from it and she got so upset that she had to ask me to leave. Probably so I wouldn’t hear her say bad things to the minister. “He thinks all the answers are in that book, Buddy,” she said later. I think it’s confusing where I’m supposed to find the answers — grownups seem to stash them in all sorts of places.Today they mostly talk about serious things. It’s making Mom tired. I like it better when he tells stories about the other people in the church that make us laugh.“Maybe I should talk to Wendell about it,” he says.Mom says, “Would you like that, Wendell?”She’s smiling because she knows what I’ll say next.“It’s Dills, Mom.”“Right. Dills.”“You promised you’d call me that.”“You’re right, I did.”“Anyway, I don’t know if I’d like it,” I say. “How can I know that?”“Well, it’s settled then,” she says to the pastor, still smiling at me.The pastor isn’t happy about the way we’re making jokes. He says, “Jesse and I go way back. He’d want me to help.”“You and I go way back too. Look how that all turned out.”“This is serious, Vicky.”She stops smiling. “I know it’s serious. But that was years ago, when you both loved getting into trouble. He’s different now.”“Well, how’d he end up in here, then, eh? We all saw the same things. Some of us know better than to get into fights over the stupid things people say.”“I told you what Jesse said before he went under.”“You did, but the police and the newspapers say different.”They stop talking for a bit. Right after Jesse’s accident, the police were here even before Mom and I arrived and needed to talk with her right away. Mom hid the next day’s newspaper, and said I wouldn’t like the way it made Jesse look, that it wasn’t guilty until proven innocent but the other way around.
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Brent van Staalduinen is the author of the novel Saints, Unexpected. He is the winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize, Fiddlehead’s Best Short Fiction Award, and the Lush Triumphant Literary Award. Brent lives in Hamilton, Ontario.