Short and Sweet: Katie Bickell + Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

Called “a loving portrait of the people you think you know, but don’t really” by Omar Mouallem, Katie Bickell’s Always Brave, Sometimes Kind(Brindle & Glass) is a collection of linked short stories following a network of people throughout Alberta. We chat with Katie on the challenge and economy of short story writing and read some of “What is Brought Back, What Remains.”


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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.

An interview with Katie Bickell, author of Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

All Lit Up: Describe your collection in under 100 words.

Katie Bickell: A novel told in connected short stories, Always Brave, Sometimes Kind captures a diverse network of friends, caregivers, in-laws, and near misses, with each character’s life coming into greater focus as we learn more about the people around them. Tracing alliances and betrayals from different perspectives over decades, Bickell writes an ode to home that is both warm and gritty, well-defined and utterly complicated.

ALU: What do you love about the short story form?

KB: As a reader, I enjoy how a good short story will connect me with the protagonist with immediate insight and intimacy. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of the medium: with so few words to work with, how can I make each one work triple-time? The job of an author is to craft their stories in such a way that all information found within a text deepens character development, progresses plot, or supports theme. The challenge of the short story writer is to make each and every sentence within the text accomplish all three of those tasks at once.

ALU: Who is your fave short story writer?

It’s very hard to answer the question of who my favourite short story writer is. Immediately, two authors came to my mind: George Saunders and Alice Munro, who write in very different styles spanning from traditional to wildly experimental. So I will settle on Margaret Atwood (especially her collection, Stone Mattress), who both plays with and innovates the form and returns it to its roots if that is what’s needed to tell a certain story in the best way.

An excerpt from “What is Brought Back, What Remains”

2013 / 1990

Karen breathes into her hand in the privacy of the beach house’s kitchen. Laughter howls from the living room, but Karen isn’t having fun. She sniffs her palm, confirming the putrid smell that’s plagued her for weeks. How embarrassing. She slides an oak drawer open and shakes Tic Tacs into her mouth before pulling a fresh bottle of rosé from the wine fridge. She’ll arrange a dental visit once she’s home. Until then, mints, Chanel No. 5, and a few drinks will have to mask the stink.
She pours wine into her empty glass, relieved to temporarily escape the inanity of her company. The executive oil wives’ weekend is well underway and all the women are lubricated by both drink and the sex appeal of the tarot card reader. These weekends have a habit of quickly devolving, the second-wife attendees (some of them not even wives yet, merely girlfriends) turning into animals when out from under the supervision of much older husbands. Golden retriever puppies, that’s what they make her think of. The big blondness of them, their eager, bouncy breasts. Karen’s the only first executive wife left.

And yet, that’s not true. Karen is no longer a first wife but a first widow, the second anniversary of Henry’s heart attack having passed last May. She only hosts the annual event because of her own reluctance to forfeit her seat on the otherwise all-male executive events coordination board.

She slides her shellac-nailed fingertips over the vacation home counters. But for the marble, this kitchen is downright nautical, a lavish translation of the shiplap-sided lake shack Karen grew up in. Karen had been smart then, too. Mother called her conniving. Thank god for simple, gentle Nana; her warm, jiggly arms stretched open like a blanket big enough to cover the world. When Karen is at her worst, she still imagines the comfort of her grandmother’s arms.

They left that lakeside home after Nana died. Karen’s uncle turned up a week after the funeral and sold it from underneath them, splitting the sale with the pro-bono realtor Mother ended up moving in with afterward. Karen got a job but never forgot the lesson. She and Henry would leave the entirety of their estates only to each other, trusting one another to divvy it up correctly among surviving relations. There’d be no absent family members coming out of the woodwork so long as Karen was at the helm. No broke sibling or ne’er-do-well nephew turning up for a handout. Clever Shannon, Henry’s long-estranged daughter, could take a long walk off a short dock before she got a penny. It had been Karen and their daughter Tara who had made Henry’s life so rich. It was they who deserved the whole of his love.

She walks to the window above the kitchen sink and flips a switch. Plank flooring heats up under her socked feet. Had it done that the last time she was here? She doesn’t recall. It’s been so many years. What brought her back, a little bit of heartache? Well, where better than Vancouver Island for that? It feels like the end of the earth by the ocean, an in-between space in the autumnal fog, perfect to remember or to forget. She thinks about her childhood by the lake, how by morning the waves would always have brought to her a thing someone had forgotten: a note in a bottle, a sandcastle bucket, a floating flip-flop left at the shore.

Glass in one hand and bottle in the other, Karen returns to the ladies. She walks the circle made around the psychic’s wobbly little table, refilling glasses.

“Your turn, Kar,” a blonde says, getting up from the card table.

Karen refreshes the woman’s glass, “I’m just here to make sure you have a good time!” But the others insist. Karen sits on the chair opposite the psychic and places the wine by her feet. The man closes his eyes and Karen makes a tight-lipped smile as he rings a little bell over the deck. Well, that’s a nice, spooky touch.

She was right to fly him out from Edmonton. He really set the mood: incense and candles, yogic music, and salt spread in the four corners of the room. She’d found him during a shopping trip to a kooky bookshop her daughter’s therapist girlfriend, Theresa, had taken them to. Theresa collects the type of woo-woo panaceas that comfort patients whose lives are out of control: meditation tracks, healing stones, essential oils meant for calming. A lapsed Catholic, Theresa’s endearing penchant for the superstitious is nothing but good, girly fun. Really, Karen couldn’t see how she could love Tara’s girlfriend more. Now that Henry’s gone, the girls are all Karen has.

The storefront clerk told them there was space open if the women wanted a reading with the house psychic, but Tara wasn’t interested in that sort of thing and Karen really didn’t care, so they let Theresa take the offer and accompanied her to a tiny bead-curtained room. For her question of love and career the psychic pulled a tower on fire and three swords through a heart.

“You must be brave,” he said, accented words dripping with sex. He placed his hand over Theresa’s. “And be kind.”

It was then Karen knew she’d found the entertainment for the wives’ weekend. Who wouldn’t enjoy such a hunk? And think of how much more fun the experience would be with a little wine thrown in. Tara could be such a stick in the mud with the sobriety kick she’d been on since that Shannon got her into trouble years ago. The little upset had really changed Karen’s daughter. She’d chopped all her golden hair off and dyed it into a dark little pixie cut. Easier for work, Tara claimed, but Karen considered it a sin. And Tara was so serious! When they were leaving the store Karen spotted pretty little pentacle necklaces with the words Always With My Sisters engraved on the back. Theresa just about died when Karen suggested that each of them get one.

Tara just rolled her eyes. “Really, Mom? What do we know about sisters?”

Oh well. That’s the way it is sometimes, the strangeness between mothers and daughters. Karen is eternally proud, regardless. Her Tara, the doctor!

She realizes she’s daydreaming when the psychic knocks on his deck. Come back to Earth, Karen.

The psychic pulls three cards, lips mumbling a chant. He lays them before her on the table: a thief tiptoes from camp with seven stolen swords; the dead rise to an angel captioned Judgment; a woman and child journey into the sea, knives caging them within their vessel. Karen watches the act and wonders if he keeps a collection of “readings” to randomly employ. What’s the script this time? Be brave and kind, like he read to Theresa? Or maybe, if he’s interested in a bit of late-night vacation fun, you will meet a tall, dark, handsome man?

The psychic’s eyes flash. He sits still and stiff, gaze fixed just above Karen’s shoulder.

“You hold money not yours to keep.”

Giggles teeter into confused silence.

“What did he say?” someone asks.

“She holds money not hers to keep,” someone else whispers.

“An inheritance is owed.”

Inheritance? Whose? Tara’s? He’s not talking about Shannon, surely. Henry hadn’t seen the girl since she was fifteen years old.

Chairs nervously squeak. Karen smiles and narrows her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t…”

He slides his dark hand over the table and covers hers. Suddenly, Karen is very tired.

She’s had too much to drink, she realizes. The room has started to spin. Outside, ocean tides swirl under a full moon and things are being brought back in waves. And this house . . .

This house is just as it was . . .

Back then…

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Katie Bickell emigrated from England to northern Alberta in 1990. Her fiction has been published in the Tahoma Literary Review and Alberta Views and her essays have appeared in WestWord Magazine, HERizons Magazine, and on The Temper. Chapters from Always Brave, Sometimes Kind have received the Alberta Literary Award’s Howard O’Hagan for Short Story, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Emerging Writer Award, and won the Alberta Views Fiction Prize. Katie lives in Sherwood Park, Alberta, just outside of Edmonton.

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Don’t touch that dial: you can catch up with our short story month series Short and Sweet right here. And follow along on social with #ALUShortandSweet.