Author of the upcoming novel The Wards, we chat with writer Terry Doyle about his short story collection Dig (Breakwater Books) – featuring St. John’s, NL-ers struggling amidst the everyday, and read an ominous excerpt from his story, “Squat.”
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 Terry Doyle, author of Dig
All Lit Up: Describe your collection in under 100 words.Terry Doyle: Dig is a collection of stories based in and around St. John’s, Newfoundland, where characters struggle in their daily tedium, yearning, quietly, to find space in which to be vulnerable, to break from their learned vigilance and suspicion, to connect with the people nearest to them.ALU: What do you love about the short story form?TD: As a reader I love the accessibility of a short story; how I can sit down and read a full one, front to back. I can hold the whole thing in my mind. With that, I think, comes the ability to analyze the work easier too. You can see the moves the writer is making. You can muse on structure and form and craft.As a writer I love how the short story provides a vehicle for ideas that don’t require a book-length examination. Writing short stories means that anything can be fodder for the work. It really gives you new eyes, in a sense. That event you really don’t want to attend? Well, just think, you might overhear something you can use in a story, or meet someone who can inspire a character in a story. And in that, I feel, there’s an optimism available. And it’s hard to be an optimist these days.ALU: Who is your favourite short story author?TD: Colin Barrett.I love the grit that Barrett pairs with an elevated diction, and how his dialogue is audible, placing you in county Mayo seemingly effortlessly. The stories feel immersive and real. But I think what I admire most, or maybe just most recently when reading Colin Barrett, is his pacing. The prose flows in a seamless, almost perfect rhythm.
An excerpt from “Squat”
The building was on Duckworth Street, across from the old CBC. Matt had heard it was being turned into condos, but he didn’t know if that was true. He nudged the door open and hesitated a moment before stepping into the darkness. Inside, the air was thick and stale. He wished he had a flashlight. He used the light on his phone to see into a dark corner, but then switched it off to avoid draining the battery. He cleared a window ledge and put down his lunchbox and hard hat. The window was covered in paint and dirt and who knows. He could barely see through it.
It would be three or four hours until Chad came back, and, Matt figured, probably no one knew how much tidying and cleaning was needed. He laid the garbage bags onto the window ledge next to his hard hat as his eyes adjusted to the dark.
Matt climbed the stairs. Bits of glass and dirt scrunched under his boots. He kept to the middle of the stairs and put the gloves on his hands as he passed the second floor. The third floor held an old desk, chairs, and in one corner the was a pile of lumber – odds and ends of pieces of wood, nothing uniform. It looked collected, not bought. There was a phone book on top of the desk, its pages wavy and swollen. The fourth floor was dark. Most of the windows were covered with plywood. Matt used the flashlight on his phone again to look around, but there was nothing to see. More dirt, trash, bottles, and two office chairs.
On the fifth floor the stairs stopped. A cold breeze came in through a broken window. Matt stepped onto a wooden plank and something moved, lifting off an old display cooler and starting him. It flew out through the hole in the window: a pigeon.
The room was open and empty. The floor strewn with beer boxes, bottles, trash, the display cooler, and someone’s sneaker. Matt stepped to a window that faced east, up Duckworth Street. He looked down to see the slippery sidewalks busy with men and women in expensive black coats – all sliding their way into the surrounding law offices. Further up the street, near the courthouse, an ambulance sat double-parked with its lights pulsing against the snow and ice. The line of delayed traffic went all the way past the building. Down below, someone blew their horn. Matt switched windows to see the street in front of the building, to make sure the horn blower was in traffic and not someone about to come inside. He shuffled along the front wall, looking down at the street, then he tripped in an ankle-high mound of clay or mud. Catching himself on the wall Matt looked up and saw an exposed beam that was streaked with white. He looked at the toe of his boot. It was covered in pigeon shit.
Scraping his boot along the bottom edge of the display cooler, he heard something roll down below, like a bottle being knocked over and travelling across an uneven floor. The sound echoed in the cavernous building. But which floor? Maybe it was more pigeons. Or rats. But then there were footsteps. Urgent footsteps, and they were descending, or receding. Matt stood absolutely still, to listen, until he heard a door open then close. The building was silent again. Still, he waited and listened another moment, his breath puffing quickly – the broken window, the cold. He headed down the stairs and saw nothing on the fourth, nothing still on the third.But on the second floor, right in the middle of the room: a blackened pile where someone had lit a fire. Matt nudged the ash with his shit-stained boot and an ember glowed. An overturned milk crate sat next to the ashes. On the western wall, near the stairs, there was an office. The door was missing – probably burned.“Hello?” Matt called.No answer.When he crossed the threshold into the office he caught a faint smell of piss. On the floor there was a tangle of dirty blankets and, laid on the window ledge, two pairs of socks.“Fuck,” Matt said to himself. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He went downstairs and grabbed the garbage bags. Stuck his head out the door and peered up and down Duckworth Street. The traffic had abated now and the only person he saw was a young woman in an overstuffed parka, walking her dog.
He jammed the blankets and socks into one garbage bag and left them in the office. He found a cardboard box that wasn’t soggy, tore it in half and used the two halves as a broom and dustpan. He ensured the ash was cold, then swept what was left of the fire into a bag along with all the garbage and glass. Then he went back up to the fifth floor, where he had seen a bucket.
The thin layer of ice on top gave way easily. The bucket was two thirds empty but there was enough water to serve his purpose. Matt carried the bucket back to the second floor and poured its contents onto the blackened stain. Once it dried, he thought, it wouldn’t look like the fire had been recently lit.
* * *
Terry Doyle is a writer from the Goulds, Newfoundland. Winner of the 2017 Percy Janes First Novel Award, and finalist for the 2017 NLCU Fresh Fish Award, his work has appeared in Riddle Fence, Papermill Press, and the Newfoundland Quarterly. His new book, The Wards releases in June 2022.