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A conversation with Canary author Nancy Jo Cullen

The people in Nancy Jo Cullen’s stories are just like you and me–raw, complicated, slightly off-kilter in a world that seems to be rushing by a little too quickly. Her characters–working class, many queer–are deep thinking, humorous people who move through with their often tumultuous lives with a kind of imperfect grace.

I first came across Nancy Jo’s work when we both appeared in last year’s Journey Prize Stories 24 and have since thoroughly enjoyed Canary. I appreciate the depth of her characters and the pitch-perfect humour in her work. Recently, Nancy Jo graciously agreed to talk more about Canary, her writing process, and what’s next on her writing horizon.

Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging Gay Author.  She has published three collections of poetry with Calgary’s Frontenac House Press. Her short story collection, Canary is the winner of the Metcalf-Rooke 2012 prize and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is at work on a book-length fiction project and a fourth collection of poetry.


One of the things I love most about Canary is how real the characters feel. In each story, they move and talk and behave like real people, like women and men I’ve met in my life. How do characters develop for you, generally? Do they ever bear resemblance to real people?

Generally a character comes out of an action or phrase I see or hear, and they do come from my lived experience but aren’t specific to individuals. (Some family member might argue this.)

To a certain extent my characters bear resemblance to real people, but they’re not ever entirely modeled after real people. So, for instance, I went to my 30th high school reunion and was chatting with an old school friend. I had loved her folks and going to her house when we were kids. She had a great, warm family.  She told me that her mom had passed on and her dad drove around with her ashes in his truck for a while. My character Harvey is nothing like her dad (and his marriage was nothing like her parents’ marriage) but he drives around in a truck with his wife’s ashes.

Several of the stories have been published previously. Did you have a sense, writing each story, of how they might to fit together as a whole or as a collection? What was the process of putting the collection together?

For this collection I wrote the stories one at a time not necessarily thinking of them as a whole. These stories were my first forays into fiction writing so I just went where my interests took me.  But like many first fictions, I think I mined my own history rather specifically – not so much writing the story of my life but lots of the stories reach into the 70s and 80s and 90s – the years I grew up through and I revisited those times in my stories.

After John Metcalf, my editor read the collection he asked me to pull one story and add two new stories, which was exactly what the collection needed and then I wrote those two stories (“Passenger” and “Eddie Truman”) to fit into the collection. John didn’t tell me what to write but I wanted to talk about passenger pigeons and so I put two disparate people in a truck and let them drive. Eddie Truman evolved out of my story Ashes.

What writers have been most key to your own development as a writer? Any favourite authors, anyone you go back to again or again?

So many writers. Jane Austen is my go-to vacation book. Easy and witty. Raymond Carver was the first short-story writer I read who dealt with people I had seen in my life and this discovery was very important to me although I didn’t write fiction for probably 20 years after first reading Carver. Feminist writers have influenced my thinking in this world, Audrey Lorde, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Judy Rebick just to name a few. I love Ali Smith’s short stories. From these kinds of writers I learned you could write about a social world that was small and be funny and that it was important to hold onto my values in my creative work. Being a feminist shapes all of my thinking and I owe so much of my world-view to feminist thinkers and their books. Also, I love raw, confessional work of Anne Sexton.

Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind was fantastic. Those are just some of the first writers that come to mind. Jane Bowles is really weird and funny.

These kinds of questions always make me nervous because that’s really just the tip of the iceberg and maybe I left someone out… I am influenced in one way or another by every book I read.

Several of the characters in your stories are queer, either openly or closeted. I’ve talked to other queer writers who still feel that there’s resistance in some quarters, from publishers and editors, to depicting “the true lives of queers.” What’s your take?

Well, I don’t dispute that resistance, I’m certain it’s there but I’ve been lucky, both as a poet with Frontenac House Press and as a short story writer with Biblioasis. I think there are some publishers who feel that a story isn’t universal if it’s got queer people living in it, but I’ve not had that suggested to me by my publishers. Of course, I’ve published with independent publishers and I expect that makes a difference. I resent there being resistance to queer characters. I hope that will change.

Do you identify particularly as a queer writer or feel part of a queer writing community (as distinct from other writing communities)?

Well I identify as queer. So, I have no problem being identified as a queer writer, although I tend to think of myself as a writer, who is queer, who is a woman. That being said, my writing career has really been helped by the queer community – I was recognized by the Writer’s Trust with the Dayne Ogilvie Prize in 2010. This was a cash award, (cash!! tangible support!!!) that brought attention to my writing as it has to the other recipients. Check them out here.

Every recipient of the prize (and the honourable mentions) are well worth reading. So while I am a writer in a wider community, I am also a queer writer and I’m happy to support my queer community and to be supported by it and to be named as queer. I think being out is important, not just as a writer but as a citizen. You know, we’re here, we’re queer and we pay taxes too.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time”, a complex (& often humourous) portrayal of a marriage between George and Kelly, that moves back and forth through time and explores a lot of skeletons in the closet. What struck me most in the story is both the intense privacy of both George and Kelly, but also the accommodation that occurs in their relationship. Can you tell me more about how this story developed for you?

Well, the stories I was writing in Canary were shorter short stories and I wanted to try my hand at a longer short story. I wanted to write about Maria Goretti who is a Catholic virgin martyr who was murdered in 1902 by her would-be rapist when she refused to submit to him. She was dirt-poor, she wasn’t quite twelve, her attacker was 19 and while she told of his attack on her death-bed she also forgave him. She is the patron saint of chastity, rape victims, forgiveness, teenage girls, poverty and purity.

I wanted to explore what kind of person might relate to a saint like Maria Goretti, and why would they? So that led to my closeted character George who can’t find a place within his faith system to exist. I liked the idea of a lounge singer and then I just went back into their lives and knit them together as a married couple. I liked both the characters and wanted to them to both get what they wanted.  I didn’t have a plan when I started, I just knew Kelly was pregnant and George was gay. And the story unfolded from that place.

The collection is received some well-deserved praise and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Does this recognition change how you write? Do you feel more aware of an audience now?

I don’t know if I feel more aware of an audience now. I like to think that I’ve always thought a bit about readers as I’ve written and that hasn’t changed. I promised myself a few years ago to follow my ideas not what I think people think my ideas should be, so I’m going to keep doing that.

It’s always weird to work on a book in solitude then put it out for reviews – I think that might feel even more nerve wracking in the future. But I’m just going to bust my ass to put out the best book I can. I don’t especially like the first few weeks of a book’s life, it’s nerve wracking but it’s part of the work and must be borne.

What’s next for Nancy Jo Cullen? What projects are you working on currently and what can we expect over the next few years?

Well, I’m at work on a full-length fiction project. I’m about half way through and it’s still taking shape and I’m near the end of a poetry project. So hopefully in the next few years you’ll see both a new poetry collection and a full-length book that is likely connected short stories (I’m still playing with the form although I have a completed draft).


Canary is available now at bookstores near you. You can also find Nancy Jo online or on Twitter.