Whistler ears will be the first to hear short stories from author Bill Gaston's new collection, Juliet Was a Surprise.
Although the book comes out on June 11, he will be cracking it open a little earlier here as part of the Points of Departure Reading Series.
"I just got the first copy of it. Whistler will be the first reading, the first launch," Gaston says from his office in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Victoria.
Short prose tumbles out of Gaston with more ease than larger projects, he says.
"I get a little idea or some idea will occur to me, and I just do it. It's not a huge commitment of time, or anything like that. It doesn't take hold of your life, it just takes hold for a couple of weeks, not even that. It's not the same kind of commitment at all," he says.
"There's not a theme. I had enough short stories to make a book. That's the way it always works, 'Oh geez, look at that, I have a dozen already!'"
Gaston's most recent short-story collection, Gargoyles, was nominated for the Governor General's Award and won the ReLit Award and the City of Victoria Butler Prize. His previous collection, Mount Appetite, was a finalist for the Giller Prize. His latest novel, The World, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
His reading takes place at Millennium Place on Friday, May 23, alongside Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady, and Pemberton author Katherine Fawcett. The event is a collaboration between the Whistler Writers Festival and The Point Artist-Run Centre.
Gaston, a veteran of the reading series, says he is "fascinated by certain kinds of charismatically dysfunctional people" and this is what he tries to explore.
"What makes me willing to put them into fiction is that in a short story I just don't spend that much time with them. I wouldn't want to spend 300 pages with them, that would be 'ugh,' nor would a reader. But I am happy to explore them for 20 pages," he says.
"I wouldn't mind spending five minutes within shouting distance of Charlie Manson, for instance, though I wouldn't want to spend a week around him. That idea."
Was it something from his own life that attracted him to these people, or was it because these people are interesting?
"I'm attracted to outsider types, well... maybe not even outsider types. All people have quirks, some are just a little more neon than others," Gaston says.
As a practicing Buddhist, Gaston says these slightly dysfunctional characters are worth exploring.
"It sounds corny, but there is essential goodness going on that we all share. I like to try to get to the heart of that," he says. "It's not really a puzzle, it's more about unearthing what makes them worth spending time with, where there's a worthiness. The obvious example is a murderer; is there still something worth salvaging or worth knowing? They could still be good people. I don't blame people wanting to turn away from that, but I don't write about monsters."
Gaston has been the chair of the Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria four and a half years but it comes to an end in little over a month.
And what is he doing after that?
"Not being chair, really happily!" he says, brightly. "It's not my kettle of fish or cup of tea. What I liked about it the most is that I could meet with a lot of students who have problems and I could help them. I would get to cut some corners or red tape sometimes and help them do stuff that the needed to do. It was nice to have that authority to give them a break."
He will be spending more time in the classroom.
"It's mostly workshops... the whole thing. It's a very specialized thing. We have a writing department and there's no one else in it, writing majors that's it."
Gaston has had a varied writing path – poetry, playwriting, short stories and fiction.
"I have mostly written fiction, though. I produced a couple of plays and wrote one book of poems. The poetry came from very early in my career. I probably haven't written a poem in 20 years," he says.
He's also done well with creative non-fiction and that is the genre for his next project.
"I'm actually branching out at the moment, more into non-fiction. I've got one non-fiction book out, Midnight Hockey, kind of a goofy book. But it did pretty well."
His new non-fiction book, called Night Bite, is due out early next year.
"I hate calling it a memoir because it makes it sound like it's about me and it's really not. It's about an aspect of what I do. It's about my father and grandfather and fishing, drinking, family dysfunction — the usual screwed-up family kind of history. I'm almost finished that."
Tickets for the Points of Departure Reading Series are $20 can be purchased online at www.whistlerreadersandwritersfestival.com.