Laytonest of the Best, Pt. II

The Link Chats With the Finalists for the Irving Layton Prize for Fiction

Graphic Sylvain Côté

“The main character grabs his unconscious friend and throws him in a car, making a run for the hospital.”

That’s how Skyler Radojkovic—one of five finalists for the Irving Layton Award for Fiction, along with Leesa Dean, Gleb Wilson, Jaime Bastien and Heather Davidson—describes the opening scene of his nominated story, “Radiator.” The story, which he admitted to having written “mostly in my kitchen, listening to some country songs over and over, talking out loud and trying to act out some of the scenes,” grew from a single scene he’d been visualizing for a while—“a man driving a car fast at night, fleeing some kind of violence, terrified that a friend on the seat beside him is going to die.”

Later, a conversation with his brother about a childhood classmate of his who had turned to stealing radiators in order to re-sell the scrap metal provided him with a suitably dramatic endeavour to spur his two main characters to flee a scene.

Radojkovic described the final product, which begins with the car scene and progresses backwards through flashbacks, thusly: “In […] rural Ontario, a guy’s old friend calls him up to ask for help in getting rid of some stolen auto parts. Against his better judgment, he goes along and they end up in a situation where the friend gets beaten over the head with a shovel by a drunken trailer owner.”

Fellow nominee Leesa Dean’s story, “The Three of Us,” however, was a little less simple to produce.

“It started out as a sketch for a longer project or possibly for a screenplay, but has since been scaled back to short story length,” said Dean.

The story, as with most of her work, grew from a real situation—in this case, looking back on the life of a recently deceased aunt.

“She was very much like the Aunt Debbie in my story,” said Dean. “She was our ‘fun’ aunt, but she was also an addict. For many years, she was able to be a model parent while using, but eventually it caught up with her.”

In “The Three of Us,” a family goes on a road trip to Arizona for Christmas break, unaware that their mother is “planning to abandon the family and move to India.” Staying in Arizona with Debbie, the children are blissfully unaware of their aunt’s addiction to pharmaceuticals.

Dean sums it up as being “both a story about a young girl’s struggle to find a role model and a portrayal of the difficulties some women have fitting into traditional patterns of domesticity.”

Dean’s story wasn’t the only one on the shortlist dealing with familial issues. Gleb Wilson, with his story “Pintele Yid”, chose to explore “the ideological, spiritual and personal conflicts of a father and son.” Structured around their shared Jewish faith, “Pintele Yid,” which is Yiddish for “Jewish spark,” functions both as “a critique and celebration of the Jewish spirit.”

Rather than being more personal, it was a story whose writing required extensive research.

“I had been thinking about it for a few weeks,” said Wilson, “and when I sat down it came out fairly easily.” No mean feat, considering he wrote it in early February “the night before it was due for one of [his] classes.”

Jaime Bastien’s story also tackles father-son relations, but adds a grandfather to the mix. “Bait,” which he wrote three years ago after being inspired by the window display of a then-fishing supplies shop on Bernard Street, tells the tale of a man, his son and his father as their fishing trips are tested by the child’s fascination with rubber bait rather than the actual act of fishing. Narrated by Dave, the now-grown bait-lover, the story finds him attempting to “justify his behaviour by drawing connections between himself and his father,” and ends with a “violent […] incident that apparently ends his fascination with the bait.”

Heather Davidson’s story, “Circus Girls,” was also born of memories. “Years ago, it was spring in Vancouver and a lady at the counter of a Salvation Army store was telling the cashier that in Brazil it would be Carnival time,” she said. “And for some reason I never forgot about her.”

Written after Davidson picked up a copy of the Spring 2010 issue of The Paris Review from a recycling box in the Mile End and took inspiration from an interview with Ray Bradbury, the story also incorporates a thematic element from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

“I’ve always loved the end […],” said Davidson. “With its idea about the fat lady listening to her radio and how she’s God, she’s who you perform for. The girl in my story realizes we put on an act to survive, wear masks and costumes. Desperation having a kind of beauty.”

Kate Sterns, juror for the Fiction Award and an associate professor in Concordia’s English department, waxed philosophical about the process of selecting a winner.

“Jurors are often asked what they look for in a winning story,” she said. “The fact is, it is less about what we look for and more about what we find: a compelling character or two; a situation that is both specific to those characters and yet somehow rings true to what we have experienced (or might experience someday);

language that is deft, economical, precise; details that make us, as we should, look at a familiar object as if we had never seen it before.”

The winner of the Irving Layton Award for Fiction will be announced at a ceremony honouring the English Undergraduate awards winners at 2:00 p.m. in LB-646 on March 25.