Spin master

Tara Bradbury
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Characters in Russell Wangersky's short story collection 'Whirl Away' have lives going out of control

Author and editor Russell Wangersky in his office at The Telegram. - Photo by Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

When we find something we're good at, a coping skill that works, we stick with it. It could be self-denial or a burying of emotions or the opposite, complete emotionality, but it's something we depend on to get us through all circumstances.

What happens when it all falls apart, when the shell cracks and what we've come to depend on no longer works?

In "Whirl Away," his latest collection of short stories, Russell Wangersky examines what happens when a person's own line of defence becomes their downfall, leaving them spinning out of control.

"Originally, I wanted to have a little thumbnail description of whirling dervishes, people who spin until they spin out of themselves," Wangersky said. "That's what I think of these characters as doing - they're in situations where they spin until they're finally, completely outside their comfort zone."

Some of Wangersky's characters are full of pathos; others are quite unlikeable. All are complex and absolutely broken.

There's Dennis, the caretaker of a run-down prairie amusement park; Tim, a paramedic on suspension with a dying patient strapped in a racing ambulance; and Paul, a travelling energy-drink salesman.

In "Echo," protagonist Kevin is five years old, repeating phrases he's heard his parents say in the heat of arguments.

"I think of that as sort of a nature-nurture story, in a way," Wangersky said. "He's so clearly parroting things he's heard and he's so clearly decided where he fits.

"A lot of my stories start from something I hear or something I see or something I pass by, and I heard a five-year-old say one sentence a year ago, and I thought, does he really believe that? Does he know what it means, and where does it come from?"

Wangersky's life experiences shaped other stories in the collection, too, particularly things he's come across during his career.

The Telegram's editorial page editor, Wangersky explained his story "Family Law" was inspired by the legal decisions from across the country and the U.K. he peruses online, often using them as the building blocks of editorials.

Others have been based on scraps of news or people's reactions to the news.

"Just the people who walk in or call in, and the things they have to tell you and the things that they believe, that they're convinced of beyond a shadow of a doubt, are really quite amazing," Wangersky said.

At least three stories in the book deal with emergency medical work, which Wangersky did in a former life as a volunteer firefighter.

As well as the paramedic's perspective, there's a story from a patient's point of view, and one is from the perspective of a witness, a guy who lives on a corner where there are regular accidents.

"I was really interested in the three different perspectives and have been all three of them myself," Wangersky said. "They're not necessarily thrown out of firefighting. They're just worlds I'm familiar with and because of the colours and smells and the brightness of the lights from emergency work, it does sort of stick in your mind as very descriptive, bright, strong points you can put your head back into very quickly."

Each of the stories were written as stand-alone pieces, and Wangersky's got at least another dozen finished but unpublished.

Wangersky's first collection of short stories, "The Hour of Bad Decisions," was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and was a Globe and Mail Top 100 choice in 2006. His 2008 book, "Burning Down the House," is an account of his experiences and own resulting trauma as a firefighter, and won numerous awards, as well as making the shortlist for the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

His first novel, "The Glass Harmonica" - incorporating 19 different points of view on the same events, not entirely unlike a short story collection - won the 2010 BMO Winterset Award and was longlisted for the Relit Awards.

Though he's currently working on another novel, Wangersky's heart perhaps tilts towards short stories. Readers' hearts might, too, if life wasn't moving so quickly in an age of constant updates.

Unlike a novel, which affords readers the ability to leave and come back, once you're involved in a short story, you're in until the end.

"Short stories should be getting really popular," he reckons. "The reason they haven't been as popular is that you can't turn your eyes away, you have to focus, as a reader, all the way through and I think that's something that our short attention spans are training us out of. Our minds wander. An email comes in, the phone rings, you get a text and you don't get to stay with every story all the way through with the same kind of concentration maybe you need to."

"Whirl Away," published by Thomas Allen, is $21.95 and will be available at bookstores today. Individual digital releases of each of the stories in the collection are also planned.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury


Organizations: Hour of Bad Decisions, Commonwealth Writers, Globe and Mail Trust Non

Geographic location: U.K.

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