Coach House Books asks Heather Birrell a few things about I Know You Are But What Am I?

CH: What childhood taunt did you get that made you respond 'I know you are but what am I?'?

HB: Oh, any number of insulting, imbecilic (but no less hurtful) combinations. You’re a stupidhead, fag-face, dumbass, fartnut, girly-girl … As a retort, ‘I know you are but what am I?’ is not particularly effective, as it tends to perpetuate the name-calling, but it buys a bit of time. As a title for the collection, I was trying to get at not only the taunt-like aspect of the phrase, but also its circularity and uncertainty. We often define ourselves against not only those closest to us but also those most unlike or antagonistic to us. This can be the case for individuals, groups of people and even whole countries.

CH: The short story often gets treated like the runt of the literary litter. Do you have any taunts to defend it? Any more sophisicated retorts?

HB: Oh, yeah? Well, some of my best friends are short stories. Truly. There’s something about a character or a mood in a short story that stays with me in a much more intimate and lasting way than most novels. I suppose in some ways short stories – with their tendency to shun neat resolutions and linearity in favour of a build-up of scenes and images – can make readers work a little harder, but I could say the same for my most worthwhile and meaningful friendships.

CH: Your stories often depict characters on the cusp of some understanding, but you always stop just short of being didactic and handing them to us on a silver platter. This is a subtle thing -- how do you manage it? Is understanding a quick flash or a slow unfolding?

HB: I think stories, and especially more traditional short stories, get some flak for always tackling the ‘oh-so-subtle epiphany.’ But the thing about epiphanies is … they’re always new! We’re all big amnesiacs when it comes to our own lives. It always amazes me how I can be certain I’ve figured something out – how to truly listen to my mother, be fair to my friends, stand up for what I believe in, fix the showerhead, mourn people and places I’ve lost, love my husband in real-time – and months, weeks, days, later, these challenges will come roaring back, and I will have NO IDEA how to overcome them. Not that we don’t learn from our mistakes and missteps, but it does seem we’re always integrating something slightly new. The very nature of the personal epiphany is that it’s both hard-earned and fleeting, and that’s what I try to capture. The short story is the perfect venue for these kinds of moments – it doesn’t demand a sweeping narrative arc,and it allows an access to a character’s consciousness that is often difficult to sustain in a longer piece of writing.

CH: How do you decide whether to tell a story from a more intimate first-person perspective or from a moreomniscient third-person voice?

HB: I’m not sure I consciously decide. I think for a long time I was scared of first-person narratives because they seem so, well, naked – there’s no curtain to hide behind, no levers to pull from above. But if you can really lock into a voice, there’s also a wonderful freedom to the first person, you’re not as constrained by the stage direction required by a third-person voice, and you get to fully inhabit your protagonist. On the other hand, with third person, you can choose to be as omniscient or intimate as you like, and there are ways of cheating the convention that give you some leeway.

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Meet the kleptomaniacs, convicts, roof-walkers and homicidal hippies who make up the cast of Heather Birrell's extraordinary short story collection.
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