Q & A: Jennifer Falkner (Above Discovery)

“Falkner’s stories are dark, transportive, and intimately detailed character studies. Her expansive interest in history is apparent, ingrained in the minutiae of each fiction [wherein] looking backward, the constraints of the past are unexpectedly and undeniably revealed as intertwined with those of the present. …[An] exciting debut.”

—Quill & Quire, Starred Review

This spring, we published, Above Discovery, the debut short story collection from Ottawa writer Jennifer Falkner. We love Jen’s spare, elegant prose. If you’re looking for a summer read, Above Discovery is a dreamy tour through time, making stops in the Gold Rush, Shakespeare’s England, Dickens’ London, Ancient Greece, and more. Each story is short enough that you can treat yourself on a workbreak, or while minding the kids at the splash pad, or taking a moment to yourself in the morning before the rest of the day unfolds. You might even finish some of these stories before your ice cream cone melts!

We chatted with Jen about early reviews, when she first became curious about history, and what future-Jen would write about our current times. Enjoy!

Invisible Publishing: Your debut short story collection, Above Discovery, received a starred review in Quill & Quire and another rave review from Toronto Star. How does it feel?

Jennifer Falkner: Incredibly gratifying! Not just because it was a favourable review (who doesn’t like stars?), but because I felt my intention had been understood. People are always constrained by the broader historical period they live in and, in these stories, I wanted to look at the particular intimate details of individual’s lives that can be the result of broader historical forces. Once you’re in the habit of examining history with that lens, it becomes easier to see the forces that affect our lives now.

IP: The stories in this collection are set across historical periods, from the Gold Rush to Shakespeare’s England, Dickens’ London to Ancient Greece. What ties these stories together for you?

JF: They really come from my various reading obsessions. But of course, now it’s easy to stand back and see that what all these periods have in common is that they are all moments of intense cultural change. And we’re always having to learn how to deal with change. So I was probably grappling with that, too.

IP: Do you have an early memory in which you first realized you were drawn to other time periods?

JF: I remember when I was little being allowed to stay up after my bedtime, as long as I was quiet, so Mum could watch an episode of Pride and Prejudice on PBS. I snuggled into her side and watched the women in pretty dresses, thrilled about staying up so late. It was a process of osmosis. My parents enjoyed a lot of period dramas. Adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. I, Claudius. Jeeves and Wooster. Honestly, PBS is responsible for a lot. And of course, the fact that my mother completed a PhD in Classics when I was in junior high. She always had a strong interest in history, encompassing many periods, and that was certainly reflected in the books in our house and the kinds of conversations we would have.

IP: You have degrees in ancient history. Why are you drawn to fiction writing as opposed to non-fiction?

JF: When I was in university, I was drawn to social history. I wanted to know what people ate, how they made their clothes, what medicines were available to them. With fiction, I can try to imagine what it actually felt like to live in those worlds. I’m undoubtedly wrong a lot. It’s impossible to crawl into the mind of someone from another era. There are too many assumptions we take with us, as much as we try to shake them off. But it’s a lot of fun trying. In another life, I would have loved to have been an experimental archaeologist.

“The twelve exquisite, elegant stories that make up Above Discovery navigate the liminal territory between reality and dream, life and death, the past and the present in a way that feels utterly fresh and enchanting.…[A] literary performance that soars.”

Toronto Star

IP: When many readers think of historical fiction, they imagine a long, immersive, singular experience. Some of the stories in Above Discovery are just a few pages in length. Tell us more about what attracts you to short narratives.

JF: Just that. That they’re short! These stories were written over a six- or seven-year period, when family, school, and work demanded a lot of time and attention. With a short story, you have to get in and get out again quickly. It’s about finding the most relevant and revealing details. The detail that sometimes cracks a story or a character wide open.

"Hey, Philo," he says to me one day, leaning over my work so his shadow obscures the leather handle I am struggling to fix to the inside of the shield. Hektor has skimped on materials again and the leather is brittle, unyielding. My fingers are sore from wrestling with it. "What colour would you call that?" he asks, pointing upward.

"Call what? The sky, you mean?"

"I dunno. Sky-coloured, I guess." Niko’s breath smells like onions. I try to breathe through my mouth until he leans again over his own work. He’s supposed to be polishing the thin bronze layer that covers the wood, polishing so it catches the sun and blinds the enemy with its light.

IP: Open Book has shared one of the stories in this collection, “A Word to Describe the Sky”. In it, an Ancient Greek artisan’s world is turned upside down when his village is conquered. It’s just four pages, yet the story is so expansive, in part because your characters ask questions about the colour of the sky or how one might describe the sea. Does philosophy play into these stories?

JF: That particular story began with two ideas: a troublesome, gadfly-like character who was a bit of a dreamer and could not let an idea go, and the fact that there was no commonly-used word for “blue” in Ancient Greek. From there, it developed into the question about how words inform what we see or how we understand the world. Generally, I think the story and the characters come first. Then, it becomes apparent that there are philosophical or thematic questions being asked.

IP: Looking into the future, what do you think Jen Falkner will write about our current time in history?

JF: I’ve already tried writing a pandemic story, but it is still too close. Whatever it is, the changing climate will play a large role. The great reckoning that everyone, for the next century and more, must deal with. It has to be the backdrop, spoken or unspoken, for much of the literature to come in the next decade.

Jennifer Falkner lives in Ottawa, on the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg First Nation. She has degrees in ancient history, and currently works as a library technician. Her stories have won the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story competition, the Retreat West Short Story Contest, and the Little Bird Short Story Contest. She is the author of the novella Susanna Hall, Her Book, inspired by the life of Shakespeare’s daughter. Above Discovery is her debut short story collection (Invisible Publishing). Find out more at www.jenniferfalkner.ca.

Ottawa Event: Tuesday, June 27, 6:30 to 8:00 PM, join us at Perfect Books (258A Elgin St.) for the hometown launch of Above Discovery. With special guests Frances Boyle and Cameron Anstee!

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