Theresa Ann Wallace – OOE Resident Wins 2020 National Capital Short Story Competition

Lori Gandy

In this interview, The Mainstreeter’s Lori Gandy “sat down” virtually with Theresa Ann Wallace, a long-time resident of Old Ottawa East, who was recently selected as the winner of the 2020 National Capital Writing Competition (short story category) presented by the National Capital Region (NCR) branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA). In the interview, Wallace talks about her award, her winning short story, Water, Fire, Air, and her writing aspirations. She also describes the unique awards ceremony conducted virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic by the NCR branch of the CAA which was suspenseful enough to leave her “a nervous wreck”!

The Mainstreeter: First of all, Theresa, what was your reaction when you learned you had won the 2020 National Capital Writing Competition for your short story Water, Fire, Air?

Photo by Ross Dance

Photo by Ross Dance

Wallace: I felt very encouraged. I worked really hard on that story. Short story writing is harder than any other sort of writing I have done. I didn’t understand when I started out that you have to be brave, and even braver to do it well, which I usually fail at. One of my teachers said our subconscious mind is a lot smarter than our conscious mind, and it is our subconscious mind that we bring to creative writing, and that takes us places that are surprising, not always comfortable—that are sometimes quite dark. But the adventure is worth being on.

The Mainstreeter: Have you had a lifelong interest in writing?

Wallace: I always wanted to be a writer, although I had only a vague notion of what kind of writing I wanted to do. I got an English degree and moved to Ottawa to go to journalism school, then joined the federal government as a writer/editor. After the first of our three children was born, I had this idea I could have a career working at home as a freelance researcher, writer and editor. So, I did that. Later on, I added in some magazine writing just for fun, particularly for sports magazines—mostly Triathlon Magazine Canada and Canadian Running Magazine.

The Mainstreeter:How long have you been writing short stories?

Wallace: When I was a kid, I started making up stories and poems, as all kids do, but I forgot about all that at some point.
Six years ago, I almost died when tendrils of scar tissue from my three caesareans strangled my small intestines. then I woke up in the recovery room, the surgeon told me he was not sure if the emergency surgery removing several feet of my intestines had been a success. That night, I looked out my window in the intensive care unit and tried to make sense of what had just happened. I realized I’d had a wonderful life but felt a tiny twinge of regret that I’d never pursued creative writing. That fall, I started to get serious about learning how to write short stories and disengaged from most of my other freelance pursuits. What helped me very much in this learning process was taking a great CAG (OOE Community Activities Group) course at the Old Town Hall taught by Suzanne Nussey, who has lived right around the corner from me for decades, but we didn’t really know each other. Suzanne is an award-winning poet and memoir writer, and now we are friends.

The Mainstreeter: Have you taken any other writing courses or workshops that have helped your writing?

Wallace: I’ve taken fiction-writing courses at the Banff Centre and at Sage Hill Writing in rural Saskatchewan. Both writing schools were terrific, especially since they gave me an opportunity to be with other fiction writers, as I didn’t know many fiction writers back then. And of course, the settings – Banff and rural Saskatchewan – were beautiful. Now, in part thanks to these courses, I have writer friends who live in other parts of the country. I’ve been so proud of them when the writing they were toiling over in our workshops has been published. In some of my writing courses there have been women whose sole objective is to write family stories for their children and grandchildren to read and remember them by. They think it should be a straightforward task until they start gathering the so-called facts. Their descriptions of their research, and how each person in the same room recalls an event differently, are always fun to hear, and so educational about the fallibility of memory and the tricks it plays on us.

The Mainstreeter: You have won other awards for your writing – fiction and non-fiction. Can you talk a bit about these previous awards?

Wallace: I was the runner-up in the 2015 Ottawa Magazine short fiction contest. I also won the Capital Crime Writers short story contest a few years ago and this award was presented by Louise Penny—that was a thrill—during an Ottawa Writers Fest event at Southminster United Church across from my favourite library.

The Mainstreeter: Given the COVID-19 situation, what kind of “ceremony” was organized to recognize the winners of the 2020 competition?

Wallace: There was a National Capital Writing Awards Zoom ceremony in May organized by the National Capital Region branch of the Canadian Authors Association. I just joined the association in January, and I did not know any of the people, but they did a really good job making it feel special for participants despite the pandemic. The President, Arlene Smith, was a great MC. She announced the top ten poetry winners, starting with the poem that placed tenth, then the top ten short story winners from tenth to first as well. It was very suspenseful. The judges also spoke, and each person got to speak for a minute about their story. My name was announced last and by that time I was a nervous wreck. I believe the substance of my remarks involved complimenting the fiction judge on the bright colours of her cooking pots that were displayed behind her in the Zoom call.

The Mainstreeter: I’d like to turn to the story itself, which contains a dark and disturbing theme, foregrounded by the protagonist’s guilt, violence unleashed on the innocent, a family gone wrong. Where did the idea for this story come from?

Wallace: My father was in the Canadian army and we moved a lot. At a crucial point in my childhood, we lived on an army base in Winnipeg. I loved it. There was a community of kids running in packs on the streets and the base had fantastic athletic facilities, which we got to use for free. My dad was a soldier and an instructor on the rifle ranges, so he was obsessive about gun safety. The characters just came to me. My story is completely fabricated, but I do remember hating the popping noise made by my older brothers’ air rifles and not feeling good about my father’s real rifle being in our basement. What I brought to this dark story about the consequences of living in a closed society where there’s a gun in almost every house may have been some of those long-forgotten childhood fears.

The Mainstreeter: What writing projects do you have on the go now?

Wallace: I am trying to write another short story set on an army base in the 1960s. But I am having a hard time writing during this pandemic.

To support the CAA and read the works of local winners of this year’s poetry and fiction contest, you can purchase a copy of 20/20 Vision: Select Poems and Stories from the 33rd Annual National Capital Writing Contest for $12 through Amazon. Follow this link on the National Capital Region’s part of the CAA website at http://canadianauthors.org/nationalcapitalregion/contests/ to the relevant page on Amazon to purchase 20/20 Vision.

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