First Things First: Early and Uncollected Stories by Diane Schoemperlen

Diane Schoemperlen is the award-winning author of twelve books of fiction and non-fiction. In 2016, she published is This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications regarding her relationship with a federal inmate serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Diane has lived in Kingston, Ontario, since 1986.

“When I read these early stories now, I can see myself slowly but surely finding my subject matter, my sense of humour, and my voice – finding myself on the page.”

Diane Schoemperlen

While Ms Schoemperlen has been a published author and one of Canada’s best-known writers of fiction, it was not until I came across This is Not My Life that I was introduced to her work. I would hazard to say that might be the case with many such readers, for that book of her memoirs put her on the national stage, introducing her to a new audience.
Now we have First Things First from Biblioasis who has performed a great service to readers like me who now want to get to know her fiction-writing skills. It is a handsome book, 300 pages containing 24 short stories (including her first published story from 1974) and an insightful Preface by Ms Schoemperlen. Some of these stories have never been published until now.

The Schoemperlen Experience

One fact you will notice from this collection is that Ms Schoemperlen has employed different forms and methodologies of storytelling over the years. One quite interesting one was “An Evening in Two Voices” from 1977. It begins:

Months and months after that evening, I have ways of remembering it. Special ways, my own ways, which end up being always the only ways.

The story is told from the perspective of two voices: Estelle, who is telling the story, and her friend Doreen, who recalls a different version of events than Estelle (perhaps the correct version!).

Partway through the story Estelle states (or sighs):

I don’t see much of Doreen anymore. We can’t seem to agree on anything lately.

That’s an example of the type of subtle humour Ms Schoemperlen employs in her writing. Another is “The Gate” told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old travelling with her parents to a relative’s house in a small town:

We’ve already been driving for two hours and the windshield is covered with bug guts. I think I can smell them.

Soon, the sign for Mapleside appears:

The residents of Mapleside, all 816 of them (that’s what the next sign says), have always seemed old to me, sand-coloured and dull. Even their babies looked used.

As I read through all of the stories (it took some time, for I don’t like to read through collections like this too fast; I prefer to savour each story) I noticed that Ms Schoemperlen is a very precise writer; each of her words appear carefully chosen, each sentence having a distinct straightforwardness to it.

Other notable stories are “Life Sentences” wherein the reader gets to fill in blank spaces in sentences, “True or False” where events either did or did not happen, “She Wants to Tell Me” where the storyteller is conversing with her guest and also having a conversation with the voices in her head, and the multiple choice story, “None of the Above”.

However, my favourite story is “How Myrna Survives” a (semi-autobiographical?) story about a woman, Myrna Lillian Waxman, a thirty-two-year-old aspiring writer living in a place that sounds a lot like Kingston (my hometown and where Ms Schoemperlen currently calls home).

Against all odds, Myrna is a writer, and every morning, to prime the pump, she likes to read a few chapters of some book good enough to be inspiring, but not so good as to induce paralysis with its shameless brilliance.

These are just some of the highlights from First Things First that I particularly enjoyed. There’s a lot to like about this collection. The stories themselves are timeless, meaning that although they were written over a span of 16 years (1974 to 1990), there’s still a freshness to them, due in part to Ms Schoemperlen’s crisp writing style and her use of different storytelling modalities. First Things First will be added to the 2018 Longlist for The Very Best! Book Awards.

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