Michelle Berry is an award-winning author of three books of short stories and six novels. She is also the owner of indie bookstore Hunter Street Books in Peterborough, Ontario. Hunter Street Books caters to every taste, stocking works of literary fiction, non-fiction, Canadian writing, Indigenous writing, poetry, art books, graphic novels, historical writing, memoir and a selective children’s and YA section. Michelle creates wonderful “book bouquets” and is an advocate of local authors.
First, a question about your own writing: what is the difference between writing short stories and writing longer works of fiction?
Michelle Berry: The size, ha ha. Short stories are challenging because you always have to think up a new beginning, a new character, a new plot. Novels are slightly easier (that’s an understatement) as you have something that you settle in with — something larger to explore and study. Both are challenging but fun.
What does a writer need to keep in mind, when drafting a short story that will captivate the reader?
MB: Start with a bang. It’s important to grab your reader immediately. Make sure everything points towards the theme/subject/plot — don’t have any unnecessary stuff in there — edit until you are so sick of the story that you have to let it go.
As the owner of an indie bookstore, have you noticed any trends in the types of books or genres that customers are looking for?
MB: I have a specially curated store — so I don’t have any genre writing, etc. I stock books that are literary and brilliantly written — that can be read for entertainment but that stick with you long after you’ve put the book down. I’m amazed at how smart my customers are — and how willing they are to take a chance on a book. I think it’s interesting that people don’t come to Indies for the bestsellers but instead come to Indie-stores for the personal recommendations and for the books they normally wouldn’t see anywhere else.
The question on every writer’s mind is, what sells? Which title did you sell the most copies of in 2018?
MB: Funnily: my own book, Prisoner and Chaplain, was the best seller of 2018 — because I’m here, customers can get it signed and chat to me about it, etc. [I have] very supportive customers. Books that are on CBC radio sell well here, as do the Indigenous titles. But nothing is really a “bestseller” — the books here are eclectic — and we only have one or two of each. It’s common to have a lot of online orders and ordering of books at the store when customers come in. I have educated and thoughtful customers who know what they want.
Under “Michelle’s Picks” on your website, you list works by Marisha Pessl and Amy McKay, amongst others. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is also one of my favourites. What do you look for in a good book?
MB: I look for really fine writing, something that sucks me in immediately. I look for humour (dry humour is my favourite). I like interesting characters who make me want to follow them. I like twists and turns in stories - stories that keep me on my toes. I want to be entertained but also enlightened.
If you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
MB: Make sure you read a lot. Many of my students have said they don’t read and that just makes me shake my head — if you don’t read — and I mean read deeply, read as a writer, look for what makes you think, look for what makes you lose yourself in a book and then ask yourself what the writer did to cause that — if you don’t read you might as well give up. Be an educated writer, think about what came before, what other authors have opened up for you. Be grateful for other writing and read it.
Thank you for the lovely interview, Michelle!
Michelle Berry’s latest novel is titled, The Prisoner and the Chaplain.
About Vanessa Westermann
Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.