When Krzysztof Pelc was announced as the winner of the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize yesterday, no one was most surprised than Pelc himself. “It was a bit of a shocker,” he told the Reporter mere hours after getting the good news. “The origin of the word ‘dumbfounded’ is ‘dumb’ and ‘confounded’… It was a bit of both.”
Pelc’s story, Green Velvet, was picked ahead of more than 3,000 entries. The award comes with $6,000 in prize money from the Canada Council for the Arts and a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. His story will also be published by CBC Books.
Of course, having his work – albeit of a distinctly more academic kind – appear in print is nothing new for Pelc. The William Dawson Scholar and an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Pelc has authored articles that have appeared in publications from the British Journal of Political Science and the Journal of Conflict Resolution to the Washington Post and the Literary Review of Canada. An expert in international political economy, Pelc focuses on international rules – “that strange thing that happens when governments put constraints on their behaviour,” he says.
Scribbling on the side
But while this may be Pelc’s coming out party as a fiction writer, it is certainly not a new endeavour. “Literature is the great passion of my life. Social science is my academic pursuit and my work but the thing that really gets me more excited than anything has always been literature, even as a kid,” he says. “I’ve always scribbled on the side.”
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Pelc grew up in Quebec and has lived in Montreal since 2010. Growing up as a Francophone, Pelc tried his hand at writing fiction in English a few years ago. “Funnily enough, it has proven to be very liberating,” he says. “I don’t feel as self-conscious in English precisely because it’s not my mother tongue. I feel freer.”
With that linguistic background, it isn’t surprising that the first work of fiction Pelc ever submitted explored the theme language. The Duolect made the shortlist of the CBC Short Story Prize in 2017. Switching back to his mother tongue in 2018, Pelc’s Les bonnes réponses made the longlist in the French competition that year. “This year I guess I got lucky,” he says with a chuckle.
Organizers of the CBC contest would probably say that luck has little to do with Pelc’s success.
The initial pool of more than 3,000 submissions for the 2019 contest was culled by a team of writers and editors from across Canada. Once that longlist was created, a jury comprised of writers Esi Edugyan, Iain Reid and Lisa Moore selected five titles for the shortlist and, finally, naming Pelc’s story as the winner.
“Told in clear, confident prose, Green Velvet is an elegant, beautifully-shaped story, lit with a wry humour that tilts unpredictably to melancholy. It’s full of whimsy and insight,” the jury said in a statement. “The chesterfield around which the plot twists – up the staircase, by rigid corners, tight spots and thresholds – into this family’s new life is, by turns, a symbol of hope and one of doubt that eats away from the inside. The voice perfectly captures the desire for belonging, and all the ways such a desire can go unexpectedly wrong.”
While it makes for a good storyline, Pelc denies any sort left brain/right brain power struggle between the scholar and fiction writer. No Jekyll and Hyde dramatics. “It might be tempting to think of it as flipping a switch and doing something very different but, if anything, I think they are actually very complementary,” he says. “Fiction is an exercise in persuasion and drawing people in to the story. I think the same can be said for academic writing. I always tell my graduate students the same thing – come up with a good puzzle that gets people to say ‘Oh gee, I wonder why?’
Pelc says today’s scholars understand more than ever the value of a well-crafted story, as they compete for readers in a market that is saturated. “If anything, there is a recognition among scientists, social scientists and academics that we are in the business of telling really good stories,” he says. “We’re up against people who are no longer bound by truth and who, themselves, tell a good story. Not only do we have a need to tell our stories well, we have a responsibility.”
Pelc’s training as an academic has proven to be a great benefit for his fiction. Unlike many notable authors who have struggled mightily with writer’s block – everyone from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Truman Capote – Pelc suffers from no such frustrations.
“One very good thing about being an academic is that you don’t wait until inspiration strikes to write about Chapter 19 of NAFTA. You get into the routine of sitting down and writing,” he says. “I do the same with my fiction. When I have time – and that’s the challenge given that I also write for a living as an academic – I do it in the morning before my wife gets up and the day gets started.
“This award is tremendously encouraging and I’d like to be able to continue doing both things, using my early mornings to scribble on the side.”