York grad wins RBC Bronwen Wallace Award

When York grad Kilby Smith-McGregor (BA Hons. ’09) was scribbling away in her Intro to Creative Writing course, trying to make a go of writing fiction after years in theatre, she never imagined her first story would one day win a literary prize, but that is exactly what has happened.

“The Bird in Hand”, which Smith-McGregor says has gone through major editing since she first penned it – “I kept tweaking it over the years” – recently won the Writers’ Trust of Canada RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, for writers under 35 who have yet to be published in book form. The judges described it as a story about “a girl assured of a golden future by her acceptance to Oxford [who] discovers that being her father’s daughter confers responsibilities as well as privileges" and called it "a beautifully crafted story that deftly suggests a world and a life beyond its few pages.”

The award is worth a cool $5,000, a nice perk for a working student. Smith-McGregor has just finished her first year in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph-Humber, having graduated from York in the spring of 2009.

Right: Kilby Smith-McGregor. Photo by Laura Jane Petelko.

But it’s not the money or even the recognition and confirmation that has this York alumna so excited. It’s what the award could do for her future. “It was amazing – a huge shot in the arm – and all I could think of was when I have a first manuscript for a book that this will really help me.” What winning awards doesn’t do, she says, is “change our own relationship with the writing.”

That relationship is a tenuous one for a self-described neurotic, hyper-sensitive soul sometimes lacking in self-confidence – the scourge of most writers. She’s learning to navigate the relationship. “I’m trying to be more comfortable with the uncertainties of the writing process.” Writing, she says, “is a tentative act of trying to make connections, constellations, between points deep inside ourselves and points deep inside other people."

Smith-McGregor almost didn’t enter the competition for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award, but after several trusted friends and mentors encouraged her, she finally did. It’s interesting, she says, that it was the first story she started while at York “because I’ve obviously written a lot of stuff since.”

A compulsive editor of her own work, she says, “I was editing it up to the last minute. I think it’s exactly at the limit for the word count. I had to keep tinkering with that.” After working in theatre, writing plays, as a dramaturge and a script coordinator, and receiving the inaugural Urjo Kareda Residency Grant for an Emerging Artist at the Tarragon Theatre, Smith-McGregor says, “I never completely felt like I finished a play. Now I understand you’re never really done with anything, but at some point you just have to let it go.”

Her recent short story “Fluorescence”, the first piece she feels is actually finished – no more editing required – was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Brick, A Literary Journal, after what Smith-McGregor calls a "rewarding and intense editorial process.” It’s a huge accomplishment. Her piece rubs up against work by established writers such as Catherine Bush, Charlotte Gray, Lynn Coady and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer.

Leaving the urge to constantly edit aside, Smith-McGregor’s writing has appeared in the Dublin Quarterly International Literary Review and The Cyclops Review. She has also won awards as a student at York – the President’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry and the Sylvia Ellen Hersch Memorial Award, both in 2009, and the Sorbara Award in Creative Writing in 2008.

Writing fiction and poetry is a second career for Smith-McGregor, who thought at the age of seven when she went to see a performance of Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well that she would spend her life in the theatre. “I was so enamoured with the language,” she says.

Her affair with language continues, however. “I’ve always been super languagey.” It’s not the plot she’s necessarily thinking about, it’s the language and form. What can she leave out? What can be said in-between words? What kind of pressure can she bring to bear on a single phrase, a single moment?

She credits her teachers at York for further igniting her passion for writing. “I think it’s the strength of the program to have the kind of mix of teachers it has. I learned something different from each of them.”

And although writing is her main drive, she can imagine herself as a teacher one day, inspiring other young writers to grasp hold of their potential and work it, as others have done for her.

But for now, she is “all over the short story”, wanting to “push the boundaries” and weave in her nascent leaning toward poetry. “It’s about exploring impulses. This is the thing I need to be doing right now.”

To hear Smith-McGregor reading from her winning short story “The Bird in Hand”, visit the Authors Aloud Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer