Beware the harvest moon

Sheldon Birnie debuts short-story collection of Prairie peril

Sheldon Birnie’s new short story collection tells Manitoban tales about “ordinary people maneuvering extraordinary (and sometimes extraterrestrial) circumstances.”

Keeley Braunstein-Black

Paranoid pizza guys, alien-abducted golfers and cryptids galore ... is there anything more quintessentially Manitoban?

Winnipeg author and community journalist Sheldon Birnie partnered with independent, small press publisher Malarkey Books for, Where the Pavement Turns to Sand, an eclectic collection of short stories set in the Canadian Prairies.

“The setting certainly plays into it,” Birnie says. “For readers outside of Manitoba, it adds to the sense of mystery or wonder. It provides a different layer for folks who aren’t familiar with the area or nuance to those who are.”

The collection of 20 stories of varying lengths and subjects defies traditional genre labelling. The book touches on more mundane themes of Prairie ennui and reaches into the far corners of the galaxy – and nightmares.

“It’s not full-on genre fiction or anything, but it dabbles with some of that stuff,” Birnie says. “It straddles the line between gritty lit and some science-fiction elements and some horror elements. They run the gamut between some real micro or flash pieces to mid-length short stories.”

Despite his reluctance to adhere to one specific mold, Birnie cites the works of horror scribes Ray Bradbury and Stephen King as inspirations, among others, including “stuff I read in young adulthood like Ray Carver, some Bukowski. There’s an influence of Margaret Laurence, just on the way she wrote about Manitoba and the people.”

If the title rings familiar, it also has a Manitoban connection borrowed from acclaimed singer-songwriter and former Winnipeg resident Neil Young.

“I’m a big Neil Young fan ... I wouldn’t say there is a direct connection, but there’s kind of a vibe that is similar to his mid-to-late ’70s stuff,” he says. “Some of the Ditch Trilogy and doomy, burned-out-hippie-dream sort of vibe, where everything that maybe they thought was going to happen or promised didn’t really work out that way.”

Malarkey Books founder, editor and general one-man show Alan Good, who also works as an English teacher, says the press publishes stories across many genres, as long as they meet their rigorous standards. He describes Birnie as a household name in the local writing scene.

“I think if you’re in the indie/online writing world, you’re bound to run across him. I had passed on some of his other stuff, some stories and a different book, just because of space and time and budget,” he says.

“Alan is really committed to getting these works he believes in out. Offbeat kind of stuff is a hallmark of theirs, and I think this falls squarely in the mandate of what Malarkey is trying to do,” Birnie says.

And with Where the Pavement Turns to Sand acting as Malarkey’s flagship title for the end of the year, Good couldn’t be more pleased.

“It’s been a long year, and I can’t think of a better way to wrap up our publishing schedule for 2023 than with this little collection of ordinary people maneuvering extraordinary (and sometimes extraterrestrial) circumstances.”

Join Sheldon Birnie for the launch of Where the Pavement Turns to Sand on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers Grant Park for a short reading, conversation with the author and book signing.

Published in Volume 78, Number 06 of The Uniter (October 19, 2023)

Related Reads