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Almost all of Armin Wiebe's idiosyncratic Mennonite novels and plays began life as short stories.

So it is somewhat ironic that after a 37-year writing career -- during which he has been applauded for his humorous 1984 breakthrough novel The Salvation of Yasch Siemens and his romantic folk play The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz -- the Winnipegger is celebrating the publication of his first collection of short stories, called Armin's Shorts (Turnstone Press).

Armin Wiebe

Armin Wiebe

"What seems to happen is that I write a short story and it wants to grow," says Wiebe, a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher. "You start with something small."

One of the 25 pieces from his new 300-page book, to be launched 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3 at McNally Robinson Booksellers, was first published in 1978. Included are also a couple of Yasch Siemens stories that weren't written in time to be worked into the popular novel about the quirky inhabitants of the fictional Mennonite community of Gutenthal.

"The Salvation of Yasch Siemens originally was meant to be a collection of short stories," Wiebe says during an interview this week. "They were linked, but I had never thought of them as a novel. When (writer) David Arnason told me they would work better as a novel, I started thinking of myself as a novelist."

That designation didn't stop him from penning a new short story, which grew into Murder in Gutenthal and later into The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst. It was a hilarious story called And Besides God Made Poison Ivy that became the basis for his debut stage work, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, which premièred at Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2011.

Wiebe had been wanting to gather his best "little fictions," as he calls his stories, many of which had been published decades ago in obscure publications. Occasionally, he would read a portion of one for a public event, after which audience members would badger him to find out what happened. The Altona-born Wiebe thought there was value in having all his stories in one book.

"I hope that people will see the growth of a writer," says the 1979 University of Manitoba graduate. "I see the similarities and the differences of my early writing and how some of the concerns have endured."

One of the new pieces features Yasch Siemens' wife, Oata, going to the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival for the first time in 1994, the year the city was abuzz about posters of a controversial show, the title of which featured an unprintable term for female genitalia.

His last published work was his fourth novel, Tatsea, which won the 2004 McNally Robinson Book of the Year and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. It is his only work that wasn't born as a short story.

Wiebe says he is not particularly unique in having his plots require more development than a short story can offer. He once read American author William Faulkner's short stories and saw all the beginnings of his famous novels.

"Maybe people who read Armin's Shorts will say those aren't short stories, they are parts of novels," he says with a laugh.

The publication of writing that spans his entire career does spur an author to take stock of his literary achievement.

"Four novels, one play and one collection of short stories is a pretty meagre output over 30 years," says Wiebe, who taught creative writing at Red River College for 12 years, until 2008. "I see myself as a footnote in the Manitoba writing community. In the long run, that's probably what it will be."

He is most proud that he was part of the group that, in 1981, established the Manitoba Writers' Guild, an organization that supported the careers of such local prominent writers as Miriam Toews, David Bergen, Sandra Birdsell, Jake MacDonald and Patrick Friesen.

"I was there when it all started. I feel that it is something that has paid off for writers and readers."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca