I Never Intended to Write a Novel
I was a young writer at a time when the short story enjoyed an era of great popularity, an era of Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Ann Phillips, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, et. al. Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, coined the term “Dirty Realism” to describe the work being done in the short form. I’ve never given much thought to why this aesthetic made such good sense to me, but I suppose it may have something to do with the fact that I came from a blue collar world where the economic circumstances of one’s life required a clear acceptance of fact. We couldn’t confront what threatened to oppress us without clearly indentifying it. We were, out of necessity, always living with eyes wide open in the real world that commanded our attention.
I wrote stories for a very long time, even having the good fortune of publishing a collection in 1996. I’ve long recognized Richard Ford’s Rock Springs as a great influence on the stories I collected in The Least You Need to Know, stories about working class folks struggling to be flush with the world, trying their best to reach a place of good fortune and happiness. When I heard the voices of Ford’s narrators, I heard a sound I recognized from my rural upbringing in southeastern Illinois. The sound of Ford’s narrators—plain-spoken, direct, and lyrical in their close observation of their landscapes—was exactly the tone and voice of the farmers and oil field roughnecks and factory workers that made up the cast of my childhood. Ford’s work gave me permission to tell their stories.
When I was a young man, I saw life as a series of small, illuminative moments. The short story form was perfect for their dramatization and expression. Then, one day shortly after my first book had appeared, I had a call from an editor who’d read one of my stories in a high-profile magazine of the time, DoubleTake. The editor wanted to know if I had a novel. Up to that point, I’d never even considered trying to write one. But this was an editor at a New York publishing house, and what was I to say, but yes. “Yes, I’m working on one now,” I told her, and as soon as our conversation was over, I began.
All of this is to say that the literary marketplace nudged me toward the novel form, but that wasn’t the only inciting factor. By the time that conversation with the editor took place, I was forty years old. I’d begun to see that life consisted of a span of time, some of it stretching behind me and some ahead. I’d begun to see the novel as the “rough shaggy beast,” Henry James called it, which is to say I saw it as a form that more accurately captured what it was to be alive in a world made up of past, present, and future. At the age I was then, I was perfectly located to be able to view all three time spans, so I began to venture away from the compression of the short story. I began to treat the brief, illuminate moments of the story as points along a larger narrative arc. The switch to the novel made sense to me because it aligned itself with a shift in my way of looking at the lived life.
I suppose this is all to say that young writers shouldn’t let the marketplace alone drive them toward the novel. I firmly believe that writing short stories taught me the skills I needed to have before I tackled a longer form. Writing short stories taught me how to treat characterization, how to structure a narrative, how to dramatize a landscape, how to rely on language to create an atmosphere, how to let detail and image express meaning. Working in that short form made all my artistic choices stand out in bolder relief, and, consequently, I could better learn their effects. I had to do the close work before I could encounter the rough, shaggy beast of a novel.
But still sometimes the world clarifies itself for me in the illuminative moments of the short story. I’ve never stopped writing them, and I’ve never stopped living with both feet firmly planted in the real world. My second collection of stories, The Mutual UFO Network, will be out in June. The one thing I notice about the difference between the stories in that book and the ones in The Least You Need to Know, is the fact that the former, written between 1997 and 2014, are more elastic. They make more room for the backward and forward sweep of time while still relying on compression and illumination for their ends. It’s as if age has brought me a way of blending the novel with the short story into a form that pleases me now that I’m sixty-two.
In “The Last Civilized House,” one of the stories from the new collection, a peeping Tom’s footsteps in the snow causes an elderly couple to bump up against one of their secrets from the past—an affair that almost cost them their marriage. As they drive home from a shopping trip, another vehicle runs a stop sign and almost hits them. The roads are slick with snow, but the husband manages to avoid the accident, leading to the final paragraph:
They drove on, the houses becoming fewer and farther apart as they went, the darkness coming on now—a quiet, cold night, the snow settling in over the houses and the fields. Ahead of him, Ancil could see the porch light that Lucy had thought to leave on, a faint glow in the distance. He drove toward that light, toward the house of last chances, where some bright thing between them—neither Ancil nor Lucy dared anymore to call it love—had almost gone out, but not now, not yet, not quite.
The sweep of time behind Ancil and Lucy meets the tensions of the present and considers the life left to them. Everything is contained and expressed in the image of that porch light shining in the aftermath of near disaster.
Such is the work of the short story form that makes sense to me here in the latter years of my life. I don’t think we should separate our aesthetic from who we are in the here-and-now. Our work is its most genuine when it connects to where we are in time and how we view the world. To young writers, I’d say, “You’ll write a novel when you’re ready, and you’ll know when you’re ready when your way of viewing time becomes more expansive. Don’t let the marketplace rush you. Short stories are good and honorable and have much to teach you about your craft. Above all, let your writer’s aesthetic match up with your personal aesthetic about the way time works through a life.”
I’ve never really thought about this, Lee, but I had a similar trajectory into longform. I began with short stories because they were all I could hold in my head at the time. Like you, I found they taught me about quarrying into the material, probing an idea for its real significance, constructing characters to be affected by it, looking for change, wrangling the language so it created weather and music. I didn’t think I had the stamina for a larger work, but one day an editor said ‘make this into a novel’. So I had a go.
My first two novels came from fresh ideas, but for my third I’m returning to one of my earliest short stories – indeed, the very story that editor commented on. I’m struck by your phrase about the brief moments that become deeper turning points in the narrative arc. I recognise this so well. It’s as if the years have given us the ability to taste with a richer palate, to see in more colours, to hear more sounds. Twenty years ago that story was 8,000 words. Today, it’s weighing in at 112,000.
As you say: you’ll write a novel when you’re ready. Love this post.
Thanks, Roz. I like what you say about time giving us the ability to taste with a richer palate. It also probably gives us the patience and endurance we need to work in those long forms.
[…] Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested […]