Interlinked short stories – do they a novel make?

Reader Logo by Catherine McNamara

Throughout the eighties I read a lot of Raymond Carver and while I greatly enjoyed his stories I was almost as curious about Carver’s background. Son of a saw mill hand who liked his whisky, he’d worked as a janitor, night watchman, petrol attendant and editor while studying and helping to raise two kids. But the comment that has stayed with me for years was this. When asked, Why do you write short stories? Why not a novel? Carver replied that because of the constrictions of his life he could only produce short stories, that with his money problems and family obligations he could never face the long haul of a novel.

Like many, I often wondered whether, having found financial stability and release from alcoholism, Carver might have written a beautiful, damaged novel, or whether his weary characters sat best within the confines of the short story. What would have changed had Carver tried to weave his stories together in a longish novel like his friend Richard Ford, what may have been lost?

Several years ago I was called up by an established London agent who had read my short story in a Virago anthology. At the time I was living in West Africa and co-running a bar and art gallery. Writing had taken a back seat. When it happened I had no idea this phone call was a shot from heaven, the call every writer awaits. I breezed into this lady’s office with my papers. They were short stories, many of them published in small literary magazines, and scraps of my first novel. The agent read everything and said, Come back with a novel. And then asked, Why don’t you write a book of interlinked stories?

Interlinked stories? I rejected that idea straight off. Something that was neither a short story collection (which everyone knows doesn’t sell unless you are Raymond Carver) or a blessed novel, but a halfway house for characters and themes to knock around together? And worse, a trend?

Much has been written about the precision of the short story, making it sound dauntingly technical, even surgical. This year’s winners of the Guardian Short Story Prize (‘Trade’ by Fan Flaherty and ‘We Wave and Call’ by Jon McGregor) conveyed entire worlds in a few pages, with stringent climaxes that set off a ringing in my ears. By contrast I recall a writer saying that in a novel you could have ‘baggy bits’, which I took to mean a breather before the dramatic tension returned. And yet, where each short story involves a leap of faith and strict wiring, the writing of a novel requires carriage and conviction and noiseless (moneyless) months, not to mention the difficulty in stepping back and seeing the whole (picture Michelangelo climbing down from scaffolding) or a year later having an agent say, I’m sorry this is just not doing it for me.

How to marry these two diverse dynamics in one novel-length book of interlinked stories? Is this a project that should even be undertaken? Or can it only be a drawing pad for writers with fragmented time schedules or waning willpower, which can never provide the comfort and escape of the novel?

That said, many writers have interwoven sections that make up the whole. In Maggie Gee’s ‘The White Family’ each character speaks about a central event as the book builds towards its terrible peak. In David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ the stories (or are they sections?) almost stand separately but are devised together. In Gretchen Shirm’s ‘Having Cried Wolf’ the stories circulate and overlap, but what is the prevailing feeling for the reader? The rapid pulse and cadence of the short story, or the winding crescendo of the novel with its hollows and tides?

I’m still undecided. But I know Carver was right. It’s all about your staying power, your money situation, your attraction to booze or drugs, your ego, your selflessness. Writing is just another juggling act.

Photo credit : Photosan0


Anonymous said...

Great post Catherine ... and I'm not going to address all the ideas you raise. I'll just say that I enjoy collections of interlinked short stories - I can think of three off the top of my head (though in none of them, as I recollect, are ALL the stories linked). They are, I suppose, semi-linked: Tim Winton's The turning, Kazuo Ishiguro Nocturnes, and Gretchen Shirm's Having cried wolf. Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino could be described this way too - I think.

One of the reasons I like them is that you get the best of the short story - as you've described in your post - but some of those things you like in a novel such as further character development and/or some back story. Being a short story fan, I don't mind if I have to work sometimes for these links, that is if the links aren't immediately obvious, if they are not presented chronologically, etc.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

I haven't read Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes and think I will be ordering it right now! Did you enjoy Having Cried Wolf? ciao cat

Anonymous said...

I hope you like Nocturnes ... I'm a big Ishiguro fan so am predisposed to like it anyhow! I've read all of his but one ...

Yes, I liked Having cried wolf a lot ... I reviewed it, but probably before you saw my blog. I was thrilled that it was shortlisted for the new writers prize at the NSW Premiers Literary Awards. She must have been so pleased.