Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Jim Tomlinson on short stories and novels

Jim Tomlinson was on the show some time ago with co-host Marrie Stone. I emailed him questions last week regarding the short story form and he graciously responded. Here you are:

BDB: Why do you write short stories?

JT: Short stories give the writer a way to look at some single thing that puzzles or interests. You can turn a situation over in the story and examine it in detail. And maybe, as you write, you'll reach some new level of understanding. Or maybe you'll just gain an appreciation for the mystery of how complex lives and relationships (both the fictional and the real kind)can be.

BDB: Have you ever considered novels?

JT: A novel is a different thing. It has scope. In general, it addresses bigger concerns, portrays the larger part of a character's lifetime, the societal implications of things, long-term effects, moral consequences of deeds, etc. A novel is built of a string of consequences and complications, and a hundred pages in it is hard to remember how different the world seemed starting out. While the short story is usually centered on a moment, the novel is a seemingly endless progression of "and then, and then, and then..." in a grand and pleasingly shaped arc.

Of course, when someone tries to define what a novel is, another someone can always point to examples that disprove it. Still, that's how I think of the novel. I've definitely considered the novel, Barbara. Yes. In fact, I'm working on a novel now.

BDB: Isn't it hard to publish short stories or don't you think that way?

JT: When I'm working on a story, my only concern is writing the next sentence and then the next paragraph and trying to make each word absolutely true. Until I've written and revised a story and polished it into as true a thing as I can, I don't give one moment's thought to whether anyone will want to publish it.

The total market for single short stories is huge. Unfortunately, the paying market (something more than complimentary copies) is a small part of that. And the demand by publishers for single-author books of short fiction is at a low ebb right now. It has been for several years. Writing short stories is not a lucrative business.

The only time I'm concerned with the market for stories is when I'm printing out copies to submit. The market doesn't really matter on the other days, the vast majority, when all you have to concern yourself with is writing.

BDB: Tell me about your latest book.

JT: Nothing Like an Ocean, my second book of stories, is in the publishing pipeline now. It is due out in March, 2009. It's a sequel of sorts to Things Kept, Things Left Behind (Iowa Short Fiction Award). Like those earlier stories, the new ones are set in and around fictional Spivey, Kentucky. Since it's a small town, it seemed natural that some characters and settings from the first book would show up again. And they do. Most of my stories are concerned, at their core, with characters in complex relationships, be they brother and sister, father and son, spouses, or teacher and former student. Gunshots are rare, high-speed chases and outhouses non-existent. There are church dances, though, and drinking on weekends, rainy craft fairs, copper thieves, fume-huffing teens, a rescue greyhound, a rare rabbit, and several flavors of burgeoning romance....something, in short, for everyone.

Barbara, just an hour or two ago I visited your blog and read the recent post. I can relate to the dilemma.

I had a discussion with Claire Messud about my efforts to transition from writing short stories to writing novels, and she questioned my motive for wanting to switch. There is pressure from the industry for every decent story writer to turn out a novel, and I'm guessing that Messud suspected that was motivating me. I told her that I genuinely wanted to write the "bigger story" that a novel canvas allows. "Maybe you aren't a novelist," she said. "Maybe you're a short story writer. That's not a bad thing to be."

She went on to name several writers whom she categorized as essentially story writers.

In trying to make the shift to novels (I've written three complete, unpublishable novels in years past, so I know something about it), I've come to understand how different they are from short stories. Yes, you have characters and scenes and use some of the same writing tools. But there's a whole 'nother level of storytelling and structure that you have to master to turn out a good novel. And I'm still working to get there.

But I'll echo what Messud told me...a short story writer isn't a bad thing to be. In fact, it's a lofty goal when you look at what writers like Chekhov, Carver, Dubus II, etc. have achieved in the form.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tis the stuff good blogs are made of.
j.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated these thoughts and would concur:

"A novel is a different thing. It has scope. In general, it addresses bigger concerns, portrays the larger part of a character's lifetime, the societal implications of things, long-term effects, moral consequences of deeds, etc. A novel is built of a string of consequences and complications, and a hundred pages in it is hard to remember how different the world seemed starting out. While the short story is usually centered on a moment, the novel is a seemingly endless progression of "and then, and then, and then..." in a grand and pleasingly shaped arc.

Of course, when someone tries to define what a novel is, another someone can always point to examples that disprove it."

Tania Casselle said...

Very interesting discussion. I love Jim's line about "A novel is built of a string of consequences and complications, and a hundred pages in it is hard to remember how different the world seemed starting out." Oh yes indeedy.

I've read JT's Things Kept, Things Left Behind, great collection, and no doubt any novel he brings to light will be equally fab, but I also appreciate the appreciation of short fic as a completely different form to novels. It gets wearying to see the short form as an apprenticeship to 'the real thing' - the holy grail of the novel. It's great when a writer can do both, but it's great if they can do one or the other really well too.

Jim, if you're reading, can you say any more about what you as such a good story teller have learned in that process of novel writing, any examples of mastering (or tofu-wrestling with) that longer structure?

Jim said...

Tania, one of the concepts I'm trying to get a grip on in the novel is "plot complication." My tendency has been to go outside the novel text and bring in new elements (a new character or circumstance) when the plot seemed to slow. I thought this is what was meant by plot complications. (And true, sometimes you have to do this.) What I'd end up with was something convoluted and not particularly coherent or pleasing in any meaningful way.

Story complication in a novel works best when it uses what's already there in a different way, when it re-introduces some previously used, minor element or character in a different way. Or maybe changed circumstances from what the characters have already struggled to achieve sets up new, steeper challenges for them or others. Unintended consequences can twist a plot and sent it to reeling in such interesting way.

It's harder to explain than to see in a brilliant novel like Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog. The prime players are there early on and their goals never change. But the plot complicates with each new pairing of characters and each step they take to reclaim what each believes is rightfully theirs...the house, lost dignity, status in the household, romantic love, a father's respect, etc. The plot moves and complicates by churning the elements already there and bringing sets of desires into direct conflict.

I'm trying to learn to complicate my plots that way now, Tania. But I'm not sure if I've fully learned it yet.