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Guest Blog: Why I Write Novellas by Carole Giangrande

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Guest Blog: Why I Write Novellas by Carole Giangrande

Carole Giangrande's novella, Midsummer, launches on April 30th at Inanna's Spring Launch 2014 (Supermarket Cafe, 268 Augusta Ave., Toronto from 6 - 8.30pm).

A year or so ago, a voracious reader of novels let me have it.

"Why did you make it so short?" she said, referring to my award-winning novella, A Gardener on the Moon. She made it known that she wasn't kidding. In fact, she seemed a bit disgusted, as if she should have gotten more for her money. She happened to be a person who wasn't used to the shorter form of fiction.

I tried explaining that the novella is a specific form of writing. You wouldn't ask a poet why she hadn't written a novel instead of a few scrunched-up verses. Also, that from the writer's point of view, some characters deserve only so much of the author's time. A Gardener on the Moon is a tale narrated by a very unhappy man and to prolong it would have only driven both writer and reader nuts.

Nice try. Didn't work.

Now I'm at it again my new novella, Midsummer (published by Inanna), is about to be launched. To my delight, my publisher has labelled Midsummer a novella — in bright red, on the cover.

Am I worried about being mugged by another disgruntled reader? (Or worse, a reviewer?) No — I'm just surprised that the storytelling form I've chosen is too often regarded as either a failed novel or a run-on short story. It's neither.

Now truth be told, I love both novels and novellas. I've written and published two novels and a short story collection, so I know my way around fiction. Only it's a fact that novellas — a natural length for many fiction writers, including myself — tend to get shuffled aside in favour of more "serious" (i.e. weighty) tomes.
From that bias toward Big comes a publishing truism that novellas don’t sell unless they’re bundled up into a fat volume — or unless they're marketed as novels. The thinking goes that there’s not enough heft or value for the money in those skinny works. So Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach came to us as a novel, as did Richard Gilmour's Extraordinary — both short, classic, tightly focused examples of the novella form.

And that mixup's a shame. Marketing novellas as novels just blurs the distinction between the capacious form of the novel with its wonderful tangle of characters, plot and subplots, and the spare beauty of the novella which in its traditional form entertains only one point of view and no subplots at all. Tolstoy, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus — and more recently, Hans Keilson and Canadians Marion Engel and Mary Swan — have excelled at both forms, producing novellas that are bare-bones brilliant, with no descriptive padding or unnecessary digressions, and a laser-sharp focus on a character’s heart. As much as length, it’s these attributes that shape the novella.

So that's what I'm aiming for with my new book Midsummer.

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by compression in writing. I love stories that take place in contained space over very short periods of time (Joyce's The Dead and Woolf's short novel Mrs. Dalloway are two of my favourites) where both characters and language combine to add intensity and "punch" at the story's end.

Midsummer is narrated in the first person by Joy, a linguist, wife and mother. It unfolds, for the most part, on June 21st, 2000. On this date, her Aunt Elena and her Uncle Carlo are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a family dinner at the elegant restaurant on top of New York's vanished Twin Towers. Elena chose the place because long ago, her immigrant father dug the subway tunnel that ran beneath the building. In his digging, he claimed to have seen a vision as he helped unearth a centuries-old Dutch ship, and the mythic power of that moment has touched three generations with both happiness and calamity. Dinner guests include Joy's father Eddie, whose bad conscience over a family tragedy has distanced him from his sister Elena. In the space of this midsummer night, the disturbing past unravels and confronts the present.

As I wrote this novella, I became intrigued by the shape it took. I liked the way the compact form worked with the story's physical space. The tall tower embodies the family's history in which the distant past (the subway tunnel underground) rumbles under the present as the family dines high above it.

As the story ends, Joy considers her elderly aunt and uncle and she wonders if this will be their final gathering. Ironically, the reader knows that in little more than a year, the elegant towers themselves will be in ruins.

As readers, we carry knowledge of that sort within ourselves — facts and emotions that the characters, locked in time and caught up in their own conflicts and dilemmas, would never know. That inner life is what we bring to a good read; in the shorter forms of fiction, those perceptions of ours give a special fullness to the story. Think of a Chinese scroll painting in which a few brush-strokes suggest the whole. In reading a spare novella, you can help fill in what's suggestive or elusive.

So if you haven't been reading this type of fiction, you're in for a real treat — a feast of reading, both classics and up-to-the-minute work. Just remember that the novella you hold in your hands will be its own unique thing. It won't be a pre-shrunk novel or a bloated short story.

And with any luck, dear reader, you won't even worry that the book is short. You might even be delighted.


Born and raised in the New York City area, Carole Giangrande now lives in Toronto. Her novella, A Gardener On The Moon, was co-winner of the 2010 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, and is published by Quattro Books. She's the author of two novels (An Ordinary Star and A Forest Burning), a short story collection, Missing Persons, and two non-fiction books. Her new novella, Midsummer will be launched on April 30th by Inanna. She’s worked as a broadcast journalist for CBC Radio and her fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in Canada’s major journals and newspapers. Her 50-part literary podcast Words to Go has been downloaded over 20,000 times in 30 countries. She comments as The Thoughtful Blogger ("a space for interesting books and intermittent reflection"), and she's recently completed a novel. Links to both her blog and podcast archive may be found at her website:
www.carolegiangrande.com

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