An Interview with Nick Earls

A discussion about the Wisdom Tree series and the form of the novella

Moving beyond arbitrary page counts (more than fifty pages, less than 200, etc.), what do you think makes the novella distinctive as a literary form? How do you distinguish between a novella and a long short story, or a short novel? 

N: I’m very happy to move beyond arbitrary page counts. I think the least interesting way to define a novella is by size. I think it differs from the other forms in terms of scope – breadth and depth – and that’s more relevant, and more interesting.

If a short story has more story to tell, I’m happy for it to be called a long story, since that’s what it is – a story, but longer. But the novella is a different jurisdiction. They do things differently there. Or they can – writers can – if they’ve been paying attention.

The novella is a great place for detail. A short story is famously supposed to pare it back, but the novella should embrace detail and use it. Detail can build and build and build a character and a narrative in subtle and unexpected ways. A novel might use detail but a novella does it through a much tighter aperture. There’s detail, but it’s focused, directed.

Detail can take something you’ve glimpsed before and cast new light on it from another perspective, revealing something different about it. While it’s not impossible to do that in other forms of fiction, to me that’s a stylistic hallmark of the novella. And, if it’s done well, such use of the specifics can say a lot about the wider world. This is Judith Leibowitz’s point about the novella and ‘intensity and expansion’, and it’s a powerful tool for any novella writer who picks it up.

A short story typically has one piece of business to do, whatever wily ways are employed to do it. A novel is likely to have multiple plotlines working around each other, all needing some kind of resolution. The novella, I believe, can operate in a position that’s genuinely between those two. Repeatedly, with the Wisdom Tree novellas, I found myself realising I was working on a novella when I realised I had two ideas that might each make a short story but, to fit them together as two moving parts, I had the chance of creating something far more powerful and with a lot more resonance. And that was not, structurally, a short story. Or a novel.

So, for me, sure, a novella is likely to be intermediate in length between a short story and a novel, but there’s nothing interesting in that. What’s interesting is when you open your mind to it working in a different way.

In what ways do you think that the novella can disrupt the customary dominance of long form fiction? What are the pleasures of reading a novella as opposed to a longer work?

N: In the 20th century, publishing was all about paper, so the novella created great unease among publishers. It cost almost as much to make a small paper book as a medium-sized one (a paperback novel, for instance), and the pricing implications of that made publishers back away. Or bind up novellas with other stories. That even happened to novellas we now consider classics.

But those size rules don’t apply to ebooks or the 21st-century version of audiobooks. The first commercial ebook was a novella (Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet, in 2000), because it could be. Audiobook uptake is surging and short audiobooks are the next step for the millions of people listening to podcasts. The audionovella has prospects.

People’s time use has changed too. The surge of technology into our lives hasn’t replaced what we used to do with our time – it’s on top of it, so I’m forever hearing from people who only get to read novels on holidays now.

And there, perhaps, is where the novella comes in. It goes deep, but it doesn’t go long. It offers some of the commitment and satisfaction of a novel, but it’s the length of an evening or a domestic plane flight.

If the novella didn’t exist, this would be a great time to invent it.

As a writer, do you find the experience of working on a novella to be different to that of working on short fiction or on a more conventional novel-length manuscript?  Are there particular challenges that you have encountered in working with the form? Particular freedoms and affordances?

N: I now know enough to treat novella writing as a specific thing, to some extent, and I think that makes me a better writer of the form. I think that’s what the ‘long story’ crowd risk losing. If you think a novella’s just a long story, you’ll simply bring your short story game to something that happens to have a bit of stretch in the narrative. You’ll miss out on a chance to use that great kit of tools a novella has to offer, a couple of which I’ve mentioned above. You’ll risk making something less deep, less intricate, less resonant.

Every piece of writing you do should be a challenge, and I think specific challenges with the novella can come if you haven’t come up with your template for what a novella is and if you’ve picked the wrong story. Some ideas should become short stories. Some should become novels. Make them novellas when it gives you your best possible chance to do justice to them, and I think you’re starting off in the right place.

When planning and writing the Wisdom Tree novellas, I certainly used some of the tools I would use for short story writing and some of the tools I would use for novel writing, but there were aspects of the process that were novella-specific – particularly the number of story elements or storylines, and how they would work to reveal each other, and the volume and use of detail. These were conscious choices which, to me, feels like a very different thing than setting out to write a shortish story and finding out, whoa, it’s got long on you.

The first entry in the series, Gotham, was originally published as ‘Cargoes’ in Griffith Review. Did you already have the idea for the Wisdom Tree sequence in mind when you were working on the first novella or did the idea for the following works emerge after its completion and first publication?

N: I had the lot. These were my five best ideas. Some went back three or four years, but I hadn’t written them since they felt distinctly novella-sized and I had some more conventionally-sized books I was committed to write. But I delivered those and then realised I felt a strong pull to do these next, instead of another novel. Then I decided it was boots and all. Write all five. Study novella craft, research novella publishing, give it everything.

The connection between this series and Griffith Review actually goes back further, to their fiction edition in 2010. They asked me to write a story, and what I wrote blew the word limit to pieces and had more novella features to it than short story features. Graciously, they effectively gave me two spots and published it anyway. From that piece, I had an urge to do more work of that size and scope, when the right ideas came along.

I had sold a collection of short fiction to Random House, and was working on that at the time. At the start, we were probably all thinking I’d write 15-20 short stories but, no, after ‘The Magnificent Amberson’ in Griffith Review, I was way too excited about the potential for larger, more complex pieces. The book, Welcome to Normal, ended up as only eight pieces, some of them definitely short stories, but I think there were three novellas in there too, the longest of them cracking 25,000 words.

At the start of planning the Wisdom Tree novellas, I was weighing up a lot of publishing possibilities. I wanted to do a series at monthly intervals, and knew I could at least do that as ebooks, but didn’t yet know if I’d be able to put into place what I hoped for with print and audio.

With an eye on building the credibility of the series more than anything, I thought I’d try something with one or two individual novellas first. The Griffith Review competition seemed like a great option – it’s judged blind, by a very credentialled panel, and in 2015 there were five winners from 271 entries. That tells the world you’re doing something right. Also, its rules weren’t going to be any impediment to my other publishing plans as they developed. Some other options didn’t come off. Most fell away as my plans got locked in and other publication became incompatible.

The overlaps in terms of plot and character between the first three entries in the Wisdom Tree sequence are handled in a very spare and subtle manner. Did these connections emerge as you wrote the novellas or were they planned from the outset? How do they work to unify the novellas in the sequence?

N: I could see thematic connections from the earliest ideas, and wanted to develop those. I resisted the idea of other connections at first. But then I opened my mind to it, with a clear set of self-imposed ground rules. Any links had to (i) be non-cheesy (the whole idea of connections going to cheese was my biggest fear), (ii) do no harm and (iii) ideally, add something.

Then I realised there was scope to make these connections in a whole range of different ways so that, even in the fifth novella, new ways of connecting occur. That idea interested me more than the ‘travelling pants’ option, where one device connects all the stories. That option’s entirely legitimate, but I thought I could crush the individual novellas by adding that big roof beam across them all.

Most, though perhaps not all, of the connections developed in the planning process. I’m a big planner. I don’t like to unpick more of my knitting than I have to.

I also realised that I didn’t want to bind the novellas so closely they couldn’t be read individually. That was important to me. #4, say, needs to zing in its own way, if you happen to have seen none of the others. So, it’s a bonus layer for the reader of the series, a box of cookies. Each one needs to work as its own thing but, if you read them all, there’s more.

The two principle characters of the forthcoming Vancouver are both writers who have ambivalent relationships with the form of the novel. Knut, a literal giant, has abandoned the form against the wishes of his publishers to focus on micro-fiction. The narrator is in the process of seeing his initial hopes and expectations for his first novel dashed due to it being published only a few weeks before September 11. This is paralleled, in a sense, by the atmosphere of restraint and constriction in the novella, with the narrator encountering difficulty and suspicion travelling post the 9/11 attacks and Knut’s physical discomfort in a world that is too small for him. Is this speaking to the ways in which contemporary fiction writers might be trapped and restricted by the form of the novel itself and its attendant expectations?

N: Yes. I want that to be there for people who might be interested in it. I was going to, on this occasion, break my usual rule about not writing about writers, so there would be some writerly business going on, and the chance to connect it with what I was doing was more than I could resist.

But at the same time it needed not to overpower the story, since most of its readers won’t be writers, and won’t be caught up with these things. For them, I think, that material earns its spot because of what it tells us about the relationship between Paul and Knut, as they tentatively try to engage as adults and writers, having never done so before – having had no interaction since one was a kid and the other a busted quarterback.

Once I was satisfied it would do that, it could be there, and say or allude to a few things about writing and publishing too.

I also wanted Knut to be about more than appearances. The first thing anyone thinks of him, unavoidably, is that he’s a giant, but he’s actually a thinker who happens to be in a body that’s off the bell curve. So Paul remembers him as a giant who was also a thinker, whereas Knut, I think, sees himself as a thinker who happens to be saddled with a body that presents him with challenges.

Knut is also the Colossus of Rhodes. I was surprised, when researching it, how briefly it had stood, but how powerful it remained as ruins. A broken giant is still a giant. People turned up for centuries to see it, and marvel at the parts that were still there, and what the statue might have been like. Knut is, in a sense, broken, but he still has his power because, in the end, the connection between Paul and Knut isn’t about the size of Knut’s body. It’s more about the size of his mind. He can barely get in and out of a car, and yet Paul feels better, even safer, in his company, at a rare time when the world has lost its regular feeling of assumed safety.

So, the writerly stuff is there, but I wanted to seed a few other things in there too. Again, that’s the treat of the novella. And it’s done without any reader needing to detect them all, or see in them precisely the way I do.

Vancouver is also full of references and allusions to great short form writers: Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Richard Ford. Did you revisit these authors before or during the writing process?

N: I did revisit them during the planning and writing, but I revisit them anyway.

I find the Raymond Carver / Gordon Lish writer / editor relationship fascinating. There’s so much you can find in a Carver story, so much alluded to and unsaid, and we see that as one of the things that makes Carver so influential. Yet some of the drafts of those stories were almost twice as long, and said a lot more, sometimes sentimentally, and Lish cut it out. Carver must have shuddered when he got those edits. The Lish edits are inspired, but did he sometimes cut too much? It’s not a question that’s easily answered. Fascinating though.

There’s a bit where Knut talks about being edited by Lish, saying, ‘He went through me, in case you’re wondering, but no more than he went through Ray’. In the second round of edits, in track changes, Donna Ward added the comment ‘no more than I’m going through you… I guess… :-)’. But it was a lot more. Lish carved a different writer out of those stories. Donna questioned everything – everything – but she didn’t edit these novellas out of five draft novels that I gave her.

One way or another, I’ve learned a lot from Carver about what to say and how to say it and, just as importantly what to not say and how to not say it.

I’ve got a lot out of reading Richard Ford too, though my first encounter with his work was the 2001 Calgary event I gave to Paul in the novella. From him I’ve learned how to observe and how to reveal deeper stuff using what’s around the character.

He’s also written one of the best pieces of work in the past forty years analysing the novella, so he rated a mention for that too. It documents the exploration he went through when editing the book that I’m sure was supposed to be called the Granta Book of the American Novella but that ended up – once he had circled the novella enough to wear tracks in the carpet – called the Granta Book of the American Long Story.

He had expected to, as he says, ‘emerge with a good, spanking definition of the novella which I and others could use forever,’ but instead I wonder if he stared at the novella so long his vision started to blur. In his recounting, he corners esteemed academics in their offices to extract their novella definitions from them, and they blink and drop a few Henry James quotes and shrug their shoulders. For Ford, the novella’s credibility as a concept slumps in the face of this. He never takes into account that the internal narrative for the academic might have been running a little more like, ‘Oh my god Richard Ford Richard Ford in my office and I’m such a huge fan (swoon, hyperventilate) oh my god Richard Ford my opinion? I hate being an introvert that’s my opinion but they gave me this office and I can get some peace here but Richard Ford is here and didn’t he once take a critic’s book out the back and shoot it when she gave him a review that wasn’t entirely positive like positive-ish but with a quibble or two and didn’t he ACTUALLY SHOOT IT? Definition of what? what? … um … Henry James said …’

But it’s a very clever, well-argued piece, and anyone who believes there is such a thing as a novella needs to butt heads with it before moving forward.

I don’t have a definition Richard Ford would rate as spanking, but thinking it through made me realise that, for me, it’s not a definition that’s essential. It’s more about saying, ‘here are some tools that work really well for this form. Use them and you’ll be better at writing it.’ If you don’t go on the journey trying to pin down the novella – if you decide it’s not a thing – they you don’t think that way, and you don’t get those tools, or don’t have them sitting there for you, in your conscious mind.

Finally, could you tell us a little about the final two novellas in the Wisdom Tree sequence? How do they relate to the first three books? 

N: Each has its own narrator, and each is male and from the same part of the world as the other three. In both cases, the narrator is a long way from home, and dealing with important, personal, invisible questions while in a striking new landscape. In the fourth, it’s Alaska. In the fifth, it’s Los Angeles.

There are thematic connections, and of course there’s more. Seeds sown in the earlier novellas might sprout, but I’m not going to finish this conversation by tossing spoilers around.

Something from #3 will look a little different in #4. Someone from #4 will look a little different in #5. Someone mentioned in #4 will take the lead in #5 and, of course, not be leading a life that can be summed up in a sentence after all. And one big thing will happen in #5 that links with something way back, and will throw new light on what’s going on in #5 and give a different look at the crew from another story.

But no one needs to find all of those things, or even any of them. #5 has to work by itself if you read it first. Each one does. Each link you make is a bonus. I hope it casts a little more light, but I also hope it’s one of those nice moments of discovery that fiction occasionally offers.