I heard the writer Valerie Miner give a fascinating talk on the novella form, and I asked Valerie to talk about her experience as an author and reader of novellas. Valerie’s latest book of fiction, Bread and Salt, features a wonderful novella.
Could you explain what a novella is? When does a work of fiction go from being a short story to a novella, or when is a novel brief enough that it is considered a novella?
Valerie Miner: I sometimes imagine different forms of fiction like the music of string instruments. I hear the short story as a winged, breathless violin scherzo. The novella sounds like a cello sonata, rich and round and deep. The novel reminds me of the seasons of a string quartet. Of course, there are no rules about length. But my stories are usually between 5-25 typed pages. In writing a novella, I aim for 60 to 120 typed pages. My novels tend to be 250 to 500 pages.
What is the appeal and/or advantage of writing a novella? Are there disadvantages to writing a novella?
I enjoy the flexibility and length of a novella. It can reveal more than a personal epiphany but usually less than the whole map of an individual adult life. I find the form ideal for exploring friendship. Jane Smiley thinks that marriage is a good topic: “...few marriages and even fewer love affairs are worth three hundred pages—but a hundred? Great loves can go a hundred.”
I enjoy reading and writing novellas in much the same way I enjoy other anomalous forms—the prose poem, the novel-in-stories, microfiction—because their very irregularity provokes my imagination. The shape of this less familiar form disturbs my ability to maintain expectations about character and plot development. Also fascinating are those cross-genre projects mixing fiction and memoir. Neither the novella nor these other “unconventional” forms are endangered species, and hybrid forms are steadily gaining audiences. Just as writers breaking linguistic and other stylistic expectations often have to establish a critical framework in which their own fiction can be appreciated, practitioners of “odd forms” like the novella need to alert readers to the novella’s idiosyncratic rewards. It’s the idiosyncrasy of the novella form, its perversity and disruptiveness, that stirs ideas and changes literary appetites.
The disadvantages of writing a novella are perhaps most related to reception. It’s difficult to publish them in literary journals. I’ve had the opportunity to judge novella contests for Quarterly West and Evergreen Chronicles, but most journals are looking for something shorter.
Unfortunately, most people haven’t yet developed the habit of reading novellas as they might read one short story a day over breakfast or in bed, or as they might savor a novel on a week’s vacation. For many, the novella clashes with daily routine. Habit is what holds back the popularity of the novella. We carry expectations about stories and novels regarding degrees and kinds of emotional response or intellectual stimulus. But novellas—what are they? Less intense than a story? Less profound than a novel? Or something altogether different?
In your recent collection of fiction, Bread and Salt, you end with the title piece, which is a novella. How and when did you know that this idea would take the form of a novella?
My favorite form is the short story. So why have I published only four story collections and nine novels? Perhaps because I’m too curious about characters’ back stories and their futures, so I keep writing and the piece grows.
“Bread and Salt” started out as a short story. I was caught up with two complex people, Caroline and Anouar. I always begin writing with questions. In this case I wanted to think about the difference between glancing appearance and reality. I wanted to explore Caroline and Anouar’s identities as travelers and their distinct experiences with colonialism. And given all this, the story had to take place on three continents. It’s hard to write briefly about places I love, like Paris and parts of Tunisia. So, the more I wrote, the more questions I considered, and the longer the story became. I believe stories find their own shape. In this case, the narrative became a novella.
“Bread and Salt,” is a love story about a North American woman and a North African man that takes place over a period of almost 30 years. The novella is set in Tunisia, Paris, and Boston. What were the challenges of taking your characters through such an expansive time period and geography in only 42 pages?
I don’t set stories in places I don’t know. But “knowing” and “knowing enough” to fully evoke a place are two different things. The more I wrote about Tunisia (where I did a Fulbright in 2004) and Paris (a place where I’ve worked and visited since my early 20s), the more details I needed to include. Since the novella takes place over a number of years, I had to remember, imagine, research these places during different decades. The novella took about ten years to write.
What are a couple of your own favorite novellas, and why do you think they work well in that genre?
Just a couple? I’m a fan of Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, Thea Astley’s Vanishing Points, Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, and Cris Mazza’s Therapeutic. I imagine that each of these authors took a winding route similar to my own, one that posed more questions, demanded more answers and wound up taking them to the length of a novella.
One thing I love about the novella, and literature in general, is that it is a portable and, in some senses, more intimate medium than film or opera or theatre. We carry books with us into our most private rooms, dressed—or undressed—as we like.
I encourage my students to play with the novella as readers and writers. It might stimulate short story writers to discover what would happen if they gave themselves more space. The novelists might find it a useful exercise in distillation or excision. We see what the novella teaches us about other forms as well as discover whether it’s a form in which we want to write for a while.
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