Sunday, October 24, 2021

From Short Story Writer to Novelist: An Interview with Richard Chiappone

Many fiction writers want to make the transition from writing short stories to novels. One writer who has done this successfully is Richard Chiappone, whose terrific first novel, The Hunger of Crows, was published in 2021. I interviewed Rich to find out how he made that leap in his career.

Richard Chiappone, author of The Hunger of Crows
Zack Rogow: Before you published your novel The Hunger of Crows from Crooked Lane Books, you’d written mostly short stories. When you got the idea for The Hunger of Crows, how did you know that this would be a novel and not a short story?

Richard Chiappone: That makes me smile because I had no idea that a short story titled “Personal Use” in my second story collection, Opening Days, would turn into this novel. I rushed to complete the story in time for that collection, and I always thought it ended abruptly. So, a couple years later, I picked it up again and said, “Why does it feel like something more is about to happen? What’s next?” What happened next was about ten years of trial and error and error and error, hundreds of jettisoned pages, and numerous gray hairs. Plus, a novel!


Q. When you started to write the novel, what adjustments did you make to create a plot that you could sustain over many chapters?


A. After thirty years of writing character-driven stories, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about plot. I thought writing a novel might be a good way to learn. One problem I had was the tendency to make every chapter a stand-alone story. The first agent I sent a draft to said, “When I started reading this I feared it was actually a story collection.” (Note the word feared. Agents HATE story collections.) I had to learn that a chapter can’t be complete on its own; it has to move the novel forward. Who knew?

Q. Did the number of characters or subplots increase when you saw the work as a novel?

A. Oh, yes. And it was very liberating. I allowed myself to shift points of view among the characters, something I’ve always avoided when writing short stories. And new plot ideas kept weaseling into the story. So I let them. What a luxury. It was like finding out you were allowed to swim—without wearing handcuffs.


Q. What kinds of character development did you add in writing a novel that you would not have done in a short story?


A. Actually that was one of my worst problems. I set out to write a simple action-driven crime novel. But free to sprawl, I went nuts. I got so interested in each character I wrote dozens of pages of back story that had to be thinned down. Even in the finished novel, most of the characters have a lot of history. I guess that’s why it’s been called a “literary” thriller. You have no idea how much more I tried to cram in. Thank God for editors.


Q. Does the setting play a different role in this novel than in your short stories?


A. Setting plays a much larger and more active role. Here where I live in south Central Alaska, in June when the story is set, we have about twenty hours of daylight, and almost no real darkness. (There are midnight softball leagues.) That’s not just some colorful factoid in the novel. The main character, a young woman, Carla, has fled from Phoenix, Arizona, to a small town, 200 miles from Anchorage, where she is hiding from a quasi-military corporation out to kill her. She assumed that the remoteness of Alaska would hide her, but the constant daylight feels like a spotlight shining on her. Then there are the unpredictable and treacherous northern ocean currents, tides, and storms that nearly kill Carla before the bad guys even show up. Atmosphere can be an important character in a longer work of fiction.


Q. Are there advantages to novel writing that short stories don’t offer?


A. Yes. In a short story there can be very little dramatic physical action. Look at “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the greatest stories. It’s a dinner party; no punches are thrown, no guns drawn, there’s barely a voice raised in anger. After reading that story, your knees quake.


In short stories, what characters feel and think is often more important than what they actually do. But ironically, there’s little room in that form for delving into their lives leading up to those powerful moments of epiphany. That’s something you can include in a novel. I had a good time writing beatings, shootings, boats sinking, sex! But still, I fell in love with my characters and I wanted to spend a lot of time with them. I hope my readers will too.


Q. Is there any one thing you were able to carry over from years of story writing and use in your novel? Something akin to your “style.”


A. I’d say it’s humor. Sometimes crime novels can take themselves pretty freaking seriously. That’s their author’s business, of course. But some that I admire also have moments of great levity. I’m thinking of Walter Mosley’s stories, and of course, the sometimes very funny Elmore Leonard.


My wife is horrified and embarrassed that I laugh at my own jokes, but I’ll go out on that limb and say in my own defense, several readers have commented on the humor in The Hunger of Crows. One of the many revisions was taking out excess jokes. Painful!


Q. How did you go about finding an agent for your novel?


A. In 2018, after working for five years, I thought the novel was complete. I sent it to Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management. I knew that Jeff had discovered Alaskan writer Eowyn Ivey’s hugely successful debut novel, The Snow Child, at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference here in Homer in 2008. He was an agent who had been to Homer, the setting of my novel. I was sure he was someone with an ear for Alaskan stories. He is.


Q. What process did you go through with the editor in creating a finished version of the manuscript?


A. Jeff Kleinman liked it, but said it did not feel complete. He turned it over to his associate, Rachel Eckstrom, and for the next two years I completely rewrote the book three or four times before the wise and patient Rachel decided it was ready to pitch to publishers. When Crooked Lane Books bought it in the spring of 2020, I thought I was done revising, at last. Then their editor sent me eleven single spaced pages of “notes” (meaning things that needed to be worked on, changed, or eliminated). Eleven pages! I thought they were rejecting the book. Then I remembered they’d already paid me for it.


The editor’s notes were brilliant, and I rewrote the whole manuscript twice more, making massive structural changes. And then it was finally done, after ten years, uncountable rewrites, and hundreds of excised pages zapped into cyber oblivion with the delete key. Nothing to it.


Q. How is the novel being publicized or marketed differently from a short story collection?


A. Hah! Using the words marketing and short story collection in the same sentence is hilarious. (See above: agents hate story collections.) Why? Because publishers hate story collections! And for good reason: they do not sell. Seriously, how many story collections are on the NY Times bestselling fiction list right now? I'll look. Okay, I looked. The answer: NONE. Only novels.

So, after three decades of publishing short stories, Crooked Lane’s wonderful marketing of my novel has been deliriously encouraging and very much appreciated.


Q. Any advice for short story writers who want to try their hand at a novel?


A. Yes. Read lots of novels. Many short story writers mostly read short stories. I know, I’ve been a short story junkie for thirty years (and I don’t want to recover. Ever). I have a whole wall of nothing but story collections or anthologies. You can always sneak-read a couple stories secretly. (Hint: Put a story collection on the bottom of a stack of novels on your nightstand. No one will notice.)


Not reading novels made it hard to learn to write a novel. I did not have the rhythm of a long work of fiction etched into my brain the way the shape of stories was. Maybe that’s why some of the greatest short story writers never wrote wildly successful novels: Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.


Q. Were there any “How to” books about novel writing you found useful?


A. I love reading craft books on writing. But because until recently I never intended to write a novel, I’ve never read any that are specifically about novel writing. It should go without saying that it helps to have some general writing skills if you’re going to write 300 pages of anything. There are several fine books that I’ve found helpful for myself and for the numerous students I’ve worked with over the years. Here are some favorites (alphabetically):


The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell   

Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway, et al.

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

On Writing, by George V. Higgins

The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich

How Fiction Works, by James Wood


One last word to new novelists.


Did I already say that? 

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

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