What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
Like most writers, I arrive at the blank page with a loud-mouthed and disorderly pack of influences. Eventually, they subside with only a little jostling now and then, letting me work in relative peace. It was my father who read my first novellas to me, though I gave no thought or name at the time—and likely, neither did he—to the brevity of these books.
It’s still difficult for me to realize that The Time Machine is a novella. He read it again and again, while I shrank under the covers in a confusion of glee and terror. I haven’t read Wells in a long time, but the mad, leaping imagination of that book has stayed with me. My father and I also read together a number of slim, out-of-print gumshoe detective novellas and, if their titles escape me now, their tensions, snapping dialogue, and deepening shadows do not.
Years later, I read Brokeback Mountain. The interior landscape just unfurls and unfurls and keeps unfurling. One world inside another. There is that passage towards the end about the shirts. Proulx writes about one shirt being inside the other, “like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.”
I’m sure bits of all those novellas are ghosting around in mine.
What’s the oldest part of your novella? Is there a section or passage that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the novella? What do you remember about writing it?
I’m mostly miffed by my own impulses, but in this case, I can actually identify a clear point of origin. In 2006, I volunteered to blurb movies for a local film festival. Downtown Locals, a low-budget documentary about six subway buskers in New York, was especially splendid. And there was this one moment: a Colombian performer says something like, “What do I know. I’m just a man who dances with dolls.” I don’t know. The line just leveled me somehow.
When Sumanth Prahbaker, who runs Madras, asked if I had a novella, I wanted so badly to work with him that I said very quickly: “yes” and “it’s about a subway busker” and “it’s almost done.” Sumanth is possibly the most astute person I know so I’m pretty certain he recognized the lie. He took me on anyway.
How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?
I’m clumsy when it comes to titles and envious of those people who seem to name things unerringly. But, in the course of pitching this imaginary book to Sumanth, I apparently told him the title was The Man Who Danced with Dolls. Every now and then as I was writing, I’d try to change it, but he wouldn’t let me. My natural state of being is oppositional, but Sumanth inspires a strange obedience in me.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
I see now that I’m going to contradict my comment about obedience. From the start, I told Sumanth he had free reign with the design. That I trusted him completely. Have you seen the other Madras covers? Each one is a thing of beauty. Anyway, I told Sumanth he could do whatever he wanted.
And I rejected one after another in rapid succession. The most offensive cover idea involved a footprint in the snow. I had a problem with the shoe shape. I knew my character would never wear such an ugly shoe. An absurd high-heeled boot with a pointed toe. It was just awful. And then, he showed me the house. He said something like, “This has nothing to do with the story, but do you like it?” It was so great and blurry. That lonely, red house solved a practical problem with the narrative for me as well.
Sumanth and I still fight about the shoe. The image is lurking somewhere on the website, I think.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
I’m really bad at that sort of thing. It’s a little alarming: the idea that the writing isn’t enough, but that now we have to lug our work around in the world. Besides, isn’t it normal to despise the thing you’ve written the moment it’s written? I’m getting better at promotion. I guess it’s another kind of hubris these days to expect that books should be shepherded to readers by any other means.
Interviews are definitely my preference in the end. We’re having such a nice chat, here, for instance.
What are you working on now?
A memoir. Some essays. A few poems. A hodgepodge of things. I tiptoe around them.
What is your writing practice or process?
Just to write something new every day. My friends, the poets Emma Bolden (Maleficae) and Ross White (How We Came Upon the Colony), got me involved with The Grind, an online writing group that Matt Olzmann (Mezzanines) also helped found. You can read a little bit about it here.
Shame and fear are terrific motivators for me, so this system has been a gift.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
So many! I like found text and translation exercises. I’m feeling guilty because the prompts dearest to me deal with language, and a brilliant writer/mentor once told me that I could stand to pirouette a little less on the page. So every now and then I try to catch my reflection, and if I’m spinning, then I simply force myself to calmly sit in a chair, smooth down my hair, and say things simply.
What question would you like to ask the next novella author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Within me is always this sneaking curiosity about what other people are reading. I’ve just finished Janet Frame’s three-part autobiography. It’s absolutely brilliant. She has these luminous moments—“All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land”—and I am deep-down grateful for them.
Thanks for giving me such a pleasurable task. Wish we could go on and on, but it’s late and Chekhov would say that the light is glinting on the broken glass.
Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams is a winner of the 2013 Whiting Writers Award for her novella The Man Who Danced with Dolls and her memoir-in-progress The Following Sea. She has also received a Rona Jaffe National Literary Award and a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship. Her work has most recently appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Oxford American, Carolina Quarterly, and Mayday Magazine. Abrams currently teaches in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
from The Man Who Danced with Dolls
When he was through with his MRIs, the dancer went home and sat alone at the table. He poured a bourbon and put on some music. And yet the more I remember her, went the song. I’m still a man in love, he thought again. I’ll go wherever I can find her: into the words, the music, the bottle. His heart swelled with the romance of it. He closed his eyes, wondering what it was that she was doing just that moment, if it was possible that the strength of his will could make her think of him too. Maybe, somewhere in her life, she had kept at least one of his dolls. My heart inside me wants to break out on its own, sang the radio.