What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
Among my favorites are Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, each of which exemplifies the virtues of compression. A single sentence would accommodate the entire, horrifying plot of Noon Wine. And the horror, which then builds in a single arc, and is sustained so masterfully that it evokes increasingly profound sympathy and, ultimately, grief. I will not forget the fate of the silent, lanky Swede who materializes at the dilapidated farm of a sort of defunct family, perhaps because Porter’s details are spare. Chekov said, “If you want the reader to “see” a tree, describe the shadow of a leaf.” (I paraphrase.) Because Porter leaves us to imagine an entire “shot” with just one or two images, they yield an extraordinarily cinematic experience with electric speed. Each character is allotted only a smattering—she has weak eyes, the kids are filthy, the husband’s mien is chronically jovial, and so on—and these are simply repeated until they become metaphors for their essences. We know all we need to know, and are free to turn our full attention to watching the ways in which their deficits enable their swift and therefore all the more shocking fate. So, what I have learned from Noon Wine? To avoid subplots, to hunt down the single most telling details, and to keep the camera moving.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is set in Denver during the final few days of WWI, and at the height 1918 flu pandemic. Porter manages to portray the tragedy of this historical moment in full–it’s complicated political strife and traumatized citizenry–because it is brought via Miranda’s free-ranging thoughts as she descends into a spectacular near death experience. She is fevered, exhausted, and delirious. Some moments are luminous, some murky or questionable. Her memories skip from office to bar to sick bed. They feel only loosely chronological. The plot is actually two events: Miranda gets sick but survives; her lover goes to war and doesn’t. She is the only character who is not a stick figure. Porter doesn’t so much tell a story as present the historical moment vividly but in a sort of swirling swoon. So what have I learned? Find ways to keep my characters from dawdling and plodding. Keep the minor ones minor.
What’s the oldest part of your novella? What do you remember about writing it?
The history of Urchin is long. It was originally the first act of what grew into a truly terrible screenplay I wrote over ten years ago. I then “transposed” it into a stand-alone long story/novella. Now it has become the first chapter of my novel-in-progress.
What I remember most from the screenplay incarnation is the challenge of evoking interior states via only what can be seen and heard. I remember the discipline of compressing the world I “saw” into slug-lines: mere notes for the director, set designer, cinematographer, etc. It was bracing, and excellent training for writing short fiction, for keeping the action brisk, and for “telling” inaudible turmoil or joy through dialogue alone.
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
Urchin tells a darkly humorous story, darker that my other work, with a wry, fairytale undercurrent. Astrid, a lonely, grubby ugly duckling, is growing up in the 60s in an elegant but ramshackle house near the University of Chicago; she is also a musical prodigy. Fortified by her passion for music, she learns to survive on the elusive love of her eccentric, wizardly old father, Otto, a famous Scandinavian mathematician who essentially lives in his attic study, as well as to resist the alluring, hollow love of her young mother, Janelle, a professor, a beauty, a lush, and a self-deluded version of the jealous queen in Snow White. Janelle’s confidante, Harriet, attempts the role of fairy godmother. Her student lover, the composer Anthony Russo, is Astrid’s would-be hero.
Although the characters in my collection, I’m Dying Here and Other Stories, come from varied backgrounds and range in age from four to eighty, like Astrid, they all wrestle with painful, if funny, misalignments of love and devotion. They also reflect my abiding interest in questioning stereotypes: tender children, heartless hunters, and sweet grandmothers. Like Urchin, most of my stories expose the warped, emotionally benighted underside of the privileged: Brahmins, an artsy SoHo socialite, a Yuppie at the top of her game. The love-starved Astrid, blessed with both prodigious talent and rare beauty, is more archetype that stereotype, but ill-equipped to survive the reactions that her powerful, enviable gifts arouse. We all feel diminished, including, of course, the blessed, in the presence of such “creatures,” and our reactions range from worship to hostility, from the assumption that they are all things good or, in the case of Astrid’s mother, Janelle, that they are selfish and vain, and that the diminishment we feel is deliberately inflicted.
How did you decide on the length of your novella?
Writing screenplays, you learn to shut down a scene as soon as it has done its job: advancing the plot and complicating a character. My scenes always seemed to come to sort of mini-resolutions on their own.
Recognizing the best possible ending becomes almost instinctive. The same goes for each of the three acts. So honestly, I’d have to say that Urchin ended itself.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Urchin hovers in the murky boundary between the long story and the novella. I chipped it down to 10,000 words and submitted it to as many journals and contests as I could find that would consider stories of that length, which is to say, eight. I didn’t bother with novella contests, figuring Urchin would be too skimpy to win. So when I discovered the new Ploughshares Solos series, I jumped on it. (Solos are sold on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble as $.99 e-books before appearing in an anthology.)
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
All I did was sign off on what Ploughshares put together for me, which I think is perfect.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
Not much. It’s on my website, of course, and I’ve mentioned it in my HS and college newsletters. It’s posted on Facebook, which I rarely visit, and I don’t tweet. As for readings, Urchin happened to come out while I was at the VCCA and I had one to celebrate. Also, I’m looking into putting together a reading of local Ploughshares authors.
What are you working on now?
I’m very close to the end of the second draft of my novel-in-progress. I love polishing, and for that reason as much as any other I’m looking forward to writing that last paragraph. And then? Lorrie Moore said, “Writing a novel is an act of insanity.” I see her point, and from here on out, it’s novellas and stories for me.
Do you remember the first time you showed someone your writing, and what was the experience like?
When I’d turned from scholarly to screen writing to fiction, I hired a coach, Kathleen Spivack. I remember two of her initial responses: “Reign in. You’ve written three stories crammed into one.” Apparently, I’d dished up quite a mess and so immediately got out my butcher’s knife and chopped my manuscript up into digestible portions. The second response was also energizing: “You could send your kids to college on this stuff, unless you’re just out to entertain your family and friends.” I was never foolish enough to have dollar signs in my eyes, but I instantly set my sights on a serious career.
Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?
No. I’ve certainly thought of writing but never have. Not sure why, since I do see the mutual benefits of such exchanges. Whenever I take the time to articulate what excites me, I learn, my taste is clarified, my pleasure enlarged. “A wonderful writer” seems to function for readers as well as professional writers as a sufficient response to everyone they admire. For me, “wonderful” is always a bit of a let down. It’s almost the opposite of an invitation to conversation. Anyway, I’m glad you asked. I intend to mend my ways.
Lisa Heiserman Perkins earned a PhD (U. Chicago), taught English at Tufts, Harvard, and Emerson College, and then left academia to make documentary films. She was associate producer of Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson— and is the writer, director, producer of Secret Intelligence: Decoding Hedy Lamarr (in post-production). Her stories have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Quiddity, Fourth River, and elsewhere. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 and in 2012 she won the New Millennium Fiction Prize and the Meringoff Fiction Award. In 2014, she was a fellow at the VCCA, and is now finishing her novel-in-progress.
When Astrid was ten, she was allowed to grow her hair provided she coped with it herself. She had glasses now, which was also a bit of an ordeal since she was forever losing or sitting on them.
“Clean them off!” said Dorothea. “They’re filthy! How can you not even notice?” Dorothea, having turned twelve, had gone up on toe shoes and so had permission to make space in front of the living room fireplace to practice her Swan Lake routine, even though Janelle was working in her study— “just a little erstwhile conservatory” she called it, tucked behind the French doors up at the front end of the room. Dorothea wore a bleach-blotched, scarlet tutu, and was holding a crouched pose. Their baby brother, Blake, who was skinny and little even though he was seven now, sat in Papa’s winged-back chair. Blake was the audience and Astrid, who was simply not cut out for ballet, manned the record player.
“I can see fine,” she said. The record was warped, its shiny surface crosshatched with scratches. Her face was inches from the arm, which she pinched, her fingertips white, as she aimed to land the needle between the bands of the movements.
Dorothea, wobbling, said, “Now!” The needle bounced, and she un-crouched with a roar. Astrid retrieved the arm—more damage—and Janelle screamed, “Quiet!”
The girls exchanged glares and then, motionless, all three Nordling children looked at their mother through the French doors. They watched, waiting, as she hunched back over her typewriter.