This Darksome Burn (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013)
What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner identifies “This Pedersen Kid” by William Gass as a perfect example of the novella form. I bought Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, started Gass’s novella while waiting at a dentist office, and have re-read the book every year since. That’s over a decade of returning to his rhythms and structure. It’s a rejuvenating book, and helped me fall in love with the novella form.
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?
Early in the novella, the main character, Luke, encounters wolves while on a hunt. The wolves attack and drive away his horse, and the scene serves as a precursor to the violence that will later appear at his home. That’s where the idea for the novella started, and, despite all of the other revisions, that element has remained.
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
This Darksome Burn is about an act of violence that fractures a family. Luke’s daughter, Aurea, is attacked by her ex-boyfriend. She becomes pregnant with his child, but is torn whether she should continue with the pregnancy. She struggles with her decision among her overbearing father, her curious yet innocent younger brother, Ford, and the memory of her late mother.
There is definitely a pastoral hue to much of my fiction, but This Darksome Burn adds, appropriately, a bit more darkness to this fictive world. Someone once noted that most of my fiction includes “farms and fights,” so I remain true to that pair in this book.
How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?
The book’s current title is taken from a poem, “Inversnaid,” by 19th century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Burn” is a Scottish word for “river”; in the poem, a dark river is likened to the body of a horse. All of these thematic elements come through in the novella. In the book’s earliest drafts, Hopkins’s poem served as an epigraph, but it quickly became the title. The “burn” of the story, a mysterious stream that brings unusual events, is a central element of the book.
The story began as a novella, became a one-act play, and then bloated to a 300 page novel. I set the novel version aside for a while and turned-it into a screenplay, and by submitting to the formal elements of the script medium, discovered the real profluence of the story. I finally returned it to the novella form, and found the right energy for the narrative.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I had sent the novella to a few publishers at the same time, but was lucky to have a quick, positive response from Erin McKnight at Queen’s Ferry Press, who wanted to publish the story as part of the FirthForth Books imprint of the press.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
I am biased, but I absolutely love the cover of the book, which was designed by Brian Mihok. This is the second book of mine that he has worked on. As a writer himself, he’s got an excellent sense of distilling a work into a snapshot image.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
I wrote a comprehensive essay for The Millions on novellas as a form, contributed a Research Notes article to Necessary Fiction about the book, and participated in interviews with Shenandoah, The New Jersey Herald, and elsewhere. And, of course, readings!
What are you working on now?
I have just finished the first round of proof edits on Good People, my forthcoming collection of short stories from Foxhead Books. Stories in the book originally appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Sou’wester, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere; it was fun to revisit them during the review of the proof. I’m a staff writer for The Millions, so I write two essays a month for them, and am working on a few essays about contemporary Catholic literature for other magazines. Then, when the weather finally warms up, I’ll return to writing new fiction again.
What is your writing practice or process? Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
For revision, I value emotional, mental, and tactile difference between drafts. I write around or past midnight, but I revise during the day. I type drafts on the computer, but revise on a printed page, with a pencil. Pens are too permanent. Pencil can be erased, but I can follow the path of my revision by seeing the shadows of shadings and scribbles. For me, that process makes the text an organic thing.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
The story will dictate its own length, so don’t set out to draft a novella. Novellas are revised, not drafted. Realize that novellas are a unique length, so not many magazines publish them, although the ones that do are great publications: New England Review, Ploughshares, Big Fiction, Waxwing, PANK, The Missouri Review, and so on.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your novella? How would you answer it?
I’ve been asked many good questions about the novella, but an additional one might be: When did you discover the ending of your book?
My answer: I had a general idea of the ending of the novella, but the actual language and scene coalesced when I turned the novel into a script, and I thought of that final scene as a litany of images to be experienced by an audience.
What question would you like to ask the next novella author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Novellas are often of similar length as film scripts. Do you see any storytelling connections between novellas and films?
How does the novella allow you to do things you wouldn’t normally do in a full-length book? Why does it allow you to do it? Is it because the novella is more under the radar? Or is it because of its format? Its length?
Novellas, by virtue of their compressed length, contain a tension not always formally apparent within novels. Novellas are the 800 meters of literature. They are a sprint, but you have to save some breath for the final straightaway.
Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer? What did you/ might you say?
To this date, I continue to contact writers whose work I enjoy in literary magazines. Writing is largely a solitary pursuit, and a Facebook like is not exactly a personal connection. Every writer I have ever contacted with such praise has been very gracious and appreciative in response. Writers want to be read—no matter their style or subject.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of This Darksome Burn, a novella, and The Fine Delight, a critical examination of contemporary Catholic literature. Good People, his short story collection, is forthcoming from Foxhead Books. His books of poetry include This Is Not About Birds and Oblations. He is a staff writer for The Millions and a public school English teacher. He lives with his wife and twin daughters in New Jersey.
from This Darksome Burn
Luke called for his father then, but there was no answer. His father shifted his unlaced boots in the grass. Green pants worn light behind the knees. He aimed a rifle at a shrike that swooped, almost crashing into the roof of the barn. Luke ran toward his father and showed him the stick. He saw the bubbles like milk that stuck to the wood. His father said there were a thousand streams in the forest. One would dry up today and another would spring loose tomorrow. No reason to get excited.
But Luke did.