What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
I have been fascinated by the form of the short novel and/or the novella for some time now. Some of my long-time favorite works are one or the other. For instance, Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. I think I came to the novella, though, because I found it possible to achieve the narrative tension I preferred in a short story in the novella form. It’s mind-blowing to think of the masterpieces in this form, really: from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams to Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo to Edna O’Brien’s Night, and so many more.
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?
The catalyzing question is: what might happen if you check into the wrong hotel? Sophie is a novice traveler, unsure and underprepared. The tension between thinking you know and not knowing sparks the narrative. Then Sophie loses her bearings still further. I wrote the novella fairly sequentially, and so this first scene is just about the first scene I wrote.
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
This Blue is about a young woman who goes to Verdun, France on a quest to discover her childhood (she was born there), and, when she checks into the wrong hotel, she is swept into a chain of events that include murder, betrayal, and love (and archery).
I actually began This Blue many years ago, though only recently did it find its final form. It is very place-based and required a lot of research into France. I was lucky to spend some time there, too. I think writing about a foreign location requires imagination and discipline in unique ways. France, in particular, is easy for me to romanticize, and so I had to find a way to “use” the romance in the narrative, rather than be used by it (as it were).
How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?
I kind of wanted to write a novel, but the writing process itself simply did not cooperate. The scenes I imagined, the way I wanted to move through time, the way I aspired to use language—these factors together created a more concentrated approach than the unfurling of a (typical?) novel. I tried to find ways to expand, actually, but anything I tried seemed to water it down and wreck it. Very early on, I had some other titles—one that comes to mind is Our Lady Star of the Sea—but This Blue won out early.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted it to Ploughshares during an open reading period. I was so excited when I saw that Ploughshares had launched the Solos series for long stories and novellas. This length of work is notoriously excluded from most publishing schemes, but the e-book becomes, finally, a perfect medium to get it into the hands of readers. Ploughshares did an incredible job with the work, from editing to design to marketing. This Blue is out as a Kindle audio book now, too.
What are you working on now?
I am working on some very short prose pieces as well as a novel (that might end up as a novella).
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
Read some of the great novellas out there (and of course their blurry-boundary cousins, long short stories and short novels).
The struggle to find a home in publishing for a novella can be discouraging. One feels like one wants one’s work read (to oddly move into third person). Still, it is not pretty or pleasant to consider making your work something it is not. If you want to write a novella, damn well write a novella. Anyway, I feel there is more of a chance now for novellas to get out in the world, with the e-book thing, and the whole surge in small and remarkable literary presses. A novella can still be, of course, the cornerstone to a collection.
What question would you like to ask the next novella author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What are some of your favorite novellas?
Aurelie Sheehan is the author of two novels and two short story collections, most recently Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories. The novella This Blue was published as a Ploughshares Solo in 2013. A new collection of linked stories, Demigods on Speedway, will come out in November 2014. Her work has appeared in journals including Conjunctions, Epoch, Fence, New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. She teaches fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
excerpt from This Blue (a Ploughshares Solo)
The lobby was a crunch of necessary blues, blues from a lifetime, blues stored up and colonized. On the floor-length, brocade drapes, silver vines and chrysanthemums crawled on a pale blue background. The walls were painted throttled midnight blue. Blue Oriental rugs tic-tac-toed across the floor. Two nearly purple wall lamps glimmered, and under a Gothic chandelier sat a woman who looked ahead like a spectator at a closed-circuit TV horse race or a miracle at Lourdes. The door clanked shut behind me. The woman didn’t move.
The lady of the lake lowered her eyes. She was my age, and she wore a black jumper and a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar. Her dark hair was swept away from her face, skin pale as powder.
“May I help you?”
“My name is Sophie Forrest. I have a reservation.”
The ghostly girl let her long white fingers brush open the thick red leather book before her and dip in by the marker. When the pages flipped open to the date, May 17th, I saw that the page was blank, like the one next to it. In the same glance, I noticed a gun resting between a teacup and the newspaper.
The concierge shut the book and said, again in precise, throaty English, “We have no reservations for tonight, Mademoiselle. Would you care to stay for the evening?”