Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost (Quarterly West, 2015)
What are some of your favorite novellas? Or what are some novellas that have influenced your writing?
The two writers I hold to as masters of this form—the long story, the short novel, the novella, whatever you like to call it—are J.D. Salinger and Katherine Anne Porter. “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” especially (not to mention being two of the best titles). Those stories showcase the power of the novella as a modern narrative form: you don’t have the length to completely forgo the suggestiveness and idiosyncrasy of a short story, but you also don’t have the extremity of compression to rule out the allegiances that can be developed over a longer period of time with the characters. You get both, which usually makes a novella kind of strange, you know? They’re pretty weird. A teacher of mine, Maud Casey, would often encourage her students to “linger in the strange,” and I’ve come to think about that expression as a gestalt for the novella form in general, and what it’s like to work on a novella. It allows for a more protracted encounter with idiosyncrasy than a story but doesn’t rely on conventional narrative unity in the way a novel might. The form is inherently experimental.
What might these favorite or influential novellas suggest about you and your writing?
While I worked on this novella, I spent some time reading and studying those books mentioned above, and also Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams.” I found that Johnson relies heavily on gesture and vision, two things that I’m obsessed with these days. There’s a paragraph in his novella that has to make a long story short, as my mother might say—it’s the story of how the protagonist comes into possession of a wagon and a team, how he finds his vocation in other words—it’s a sad, necessary little tale about a boy named Hank dying of a stroke—and here’s the problem: Johnson knows he can’t let the book get too bogged down in this side story, but at the same time, if he tries to exposit the story directly, with no scene, the credibility of the move will come into question because of its spurring role in the plot, and the reader will surely think, “oh sure, just kill him off, that’s convenient.” The solution is this very short scene, and all the credibility hinges on a single gesture. Hank removes his hat before he succumbs. I’m convinced it wouldn’t work without that gesture, and that it speaks of the humanity of the character in a way that makes the death not only credible but suddenly tragic. Those are the moves that make novellas work. You could miss them entirely in the hands of a good writer like Johnson.
I also consider Faulkner’s “The Bear” a novella, and one of the best. But again, that’s a weird book. The way time is managed in “The Bear” is an example of the lopsided shape novellas can often take, structurally speaking. The hunt-club sequences that open Faulkner’s novella seem like the heart of the story only to become a kind of preamble. So why all that time and real estate? My novella is similarly a little lopsided.
My first degree was is in psychology and I’m still interested in it, perceptive distortions and the way literature calls into question the reliability of our sensory equipment, that’s fascinating. The opening sentences of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse…” will always be in my head somewhere for those reasons. I like to think they influenced this book: “In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere…she knew something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice…”
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
The novella is about spiritual encounters, encounters with otherness, the greatest and most trying of which is marriage. It follows two characters, both protagonists, Hugh and Decima, as they enter each other’s lives and have to reckon with their various secrets and disorders.
My story collection, Father Brother Keeper, is full of tighter and more diverse explorations of a similar theme. The novella, by contrast, does not have the same clean line of action as the stories. I really enjoyed having more space to construct a kind of biographical narrative, and to allow the story to wander some with the likeness of life.
How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?
The length question for this novella is similar in my mind to a vanishing point in a painting. I was trying to bring two stories together, two lines of action, and so I thought the ending would be somewhere just beyond that meeting place, just a little bit past the central conflict. It was around 90 or so pages when I felt I had arrived at that place.
The title is taken straight from a scene in the second chapter of the book when Hugh’s grandfather is indoctrinating him into a new religion, a curious amalgamation of Christian and Cherokee mythologies that amounts to a kind of ancestor worship. The earlier title was “The Firelighter” and I liked that title, but felt it only spoke for a certain portion of the book.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a novel set in the Cowasee Basin of South Carolina, and also some poems, and always stories. I can’t stop writing stories.