We spoke with three writers who have published first novels this year having previously been known as short-story writers.
Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar (Wordsonthestreet, 2008) and Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013). Ithaca, his first novel, has just been published by Picador.
Billy O’Callaghan, from Cork, is the author of three short-story collections: In Exile and In Too Deep (both Mercier Press, 2008 & 2009), and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (New Island Books, 2013). His first novel, The Dead House, was published by O’Brien Press/Brandon Books in Spring 2017, and will appear in the US in Spring 2018, published by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.
Ethel Rohan is the author of two story collections: Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books, 2010) and Goodnight Nobody (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). Her first novel, The Weight of Him, is out now in the US (St. Martin’s Press) and publishes from Atlantic Books (UK) on June 1st, 2017.
Did you stop working on short stories while working on the novel? Or have you gone back to them?
Alan McMonagle: For a spell of time, as madcap and unproductive as it was brief, I entertained the idea of simultaneously churning out short stories while working on the novel. This was an ambition quickly jettisoned – once I realised that the only likely outcome was going completely out of my mind. Ideas beget ideas I find. One short story leads to another, and another, and another. This is probably why I lived with short stories for as long as I did.
Billy O’Callaghan: I am always writing short stories. When it comes to writing I am generally very disciplined. I keep a strict daily routine that rarely deviates. But while I have no problem putting in the hours, focus is another matter entirely. In tandem with the writing of The Dead House, I had another novel on the go, a book that’s now also finished, or as good as. But in that time, dating back really to about 2009 or 2010, I was never not working on a short story. In 2013, somewhere between a confusion of drafts, my third collection, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind, was published.
Ethel Rohan: I continued to write and publish short stories while my novel was in progress. I should point out that The Weight of Him took ten years to develop from seed to book, largely because I was wrestling with a lot of fear around it. Was this unusual, difficult story one I should be telling, and was it even marketable? Because of that angst and resistance, I didn’t fully give myself over to the novel and work on it religiously until four to five years before I finally finished it. So, yes, lots of time and space for short stories in that decade.
In the nine months or so since I signed off on the final manuscript, I’ve worked mostly on a second novel and on personal essays. I have a third collection of stories I’d love to see published and I keep returning to that manuscript, chiselling and reimagining, trying to make the work its best before I send it out again to prospective publishers. But I’m deep into the world of my second novel and its cast of characters and that, and personal essays, are where I feel the most captivated and rewarded these days. I take a long time to finish short stories, I’ve been revising and rewriting several for years, and I have many others that are forgotten in notebooks and on computer files that I abandoned—many tens of thousands of words that I’ve put down to practice.
Billy: During the writing, and rewriting of The Dead House, ideas for short stories kept coming to me. Some I resisted; others grabbed me in a way that couldn’t be ignored. The problem, aside from the obvious distraction, is that novels and short stories are such different species. A short story tends to thrive on density, but novels give you room and time to stretch, and you must use the space. Density works in places within the narrative, but there’s a risk of stagnation. Movement is essential. And in terms of language, too, sentences have more of an opportunity to shine within a short story. Because novels exist on such a different scale, balance is everything. I’ve spent so much of my life writing short stories that I think something in my brain has wired itself to accepting them as a default position. Since finishing The Dead House, I have spent the time putting the last spit and polish on a new collection. Whether or not the book – or indeed the other novel – will ever be published is anyone’s guess, but the work is done, or as good as, and I am looking forward now to moving on to other things I want to write.
Has the experience of writing the novel had any impact on your approach to writing short stories?
Alan: The short story dwells within a narrow corridor. A corridor that offers a glimpse, provides a moment, a little explosion, an intensity that will not work in long form. With the novel the writing is a little looser. You must set down every thought, insight and imaginative breakthrough that arrives (most of these insights get discarded – it is part of the journey). The short story requires you to re-write. The novel insists that you write on – otherwise it doesn’t get done. Such is the nature of these very different forms. At times I feel the short story is closer to a poem than it is to the novel. Of course the poem is all about the line, while the short story primarily concerns itself with the sentence. However, the arrival of a poem or a story is often announced by an intensity that is light years away from the novel’s more measured pacing.
Billy: Over the past few years, I have found that a number of the stories I am writing are growing longer, that they seem to be reaching for a larger canvas. They feel to me like some of the best things I’ve ever written, and while they are still, in my view, short stories, at 12,000 to 15,000 words they are pushing themselves beyond magazine-length. There are some exceptions, and Ploughshares recently took a story from me that is veering close to short novella length, but the reality is that most of these longer stories will have to fit into a collection if they’re ever to be read.
I do wonder if this length increase is a consequence of working on novels or if it is just a natural development and something dictated purely by the story trying to get told. Either way, I don’t much care. I’ve published plenty of stories over the years in plenty of magazines and journals, and with so much about the writing game that is beyond my control, what matters most to me at this point is trying to get the stories right on the page. So, as long as they satisfy me, and have explored all the dark corners I’ve pushed them down, they can be as long or as short as necessary. Anything that happens after that is a bonus. All I know is that I will keep writing them, probably in tandem with, but certainly also in between, writing novels. I love short stories, and I have plenty of good ones yet to tell.
Ethel: I love short stories too, of course. At least a third of the books on my shelves are literary magazines and short-story collections. A brilliant short story is a true feat (Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” for one) and I’ll always be a fan and a champion of the short form. But I’m personally grateful to the novel for allowing me to live fully and deeply over long stretches of time in an imagined world with imagined characters. The novel rewards me with a sense of belonging and with all that it yields – gifts I don’t experience so readily and to the same degree when writing the short story.
Alan: Something that always attracted me to the short story form is its capacity (and indeed willingness) to stretch reality. Also, a short story is very much wrapped up in its own micro-climate. There is an urgency, an insistence, a level of concentration that the novel will not accommodate. And, having spent a couple of years fully immersed in the workings of a novel, one thing that now (re-) occurs to me is that, as far as my approach to the form goes, the short story will tolerate more scurrilous and expansive behaviour than its longer brethren. I feel the short story has the capacity to be wilder, more subversive, more outlandish. All of this appeals to the imaginative leaps I am often ready and willing to take.
What would you say was the biggest challenge for you in moving from the short story to the novel?
Ethel: The novel is the bigger beast, of course, so in terms of craft and word count the very idea of it is much more daunting than the short story. To take the novel from idea to form necessitates going into the arena with a particular world and its characters for years typically. The novel isn’t for slouchers.
The Weight of Him started out as a short story, one I wrote and revised on and off over years until it became clear the sweep of the story was too broad for the short form and needed to be a novel to be told in its entirety. So in that instance the manuscript going from an impossible short story to a workable novel was a great relief and reward.
More generally, though, because I first published flash fiction, then short stories, and now a novel, the assumption is that this mirrors my writing arc – that flash led to the short story and then to the novel, like building blocks. In fact, my writing oeuvre is the reverse. I first tackled the novel, then the short story, then flash fiction. So, for me, the biggest challenge was the reverse: moving from my first (unpublished, failed) novel to the short story.
Of the three forms, the short story taught me the most about writing, while still insisting on its inherent mysteries. The short story is a keen study in the necessity, value and power of every word. It also demands you know your characters intimately and know the story, the only story, you’re telling. Studying, practising, and wrangling with the short story made me a better novelist.
Billy: I’ve spent most of my adult life writing short stories, and have suffered far more than my fair share of rejection, but this has always been something that I could bear because for a long time I felt as if I was feeling my way. Learning my craft, so to speak. Over the years, I’ve had some of my best stories rejected out of hand a dozen times, or even more, only for those same stories to find homes in better and often far more highly regarded places. Some have even won awards.
Nowadays, I send my stories out and get on with writing whatever else has pushed its way to the front of my head. If a story doesn’t hit, if its destiny is to spend its life in a drawer or some obscure corner of my hard drive, then all I’ve really lost are a few weeks or a couple of months. And by the time I’ve gained enough distance to realise that this one isn’t moving, another story will have worked its way into the world. And I can keep going.
Novels, though, are different. Starting into one, and knowing that you are looking at a couple of years at least of wrestling for a few hours every day with the same ideas, the same themes and characters, means that you really have to believe in what you’re doing. In one sense, it’s a thrilling undertaking, and that kind of time-commitment means that the story has a chance to become such a part of you that you live and breathe it. But what if you’ve put all the effort in, lived with the thing for two years, or five, or ten, and nobody wants it? Short story rejections help prepare you, but facing a “no” on your novel submission is a far deeper and more intense kind of devastation.
This is my long-winded way of trying to explain what I see as the biggest challenge when committing to a novel rather than a short story – coping with the self-doubt, and the dread that you might be entirely wasting your time.
When writing The Dead House, I approached it, initially, very much as I would a short story, not knowing any other way. That allowed me to keep from being overwhelmed but it also proved a problem and was a large part of the reason why it took so long to write. I was probably a year in before I started to fully understand what I had, and what I was doing, or trying to do. That realisation brought about a necessary shift in mindset, and a certain clarity, but it also increased the sense of pressure, and the fact that it was self-inflicted in no way lessened the weight of it.
Alan: I was writing these scenes, bite-size chapters, assigning each one of them a cutesy heading. Each one had a standalone quality. An exchange of dialogue, a little description, a tonal quality or an energy I was chasing, something that I felt helped each scene earn its keep. I was really enjoying it. I had a novel-length manuscript of these, by turn playful, edgy, oh-so tenuously and spuriously held together ‘moments’. Essentially, what I thought was a solid draft of Ithaca.
An early editor gave it a close reading. She said the writing was great. She said my scene-by-scene depictions of a small town community were wonderful. She said my novel didn’t read like a novel. She said it read like a collection of loosely related vignettes. Great, I said. Not only am I not yet a novelist, I am no longer a short story writer either. I am a writer of loosely related vignettes. A couple of years on that doesn’t sound so bad (it actually sounds like I’ve been working in a hybrid form – so au courant). But at the time the comment was threatening to send me to the halfpenny place – especially having immersed myself well-deep for the best part of twelve months in what I was sure was going to be my first novel. It took another twelve months, really, for me to discover (or begin discovering) what makes a novel work as a cohesive whole.
For me, with a short story the story has begun some time before the writing begins, and the story continues on for a time after the writing stops. With the novel, I feel the story begins some time after the writing commences and the story ceases shortly before the writing ends. A novel wants to spend time with you, get to know you, be your lifelong friend. Friendship is the last thing a short story has on its mind. For all of these differences and probably more, my transition from short story writer to novelist took a little while. I could hear the gears grinding inside me.
Ethel: Overall, I found the novel to be easier to write than the short story. Yes, my novel took a decade to bring from spark to finish and, yes, it’s twelve times longer than my longest short story (7,000 words), but the novel proved to be more accessible and much less mysterious than the short form. I experienced a much keener sense of knowing what I was doing in my novel.
Are there any particular novels that helped you when it came to writing your own? How does your reading of other writers inform your work generally?
Billy: Reading is a critical part of writing, because that is where you find the tools that help you to get your own stories told. I can’t consciously say that there was any novel in particular that helped me in writing The Dead House, but I know that it all stems from an accumulation of a lifetime’s reading. As I wanted this book to have, at least outwardly, the feel of a traditional ghost story, I’m sure I drew on my memories of reading masters of the form, the likes of M.R. James, Poe and Sheridan le Fanu. But I’ve always loved ghost stories, and there are probably hints and shadows of a hundred others in there, everyone from L.P. Hartley and W.W. Jacobs to Henry James and Oliver Onions. Dickens, too, and books like The Hound of the Baskervilles. Influence is a soup, I think, and it can be difficult to identify particular ingredients, though they all contribute to the flavour.
Alan: Some have mentioned my novel in the same breath as Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. But in its form and attempted emotional impact, Ithaca is actually closer in spirit to McCabe’s subsequent novel, The Dead School. The Armenian, William Saroyan, is another big influence. He worked in both forms, the short story and the novel. He deployed a young narrator. He took delight in the absurd and the human comedy of life. There is a lovely, playful tone to his writing. And, of course, pathos. It chimes for me.
Working on Ithaca, I re-read some of the Greek myths. I read the Argentinean Silvina Ocampo’s stories. The little guy in my novel self-harms and Ocampo’s take on the psychology of self-sabotage chimes completely with my own (that is to say, we hurt ourselves in order to remind ourselves that we exist). Also, another of her stories contains an observation on the alter-ego that instantly reassured me that what I was attempting with one of the two central relationships in Ithaca (Jason and the Girl) was anything but frivolous.
I also dipped into some of the free-flowing anarchy of Flann O’Brien. Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic hinterland. And of course Beckett’s mordant humour and less-is-more style. The spirit of some my early reading also helped steer the progression of the narrative: Huckleberry Finn, The Call Of The Wild, The Coral Island. As far-flung adventures is how I remember them.
Ethel: I can’t credit particular novels that helped me with writing The Weight of Him—other than the overall bounty of books that are family centred and character driven (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge to name just one). The greatest challenge, and ultimately the greatest reward, with writing my novel was that there were few similar books to appreciate and imitate. Rather, I was writing into the void.
Everything I’ve ever read informs my writing, even the work I didn’t appreciate. It’s instructive to read work that is not to my tastes or that isn’t to my mind successful, because it reaffirms what I don’t want to do in my own writing. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s the writers and stories I most admire that are the greatest help and inspiration for my own writing. The work I love, the work that excels, I study the craft behind it so I can emulate it.
Billy: Generally speaking, reading other writers (who wants to read only themselves?) is essential for broadening the horizons of our own work. I am a voracious reader, and tend to get through probably three books a week. Yet because even that pace can’t scratch the surface of all the fine work that’s out there, it is essential to be selective. Over the last decade, my tastes have run to distant places, and probably more than half of everything I’ve read in that time has been fiction in translation. Writing from Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe has, I think, developed my appreciation for detail and small conflict within stories. There’s astonishing work being produced internationally. The world is a big and vibrant place, if we only allow ourselves to look beyond these shores. And if we don’t, then we’re missing out on so much.
Ethel: Even with unavoidable reading biases and preferences—for example how I prefer traditional narratives over obscure modernism—I try to keep an open mind with my reading lists and to be as inclusive as possible. The more varied and rich I make my reading (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a recent favourite), the more expansive I can make my writing.
Alan: Going back to certain writers and their writing, at the most rudimentary level puts me in the mood to write. These voices that chime and favourite passages are panacea, especially on the slow-start days. I was lucky enough to meet Edna O’Brien last September. Over a glass of wine we got to talking about Hemingway (another practitioner of the novel and short story). I was telling her how, when I need reminding of what good writing and literature is all about, I take down Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms and re-read the famous opening two-page chapter. At once, the great woman put down her glass, stared intensely at me and rasped, ‘I do too.’