Monday, October 18, 2010

Moving from Tight Little Machines to the Novel

Essay by Daniel Olivas

[Note: I’ve just completed the final edits to the proofs of my upcoming novel, The Book of Want, which will be published by the University of Arizona Press early next year. With that done, I turned back to my next book, a collection of stories and essays tentatively titled, Things We Do Not Talk About. In culling through my various published essays from the last ten years or so, I came upon the essay which I republish here; it first appeared in CaliforniaAuthors in February 2007. Perhaps it will be of some interest to La Bloga readers, particularly those who are embarking on novel writing.]

I recently interviewed Salvador Plascencia on the occasion of the paperback release of his novel, The People of Paper. I asked if he was working on another novel or perhaps short stories.

He replied: “I think I’m stuck writing novels for better or worse. I’m too scattered to be able to make one of those tight little machines they call short stories.”

Tight little machines? Perfect.

But what struck me more than Plascencia’s eloquence was his unapologetic candor. At the time, I was in the midst of trying to make the leap from short story writer to novelist, and going crazy in the process. Plascencia got me wondering why I was putting myself through all that angst. I’d garnered nice reviews for my two collections, Assumption and Other Stories and Devil Talk, and my stories have been taught in high school and college. My novella and children’s picture book were also well received. I write because it gives me joy, not because it’ll put food on the table. I had no compelling reason to start writing a novel.

When I started writing, why did I gravitate to short stories rather than the novel? Part of the answer is the delight I derived when I was younger and falling in love with those tight little machines by such writers as Fitzgerald, Maugham and Hemingway. And then later, I discovered the likes of Boyle, Cisneros and Bender. I learned that a short story is like a poem: each word, every sentence, has to matter. Yet I could think of a few great 500-page novels that might be trimmed by a few thousand words without losing much strength.

Another reason why I gravitated to the short form was my busy schedule as a full-time litigator with the California Department of Justice. I’m also a husband and father. The spotty writing time that I can scrape together in the evenings or weekend mornings makes it difficult for me to maintain any sort of continuity for longer pieces. I know other writers can do it, but we all have different strengths, as my mother always reminded me when I was young. I figured that I could write short stories for the rest of my life and that would just fine, thank you very much. There was no disgrace in being a short story writer. I mean, Borges never wrote a novel, right?

I completed another short-story collection, which my agent and I sent out. But a couple of large publishing houses passed on it with basically the same sentiment: love your writing but short stories are a tough sell. Don’t you have a novel in you?

This was a bit maddening because, as all writers know, no one ever asks a novelist, “Don’t you have a short-story collection in you?” Never. Ever. But that’s fine. There are greater injustices in life.

In any event, since I like challenges, I tried to map out the kind of novel I would write. And this is when I started to go a bit crazy. Visions of writing the “Great American Novel” crept into my brain. Once that happened, the very idea of writing a novel seemed like an impossible—and not very fun—job. And then I conducted the Plascencia interview, which shook some sense into me. I suddenly realized that I would not write a novel unless it was fun. If I decided not to move to the longer form, that was fine. So I figured I’d take baby steps. If I were to write a novel, what would be about?

I’ve written about Chicanos of all ages and income levels who confront various challenges from unrequited love to battles with bigotry or economic hardship or you-name-it. I’ve also set stories in Mexico and I haven’t been afraid to dip heavily into magical realism especially in my collection, Devil Talk. And because I was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to Judaism in adulthood, I’ve touched upon issues of intermarriage, religious tensions and even the Holocaust.

I saw no reason to stray from these themes. I kept reminding myself that this novel would have to be fun to write. Otherwise why do it? I didn’t want to get bored with the characters or plot, something that never happens when I write short stories. I mean, look, they’re short. You get in, you get out. It’s a little thrill ride with no time for things to get dull.

I eventually came upon the overarching inspiration and structure for my novel that would pull together all of these elements. Maybe it wouldn’t sell, but so what? (That noise you hear is my agent sighing—deeply, sadly.) But I knew that if I were to write a novel, this would be it.

I also knew that my novel would not have the panoramic, epic breadth of, say, Luis Alberto Urrea’s brilliant The Hummingbird’s Daughter. It would be closer to the novel-in-stories such as one of my favorite books, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, or perhaps Laila Lalami’s exquisite Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. While the chapters would connect, I wanted each to be able to stand alone as a short story, to be self-contained and a world unto itself. Not only did I want to touch on some of my favorite themes, I also hoped to address such timely topics as the quagmire in Iraq, Los Angeles politics (especially our Chicano mayor), immigration and assimilation.

Once I settled on the themes and structure, I approached each chapter with the joyful giddiness I get from starting a new short story.

That was about a year ago. I finished the novel and sent it to my agent and she, in turn, forwarded the manuscript to a couple of editors who wanted to see me make the leap to the long form. Now all we can do is wait. Will they like my novel? God only knows.

But I had a damn fun time writing it.

[Postscript: My agent couldn’t sell the novel to larger presses because it was "too experimental" and "too literary.” We parted ways (no hard feelings) and I eventually submitted my manuscript to the University of Arizona Press and look forward to its publication in 2011. I am very happy with this turn of events because I did not have to compromise my writing: U of A has long been a leader in publishing the work of Chicano and Latino literature.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

omg, how exciting! Just today my officemate and I were talking about how we need to push each other to write the "tight little machines" that we want to write. Thanks for sharing your process and congrats on finding a publisher. The journey you wrote about is exciting! :)