November 18, 2007

Human stories, short and complex

As the weather descends into another endless New England winter, I’m thinking of Sundays spent by the fire with a good book. And “book,”for many of us, generally means a big fat novel, not so much because we want a lot to happen as because we want characters we can spend time with, get to know. But a recent conversation with John Fulton has me reaching for shorter fiction.

Fulton makes a strong case for short stories and novellas, those “writers’ writers” literary forms that are, for readers, the road less traveled.

Fulton teaches in the University of Massachusetts at Boston’s master of fine arts program in fiction writing and poetry and is, himself, the author of a novel, “More Than Enough”; a short story collection, “Retribution”; and his newest book, “The Animal Girl” which contains two novellas and three short stories. His work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and citation in The Best American Short Stories. He is particularly fond of the novella, a form that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was frequently serialized in magazines. Heart of Darkness”; “Animal Farm”; and “Goodbye, Columbus,” are all examples of how the novella’s impact can far exceed its word count.

“I’m a huge fan of this orphaned form,” Fulton says. As a writer he feels, as many of us readers do, that it’s all about the characters, and he appreciates the room a novella gives to let characters develop.

While some fiction writers have the story plotted out from the beginning Fulton belongs to the group that places the people on the page and lets them find their way.

”With a short story,” says Fulton, “as soon as I start I immediately have to think about the ending. In a longer work, I can have more patience with the characters. It’s not as if, in my own process, I sit down and decide I’m going to write a novella or I’m going to write a short story. But after about 10 pages of so I begin to recognize signs of a more expansive story. And then you just follow your characters.”

His tend to encounter incongruity. He may give his students a writing prompt like “a wheelchair on the beach,” noting that, in a hospital setting, a wheelchair is practically invisible. But put it on a beach and it takes on the kind of surreal dimension that gives texture to a story and leads the characters to respond in unexpected ways. In "Hunters,” the story that opens “The Animal Girl,” the reader learns in the first sentence both that Kate is answering a personal ad and that she is dying.  It’s the kind of balance between opposing impulses that Fulton relishes.

“What is grief like when it is suffused with beginnings, with the awkwardness of new love?,” he asks. “How do we relinquish life and affirm it at the same time? We rarely experience pure joy or pure fear. More often we may feel hopeful and pessimistic, fearful and expectant.

“To get a character acting on the page they have to want something. The story is exploring what they are willing to do to get it. We don’t always know what we want or what we’re capable of doing. Writers have to be aware of what their characters want and let the characters make mistakes.”

Fulton, who is the father of a baby daughter, likens the writer’s role to being a parent. “You want to keep your characters safe but you also have to release them and see what they’ll do.”



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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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