Turning Points: Guest Post by Christopher Barzak (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Christopher Barzak reveals how he moved from writing short stories to novels, only to discover the form of the short story wasn’t ready to let him go just yet…

Turning points for writers, as I imagine for any kind of artist, can come at any moment, and in any period in a writer’s development. At least that’s how it’s been for me so far in the last twelve years of my life as a writer, and I can’t (maybe don’t want to?) imagine a future in which I don’t continue to stumble upon turning points.

One for SorrowI started my career as a writer of short stories. My first story was published in 1999, in a small but loud little zine called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (published by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, who later went on to form their own publishing house, Small Beer Press). And from then on, I continued to publish several short stories each year until I began work on my first novel, One for Sorrow, in 2003.

It was difficult learning how to write a continuous narrative that spanned the vast fields of a novel after learning my craft in the enclosed rooms of the short story, where order and subtlety and doing more with less—where being perfect in as few words as possible—is the rule of thumb. The novel asks for something else: for the writer to let go, to release control, to immerse yourself in the waters of another world, separate from this one, even if it’s a reflection of this one, to explore, and then to continue exploring, even after you think you’ve covered every inch of story possible, and then some.

That was probably the first turning point in my life as a writer, moving from being a writer of short stories to a writer of novels, but it’s not the turning point I want to talk about specifically, except in relationship to the turning point I had directly after writing my first novel.

When I finished my first novel, I got an agent with it, but the book didn’t sell right away. Like most novels, it was rejected by a number of publishers before it found the right editor who loved it and wanted to feed it and take care of it and bring it out into the world. But before One for Sorrow found the editor who wanted to do all of that, I needed to move on to my next book.

I was at a loss for a while, though, because I wasn’t sure what to move on to, and I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to write a novel. I had spent a couple of years with a first-person narrator who sees ghosts, and after spending that much time writing in one perspective only, the idea of doing so again felt a little claustrophobic to me. I missed the way I could write a short story in a matter of days or weeks, and then move on to write another one, and it would be a completely new experience, even if the themes or styles were related to the one before, and in this way, it was a little bit like falling in love and discovering a new person in a whirlwind sort of romance, rather than settling in and getting married, the way it is when you write a novel.

At the time, I was living in Japan, where I taught English to elementary and middle-school students in a rural town called Edosaki. I’m the sort of writer who is often inspired by the places I live, and so, while I deliberated what kind of novel I should write next, I began writing short stories set in the Japan I was getting to know. The first story was about a fifteen-year-old boy whose family moves to Japan for his father’s job, and while there, he meets the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide years prior, and who appears as a red fox, like the Japanese spirit of the kitsune, the fox woman, a trickster type. The second story I wrote was about a group of Japanese men and women in their late 20s and 30s who had arrived at dead ends in their lives, and begin to form a suicide club out of their shared disappointments with the world. As I wrote that story, I realized that one of the characters had already had some experience with suicide in her life, and that she had in fact been the best friend of the fox girl in the story I’d just written, back when they were in high school.

I remember that I hadn’t planned that connection, but it had worked its way into the story regardless, and I was thrilled by the feeling of discovery and mysterious connections, the way I can still be thrilled when I happen to make a friend or acquaintance who it turns out knows someone else in my life, but with a completely different set of associations than the ones I share with them. It was after I stumbled upon that surprising interconnection that I had the idea: why not have my cake and eat it too? Why must a novel be about one character (or a few characters), moving from point A to point B, like a train on a track that takes you inevitably to the destination it promised? Why can’t a novel be more like life, mysterious, shifting, though woven together through the strands of connections we all have to one another, especially the invisible threads of connection we don’t always perceive at first?

That was the crux, the structure, and the theme of the book, I realized. The Love We Share Without Knowing.

I could write short stories and a novel at the same time.

The Love We Share Without KnowingThe rest of the writing process for that book became a matter of allowing myself to immerse in the life of a character with a situation I wanted to explore, while at the same time unfolding the connection they had to the greater story of the book, and I could remain surprised by the connections I made, and move forward with a sense of discovery rather than a sense of planning. For me, writing is an act of unveiling what I can’t see, pulling the drop cloth off the piano, drawing the curtains back to see through the window. Whenever I try to plan, like a builder, I grow bored, and the work inevitably fails because I’ve not given myself the one thing I need in order to write: curiosity. I can’t know everything about what I’m writing, because when I do, it falls dead in my hands immediately. I can construct zombie stories in this way, but they are always lifeless, no matter that they walk and make noises. They are also maybe the inverse of the typical zombie: they are all brains and no heart. They think, but do not feel. And for me, it’s feeling that moves me, no matter how fancy an idea might be.

I can’t say that every reader, or even many readers, feels the same way as I do about a novel written in the warp and weft of interconnected stories as opposed to carefully tracked chapters. I think from what we can tell by what sells well and what doesn’t that the traditional novel form is the one with the bigger audience. But writing The Love We Share Without Knowing in this particularly interstitial manner—somewhere between the form of the novel and the form of short stories—freed me up as a writer in ways that were inexorable and glorious to rediscover the blue skies of storytelling, to fly instead of walking the pedestrian sidewalks day after day.

—Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak grew up in rural Ohio, went to university in a decaying post-industrial city in Ohio, and has lived in a Southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, where he taught English in elementary and middle schools. His stories have appeared in many venues, including Nerve.comThe Year’s Best Fantasy and HorrorAsimov’s, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His first novel, One for Sorrow, was published by Bantam Books in Fall of 2007, and won the Crawford Award that same year. His second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a novel-in-stories set in a magical realist modern Japan, and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. He is the co-editor of Interfictions 2, and has done Japanese-English translation on Kant: For Eternal Peace, a peace theory book published in Japan for Japanese teens. Currently he lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.

Visit Christopher at christopherbarzak.wordpress.com.

Follow @Cbarzak on Twitter.


All commenters on this post were entered to win either a signed copy of One for Sorrow or a signed copy of The Love We Share Without KnowingAnd two winners have been randomly chosen…

Congrats, Lenmeo—you won a signed copy of One for Sorrow!

Congrats, JJ—you won a signed copy of The Love We Share Without Knowing!

I will be emailing you both soon for your mailing addresses. And thank you again, Chris, for donating the books for this giveaway!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

31 responses to “Turning Points: Guest Post by Christopher Barzak (+Giveaway)”

  1. Fascinating story! I admire short story writers; I cannot write one to save my life. (I write long. Even in novels, I tend to write LOOOOOOOOOONG.) Many of my friends write short stories, which I believe is an art form in itself: the ability to distill a story down to its essence is a gift, and one which I lack. (Though not for the lack of trying.)

    I would love a copy of The Love We Share Without Knowing!

    My absolute favourite short story collection is Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which are all set in a Regency/Napoleonic England, but with magic. The titular story is my favourite in that collection because it shows the feminine side of magic where Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell shows the masculine side. I mostly think Susanna Clarke is a genius though, so…

    The prevailing notion in editorial is that a short story writer or a magazine writer cannot write long. I don’t think that’s true–I think it’s a matter of finding the right story that fits a novel. Neil Gaiman has written some amazing novels and short stories (Nicholas Was, Chivalry, and We Can Get Them For You Wholesale).


  2. Thank you for this inspiring post. I love how you shared how your second novel evolved. The uncertainty of where to go after the first project is very daunting. Finding it the way you did, provides a great idea on how to develop a new piece. I’ve never read a short story collection, or novel-in-stories type book. The closest I have come to something like that is “A Step From Heaven” by An Na.


  3. Wonderful series, Nova. This is my favorite so far just because I’m in that short story phase of my writing life. I still worry about how things will work out once I do get around to writing a novel, but this post gives me a good bit of hope and inspiration.

    My favorite short story collection is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
    by Ray Carver. It’s a bit cliche, I guess, but to me, it’s one of the most perfect collections of short stories I’ve ever read.


  4. Wow, I loved this post. Don’t even know what to say right now because I’m still processing. As for my favorite collection of short stories, that would have to be Drown by Junot Diaz.


  5. My favorite short story collections:
    Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
    Drown, by Junot Diaz
    The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret
    Skin by Roald Dahl
    After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
    Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


  6. My favorite short story collections are all by Shirley Jackson. Her two books about raising her family, Life Among The Savages and Raising Demons, are comprised of fictionalized stories about her children (though I choose to believe that they are all absolutely true). Just An Ordinary Day, which was published posthumously by her children, contains most of my favorite stories. The Lottery, besides including her most famous short story (which I think is only so-so compared to the rest of her work) has several stories that feature the same character–or rather, the people affected by that character.


  7. I am enjoying this series very much, Nova, but this one really hit me because I am also a short story writer and what Christopher said resonates completely (only I couldn’t have expressed it as eloquently as he does). As a result, I’m actually a big fan of connected short stories.

    Two favorites:
    Graham Salisbury’s Blue Skin of the Sea
    Rohinton Mistry’s Swimming Lessons

    I hope you pick my name for his shorts collection. Thank you.


  8. I don’t write short stories often, but I love reading them! My favorite book of them would have to be How to Hold a Woman by Billy Lombardo.


  9. Thanks for a very nice article. I like this sort of introspective article–you get a good sense of the more intimate side of writing.

    My favorite short story collection is A Good Old-fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling. There is a bit of interconnection in the stories, but a key recurring theme that resonated with me is the idea of mildly hopeful, sometimes random exploration in a confusing and sometimes bleak environment.


  10. I love Roald Dahl’s short stories; The Best of Roald Dahl is a really good collection. His short stories are much more sinister then his children books, and if you like creepy stories with surprising twists then you should definitley check Dahl’s stories out! I also love the Little House Sampler, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. It’s a collection of stories and such from Laura and Rose, and if you love the Little House books it’s definitley something you should read. There’s a short story by Rose (Laura’s daughter) that is fantastic, and it’s actually the first short story I ever read.


  11. Great post! I was able to work with Chris a few years ago at a writing workshop and he teaches in my MFA consortium, so hopefully one day I’ll be able to take a class with him. One of my favorite short story collections is BOYS AND GIRLS LIKE YOU AND ME by Aryn Kyle. Her writing rocks!


  12. Favorite short story collection is “R is for Rocket” by Bradbury (I actually love pretty much all of his collections but “R is for Rocket” is just a flat out favorite story by him). I’ve been a short story fan forever – love Poe’s, enjoy Hemingway’s, etc. In a lot of cases, I think short stories are far more powerful than novels.


  13. Trying to choose which collection of stories is my favorite is about as difficult as trying to name my absolute favorite song. It really comes down to what I’m feeling at any one period of my life; the answer these questions changes like my moods. However, I really like H.P. Lovecraft’s collection “Crawling Chaos” because, while he wasn’t much of a writer when it came to dialogue (as was the case with many writers in his day), his lurid and hallucinatory imagery was second to none. Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Edgar Allen Poe were all masters of the short story, as well. Even Stephen King, as prolific as he’s been with his novels over the decades, has managed to blow my mind once or twice with his shorter works.

    As far as, which form I prefer–the short story or the novel–I cannot say. Again, it all depends where I am in my life and what I’m feeling at the time. Currently, I’m in novel mode, being about halfway through Mr. Barzak’s debut novel (which has appealed to nearly all of my emotions thus far).

    By the way, great post, Chris. I always enjoy hearing your take on things. Thanks for your inspiration. See you in class!


  14. Such a wonderful post, Chris! Thank you!

    My favorite short story collection, hands down, is “My Merry Mornings” by Ivan Klima. Written before the fall of the iron curtain, the stories are startling in their clarity, brevity, and depth..


  15. My favorite short story collection is “How to Breathe Underwater” by Julie Orringer. Breathtaking. Read it years ago and think about it still.
    twitter: @coreyannhaydu

    and i’d LOVE a copy of “the love we share….” Novel Meets Short Story is a form I’m in love with.


  16. My all time favorite novel-in-stories is, no kidding, The Love We Share Without Knowing. I have read this book many, many times and I love it more every time. I have lent this book out to so many friends that I now no longer own a copy. It was very loved and needed to be let go of. I cannot think of another short story collection that I could rave about like this one. I also bought a copy of One For Sorrow and lent it out as well, but sadly it never came back to me. I never even got a chance to read it LOL.

    I love all things Christopher Barzak and I am elated to see him here on this blog with Nova! Well done sharing your turning point. I loved it! Thank you.

    afterthebook at gmail dot com


  17. This blog entry just gave me permission to write that novel in stories that has been lurking just to the left of my consciousness, whispering for my attention.

    In terms of my favorites of the genre, well, there’s always The Things They Carried, but my favorites are as fickle as my moods and as lasting as my freckles. I can’t wait to read The Love We Share Without Knowing.

    Thank you for this.


  18. This post makes me excited to read both books. I can’t really put my finger on why, but something about it really struck a chord.

    My favourite short story collection is Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Dead Fish Museum; I like how it spans America and the past 50 or so years. Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro and The Boat by Nam Le are also really excellent.


  19. “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” or “Runaway,” by Alice Munro. When I read her stories, I feel like I am reading a novel that doesn’t take very long. Her voice is so complete and steady, it feels like the characters and I are just going to keep going on along together forever.

    —Though I will 2nd M. Santiago’s vote for Saki.


  20. (NOTE: This is not for the book, which I will purchase.)
    “Favorite” questions always trip me up, but…
    MARGARET OF THE IMPERFECTIONS by Lynda Sexson–I think you would like that one, Nova.
    As for myself, I love and live for annual “Best of” and award collections of Sci-Fi. I find the best darn stuff in those.


  21. My favorite novel is called the Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck! Also these books sound awsome!!!


  22. I love it when a story comes together–even if it’s not what I thought it would be. My characters have created this entire town that I never realized was there until it hit me that all the little segments I’d been working on fit together. Thank you for sharing your process–it makes me realize I should keep going.


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