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.
I 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 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 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.com, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Asimov’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.
EDITED JAN. 25: IT’S NOW TIME TO ANNOUNCE THE WINNERS OF ONE FOR SORROW AND THE LOVE WE SHARE WITHOUT KNOWING:
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 Knowing! And 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:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Guest Post on overcoming bitterness by Gayle Forman
- Guest Post on the Writer who never arrives by Sean Ferrell (includes giveaway open through January 20!)
- Guest Post on the “nasty” book and the teacher’s advice that led Eileen Cook to become a writer
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.