Interview: Joanna Nell on the transition from short stories to novel

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Joanna Nell, debut novelist and award-winning short story author

Joanna Nell’s debut novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village has been on my radar for months. That cover, title and description hit the absolute sweet spot of the kind of books I like to read, and as an experienced medical practitioner Joanna joins a historic list of doctor/authors sharing their insights on human nature.

 

Prior to the publication of The Single Ladies with Hachette Australia, Joanna won a number of short story awards and today on the blog she has kindly agreed to answer some questions about her novel and the transition from writing short stories to a full-length novel.

 

 

Joanna, thanks for coming to chat with me on the blog today. It feels like its been quite a long wait for me to read this book, can you tell readers a little bit about it?

Single Ladies cover

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog today, Aislinn.

The Single ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village tells the story of 79 year old widow Peggy Smart who feels her life has become a rather dull and predictable. Following a very minor traffic incident she fears her adult children are trying to take away her independence. Peggy secretly dreams of inviting her handsome neighbour Brian over for a candle lit dinner but feels that as a women “of a certain age” she has become invisible. But life takes an unexpected turn when her old friend, the glamorous, internationally jet-setting fashionista Angie Valentine, a turns up in the same retirement village and sets Peggy on a journey of self-discovery.

 

This is a book about friendship, community and finding love. In writing it, I hope to challenge society’s rather narrow expectations of aging, and show readers that age is no barrier when it comes to living the life you’ve always dreamed of.

I love this concept of a positive depiction of ageing – we’re all heading in the same direction and we need role models to help us make the most out of every stage of life.

Speaking of which, this must be a pretty exciting stage for you, with your debut novel coming out this week. Is it too soon to ask if there’s another one in the works?

Well I was lucky enough to sign a two-book deal with Hachette, and my second novel The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, which draws on my adventures as a ship’s doctor on a cruise ship, is due for publication in 2019.

That’s fantastic! A cruise ship doctor must certainly have access to some pretty good stories! I’ll look forward to your next book too, and I need a pretty constant supply of this kind of fiction, so please keep working away 😊.

Joanna, I’m currently wrangling a 90, 000-word novel draft and having some difficulties with structure. Can you tell me how you’ve found the transition between writing (and revising) short stories and your novel?

I fell your pain! A novel can often feel like an unwieldy beast that’s hard to tame.

For me, it’s been a natural progression from short to full-length fiction but there have definitely been challenges too. When I started out I naively assumed that a novel was simply a longer version of a short story. I soon learned nothing could be further from the truth.

Stephen King likens the short story to “a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” And if, according to Anton Chekhov, a short story is like “drinking a shot of vodka,” then a novel is more akin to settling down for the evening with a good bottle of wine, both as a reader and a writer (with the hangover to match).

On the plus side, a novel allows the space to explore a story and get to know its characters in a way a short story can only hint at. For me, this has been the most enjoyable aspect of the transition.

The short story vs the novel?

 

What role overall do you think short stories have played in your development as a writer?

With hindsight, it was only through writing short stories that I truly learned the craft of writing, and I didn’t have the courage to embark on a novel until I was confident I had all the tools. I relish the poetry of a carefully structured sentence, and one art of a short story, according to one of the all-time masters Joy Williams, is creating “sentences that can stand strikingly alone.”

Conciseness is the key to a good short story. Every single word must count, and that economy has gone on to shape my overall writing voice. Consequently, I am hyper-critical when it comes to editing, making each word beg for its life. I always keep William Strunk (from Elements of Style) at the back of my mind: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

It is the deliberate sparseness of a short story that leaves room for the reader to use their imagination. It is as much about what is left out, as what is written. As Joy Williams says, “Control is necessary throughout. Constraints allow the story to thrive.”

The other valuable lessons I’ve taken away from writing short stories and submitting to journals or competitions are: the discipline to work to not only a word count, but also a deadline; the dramatic impact of entering a scene late and leaving early; the power of the first sentence as a hook; and the ability to write a story that hopefully stays with the reader long after it has ended. All of these are useful to bear in mind when writing a novel too.

 There is so much food for thought here, thank you. Can you tell me what has been the biggest challenge for you (if any) in moving from the short story form to the novel form?

Patience (or rather, lack of). I find I can write and polish a short story in a week, whereas a novel will take one to two years to complete. Living with the messiness of those early drafts of a novel for months on end can feel like torture to an impatient perfectionist.

A short story should certainly have a beginning, a middle and an end, but the structure of a novel is much more prescriptive. That means a lot of plot points to juggle. The characters also tend to evolve and reveal themselves more gradually during the course of writing a novel. It can be tricky to keep that continuity, not to mention remember all the foibles and backstories of each one.

Another challenge I’ve been aware of in my novel is making the reader work too hard, leaving too much. This is the opposite of what a good short story should do but it’s a balancing act between creating context and info-dumping. Again, Joy Williams puts this succinctly when she says, “A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” At the end of a novel, the author needs to provide a satisfying conclusion. That means having every loose end tied up and every question answered, something a short story almost never does.

Do you think you’ll keep writing short stories now, or do you see yourself as a novelist?

Ideally, I would love to keep writing both, but at the moment I’m on a tight schedule with the deadline for submitting my second novel, and an idea brewing for a third (shiny new object syndrome strikes again). However, if I approach each novel scene like a short story, I can kid myself I’m having the best of both worlds.

I know what you mean, great scenes do have their own mini story-arc but some of the hard work is taken care of in the context of a longer work – characters and settings don’t have to be created from scratch.

Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with short stories as a reader? Has it changed over time or have you always been a fan?

I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t read many before I started writing them. Now, if I’m waiting in the car to pick kids up or if I need a break from writing, I’m as likely to read a short story as a chapter of a novel. With readers increasingly time-poor, we’re seeing a resurgence of the short story and there have been some excellent collections published in recent years. Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day, and Karen Hitchcock’s Little White Slips are two that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

I’m also working my way through a collection of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories, which are compelling in their simplicity. He once said, “I have small power of imagination, but an acute power of observation.” For me, this is the key to great writing of any length.

 I completely agree that short stories can be perfect for writers’ breaks and time-poor readers. Reading a news article or newsfeed on a short break can inform or entertain, but there’s something almost spiritual about narrative writing, and to be able to access that while waiting in the car or for a few minutes after an exhausting day is really quite magical.

Finally, Joanna, would you recommend to other writers that they write short stories early in their writing career, and why or why not?

Absolutely, yes! Writing short stories is a fantastic way to hone the craft and find your unique writer’s voice. Finishing a short story is an accomplishment in itself; it requires time, discipline and skill. There is nothing to lose either by entering competitions (most are judged anonymously anyway) or submitting to journals and I’d encourage all emerging writers to do so. It’s exciting to have others read your work and any feedback is invaluable. It takes guts to put a piece of writing out there, but I can assure you that as a writer nothing beats seeing your first story in print or your name on a shortlist.

It’s natural that many writers ultimately have their sights set on publishing a novel. I highly recommend starting with short stories. Having an easily accessible body of work is a great way to showcase your style and skills, and can help you build a writing CV when querying agents or publishers.

Joanna, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some of my questions today on the blog. For readers who are as keen to read The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village as I am, it is released today and now available from Booktopia. You’ll also be able to find copies at your preferred online or physical bookstore, or order it in at your local library for your community to enjoy.

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