Shaking Off the Grip I Love Most? Nah!

For the past two years, linked story collections as a sub-genre in fiction writing have seized me by the throat and won’t let go. I know that sounds a bit melodramatic, but that’s the effect I’m going for. It all started when I first entered an MFA program at VCFA and received advice that it was a good time to put my novel-in-progress aside and get working on shorts. Though my previous sentence could ignite controversy–I’ve read the debates–the invitation to hone my craft in that way made some sense. It was my choice and I was not sorry, just a little sad.

A glutton for novels since the age of ten, I’d reveled in the expansiveness of time, the thickness of pages all bound for the same cause, the one true protagonist. To loose myself in two hundred or more pages of the same imaginative world is why I woke up in the morning.

So what to do with the sadness?

One of my teachers, in a passing conversation, suggested that I might begin a transition into stories by reading linked collections. Had I heard of them? I had not. I had heard of and read everything by Flannery O’Connor, and read novels.

Six months later, a stack of new books teetered on my desk, a new game on, and a new reason to stay up all night. Alice Munro. Elizabeth Strout. James Joyce. Louise Erdich. Jason Brown. It wouldn’t be the first time in my life that I was surprised by love. And, like being in love, after the giddy blush come the unhealthy obsessions, the grasping and the grilling, the rebuffs and the reunion, and finally, the struggle to let go. Sherwood Anderson. Robert Olen Butler. Stuart Dybek. Andrea Barrett. Jhumpa Lahiri. Cathy Day.

The problem is, a good linked story collection can affect the wide sweep of a longer narrative, the evolution of a character and place over time, and still maintain the crisp clarity of the single emotional moment, the sudden revelation, the dozen-page-doozy of a kick-ass tale. Who’d want to break up with that? The story stack stretched higher, while unread novels got stuffed between gardening book and field guides. What won me over were the concise, unrelenting slivers of time and the links that expanded them into a broader world.

Here’s how some authors have achieved the link, and where I drop a few good names…

Sybil Baker does it with mainly through character. Her protagonist, Elise, sometimes saunters, sometimes storms across the pages of Talismans. In each story, Elise shows up for one in a string of revelations that creates the novel-like feel of this collection, while maintaining each stand-alone quality in its parts. From my Contrary review: “…readers simultaneously experience the emotional and geographic territory of Elise­’s world as she navigates loss and pursues connection–from girl to woman and from small-town Virginia to Southeast Asia. While each story represents a key moment in Elise’s life, the collection shows her evolution over two decades. Herein lies the beauty of the story cycle form.”

Siobahn Fallon links her stories, closely based on her life at an army base, with place, and more. Here’s what I say about theme as a linking device in, You Know When the Men Are Gone. “…the theme of unrelenting separation is what most unifies the collection. Deployment, re-assignment, divorce, re-deployment, and potentially, death–all threaten the foundation of familial relationships and loom larger than the war itself.”

Alan Heathcock unifies with place and character in Volt. “The nature of a linked collection allows the reader a scope of character development beyond the events in one story, one narrow slice of time. In Volt, protagonists in one story age and become supporting characters later in the book.” (Contrary review)

Patricia Henley takes the issues of being a woman into strong consideration in Other Heartbreaks. Or as I see it… “stories are linked by women responding to loss through amalgamated reminiscences.” My review here. The quality of Henley’s prose and the plight of her characters remind me of Louise’s Erdich’s Love Medicine.

But Dylan Landis is the expert on Erdich’s book. I will never forget the posted and pocked state of Dylan’s own beloved copy, rifled for the gleanings that she used to teach herself how to write a linked collection, as she waved it in the air at a panel discussion at the 2011 AWP conference in DC. You can read what she says about it in her article for Tri-Quarterly here.

And, since we’re on the topic of Dylan Landis, I highly recommend her linked collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. While I did not have the honor to review her book at Contrary, you can read more about my views on her collection at my blog post from last March titled, “Normal People.”

And speaking of the highly recommendable, check out this linked story collection, too. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum …From another earlier blog post: The stories are linked by the narrator, Beatrice Hempel, a young middle school teacher of English, who feels she really is “just another line of defense in the daily eight-hour effort to contain them.” There’s a terrific review on the linking character, Ms. Hempel, by Josh Emmons in the NYT Sunday Book Review that you can check out here.

And, while I enjoy peddling female authors, I’ll give Alan Heathcock a couple of male pals in this discussion and mention a new-release collection, The Greatest Show, by Michael Downs. This remarkable book links stories via a shared tragedy, the city of Hartford, and an on-going character discovery in the form of Teddy, a three-year-old circus attendee who traverses the span of the book over decades. Reminiscent of Let the Great World Spin, a novel by Colum McCann, with all of it’s dips and loops, Downs demonstrates how writing a certain kind of collection can satisfy the novel groupie.

Finally, I would be remiss in excluding my most recent read, The Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. I first saw this collection in hardcover at a Border’s liquidation sale. Based solely on a blurb on the back cover, I bought one up, read the first story, and was blown away. Then I heard him read from the last story at our local Brattleboro Literary Festival and sat among an entire throng who were blown away. I bought a paper copy and mailed my hard copy to a friend. I championed the book at my local book group and beamed on the night of the discussion, as if it were my book, because we had a unanimous YES!-with-4 stars vote, and a red pen endorsement from our secretary, and that hardly ever happens.

In the past two-and-a half years, I have read over thirty linked collections. Pam Houston. Ann Joslin Williams. Joan Silber. Josh Rolnick. John Updike.

I still squeeze in a novel here and there, delight in one YA fiction per month, and watch a hell of lot of BBC mini-series, but I can’t help loving what I love: that gripping, clinging, cloying passion. In fact, I have a laundry basket with enough unpolished manuscripts of shorts of my own to make up two linked-story collections set in the fictional town of Rosewood, Vermont.

Which reminds me, I’d better get going.

Annie Proulx. Vincent Panella. Ernest Hemingway. Ellen Gilchrist. Jennifer Egan.