By Lisa Gornick
This essay was originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux as part of their Work in Progress website and is published here with their permission. http://www.fsgworkinprogress.com/2015/06/is-my-book-a-novel/
“A novel?” a friend emailed after reading an early review of what I’d thought was my collection of linked stories. A week later, a second review also called the book a novel. I wondered, Is my book a novel?
These distinctions—story collection, linked stories, novel—are, of course, semantic: we can call a shopping list a poem, or a compendium of paragraph vignettes a story collection, or an unbroken stream of words a novel. And, indeed, when I’d first talked about my book, I had described it as a “novel in fragments” in that I hoped readers would read front to back, following a thread that tied the stories together to the end. Still, the book no more matches the traditional templates for a novel than do tofu cubes for breakfast or glazed cucumbers for dessert.
Every book has a story behind a story, and it is the one behind Louisa Meets Bear that might explain why the book is a novel for some readers. When I was first thinking about putting together a collection, I reread the ten individual pieces more or less in the order in which I’d written them over two decades. Within this group, there were two linked sets: a long story (some might call it a novella) with a shorter story that zooms in on something elided in the longer piece, and two stories that connect as a straightforward chronological sequence.
Although the two sets of linked stories shared no characters, I was struck by how they seemed to come out of the same world, like one of those blocks of Indian restaurants, each with their own name and signage, rumored to have a single basement kitchen. In fact, this sense of a shared world extended across all of the stories—as if the characters were cousins or ex-lovers or childhood friends. What would happen, I wondered, if I made this actually the case?
Using the long story (or maybe it’s a novella) with its four central characters as the hub, I took a fresh look at the characters in the other stories. What if the girl who runs out of a Venice trattoria is the child of the girl who gets pregnant by the husband her professor pushed on her? What if the man with the leather bomber jacket becomes the banker who tells the bereaved children’s book writer about the Guatemalan kids who’d called him Jesus con un camion? What if the woman who drives her pickup from Prince Edward Island to Manhattan in search of her estranged son is the sister of the boy who loses his girlfriend to the man in the bomber jacket?
Creating the connections was exhilarating, like I was in the midst of a labyrinthine conspiracy– the challenge to not go overboard, as in a comic thriller where the girl at the coat check is the hired assassin and the guy driving the taxi blows up the tunnel. Then came the hard work. My editor described the book as a jigsaw puzzle, but in truth only some of the pieces initially fit together. At a recent panel on historical fiction, an author talked about how the key question for her is whether two people could have been in the same place at the same time. For me, the question was slightly different: If Event A happened at X time, then when must Event B have occurred—and would that make narrative sense? If the pregnant girl listens to her brother’s outrage about Kent State, then how old is the girl who flees the trattoria in Venice? If the children’s book writer meets Jesus con un camion when trees and lampposts are tied with yellow ribbons, then when was he driving thatcamion? For the pieces to fit together, corners had to be whittled off and new bits added to map events and places onto one chronology—an exercise that came to good use when my assiduous copy editor presented me with his own accounting sheet of facts, such as “There were no home pregnancy tests in 1975; Author, please fix date.”
Along the way, though, something quite wonderful happened. It was akin to a visit to a friend’s childhood home during which you finally understand why your friend lines up all the salad dressings in the refrigerator with labels facing out and flees any man who treats her well. As the stories took their places, I could see my characters and my themes through a wider lens. Now I knew who the girl seduced by the man in the bomber jacket ultimately marries and why she gives up her unwanted poems for baking cakes. I understood the impact of a brother’s gift of his share of an inheritance on the woman who takes her pickup to Manhattan. A drug dealer husband changed from a Puerto Rican man to a guy who claimed he’d grown up on Park Avenue and sung backup for Joni Mitchell, and Jesus con un camion gained a feminist superstar mother who wrote about the Eurocentrism of the condemnation of clitorectomies. Only the last story in the book was written with the connections in place, and it was only then that the trajectories of many of my characters became clear.
Beyond these plotting and thematic issues, there was another, more elusive level, I came to see, in which the stories were of a piece. The underlying voice had grown up alongside me, moving from the young adulthood in which I wrote the earliest stories to the deep middle-age of the later ones. To my surprise, there wasn’t straight-forward development such that the earlier writing felt like embarrassing juvenilia. Yes, I cringed rereading some of the stories written decades ago, and was relieved to have an opportunity to revise them with the greater technical control and altered taste I have now. Yes, I saw the change of sensibilities between my earlier and later narrators, and was thankful to get rid of some of the most egregiously sophomoric views of the earlier work. But the younger writing had an underlying exuberance and freedom that had morphed into a more contemplative bent in the later stories. And in some of the early work, there was a surprising prescience—as in the story of the woman estranged from her son, written long before I was a mother—in which my characters knew more than I consciously understood then about the heartbreak of letting children go.
So, Is my book a novel? The stories still stand alone, but together they make a larger story with characters who start out on one path and end up on another, and themes that unfold from beginning to end. It’s a book that happened as much as was written—and it’s not one I can imagine happening again in my lifetime.. Reader, you decide.
Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two earlier novels: Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and Slate, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories anthology. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.