Monday, November 21, 2016

Linked Stories, Novels in Stories, and "No-Fault Fiction": Rachel Hall & Michelle Brafman Talk Process

Sometimes I have very brilliant ideas, and if I do say so, this might be my very brilliantiest! Two lovely friends each have published a new book, one a collection of linked stories, the other a novel in stories…so who better to conduct their own interview about the ins and outs of linkage, stories, triptychs, “no-fault fiction,” and how to balance the promotion/writing/life.

 Rachel Hall’s collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, was awarded the BkMk Press 2015 G.S. Sharat Chandra prize, selected by Marge Piercy. Her stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Lilith, New Letters, and Water~Stone. In addition, she has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and New Letters and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, as well as Ragdale and the Ox-Bow School of the Arts where portions of Heirlooms were written. She is Professor of English at the State University of New York-Geneseo.
 Michelle Brafman’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, the minnesota review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and numerous other publications. Her debut novel, Washing the Dead, was published by Prospect Park Books in April of 2015, and her second book, Bertrand Court, a novel in stories, is set in Washington, D.C. and was published in September of 2016. She has taught creative writing at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program, the George Washington University, and in smaller workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. In 2003, she founded Yeah Write, a writing coaching business.

Heirlooms (by Rachel Hall) begins in the French seaside city of Saint-Malo, in 1940, and ends in the American Midwest in 1989. In this collection of linked stories, the war reverberates through four generations of a Jewish family. Inspired by the author’s family stories as well as extensive research, Heirlooms explores assumptions about love, duty, memory and truth. More information:
Bertrand Court (by Michelle Brafman) intertwines seventeen luminous narratives about the secrets of a cast of politicos, filmmakers, housewives, real es­tate brokers, and consultants, all tied to a suburban Washington, D.C. cul-de-sac. Linked through bloodlines and grocery lines, they respond to life’s bruises by grabbing power, sex, or the family silver. As they atone and forgive, they unmask the love and truth that hop white picket fences. More information:


RH: You've written a novel, Washing the Dead, besides this collection of linked stories. Did you consider writing Bertrand Court as a novel? How, in your opinion, are linked stories different from a novel? What did the genre offer you that the novel form didn't?
MB: I started writing Bertrand Court about fifteen years ago, and at that point I was pretty dedicated to the short story form. That said, I’d read Amy Bloom’s collection Come to Me and fell in love with the idea of writing stories in triptychs. After I’d completed several such groupings of stories, it became apparent to me that all of my characters belonged to the same universe. I had a lot of fun exploring these connections. If I’d written this book as a novel, I’m not sure I would have had the freedom (or maybe the skill) to write about this fictive world from so many different perspectives. I think I also would have felt compelled to tie up loose ends with each of these characters, which I didn’t feel I needed to do here.
It’s funny that you asked this question, though, because as I was reading Heirlooms, I kept thinking that your book was a true “novel in stories.” At times, the book felt like a novel to me, yet each story stands on its own. So now I want to know why you choose this form for your book.  
RH: I love the idea of triptychs!—I may use that for the project I’m working on now. Groups of three are satisfying in a way that a pair isn’t. This also makes me think of Alice Munro’s triptych in Runaway which Pedro Almodóvar has adapted for the film Julieta, and which I’m eager to see.
As far as the linked story form for Heirlooms, I started out thinking I was just writing the first story, “Saint-Malo, 1940.” Then, as I was working on something else—a novel, actually, that I’ve abandoned—I realized there was another story I wanted to tell about Eugenie and Saint-Malo. I gave myself permission to take a day off from the novel (I was on sabbatical from teaching that year) to write that story. When I was done, I understood I had bookends: the first and last stories. I thought I’d turn to Heirlooms when I finished the novel, but I eventually realized that I didn’t really know how to write a novel. Stories, I understand. So in writing Heirlooms in stories, I guess I sort of tricked myself into writing a novel-like book. I’m surprised when people call it a novel, but not at all displeased.
MB: You tricked yourself into writing a novel! Wonderful. And thanks for the heads-up about Julieta! I forgot to mention how much I was influenced by Munro’s The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, a wonderful novel in stories about a mother and daughter.   
RH: Lots of linked collections look at families and family stories. Do you think this subject matter is particularly well suited to the genre of linked stories?
MB: I’d never thought of it that way, but yes, I do think that the subject matter is well suited to the genre. Family dynamics are so complicated and juicy and steeped in history, and this form allows the writer to mine these complexities in a different way. For example, you can write a full story about an important piece of family history, whereas in a novel, you might have to rely on a flashback and in turn worry about slowing down momentum of the book.
I’m also a big fan of exploring triangles in relationships, and I think this form lends itself to writing from each “point” of the triangle. I like the term “no fault fiction,” where the reader comes away from a story understanding all characters’ motivations for behaving the way they do (often badly). Readers might not like the characters any better, but they’ll have a context for their actions. You did a masterful job of providing a larger psychic, social, and historical context for your characters’ relationships. I really felt the emotional heft of the family legacies they shouldered. How did you leverage this form to convey all of this? How did you select the moments that would tell this very big story? (Or the stories between the “bookends” you mentioned earlier?)
RH: I also love the idea of no-fault fiction! I’m certainly going to introduce this concept to my students. I’m always looking for ways to get them to explore character without judgment.
As far as which moments became stories in Heirlooms, I worked intuitively, recalling family stories, digging into some, but not finding a clear way in, moving on to something else. I did have access to old photo albums and copies of letters and those provided jumping off points. Near the end of the writing, I realized I needed certain stories like “White Lies” which would pull together a lot of history, and was therefore hard to write.
This question made me remember that I learned another family story after I’d sent off my manuscript. This story isn’t something that would work in another time period or in another book, so it’s a missed opportunity. I think of that story every now and then, like a friend I’ve lost touch with—did you have stories like this, stories that you thought of later or wish you could add? Is this maybe one of the difficulties of the linked story genre—when do you stop?
MB: Yes, when to stop? There’s always that one killer detail that surfaces too late in the game! I tortured myself with this while editing my first book. Because Bertrand Court sat for so long, I had the chance to revisit “friends I’d lost touch with” and write two brand new stories from the perspective of existing characters who seemed to be calling out for a turn to narrate. For example, in “Two Truths and a Lie,” in the aftermath of their father’s death, two sisters, the screw-up and the golden girl, play a game that demands they shuck these tired family labels and truly see and be seen by one another. I’d written a good deal about the “perfect sister,” and it was a lot of fun to write from the pov of the self-proclaimed “family fuckup.” I also wrote the new stories to perhaps serve the same function as “White Lies,” meaning they filled in gaps and threaded together one of the triptychs.
Switching gears, how has it been for you to release these characters and their stories into the world? Have you learned anything new about your book from your readers?   
RH: It’s been thrilling to have this book out in the world. I’ve been really touched by responses from readers, who say that the stories made them think of their family stories in a new light. And sometimes these people tell me their family stories of WWII and that’s been interesting. One gentleman gave me a box of letters from his great aunt, because he thought her story would interest me—and it does! I’ve been surprised—and pleased—that readers say they couldn’t put the book down. I didn’t think I was writing a suspenseful book. As a reader myself or as a movie viewer, I’m not good with suspense—It makes me too nervous! I understand, of course, that fiction should propel the reader along, so I’m glad Heirlooms does that for readers.
I know you’ve also been busy giving readings and traveling--first for Washing the Dead and now for Betrand Court. I'm enjoying the whirlwind, too, but I'm wondering when does one write? And you've been doing this non-stop, it seems for a couple years! How do you do it?!
MB: WOW. This gentleman’s willingness to surrender his family heirloom speaks volumes about how he (and others it seems) are connecting with your book. I’m not surprised. I too love when readers respond to my books by sharing stories of their own. That’s the best part. I’m still a little shocked when someone (who is not related to me) tells me that they’ve read my book. I hope that never wears off!
My readers’ feedback has also taught me a great deal about what works (and doesn’t) in my writing. I find this energizing, but I do struggle with transitioning between speaking to audiences about my books and settling back into “the chair.” During lulls in my schedule, I’ve been able to write essays and chip away at revising my novel, but now it’s time to seriously roll up my sleeves. What about you? Have you been able to think about your next project amidst the flurry of promoting your book? 
RH: I love giving readings, talking with book lovers, and getting to see old friends and former students at events. That’s been so rewarding, but I’m also feeling antsy, the way I do when I haven’t written for a while. I know I need to get back to work on new stories, but I haven’t been able to write fiction while promoting Heirlooms. Like you, I can write essays, but fiction requires a different head space for me—quiet and calm, which is, I’m realizing, the exact opposite of promoting. I’m thinking that a residency in the near future would be a good way to sink back into fiction.

More information:




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.