Back at the State University of Binghamton, where I was a creative writing student in the mid-1990s, I wrote a short story called “Shakespeare’s Night on the Town”. It wasn’t a very good story–overly moralistic (hey, I was raised Catholic!) and slightly naive. It was also a very long story. I told my professor, Liz Rosenberg, that I struggled to write short stories. “Maybe you’re a novelist,” she responded. I have never forgotten she said that. It resonated at the time, and it continues to resonate now.
I can, occasionally, write short stories. I have five available on Amazon from my earlier years writing. But the reality is that as soon as I begin writing a story, I can tell it will likely be long. This was the case with Green Bay Outsiders, my forthcoming novel. Originally, it was intended to be one of three short stories that appeared in a forthcoming collection entitled Three Billy Maddox Short Stories. That was my thinking as recently as June of this year. But as soon as I finished a draft, which clocked in at more than 70,000 words, I knew I had something else entirely–an accidental novel, if you will.
How did that happen? And why was my professor’s prediction so….prescient?
I know myself well enough to know that I can’t leave a narrative thread alone. A narrative thread, in case you’re not familiar with the term, is an occurrence that appears in a story, which has the potential to expand on the story’s original idea. A few weeks ago, for example, I wrote about the similarities between Green Bay Outsiders and the movie “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. The entire film, “Rogue One”, is a perfect example of a narrative thread. If you’ve seen the original 1977 Star Wars film, you know that the Rebel Alliance somehow knew that to destroy the Death Star, a planet-destroying space station, they needed to shoot missiles in just the right spot to penetrate an internal generator and then…boom!…the entire Death Star gets destroyed.
I doubt many viewers of that original film wondered just how the Rebel Alliance got those plans. They were more concerned with following the good guys in their quest to destroy the Death Star and that’s pretty much it. But “Rogue One” goes ahead and tells that story anyway…thus greatly expanding on the original Star Wars story.
But narrative threads often happen within stories. My original plan, again, for Green Bay Outsiders, was to have it become a three- or four-scene story. In the first scene, my protagonist Carl Daniels finds himself excommunicated by his friends during one of their happy hours at a downtown Green Bay bar because he no longer fits in. (If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can get part of the first scene for free by filling out your contact information at the top of this page.) The second scene would have Carl fishing alone out on the bay and reading in the newspaper a story about illegal migrants crossing the southwestern border. Reading about the Border Patrol strikes him as something interesting–as something he would like to do. The final scene would be him telling his parents his intentions to join the Immigration and Naturalization Service under which the Border Patrol operates (this is 1991, before the founding of U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and to leave town.
The end would be a lot like Stephen Dedalus at the end of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, preparing to leave Dublin for Paris with aspirations to become an artist.
Of course even with a concept this simple there are narrative threads, and I couldn’t help but build out the story of Carl’s uncle, a Vietnam veteran whose experiences in Khe Sanh in the late 1960s make Carl feel restless in his hometown of Green Bay. Uncle Jack is the brother of Carl’s mother, Sharon, and I further explore the narrative thread that gets into their differences during the Vietnam War, and which causes significant tension between them. The end result of all this is a novel of more than 70,000 words.
I’m not worried that these narrative threads are misguided or take the novel off course. They deepen Carl’s story, rather than take away from it, and the book ends with an important conversation between Carl and a young woman with whom he has been semi-romantically involved. If I can propose any real cause for this narrative style–that is, the tendency to deepen character stories and complexities, it must be due to the contemporary novelist John Irving, my favorite contemporary novelist. Although Irving’s later novels are, in aggregate, somewhat weaker than his earlier writings–I would consider A Widow for One Year as his last great novel, though Last Night at Twisted River comes close later on–he never loses site of the complexity of relationships in his novels, or the depth of his characters. He is a magnificent storyteller. I think he would like the phrase I developed to describe Green Bay Outsiders: an “accidental novel”.
I first read John Irving as a senior in high school. The novel I first picked up was The World According to Garp. That was when I decided to be a writer and the complexity of the story ultimately led, some years later, to Professor Rosenberg suggesting that I was a novelist.
I can’t say I’ll never write a short story again (please feel free to comment below the subscription box about whether you prefer novels or short stories). Other, more controlled efforts at shorter fiction have resulted in a novella, The Curse of Jaxx. And an existing work in progress, Under the Sea, also has the potential to end up as a novella. But I totally gave in to the opportunities presented to expand Carl’s universe in Green Bay Outsiders, and so that story turned into a novel. And for now, I am very busy editing it.