Yes, we live in a fast paced society, a very fast world indeed. Gone, I think is the right word to describe the amount of time most of us can afford to spend indulging on literary works the size of War and Peace, A Farwell to Arms and other massive triumphs of brilliance. It’s a shame, it is, but we as a world society, are a people on the go. We want it all and we want it now. Fast planes, fast trains, fast food, fast entertainment, and that means fast reads, that’s us, today.
And even though the novella as a form of literature has been somewhat over looked in this era of immediate gratification, it’s still appreciated by readers and developed by writers in European languages more so than in the U.S. Still, I think it may play an important role in American fiction yet.
Myself, I have always had a love affair with the little gems squeezed hidden in between the wide spines on my book shelves. The Call of The Wild, A Clockwork Orange, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Of Mice and Men just to name a few, and trust me; the list is long and staggeringly distinguished. These little books are far heavier in poetic gravity than they are in the ink and paper that make them up, and that’s why I read them over and over. As a reader I like a story with a single, yet complicated conflict. As a writer, yes, it’s fun to develop subplots, metaphors, multiple point of views and weave it all together and hope the reader gets it. But for pure reading pleasure, give me a couple of complex characters with a personal and or emotional conflict, and a writer who can knock it into the bleachers and you got yourself a lifelong and very personal relationship. I see the novella as long form poetry, but I’m only going to say that once, because the word, poetry, seems to send most Americans running and screaming for the remote control.
I had been thinking about novellas for awhile when I published my third novel in the spring, 2012, Heartland Gothic. That was a kind of coming home book for me in that I was writing in familiar shoes. I had set it in my hometown, a southeast Iowa river town, which I don’t live in, created a cast characters that I know, but had never existed before, and I wrapped it all up in around 60,000 words. I was thinking of making a few rewrites and calling it a novella, I think I even did at one point but the editor and publisher who were handling it at the time said, ‘no, this a full blown novel,’ and they were right, but not just because of the size. There was far too much going on to be a true novella. You would think for a writer it would easy to write of home turf. It wasn’t really, there were little subtleties I knew I had to get right, especially in character development. It is a geographic area that’s not quite Southern, not quite Northern, and the Mississippi River is a character in itself that affects everything and everyone and demands a certain amount of attributes. But it got me thinking smaller anyway, back to those tiny heavyweights that weaned me into enlightening literature in the first place.
So anyway, I was enjoying being in this rural, blue collar Heartland Gothic, that I like to think I know a little bit about; and after a falling out with the publisher, daily rejection slips, with attached praise, lousy royalties all around from the other books, and all the usual post novel partum. I had decided to publish it myself and brush up on some reading before starting a new project. I didn’t get all that far. I didn’t have to. I think I read, The Stranger, The Old Man and the Sea, The Postman Always Rings Twice and suddenly I was paying attention to my choices, holding them in my hand, flipping through the hundred or so pages, and all at once the road was clear, open, empty and hot as a Deep South two lane black top, complete with a grinning devil chewing on a piece of straw at that proverbial crossroads with an offer that just couldn’t be refused. The ghosts of Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, the soulful cry of Robert Johnson whispered in my ear, ‘ya wanna novella, boy.’
I had long been aware of the power and allure of the novella, and that of the quintessential Southern Gothic as well, but I had never before began a project with any real intentions, set format, or word count in mind, but I knew it was tall order. It would be a tough sell. I knew it had to be good. It had to be stripped of all smoke and mirrors, subplots, supporting characters, multiple points of view. It had to be distant and plot-less, yet with a clear chain of events at the same time. It had to be character and theme driven, and most of all it had to heavy. It had to have the ultimate conflict with the ultimate price. It had to be true to form. I had to aim for the bleachers.
This was my basic mental outline for Driving Alone, my novella, my salute and contribution to the authors before, and to the format and genre. My gift to the readers hustling to fro on their public commutes, tired of staring at the floor of the bus, zoning out on IPods, or questioning that sticky stain on the plexiglass in front of them in the cab. The coast to coast fliers wishing they had a book to read they would actually finish before the landed and maybe read again on the way home. I had a mission.
But all that, what I wanted stuff drifted away as it always does once I started, and the story took on a life of its own and pretty much wrote itself. It developed a structure as simple as a beginning, a pivotal middle, and door slamming ending. It wasn’t the story I intended to write, that never happens, but I had a novella in a couple months, pure and true, or at least a solid story to tinker with.
Driving Alone…the title itself was there before the first word. It is a concept title that I think everyone is familiar with, whether they’re actually driving alone, in which case many visitations rise up along the road and it can get pretty damn crowded in there with ghost, memories and regrets of life choices. Or maybe you’re doing the twenty yard stare on a packed, noisy airplane over a vast deadly ocean. That can be far lonelier, the larger the crowd the lonelier the place, strange but true. It is a concept book.
Either way I think if you’re one of those people who would like to enjoy a book without giving up to much of your real time you should look toward the novella. If you want to engage in literature in the 21st century, a novella may be perfect for you. If you look for enlightenment in your reading a novella will rarely disappoint. A novella can linger in ways a novel cannot. A novella is like getting a knowing glance from a passing stranger on a busy street where suddenly something is shared and touches you a real and profound way. A novella is romantic.
If you want to be spiritually and emotionally moved, you should have a look at a novella.
I’m not saying my writing could hold a candle to the ones I’ve mentioned here, but I did my best and I could only hope and let you be the judge. You should have a look at Driving Alone.
Driving Alone in available now from Blank Slate Press.
Kevin Lynn Helmick is an American fiction writer in Chicago IL. He is the author of Clovis Point, Sebastian Cross, Heartland Gothic, Driving Alone and several short stories that have appeared in Pulp Metal Magazine, Manarchy Magazine, and Noir at the Bar II.
He also keeps a blog at The Write Room Café.