Wendy Perriam on the Differences Between Writing Novels and Short Stories

Wendy PerriamOne of my friends asked me recently, ‘Are writing a novel and writing a short story much the same process, apart from the matter of length?’

For me, the answer is no. And, with a new short-story collection and a paperback novel published simultaneously, it seems a pertinent question. I actually feel I’m a different person when writing in each format. For the stories, I’m a flitting magpie, seizing glittering trinkets on a whim; for the novels, a laborious builder, laying stone on stone and brick on brick, in a careful, structured fashion. The former process is easier – more playful, more instinctive, more in tune with the unconscious – whereas novel-writing requires discipline, rigour, rational thought and continual re-thinking.

With a novel, I’ll map out the plot in advance; draw up biographies and backgrounds for my characters; decide on settings, seasons, weather and the whole time-scale for the book, and do a lot of preparatory research. It may be weeks, or even months before I’ve penned a single word, whereas I might write a whole short story in a day. Stories can arise from some tiny incident: a chance meeting with a stranger; a weird object in a charity shop; a snatch of overheard conversation. They don’t need in-depth research, elaborate advance planning, a large cast of characters, or complicated plot-twists.

I'm on the Train! by Wendy PerriamFor example, the title-story of my new collection (I’m on the Train) was prompted by a garrulous fellow passenger, glued to her mobile on a train to Kent. I was going to my cousin’s funeral and my mood of meditative grief was totally disrupted by the woman’s breezy, giggly, one-sided conversation. For the purposes of the story, I changed the whole situation: instead of me and a funeral, there’s a harassed man, recently made redundant, travelling to London for an all-important job interview. He’s maddened by the woman’s incessant prattling, at a time when he needs silence and a chance to prepare and rehearse.

The crematorium itself ‘provided’ another story – Survivors. By mistake, I attended the wrong funeral: a most bizarre experience, involving party-poppers, red tin-whistles and a shower of red balloons. And, although, once again, I used the situation for a story, I altered everything else: the character, the setting and, most importantly, the end, adding a sense of resolution, often lacking in reality.

Several other stories in my new collection ‘presented themselves’ in this same spontaneous way. Second Sex, for instance, began in the Curzon Cinema, when I got talking to the man taking tickets for the film: a radical young philosopher who had thought profoundly about every aspect of life. In the story, his views deeply influence my character, Alice, who begins to see her own lifestyle as shallow and materialistic, and to regard her own boyfriend in a new, unfavourable light. This story involves two guys and a girl, a violent movie and a Rolex watch – that’s all – and those few elements came together with very little pre-planning.

Broken Places by Wendy PerriamHowever, writing my novel, Broken Places, was a very different process – much slower and more tortuous. All I had at the outset was the character of Eric – a man prey to many fears. But, aware that readers might dismiss him as a wimp, I had to give him some reason for his fears; make him more sympathetic. Only at that point did I decide he would be a foundling; a baby abandoned at birth, who spends his entire childhood in care, with constant unsettling moves from one institution to another, and no sense of security or ‘home’. That would excuse him, I felt and explain his many hang-ups.

But first I had to research the whole subject of foundlings and the intricacies of the care system. And it was while interviewing an ex-Barnardo’s boy, who’d had much the same experience as my protagonist, that I hit upon the notion of Eric working as a librarian. The Barnardo’s boy told me that the only place he’d felt safe as a child was in his local public library; an oasis of quiet calmness compared with the noise and chaos of the children’s home. Having ‘stolen’ this idea, I added a kindly librarian who takes Eric under her wing and even persuades him to train as a librarian himself.

That meant more research into the whole complex world of librarianship – far more daunting than it sounds. I also needed to decide which particular library Eric would work at, since every borough runs its libraries differently. After much debate, I eventually chose Balham, in the Borough of Wandsworth, and that, in turn, led me to add Eric’s role in running Wandsworth Prison’s Book Club. The latter also needed researching, of course, but after two visits to the prison, the members of the real-life book club kindly read these passages, to check I’d got things right.

Despite all this work, I was nowhere near even starting the first chapter. Indeed, if I took you through the whole long-winded process of writing and rewriting all twenty seven chapters – including a plane journey from Hell, a section set in Seattle, and Eric’s dramatic rescue of his teenage daughter from a soccer champ intent on seduction – it might require another book!

So let me end, instead, by explaining that, however different my methods for each format, the themes in both my long works and my short are often similar: the clash between duty/rules/conformity and hedonism/wildness/rebellion; the crucial influence of mothers – whether good, bad, absent, dead or imaginary; the importance of fantasy to fill gaping holes in lives, and an interest in the miraculous and in what I call ‘moments of grace’. And often, in both forms, I combine humour and sadness; since comedy has always been used, in both literature and life, to assuage the sting of grief and loss. And, finally, the benefits of writing in both forms are also much the same: a truly therapeutic sense of absorption and engagement in the task, and a whole set of new friends made along the way, be they librarians, prisoners, crematorium officials, Barnado’s boys, or Curzon Cinema employees. But not – I repeat not – those whose incessant chatter on a mobile can shatter the peace of a journey and incite one’s fellow passengers to violence!

Wendy Perriam

Wendy Perriam‘s novel Broken Places and collection of short stories I’m on the Train! are scheduled for release 30 April 2012. Both are available to pre-order now.

Check out Wendy Perriam‘s website at http://www.wendyperriam.com/


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