Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

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Angela Hallstrom just won a Whitney for the best novel by a new writer. The novel that received the award, Bound on Earth, has been the focus of much praise from many sources (here and one and two that popped up quickly on Google, here are 165-and-counting on Goodreads, here is the review from the person who lent me the book, here is my own brief review). So enough with the praise. Let’s dig a little deeper and see what this book is built from.

Bound on Earth is a novel-in-stories featuring over half a dozen points of view, ranging from pioneer times to the very present.

Several of these stories were published as standalones, and, Hallstrom tells me, several more will be.

The novel then is representative of other work its author is engaged in. Angela Hallstrom edits every other issue of Irreantum and is currently wrapping up work on a long-overdo collection of Mormon short fiction that I expect to hold in my hands sometime this fall. So arranging short stories is very much the Art of Hallstrom in 2008/2009.

With this in mind, I approached her about the Art of Short-Story Arrangement. We’re breaking our discussion into three parts. Part one, today’s portion, she discusses Bound on Earth while it is still part of the zeitgeist. Later this year we’ll bring discussions on Irreantum and the book collection as they get closer to release.

(Please note that some of our discussions presumes that our audience has read her book. So, be aware of spoiler warnings and suchlike here, now, before we begin. Or, you know, go read the book.)

So I sent her a slew of questions and she answered the first bunch in one fell swoop (which expression actually has nothing to do with falconeering as I had always assumed).

* * * * *

Th: A slew of questions.

AH: I decided to write a book about the Palmers after “Thanksgiving” was written as a stand-alone short story, but that’s not why I decided to place it first.  I placed it first for a number of reasons.  One, it’s a multiple point-of-view short story (which is pretty rare), and having it first was a way to introduce to readers to the type of experience they’d be having with a book full of shifting perspectives.  It also allows glimpses, however small, into most of the main characters we’ll meet as the book progresses.  I also felt that the conflict presented in “Thanksgiving” was compelling and would hook readers right away, and the question about whether or not Beth and Kyle should remain married was central to the controlling idea of the novel as a whole: what does it mean to remain in committed family relationships, especially in the face of difficult challenges?  What does it cost you?  What do you gain?

So the ordering basically followed this structure: “Thanksgiving” as a set up, then back in time to the earliest main character’s story (Tess’s story), and proceeding chronologically until we arrived at “Faithful,” which takes place a few months after “Thanksgiving” and answers some of the questions that story raised.  Of course, there’s the one exception of “Christina,” the pioneer ancestor story that took place in the 19th century.  This particular story gave some historical context to the Palmer family, and the reason I placed it where I did was because Tina mentions where her name came from in the story that precedes it, so it seemed a logical place to include a story that doesn’t fit the rest of the contemporary timeline.

In my initial draft of the novel, “Faithful” was the last real story.  I had written a short, two page, very distant 3rd person objective recounting of the next year’s Thanksgiving dinner to end the novel  (The objective pov is much like a “camera lens” approach, with no access to characters’ thoughts, etc.).  But after much consideration, I decided that ending was unsatisfactory because first, I knew readers would want more resolution, and second, the objective point of view gave the end of the novel an emotionally disconnected feel that I didn’t like.  It was almost a little TOO cinematic, also: like a camera shot at the end of a movie that pans wide then retreats up into the sky.

So “Bound on Earth” was included last (and written last) because although I agree this book isn’t quite a novel, it’s not really a short story collection, either.  It’s a novel-in-stories, which means the stories/chapters are supposed to hang together in a narrative arc of their own, and some of the questions that I set up in the “Thanksgiving” chapter needed to be more adequately resolved.  Although some readers have complained that they wanted more resolution at the end of the book, I felt that the final chapter resolved many of the questions (e.g “do Beth and Kyle stay together”?) in the most honest way I knew how.  [Spoiler alert!] It would have been dishonest in my view if I’d written a final chapter where the reader comes to know with a surety that Beth and Kyle live happily ever after–because who can know that, truly, about any marriage, let alone one as complicated as Beth and Kyle’s? But I wanted to communicate a certain hope about their marriage, and about many of the other marriages and family relationships explored in the novel–that even with tremendous challenges, there is value in commitment.  I also felt that the matriarch of the family, Tess, was a good character to narrate that final story, since she’d lived through so much and had the benefit of a certain perspective and wisdom.

* * *

Th: I imagine you have stories in various states of completion that didn’t make the final cut. How did you decide what was to be included and what wasn’t?

AH: Yes, I had to do some story killing.  There’s the original ending of the book that I mentioned above.  I also had a terrible time writing the story that ended up being “Faithful,” the story that brings the Beth/Kyle conflict to some kind of resolution.  When I wrote “Thanksgiving,” I didn’t know if Beth and Kyle were going to stay together, but as I continued to write the book it became clear to me that they would.  The problem was dramatizing that decision in a way that offered the right combination of both hope and realism.  I tried writing two different stories from Beth’s point of view, and they were both terrible.  Too sentimental, too easy.  Hated them.  It wasn’t until it came to me that the story should be in Alicia (the mother’s) point of view that “Faithful” finally worked.  I finally figured out that it was more interesting to see Alicia’s changes, because even though she’s the mother-in-law, she’s the character who’d turned her back most completely on Kyle.  It was a relief to finally figure that out and see that story fall into place.

I also had some stories that I’d fiddled around with–one about a family vacation, one about Tina getting caught in a rip tide, one about Kyle going on a Scout campout as a kid–that I ended up not including simply because I didn’t like them.  Boring, or not as well-written as I’d like them to be, or missing that feel of the “necessary.”

* * *

Th: Of the stories that made the final cut, do you consider them all strong enough to stand alone? Are there any that can’t be understood, in your estimation, outside Bound on Earth?

AH: Not all of them are strong enough to stand alone, no.  That’s another reason I consider this a novel-in-stories, because not every “chapter” can or should stand alone.  Each of the three girls’ Sunday Stories have an arc, a conflict and a resolution of sorts, but I don’t think I would ever consider sending one out on its own because they need context in order to resonate.  I also don’t think Jimmy’s stream-of-consciousness “Tina’s Wedding: Part Two” would work without context, either.  But most of the other stories can stand alone, and many of them have been published, or are slated to be published, as short stories.

* * *

Th: How did characters earn p-o-v status?

AH: Each member of the immediate Palmer family has at least two stories from their own POV, and so does Tess.  Kyle needed a story, especially from a time before his bipolar disorder became symptomatic.  Jimmy, Tina’s second husband, also got a story.  One reason was because I wanted a sympathetic non-Mormon voice in the book (and I must admit, I loved writing in Jimmy’s voice). To be honest, looking back I wish I would have given Marnie’s husband, Mike, a story from his point of view.  I think it would have helped flesh him out more, give some of his seemingly bad qualities some context and made him rounder.  Is it bad to admit your mistakes in public? Ah, well.  But if I had the novel to do over again, that’s one change I would have made.

* * *

Th: So they say all first novels are autobiographical — true in your case? Did writing short stories help you dodge that?

AH: People always assume this novel is autobiographical.  I suppose because it’s contemporary, and about a Mormon family.  Although I did lift many details from my own life (e.g. my own husband opened his mission call at my house when I was a senior in high school, and we played the “guess the mission call” game and the winner got a giant Hershey bar), most of these details are lifted as discrete scenes or symbols and not representative of my “real life.”  Nobody in my family has bipolor disorder, for example.  That was all research.  All of my siblings were pretty straight arrows, too–no Tina in the lot.  Two of the stories, however, were based on my own family history: “Christina,” the 19th century Three Nephite story, is my own imaginative retelling of an actual event recorded by my pioneer ancestors, and “Things Unsaid” is based on the story of my great-grandfather, an attorney who had a stroke in the capitol building in Salt Lake.  Everything else is a mish-mash of imagination and detail-stealing.

* * * * *

As my friend Foxy J observed, Bound on Earth takes for granted that the Palmer family is “bound”; which assumption, I think, is what makes it not merely a novel about Mormons but a Mormon novel. This sealing assumption reflects in every facet of every relationship on every page.

The form of the novel supports this underlying theme. The stories, though separate and individual, are bound together. It’s a beautiful example of form following function, where function = theme.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I had not noticed that, except for the two exceptions, the book was arranged chronologically. It’s an impressive bit of slight of hand, really. The opening story creates such a strong sense of dramatic irony throughout the book that I as reader felt so privileged — perhaps akin to a heavenly observer — that I did not even realize I was watching the world in order. Rather as if I, like those who reside in the presence of God, had all things manifest — past, present, and future — continually before me.

Which might be overstating things a bit, but I’ve always been a fan of poetic hyperbole.

Later this year Angela and I will return to the art of short-story arrangement in forms very different from the single-author novel-in-stories.

6 thoughts on “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement”

  1. I wonder, Angela: what was your inspiration for the structure of Bound on Earth? While the novel-in-stories idea obviously isn’t new, what or who did you model your approach after?

    Also: I’ve just finished reading Ursula Le Guin’s Changing Planes, which is billed as a short story collection, but that Le Guin calls a “story suite”—her name for books made up of “stories linked by place, characters, theme, and movement, so as to form, not a novel, but a whole.” Le Guin continues: “There’s a sneering British term ‘fix-up’ [used in the world of science fiction] for books by authors who, told that story collections ‘don’t sell,’ patch unconnected stories together with verbal duct tape. But the real thing is not a random collection, any more than a Bach cello suite is. It does things a novel doesn’t do. It is a real form, and deserves a real name.” (ref)

    I bring this up because I wonder if you’ve found a similar sentiment from your critics/readers—that Bound on Earth is something of a “fix up,” a patched together book of randomly connected stories; in other words, not a “real” novel, but something the author wrote because s/he couldn’t write a “real” novel. I personally see Bound on Earth as more of a story suite, not exactly a novel, but a whole, expansive text “with its own complex and intriguing aesthetic” (ref). I know you’ve called it a novel-in-stories, but I think it reaches beyond that in some way, that it does things a novel doesn’t or can’t do because, among other things, of the unique perspective shifting that occurs in and between the stories.

    Do you think your book pokes at the limitations of its classification as a “novel” or even a “novel-in-stories”? And if so, in what ways?

    Or do you think any distinction is just a matter of semantics?

  2. Eric, thanks for the opportunity to talk about craft. I always like engaging in conversations like this.

    Tyler, one difficulty with the genre I found myself operating within as I wrote the book is that it doesn’t have a commonly agreed-upon *name*, let alone a commonly agreed-upon set of expectations or rules. Along with “story suite,” another commonly used moniker is “story cycle” or “linked stories.”

    Although I can’t cite any experts on this right this minute (have to make a casserole and bring it to my friend who just had a baby, so in a bit of a rush) in my loose education of the form I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a bit of progression in the terminology, beginning with a traditional story collection and ending at the novel. “Linked stories” are closest to the short story collection and might take place, say, in the same town, but the characters don’t necessarily overlap much and the narrative doesn’t really build in a novelistic way. A “story cycle” is more like the recent Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, _Olive Kitteridge_ (which is fabulous): the stories occur in the same town, and Olive shows up in most of the stories and is a unifying presence in the book, but each story isn’t necessarily dependent on the other in the same way as you might find in a novel-in-stories, imo.

    Then you have a novel-in-stories. I feel like Amy Tan’s _The Joy Luck Club_ is a good example of the genre, as is Melissa Banks’ _The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing_. I feel that _Bound on Earth_ can be loosely defined as a novel-in-stories, too. It was my intention–and I hope I delivered on the intention–for readers to have a holistic experience with Bound on Earth. By that I mean each story/chapter is connected to the other, that each one supports or resonates with or clashes against the other, much like the dynamic one finds in a family (which is one of the reasons I chose the novel-in-stories genre in the first place). And I did purposely order the stories so there was the kind of initiation of conflict and build-up of suspense and resolution you’d find in a novel–albeit a different kind of resolution, one that’s more subtle, ambiguous and open-ended.

    I feel like novels-in-stories offer a particular kind of reading experience, and one that was particularly well-suited for a multiple pov novel about family life. Although it’s not for everyone–you can check out some of my Goodreads reviews for proof!–if readers are willing to adjust their expectations from the traditional novel format, novels-in-stories (and story cycles, etc.) can be very satisfying.

    So I hope that answers your question about why I chose the terminology I did. Oh, and whether I just slapped some stories together because I was too lazy to write a “real” novel :-). (Although I realize you weren’t the one leveling those judgments, Tyler–but trust me, I’ve heard it too.) Choosing this particular genre was a mindful decision, and the genre’s not a particularly easy one to tackle: all those conflicts, all those individual beginnings-middles-and-ends, and then working to fit them all together like a crazy puzzle and hoping the finished product hangs together. No, definitely not the easy way out of novel writing. Not that I’m saying novel writing is easy, either, of course.

    Ah, but now I really need to go make that casserole. Do I get a pass for being rambly since I’m pressed for time?

    But thanks again for the opportunity to ramble.

  3. I hope that answers your question about why I chose the terminology I did.

    It does. Thanks for taking the time to respond at length to my musings. I’m very much intrigued by the story cycle/story suite/novel-in-stories form because I see it as a way, like you say, to capture multiple voices and to tie them together in innovative and thought-provoking ways, like you’ve done with Bound on Earth. I, for one (and I’m glad you saw this in my comment) definitely don’t see what you did as taking any easy way out of writing a book, because I think you’ve done a brilliant job. And the way you’ve done it shows a considerable amount of faith and trust in your audience, a quality I really appreciate when I find it in the books I read.

    BTW: how did the casserole turn out?

  4. It must be casserole day because I made tuna casserole for dinner. Turned out to be a bad idea because I don’t have a/c and it was 85 degrees in my house, but at least it was tasty.

    Anyways, I have to admit that when reading the book I barely noticed the format of short stories. I do remember reading “Thanksgiving” in Dialogue and loving it, so I was pleasantly surprised when that was the first story in the book. I also love The Joy Luck Club and so I can see a connection between the two books; I thought the form fit really well with a book about a family, because each member of the family needs a voice.

    I also realize now what struck me so much about the idea of being bound wasn’t even the Mormonness of sealings, but that it was a contrast to a number of contemporary fiction works that I’ve read recently that seem to have as their theme the idea of abandoning your family and starting a better life with a rag-tag bunch of eccentric friends. Not that those books don’t have their place, but it was nice to see a book that acknowledged that in real life it isn’t always easy to just walk away from people you love, even if you’d like to some times. I also liked the fact that while the family dealt with some difficult things, they weren’t crazy or outlandish. I guess I’m boring, but sometimes I get tired of the focus on eccentricity in so much contemporary fiction.

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