The art of the short novel


Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin himself admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

Orchid BlueSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

eoinmcnamee_mediumEoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, Eoin McNamee, How to Write A Novel, The Novella

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