Today I am privileged to welcome author Sybil Baker to Colloquium! Sybil’s linked short story collection, Talismans, was released yesterday and, in conjunction with the publication of Talismans, her WOW – Women on Writing blog tour has just gotten underway!
Writing a Linked Short Story Collection
Linked Collections: Best or Worst of Both Worlds?
I think many short story writers who are not interested in writing novels are tempted to write a linked short story collection as a way to present a more marketable project. After all, the recent success of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a great example of how a linked collection can do well critically and commercially. However, as someone who has written and published short stories and novels, my advice is to avoid writing a linked collection unless you feel there is no other way to tell the story.
Neither fish nor fowl, linked collections bring the structural and logistic headaches of both short stories and novels. You have to make sure each story stands alone as its own independent piece as well as fit in to a larger narrative arc. With a short story collection, you might spend some time trying to decide the order or arrangement of the finished stories, but you don’t have to worry about how each story connects to tell a larger story. And with a novel, you might think about chapters and how they build to tell a story, but you don’t have to make sure each chapter has its own unity as a stand-alone piece.
However, sometimes the material seems best suited to be told as linked pieces. My own linked collection, Talismans, began with one story “Fur Elise,” which takes place in the States and is about Elise’s relationship with her mother. A few years later, I wrote two stories, “That Girl” and “Grape Island,” which take place in South Korea. Only after I wrote those stories did I realize that the main character was the same as the one in “Fur Elise.” I became curious about Elise’s story and began writing more pieces about her. With each piece I discovered more about Elise and her journey from her childhood in suburban Virginia to her travels in Asia as she searches to understand her past. Without intending it, I found I had a collection of stories that together told the story of one woman’s emotional and physical journey.
Linked collections can come in all shapes and sizes. Some like Barb Johnson’s More of This World and Maybe Another focus on place (New Orleans pre-Katrina) and the relationships of several characters. Others like Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing focus more on one character’s development instead of several. Talismans in this sense is more like a novel-through-stories than a loosely connected short story collection because the overall arc is about one person (Elise) and her search to understand her past. The collection is also chronological, starting when Elise is five and ending when she is in her early thirties.
Even after many of the stories for Talismans were published in literary magazines, I still worked on revising them to work as a unified collection. This meant highlighting key images and themes in each story and making sure they repeat or echo in other stories. For example, in the first story, “Firefly,” Elise discovers a photo of her father, which she carries with her in later stories. This stage of revising was the hardest, as I had to make sure that the images appeared in each piece without feeling forced or taking away from the individual story.
Writing a linked collection is not all hard work — I had lots of fun and felt a sense of freedom that I might not have when writing a novel or a single short story. With each story I could experiment with point of view, verb tense, tone, and narrative style in a way that might not work in a novel. And I was able to intimately explore one character and her life in a way that I could not have with a single short story.
In one way, writing a linked collection is the worst of both worlds — you have to make sure each story works on a micro- and macro-narrative level without detracting from either. But in another way, you also have the best of both worlds. You have the opportunity to play with content and style within each story while having the luxury to allow a larger story to unfold.
Sybil Baker grew up in Northern Virginia. She graduated from Virginia Tech where she served as the features editor and humor columnist of the student newspaper. After a few years working around Virginia, she moved to Boulder, Colorado and completed an MA degree in English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After five years in Colorado, she returned to her native Virginia, working as a technical editor.
In 1995, Sybil moved to South Korea and for the next dozen years, taught English there. She also traveled extensively, particularly within Asia, visiting more than 30 countries, including Mongolia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, and Turkey.
She became increasingly interested in the allure and alienation of American travelers and expatriates, which heavily influenced her writing. Her novel, The Life Plan, was published in spring 2009. Described as a “screwball comedy,” the novel’s protagonist, Kat, feels compelled to accompany her husband, Dan, to Thailand, where he has plans to study massage. Kat finds herself fighting to save her marriage, along with her career and reputation. Yet when given the chance to regain everything she has lost, Kat questions her own reasons for pursuing her rigid life plan.
Sybil’s fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, and she received her MFA in Writing from The Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005. Two years later, she embarked upon a new adventure at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga: She is an Assistant Professor of English there, teaching creative writing. She and her husband, Rowan Johnson, reside in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010, at 11:59 p.m. (Pacific time)
Thank you, Sybil, for being a guest author here at Colloquium!
Jennifer at Book Noise: The thoughts of a book-loving librarian! Her comment was selected at random (using random.org) and she has won the copy of Talismans!