Chain Gang


in Beyond Words


The first time I wrote a collection of stories, the editor changed it to “three novellas” and then a second editor changed it to “a novel.” The next time I wrote a book of stories, the publisher described it as “a novel in stories.” Nobody in New York wanted to publish short stories, although two years later there would be a boom in short stories. They should have seen it coming, but publishers are nearly always short-sighted. Not until I published a book of stories with a university press was the book actually called “stories.”

By whatever name, I love collections of linked stories. I have written a trilogy of linked stories. I call it “A Divine Comedy,” which is what the ex-wife of a main character says when she describes the off-Broadway play she has written about him. “It’s such a divine comedy!” she chirps.

But I didn’t foresee writing a trilogy of linked stories. When I wrote the first collection, My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, I was playing with the idea of “the child within,” a phrase commonly used in the ’80s and ’90s. I thought I was being quite clear about this; for example, the last story in that collection is full of clues suggesting Tavy, adopted daughter of the main character, Nina, is “the child within” Nina. But almost no one got it. Because he didn’t get it, Alan Cheuse, of NPR fame, thought the ending was sentimental. I couldn’t rewrite the book. Eventually, I realized the only avenue open to me was to agree that Tavy was real and write another book that would show that I was not a drippy sentimentalist.

One of the epigraphs to the first collection was Dante’s “In the midway of this our mortal life. . .” I used it simply because the book deals with Nina in midlife. That book clearly was an “Inferno,” though I hadn’t yet realized it; Nina was trying hard to get out of hell. If she made it, she would enter “Purgatorio.” The title of the Purgatory collection was The Society of Friends, bringing to the fore characters in Nina’s neighborhood. The book’s last sentence runs into the book’s first sentence because I wanted to define the neighborhood by something like a fence. At this point I realized that I was indeed modeling Dante’s Commedia. I did not try to draw correspondences between stories and cantos or to fathom the intricacies of Dante’s long poem; I wasn’t writing for his audience, but the broad trajectory of the trilogy was now apparent to me.

I was walking my little dog, Duncan, around the neighborhood when a sentence slipped into my mind: “At five-thirty I pick up my wife and she says Let’s take home Thai.” So far as I know, it came out of nowhere, but of course sentences and narratives and poetic lines are all over the place; they float around us. All that’s necessary is to listen and choose. Having developed Larry, the speaker of that sentence, whose wife is leaving him, I realized that Purgatory was a neighborhood in which the neighbors had problems or difficulties to solve. I even threw in a freelance ethicist. If there’s a town where a freelance ethicist could flourish, it’s Madison, Wisconsin.

Obviously, the third book, A Kind of Dream, moves Nina into a sort of Paradise, although Paradise is as complicated and hard to navigate as the Inferno and Purgatory. Nevertheless, Nina finds a certain joy in her life and in general there is a settling of accounts, a coming to terms, a wider and fulsome perspective.

Each entry in the trilogy can be read on its own.

The first collection was first-person from the point of view of Nina, a writer and teacher. (I should say quickly that Nina bears a relation to me but is not me.) The second is told in a mix of first and third person, as we see Nina in relation to her neighbors and colleagues. I hope there’s a sense of a communal “we” in it. A Kind of Dream is in third person, allowing the reader a more objective look at Nina, possibly seeing her more clearly than she could see herself. All but one of the stories are told by other characters.

I like linked stories because transitions can be tossed out the window and what remains is precisely what is important. There is also satisfaction in completing each story while hinting at, but not going into, what comes next. I’ve written novels, and in novels, the author must spike the reader’s interest at the end of each chapter, whether the situations are cerebral or dramatic. A novel moves forward. Stories are allowed to live in the present, even when they are linked. And, of course, the story, including the linked story, valorizes the sentence, and those of us who love sentences derive great pleasure from that. As for writing a trilogy of linked stories—it took me 27 years to finish. I’m sure not every such trilogy would have to take that long, but I wanted the books to convey changing attitudes, language, and values. I wanted a sense of time, of characters growing older, perhaps smarter,, and taking younger people into their lives. Maybe I could have faked that, but it seemed important to me to learn a bit about ageing, and how better to do that than by living it?

Writing linked stories is rather like making a collage. Pieces need to be usefully shaped and carefully placed. It is also, and more, like orchestrating a symphony, as is a novel: Characters and events need to enter and leave quite like various instruments or instrumental sections.

I encourage anyone interested in or already involved in writing linked stories to continue. It’s not a new form: think of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and even Petronius’s satirical Satyricon, which, though usually called a novel, resembles linked stories to a degree. Fred Chappell’s charming quartet of novels is a quartet of novels-in-stories; the titles are I Am One of You Forever, Brighten the Corner Where You Are, Look Back All the Green Valley, and Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You. Lauren Cobbs’ collection Boulevard Women is slyly comic and touching. There will be many more collections of linked stories, if only because they are so much fun to read, and because the whole is always, inevitably, more than the sum of its parts. •