If short stories are, as Alice Munro describes them, “worlds seen in a quick, glancing light” then novels must be drenched in twilight, in long summer evenings that never seem to end. One is a swift, sharp rapier cut while the other lingers like a careful surgeon. All well to know this, of course, but the distance between thought and page can sometimes be wide and yawning. How does the creative practice differ, between short stories and novels? What inspires an author to write one or the other?
I caught up with two young writers – Krys Lee and Prajwal Parajuly – who are panellists at “Changing Places: A Global Literary Salon,” part of the Festival of Asian Literature at Asia House, London. We were all were similarly lodged in between, neither here nor there – our first collections of stories had been published and here we were, taking on the task of writing something longer. It was interesting to see the differences in our approach to this literary ‘switch.’
Krys, born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in California and Washington, has written Drifting House, a collection of stories that explore the lives of South Koreans wrestling with the turbulence of the post-World War II years and those living as immigrants in the United States. When I first emailed her, she got in touch a few days later saying she had “just emerged from a week of solid revisions in solitude and was learning how to talk again.” How has it been, I asked her, shifting from short stories to novel? The experience, she replied, had been a fearful one. “The novel is a sustained, intimate effort with your chosen main characters and their world. I felt great fear when writing the novel because each time the manuscript seemed to fall apart, I wondered if I would ever be able to finish.” This might be the greatest challenge a writer faces – having the tenacity and focus to see a novel through.
Prajwal Parajuly, born to an Indian father and a Nepalese father, has recently published The Gurkha’s Daughter, a collection of stories set around Nepal, delving into the lives of the Nepalese and the Nepalese diaspora, people whose culture and language is Nepalese but who are dispersed to Bhutan, India and beyond. His next book, as Prajwal explained, is about four siblings living in various parts of the world, who convene in Gangtok, Sikkim for their grandmother’s 84th birthday. For him the experience has been “interesting” – “I’d say I found writing the novel easier than writing the short stories. Could it be because I had evolved somewhat as a writer between the first and second books? Perhaps.” He also pointed out how messy the process is of editing, and trimming – “The other day, I decided to do away with 5,000 beautifully written words that added nothing to the narrative.”
For me, working on a novel after Boats on Land, a collection of stories set in India’s northeast and elsewhere, has been mostly about being an orthopaedist, about getting down to the bare bones of my story – the structure. My short stories worked as alternative histories to the region, interweaving fact, folklore and magic, while my novel is a step away from the place I grew up in and riddled with the unfamiliar. Yet, what’s important, as Krys pointed out, is that when “content” comes to a writer, one starts shaping it into the form appropriate for that material.” Sometimes, a story is “appropriate” as a short story, a poem, an epic novel. In discovering its form, the writer also discovers him/herself.
This article first appeared in The Samosa