Just when we thought it was tough to sell a book of short stories, along comes Josh Weil and his debut collection of novellas. But maybe, just maybe, if busy Americans don't have time enough to consume a full novel and can't invest in the quick thrill of a short story, this elusive literary form could provide the perfect middle ground.
This topic was the center of an intriguing discussion among book lovers last week when Virginia native Weil stopped by Turnrow to sign and read from his impressive debut, The New Valley, a triptych of long tales that depict a brand of isolation and longing particular to the rural Virginia highlands. The stories reminded us of Kent Haruf and Larry Brown in a way, with their plain-spoken, rough-hewn characters, their humor and dogged individualism.
First, the discussion focused on the curious form of novellas — longer than a short story, yet shorter than a novel. Actually, some of the most famous works of 20th century literature are considered novellas: Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, and Faulkner's The Bear.
But the novella is slippery in that it cannot always be pegged by page length or word count. "The important thing is how that length allows it to work in a way neither a story or a novel does," Josh explained. "I think a novella compresses the world with the focus of a short story, but it explores that smaller space with a novel’s generosity and care. I find it to be a beautiful and rich combination that allows the intensity of a story with room to breathe."
It's safe to say a young writer like Josh does not set out to become a novella writer. It just happened when he sat down and cranked out the book's opening tale, "Ridge Weather," from which he read a portion at our event, a portion that would spark controversy later in the evening. After some reluctance and head-scratching among publishing professionals, Josh found an agent willing to package this 80-page story with two more of similar length and found a daring publisher, Grove-Atlantic, known for going against the grain and publishing plenty of novellas, perhaps most famously those of Jim Harrison, whose Legends of the Fall is one of our favorite novella collections.
Josh too is very fond of Harrison's collection, which produced two films, and it should be said that Josh studied film in college. He wrote and directed his own scripts and it's clear filmmaking is in his blood. "I'd say that film has influenced me a lot when it comes to the novella, because I think the arc of a film — what can be accomplished in two hours of cinema, in a screenplay — is very similar to what can be accomplished with a novella," he said, adding names like Scorsese, Coppola, Terrence Malick, and Bob Rafelson to the list of authors who inspired him to write in the novella form, from Faulkner and Hemingway to Proulx and Ondaatje.
But how has this form proved useful to Josh?
"For me, since I'm often most interested in exploring character and the way that it is formed/hardened/broken by the events of a story, I am drawn to the space that the novella allows me to dig around in that territory," he explained. "It's certainly possible with a short story, but I think I feel limited to exploring one specific aspect of a character in a short story, whereas a novella allows me to wrap my arms around the person in a more complete way."
Take, for instance, the main character in "Ridge Weather," a young cattle hand who has just lost his father. Weil follows him through the days after the funeral as the young man adjusts to a life even more solitary than we initially believed. Most poignant are his grasping social interactions, which tend to resume awkwardly. One incident, depicted in Josh's reading at the bookstore, earned him a playful slap from a nearby audience member caught off guard by the character's uncomfortable and completely believable gesture.
It was all in good fun, but the implications of this pivotal dramatic moment returned later, over dinner at Delta Bistro. A heated deconstruction over the scene flared up again and divided the sexes as the author modestly enjoyed his blackened pork tenderloin. It's not every dinner conversation, parsing the ins and outs of literature, that you can defer to the author, but this was such a case. Rousted from his swine, Josh defended the action of his character in the context of the story and, despite the interruption, was obviously flattered to have inspired such fervor. Surely one of the writer's great satisfactions must be in confirming, through interaction with his readers, that he has made art by honestly conveying the ambiguities of true character.
As Tony Doerr, another young writer we admire, wrote in his rave New York Times Sunday Book Review, "Keep writing novellas, Josh Weil, because you write very good ones."