Stephen King, 1982 (so forgive him his dubious taste here as he makes his point):
“But for novellas … boy, as far as marketability goes, you in a heap o’ trouble. You look at your 25,000-to-35,000-word manuscript dismally, twist the cap off a beer, and in your head you seem to hear a… voice saying: “Buenos dias, senor! How was your flight on Revolucion Airways? Welcome to Novella, senor! You going to like heet here preety-good-fine, I theenk! Put your feet up, senor, I theenk your story is going to be here a long, long time … que pasa? Ah-ha-hahhah-hah!””
I did say 1982.
That’s from the foreword to DIFFERENT SEASONS, a book which, to my mind, contains two of his finest pieces, Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil.
I love the novella form. The long short story, if you like. You actually cross into the novella at around 17,500 words. Some contend that the far border of the novella is 40,000 words. Some awards systems start the novel at 40,000 words, and that seems to have become more standard, but I remember a writer telling me years ago that he wrestled his book up to 54,000 words to ensure it was in novel awards contention. (It won all of them, so he clearly wasn’t wrong.)
My book NORMAL was, I think, a hair under 30,000 words. But it was sold as NORMAL: A Novel, because you can’t sell a novella. Don DeLillo’s post-UNDERWORLD work was sold as novels even though they’re all clearly novellas. Alan Garner’s TREACLE WALKER, which I read over last weekend, is a novella, but sold as a novel.
HEART OF DARKNESS was a novella. JEKYLL AND HYDE was a novella. Technically, the majority of Georges Simenon’s work was in novella form. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE. Some ideas just don’t support a 900-page doorstop, or even an 80,000-word “this is the book length we like” edict.
I tend towards concision in fiction writing. I had to drag both CROOKED LITTLE VEIN and GUN MACHINE over the publishers’ finishing lines — I felt the books were as finished as they were going to get at anywhere between three and seven thousand words short of those lines. I’ve gotten better at that, and I do love writing novels – do you know what a witchbottle is? – but I know I’m always going to run slightly short of expectations, and the first note I get is always “this needs to be longer.”
I could see sequels for NORMAL, but the story as it stood was not, to me, going to benefit from crawling over into novel territory. Welcome to Novella.
I have a list of ideas that have the word “novella” scrawled next to them. For whatever reason, this is how I think and how I write. I would, in the abstract, love to write one of those time-defining quarter-million-word monsters that say all the things. I am waiting patiently for Alan Moore’s LONG LONDON quintet like everyone else. But I don’t know if doing one of those is in my limited gift.
I really love writing novels. I have grown to harbour a desire to write a novel series, even. But I am haunted by the novella.
Part of that probably comes from my having entered the commercial arts through comics. That trains you towards concision as much as journalism does. The comics page radiates smaller amounts of information than the prose page, and comics tend to be curtailed by short hard episode cuts. I was talking with someone recently who’s spent recent years in webcomics, and they had to learn how to cut hard — at a cliffhanger, too — at the equivalent of five comics pages, every week. Now, that’s the form I actually grew up with — it’s what 2000AD comic is built on, for a contemporary example — but it’s hard as hell. I started out in six-to-eight pages monthly, which is one of the stressiest and most anxiety-inducing forms you can find in comics. Did I do enough in only six bloody pages to bring the reader back in thirty bloody days? You start to think in terms of condensed energy – what Pat Mills (or Kev O’Neill, I forget) called “breathless” comics.
So that’s all in my blood. But there’s no good way to get novellas to market without ganging them into a single fat book like DIFFERENT SEASONS or just lying and calling them novels.
I mean, I personally would have bought TREACLE WALKER regardless. It needed to be small. It’s a fable of the mid-20th Century in rural England, of deeper history than that and of modern concepts of time and quantum theory. Treacle Walker himself is a rag and bone man. Weirdly for me, I had a rag and bone man come down my street the week I bought the book, and I hadn’t heard that bell and call since my own childhood. Geezer was in a van rather than on a horse-drawn cart, mind you, but by 1984 our local bone man had traded the horse in for a flatbed van anyway. The further north you went, the more likely your rags and bones would be traded for a donkey stone, a kind of scouring block used to clean slippery stone steps. The brown ones came from Northampton, Alan Moore’s patch. The white ones came from Appley Bridge, site of a meteorite strike in the early 20th C, and location of Skull House, where a curse will strike any who dares to move the skull on the mantelpiece. The donkey stone in the story has the White Horse of Uffington incised into its top surface.
I’ve been to the White Horse, and to Wayland’s Smithy, a couple of miles away from it. It’s a giant geoglyph, one of the oldest in the world, of a minimalist horse-like animal incised into the side of the hill, the cuts filled with white chalk. It’s likely to be a “solar horse” – designed to mark midwinter. The middle of the orbit. An attempt to know time.
Young Joe lives in a small stone house in the middle of rural nowhere, apparently on his own. He tells the time only by the distant train that rattles past at the middle of the day. He calls it Noony. As soon as the horse-marked stone arrived in the story, I made the connection with the train as metal horse in the distance marking the middle point. It’s the kind of book that does that to you.
But that’s okay. That’s pretty much how the book happened to its author:
“Just inconsequentially, Bob told me about a historical character, a local tramp called Walter Helliwell, known as Treacle Walker. He was a healer, claiming to be able to cure all things except jealousy. And I looked at Bob and said, ‘You remember last night? Well, just make a note that on the afternoon of Sunday 15 July 2012, you’ve given me an idea, and you’ve given me a book.”
What had snagged Garner’s attention was the original meaning of treacle: medicine. “But Walter Helliwell, a tramp, couldn’t have know that, and that was how I knew something was there.”
Joe is a sickly child, and is wearing an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye. Treacle Walker is the rag and bone man who clatters into the house’s yard one afternoon, and Joe trades him a pair of old pyjamas and a lamb bone for a small Victorian medicine jar and the donkey stone. And so it begins.
Treacle Walker’s eyes are “green violet.” So is the residue of medicinal paste in the bottom of the jar. Joe accidentally gets some of it in one eye, and begins to see in a different way. Joe wants a cuckoo’s egg, which can be both violet and green, but is too young to know that cuckoos lay their eggs in other species’ nests. With his new sight, Joe finds a man buried in the bog at the edge of the property, strongly reminiscent of Tollund Man, an ancient human sacrifice victim. His motion from his resting place is a curse. He knows Treacle Walker:
“Me know that pickthank psychopomp? I know him, so I do. I know him. Him with his pots for rags and his bag and his bone and his doddering nag and nookshotten cart and catchpenny oddments. Treacle Walker? I’d not trust that one’s arse with a fart.’
(Another bog body, Lindow Man, was found in Cheshire, which is the county of Garner’s youth and the focus of much of his work.)
The books folds and folds in on itself, showing new juxtapositions and edges. And it’s also, in a way, about comics. Joe loves the weekly British comic KNOCKOUT. Joe’s favourite strip in there is STONEHENGE KIT THE ANCIENT BRIT, which provides us a window for the book’s temporal location – that ran in KNOCKOUT from 1939 to 1950. I remember the strip KELLY’S EYE from VALIANT, but it started in KNOCKOUT and was drawn by the key Argentinian comics artist Francisco Solano Lopez, who co-created THE ETERNAUT with Héctor Germán Oesterheld. Oesterheld’s politically engaged comics writing and his connections with left resistance led him to be kidnapped, murdered and disappeared by the military junta of the period.
When the Italian journalist Alberto Ongaro did inquiries about his disappearance in 1979, he got the eerie reply: “We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Ché Guevara ever done”. (link)
A different kind of human sacrifice, perhaps.
In TREACLE WALKER, the comics escape from the page as much as Joe escapes into the comics. Time folds. There are breathless panel sequences. The edges of picture borders appear before the pictures. Stories told before their time.
There are heartbreaking moments towards the end. Not least when Joe expresses the thought that everything that happened in the story is his fault. But there is a quote from Carlo Rovelli framing the book: “Time is ignorance.” He doesn’t know what happened. He just, in the end, knows what’s going to happen.
I’ve read the book twice now, and feel a third reading coming on. That’s the power of the novella. Contained, yet containing all of time and space, folded into a jar.