The Right Size For Words:
Sarah Brennan-Newell in Conversation with Stephen Marche

Stephen Marche

Malahat volunteer Sarah Brennan-Newell talks about novellas as half-marathons with writer Stephen Marche, one of three judges for our upcoming 2016 Novella Prize.

Read his biography here.

When I googled the word novella I saw “a short novel or a long short story” as a potential definition, which begs the question: how do you define such a liminal genre? What do you think a novella offers that short stories or novels might lack? What do you think are its' strengths or weaknesses?    

The word “novella” is a bit like the phrase “half-marathon.” It's a huge achievement to run twenty-one kilometers, but even after you've done that, you've still only done a half. The novella is a bit the same way. Short stories are little adventures. Novels are full scale campaigns. What is the novella? I think that is actually one of the more attractive features of the genre, though. We don't know quite what it is. There is less a burden of tradition. 

I was recently impressed with (and terrified by) Stephen King's novella collection Full Dark No Stars, particularly “A Good Marriage.” Do you have a novella or collection of novellas that you consider to be a particularly good example of the genre? 

The best novellas are the ones that you probably don't even think of as novellas, books that are just kind of uncategorizable and unique. Camus's The Outsider. Orwell's Animal Farm. Barrico's Silk. Duras's The Lover

You have a background in early modern drama. How do you think that informs your writing and your criticism? 

I tend to enjoy highly dense, highly violent works of art. 

Your own work includes monthly columns for Esquire as well as novels and nonfiction. How do you flex between the stricter word count of essays and the expansive world of novels? How do you know where to stop with the latter? Do you have a preferred mode to write in?

I was born into fiction but I'm starting to become an essayist. I love the essay. I love that you can do strange things with essays and still be widely read. Who knows? I'll probably veer back and forth my whole life. 

You have been published in The Malahat Review before, with your story “How the Children Stayed Beautiful in a Time of Many Catastrophes.” How does that experience compare with judging this contest? How did you know that was a short story and not a longer work?

I think basically you can't set out to write a novella. A novella is either a novel that crumbles, or a short story that spirals out of control. The spiralling and the crumbling can both be magnificent. That story was exactly the right size for what it turned out to be. 

Any final thoughts on the novella or advice for writers?

I'm so glad people are writing them. 

Sarah Brennan-Newell

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Read full guidelines for the 2016 Novella Prize.