The Story is the Boss: Sarah Brennan-Newell in Conversation with Richard Van Camp

Richard Van Camp

Malahat volunteer Sarah Brennan-Newell talks with Novella Prize judge Richard Van Camp about finding the right form, the function of novellas, and revisiting old favourites.


Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. He is the author of two children’s books with the Cree artist George Littlechild: A Man
Called Raven
and What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? He has published a novel, The Lesser Blessed, which is now a feature film with First Generation Films; his collections of short fiction include Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go and Other Stories, Godless but Loyal to Heaven and Night Moves. His latest graphic novel is A Blanket of Butterflies and it’s about peacemaking where a grandmother is the hero of the story. Read more here.


Click here for details on entering the Novella Prize contest.


Congratulations on being named a judge for the Novella Prize! The novella is such an interesting genre, right in between two more popular story lengths. What function do you think novellas serve especially well? What do you look for in judging them for a contest like this?

I love love LOVE novellas. I always include one in my short story collections because it's an even bigger galaxy than a short story. 

I've always said that a short story is the perfect Saturday night that you can return to time and time again. Novellas introduce us to characters and scenarios that can haunt, intrigue or disturb someone even more. That's what I'm looking for: something intriguing. Something unforgettable. Something forever. 

It can be hard to find a place to publish novellas - do you have a novella or collection of novellas that you consider to be a particularly good example of the genre? 

Hmm. Great question. I can't think of any off the bat. Sorry.

My novellas are "Godless but Loyal to Heaven" in the collection of the same name.

I also have "The Moon of Letting Go" in the collection of the same name.

I also have "Blood Rides the Wind."

These were just too big for a short story and the characters were so interesting to me, I could follow them after the denouement. Also, the "supporting" characters in the novel were just as intriguing as the narrators. With novellas, you get to relax and look around the room, take a peak under the mattresses, slide open the windows and inhale or scream your head off. 

You've published in a variety of genres, including short stories, novels, graphic novels and children's literature. As a storyteller how do you decide the form a story should take?

The story is the boss. If something comes to me, I have to pause and say, "Well now. How are you? What are you? Are you a comic? A poem? a Tweet? A one page novel? A children's book?" It's like meeting a magical being. You have to show up and be open to where it wants to lead you.

Can you speak a little bit to the writing process for the titular novella of your short story collection Godless but Loyal to Heaven? It features characters you have written about before - did it evolve from a character study of Torchy or did you have the plot outlined from the beginning? 

Oh yes. Mermaids was such a great short story to write. It hit me that we still had some unresolved issues: what happened to Sfen's body? Who is Torchy after Sfen passes away. Who is he without his brother and his partner in crime? What happened with Stephanie and Snowbird? What if became a reluctant hero? What if Snowbird has entrusted him with medicine power because he sees what a good but wounded heart Torchy has? 

Building on that as a writing instructor how do you approach teaching a form like the novella? What advice would you offer young writers looking to publish? 

I'd say a story takes as long as it takes. Worry about the marketing later. I'm always assigning homework: read this or watch that or go eavesdrop at a cafe or wear something your character would wear, etc. etc. I just keep nagging and cheer-leading. I think I just overwhelm people with believing in them and what they want. 

Lastly what are you reading right now? Something new and inspiring or an old favourite?

I'm reading Hilary Rodham Clintion's biography "What Happened". 100 pages a day. I'm grieving the loss of a dear friend and Hilary's resilience is contagious and comforting. I always return to IDW's "Cobra: The Last Laugh", the graphic novel. I have it on standby for daily viewing. It's my all time fave g. novel. I want to write something that great, that defiant, that eternal. I'm also enjoying reading my buddy Leif Gregersen's new short story collection. It's in draft but it's already gold.  I also just reread "Indiscretion" by Charles Dubow recently and, my God, what a novel. What a haunting and inspiring life's work. 


Sarah Brennan-Newell

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