Libby Fischer Hellmann
Is Short the New Long?
I’ve never been one to follow trends. When I try, I always seem to catch them just when they’re on their way out. That goes for my writing too. Today’s bulky 400-500 page thrillers are popular, and I envy authors who can write long. I’m not one of them. Here’s my idea of a story:
Well, okay. It’s not that bad. I love creating stories in my head. Figuring out who does what and why. Dreaming up brave protagonists and evil-but- sympathetic villains. That’s the fun part. It’s the writing part that intimidates me. I’ve always felt insecure about the level of my craft, and writing is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So I stop when I think I’ve told the story.
The same goes for subject matter and setting. Over the years an enormous body of fiction has been written about World War Two, and I love reading it. In fact, when I recall novels like Nightingale, All The Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, Sarah’s Key, the Bernie Gunther and Alan Furst crime novels, Unbroken, and The Winds of War, I am gob-smacked by their beauty and power. What could I possibly add?
Still, part of me yearns to write something about that time period, mostly because World War Two was the last era in which there was such clarity between good and evil…such opportunities to create complex, conflicted characters, or explore the timeless themes of heroism, cowardice, and sacrifice.
Another World War Two junkie, herself a prolific reader, encouraged me to try. The very first short story I ever wrote was set in the late ‘30s in Chicago’s Lawndale as the country geared up to fight Hitler. But she nudged me to write more, to go farther. I knew I didn’t have the wherewithal to write about battlegrounds of Europe, Nazis, or the Resistance, but she planted a seed and eventually a story came to me. What if (the two most powerful words for a storyteller, btw) a German refugee was forced to spy on the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago? I had been studying espionage techniques for another story, and this was the perfect opportunity to try them out on paper.
But I couldn’t commit to a novel. It was too scary. So I wrote a novella, The Incidental Spy, which begins in 1935 and ends in 1942. It turned out rather well, I thought, so I started to think about a companion novella. I had visited Bletchley Park in the UK and planned to write a novella about spies and espionage across the pond, but it didn’t go well – I just couldn’t make it compelling.
Then, as fate would have it, I was in exercise class when someone started talking about the German POW camp that lay just a mile down the road.
The what? Where?
My ears perked up, and something in my brain clicked. Suddenly I had that feeling that comes to a writer when they know what story they’re going to write next. I started doing research and found that nearly half a million German and Italian POWs were incarcerated in the US between 1943 and 1945. Half a million! That’s all I needed. The companion story to Spy, POW, basically wrote itself. Again, POW was a novella—I told the story in about thirty thousand words. Then I packaged the two novellas together, added the short story I mentioned, and the result is this:
In fact, I’m growing fonder of the novella format every day. As a reader, what do you think? Are two novellas as satisfying as one novel?