Author of award-winning novella The Plankton Collector, Cath Barton, joins me for a #NovellaNovember Q&A to celebrate the publication of her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, which comes out later this month.
There’s no definitive definition as such, so can you tell me what you understand a novella to be?
The simple answer is that it’s a short novel – most novellas are probably between 15,000 and 40,000 words long. But there’s something else about the novella, which is that it is an intense read: novella is to novel as poem is to short story.
Can you give me some good examples of novellas, or some of your personal favourites?
My absolute favourite is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is as vital today as it was when it was first published in 1945.
I also recommend anything by Cynan Jones: The Dig, Everything I Found on the Beach, The Long Dry in particular, for their density of emotion; West by Carys Davies, which is accurately described in its blurb as ‘an epic in miniature’; and Claire Keegan’s Foster, another short book with great emotional depth.
What’s the appeal of the novella for you?
I like the concentration of the form, both as reader and writer.
Does this form lend itself to a certain type of story?
Certainly to stories about strong emotions. Look at Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach But not exclusively so. Animal Farm is a fable – as the first novellas were actually, such as the stories in the 14th century Italian collection called The Decameron. Mind you, I’m not really comparing like with like here – the term novella in the 14th century really just meant ‘story’.
Do you set out to write a novella, or does the story dictate its own length?
I think that if, as writers, we pay attention, we do find the story dictates its own length. As Cynan Jones said when I interviewed him a few years ago for the US-based Celtic Family Magazine:
‘The story is god. Ultimately it chooses the form that best suits it. First comes the compunction to commit to a story; then the clarity to listen to it.’
Both In the Sweep of the Bay and The Plankton Collector came from a piece of flash fiction. Can you talk us through how you go about working up that original flash?
Ah, the exact process is a bit elusive! In neither case did the initial flash become the opening, but they contained the seeds of the eventual books. I worked out from each, filling in the story like a jigsaw. But those flashes did remain essentially intact in the finished work.
Can you tell me what each of your novellas is about in one sentence?
The Plankton Collector is the story of a family coming to terms with grief, helped by a mysterious stranger, who appears to each member of the family in a different guise.
In the Sweep of the Bay is the story of a long marriage, with its attendant hopes, joys and sorrows.
What would you like readers to take away from reading In The Sweep of the Bay?
As in all my work, I hope that my writing speaks to them and they can relate to the characters in the book and to their experience of life, even if it is very different from their own.
And finally, you’ve been published by indie publisher Louise Walters Books (LWB) in a pandemic. How has that been?
I couldn’t have asked for a better publisher. It’s not the best time for writers or publishers, but we’ve worked together and I’m just delighted to see my book out in the world. You can buy it from bookshops everywhere, through bookshop.org, which supports independent bookshops, or direct from the publisher at LWB Bookshop.
Many thanks to Cath Barton for answering my questions on one of her favourite forms this #NovellaNovember.
I have one signed copy of In the Sweep of the Bay and an unsigned copy of The Plankton Collector to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner on Thursday.
In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton is published by Louise Walters Books on 23 November. The Plankton Collector won the New Welsh Writing Awards AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017 and is available through the GWales site. For more on Cath Barton and her writing, check out her Author Website, or find her on Twitter.