How to Link Up a Short Story Collection: A Fairy Tale
By Micah Perks •
A reader recently emailed me about my new collection of linked short stories, True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape: she appreciated “all the tiny details, like breadcrumbs that you sprinkled along the way. Reading it made me want to understand how you changed the original stories to make them fit together.”
The Grimm brothers tell us that as Hansel and Gretel lose themselves deeper and deeper in the forest, the breadcrumbs they’ve dropped are all eaten by birds. After being imprisoned for many days, they end up riding home on a duck. A perfect description of my process for linking up stories.
The First Breadcrumb: Lay Out all the Stories on the Floor
I have always longed to be a member of the short story collection club, so after I finished my last novel, I printed out the first and last page of all my stories and laid them out on the floor of my bedroom. I paced the room, trying to imagine them as a collection. In one story, there was a bald Chilean activist with a brilliant smile, in another, a bald Chilean scientist with a brilliant smile, in a third a bald Chilean professor with a brilliant smile (my husband is a bald Chilean with a brilliant smile). There was an often hopeful, often exhausted, sometimes neurotic woman, but in one story she lives on the east coast with her husband and twin sons; in another she lives on the central coast of California with her daughter; in another she is a childless bookstore owner. Many of the stories ended in the same place, with characters refusing to believe their story is over.
I decided I had two choices: either make the stories more different from each other or link them up. I spent a couple of days putting curly hair on one Chilean and making another Argentinian, but I realized these bald Chilean guys were basically the same guy, and more importantly, complicating the stories in the same way. I decided to try and link them up. I was excited. I love to try new things!
And just like that, Hansel and Gretel skip blithely into the forest.
Second Crumb: Research
Amy Parker writes, “It’s the faceted aspect of linked collections that appeals to me…Each story is a jewel, set in its own vertex, and it reflects all the others.” Sonya Chung believes that linked collections combine “compression and vast heterogeneity in one.” According to Baird Harper, linked collections “adhere to their own logic.” I love these rhapsodic descriptions, but they didn’t help me actually link the damn things up. I thought about some of my favorite linked collections. Some are organized around subject, like Alison Lurie’s Women and Ghosts; some by setting, like the Vietnam War in The Things They Carried; some are centered around the same main character like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Probably my favorite linked short story collection is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. All set in the same small town in Maine, these stories circle around the cantankerous Olive, a trickster figure who is sometimes at the center of a story and sometimes pops up like a jack-in-the-box to say something sassy in the middle of someone else’s story. I went back and read Olive Kitteridge again, but like a jewel or a trickster, Strout mesmerized me all over again, and I forgot to try and figure out how she did it. Next, I googled around, searching for concrete Strout advice. I found a piece in which she explains her process for writing. Strout says, “I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket.”
Hopelessly lost in the forest, and night is falling.
Third Crumb: Seek Out the Swan
Frustrated and stuck, I went to dinner at the home of my beloved mentor, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alison Lurie. She’s a bit past ninety and still gardens, swims laps, and is sharp as a tack and twice as witty. She made me meatloaf and green beans from her garden; we ate, drank wine, and I told her I was having trouble linking up my stories. She said, “Tell me about them and I’ll help you.” I described several of them. She thought for a minute, then said, “Why don’t you have a trickster figure in each one causing mischief? The trickster will appear as a different person in each story, but you will know them by their golden eyes.” I was charmed. This trickster could be my Olive Kitteridge, threading the stories together like jewels on a necklace. The golden-eyed trickster would work as a scaffolding that allowed me to begin to build the connections between stories.
When I was leaving her house, Alison said, “Micah, wait, I want to tell you something else.” I turned back. “If you add a tablespoon of cream cheese to scrambled eggs, they will be delicious.” (Don’t say you didn’t learn something from reading this essay.)
It would be disrespectful to compare Alison Lurie to a duck, especially one I rode across a lake, but in some versions of Hansel and Gretel, the duck is a swan. Search out the swans. You will know them by their golden eyes.
Fourth Crumb: Unify the Setting
After I put a golden-eyed trickster in every story, I decided to set them in the same place, Olive Kitteridge-style. All but three of the stories take place near the central coast of California anyway. Here’s an example of the kinds of revisions I made: I had a story set in the Adirondack Mountains “on the edge of the best lake in the world. Because of the acid rain, every year the water becomes clearer; the environmentalists say it’s like swimming in vinegar.” This description worked well for the main character of the story, a vinegary woman with an acid wit. I moved the story to Clear Lake, California which “grows a thick coat of green every summer…And it’s over a hundred most days in September.” My character goes in, “emerging like a toxic creature from the green lagoon.” Different lake, but still toxic, and the heat helped intensify the atmosphere.
“Just wait, Gretel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have strewn about, they will show us our way home again.”
Fifth Crumb: Combine Characters
After I made the Chilean men into one man, an activist named Mateo, that meant that his love interest had to be the same person, his child had to be the same child… In working to combine characters, I realized that I could change the genders of some of them, creating people with more surprise and complexity: the single father cries himself to sleep at night, then paints his nails blue to cheer himself up, and the toxic woman runs off with the karate teacher, who is now a woman. When I had linked most of the stories by character and setting and all by golden-eyed trickster I triumphantly sent my now mostly-linked collection to my editor. I’m done I told him triumphantly.
Hansel said to Gretel, “We shall soon find the way,” but they did not find it.
Sixth Crumb: Begin Again
My editor wrote back: “I think we’re close.” But he urged me to find “more connective tissue…My goal here is to provide more guidance for the reader so they can focus on your language and ideas.” I wrote back: Ugh. But I started again. I cut three stories because I couldn’t figure a way to make them fit. I combined more characters, varied endings, made clear from the first sentence of each story which character it was about. I arranged them in chronological order. One of the last changes I made was to take out all the golden eyes—overkill—but those eyes had done their catalyzing work. During this revision, the theme clearly emerged for me: the conflict between the desire to find love and the desire to escape it at the same time. And in some of them, true love was the escape. I kept working up until the deadline, connecting through character, setting, and by my theme: true love and other dreams of miraculous escape.
At the end of Hansel and Gretel when they finally made it home, “Gretel emptied her pinafore until pearls and precious stones ran about the room.” Jewels, jewels everywhere. There is “perfect happiness.”
In that same breadcrumb email, my reader wrote, “I read your book for the second time yesterday because I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I wanted the mixed up puzzle pieces to fall into place.” I thought, Uh oh. Perhaps she needed more guidance, more connective tissue. Perhaps the stories needed to slip together more easily, like jewels on a string. Or maybe not. Maybe the desire for all the puzzle pieces to fall into place is a longing that a linked collection shouldn’t satisfy. Maybe that lack of a perfect fit is an essential element of the linked collection.
Jewels or no jewels, Hansel and Gretel will wake in the morning and enter the forest, because they are greedy, or they are enchanted, or they are simply children who like to lose themselves, again and again.
MICAH PERKS is the author of the book of linked short stories, True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape, the novel What Becomes Us, winner of an Independent Publisher’s Book Award and named one of the Top Ten Books about the Apocalypse by The Guardian, as well as a memoir, Pagan Time, a novel, We Are Gathered Here, and many essays and short stories.