One of the most enlightening discussions I’ve ever had on the writing process was with a teacher of mine, the amazing Nance Van Winckel. Nance was talking about why short fiction came so much more easily to her than long. She said she found the quickly rising and falling arc and compact plot of the short story natural, while the long, loose weave of the novel just didn’t work very well for her. “I need to see the whole,” she said. “I have to be able to envision the entire work as a single thing.” With short fiction, you can do that. With novels, not so much.
What was remarkable to me about Nance’s talk, was that it made me realize that the exact opposite was true for me. I’ve written a few short pieces in my day, but mainly, I write novels, and I do so precisely because I can’t see the whole work at one time. What I see are threads—dozens and dozens of threads, all laced together. And I want to follow those threads, to see where they lead me. Also, every story I come up with takes 450 manuscript pages to tell.
Perhaps it is my own awkwardness with the form that leads me to admire well crafted short fiction so much. I love the tension of a good short story—the way a skilled author can make it just taut enough. I like the solidity and denseness of the form. But mainly what I admire is the short-story writer’s ability to create a world in a few hundred words—as opposed to a few hundred pages.
That is also the reason I love David Ebenbach’s short story collection, Between Camelots. Each of these fifteen compact tales is built on crisp language, precise dialogue, and perfectly chosen details. But underneath their apparent simplicity lie fully realized characters living richly imagined lives of need, longing, desire, sorrow, loss, and love. These stories manage to be both delicately wrought and emotionally powerful. They are the kind of stories that read quick-and-easy, but pack a powerful punch.
One of the things Ebenbach does best is draw scenes full of small actions that seem insignificant, but that make the emotional struggles of his characters vivid and real. Loneliness is a man listening to the sounds of barbecues in backyards as he walks. Being out of place is a gay Black man ordering steak in a restaurant in rural Wisconsin. Grief is a new widower waiting outside the bathroom for a woman he picked up at a bar.
Loneliness and alienation are themes that reverberate through virtually all of the stories in this collection. Ebenbach’s characters yearn for connection but just miss the mark. They fumble their way through relationships and stumble just when they are on the verge of finding something to hold onto. This repeated theme has led at least one reviewer to complain that too many of the stories are similar. But Ebenbach approaches the themes of isolation and need from so many different perspectives and with such various insights that each story feels fresh and distinct. In many ways, this collection is like a symphony in which the same motifs keep emerging, but each time with different instrumentation.
David Ebenbach’s latest collection of short stories, Into the Wilderness—which focuses on the experience of being a parent—came out this week and immediately soared to a lofty position in Amazon’s sales ranking. My own attempts to order it were thwarted by the notification “out of stock.” No doubt, it will be available again soon. In the meantime, I recommend his earlier collection for any writer who wants to see how a fine short story is put together and any reader who simply wants to sit back and relish good fiction.