|Eric D. Goodman|
Q: You describe Tracks as a “novel in stories.” How does this differ from a regular novel, or from a short story collection, and why did you decide to structure your book this way?
A: There seems to be no black and white rule regarding the difference between a novel, novel in stories, and collection of short stories—or at least no concrete criteria. Generally, a “novel in stories” is a collection of stories in which the stories connect or intertwine, and the stories or characters touch on one another. That said, I have read collections of short stories that are more connected than other books that call themselves novels but seem to be made up of barely-related stories.
For Tracks, I wanted to call it a novel in stories to offer the best of both worlds to readers. For the reader who prefers stand-alone stories, the chapters in Tracks can be read as isolated pieces. And for the reader who prefers a longer ride, what is learned in one story of Tracks certainly feeds later stories, so it has the feel of a novel.
Q: How did you get the idea to situate your characters on a train ride from Baltimore to Chicago, and is this a ride you've taken yourself?
A: Before I set out to write a novel in stories or a collection, I was working on some stand-alone short stories. It just so happened that the two stories I was most focused on were both set on trains. Around this time, I read Joan Silber’s Ideas Of Heaven, which is “a line of stories,” and I loved the way the stories touched on one another without depending one another. It inspired me to try my hand at it.
I’ve always had more story ideas than I have time to develop them, so I saw this as an opportunity to tackle some of them. Most of the stories began as seeds—an idea or a theme or a scene—so it was easy to develop them on the framework of a train.
Although I’ve always enjoyed traveling by train, I hadn’t ridden on the Cardinal line from Baltimore to Chicago when I wrote the initial draft. After I had a relatively polished draft in tow, I took the ride just for the sake of doing it, and to make sure I had the details right.
Q: How difficult was it to plot Tracks, given that each story is told from a different passenger's perspective and yet the characters appear in each other's stories?
A: I wrote these as individual stories all set on a train, and then worked at weaving them together. I knew I needed some way to bring them all together, in addition to the connections shared by some of the passengers on the train. The conductor did a fine job of serving as a link between the characters. Sometimes just having one character observe another worked wonders to connect stories. I think one of the fun things about this form is that you get to see one character from multiple perspectives. In his own story, a person may be a swell guy, but in another person’s story he may be viewed as despicable, or worse, a nobody—just a faceless body in the crowd.
As I revised, I found new ways to place characters together. Sometimes I’d write new scenes that put them in conversation or in passing, other times I’d replace secondary characters with other passengers on the train. It was a challenge, but rewarding when I could find a way to bring these passengers closer together, one person’s story continuing in another’s.
Q: You also have written a children's book, Flightless Goose, illustrated by your wife, Nataliya Goodman. What are some of the similarities and differences for you in writing for adults and for children?
A: Both start with the seed of an idea, grow from there, and then have to be pruned back. I look for just the right words in both types of writing. But writing a storybook for children is very different than writing short fiction. You really have to economize your words and say only what is needed. Not much room for character development or exploration.
I also found, working with my wife as she illustrated, that it was important to say things in the pictures when possible and delete them from the text. For example, Flightless Goose is about a goose who has an accident and can’t fly. His human friend uses a wheelchair. There’s an obvious message and connection, but I don’t mention impairments or disabilities in the text at all because I didn’t want that to define the characters – this important aspect of the story and the book’s message was told only through the images. Based on school and library readings I’ve done with kids, they don’t see this as a book about a disabled goose—it’s a story about a goose who can’t fly. And it’s great to see the children internalize the story to fit their own views of the world.
I think writing long form fiction is more difficult because you have to dig deep, really develop complex emotions and relationships, and try to do it all in a creative way without being too wordy. It’s an entirely different set of challenges. But when it works, it’s more rewarding too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My second novel, Womb, is currently with my agent in New York, and will hopefully make it to the delivery room in the near future. With it, I wanted to challenge myself to tell a story from the most unique point of view I could find. I was inspired by The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, who begins her book with the narrator mentioning that she’d been murdered. Womb is at the opposite end of the spectrum, narrated in first person from the perspective of a child who hasn’t been born yet.
That manuscript is in the hopper (although not free from future edits) and I am actively working on my next novel with the working title Setting the Family Free. It’s a fictional story based on the exotic animal release and massacre in Ohio last year. The story fascinated me, so I’ve set about writing a novel told from multiple perspectives about such an event. My inspiration for this book, in regards to style and format, is Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.
My wife and I are collaborating on our next children’s book as well.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love writing and reading. I think the key to good writing is to become addicted to reading good fiction. In many ways, I find more truth in fiction than in fact. Fiction allows us to find emotional truths that we can’t find in nonfiction.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.