In the 17th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) explains why she wrote a book of connected stories rather than a novel.
You Know When the Men Are Gone is described as a collection of linked short stories. Why was it so important for you to use the short story form rather than the novel?
Personally, I’m a sucker for a short story. As a writer, a collection offered me the freedom of writing about distinct worlds, from the families of Fort Hood, Texas, to the soldiers of Camp Liberty, Iraq, without neatly stitching them together in a way you might expect from a novel. And the physical structure of a short story collection, with cyclical new beginnings and unexpected endings, helped me evoke the emotional landscape, the upheaval and disconnect, of military families during deployments. I wanted the reader to feel an echo of that displacement: Families move to new bases so often it seems that as soon as they are comfortable, it is time to move again. So the format of a collection was not only the best way for me to tell You Know When The Men Are Gone, but it was the only way.
There were also times that telling a short story made my job as a writer easier. The physical nature of stories, those multiple starts and stops, allowed me to leap over the time and distance of a deployment, that seemingly endless waiting both soldiers in Iraq and families in Fort Hood have to slog through during the twelve months they are apart. Each story shifts focus from one family or couple to another, and, in this episodic way, I felt like I was able to emphasize how every corner of the Army community—neighbors in the same housing building or total strangers from one side of the base to the other—was affected. Lives cross paths, but Fort Hood is a big place with more than 30,000 active duty soldiers alone; sometimes there is a shared apartment wall or a shared Humvee, but, like life, I didn't want too much overlap. I wanted to recreate the sense of separateness, the way people are always coming and going. Individual short stories could do this, each title stacked together tenuously in the Table of Contents but not merged together, the stories touching but never completely entwined.
I am also a fan of the "short" in short story: the brevity is often part of its glory. Irish writer William Trevor calls a short story ''an art of the glimpse,'' whose ''strength lies in what it leaves out.'' There are so many permutations in a mere glimpse—how the writer takes a single moment and fleshes it out in such a way the reader can see an entire past and future stretching out from those few written pages. As Flannery O'Connor said, story writers are attempting to capture the "extraordinary magic that lies in the everyday." This is what I was trying to conjure up: the eavesdropped words that fill a listener with curiosity or paranoia, the baby drinking a bottle that offers a connection between a husband and wife at odds, a soldier with a memory of a death that gives a widow a reason to keep living—all these moments spooling outward, demonstrating that the possibilities of a short story are endless. That’s the instant the short story writer seizes upon and relishes: the moment when anything can happen, when the ordinary does indeed become extraordinary.