The question was put to me: How do you tie a collection of short stories together in a cohesive book?
The initial answer is simple: There has to be some linkage, a thru-line that connects the stories.
Simple answers are, of course, deceptive, and not as helpful as they seem. The simple answer to the question "What are the elements of a short story?" provokes the chant beloved of high school teachers: A beginning, a middle, and an end. This seems helpful, but it’s no help when you sit down to write a story. It’s a clumsy tool you can apply once the story is written. Simple answers need further explanations.
The linkage in many lasting story collections is family, or recurring characters. My examples would include Susan Minot’s Monkeys, a formative work for me, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and John Updike’s The Maples’ Stories. When I started writing the stories that became Shaky Town, more than 30 years ago, I knew that family or recurring characters would be a big part of the book.
One of the central characters, Emiliano Gomez, the self-proclaimed mayor of Shaky Town, was very loosely based on my uncle Jesús Renteria. Jesús, who married my great-aunt Dorothy, was a bracero (a legal migrant worker) from a tiny pueblo in Zacatecas, Rancho San Bernardo. As a young man, Jesús was something of a rascal. He had soulful brown eyes, played an eloquent guitar, and was very funny, especially when he was drinking.
Jesús—Emiliano—was a great character, but not enough to fill a book. For me there was a stronger link, a sense of place. All of the stories would take place or start in the neighborhoods or barrios I grew up in and renamed Shaky Town.
Here, I was working out of a long and strong tradition, dating back to 1919 and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. If all of Russian Literature can be found in the pocket of Gogol’s Overcoat, Anderson charted the boundaries of what would become modern American literature with this imaginary Midwestern town. Anderson links all of his characters by place, the town, but he does something more. Gradually, you realize that the central narrator of these stories is the town itself, sometimes speaking with a godlike authority on its events and citizens.
I couldn’t use that godlike voice, my models were newer—John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Pat Barker’s Union Street, and Senji Kuroi’s Life in the Cul de Sac. It’s important to note that all of these books were initially or eventually accepted as novels, not as novels-in-stories. That’s a testimony to the strength of the linkage provided by place. These are not traditional novels, composed, seamless and sustained, but closer to impressionism, novels assembled by the mind of the reader, the way that an observers’ eyes take a mass of smudges and space and assemble Monet’s Water Lilies.
As you write stories, and the shape eventually begins to resemble a manuscript, it’s critical to understand that in a collection, particularly one that is linked, there will be two versions of the same story. The initial version, the independent story, always will contain information that is superfluous to the collection. Characters are introduced, explained, places are described—something that doesn’t need to happen when you are using the same characters and the same places for the third or fourth time.
This was a huge lesson I learned from Susan Minot’s Monkeys. Here I have to add the qualifier, if memory serves, and at my age, memory serves but then sometimes volleys. As I remember, I’d read, with admiration, many of Minot’s stories as they were published in The New Yorker and Grand Street. When I read the book, now called a novel, I kept thinking, 'This is not exactly the way I remember this story.' I went to the original publications and discovered that there were indeed variances, the repetition, the information provided in one story and repeated in another, was gone.
I followed that method when finishing the manuscript of Shaky Town, to the tune of 37 pages. This provided a different shape and feel to the manuscript. There was a compression and unity that hadn’t been there before, one that decided the publisher. The cover of Shaky Town now bears a second title: A Novel.