2010 summer fwriters dbdale

by David Brennan

David B. Dale David B. Dale teaches writing to international students at several colleges in and near Philadelphia. He irregularly posts 299-word fictions to his Wordpress blog, Very Short Novels. Since his days at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, David has written under the name David B. Dale (or on the web, davidbdale) to honor his parents Beatrice and Dale.

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Your genre of choice is, as you refer to it, the "very short novel." What distinguishes these works as novels?

Well, they're not, of course, any more than 5-Hour Energy Drinks are good substitutes for a day of sensible eating, but they do provide some of the same nutrition as novels, such as character development and narrative arcs, epiphanies, even moral paradigms, and words, lovely words, purposeful words.

Speaking of words, your novels adhere to a 299-word maximum; in fact, many total exactly that count. Why limit your novels to this precise number? Why do you believe, as you've stated on your website (Very Short Novels), that "Anything more is waste"?

Actually, they're all exactly 299 words, the perfect number for a novel. Any number could be perfect: choosing it makes it so. The limit serves to focus my attention on what's essential. Every time I wish to exceed the limit, I realize I've digressed.

You also use no line breaks of any kind for any reason, even where the reader may interpret a natural break. Why constrain your novels further by fixing them within a single paragraph?

The unbroken paragraph is ridiculously artificial but strategically so. It slows my readers down. It makes them work to decide where the tone shifts are, where the time shifts are. These stories are short enough to take in one gulp, so I do what I can to encourage readers to sip and savor.

So through these restrictions you've built, in a sense, a box and placed into it both yourself and your audience, and the effect is improved artistry, efficiency, and reader involvement?

That's well said. It's a box, though, like a double bed is a box or a home is a box or a home town. I rest comfortably in it and its size doesn't so much restrict as support and sustain me. I have company there and room enough to stretch. It's been the same size for thirty years and it never needs to be bigger.

Do you ever attempt, or wish to attempt, longer works without restrictions?

Not at all. I'm not interested in family histories or broad social movements, and the extended narrative arcs of longer fictions all seem to me pretty much a waste of time. I'm perfectly comfortable reading long chapters of Proust or Marquez or any of dozens of other authors, but I often don't finish books I've started and immensely enjoy. I simply don't care how they end. How the pages work, even the sentences, is more rewarding to me both as reader and as writer.

How did you decide to focus your talents toward very short novels?

I didn't decide. This is what I do well. I've been writing extremely short fictions since college.

What are you communicating with these very short novels? Is your focus character, image, language, or something other?

I go for goosebumps any way I can get them. I want to say something legitimate about humanity, but I'm only guessing about most of the particulars of human experience, so I resort to artifice and my sincerest intuition about the rest. I want stories to be particular enough to seem real but general enough for every reader to inhabit. I haven't been widowed, enslaved, tortured; my house hasn't burned down and I don't have terminal cancer. So what? I write as if I had and were and did. As readers we need someone to imagine the unimaginable. Why imagine the obvious?

Some of your novels take place in settings akin to those found in magical realism, some are surreal syntactical and philosophical puzzles, and others still are movingly rooted in realism. What are your influences?

Beckett, Borges, Kafka, Calvino, my one personal history. I live and read and write my life. It was limiting enough to settle on a format; I can't also settle on a style. If all I ever write is 299 very short novels of 299 words each, I'd like them to represent as many styles as possible.

You've been asking about restriction and constraint. The genres you mention are evidence that literature requires limitation. Realism-magical or otherwise, surrealism, ironic metafiction, whodunit, every genre imposes rules for both reader and writer. Counting words is just another way to acknowledge the artificiality of all form.

Is there a particular aesthetic style or narrative mode in which you prefer to work?

The style I admire gets to the point and then complicates it. Every story should begin: "So, here's the deal," followed by something utterly transparent, followed in turn by the real story: how it came to be that my version of the real deal came to be accepted as "the deal." We make the world out of words, and how we make it is the story that interests me.

What advice can you offer other writers creating short fictions?

Don't withhold anything that might surprise me in the last sentence. Tell me everything early, clearly, and let my own expectations guide me to a conclusion that enriches me. I don't want to be surprised by your cleverness. I want to be surprised by my own capability to love people more than I thought I could.

What projects are you working on now?

The same project that has engaged me since I started to write: to say as much as I can as briefly as I can.

Featured Works

Very Short Novels
The Paperboy,
Trolley Problems, and
The Cutting Board

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