Here at Breaking the Glass Slipper, we cannot get enough of the wonderful novellas being released by Tor.com publishing. The diversity in the authors and subject matter is delightful to see, especially when it comes to taking risks with stories other more traditional publishers would shy away from.
Kerstin Hall has recently had her first novella published with Tor.com and it is yet another feather in the publisher’s hat when it comes to embracing new voices. We asked Kerstin about novellas, short stories, gods and demons, and gender stereotypes in genre fiction.
Novellas seem to be having a moment. What do you see as the strength of novellas over other forms?
That’s tricky to answer, because there’s such a wide range of different works being produced within the same medium. For example, JY Yang’s The Ascent to Godhood consists of a transcription of a drunken monologue, which bears little resemblance to Emily Tesh’s cosy romance Silver in the Wood, which in turn stands apart from Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s epistolary This Is How You Lose the Time War.
All these novellas differ on a structural level, which makes finding unifying characteristics between them challenging. But what they definitively share is their length — novellas have to be between 17 500 words and 40 000 words long. So what are the advantages of writing within that particular constraint?
I’d say the greatest strength of the novella form is actually the presumed reader’s patience. The average person is much more likely to commit to a 25 000 word experimental novella than a 250 000 word experimental novel. That makes novellas quite a playful form, as well as a space where writers have greater freedom to push against conventional storytelling devices.
In my opinion, the ideal novella is condensed enough to feel swift, while expansive enough to feel satisfying.
You’ve written short stories and now a novella – do you think short fiction has moved on from being considered the ‘proving ground’ for new authors? How has your work with Beneath Ceaseless Skies influenced your perspective on short fiction?
I think it’s widely recognised that writing short fiction is a craft of its own, and not just the training wheels for the ‘real’ writing of novels.
For me personally, short fiction did not serve as a proving ground anyway — mostly because I was almost entirely unsuccessful in publishing it. I had made one pro-rates sale prior to Tor.com picking up The Border Keeper, so it’s safe to assume that I wasn’t selected from their slush pile on the strength of my cover letter.
On the other hand, I think that the years I spent working on short fiction were invaluable. While the skills needed to write short stories don’t all translate into experience points for novellas or novels (and vice versa), I found a lot of it very helpful.
Working for Beneath Ceaseless Skies also means that I have been exposed to a lot of short stories. The experience has left me with a profound respect for writers who can magically make me care about their characters in less than 5000 words, and who can sketch out a whole world in the length of a single novel chapter. And this seems like a perfect opportunity to flog some favourites! If you’d like to read an exceedingly dark and creepy biological fantasy, you need to try “Blood, Bone, Seed, Spark” by Aimee Ogden. If you would instead just like to cry a lot, Ryan Row’s “Whatever Knight Comes” has you covered.
In wrapping up my answer, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no fixed or guaranteed path to ‘making it’ in this industry, either as a novelist, short fiction writer, or jack-of-all-trades. People should do what feels right and useful to them. For some, building up a reputation and readership via short stories has been a great choice. For others, writing fanfiction has done exactly the same thing. And of course, there are people who dive right into penning the doorstoppers, and others who are perfectly fine with exclusively producing short stories.
None of the routes are any less legitimate. I think people should just do what works for them.
Spirits, gods, demons… why are these classic ‘creatures’ still so fascinating to both writers and readers? Were there any related tropes you wanted to avoid or invert in your writing?
I think that these entities persist in the genre because of the broadness of their definition. ‘Spirits, gods, demons’ all strike me as non-specific, as widely encompassing, as categories. We aren’t talking about Dracula, where we have everything sketched out already: pointy incisors, dramatic capes, swooping bats, sunlight, garlic, holy water and wooden stakes.
What’s a demon? Sure, if you are talking about the current Western pop culture understanding of the term, it probably brings to mind a scarlet, impish creature with two horns and a forked tail, or else a shadowy, menacing figure in a horror movie. But for other cultures and historical periods there have been markedly different ways of visualising and imagining a creature that occupies the same semantic space.
This also applies to spirits and to gods. Remove any of these entities from their immediate environment, and they rapidly lose their fixed shapes. I think that’s why they are recurring figures in the genre — their fluidity allows a writer to fill in the details of her choosing. It leaves a wonderfully large space in which to play and invent, because the parameters of demonhood and godhood can’t be constrained to one time or place. It’s fun for the reader too, I think, seeing variations on a theme.
The gods and demons in The Border Keeper are not intended to be analogous to existing belief systems or mythologies — they are just rulers of the realms of the dead. In fact, the only thing that differentiates the two groups is the way in which they acquire power – demons seize it, gods inherit it.
In that respect, I did invert expectations slightly. While it’s not something I drew explicit attention to, most of the demons in the book are much nicer and more honourable than the gods. While it’s far from a good-and-evil binary, that was a deliberate choice.
What common tropes and stereotypes of women would you like to see retired from genre fiction? What books/stories turn these negative tropes on their heads?
I’d love to see a reduction in the fridging of female love interests. The body count for beautiful-and-helpless women in the Beneath Ceaseless Skies slushpile is alarmingly high, and quite boring.
It would also be great to see more nuanced depictions of female friendship, rather than hollow girl-power! sentiment or inane cattiness. This might be a bit of a strange example, but I felt that the horror series Channel Zero tackled this amazingly well in their “No-End House” season. The way that the teenage girls interacted —the fact that they clearly loved one another and were comfortable expressing it— felt very real and carefully observed to me. It was refreshing.
Pitch us The Border Keeper! Why should we be reading it?
Do you like the idea of spending time with a grumpy psychopomp who wants to be left alone? But is also quite lonely and sad? And can definitely murder you?
There is also a crab child, a smooth-talking stranger, miscellaneous arcane horrors, a brief scene of seductive woodworking, a pretty demon with long hair, and multiple women wielding spears.
Kerstin Hall is a writer and editor from Cape Town, South Africa. Her secondary world fantasy novella, “The Border Keeper”, was released by Tor.com Publishing in 2019. Her short fiction has been published by Strange Horizons, and she is a first reader for Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine.