How to theme a short story collection

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Author Jo Lennan explores how finding a theme can unify your collection

What makes a compelling short story collection? What gives a book a luminous quality, making it live in your memory long after you have read it?

I considered these questions while writing my own collection. Called In The Time of Foxes, it is recently out with Scribner UK.

My short stories portray a common milieu, centering on the young and mobile in the decade that began with the recession of 2008 and ended with the UK on the brink of Brexit, bringing success to some and precarity to others.

One challenge for a writer of stories is how to unify a collection so that it feels like a book in its own right, more than an assortment of parts.

Wanting to give my book a unified feel, I revisited short story collections that have stuck with me. There was the Russian author’s Tatya Tolstaya’s On The Golden Porch, stories of Brezhnev Russia shot through with disillusionment and yearning, unified by a bittersweet sensibility and a lyrical, timeless style.

There was James Joyce’s Dubliners, which depicted the denizens of a single city, summoning Irish middle class life in and around Dublin at the opening of the twentieth century.

And there were Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections, beginning with The Interpreter of Maladies, which anatomises a shared set of concerns in the lives of its characters, Indians and Indian Americans who are caught between their roots and the ‘New World.’

Some story writers eschew this kind of unity, loathe to shoe-horn their stories into a given shape, and reluctant to relinquish the writerly freedom to roam. As a writer, I’m sympathetic to this view; I have long been snobbishly suspicious of themed short story collections, regarding them as unbearably naff (apart from anthologies, which I am prepared to allow on the basis that they are assembled ex post facto).

But a sense of time and place, and of the people rubbing along in it — this is something else. Who doesn’t love it when an author doubles down on a particular world, like Elizabeth Strout in her stories about Maine, or Annie Proulx in her Wyoming Stories?

There is something doubly appealing about a short story collection with a clear sense of its own turf — its beat, to use the reportorial term. This one small source of certainty offsets the greater uncertainties that attach to the short story collection, with its tendencies towards open-ended Chekhovian endings and its insistence that the reader move on with each new story, embarking afresh for unknown shores.

Halfway through the writing of my book, I had an idea. Pre-pandemic, I was away at a meditation camp, one of those silent ten day ones where you’re not meant to speak or make eye contact or hook up with anyone. You’re not meant to be thinking about books-in-progress either, but the mind goes where it goes.

I had the idea for the story that became the title story of my book, inspired by a friend’s battles with urban foxes in her London garden. The story is about a youngish filmmaker in Hackney dealing with a fox invasion in her garden while navigating a difficult family situation.

In an instant, I also realised that the foxes — especially urban foxes, with their feral knack for survival and adaptation — would make an apt motif for the book. They were fitting spirit animals for the characters in my stories, who were all busy trying to get by, often reinventing themselves en route.

From Aesop onwards, foxes have appeared in our literature as a species whose capacities and traits serve as a mirror for our own. They appear as tricksters and shapeshifters. Like humans, they are successful animals in their way: the red fox is the land mammal with the greatest geographical spread of habitats. They are furry conquistadors, colonising every continent bar Antarctica.

I realised that there were written a couple of foxes or fox references into the stories already. They had appeared as if unbidden, showing the way.

After that, I wrote the rest of the stories in the book in a flurry of inspiration, over the next four months. Taking up the fox motif had helped me to see what I was writing about: the shapeshifting that goes on in contemporary life.

What of those writerly freedoms? Isn’t something lost when constraints, however loose, are adopted and used to define a book?

There can be an advantage to taking on certain constraints, especially if they are conducive to invention, to myriad possibilities. If they act as a spur to the imagination, and open up possibilities rather than close them off, that’s surely a good thing.  


Jo Lennan is the author of In The Time of Foxes, a new collection of short stories (Scribner). She has contributed to The Economist, 1843 and Time. She studied in Sydney and Oxford.

 

Helen M Walters provides short story writing advice in Writing Magazine's monthly Masterclass feature. Watch this video to discover her top tips on writing a short story.