A life in stories

by Cynthia Newberry Martin on July 28, 2011

Ellen Gilchrist’s first book was not published until she was in her forties. In “A Reading Group Guide” at the back of Nora Jane: A Life in Stories, she is asked about this:

“I didn’t begin to write seriously and professionally until I was in my forties because I was busy being alive.”

Now she has been writing for thirty years: stories, novellas, and novels. In these books, she often writes about the same characters. In 1999, Margaret Donovan Bauer published The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. In it, she wrote:

“Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work…is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve. It is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.”

In 2005 all the stories Gilchrist had written to that point about Nora Jane Whittington were collected into one volume and organized in chronological order of Nora Jane’s life. I had read these stories before and had copies of them. But to read them all in a row and in the “right” order felt a little like seeing that wick that Mary Gordon referred to…I did find one or two inconsistencies, but those felt more like proof that this wonderful thing–Nora Jane Whittington’s life–was real.

In the same reading guide referred to above, Ellen Gilchrist was also asked if she had planned to write about the same characters over and over again. She said that she planned her writing the same way she planned her life:

“On a day-by-day and obsession-by-obsession basis.”

Obsession-by-obsession. I like that.

[In similar fashion, all the stories about Rhoda Manning were collected in 1995.]

~cross-posted at Catching Days

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Tania Hershman July 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm

This is wonderful because it reminds me how much I loved “Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle ” and how I want to track that book down again – thank you for this! And very interesting about the organic story cycle. It reminds me, as a writer, to think of the long term of writing, it’s not just about this one story right now, it’s about decades, I hope, a body of work.

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Cynthia Newberry Martin July 29, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Tania, I have that book sitting beside me right this minute. And I like your point of thinking of the long term of writing. Thanks so much for your comment.

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Carlen Arnett July 30, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Victory Over Japan was an early favorite of mine, and I know I read others. It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at her work, but I’m always interested to see discussion of the writer’s process, and to consider it on this truly macro level is marvelous. And reassuring ….

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cynthia newberry martin July 31, 2011 at 11:10 am

Thanks, Carlen. One of my favorites is her novel, The Anna Papers, which I recently reread. It’s still so good.

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Peter Anderson August 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I love her “busy being alive” thought. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 37 or 38, and sometimes I wish I had started years earlier. But then I realize that when I was younger I didn’t know as much about the world as I do now, and my fiction would surely have suffered as a result. A writer-friend of mine once commented that my stories “are not ones that could be written by someone very young, not someone in their 20s.” That comment has always meant a lot to me.

By the way, I just accepted an invitation from Jeff McMahon to join the writing crew here at the blog. Really looking forward to being part of your community.

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Cynthia Newberry Martin August 5, 2011 at 6:51 am

Thanks for your comment, Peter. And welcome. I look forward to reading your words.

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Annie Murphy August 2, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Thanks for this! I especially love the last quote of hers you included: “On a day-by-day and obsession-by-obsession basis.”

That pretty much expresses how I write and how I live, for better or worse. Whoops.

I also feel like a got a bit of a late start; teaching talented high schoolers about writing this summer made me think something was wrong with me for not starting sooner. But I guess we all start writing when we’re ready.

I haven’t read Gilchrist, but I’m definitely going to check out her work.

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Cynthia Newberry Martin August 5, 2011 at 7:01 am

I like that quote too, Annie. And oh my gosh, yes. You have to read her. Maybe start with The Anna Papers…of if you prefer stories, maybe Victory Over Japan?

And I just love her titles: Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle, I Cannot Get You Close Enough…

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Shaindel Beers August 19, 2011 at 12:05 am

I just came to this entry tonight (while trapped under a sleeping Baby Liam) and am so glad I did! I LOVE Gilchrist and especially the Nora Jane stories. Nora Jane’s life is so wonderful and crazy, it makes sense that Gilchrist was too “busy being alive” to write if she’s anything like her characters. Does anyone know a nice place to go rob a man at gunpoint so he’ll fall madly in love with me and I can live my dream life? :-)

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cynthia newberry martin August 29, 2011 at 10:11 am

Shaindel, I read the Nora Jane stories as each was published but loved reading them collected and in chronological order. Just noticed a couple of discrepancies in the time line, which made me love Gilchrist’s process and the stories more. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

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