What Would Julia Ward Howe Do?

I became a reader because of an old series of biographies with orange bindings that collected dust on one of the library shelves of the girls’ school I attended. I don’t know who wrote the series or what it was called. The women whose lives were described there became my childhood inspirations: Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher. Among them was Julia Ward Howe so I didn’t have to Google her when Mrs. Somebody Somebody was chosen as a finalist for the Boston Author’s Club award named for her.

Mrs. Somebody Somebody, is made up of ten short stories which are linked in what I hope are unexpected ways. They take place in a small industrial American city that relies on immigrant labor.

The form of linked short stories with a geographical center has a long tradition. The modernists were my early influences, Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and Joyce’s Dubliners. Since then I’ve taken to heart Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me A Riddle, Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples, Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago and almost everything of Alice Munro’s, and Alice Mattison’s, and Alistair MacLeod’s, to name a few.

At first, I didn’t know that the stories I had begun to write were connected. One was set in Lowell because the mills seemed the perfect place for different sorts of women to get thrown together in an unlikely friendship, which was the core of that story. Another, about the ravages of infidelity was set in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I grew up. Since it takes me a long time to write a story, usually at least a year to get it right, I had the chance to meld situations before anything was set in stone. When Noe Hathaway needed a doctor (in what became the title story) it seemed only logical for Dr. Burroughs, from Cambridge, to tend to him. So I moved the Burroughs family to Lowell and discovered that the doctor’s father was a mill owner. Who knew?

When you connect short stories there can be a more definitive distance between them than the distance between chapters in a novel. A complete world closes down at the end of a story. And a new world opens at the start of the next. In Mrs. Somebody Somebody, I violated the reader’s expectation that each stood wholly alone, and I took advantage of the negative space between the stories to imply changes that took place over time. I have a weakness for innuendo, for implication rather than explication, and the form of connected stories encouraged me to experiment with implied changes in the characters’ lives and in the city where they live. The ten stories reach from 1947 to the present.

Linked short stories allow for complete freedom in the creation of viewpoint. None of these stories is told by the same person, but more often than not, the narrator of one will appear as a secondary character in another. The reader gets to know a character from inside that character’s head as well as through the eyes of other characters. I hope the experience is something like the way one gets to know mutual friends.

The reception for Mrs. Somebody Somebody has not been what I expected at all. Short stories collections are a hard sell to Americans — which is confusing to me since ADD seems to be a National diagnosis and short stories can reward a short attention span. But it is extremely difficult to place individual stories, to find an agent who will represent anything but non-fiction or novels, and finally to catch the attention of a publisher unless one “has” a novel also. I was convinced that by insisting on writing short stories, I was writing them only for myself and a few friends and that it was unlikely these stories would appear anywhere together.

If the reception of this book has a lesson to teach other writers it is to ignore conventional wisdom and make something that pleases you. That’s a rule Julia Ward Howe followed. It made a mess of her family and social life, but allowed her to accomplish great things.

Go ahead, Google her!

2 Responses to “What Would Julia Ward Howe Do?”

  1. Mary Sheehan Winn Says:

    I picked up Mrs Somebody Somebody at the library while browsing the stacks, where I find many good reads I’d have otherwise missed, and I’m glad I did.
    I love connected short stories, Such compelling characters with all of the strengths and weaknesses humans possess. Character development is key to my enjoyment when I read and you do it well.

    Hope to see more from you soon!

    • Tracy Winn Says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for writing. I am enjoying your last name as well as your words about character development. One of the rewards of writing fiction is getting to know the characters through and through.

      I have a story coming out next month in Harvard Review. I think they are launching the electronic version of the magazine with my story. My plan is to make it part of the next linked collection.


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