Under the Cover: Novels from Stories

February 3, 2016

In 2010 Invisible Publishing released the debut story collection from Toronto writer Teri Vlassopoulos. Bats or Swallows, nominated for both the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the ReLit Award, is an honest yet intimate collection of stories that depict coming of age, with all its fraught emotion and growing pains. subTerrain labeled Bats or Swallows as "... [s]tories intended to linger and unnerve." They were more right than they even knew.

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In 2010 Invisible Publishing released the debut story collection from Toronto writer Teri Vlassopoulos. Bats or Swallows, nominated for both the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the ReLit Award, is an honest yet intimate collection of stories that depict coming of age, with all its fraught emotion and growing pains. subTerrain labeled Bats or Swallows as "... [s]tories intended to linger and unnerve." They were more right than they even knew. One of the stories stayed with Vlassopoulos so much so that she decided to turn it into her first novel. We asked her to share with us what the process was like, turning one of her stories into the novel Escape Plans, published by Invisible this past fall.

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BatsSwallows

When I wrote the stories that were collected in my first book, Bats or Swallows, the stories were simply stories. They started with a single image that I wanted to build a tiny universe around: an art installation in a self-storage unit, a stripper named Mike Love, a feral child, a Masonic handshake. Once I had that image, I wrote until the ending arrived. Endings always came; they were inevitable. It was satisfying when I wrote what I knew was the last sentence.

But despite the weight of its last sentence, there was one story in Bats or Swallows that kept coming back to me. In “Swimming Lessons,” a girl named Zoe, whose father drowned in a sailing accident when she was younger, bonds over the fact of tragedy with her new boyfriend. Her mom visits, she goes swimming in a hotel pool, she and her boyfriend break up, she decides to leave town. I stuffed these details into the story, but they bust through the casing. How did her father end up on a sailboat in the Aegean sea alone, anyway? That’s kind of weird. And how did her mother react?

So, after the story was published, I pasted it into a new Word document and blew it up. I altered the chronology, added new characters, changed sentence syntax. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to do this kind of after-the-fact revision, but I kept going. At first I wrote in short stories, the medium I was most comfortable with. This worked until I realized that maybe I wasn't writing stories anymore. Admitting that I was writing a novel was a little like taking the first plunge into a pool. I've always been more comfortable wading in.

While working on the first draft of the novel, I lived in Greece for a few months. I wrote (almost) every day, and it was all a mess at first. When I wasn’t writing I explored Athens. I visited the Acropolis more than once. It was the first time in decades that they had removed the scaffolding from around the Parthenon, and I would climb up to look at it, usually on overcast days when there were fewer visitors. But I think I almost preferred the view of Athens from the top of that hill to the ruins themselves, how you could look down at the confusing jumble of low-rise apartment buildings and traffic clogged streets, everything occasionally interrupted by other ruins or amphitheatres or churches. I liked it because it reminded me that something cohesive and beautiful (maybe not to everyone, but to some) could arise from what could also be construed as a mess.

In some ways “Swimming Lessons” was a gift from the writing gods, an opportunity to make something bigger out of something smaller. No one ever held my destruction of “Swimming Lessons” against me, either. I realized recently that I’ve been trying to trick myself into doing the same thing again, except opposite: I’ve been forcing short stories from a new novel I’m trying to write. Novels take so long, but maybe if I fool people into thinking that an excerpt is a short story, the process will be quicker. Unfortunately, I know it doesn’t work quite like that. Maybe I need to leave a copy of Escape Plans as an offering to Athena at the base of the Parthenon, a thank you for the first time, and a little plea for help for the second. Or maybe, I suppose, I should just keep writing.

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Thank you to Invisible Publishing, especially Leigh Nash, for connecting us with Teri. If you want to read more stories behind the stories, check out our previous Under the Cover features.


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