Books·How I Wrote It

Caroline Adderson: How I wrote Ellen in Pieces

Caroline Adderson explains why she challenged herself to write a novel that is also a series of standalone short stories.
Caroline Adderson is the author of the novel Ellen in Pieces. (HarperCollins Canada/Rafal Gerszak)

For her latest book, three-time CBC Literary Prize finalist Caroline Adderson decided to issue herself a unique challenge: write a novel that looks like a novel, and reads like a novel, but is actually a series of standalone short stories, nesting together like Russian dolls.

In her own words, Caroline opens up about how the aptly titled Ellen in Pieces came together — from a main character who showed up fully formed to the classic crooners she couldn't get out of her head.

Playing with form

"The inspiration for Ellen in Pieces came from a bone I had to pick with something I've noticed in contemporary writing. I was reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and a number of other books that were obviously (to me, anyway) collections of short stories, but they were called novels. I became so indignant about it! And it seems I'm not the only one to think this — just today I was at lunch and two people were arguing, 'It's a novel.' 'It's short stories!' 'It's a novel.' 'It's short stories!'

"I'm both a novelist and a short story writer, and I got to thinking, would it be possible to write a novel in which you follow a traditional story curve, but each chapter is a standalone short story?" 

Kids rule

"The next question was, what was the book going to be about? Well, I also write for children, and children's writing is a genre with particular rules. One of the main rules is that the child protagonist — whether it's an actual child or a mouse or a hedgehog — solves his or her own problems. An adult doesn't solve them. The protagonist solves them. Whereas in literary writing in general, the protagonist is often more reflective than active. And when I realized that, the door flew open and standing there was my main character, Ellen McGinty. She just busts through the book. She makes mistakes but she fixes them. I found that really empowering." 

Golden oldies

"Typically I don't listen to music when I write. I find it very distracting; I need a quiet house. My son says to me, 'You only have 15 things on your iPod! What's the point?' I would say that Ellen in Pieces is the only book of mine so far, though, where I've been inspired by music. Ellen loves to sing, and she's quite a good singer. Her mother died when Ellen was a teenager, and her mother would sing all those old Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald songs, and Charles Aznavour. So Ellen finds herself singing those songs all the time. For this book I found myself revisiting this music — my own mum loved this music as well. One particular song that really set the tone for me was Nat King Cole's 'Nature Boy.'"

Noteworthy

"I have quite an elaborate series of notebooks that I use in my writing. I have one notebook that's with me all the time, but many are designated for particular projects that may never be realized. So a project will have its own notebook. Then I have extra general notebooks. I have more than 20 notebooks going at a time. [Flips through notebook] Like, in this one I have story ideas and little plots. A story for a novella. Then I have some receipts shoved in with little details — I clearly didn't have my notebook at the time. 'Short novel idea: when picking blackberries, being held by knifepoint for the blackberries.' I have no memory of that. If you don't write them down, you lose them. But I remember when I read the note. I remember the moment." 

Caroline Adderson's comments have been edited and condensed.

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