Philadelphia writer Larry Loebell, who placed third in Philadelphia Stories’ 2015 Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Award for his story 49 Seconds in the Box, has just published a collection of novellas. Titled Seven Steps Ahead, it is his second collection of stories in as many years. In a recent interview, Loebell described these works of fiction “as a total DIY project,” despite the many accolades he has earned during his long career as a playwright, a screenwriter, a dramaturg and a teacher of dramatic writing at both the University of the Arts and Arcadia University.
Loebell is a four-time recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship, and a 2006 recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. For more than a decade he has been writing a play called Living News which is performed during the school year at the National Constitution Center.
Loebell has just finished a novel, Tough Girl in the Jam, set in the world of professional roller derby. He has also written and directed a low budget feature film, Dostoyevsky Man, loosely based on Notes from Underground which was a “Fringe First” in the 2012 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. His full-length plays include Pride of the Lion; Memorial Day; The Ballad of John Wesley Reed, which was premiered by Theatre Catalyst in Philadelphia; Girl Science, a featured play at the first Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Arcata, California; and La Tempestad, produced at the Ohio Theater in New York City. La Tempestad is also anthologized in Playing with Canons: Explosive New Works from Literature by America’s Indie Playwrights. Among Loebell’s career highlights are a “Best New Play” Barrymore Award nomination for House Divided.
How do you describe your new collection of novellas? Who should read it?
Seven Steps Ahead is a set of love stories, though not all of the happily-ever-after variety. As far as who should read it, Seven Steps Ahead is adult fiction. The characters include a former hippie medical doctor, a sixties radical hiding in the underground, a chess playing open marriage/polyamory advocate, and an actor turned folk singer. All of the stories are about the coincidences that lead people into relationships, and the forces that threaten them.
Why the novella instead of the short story? Or the novel, for that matter? What is it about the form that appealed to you?
One answer is that I was working my way up to a novel. I put out a book of short stories (The Abundance League) in 2016. The novellas came next. I needed to write novellas to convince myself I could sustain the longer form. But there is another answer. I really love the form. It’s a comfortable length for me, and I suspect I will return to it. There’s enough room to stretch out, but there’s also the requirement to be efficient. With the novella, the challenge is to tell a story that’s as expansive as a novel, but in a shorter form.
You have written in many forms, including for the animated program Rugrats. Which form is your favorite? Which is the most challenging?
My favorite is always the thing I’m working on at the moment. I’m really loving writing fiction right now. Rugrats was a sort of fluke in my writing career, a kind of one-off gift. It’s fun to be associated with something that so many people have seen, but it’s hardly the most important thing I’ve done. I’ve been writing a character-driven museum stage show for the past twelve years for the National Constitution Center about the human impact of Constitutional issues. Tens of thousands of people have seen that show, compared to the probably millions who have seen Rugrats on TV. Smaller numbers have seen my plays or read my fiction. Very different challenges, and very different rewards. But sitting at my desk while I am working, I experience similar levels of agita and pleasure trying to make whatever I’m writing work. I despise every project equally when I am struggling, and love each one unequivocally when I’ve completed it to my satisfaction. I feel lucky to have had as long and varied a career as I have had.
How does your long career in dramatic writing and dramaturgy impact your fiction?
Several of my plays and some of my fiction are based at least in part on actual events and therefore require looking at the facts behind those events. My entire dramaturg career involved working with living playwrights on new plays. One part of that job was helping playwrights with research. Another part was essentially editorial, diving into the text and asking questions about character, plot, and themes. Being a dramaturg taught me to ask those questions of myself.
Formally, playwriting has certain challenges that are different than fiction writing. There’s no omniscience on stage, for instance. Depending on the narrative style, in fiction a writer might have expanded options. But formal problems have always seemed to me to be simply puzzles to solve. The harder issues are creating worthy characters and stories, revving them up, and getting good conflicts going. That is pretty much the necessity in every story-telling form. I suppose it’s fair to say that since playwriting preceded writing fiction for me, the impact is that I learned how to do those things first writing drama.
When you get an idea for a story, how do you know what form it will end up in? Do you know before you begin writing?
In the years when I was most actively writing plays, I thought as a playwright, and my stories formed around the formalities and limitations of stage writing. Now that I am writing fiction pretty much exclusively, I am thinking about how my stories and characters activate in fictional forms. I feel this is a sort of necessity. To move forward, I have to know something about the genre I am going forward in. So, I suppose the answer to the question of whether I know the form before I start writing is: yes. But I will tell you that the novel I have just finished started life as a play. For many reasons, it was very unlikely to get produced (very large cast, difficult technical requirements) so it made sense to me to write the second draft as a novel. It feels much stronger to me as a novel than it ever did as a play.
Why do you write?
The answer to this question at this point in my life is different than it was when I was younger. When I was younger, I wrote with a kind of mission. I thought I had things to say that were important, and I was interested in a career as a writer with all of the things that brought: engagement with an artistic and literary community, an audience, and perhaps having enough renown to earn a living at it. So, when I was younger, in addition to liking to write, I wrote with some idea of personal and worldly utility in mind. These days, I write because I write. I don’t choose it or un-choose it. It is simply what I do. It is part of my life’s order. I get up in the morning, I walk my dogs, I eat breakfast, and when I finish, I go to my desk and write. I have made some promises to myself about the amount of work I want to finish over time. But I am not driven by those earlier expectations anymore. Why do I write? I guess the answer is I like it. I think it’s hard to keep at it as long as I have if you don’t.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
The most useful advice I have to offer is really the same advice I got from my best teachers: Write all you can. Try not to get discouraged when it isn’t going well. Kick all the censors out of your head, especially the ones you feel you might have to answer to: parents, family members, partners, lovers. Read a lot. Don’t fetter your imagination by worrying about what should or should not be your subject or your voice. Do your due-diligence when you research. Abandon research before it overwhelms you. Write what you imagine, not what you know.
Seven Steps Ahead is an Amazon publication. Why did you go this route? How has it worked out for you? Would you recommend it to other writers?
One of the reasons I stopped writing for theater is that I am very impatient. I want the road between finishing something and having it out in the world to be a straight line. Theater is slow, and often convoluted. The process of getting a play on stage at a professional theater can be excruciating – going through a development process, waiting for acceptances by theater companies, waiting through the casting and rehearsal process – and I say this having had five of my full-length plays produced within a year or so of their completion. Early in my theater career, I self-produced two shows. I did this because I was impatient, but also because I wanted to understand the process. I learned a great deal doing that, not just about the business side of theater, but also about what lands and what doesn’t when you’re writing for stage. I learned about audience reaction, about the role and job of critics, and about why some playwrights say no play is every finished. I loved the scrappy company of actors and technical folks I put together to do those pieces.
If I had been younger when I returned to fiction I might have gone a more traditional route getting my work published. There is a real value in having organizational support, though my well-published friends tell me that book publishers are doing a lot less in the way of support than they used to. My later plays were all produced by Equity companies with decent budgets and marketing people, which meant that more people saw them, more critics wrote about them, there was a more significant response.
But I’m pretty sure that only the luckiest or the most blessed writers get book deals at sixty-five years old, which is how old I was when I published The Abundance League. I was not really all that excited about waiting around to see if I was among their number. I wasn’t sure, when I published my story collection how it would do with readers or critics. Because I had the skills and tools to publish it myself (and I didn’t really want to risk any money) I used Create Space to produce the book and then published through Amazon (under the Blue Footed Books imprimatur.) I know there are people who have big issues with Amazon. But it cost me nothing to produce the book. I knew that sales would be modest, though I have to say that the collection exceeded my expectations. It and the novellas are pure DIY projects.
What is your next project?
The novel that I am finishing is set in the world of women’s professional roller derby and is about sacrifice.
Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A. It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.