An Interview with Nicelle Davis

21 May
Nicelle Davis is the author of three books of poetry, most recently the novel-in-poems In the Circus of You.

Nicelle Davis is the author of three books of poetry, most recently the novel-in-poems In the Circus of You.

Nicelle Davis is a California poet, collaborator, and performance artist whose most recent book is the novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly, PANK, and SLAB Magazine. She is editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Review and currently teaches at Paraclete and with the Red Hen Press WITS program.

To read an exercise on writing description and Davis’ poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” click here.

In this wide-ranging interview, Davis discusses Borges’ “The Aleph,” Mikhail Bakhtin’s view of poetry as monolithic, and why poetry is not going extinct.

Michael Noll

I love the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” especially the way it uses a hole punched through a door as a means of viewing something quite larger about a relationship. It’s not unlike Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Aleph,” in which the characters can put their eye to a point located in the cellar of a house and see everything that exists in the universe. What was the genesis of your poem? Did you start with the hole in the door? Or with some other detail that then led you to the hole? In other words, do you start with the aleph or with the entire universe and work backward?

Nicelle Davis

Thank you for taking the time to love any work of writing. And wow, what a question.

I can’t say that the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee” was directly in conversation with Borges’s story, but I can’t deny that they might share a similar desire. I want a love that moves along the mirrors of the infinite, which expands and inverts simultaneously—a love that is so intensely real that it is no longer possible. The impossible—this is what I want. And my only chance of even glimpsing such a love is in metaphor. So I write poems.

“The Aleph.” That is such a perfect, perfect madness.

It’s difficult to talk about that story without becoming its characters. Discussing “The Aleph,”  I will easily gush like Carlos Argentino, the madman poet, who sees what he wants in every line—I just as easily become the sour Borges who robs others of magic out of the raw envy of everything mystical. That is to say, for me, there is an aleph, which means the hole is aleph and aleph is a hole. Whole is the word game here, isn’t it? It’s the blessing and the curse of being a writer—more like being a dreamer.

I love how “The Aleph” is something more than story; it is a poem that hates poetry; it is an essay that risks bending events past the conceits we use to construct truths. It is everything and nothing—that story IS its subject: “The Aleph”—the everything/nothing of us. It is hysterical both in humor and despair. I love how the protagonist is hyper focused on one point, the unrequited beloved, and is forced into revolving that one burning point into all and every angle of existence. In other words the obsession becomes the aleph or the aleph is in the obsession. Borges writes of the aleph, “And here begins my despair as a writer.”

This sort of despair is the only thing worth living for—yes? I’d gladly trade of lifetime of certainty for a glimpse of ever expanding uncertainty hidden in some weirdo-poet’s cellar.

Now the real challenge is seeking such a love without going insane or becoming a complete asshole; that is the warning in Borges’s “The Aleph.”He warns that those who seek the universe—that is, those who dwell in metaphors—are mad poets and assholes Not exactly exciting options, but the reward of such pursuits is that we find an entire universe hidden in the beloved’s skin.

In the Circus of You is mindful of such complications.

Michael Noll

The poems comes from In the Circus of You, a novel-in-poems, which is a strange hybrid animal. I’m curious about how this form affects the individual poems. Because a novel, theoretically, coheres in a different way than a collection, does it put pressure on the poems to repeat images or, perhaps, make certain images clearer or more spelled out in order to gain that overall coherence?

Nicelle Davis

Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You.

In the Circus of You pairs the poems of Nicelle Davis with the illustrations of Cheryl Gross.

Sometimes it’s fun to look at the etymology of things. The root of “fiction” is new work, or new story. The root of “poetry” is to make. Yes, I would like to make new work—to enter and break open words. I’m not sure if this is possible, but I want to try.

The concept of a novel in verse is old; every epic poem has novel like characteristics. The Iliad and the Odyssey are novel(s) in a way, yes? Every novel has poetic elements, yes? It just so happens that the world (I would say, has always) chosen to privilege linear narratives over the stories manifested in poetry. I sometimes wonder if this privileging the linear over the nonlinear is similar to the world favoring war over peace; ecofeminism would say this correlation holds some merit. Instead of writing a lyrical novel, I wanted to make a novel comply with the dream rules of poetry.

Michael Noll

I’m a fiction writer, not a poet, and so when I pick up a novel-in-poems, I’m approaching it from the novel end of the label, not the poetry end. How do you think the form fits into the form of “the novel,” generally speaking? Or, what draws you, as a poet, to the novel form?

Nicelle Davis

Much of what I do is out of rebellion—In the Circus of You was in part written in response to Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin views poetry as largely monologic: that is, the text speaks with one voice, using one language—that of the author—admitting no possibility for outside voices (heteroglossia), and thus diversity of meaning within the text. Bakhtin concludes that “the language of poetic genres […] often become authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative, sealing itself off from the influence of extraliterary social dialects.” He seems to be saying that poetry is,at best, the worst form of navel gazing. I wanted to fuck with that; how much can one find in a navel; maybe an entire sideshow lives there?

Even more rabble-rousing is Christopher Ingraham’s recent article in the Washington Post, claiming that “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.” He writes on how the latest numbers from the SPPA show “poetry is less popular than jazz.” Well fuck, the only thing I might love more than poetry is jazz.

Okay, okay, I hear it all; all the voices telling us “if poetry isn’t dead, it should die.” Maybe part of writing a novel in poems was to tell those voices to fuck-off. I mean, the world still continues to process information and dreams in metaphor. The end of poetry is the end of dreamers; I’m not interested in such a world—I can’t imagine the world being interested in a dreamless existence.

Poetry traditionally has been the voice of the subversive, disfranchised—the voice of other. I find it convenient that during times of intense “speech oppression” that poetry is declared dead. A novel in poems, in a way, is the voice from the grave—the voice says, “Poetry is synonymous with human.”

Michael Noll

The illustrations in the book are beautiful and amazing. I found that they affected how I read the book. They slowed me down, preventing me from jumping immediately from one poem to another, which seemed to benefit my readings of each poem. When you decided to include illustrations in the book, did you do so simply because they’re so wonderful? Or did you have a particular effect in mind?

Nicelle Davis

Anne Sexton's Transformations was praised by Kurt Vonnegut and called "blood-curdling" by Stanley Kunitz.

Anne Sexton’s Transformations was praised by Kurt Vonnegut and called “blood-curdling” by Stanley Kunitz.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Anne Sexton’s Transformations didn’t inform my wanting illustrations to couple with poetry. Also, I’m a huge fan of graphic novels and comic books; Spiderman is a rather perfect creation.

Even more influential than Sexton and Spiderman is just dumb luck. My path crossed with the incredible Cheryl Gross. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to work with her. I fell in love with her illustrations at first sight, and I asked if she would be willing to work with me. That was six years ago, and we continue to work together. This is a miracle, and I don’t take miracles lightly. Any form of art is a miracle.

As you pointed out in your lovely question, the pairing does slow down the read. I didn’t mindfully consider reader’s speed with the pairing of visuals and text, but I did intend for the words and pictures to feel like a conversation—for the reader to know they are part of that conversation. All art is ultimately meant to be a gift to some unknown love—the imagined voice at the larger table we dream of.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Reveal the Universe through a Single Detail

19 May
Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You.

Nicelle Davis latest book is the illustrated novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. It includes the poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee.”

In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Aleph,” a character goes into a cellar and looks at a particular part of it, a mere point, and through it he sees the entire universe. It’s a dizzying concept that makes graduate students go, “Ooh,” when they read it, but it’s also a metaphor for how writing often works, especially descriptive passages. A single detail can provide a glimpse of something much larger—the universe or a relationship or the internal self. The problem is finding that detail and, when you do, knowing how to look through it.

A great example of how quickly a single detail can expand into a world can be found in Nicelle Davis’ poem “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee,” which is part of her new novel-in-poems, In the Circus of You. You can read it now at A cappella Zoo (it’s the third poem in the excerpt).

How the Poem Works

The poem begins with this line: “There is a hole the size of your fist in our bathroom door.” This is, of course, a powerful image, and, if you imagine it as an aleph and put your eye to that hole in the door, you can quickly imagine the sort of things you might see: violence, anger, fear, and all the ways they can appear. The next line seems to set up some of those emotions: “My fault, I’m told, for pushing the hinge towards your movements.” Imagine if the poem had looked through that hole and seen the speaker of the poem, hiding in the bathroom. What do you think the poem would see? The obvious answer is a kind of keyhole snapshot of a woman. But that’s not exactly where the poem goes.

Instead of peering through the hole and seeing the speaker the way that a camera would, the poem uses the hole to see into the speaker: “I used to dream of large machines with hands pounding apart concrete so a single seed could be sown.” This is a fitting image, as it keeps with the violence of the hole. But it also moves far beyond that original image, as do the next lines, which move forward in time and also outward, giving us a glimpse of the relationship over a long period of time:

After this spectacle of effort, I’d wake with a fever of 103. You never understood how I could be sick so often.

When I teach poetry to a lecture hall full of students required to take an English course, I talk about how poems often try to move as far as they can from line to line. The thrill in reading the poem, if you feel any thrill, is in appreciating how far it can jump and still maintain some sort of coherence. In the presence of undergrads, I usually refer to this quality as something particular to poetry, but the truth is that prose writers make these leaps as well. Just read Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, or Paul Harding.

It’s the same kind of leap that Borges made with the aleph. When you peer through a descriptive detail, what you see is not simply the next logical detail but something unexpected. The surprise we feel is often what pulls us through the writing, whether it’s prose or poetry.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make intuitive leaps in description, using “In a Note Not Given to the Addressee” by Nicelle Davis as a model:

  1. Start with a scene that contains strong emotion. Davis’ scene contains anger and fear, but these aren’t your only options. Any emotion will work. The goal is to access a moment for a character, narrator, person, or speaker when they are ready to see or look beyond what is right in front of their faces. Those moments are usually accompanied by powerful feelings. This is true in life as well: when we’re feeling love or joy or satisfaction or anger, our minds tend to leap beyond the immediate circumstances to the past or future or places that don’t exist and never will. Anxiety is a perfect example of this: It’s a feeling that pulls you out of the moment and into some possible future. So, choose some scene in which you, the writer, or the character you’re writing about are feeling charged up.
  2. Find your aleph. Of course, you may be thinking, “Sure, I’ll just find that perfect, all-seeing, all-encompassing detail. Wait, what’s that in my pocket? Oh, there it is.” Most of us can’t find that detail in one try. So, start brainstorming. If you drop yourself into the scene, what do you see? Davis choose a point of impact (literally), where the emotion has erupted into action. This is a pretty direct image (though it’s not as direct as an image of the fist punching through the door). You can choose something that directly conveys the emotion, or you can look to the side, at something that is next to the thing that directly conveys the emotion. Regardless of what you choose, try looking through it. Does the image make you want to keep writing? Or do read it and feel your energy drop. This is hardly scientific, but that’s how writing often works. Look for an image that revs up or directs your already charged emotional state.
  3. Jump past the obvious next detail. Davis could have looked through the hole in the door and seen a woman. But that would be obvious. Of course that’s what is visible through the door. The reader understands the logic of the scene and can intuit that next step. So, move beyond it. You can move chronologically (what came before the scene or what comes after). You can move from the physical to the mental/emotional/spiritual (which is what Davis does). You can zoom out (which she also does) or zoom in. You can jump sideways to a moment or image that fits in some way with the image or moment where you began. Try all of these. Some will work and some won’t. You may find that once you make one intuitive jump, you’re able to make others. The first leap gives you and your writing permission to move out of the immediate scene and toward some detail that surprises not just the reader but you as well.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Joni Tevis

14 May
Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis' essay collection, The World Is On Fire, "fiercely, startlingly bright."

Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis’ essay collection, The World Is On Fire, “fiercely, startlingly bright.”

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection, and, most recently, The World Is On Fire. She has worked as a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, and her nonfiction has been published in Oxford American, Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

To read an exercise on writing with Keats’ negative capability Tevis’ essay, “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” click here.

For this interview, Tevis wrote about the inspiration behind her essay in what is perhaps the most detailed recollection of a writer’s zigzagging mental process that you’ll ever read.

Michael Noll

This is such a wide-ranging essay: Fairyland Caverns, the nuclear test in New Mexico, Rip Van Winkle, the preacher from your childhood, and a Civil War battle. The connections made complete sense as I read the essay, but I was also aware that these were connections that you made. They weren’t simply lying around, ready to be reported on. So, I’m curious about the origin of the essay. How did you begin making associations between these very different stories and events and places? How did you keep so many balls in the air without letting them drop? Was it difficult to keep the connections straight in your head as you worked?

Joni Tevis

I like to start research for an essay by going somewhere that intrigues me and just seeing what I can see. This essay began that way; I remembered Rock City from my childhood and went back for a visit as an adult, with the idea of writing about it. For me, this impulse isn’t primarily rational. I might not know why a place or idea or image appeals to me, but I try not to question that, at least initially. I’ll just go and see what’s there.

So I tried to approach the visit with a very porous mind and took notes on everything I noticed there, from the stuff in the gift shop, to the painted barns and handmade signs along the road up the mountain, to the recorded music and running water within Fairyland Caverns. And I’ll add that even though I like to start essays via this travel experience process, sometimes that impulse doesn’t lead anywhere—I have plenty of dead-end trip notes languishing in my notebooks. But you just never know what you might find.

The big surprise on that trip was the black light in the Caverns. I hadn’t remembered that at all, and I found it unsettling—the juxtaposition of childhood scenes with this very trippy light, light that we associate with drug culture. How to make sense of it? When I discovered that the sculptor who created those scenes did much of her work in the late 1940s, I made the connection to early atomic history, a period that had long fascinated me.

The Day The Sun Rose Twice has been called "definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left."

The Day the Sun Rose Twice has been called “definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left.”

And this is where the traditional research component came in. I was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time and had access to the terrific libraries there. One day I was browsing the stacks when I saw The Day The Sun Rose Twice, a great book about the Manhattan Project and the Trinity explosion. The book pulled me—in a not-fully-rational way, the same way that the impulse to revisit Rock City had been. I couldn’t put the book down. It hit me that when I had been a child, worrying about the end-times sermons on Sundays, I was also worrying about the reports I heard on the evening news, about nuclear tensions with the Soviets. So that led me to more research about the Trinity test—which led, in turn, to a visit to the Atomic History Museum, out in Albuquerque—and then to archival research about the woman who created the scenes at Fairyland Caverns.

I traced some of the other stories from the Caverns back—that’s where the Rip Van Winkle research came in, and by moving back in historical time, I read more about the Civil War battle that had taken place on Lookout Mountain sixty years before Rock City was created. Research about the material culture of the place led me to the See Rock City barns that had helped to advertise it. And what had many of those those barns held? Tobacco leaves, which were fascinating to research as well.

Someone painted the barns. Someone planned the scenes in the caverns, poured the plaster. Someone even now changes the black lightbulbs. Just like someone built the bomb. I’m satisfied with the essay now in part because it draws attention to the things we make, and the meaning we make with those things. And I think it evokes this sense of “living in a haunted world” with which the rest of the book also grapples—the reality that we’re not the first to step onto this patch of ground or handle this clay or stone, and that by examining the relics and words that our forebears left us, we can live in a more deep, enriched way.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write with Negative Capability

12 May
Joni Tevis' nonfiction collection The World Is on Fire is a collection for a future culture, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

Joni Tevis’ nonfiction collection The World Is On Fire is a collection meant for some future race, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.

A recent essay that uses negative capability in a dramatic way is Joni Tevis’ “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City).” It is included in her new collection The World Is On Fire and was originally published in Orion, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

Probably no term has been more analyzed than negative capability, so let’s just start from the beginning, with Keats’ own words:

“it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”

Here’s an even shorter version, as restated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So, the short answer to the question, “What is negative capability?” is that it’s the ability to give equal consideration to (or even believe) two contradictory ideas. So, what’s this have to do with writing great prose? Take a look at this passage from “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)”:

I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much.

Tevis has set up contradictory ideas, a contradiction that is set up in the first sentence: 1) the world is beautiful and amazing, and 2) all of that beauty can be taken away. In other words, as the next sentence states, we’re all going to die. This might not seem contradictory. After all, both things are true. The world can be pretty great (though it’s not always), and everyone now living will die. Put that way, most of us will likely say, “Sure. Of course.” But what the paragraph does is make us feel the contradiction. It’s the same feeling that we often get at funerals or after hearing about some tragedy or horrible act in the world. We’re going to die, and it might be really terrible. That’s the message the preacher has, and when Tevis walks out of the church, she blinks at the light and delivers a line that I absolutely adore: “How could we go out for fried chicken after that?”

We know the passage has worked because there’s no good answer to the question. Her parents say, “Try not to worry about it too much,” which is no kind of answer. Or, it’s almost exactly the definition of negative capability, a term that is often considered a goal for good writing. In “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” Tevis suggests that believing in contradictory things is an inevitable and natural part of the human experience and that drama, the stuff of good writing, comes from a character’s inability to tie together those contradictory elements. The goal shouldn’t be, as Keats puts it, to avoid “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Instead, it should be to reach for that fact and reason and find it missing. As with all writing, you want the reader to ask, in some form, the question, “Now what?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension with negative capability, using “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis as a model:

  1. Set up the conflicting ideas. Tevis uses “life is beautiful” and “we’re all going to die.” This isn’t so different from what Stuart Dybek does in his famous story, “We Didn’t.” He pairs sex and death. If you wish, you can stick to religion: “Jesus loves me” and “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” Or, you can move toward a personal conflict with others: “I’m a good person” and “everyone hates me” or “I’m horrible” and “everyone loves me.” Or, you can create an internal conflict: “I want to do good” and “I love doing bad” or “I love my children” and “I want to be free.” The goal is to put two incompatible ideas or beliefs in the same place, at the same time. It doesn’t really matter how small or large, personal or cosmic those ideas are. The important thing is that they should resist being held together.
  2. Make the reader believe one of those ideas. Tevis does this beautifully with the sentences about deadly accidents and the quotes from the preacher. The deadly accidents give us visceral proof of the idea. How can we argue that we all die when it’s happening in front of us? The preacher creates a philosophical framework around that proof; he’s telling his congregation how to think about the proof that they witness. This two-part structure is important. If anything that happens to a character/person/narrator is worthwhile, then that person has given it significant thought and has formulated a story to tell about it or mental approach to it. How we think about something is just as important as the reason we believe it.
  3. Introduce, quickly, the other idea. This is what happens when Tevis brings us out of the church, into the beautiful world and asks how we can bear to eat fried chicken. She’s juxtaposing the beliefs. She sets beauty (sunlight and crepe myrtles) against the preacher’s version of the world, with its real proof (untimely accidents). If the juxtaposition is sharp or harsh enough, the reader will understand, on a visceral level, the impossibility of both things being true. We will question (or understand the characters when they question) how both can be true at the same time.
  4. Answer the question with negative capability. Have someone say, as Tevis’ parents did, “Try not to worry about it too much.” If you have any experience with Christianity, you may be attaching a word to this dilemma: faith. We accept, on faith, things that we cannot understand or that seem not to be possible. But faith cannot exist without a crisis of faith (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a matter of faith; it’d just be obvious). What you’re setting up is a moment where the narrator or character understands that two ideas cannot be held together, but there they are, together, and they must deal with the mental trauma of trying to make congruous this incongruous pairing. In other words, someone must say, “Don’t think about it too much,” and that mental avoidance must come to seem impossible or undesirable. When that happens, the reader will automatically want to know, “Then what?”

Good luck.

An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field

7 May
Melissa Falcon Field's debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator's sudden isolation after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field’s debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator’s choices after finding herself suddenly isolated after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field is the author of the novel, What Burns Away. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter and a Bread Loaf fellow, worked as an inner-city teacher with Teach for America and AmeriCorps, and helped develop and pioneer the YEAR UP writing curriculum used nationally. Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines and journals, including Hip Momma: The Parenting Zine, Kaliope Literary Journal, The Portland Phoenix, Across Curriculums, The Austin American Statesmen, The Ballantine Books Reader’s Circle, The Hartford Courant, and The Maine Scholar. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her young son, her husband, and four chickens.

To read an exercise on creating tension in a story and an excerpt from Falcon Field’s novel, What Burns Awayclick here.

In this interview, Falcon Field discusses her approach to space breaks, love triangles, and sex scenes.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in your use of space breaks, something that a lot of beginning writers struggle with. For instance, early in the novel, you begin a passage with the sound of the narrator’s son waking her and then move into a flashback about the narrator’s childhood. When the flashback ends and the scene returns to the present scene with the son, the move is punctuated with a space break. The next section uses a similar structure: son as window to something else—in this case, the narrator’s husband. What is your approach to space breaks? Is it about thematic structure? Is it to help the reader avoid confusion?  

Melissa Falcon Field

In the novel, I use space breaks for a variety of reasons, first and foremost, as a way of showing readers a normal break in the narrative, but here, in the sections you reference, because so much of this early part of the novel toggles between back story and the present timeline, space breaks work to clarify those shifts, and they also serve to re-direct the reader in and out of Claire’s reflections, helping to avoid reader confusion with those time shifts. At other times, later in the novel, space breaks serve as a breather from the continual present time narrative, and allow Claire’s reflection and internal world to stand alone, giving them weight, and a wink a their importance, when punctuated by the space break.

Michael Noll

One of the so-called rules promoted by writing workshop is to eschew adjectives. However, your use of the adjective “steadfast” in describing the narrator’s husband (“the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft”) is pretty sharp, in part because it comes from a first-person narrator. The description of the husband is pretty spare. Besides this line, there is only one other descriptive phrase early on: “a new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist.” How did you approach this all-important description? Were you aiming for a particular attitude toward the husband?

Melissa Falcon Field

Great question, Michael. I would say that, in general, the eschewing of adjectives in a novel is to foster finer writing and to encourage streamlining of sentences, avoiding language that reads as clunky, or feels heavy. But when a confessional is being written, as it is here in What Burns Away, Claire is zooming in on her husband, observing him, and so those adjectives work to establish her voice and are the adjectives that she, as the narrator has chosen, thus giving the reader access to her perception of her husband, Miles, guiding the reader to view him within the portrait of their marriage. So, although I prefer to keep the use of adjectives relatively limited in my fiction, I do find them necessary in some places to invoke decisive descriptions in sections where the pacing needs to be slowed down, with intention, as it is in the sections you have pointed to here.

Michael Noll

The novel pretty quickly sets up the triangle between the narrator and her husband and her former boyfriend. Was it difficult to get both of those men into the novel quickly—to basically juxtapose them on the page? I’m curious how much revision was required to make that juxtaposition happen.

Melissa Falcon Field

That triangle was there in my earlier conception of the novel when I knew I wanted to write from the vantage point of a new mother, who feels like everything desirable about her has moved past. So it was my hope that by incorporating Dean, a former lover, juxtaposed with Miles, Claire’s absentee husband, I could better capture that moment in a woman’s life when she feels desperate to reclaim her girlhood-self, just as she realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, which in this case, forces Claire to decide what and who she must let go of, and what and whom she must hold close. Because the story is ultimately about the ways characters redefine themselves, I sketched out that triangle for the first draft very loosely. That said, it was Dean who I focused on first, as I worked to establish the backstory of the novel.  Later, in second, third and fourth drafts, I worked more specifically to redefine Claire inside her family dynamic and within her marriage, in relation to her husband Miles. And because the two male characters work in polar opposition, I was able to play-out Claire’s surrender, which is both brutal and transformative, and why I felt compelled to capture that tension of a love triangle in What Burns Away.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how writers handle sex scenes, and so I was interested in the flashback about the narrator’s first time with Dean, her high-school boyfriend. Other than a reference to rough palms, there’s almost no physical description. Instead, the passage focuses on what the sex and intimacy meant to the narrator. Did you play around with other ways of writing this scene? Did you always keep the physical description spare? 

Melissa Falcon Field

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

Sex that is any good is characteristically over the top, so I have always been more interested in redirecting readers beyond the obvious, toward the more unique secrets of the act, focusing on the minutia of rough palms, a freckle at the curve of a lover’s hip, or the tiniest bead of sweat on the tip of a nose. I did experiment with how to write those scenes, and at first it all read a bit more like pornography, which don’t get me wrong, has its place, but it wasn’t in that moment. So, I stepped back and thought more about the importance of that scene, which for Claire is a memory about desire and intimacy, and what being wanted felt like, so I focused on that, which is, after all what she has been missing and yearning for and what, in the end, gets her into big trouble, leading to later sex scenes with a more physical quality to them—cast into another kind of heat.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent years working as a teacher and writing coach. How does this work inform your writing? Writers often complain that the time demands that teaching places on them takes away from their writing, but given how much teaching you’ve done, I’m curious if you feel differently.

Melissa Falcon Field

Teaching, if you do it well, requires a huge amount of creative energy. But I love it. And, I do believe that for the most part, excluding midterms and final papers, it feeds my writing life. Over the years, teaching the craft and working along with my students, writing and revising and remembering how it is to first read, or conceive of a character, plot, or setting has been a source of great joy, and has always driven me to better hone my work and my ability to talk about narrative. Selfishly, I gain as much from the fresh perspectives of my students, as I give them back. It’s a wonderful kind of relationship, and one of the most important roles I play. And, I should also say that I would never have written a word without those who taught me, and the idea of being that person for someone else motivates me to read and write harder for my students, and to continue to learn more to be the best version of reader, writer and teacher for my students, as we all do the hard work together.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

5 May
What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’t work together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

Melissa Falcon Field’s novel What Burns Away has this tension in spades. You can read the opening of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel opens with a scene that may feel familiar to parents of young children. It’s morning, the baby is awake and screaming, and one of the parents is getting ready for work. The other is staying home. So, the scene is set:

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: “Mama! Come!

Such hollering tends to create a particular mood in a house, in a scene. Think about the last time you were around tired people while a child screamed. What was the mood? Frustrated? Frantic? Now, watch the book’s narrator (Jonah’s mother) look at her husband:

I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Already, you can see a distance open up between the sensibility of the scene (screaming child) and the response of the character “tapped his razor.” Imagine how else this description of the husband could have been written. He could have become as frantic as the child (parents often do). He could have snapped at his wife. He could have rushed out the door. Instead, he moves methodically. Now, watch how the sensibility of that tapping razor gets stretched along:

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon’s hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. “Please, Mama!”

Every sentence contains a key detail: Instead of turning to his wife to see if she hears the baby, Miles keeps his back to her. He has gained weight, which has pooled (note the inertia implied in that word choice) at his waist. We learn that he’s a surgeon with a steady hand. In short, his refusal to get sucked in to the household drama is an essential part of his nature and evident in his actions, his physical appearance, and his career.

Now, watch what happens next:

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

That’s a cold line. He’s asserting himself and his sensibility upon the drama around him. It’s a line that you can feel like a punch in the gut.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a gap between scene and character using What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field as a model:

  1. Set the tone of the scene. Often, this is done by introducing a particular force. In What Burns Away, it’s a screaming baby. In my earlier example, it was an uncle acting inappropriately at a wedding. Both are characters who can’t be tamed, at least not easily. This week’s episode of Mad Men had a great example of this. Don’s in a meeting with a table full of creative directors, listening to a pitch about beer. The company is impressively huge, and so everyone is listening intently. But not Don. In short, walk something into the scene that cannot be ignored, that must be dealt with.
  2. Create the character who will not play along. In What Burns Away, the husband refuses to quicken his morning routine for a screaming child. In Mad Men, Don refuses to listen. At the wedding, a character could egg the uncle on, rather than tamping down his behavior. If you know what the best or necessary behavior is, think about what it would mean for a character to A) do the opposite or B) disregard the thing that cannot be ignored.
  3. Be subtle. Miles eventually tells his wife to get the baby, which is highly dramatic, but before we get to that moment, we see him resisting or ignoring in a very small way: tapping his razor. In Mad Men, Don looks out the window before he walks out of the room. Don’t jump directly to the drama. Set it up by giving the character the smallest possible physical action that reveals or embodies his or her sensibility or behavior in general. Give the character a way to not play along that no one but the reader and maybe one other character will notice.

Good luck.

An Interview with Ru Freeman

4 May
Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed, "Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound."

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane was called, by Cheryl Strayed, “Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound.”

Ru Freeman was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is the author of the novels Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane. She is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Extraordinary Rendition, a collection of the voices of American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and her political writing has appeared in English and in translation. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in VQR, Guernica, World Literature Today and elsewhere. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Freeman won the 2014 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

To read an exercise on using an omniscient narrator and an excerpt from Freeman’s novel, On Sal Mal Laneclick here.

In this interview, Freeman discusses the challenges of explaining historical context in a novel and creating an omniscient narrator and the politics of Sri Lanka and On Sal Mal Lane.

Michael Noll

On Sal Mal Lane begins with a prologue that functions very much like the infamous prologue to Star Wars. It sets up the politics, geography, and history of the place—and also indicates that, in the story’s beginning at least, the major conflict is some miles away from the main characters. What was your approach to this prologue? Do you think it would have been written the same if you could assume that your readers knew a lot about Sri Lanka and its civil war?

Ru Freeman

I like the way you use that to discuss the book. The prologue in this form was added after I had written the first draft. The original prologue, several pages longer, focused mainly on the characters, and all of it eventually got whittled down to that last paragraph. When I finished writing the book, I felt that there was a sense of longer-term history that couldn’t be contained within the main text of the book without burdening it with those kinds of explanatory treatises on history that can kill momentum. It was necessary that people understood that there was this regional and international context, this history of colonization and brutality, but also that, in the end, none of those things were relevant to the daily lives of ordinary people like those who lived on Sal Mal Lane. As a way of tracing immediate history to a pivotal moment, I included the murder of Alfred Duraiappah and the call to war by Prabhakaran. Whether people knew this history or not, setting it down with those few brushstrokes helped to establish the voice of the narrator who is, to continue with your image, a Yoda like character who knew all that came before and all that was to come to pass and could maintain both warmth and distance from every composite part of the story—the human and the inanimate.

Michael Noll

The prologue also has this remarkable pair of sentences:

“And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passes through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors.”

In essence, you have created an omniscient narrator and then embodied it in something of the novel’s world. Was this a conscious decision—in response, perhaps, to readers or yourself wondering who was speaking? Or did these sentences arise spontaneously in an early draft?

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

It was an asking of myself as I tried to wrap my head around this voice that had come into being while writing the earlier version of the prologue, and the novel itself. It occurred to me that the narrator here was someone (or in this case perhaps something, the road), who was intimately familiar with the this place, with compassion for everyone, but a particularly keen fondness for two of the characters, Mr. Niles, and Nihil. In the scheme of things there is no one main character here, but the ties that bind these two are elevated above all the other bonds that form—and are broken— between the people of Sal Mal Lane. Why this voice lingered over those two characters got me thinking about the entity to whom the voice belonged. So, it was spontaneous, in one sense, but also deliberate.

Michael Noll

Each chapter gets a title. Obviously this is something that some books do and some don’t. What made you choose to title them?

Ru Freeman

In my first novel, I alternated the story between Biso (an older woman leaving an abusive husband, taking her three children with her on a journey that lasts just about 36 hours, all related in the first person), and Latha (a little girl who comes to live in a house as a companion to a girl her own age who lives there, and whose story covers about three decades and is told in the third person). When I began this book, I imagined that I’d write it by alternating the voices of the children, staying close to each in turn, sort of like what Barbara Kingsolver did with Poisonwood Bible. I must have written about a third of the book when I began to feel oppressed by this framework. I abandoned it as a strict guideline and began to simply write the story, though, as you can perhaps tell, I do concentrate on one or the other of the children as I go along, at least in certain parts. I decided to break the book up by year into sections, and then title the chapters. I enjoyed coming up with those titles. It’s not something people do too often, as you point out, but it is a lot of fun and if I’m having fun then the writing tends to be better than when I’m straining.

Michael Noll

At the risk of veering into politics, I was reading this novel when Sri Lanka held its presidential election in January, and so I couldn’t help holding the two events (the events of the novel and the election) side by side. In the novel, animosity is rising between Tamils and Sinhalese. Now, the war is over, and the minority groups (including the Tamils) who suffered during it have managed to vote out the president who claimed credit for ending the war. Do you imagine Sal Mal Lane today? Do the current events cause you to think about the years of the novel in a different light or way?

Ru Freeman

Freeman's website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

Freeman’s website contains what is, perhaps, the most comprehensive list in existence of Sri Lankan writers.

There is never a veering into, I think. We are always situated quite firmly and centrally in the middle of politics. As far as the election goes, while it is true that many ordinary citizens came together to vote out the former president, there were machinations that went beyond Sri Lanka, including the United States, to bring the current one into power. When I hear the rhetoric from the new leadership, I don’t feel optimistic; the alignment of the new president is with the United National Party, which in its time of power reigned over the massacre of more than 60,000 youth. The language used is old, it panders to American interests, and it is, frankly, disorderly. That combination can be deadly in a country like Sri Lanka, with a highly educated, enfranchised, and engaged civil populace.

Be that as it may, the Sal Mal Lanes of my country never disappeared. They went on through another quarter century of war, they mended fences, came apart, celebrated and mourned. There was a weight felt by everybody as they did these things, that was only lifted in May 2009, when the war officially ended, when the walls and barricades and checkpoints were dismantled, and the soldiers went to work on reconstruction and other support work. Devi, therefore, was a symbol to me of a fragile beauty that underlined all life in Sri Lanka, as well as a stand-on for the country itself. How people dealt with her presence and absence was and is similar to how they dealt with what happened during those decades of war.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.


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