An Interview with Amanda Eyre Ward

29 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's new novel, The Same Sky, has been called "the timeliest book you will read this year."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, The Same Sky, has been called “the timeliest book you will read this year.”

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of six novels. Her most recent, The Same Sky, follows two Honduran children who migrate to Texas in order to escape the violence of her home. She spent much of 2014 visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children, and hearing their stories. Ward was born in New York City and has traveled in Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Greece, and Central America and worked as a journalist, librarian, and teacher. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana and now lives in Austin, TX.

To read an excerpt from The Same Sky and an exercise on writing understated violence, click here.

In this interview, Ward discusses traveling to research her novels, the challenge of writing about places you haven’t visited, and writing novels that cause people to yell during readings and prisoners to write letters.

Michael Noll

I love that the first paragraph of the novel ends with “Old Navy.” On one hand, it makes sense since the store is so essentially American—the style of its clothes, the interior of the store. But on the other hand, the choice of that store seems to carry with it a choice in tone. You didn’t choose Wal-Mart or Target or Banana Republic. Did you ever consider other stores or other ways to establish the tone so quickly? How did you happen upon Old Navy? 

Amanda Eyre Ward

That’s a great question with a simple (not so insightful) answer. The dress I chose for Carla’s mother to send to her daughter in Honduras is a tiny dress with the figure of an ice skater on it (Carla has never seen ice). My own daughter owns the dress, and it’s from Old Navy.

Michael Noll

Some of the novel takes place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and along the migrant trail in Mexico. How did you approach writing about these places? Did you visit them? The other major setting of the novel is Austin, TX, where you live in real life. Did you ever worry that the details you know so well about Austin would outweigh or overwhelm the details about the places you knew less well?

Amanda Eyre Ward

Uh oh, now I am worried they did! Writing about Tegucigalpa was very hard. I have not been there, though I’ve traveled a lot all over Mexico and Central America. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. Here’s how I wrote about Tegu: I took a pile of my sister’s snapshots from when she built a school in rural Honduras and I lay them all over my desk. I printed maps and watched YouTube videos from Tegu and Honduras in general, and the migrant trail, and even Mexico City. (One two or three-day rabbit hole involved watching Mexican gang videos, but I digress.) I read everything I could find.

I closed my eyes and listened for Carla’s voice and wrote. Later, I found (via Facebook) two or three people who lived in Tegu and I sent them all the sections set there. It turns out I was wrong about some things, so I changed them. I could never pin down where Carla’s EXACT village would be, so in the final draft I made up the name of a fictional village rather than changing details of her home that were important to me and to Carla’s voice in my head.

When I wrote about Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town, South Africa, I went there and it changed the entire book. It was also pretty dangerous and changed me. So I’m still wrestling with these issues. My sister, who often comes with me on research trips as a photographer and bon vivant, has asked that I try—just try—to set a novel somewhere luxurious, like a spa.

The new book is set in Houston, New Orleans, and Grand Isle, LA…so at least that’s closer to home.

Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

I also did a huge amount of research on East Austin and even BBQ towns like Lockhart, TX. I wanted to know both where Jake came from and where Carla was headed. I drove around taking notes on East Austin immigrant communities: high schools, motels, supermarkets, parks, etc. Then I spent most of a year in these places, sometimes bringing along a friend who spoke Spanish to translate the goings on. I went to the East Side College Prep homecoming football game and dance, sitting in the corner of the gym like a nut job, and sent Stacy Franklin about a thousand emails. Just for research, I ate at most restaurants in the area, and my kids played at Metz Park for a summer.

In the end, though, I try to trust the voices in the novel (whether first or third); trust what they need to mention and know and understand. Too much research can drag a book down, as can too much detail. I’m a complete cynic in every part of my life except writing—a novel coming together is absolute magic and a gift. I just try to make my brain ready, give it details and slow-smoked brisket and hope for the best.

Lastly, I find that immersive research is great for a parent. There’s a lot of down time when I want to be writing but can’t, and that furious feeling of words trapped in my body on a Saturday when I’m in charge of the kids (like literally right now when my family headed out to take Nora to ballet class and give me an hour by myself and she threw up in the car and now they’re not only back but standing next to me AT MY DESK) can be eased by taking them to a place I’m researching, or eating a food I’m researching, or sitting at a neighborhood park staring into space and daydreaming.

Michael Noll

Who would you guess the audience is for this book? Immigration into the United States is such a politically charged topic. Did you assume anything about your readers’ beliefs—that they were sympathetic to the stories of these children or that you needed to pay special attention to justifying the immigrants’ actions? How does the larger political debate factor into the writing of such a novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I try not to think about this at all (though of course I do). I read a lot and buy novels and I try to write the kind of book I’d want to read: smart, funny, thoughtful, dark, carefully crafted, and filled with rich characters. When I came to the topic of unaccompanied minors, they were not yet in the news. When I told my friends and family what I was researching, it was the first time most of them had heard about these kids.

(At the border, it was another story—everyone knew the issue was about to blow up because the numbers of minors were rising alarmingly and the stories the kids were telling were getting worse. The worst part is that the numbers of kids are going way down and no one yet is certain why. Oscar Martinez has done some reporting on this and it’s truly terrible…kids are being pulled off trains by both immigration authorities and gangs and they are not reaching the US. They are leaving their homes…and then they are disappearing.)

Having the issue become a huge one this summer was bizarre and I can only hope will inspire more people to help these kids.

In summation, I write about what obsesses me. That’s the best part about being 42 and a few books in—I trust that my obsessions will lead me somewhere good. I often don’t have a political opinion before I start. I’ve had audiences yell at me during readings (Sleep Toward Heaven and Forgive Me) and I’ve gotten letters from prison inmates (Close Your Eyes) and teenagers (How to Be Lost). So I’m happy.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the way you approach the inherent violence in the story. The murder of Carla’s teacher is handled quickly, without much emotion or drama—almost as if Carla is numb or accustomed to such things. I can imagine another writer really stretching out the discovery of the bodies. Was this an approach that you always use, or was there a particular reason for it in this particular scene and novel?

Amanda Eyre Ward

I’m so glad you noticed this. It’s exactly the way the kids I interviewed at the border spoke. They looked at me, and sometimes at their hands, and they told me the most awful things I’d ever heard. Some of them had eyes that were just…blank and dull. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or what, but it was chilling. That said, they had so much hope, too. And they played just like…kids. I think about them all the time.

January 2015

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

How to Write Understated Violence

27 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

In stories, violence has a way of dominating the scene, elbowing out character and setting so that the violence is all that you can see or remember. This is fine for some stories—sometimes violence does take over—but for other stories, it distracts from more important things.

So how do you keep violence in the background? A great way to learn would be to read Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky, which begins with a murder and a reaction that is noteworthy in its understatement. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Novel Works

The novel begins with Carla, a young girl living in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Her teacher has gone missing, and so she sets out to visit his house along with her friend, Humberto. The scene that follows immediately introduces us to a discovery of disturbing violence:

The front door was open. Our teacher and his wife were dead, lying next to each other on the kitchen floor.

Imagine the range of sentences and details that could follow this discovery. It would be natural for the characters and us, the readers, to dwell on the bodies, to become fixated on them, noticing and remembering particular details: some gruesome and some strikingly normal. But this isn’t what Ward does. Notice how she makes something else the focus of the scene:

The robbers had taken everything in the house. Our teacher, like me, had a mother in America, in Dallas, Texas, a gleaming city we had seen on the television in the window of the PriceSmart electronics store. The point is that our teacher had many things—a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern. Luckily, our teacher did not have any children (as far as we knew). That would have been very sad.

Humberto cried out when he saw the bodies. I did not make a sound. My eyes went to my teacher’s wrist, but his watch was gone. His wife no longer wore her ring or the bracelet our teacher had given her on their one-year anniversary. The robbers had taken our teacher’s shoes, shirt, and pants. It was strange to see our teacher like that. I had never seen his bare legs before. They were hairy.

Instead of grisly details, we’re shown their possessions. In fact, we see the possessions first, through a brief bit of context, and then we see their absence. It is through that absence that the bodies are revealed:  “I had never see his bare legs before. They were hairy.”

This misdirection accomplishes three important things:

  1. It keeps the gore at bay. Remember, this is the opening chapter of the novel. If those first pages contain a high level of uncomfortable detail, it begins to set a tone for the novel as a whole—a tone that might not be appropriate for the story. This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino film.
  2. It reveals the characters’ relationship with violence. Take this same murder and put it Austin, TX, where Carla will eventually end up, and the reaction would become quite different. In fact, Scott Blackwood has just published a novel about just such a murder: See How Small. The emotional resonance in that book is very different. In The Same Sky, the characters have become accustomed to murder and violence. As a result, they’re less visibly jolted when it occurs—whether through numbness or its routine nature.
  3. It gives us a sense for the characters’ real concerns. More important, perhaps, than what they don’t notice is what they do notice: “a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern.” It’s like the line from Sherlock Holmes: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.” What these characters notice tells us what they value and need, and it is those values and needs that will help shape their decisions in the novel.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write understated violence, using The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward as a model:

  1. Decide on the type of violence. There are many kinds, not all of them physical. Some are emotional and mental. You can even think large scale and consider cultural violence: the aggression that groups enact against each other. An important distinction to consider is the difference between violence suffered by a person and violence witnessed by a person. Someone witnessing violence can, in some cases, turn away. But if that isn’t possible if the violence is being perpetrated against them—or, it’s more difficult and requires, perhaps, an interior numbness or turning away.
  2. Choose the new focus of the scene. Ward has the children focus on their teacher’s possessions. This makes sense because these are things that would be present in the house, along with the bodies, but their children’s familiarity with them allows the scene to step out of the moment and recall how they appeared before the violence occurred. So, think about what is in the room or place along with the violence: room furnishings, plants, cars, colors, sounds, smells.
  3. Create a reason for the character to pay attention to this new focus. What does the new focus (the thing, smell, color, etc) remind the character of? How does it make the character feel before the violence actually occurs? Does it highlight a scarcity or bounty in the character’s life?
  4. Add the violence to this setting. This addition will, of course, create a kind of contrast, a juxtaposition with the thing you’ve focused on. This contrast will create tension: where does the character look? It’s possible that the more severe and disturbing the violence, the more difficult it will be to look away. The more familiar or mundane the violence, the easier it will be to retain the character’s attention on the thing you’ve focused on. The closer you entwine the violence with the new focus, the more heightened the tension will become. This tension is important because only a severely disturbed person could totally ignore a scene of violence. The key, then, is to background the violence and, thus, insert the tension into the character’s thoughts. That tension will likely stay in their thoughts even after they’ve left the scene.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kseniya Melnik

15 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's debut book Snow in May blends history and fable to bring her real-life hometown of Magadan, Russia, to life.

Kseniya Melnik’s debut book Snow in May blends history and fable to bring her real-life hometown of Magadan, Russia, to life.

Kseniya Melnik’s debut book is the linked story collection Snow in May, which was short-listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.. Born in Magadan, Russia, she moved to Alaska in 1998, at the age of 15. She received her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Esquire (Russia), Virginia Quarterly Review, Prospect (UK), and was selected for Granta‘s New Voices series.

To read Melnik’s story, “The Witch” and an exercise on building a story around a fairy tale, click here.

In this interview, Melnik discusses writing a Baba Yaga story, creating echo chambers in fiction, and avoiding easy descriptions of complex places.

Michael Noll

The story is about visiting a traditional healer (a witch), and it’s also a Baba Yaga story. In both cases, it seems like a story that you might, as a Russian, feel obligated to tell—that it’s one of those stories that is so closely entwined with the place that you both want to write and also dread trying to write. I’m curious if this was the case. How do you approach a story that has Russian Story stamped all over it without getting trapped by the gravitational pull of the fairy tale and the stock characters? I ask because this story feels so fresh. You even manage to have characters turn into animals in a way that is natural and unexpected.

Kseniya Melnik

Baba Yaga is an Eastern European incarnation of the archetype of a malevolent older woman that is culturally universal. We see the variations of this archetype in many cultures as compiled and expanded in the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Anderson, Charles Perrault to Disney. I grew up reading fairy tales and watching movies and cartoons based on them, and I think certain associations are ingrained in my head: forest—hut—witch, for example; or dark forest—girl—wolf. I didn’t feel obliged to write “a Russian Baba Yaga story,” but rather, once that automatic association came up in my mind, I wanted to see whether I could put a new spin on it.

I think the key in “The Witch,” as in any other story, is specificity. It’s told from the point of view of Alina, who is just young enough that, in combination with the hallucinations produced by her migraines, fairy tales feel real to her and help her understand life directly rather than metaphorically. The reader is left to decide for themselves what is a hallucination and what is really happening. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the Soviet and Russian and occult culture with very real emotions, fears, and concerns that make the story fresh. Each character has a specific desire and is desperate enough to do almost anything within the framework of the story to satisfy it.

Michael Noll

The story begins with clear stakes. The narrator suffers from debilitating migraines: “No medication had helped. The witch was our last resort.” In a way, this opening promises a particular ending: the witch will cure the migraines or she won’t. Certainly, one of these is how the story ends, but that ending feels much larger than simply the closing off of possibilities, in part because of what we’ve learned about the narrator’s mother. How did you approach the ending? Did you always know, as you wrote, where you were headed?

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta’s New Voices series.

This is one of the shortest stories I’ve written, and I knew the general trajectory from the beginning. You are right in saying that on the surface level, there are only two options for the ending: either Alina is cured, or she’s not. After a trusted friend of mine read the story, he said that it needed a “larger echo chamber” for the characters’ conflicts. I introduced more thematic vectors so that the concerns of the characters could be amplified and enlarged to the concerns of the whole country, or perhaps even concerns of the whole world. In this way they become philosophical concerns. But again, to achieve that effect, I had to start small. I began with Alina’s singular problem and gradually built up desire upon desire, pain upon pain, and introduced enough doubt and possibility to create an ending that was both right and unexpected. (I hope!) In the end, the roles of the characters are somewhat reversed and challenged: who is the witch? who is the patient? who needs to be cured? and who is truly powerless in their pursuit of relief from pain.

Michael Noll

I love this description of the migraine: “Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor.” It’s such a lovely line. How many attempts at describing the migraine did it take for this line to appear? Or, did it simply write itself?

Kseniya Melnik

Thank you. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure the line went through a couple of revisions. They all do. Even though Alina’s vision is blurry and confused, the images that express that cannot also be blurry and confused. I read a lot about migraine symptoms and auras and wanted to describe them with language that was both poetic and at least somewhat scientifically accurate.

Michael Noll

In "Selling Your First Soul," an essay in Granta, writes about returning to Russia to visit her sick grandmother.

In “Selling Your First Soul,” an essay in Granta, writes about returning to Russia to visit her sick grandmother.

You returned to Russia a couple of years ago for the first time since leaving at age 15. In an essay for Granta, you write about the thrill of encountering some of the absurdities that we’ve come to expect from tales of Russian life: “I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!” But then, you write, “When, upon my return home, I was retelling some of the choice anecdotes to a friend over the phone, I caught myself sounding like a hack stand-up comedian.” I think this probably rings true for many people who have moved away from the place where they grew up. It’s easy to find yourself telling funny stories that are perfectly true but that, somehow, distort the real experience of living there. Is this something you struggle with in your fiction? How do you avoid it? Or, how do you find the right tone for writing about a place like Magadan?

Kseniya Melnik

I do research. I try to write about the place, the weather, and, most importantly, the characters with nuance to avoid caricaturization. Russian clichés cannot be avoided entirely because so many of them are true! I think the key is to inhabit a character or a situation as fully as possible when writing, to see their Russia through their eyes, to be aware of whether you are distorting an experience as innovation or commentary, or because of automatic writing and laziness. The solution may be equal parts criticism and compassion for my characters, for Russia, and for myself.

January 2015

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

How to Build a Story around a Fairy Tale

13 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta‘s New Voices series.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May and published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

The challenge facing Melnik is how to craft a modern story around this well-known character. This doesn’t mean simply rewriting the fairy tale. Angela Carter once put the problem this way: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

In short, the writer must create a world that feels modern (which often means realistic, though not always) and somehow adapt the fairy tale to this world. To that end, Melnik follows her description of Baba Yaga with details from the trip deep into the woods:

The car smelled of gasoline, and a cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day.”

These details are entirely realistic and contemporary: gasoline, migraines, medical diary, and they also nod to the fairy tale with words like cauldronbrewing, and cursed. But if the story only nodded to the fairy tale in that simple way, we might feel cheated. And so Melnik further commits to the fairy tale in the next lines:

Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And, after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, an invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes on the sides of my skull, dig painful tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather get eaten by Baba Yaga.

This description is contemporary since it describes the way a migraine feels (and also because it references UFOs). But it also introduces a surreal element that will continue through the story. As the narrator’s migraine sets in, the world around her begins to resemble something more at-home in a fairy tale than a story of modern-day Russia.

So, when the narrator arrives at the witch’s house, her mother appears as a rabbit, her grandmother becomes a bear, and the witch is transformed into a fox. These transformations have an utterly realistic cause, but they also fit the fairy tale at the story’s foundation. To some extent the way the story resolves this tension between realism and fairy tale sensibility determines the outcome of the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s begin to write a story based on a fairy tale, using “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik as a model:

  1. Choose the fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter what story you choose. You can even move beyond the realm of fairy tales: folk tales, religious stories, Greek myths, etc. Steven Millhauser has a great story—”A Voice in the Night”—that is based on the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and was selected for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
  2. Choose a modern setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary or realistic. Instead, it simply means the story is written as if its readers are familiar with the literature and stories that have been created since your fairy tale was first told or written down. It’s not enough to simply rewrite the tale.
  3. Establish the language of the fairy tale. This is what Melnik does by telling us about Baba Yaga and her fence of bones and flying mortar. You’re telling the reader, in the original version of this tale, here are the language and images that were used.
  4. Establish the language of the modern setting. This is what Melnik does with the descriptions of gasoline odor. If your story is set in some historical time, give us details that put us in that time. If it’s set in some science fiction/fantasy world, create the nitty-gritty of the world so that we’re there. The important thing is to create a world that exists independently of the fairy tale.
  5. Connect the fairy tale and modern setting with plot. Melnik’s story is about a young girl going to see a witch in hopes of a migraine cure. The plot is drawn from the fairy tale (seeking a cure from a witch) but is also set firmly in the modern world (the problem is a migraine and the witch is a local healer). In most cases, fairy tale plots are relatively simple. In “Hansel and Gretel,” two kids are lost in the woods. The plot of “Sleeping Beauty” is not so different from the plot of “Rip Van Winkle.” Someone falls asleep or leaves, and when they awake/return, everything is weirdly the same or different. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil character dresses up like someone familiar to the main character. When you think about plot, think about it in these simplified terms, not in all the nuances and trappings of the original tale.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Monica McFawn

8 Jan
Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for her story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Monica McFawn is a writer and playwright living in Michigan. Her short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of a hybrid chapbook, “A Catalogue of Rare Moments,” and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She teaches writing at Grand Valley State University and trains her Welsh Cob cross pony in dressage and jumping.

To read McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” and an exercise on using danger to create plot, click here.

In this interview, McFawn discusses the difference between “writing my way in” to a story and outlining it in advance, the challenge of exposition, and avoiding long volleys of dialogue.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the way this story was written. It has such a clear progression: the boy’s mother tells the babysitter, Grace, not to let him talk on the phone, and then Grace lets him do just that four times, with each call having higher stakes. The structure is so straightforward and clear that I can’t imagine the story existing any other way. Did you have this structure in mind from the beginning, or did you have to write your way into it?

Monica McFawn

The structure was very carefully mapped out before I wrote the bulk of the story. I did it out of desperation. I had been trying to “write my way into” the stories I was writing for years, mostly because that’s what I thought most writers did. You hear so many writers talk that way, i.e. “I just start writing and see where it goes!” “My characters just take over!” I thought that was how it was done, and I believed that there was something stiff or false about plotting a story beforehand.

But when I actually tried the “write my way in” method, my stories would end up shapeless, overlong, and unfinished. One story in particular had gotten so bloated and meandering that I made myself set it aside and start a new story. This time, I thought to myself, I’ll do the exact opposite: I’ll plot it out beforehand. If it’s stilted as a result, who cares? At least I can finish something this way.

I like making tables, so I made a table in Word, then populated it with different phone calls and different recipients. I spent some time experimenting with the table—adding calls, deleting them, and just thinking about how to escalate the calls throughout the story. Using a table felt very businesslike, far from the mystical experience I thought writing stories should be. I worried that writing a story this way might prevent me from experiencing any surprise or serendipity, but in fact it was the opposite. The clear structure was freeing, and I found plenty of surprises in the details.

Michael Noll

The last two phone calls are made to Grace’s boyfriend/private investigator and to her sister. In order to understand these calls, we need to know certain things about a lawsuit and the family drama that led to it. The problem is that the information needs to be revealed before the calls are made, and this is difficult because it can’t come out in dialogue because there are only two characters in the story, and one of them spends the entire time on the phone. So, I really admire how you handle this problem, the way you reveal this back story through Grace’s thoughts in a way that seems perfectly natural. Was this a difficult thing to pull off?

Monica McFawn

"Bright Shards of Someplace Else," the debut story collection from Monica McFawn, won the 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award.

Bright Shards of Someplace Else, the debut story collection from Monica McFawn, is populated, according to National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon, ‘a strange and wondrous band of misfits, isolatos, geniuses and obsessives of every stripe.”

I think exposition is the biggest challenge of writing short stories. There is so little space for backstory, yet often the backstory is critically important to what’s driving the character in the present moment. It’s something I’ve studied obsessively in the short stories and novels I’ve read. Some writers, like Phillip Roth, do a kind of exposition dump early in the story to get it out of the way. That can work for a novel, but for a short story it slows the action down too much.

Reading Eileen Pollack’s story, “The Bris”, really showed me how subtle and artful backstory can be. It’s a wonderful, hilarious story, but one that is highly dependent on the character’s history—with his father, his ex-wife, his present girlfriend. Pollock is a master at dropping bits of her character’s history throughout the story. As a reader, I’d find myself knowing things about the character’s past without knowing how I knew it. I’d have to flip back in the story to see where Pollack slipped in that detail—that’s just how smooth she was.

I studied that story at length to see how she did it: highlighting all the backstory, and then noting all the ways she segued in and out of it. She often used a phrase from the present action to trigger a related memory, yet did this so cleverly that it was hardly perceptible as a technique. So, for “Babes,” I used what I learned from Pollack and other short story writers to find those small triggers within the prose that could bounce readers back in time for a moment.

Michael Noll

Last year, Claire Messud was asked about writing unlikable characters (specifically, if she’d want to be friends with one of her characters) and Messud’s angry answer prompted a lot of pubic debate about whether men and women have the same freedom to write unlikable characters. As I reread “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” it occurred to me that, obviously, Grace doesn’t behave well (getting drunk while babysitting) but also that the story never tries to make her particularly sympathetic. She’s kind of a sad sack and there’s not really a moment where we’re supposed to say, “Ah, but she means well” or “Ah, but she has a good heart.” The closest the story comes to this might be where Grace wonders if her sister embezzled from the Girl Scouts as a gesture toward Grace, but Grace is pretty inebriated at this point. Was this something you thought about as you wrote the story?

Monica McFawn

I find the whole debate about “likable” characters interesting. As a reader, I never think of characters in those terms. I tend to think of characters as believable or not, and any empathy I have for characters comes from believing in their existence—not from whether or not they behave ethically, charmingly, reasonably or whatever else “likable” might mean.

Another way I think of it: I like to read stories that feel “warm,” or intimate in some way.  That’s why I like writers as disparate as Phillip Roth and Richard Russo. While Roth’s characters are far less pleasant people than Russo’s, generally, both authors pull you in with a narration that streams the world through the prism of their characters’ impressions. Same thing with Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Readers ride along with every dip and spike of Nora’s exhilaration, obsession, and frustration. I think an intimate narrative style, more than the character’s goodness, is what creates empathy in readers.

For me, unlikable characters are not those that act badly, but those that are handled distantly by the narration of a story. Some experimental fiction does this, some realist fiction in third person does this, even some first person stories can give a sense that the writer is keeping a safe distance from the inner world of his/her characters. These stories can be beautifully written, but they always feel a bit cold and ascetic to me.

In “Babes,” I wanted only to leave readers with a feeling that they knew Grace by the end of the story. I wanted to get close to her in the narration, and expose the mix of abandon, skewed logic, and righteousness that drives her. I didn’t write her to elicit sympathy or condemnation, because I think few real-life people are wholly deserving of either. The world “likability” seems to miss how complex people are, and how any one person is a dense mix of (oftentimes interrelated) flaws and virtues. One of my favorite Hawthorne quotes sums up how I like to think of even the most badly behaved characters:

“What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely-mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid.”

Michael Noll

In addition to writing stories, you’ve also written plays. How much has the dialogue in your stories been influenced by your playwriting? Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say that your stories are dialogue-heavy at all. Do stories provide a kind of relief from relying so heavily on dialogue?

Monica McFawn

I think some readers are surprised by the lack of dialogue in my stories, considering my experience with playwriting. Paradoxically, playwriting has really taught me how to use less dialogue, not more.  In a play, every utterance from the character matters. There can’t be any idle filler, or you’ll lose the audience. I watched an interview with the playwright Edward Albee recently where he stressed that every word spoken on stage must either further the plot or our understanding of the character. That’s how I see dialogue in fiction: something that should be used sparingly and deliberately to do one of those two things, and nothing else.

That’s what you won’t see a lot of back and forth volleying between characters in my stories, i.e:

“Where’s the pancake batter?” she asked.

“In the cupboard,” he responded.

“What color is the bag?”

“Beige”

“Do you mean taupe?”

“No,” he snapped.

“Oh, I see it now,” she exclaimed.

“Good.”

“Yes, it is good to have found it.”

“Indeed it is.”

This can easily fall into a dull pattern that eats up the page visually.  Instead, when I use dialogue, I want it to be highly significant.  In the above example, I’d pull a single line or two that showed something about the characters—perhaps just the clarification about the color, rather than use the whole thing. A few carefully placed pieces of dialogue broken off from a block of prose has a lot more impact—visually and story-wise—then a long tit-for-tat between characters.

January 2015

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

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