An Interview with Garth Greenwell

4 Feb
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You, a novel of "originality and power" according to the New Yorker's James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, a novel of “originality and power” according to The New Yorker‘s James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.

To read an exercise on describing a character’s sense of consciousness, inspired by What Belongs to You, click here.

In this interview, Greenwell discusses feeling his way into the novel sentence by sentence, the traffic between the physical world and the abstract realm of consciousness, and why he doesn’t care for the annual award for bad sex writing.

Michael Noll

The book is written in a distinctive style: long paragraphs with nuanced descriptions of glances and other physical details of interactions between characters—and little dialogue. It reminds me, in a way, of Henry James’ novel The Beast in the Jungle, that is if James had been willing or able to use the word cock. It also reminds me a bit of Ben Lerner’s novels, which contain much more dialogue but are similarly interested in the experience of human interactions. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking this: As you wrote the novel, did you feel that you were writing in a style that you were seeing in books that you were reading, or did you feel that you were doing something different—in either a small or significant way?

Garth Greenwell

I think the truest answer is that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The first section of the novel was the first fiction I had ever written–before that I had only ever written poetry. That said, James has been a hero of mine since I read The Turn of the Screw in high school. And he has a pretty central place in a tradition of novel writing I’ve always loved, a line that includes Proust and Mann and Woolf and, more recently, Bernhard and Sebald and Marías. I admire Ben Lerner’s work a lot, and I think he’s following some of those same currents in his fiction.

So: none of those writers served as a model, really, but they were all in my head, knocking around with other things. As I wrote I was really feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, working without much idea of the shape it might take. The book begins and ends with place, I think, and I wanted to be true both to my experience of Bulgaria (where I wrote the novel) and to the relationship between the characters. I don’t think I was concerned at all about how what I was doing stylistically or formally might fit into any kind of tradition or field of practice

Michael Noll

One of my favorite sentences in the novel is this one:

“For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.”

It follows a line stating that the conversation between these characters lasted only a few minutes, and yet this sentence makes clear why the conversation occupies so much space in the novel. What I find interesting about the sentence is how much it operates without specific detail. Mitko is well-described, of course, but phrases like “some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease” are more about impressions than specific traits. What makes a sentence like this work? Does it depend on details that have come before? Or does the reader simply understand and fill in the spaces around words like beautiful, forbidding, and sureness?

Garth Greenwell

I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator. He tries throughout the book to understand and track his own feeling as carefully as he can, which leads him into rabbit holes of ambivalence and doubt and second-guessing–precisely the sort of thing Mitko’s physical demeanor seems to deny. This sentence does come after a good bit of physical description of the setting and of Mitko, which I hope grounds this more abstract bit of thinking.

Michael Noll

Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

The opening of the novel contains several sex scenes, and it seems at first that you tend toward the literal and specific in describing them. But then the novel offers this image: “clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.” That’s a bold image—effective and terrific, of course—but also noteworthy because it’s figurative. Every year, an award is given for bad sex writing, and some of the worst tends to involve metaphor and simile: a body part like ____. Were you nervous at all about writing the sex scenes, about creating images that readers might be inclined to read more closely and critically than a description of, say, eating a hamburger?

Garth Greenwell

For the narrator, sex is endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating because it’s constantly gesturing toward metaphysics. I’ve always been interested in sex as a writer, in both poetry and prose. I think sex is almost uniquely useful for a novelist because of the opportunity it gives a character to be intensely focused on the experience of another while also thrown back onto his or her own sensations. I’m also interested in the social implications of sex, the ways communities form around it and are disrupted by it—communities like those in the cruising bathroom the novel begins in.

I’m not a huge fan of the bad sex writing award. I think it’s a myth that sex is harder to write well than most other things, and I think it’s a shame to give so much attention to less successful writing when there’s so much extraordinary writing of the sexual body being done right now. Just in the last couple of years, books by Alissa Nutting, Merritt Tierce, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Colm Toibin (in The Empty Family)—just to name a few—have used sex in ways that are revelatory to me for their dramatic and psychological force. I want to talk about and learn from those writers. It seems ungenerous to ridicule a few bad sentences or clumsy metaphors, often in books that are otherwise very fine.

Michael Noll

I believe that this book started out as a novella, and so I’m curious about your process in developing it into a much longer story. Was it a matter of adding complications to the set of characters you had already established? Or did you add characters and broaden the world that you were writing about?

Garth Greenwell

The novel did start out as a novella. When I finished the first section, I didn’t have any idea that it was part of a larger project: I thought the story was done. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through the second section, “A Grave,” that I realized how it was exploring the narrator’s childhood as a way of trying to understand some peculiarities of his character, especially the way he seems both to long for intimacy and hold it at arm’s length. It wasn’t until I was finished with that section that I realized that the narrative of the first section—the relationship between the narrator and Mitko—would continue. And it wasn’t until I finished the whole manuscript and could see certain thematic and structural echoes across sections that I began to trust my feeling that there was a kind of gravity holding the book together. I moved through the whole book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, without looking very far ahead. I tricked myself into writing a novel, I guess, without ever really realizing what I was doing.

February 2016

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

How to Describe a Character’s Sense of the World

2 Feb
Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

When I was an undergrad, one of my writing teachers lamented that too many novelists were trying to write books that could easily be filmed. A good novel, she said, moved differently than film; it created a kind of narrative space that could not be captured on a screen. And what filled that space? Human thought.

This isn’t the only view of what constitutes good writing, and it’s probably not even a majority opinion, but it does suggest an interesting question. If a scene that can be filmed—i.e. one with dialogue and action and subtext to inform both—is not the only approach to a scene, then what else is there?

One answer can be found in Garth Greenwell’s new novel What Belongs to You. You can read a long excerpt from the beginning of the novel here.

How the Story Works

In his review of What Belongs to You in The New Yorker, James Wood writes this:

The novel contains no direct dialogue, only reported speech; scenes are remembered by the narrator, not invented by an omniscient author, which means that the writing doesn’t have to involve itself in those feats of startup mimesis that form the grammar, and gamble, of most novels. In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence.

Wood’s “feats of startup mimesis” are another version of “can be filmed,” or at least “can be filmed in the way we’re accustomed to seeing on-screen.” In place of these feats, he claims, Greenwell inserts “larger units of comprehension.” That’s all a bit vague without an example, and so here is a brief passage (only a small part of a longer paragraph) from What Belongs to You. A bit of setup: the novel’s narrator is a young American man teaching in Bulgaria. In this scene, he’s in the National Palace of Culture, in the restrooms,which are frequented by gay men because they “are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else.” The narrator encounters a man there, and that encounter, brief in terms of actual minutes, occupies almost ten pages. Here is why:

I wanted him to stay, even though over the course of our conversation, which moved in such fits and starts and which couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, it had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction. For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence. He had about him a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him.

The first sentence is pretty straightforward: The narrator desires the man but doubts he will get any such satisfaction.

The second sentence starts in a similarly clear way (“For all his friendliness”) but instead of sticking to what is clear and evident, the narrator begins to suss out what lies behind that friendliness. He identifies it as a “more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.” Earlier, the man has been described in specific detail, but this sense of him is particular to the narrator. Someone else might see nothing like this at all. In short, the prose has jumped from what is to what seems to be to the narrator. The world and the people in it are being viewed, thickly, through the narrator’s consciousness. The final sentence extends this filter and the sense of being that it reveals: “a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence.”

Of course, that filter is present in all novels. In first-person narration, the narrator provides the filter. Everything we see is seen through the narrator’s eyes. In third-person prose (and, really, in all novels), the filter is the author’s. And yet we forget this because most novels work hard to make us forget; they want us to see the world of the novel as clearly as an image in a film.

A review in The New York Times by Aaron Hamburger calls the style used by Greenwell “an ‘all over’ prose style, similar to that of a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting, in which all compositional details seem to be given equal weight,” comparing it to the prose of Ben Lerner’s novels. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Greenwell’s narrator isn’t scattered. He’s pretty focused on the man in front of him and his desire for him, and it’s that focus—the act of seeing and thinking about—that becomes the essential material of the novel.

Lerner does something similar. Here’s a passage from his most recent novel, 10:04, after the narrator has had sex:

I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property.

As in Greenwell’s novel, Lerner’s prose is interested in sense and what an awareness of the world feels like: “what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted.”

Of course, these are two very different books with very different narrators. Lerner’s narrator spends a lot of time on social media, and so his consciousness actually is scattered at times because it is pinging along with the rapid delivery of information from Facebook and Twitter. He’s also a poet, and so he’s apt to fall into long interior discourses about art and poetics. In other words, the things he thinks about are different, but the general style of the narrator, its general focus on consciousness, is similar.

Of course, any time reviewers start comparing the book at hand to some deceased writer’s work (Wood chooses Woolf and Sebald) or to writers with highly distinctive styles (Hamburger in The New York Times chooses Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard), you know that the book is doing something so new that it isn’t easily classifiable. Yet, let me take my own shot: In its focus on a mind actively thinking about the experience it is having, Greenwell’s (and Lerner’s) work resembles the prose of Henry James, particularly The Beast in the Jungle.

That book, like Greenwell’s, begins with a charged encounter, a man and a woman at a party. The woman tells the man they’ve met before and asks if he’s forgotten. Here is what comes next:

He had forgotten, and was even more surprised than ashamed.  But the great thing was that he saw in this no vulgar reminder of any “sweet” speech.  The vanity of women had long memories, but she was making no claim on him of a compliment or a mistake.  With another woman, a totally different one, he might have feared the recall possibly even some imbecile “offer.”  So, in having to say that he had indeed forgotten, he was conscious rather of a loss than of a gain; he already saw an interest in the matter of her mention.

Much about James’ novel is different from What Belongs to You. It’s about inaction, and Greenwell’s isn’t. There is dialogue, and Greenwell writes almost none. Yet to quote Wood, both novelists are interested in “larger units of comprehension,” and those units are filled with character’s sense of what is happening around them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character’s sense of an interaction, using What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell as a model:

  1. Choose who will have the interaction. The possibilities, of course, are endless. It can be between lovers, siblings, parents, coworkers, friends, business associates, or enemies, or it can be transactional, like the interaction between store clerk and customer.
  2. Choose which perspective will serve as the filter. In other words, whose eyes are we seeing the scene through? This can work in third-person as well as first-person, as Henry James makes clear in The Beast in the Jungle.
  3. State the desire. Despite the capacious units of comprehension that Greenwell creates for his narrator’s consciousness, certain things are quite clear. Number one would be the narrator’s desire. He wants the man in the restroom. Without that clear desire, the passage that follows might come untethered from the experience it is pondering. The reader needs a reason to wonder what the narrator thinks, and that reason is the possibility that the narrator might get, or not get, what he wants. So, state as clearly as you can what the character wants out of the interaction: money, love, some object, acceptance, permission, refusal, rejection, a chance to fight, a chance to make up, or even a mindless conversation. If no one wants anything in the scene, it’s probably not worth writing. Don’t be subtle. Greenwell’s narrator thinks, “I wanted him to stay.” Be just as direct.
  4. Describe the surface. Greenwell does this elsewhere in the scene and refers to it with the phrase “For all his friendliness.” How does the interaction seem at first glance. If the other character is putting on an act, what is the act? What is intended to be seen?
  5. Peer behind the surface. Greenwell’s narrator finishes the sentence that begins “For all his friendliness” by looking closer and thinking about what lies behind that friendliness. It might be useful to use Greenwell’s actual syntax as a model: “more forbidding quality.” So, you could write a sentence like this: For all his/her ______, there was a more _____ quality.”
  6. Let the character draw conclusions from this sense of things. Once the narrator/character determines that something does, in fact, lie behind the surface, let the character think about it. The desired end of thought is, usually, conclusion, which is what Greenwell’s narrator reaches: “He had about him a sense simply of…” Again, try using that syntax: He/she had about him/her a sense simply of _____.”

The goal is to expand the room your prose offers to its characters consciousness, the narrator’s sense of what is happening. You can make that room an efficiency or a mansion. Either way, the idea is to add a character’s sense of things, something that can be described in prose but not easily portrayed in film.

Good luck.

An Interview with Debra Monroe

28 Jan
Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, tells the story of how she left a small town in Wisconsin to pursue a degree, and, she thought, a life as a Midwestern housewife.

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. She is a “fierce” writer who presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews), who writes prose that’s “rangy, thoughtful, ambitious, and widely, wildly knowledgeable” (The Washington Post), also “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality” (The Boston Globe). Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award, and she’s published stories in over 50 magazines. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and The American Scholar, and have been cited for Best American Essays. Her most recent book is the memoir My Unsentimental Education. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.

To read an exercise on using dialogue, inspired by an excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, click here.

In this interview, Monroe discusses juggling multiple story threads, the challenge of publishing excerpts from a book, and her approach to dialogue

Michael Noll

In “You’re in Trouble, Am I Right?“, the excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, there are several narrative arcs. On one hand, there is the story of your relationship with James, a drug dealer. There is also a narrative about trying to earn A’s and understanding your intelligence. Finally, there’s another narrative (related to the others) about becoming more independent and, for example, dressing for yourself, not others. Were all three of these arcs always present in this essay? Or, did you start with one, and as you followed the thread, the others appeared?

Debra Monroe

At this point—this is my 6th book—related ideas present themselves more or less simultaneously in early drafts. All three plot arcs were present as I began. Years of practice and years of teaching writing make me know I want several balls in the air at the same time because multiple dilemmas coalescing is good for tension and complexity. The second and third story arcs are synonymous, and the first one serves as a counterpoint. Learning to understand and refine my intelligence is not unlike learning to understand and refine my self-presentation, or what you call “dressing myself.” I was trying to be a good student with limited resources (my background made me unprepared), and I was trying to dress with panache with limited resources (no money). In both cases, I got a “D” before I started getting “A’s.” Learning to trust my gut instinct but to improve on it too, both in terms of my work as a student and in terms of how I dressed in cast-off clothing, combine to make a single arc toward self-betterment on my terms, even if it is a jagged arc full of mistakes and wrong turns before I gain a sense of direction. Being with James is the counterpoint to that. He distracts me from school; he urges me away from clothing I like and hopes I’ll dress like a rock and roll girlfriend, like arm candy. So there’s a narrative tension between self-betterment on my terms (becoming a scholar and writer with unique sensibilities) and bettering myself on his terms (becoming a standard party girl). Yet it’s not as if my version of self-improvement (a point) and James’ version (a counterpoint) don’t both make sense in the same situation. I was an outsider finding my way. One option was to go it alone. The other was to be accepted by another outsider. Stoners are more accepting than college students whose childhoods prepared them for higher education. So all three plot arcs are about finding a way to survive college, and two constitute the difficult, authentic way, and the other constitutes a retreat from the difficult, authentic way.

Michael Noll

Perhaps my favorite parts of the essay are the bits of dialogue. They’re not extended conversations, by and large. Instead, they drop us into a moment and seem to focus on revealing a character’s voice. I’m particularly taken with the voice of Kristine, the cafe owner. How do you know when to move from narration or scene to dialogue? Do you write more dialogue than you eventually need and cut the extraneous parts, or do you already have a sense for the best lines of dialogue when you begin writing?

Debra Monroe

A reviewer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote that “when Monroe highsteps through danger; it’s like watching Wonder Woman fend off attacks with her magic bracelets.”

This is memoir, of course, not fiction, but my fiction is pretty autobiographical, and my memoir is, as a reviewer noted, “novelish,” so I’ll generalize about how I do dialogue in both genres. Though I invented dialogue in fiction, I was always recalling a real person who inspired a character. And when I’m writing a memoir, a real person is generating ideas about the dialogue. To return to the dialogue with Kristine, this scene took place 30-some years ago. It’s not verbatim. I wasn’t walking around with a tape recorder on. But it’s the sort of thing she would say, and we had at least truly similar conversations. Writing good dialogue is a bit like having a knack for doing imitations, for channeling voices, for doing impressions. I think of the real person I’m depicting, or who’s informing the character I’m depicting, and I put in dialogue only the most distinctive, most unparaphraseable things they’d have said or in fact did say. I don’t give Kristine any lines of dialogue that can be paraphrased. I give her lines only Kristine would say in her singular Kristine-fashion. This isn’t so different from that tip you get in Freshman English about when to quote a source and when to paraphrase it. Paraphrase it whenever you can, and use a direct quote only when it’s so well-expressed that a paraphrase won’t do it justice. In this way, dialogue truly builds character, makes your characters distinctive.

Michael Noll

I love how you write about your drug experience. You describe the visuals of it (“I looked like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz”) but also the experience of trying to act normal while high: “The hardest part about doing drugs was the acting-upon-acting, I decided.” You go on to explain how the acting required by drug use was simply another layer added onto the acting you were already doing as you learned how to be in the world. I love this because it makes the drug use so much a part of your character as opposed to a weird, wacky tangent away from the real you. As you wrote this essay, did you have a clear sense of who you were at that time, the same as you’d need to have a clear sense of a character? Or did you discover this person named Debra as you wrote?

Debra Monroe

Did I have a clear sense of who I was at that time, or did I discover this Debra as I wrote? Both. Hindsight does give you a clear sense of who you used to be (distinct from who you are now), but once you start writing and keep the psychological register consistently deep, delving far below the surface into the perspective of your old self, that old self does become a construct, something created. To say “a construct” is not to say the old self is fake. As I dug deeper into what I’d done, I was discovering: I knew what I’d done, the ill-judged decisions I’d made, but I didn’t know the minutiae of why I’d done it, the nuances of what passed for logic then. My old self exists at a far remove from who I am today; she’s a stranger now. And you’re right that the drug use isn’t a merely ambient detail but a motif that amplifies the theme: that learning to make your way in the world is an act at first, a “fake it until you make it” act, and pretending not to be high when I was added to an already omnipresent pressure.

Michael Noll

This essay was published and then republished online, and both times it was different (mostly shorter) than the version in the book. What was your approach to adapting the essay for its online, stand-alone life? Obviously, you took out parts and moved some parts around, especially at the end. Was the biggest challenge finding a new opening and a new end?

Debra Monroe

I wrote it first as a chapter for the book. When the editor of Inside Higher Ed asked if I had a short piece about the unique anxieties of first-generation college students, I knew I wanted to include the most dramatic section of the chapter, and that was when I was doing LSD while also trying to be an A student. In the book chapter, the night of doing LSD, and the following day while coming down, occurs in the middle of the chapter. Then the chapter cuts away and depicts a condensed version of the next two years, and then, for the climax of the chapter, I flash back to the day after the LSD-taking, when I’m in the professor’s office still coming down. I’d saved that scene for the climax of the chapter, even if it was chronologically out-of-order (a flashback), because it contains the “message” about the entire chapter, that pressure about “acting-upon-acting.” For the short piece, I wanted just the LSD episode. Making an excerpt required cutting everything not pertinent to the LSD episode, so I started the excerpt as I met James, including the “first date,” then cut several more pages until I got to the week when I was writing the term paper and, afterward, doing LSD with James. Then I cut the pages that covered the next two years to move straight to the climax (a flashback in the chapter, but in chronological order in the excerpt). In the chapter, there’s an epilogue after the climax that transitions toward the chapter that follows, so I cut that too as not pertinent to the smaller story. Excerpting means deciding that inside the longer chapter is a shorter story, and chiseling away everything that isn’t germane to it. In this case, it was the LSD story. I’ve excerpted other chapters too. There’s an excerpt from the first chapter in Longreads, and that required cutting only secondary characters who didn’t pertain because it’s an excerpt from early in the book. There’s another book excerpt in Texas Monthly, a 6000-word chapter condensed to just 1500 words. There, I decided the kernel story would be “taming wildness” (in myself, my dog, on my land), and I deleted everything that didn’t pertain to that. So excerpting is finding a smaller story inside a larger story and deleting to isolate it, then finessing a few transitions. It’s tricky, but it’s easier than writing a whole new piece.

January 2016

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

How to Challenge a Reader’s Sense of Reality

26 Jan
The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

The hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and then accused of murder.

One of the smartest things ever said about writing fiction comes from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” In it, he explains that suspense is built by manipulating the reader. He gives the example from Hamlet, when Hamlet and a friend go to a platform to meet his father’s ghost, but then Hamlet hears his uncle drunk in the streets. So Hamlet rants for a while about drunkenness, and we the readers are nodding along—and that’s when the ghost shows up. We’d forgotten all about it, and because we’d forgotten, we’re surprised at its arrival and eager to know what will happen next.

Here’s the takeaway: Shakespeare delivered exactly what was promised, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The thrill, as a reader/audience member, came from having it given to us in a way we didn’t expect.

Once you understand that such manipulation is possible—and necessary—you will see it at work in every type of narrative. A example of audience manipulation on a mind-boggling scale can be found in the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. If you haven’t yet seen it, you can watch the trailer here.

How the Show Works

[Spoiler Alert: This post discusses later episodes.]

The documentary tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongly convicted of rape and served 18 years in prison. After his release, he is soon arrested again, this time for murder. While many viewers are convinced that Avery is innocent again, the part of the show that has generated the most outrage among viewers is the treatment of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was arrested as an accomplice and interrogated alone with his attorney’s permission. Dassey was 16 at the time and a slow learner, meaning that his intellectual capacity to engage in a police interrogation may have been limited.

To illustrate Dassey’s limited ability to understand what was happening, the filmmakers show large parts of his interrogation by two detectives. The interrogation follows a basic pattern. The detectives ask Dassey what happened, he says he doesn’t know, and so the detectives suggest what they believe happened, punctuated with a line like, “Isn’t that right?” Then Dassey nods and repeats some version of what he’s been told. By the end of the interrogation, Dassey has confessed to awful things, but he’s done it after three hours of intense pressure and leading questions from the detectives.

The documentary also shows a phone call made to Dassey’s mother. In it, he tells her that the detectives have told him that his story is inconsistent, and he asks, “What does inconsistent mean?” She doesn’t know.

As a result, most viewers believe the confession to be worthless; they don’t believe that Dassey has told the truth. In short, when the interrogation comes up again in the show, viewers will have a strong point of view about it.

Of course, it does come up again. A judge has several opportunities to throw out the confession as evidence, but he never does, explaining that he sees nothing wrong with the confession. At this point, most viewers probably react with anger. They disagree with the judge, yes, but they’ve also been manipulated to react this way. This isn’t to say that the viewers are wrong—but this is what good storytelling does. It directs the audience’s attention. It gives the reader a sense of the basic reality of the story’s world—and then, sometimes, it introduces a character or fact that undermines or resists that reality.

When this happens, the audience reacts—and when it reacts, it becomes more deeply engaged in the story. This same strategy is used over and over in stories that hinge upon someone’s guilt or innocence: establish the nature and reality of the world and then introduce some element that calls it into question. Sometimes that element actually upends the world we’ve come to know, as happens in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In Making a Murderer, however, the audience’s mind is made up, and what gets upended is the expectation that the viewer’s sense of the world will be accepted by everyone.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s direct the reader’s attention, using the documentary series Making a Murderer as a model:

  1. Establish the reality of the situation. Show the reader the world. Readers, like all people, trust what they see. We rely upon direct experience to build our knowledge of how the world works. Of course, all works of art (including documentaries) frame that experience. Readers can’t see everything, only what the author chooses to show them. So, show your readers the world in a way that seems uncontroversial. Build this reality with details. Give the story texture: what the world feels and tastes and looks like. And, more importantly, don’t get to the point too soon. In Making a Murderer, we’re shown clips from the interrogation of Brendan Dassey, and it’s slow going at first. Eventually, Dassey will confess to everything, but at first, he’s sitting in a chair, not really answering questions, and claiming that he doesn’t know what the detectives are talking about. It’s not particularly gripping footage, not like when he begins to give lurid details. But, it’s the details that show his demeanor in the room that set the stage for what is to come. So, at first, show your character doing something unremarkable like reading the paper or eating breakfast or driving to work. Make us believe in the reality of their existence, and then rev up the story’s engine.
  2. Establish the nature of the character. If the character is slow-witted, create a mundane situation in which that trait will be revealed. If the character is hot-headed, sentimental, easily rattled, cool under pressure, funny, irreverent, or depressive, create an everyday situation to reveal that trait to the reader. Don’t wait until an important moment. If someone gets mad easily, then that person likely gets mad at the drop of a hat—so, find a hat to drop.
  3. Create a scene that must be believed. Love stories are full of such scenes: someone is suspected of cheating and must prove that he/she is innocent. For crime fiction, of course, disputed scenes are stock in trade. Family life is also full of moments like this: parents asking kids if they finished their homework, a spouse asking the other spouse if a bill got paid or if the trash has been taken out. These scenes are usually built on unremarkable moments: I put my purse down right here, I’m telling you. What basic action might your character take that could, later, be questioned?
  4. Challenge the accepted reality. Offer an alternate version of events. You’re lying. You never brought the purse into the house. Or, I know you weren’t doing your homework. I could hear you talking on the phone. Or, I saw you go into her apartment. These challenges make life difficult for the character, but more importantly they force readers to question their basic sense of the world. As the writer, you can use that challenge in two ways. One, you can actually upend and revise the readers’ sense of reality. Two, you can confirm the readers’ sense but refuse to let every character buy into that version of reality.

The goal is to make readers react to the narrative and hook them deeper into the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tom Hart

21 Jan
Tom Hart is a cartoonist best known for the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is creator of the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books and has been called “One of the great underrated cartoonists of our time” by Eddie Campbell and “One of my favorite cartoonists of the decade” by Scott McCloud. His strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.

To read an exercise about giving characters a frame of reference and an excerpt from Rosalie Lightning, click here.

In this interview, Hart discusses loosening structure to escape strict chronology, editing out details to create an intended effect, and finding an ending buried in the middle of a book.

Michael Noll

The book contains several storylines: your grieving, the sale of your apartment in Brooklyn, your move to Florida, moments with Rosalie. But it also contains moments that stand alone from these narratives—events or thoughts or images that exert a gravitational force on your memory beyond their place in the sequence of events. For example, there is a single frame with this text: “Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

You mention in the book and on your blog that you wrote and drew constantly after Rosalie’s death and the you had to piece those disconnected writings and drawings into a book. Was it difficult to find the right spot for moments like the one above? How did you find a structure that could contain both narrative and individual moments that stood out from whatever story they were apart of?

Tom Hart

At some point (when I drew a panel of me saying “This would be the only thing in my head when I entered the funeral home”) it occurred to me I could jump forward in time and never worry about revisiting the moment again. Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.

So in answer to the question, the structure is incredibly organic, and really I just followed my natural slow-moving thoughts. Since I’m telling a story, chronological became a sort of default, but I always welcomed digressions from the main story for thought. So, in the case you mentioned, I thought, “How am I going to get this atm/banana incident in there so it reacts against this moment I just drew out?” and then the answer was, “Put it in now.”

Michael Noll

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Throughout the book, you quote or paraphrase books, comic strips, songs, and films. Some, like the Beatles songs, are things that you encountered unexpectedly, and others are encountered intentionally, like the Herzog film. And then there are others, like the book about Louis, that are important from the beginning but whose emotional resonance changes over time. In these moments, your touch is so light. With the Beatles, for example, you give no explanation, only saying that you heard the song on the plane and didn’t recognize it. Then you give a snippet of the lyrics. But with the Louis book, you show Rosalie engaging with it. In other words, sometimes you let these other narratives and pieces of art speak for themselves, without explanation, and other times you engage with them. Did you have an approach in mind for each, or did you have to figure out for each one how much or little to explain?

Tom Hart

Thank you.

Each one was handled singly except for the ones that were stories that informed Rosalie’s imagination. I wanted to draw those out more fully, in time and faithfulness but also visually: most of the redrawn cartoons have a consistent, clean greyscale under the lines. Elsewhere in the book there is a larger attempt at visual expressionism—come what may.

But in the other instances, again, I just followed the thoughts and edited out anything that was too much.

(Side note—the Beatles line needed a light touch partially for legality sake! I think in my original draft I had a line or two more of the first song. The Tim Buckley song near the end was intentionally elided for the same reason, but I think it worked best this way.)

There were times when I had to edit down my real-time impressions and go for a literary rendition. For instance, the Titian painting is a painting of St. Christopher (I think) carrying the Baby Jesus. It’s all about Jesus, but I wanted to focus on the thought I had, which was about the heaviness. Removing some of the words from the myth. So I purposely never mention Jesus, which is quite a fib since it is very clearly a painting about Jesus.

Michael Noll

Because you’re writing about grief and shock, you’re inherently writing about things that defy an easy, simple portrayal. I really admire the way you capture this, especially how abruptly feelings can change or appear. For example, you spend several pages describing your trip to New Mexico to stay at a retreat for people who’ve experienced sudden loss. The weather is terrible, you’re filled with despair, the logistics seem overwhelmingly complicated. In one panel, there is only one word—“Malfunctioning”—and an image of a steering wheel within what appears to be a brick wall. And then, at the end, you and your wife Leela rush into the motel “and try to make a baby.” It’s a stunning, devastating switch. How do you carry the reader with you as you make decisions when the logic of them is so intensely personal and, perhaps, not fully understood even by you and your wife?

Tom Hart

Thanks for being such a rigorous reader.

That switch was just descriptive, I just described it exactly as it occurred. Or at least it felt that fast. Again, I edited out what was unnecessary (presumably we took our winter clothes off).

Like most writers, I thought only what would be the most effective language to me and assumed there would be readers like me to follow it.

It’s certainly true that scene was set up by the previous mention of a baby—as it was in life.

In this instance, though there also may be more specific answers. For instance, I think I wrote that minimalistic “malfunctioning” line in there much later, not really knowing what to do with the text in that panel. And the image in the final panel was increasingly abstracted over iterations as I realized no representation was needed. So, there was some intention there—the text becomes more short and abbreviated, and a wildly unreadable drawing is the climax of that whole scene.

Michael Noll

Since the book begins with the death of your daughter, it’s natural for the reader to assume that it will end with some kind of emotional resolution. Yet the resolutions that we often expect in books don’t always exist in life. So, I was interested in how you end on two difference scenes, one (the kiss) that is, in a way, more emotionally satisfying and one (the call from your friend) that resists resolution. How did you find these endings? Was it a matter of writing until you found them, or did you know, at some point in the process of writing the book, where you were headed?

Tom Hart

That kiss came in real life, exactly when I detailed, and at that moment I knew it was time to stop “collecting material”—to stop writing. I knew that was the end of the book. After that, I tried to put my more meditative, less shocked brain onto the larger problem of the book, which itself was a method of deepening my understanding of the event and events. So, presented with some short-term revelations and intellectual understandings, I took to the longer, slower task of internalizing them.

The second part of the ending—the phone call—was edited out of the darker (visually so), chapter early on (Chapter 5). It was too long, too different in tone and didn’t say anything about our state of mind. But it was a powerful moment I thought should be in the book. Eventually, far into the writing, I realized that the connection to the outside world it brought, the contrast to another way of grieving—and just the use of her name—made it the right springboard into the final pages.

January 2016

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

How to Give Characters a Frame of Reference

19 Jan
Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live on in her absence.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. When his daughter was almost two years old, she died without warning in her sleep. This book is the story of what happened afterward. You can read the first two chapters of the book at Hart’s website.

How the Memoir Works

Throughout the book, Hart show the reader key moments from his daughter’s life and death, his and his wife’s grief, and their attempts to know how to live without their daughter. Many of these moments are associated with art: a book that Hart read to his daughter and films, songs, and poems that have meant something to him—consciously or not. Anyone who has experienced intense grief understands this kind of association, the way, for example, that a song can gain meaning when it’s heard at a particular time or during a particular moment.

The challenge in a book is to make the reader understand and feel these associations. A good place to start is the beginning. Make the art, religion, or words of wisdom part of the character’s frame of reference before the story really begins. In Rosalie Lightning, Hart makes the frame of reference literally the first thing we encounter.

(Note: I’m going to quote the book, but because it’s a graphic memoir, it’s best understood in its complete form. You can find the opening pages of the book at Hart’s website and at Amazon.)

Here is how the book begins:

Her favorite image

In a single night the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.

In the next frame, we see a house with oak trees and learn the source of this magical image:

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro

What follows is a series of images of Hart’s daughter Rosalie picking up acorns and calling them “dideo atune” or “Totoro acorn” and also her death and its aftermath. Hart quotes his wife Leela saying, “My heart is a blast sight.”

This introduction is important because it presents both the tragedy and the mental framework that it enters. As Hart and his wife try to make sense of their loss, they fall back on that framework. Hart clearly shows us their attempts to make sense. For example, there is this scene early in the book:

I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain…

I read Roland Barthes

“The relation between thing signified and imagine signifying an analogical representation is not ‘arbitrary’ as it is in language…”

He is writing about an ad for Italian spaghetti.

What it signifies, what it semiotizes, and how the layers of semiconscious signations and intents correlate with the

Forget it—I pick up the vault of horror

Obviously, Roland Barthes is not to everyone’s reading taste. What matters is that Barthes matters to Hart and that Hart looks to Barthes’ words to help understand his grief. In Barthes matters to the story because his words fail. Hart eventually turns away from them. In some ways, the book repeats this sequence: Hart seeks out a book, film, poem, or song, and he finds something helps or he doesn’t. Sometimes the art arrives in his life unexpectedly—arrivals that are possible only because the memoir has created space for them.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a frame of reference, using Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart as a model:

  1. Give the character a general frame. In short, what kind of person is your character, generally? Hart reads Roland Barthes and the poet Ben Lerner (who is quoted in an epigraph to the book), watches films by Miyazaki and Kurosawa, and reads the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists. He’s not watching Transformers or reading Tuesdays with Morrie (at least not in the book). Make a list of the sort of books and films your character prefers. If the character is religious, what texts does she turn to? Be specific. If the character is a Christian, don’t say she turns to the Bible. Identify the books in the Bible or passages that she recalls. What stories does the character like to tell? Does she tend toward patriotic myth, like the story of George Washington and the apple tree? Toward the mystical, like the various stories that pop up on Facebook about people holding hands and praying around a lake and, in so doing, altering the chemical structure of the water molecules?
  2. Figure out why the character turns to the frame of reference. In Hart’s case, his daughter died, and he was trying to make sense of the personal devastation that remained. Tragedy often forces people to question the meaning and essence of things, and so they turn toward prayer or art. But a story doesn’t need tragedy to do this. Case in point: whoever won the Powerball last week has experienced something good and life-changing. That person will almost certainly fall back on their frame of reference in order to understand how to be rich and what to do with the money. Anything that significantly alters or redirects a character’s life will likely force them to develop a new or revised or refreshed understanding of the world and situation they find themselves in.
  3. Find the applicable parts of the frame of reference. Hart no doubt watches many films and reads many books, but in the wake of his daughter’s death, it was particular films and books that he recalled and sought out. Return to the general frame of reference that you created. Which parts apply to your character’s situation? Some parts may be easy to identify. For example, certain Bible passages are read at funerals and weddings over and over again. Other parts may be idiosyncratic. Not many people might think of Roland Barthes when grieving, but Hart did, and that fact reveals something particular about him. So, find the particular films, books, stories, passages, and words of wisdom that your character would turn to.
  4. Introduce the frame before the story. In Rosalie Lightning, we see acorns and Miyazaki before we’re introduced to Rosalie’s death. Consider when/how your character might think about or talk about the film or book. When would she talk about it? Often there are objects that, when seen or encountered, prompt us to think about certain things. Or when someone we know has experienced a particular situation, we tend to tell the same stories as comfort. Try putting your character in one of those situations before introducing the major conflict. Don’t worry about the situation’s proximity in time to the conflict. Prose, unlike film, has all time and memory at its disposal. Hart begins with acorns. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began with this sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” That’s the frame of reference that Nick Carraway carries with him when he meets Gatsby. It’s important to begin with the frame because if it appears only after the conflict, it can seem artificial, like something introduced to induce some emotional response in the reader. If it’s introduced before the conflict, then it seems simply like part of the character.

The goal is to give a character the chance to make sense of the world, and that sense-making cannot happen in a vacuum. The character needs some frame of reference, which is what you’re providing.

Good luck.

An Interview with Eli Saslow

14 Jan
Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered the 2008 presidential campaign and has chronicled the president’s life inside the White House. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. Previously a sportswriter for the Post, he has won multiple awards for news and feature writing. Two of his stories have also appeared in Best American Sports Writing. He is the co-founder of Press Pass Mentors, a program that pairs professional journalists with low-income high school juniors and seniors to help them become great writers.

To read an exercise about adding physical description to dialogue, inspired by Saslow’s article, “A Survivor’s Life,” click here.

In this interview, Saslow discusses finding the central source of tension in a story, the gray area of attributing feelings to people, and reading Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried as he reported on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

Michael Noll

The article is titled “A Survivor’s Life,” and yet it begins with a focus on that survivor’s mother struggling to interact with her daughter as she recuperates from the attack. It’s a subtle move, but it really shifted my perspective on the story. I guess it’s tempting to think purely in terms of shooter/victim, but this story makes clear that there are many people who are affected. Why did you choose to start with the mother instead of the survivor from the title?

Eli Saslow

I knew pretty early on that the mother was going to be a major character in the story. In some ways, she is the most active character—she is doing everything in her power to love her kid back to normal, and her efforts drive a lot of the action. Plus, there is so much tension between Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and I thought that tension could help drive the story forward. Also, I thought that Bonnie was also the most redeeming aspect of the story. She is trying so, so hard.

When I write, I always want to know exactly how a story ends. I find that I write toward that ending, like a destination on a map, and if I don’t know the ending of a story, I get lost along the way. I knew that this story was going to end in that moment of terror for Cheyeanne, with her calling out for her mom. That also reinforced that Bonnie needed to be a big part of the beginning of the piece as well.

Michael Noll

When the article shifts to the survivor, Cheyeanne, you write this:

By then, the college had reopened. What remained of her Writing 115 class had been moved across campus to an airy art building with windows that looked out on Douglas firs. They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger. That’s what the college dean had said.

I’m interested in this line: “They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger.” One of the things that I’ve heard journalists say in the past is that every line must be attributable and verifiable. Yet this line seems to fall into a gray area. It’s the words of the college dean and something that Cheyeanne might remember hearing with some bitterness—but it also seems like an inference you’re making about the distance between official statements and people’s reality. What is your approach to a line like this?

Eli Saslow

Very good question. You are right that this is more of a gray area line. It is Cheyeanne’s recollection, but I went back and checked her memory against what the college dean had actually said, which was not verbatim but pretty close. In this case, the most important thing was to give readers a feeling of how those words felt to Cheyeanne—and not necessarily tell readers the exact thing the college dean said. His exact words weren’t important or memorable—but the memory of them had stuck with Cheyeanne. I think that’s more important and also does more to put readers inside her head and honor her experience.

Michael Noll

Your physical descriptions are outstanding. For instance, when Cheyeanne is talking about the shooting, you describe her mother this way:

Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.

These are small details, especially the flicking of the dust. I would imagine that it’s difficult to notice such things when you’re first meeting people, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you’re hearing, seeing, and inferring. Had you spent a lot of time with Cheyeanne and Bonnie before this moment arrived? If not, how do you settle into a moment of time so that you can notice details like the ones above?

Eli Saslow

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a lengthy feature on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor's of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

In “A Survivor’s Life,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote  about Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Thanks for that. I think all narrative stories rise and fall on small, observed details. The goal with these stories is to make readers feel like they are in the room with Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and it is the details that make people feel real. I spend a lot of time with the subjects of my stories to get the details right. I might not notice something on the first day, or the third day, or the fifth, but maybe I will notice in the second or third week. I spent dozens of hours sitting in Bonnie and Cheyeanne’s living room with them. Some of those hours are quiet, and there is nothing to do but look around and pay attention to the details that bring scenes to life.

Michael Noll

When Cheyeanne tells the story of the shooting to her brother, he struggles to know what to say or how to act. He’s not the only one. Cheyeanne’s mom doesn’t want to hear the details, and her brother’s friend asks about it but then seems to forget that he asked. I was struck by the similarity of this situation with fictional stories like “Speaking of Courage” in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried and Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Soldier’s Home.” In both, soldiers come home from a war and find that they can’t talk to anyone about what they experienced and that people can’t understand the stories or don’t want to hear them. Did you research survivor’s experiences before talking with Cheyeanne so that you could anticipate certain behaviors or feelings? Or did you go in with a blank slate, so to speak, to avoid developing preconceptions of what you might find?

Eli Saslow

I actually reread The Things They Carried as I was writing this story. I think it is important to have a bigger context of a person’s experience. I always want to know as much as I can. I’d also written a good bit about trauma and isolation before (most recently in this piece), and I carried those reporting experiences into this piece as well.

January 2016

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


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