An Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

26 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called "a wealth of talent."

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called “a wealth of talent.”

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s also taught creative writing to bilingual second graders, sold Mexican handcrafts at a flea market in Spain, and played Santa Claus at a French school in Silicon Valley. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs will be published by Scribner on March 10.

To read an excerpt from his story “Madrid” and an exercise on writing moments of high emotion, click here.

In this interview, Ruiz-Camacho discusses beginning stories with a strong lede and haunting images and introducing unexpected twists in dialogue.

Michael Noll

The opening of “Madrid” ends with an almost Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger: “There are no curtains or blinds on the windows to keep the buzz away because we don’t worry about privacy and security here. We don’t have to care about that anymore.” It not only made me want to find out what was going on, it also set up a sense of dread well before the first grisly detail of the kidnapping arrives. Did you always begin the story in this way?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Yes, I wanted to open with an intense sense of the kind of traumatic experience the protagonist was going through, even though you could say it’s a rather slow opening in terms of movement or action.

I always like to start with a striking image, or at least a lede strong enough to hook the reader in–an opening so intriguing and complex that the reader feels she has no option but to keep reading. I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.

Michael Noll

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The father’s kidnapping is juxtaposed with the birth of the narrator’s son, and this juxtaposition makes a lot of sense (death and life), but then you introduce the dog and its wounded paw, which fits in terms of the sense of being wounded. But, it also complicates the imagery, making it difficult to think in the fairly simple terms of birth and death. I’m curious if the dog was always in the story–or if the baby was always in it. I imagine it could be tempting to start out with a simpler story and then gradually make it more complex.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I think both of them were in the story since the very beginning. I don’t plan ahead the topics in my stories or even the personalities or circumstances of the characters that populate them. Usually it all starts with a character showing up in my mind in the form of a haunting image. In the case of “Madrid,” it was the image of the first box that appears in the story. The moment I saw it I knew exactly what it contained, but that was it. Writing the story then became an investigation around that image, trying to find out who was the recipient of that box, what had happened to him. As I kept working on the story I realized that he was the son of a man who had disappeared, that he’d just had his first son, and that his dog was sick. It all came together at once. I would like to say that I get to make decisions about the characters in my stories, but that’s not the case. They show up as they are, and keep haunting me until I put their story on paper. The most I can do is to highlight one aspect of their personality over others less relevant to the story in order to build a compelling narrative. What you leave out in a story is many times more important than what you keep in.

Michael Noll

The story ends with a kind of ghostly appearance and involves some pretty weighty dialogue. This scene could have been unbearably sentimental, a kind of literary Touched by an Angel, but it’s not that at all. What was your approach to this scene, especially the dialogue? Did you struggle to keep it from being overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, the way last lines between characters (and real people) are often overwhelmed with the realization that the end has come?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

That section of the story was actually one of the easiest to write. These two characters had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate through that exchange since the beginning. What I personally like about it is that both characters remain honest and true to their feelings throughout, regardless of the significance of the moment. They stay fragile and funny and cynical and confused, and neither one of them tries to “make sense” of this encounter, or to purposely deliver any message to the reader–their transformation as characters, if you will, emerges from their acceptance of the moment as it comes. My work there was to make sure that I didn’t interfere with the relationship between them or try to force the ending of the story or the direction of this final exchange to a perfect closure.

My personal opinion is that dialogue works best when we let characters express what they really want, and then work with that material, trying to incorporate it organically into the story, instead of forcing them to say what we think would be “better” to advance the story. Also, if I may add, having unexpected twists in dialogue exchanges is always useful to enhance their impact. This is a pretty dramatic, emotionally charged, scene, and yet there are some really funny or just downright absurd lines in it. I think that’s what, hopefully, makes it work.

Michael Noll

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's essay, "Keepsakes from Across the Border," was published as one of The New York Times "Private Lives" essays.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s essay, “Keepsakes from Across the Border,” was published as one of The New York Times’ “Private Lives” essays.

You recently published an essay in The New York Times about taking your kids to Mexico for the first time. You grew up there, and so you saw in their experience of the country the same wonder and bafflement that you saw on your early trips to the United States. It’s a sweet essay about universal experience. And yet, many of the readers’ comments were blistering, accusing the piece of bigotry against Mexicans, of all things, and also of simplistic assumptions about Americans—which other commenters complicated by spouting racist garbage. The reaction to the essay seemed to sum up a kind of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic writers in the United States. As a writer, do you just have to ignore all of that? Is that even possible? How do you approach your work in what seems like such a charged, toxic environment?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

First I’d like to say that I don’t perceive the environment in which I write as especially charged or toxic, just the opposite. The encouragement, support, and opportunities my work and I have received over the last few years have been just incredible. Also, maybe because of my journalistic background, or maybe because I’m morbidly curious, I’m one of those rare writers who look forward to reading all kinds of comments from readers–they’re like little pieces of characterization in and of themselves. Commenters reveal so much about themselves in those posts, especially in both the most scathing and the most heartfelt ones, and I find that fascinating.

All of that said, one of the things that you must assume as a writer since the very beginning, regardless of your background, is that your work is public and everyone is free to have and express an opinion about it. Some people will relate to, or even like, your work, and many others won’t. It’s impossible to write something that pleases everybody. That’s why I think the writer should only write for herself. Once a story or an essay is finished, I, of course, hope many people will connect with it, and I love when a reader reaches out to say he or she liked what I wrote, but none of that matters when I’m writing.

At the same time, a negative opinion is, after all, a reaction to your work, emotional, intellectual or otherwise, which is pretty great. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that readers welcome her work with indifference. As writers, I think we should aim at eliciting intense, memorable reactions on our readers, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The nature of those reactions is, to a great extent, beyond my control and, therefore, none of my business.

February 2015

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

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

24 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's story, "Madrid," is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” was published by StoryFront and is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his new collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can buy the story for $1 here.

How the Story Works

The story is about a son who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

An Interview with Jane Hawley

19 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San Leon," tells the story of Mexican bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of murdered passengers.

Jane Hawley’s story, “The Suitcases of San Leon,” tells the story of Mexican bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of murdered passengers.

Jane Hawley grew up in California, received her BA from the University of Wyoming, and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in the Pinch and Memoir Journal.

To read an excerpt from her story “The Suitcases of San León” and an exercise on writing from news headlines, click here.

In this interview, Hawley discusses the challenges presented by the “we” point of view, her approach to violence and memory in fiction, and the connection between geography and emotion.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the story’s setting. Ostensibly it’s set in Mexico, in a small town at the end of a bus route, but the setting also feels a bit like a fable—as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez decided to rewrite “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and set it in Mexico during the narco violence. The setting has an everywhere quality to it that doesn’t feel specific to any particular place. Was this intentional? How did you approach setting in the story?

Jane Hawley

I began the story with the intention of using first person plural point of view, which I think really lends itself to giving the setting an everywhere quality since the point of view is so artificial and communal. It was also important to me to set the story in a particular time and social-historical circumstance, but I wanted the focus to be more on how people are affected by violence, oppression, displacement, and abandonment. The drug war is a political reality, but I think the effects of the situation translate to a variety of historical and contemporary moments. I wanted to honor the very real troubles the Mexican people are facing regarding the drug war, but I also wanted to create my own story-world. I wanted readers to emotionally connect to the town—perhaps even more so than the characters. It’s the town that arguably experiences more change than anything or anyone else.

It only recently occurred to me that though the setting and point of view have a fablesque quality to them, but all of the story’s events are firmly based in reality. San León is modeled after San Fernando, a city about 85 miles away from Brownsville Texas where two of the largest recorded massacres of the Mexican Drug War took place. I initially came up with the concept of the story when I read an article about abandoned suitcases showing up in bus depots across the region that were eventually discovered to belong to the victims of the massacres.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the point of view, first person plural—we and us—is not easy to pull off, and I noticed that in the middle of the story, it shifts a bit to focus on the actions of a few particular individuals (Damacio, Juan Manuel, Alejandra). That shift seems inevitable, in a way, as it would seem difficult to create particular actions in a plot when the actors are we. Were these characters in the story from the earliest drafts? Or did you need to create them in order to move the plot forward?

Jane Hawley

Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," was published in Amazon's literary journal, Day One.

Jane Hawley’s story, “The Suitcases of San León,” was published in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One.

This is by far the most technically challenging story I’ve written because of the first person plural point of view, which I’ve always admired. It often seems to carry a tone of nostalgia, a fable-like quality and allows a writer to tell the story of a community. This is where the craft gets difficult. No one character feels the same as another. The characters are individuals, yet they’re also part of a group. This is an effect I wanted to capture with the point of view shifts. After following a particular character, the narrative always returns to the first person plural voice.

Two major inspirations for writing the story were The Virgin Suicides and The Buddha In The Attic. In the first novel, you almost forget you’re reading first person plural as you follow the Lisbon girls (or at least those lives as perceived by the neighborhood boys). The first person plural voice in The Buddha In The Attic is much stronger and more removed from the individual lives—readers never get to know characters individually. I decided to use a combination of these techniques because I wanted to be able to show the variety of the bus depot workers’ personal reactions to their situation while also retaining their membership in a collective experience of the historical moment.

Michael Noll

When I began the story, I thought that the suitcases provide a way to show the effects of Mexico’s narco violence without getting into the gory details of their murders. The story is about the rippling effects of the violence, but it also definitely describes how the violence is perpetrated. What was your thought process for showing that violence? In some ways, it’s so awful that it can seem unreal. Did you ever worry that details of the violence would overwhelm the more quotidian parts of the story?

Jane Hawley

Violence can be so difficult to approach in fiction because of how strongly visceral the details can and should be, and I think for many stories the less is more approach is probably the most effective, especially for authors who have not experienced violence firsthand. I see violent images all the time—both real and fictional—in movies and on the news, but I’ve never seen firsthand the kinds of things that my characters have ostensibly experienced in this particular story. I’ve never had a gun held to my chest. I’ve never seen a dismembered hand. I wanted to get those experiences right, though, so I tried to just depict them on the page as simply and honestly as I could. I had to trust that the details themselves would do the heavy lifting. However, I came to learn through the writing of this story is that the memory of violence, the constant returning to those moments and images, adds to the psychic terror of the initial violent experience. Memory is a curse. It weighs you down. It changes your identity, your perception of the world. I wanted readers not to be overwhelmed by the violence itself, but more by the “long-term” psychological and emotional trauma. That’s one of the reasons the end of the story occurs in a near-distant future when the characters are approaching the ends of their lives.

Michael Noll

This is your first published short story. How does it fit with the rest of your work?  Do you often write about Mexico? Does your work as a whole have a fable-like tone?

Jane Hawley

My stories range from strict realism to fabulist or fairytale, but I try to always maintain a sense of wonder or imaginative, supernatural, or magical experience. My approach to place is probably the strongest element that ties my short fiction together. Only a few take place in Mexico although many of them are set in the West and Southwest. I’m from California and I’ve traveled a lot through the western states and Baja California so those places are very close to me—I feel like I understand them on a quasi-emotional level. I’ve been studying Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography (briefly, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”) and considering how that concept can frame and arrange stories in interesting ways.

February 2015

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

How to Write from the Headlines

17 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León” tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

A terrific example of a story based on an actual news event is Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León.” The story was inspired by a narco massacre in the Mexican border city of San Fernando and, more generally, on stories about suitcases arriving at depots without their murdered owners. You can buy the story for $1 at Amazon, where it was published as part of the journal Day One.

How the Story Works

The real-life massacre in San Fernando—or any massacre, for that matter—has a two essential sets of people involved: the murderers and the victims. Focusing a story on characters based on these real-life people is possible but difficult. It involves detailed research, which may or not be possible from a safe remove. It also involves some sticky questions of ethics: Is it okay to fictionalize the lives of real people? The less historical remove the writer has from those people, the more difficult it is to answer this question.

The next level of involvement in the headline includes people with direct connections to the event but not an immediate presence at the actual massacre: the narco bosses who ordered the murders, the officials who provide cover to the narcos, the victims’ families, witnesses, the police, and the people who discovered the bodies. Generally speaking, the farther the story moves away from the immediate event, the more freedom it has to roam. An event like a massacre acts as a kind of black hole, overpowering everything around it with its gravitational pull. A story about a victim of a massacre is likely to be almost purely about the massacre. But a story about a witness or an accessory or family member can give those people lives beyond the event—but that freedom is not limitless.

A third level of involvement includes people with no direct connection but whose lives are impacted in specific ways by the massacre. When fictionalized, these are characters whose connection to the central event is thin or tangential. They are removed from it by several degrees, and, as a result, they can have problems and concerns in their lives that, to them, rival the problem that the event causes. There is inherent tension between those problems—how does the character balance them? A victim’s brother or mother or spouse will drop everything to deal with the event. But someone at a remove will not.

It is at this third level that Hawley writes “The Suitcases of San León.” The story is told from a group point of view—the “we” of the workers at the San Leon bus depot. Their connection to the massacre is indirect. When the victims were pulled off of the bus, their suitcases were not pulled off with them, and so they arrive ownerless at the depot. The workers must decide what to do with the suitcases, and when they decide, they must live with the consequences (mental, emotional, and situational) of those choices. As you read the story, you’ll notice that the narcos become a stronger presence toward the end, and their presence suggests the gravitational pull that the massacre exerts on everything around it. By setting the story at a remove from that event, Hawley gives the characters room to develop. If she had set the story closer to the actual massacre, that room might have been very difficult to create. As a result, the story might not have added complexity or depth to the headline where it began. The distance from the massacre also gives the story a chance to surprise us. We’ve all heard about the atrocities committed by narcos, but it’s likely we haven’t thought about the way those crimes alter even the most mundane aspects of Mexican life. Empty suitcases are such a great starting point for a story that it’s hard to imagine it being written about anything else.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story from a headline, using “The Suitcases of San Leon” by Jane Hawley as a model:

  1. Choose the headline. There is no shortage of news to choose from: geopolitics in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and internal politics and/or savagery in Nigeria, Mexico, and Venezuela; racial and ethnic strife in Ferguson, New York, and, most recently, in North Carolina; political unrest in, of all places, my home state of Kansas; drones; surveillance; a train derailment in West Virginia; and blizzards across the northeastern U.S. Simply choose the news you’re following the closest and that you find yourself imagining yourself into.
  2. Chart out the first level of involvement. Who bears the most immediate impact of the headline? Who is it about? Are there sides? If so, what are they?
  3. Chart out the second level of involvement. Who is connected to the news but not immediately present? Or, who is present but not at the focus of the headlines? Who are the journalists not talking to? This level often contains family members, police, witnesses—people who are among the first to react to the event.
  4. Chart out the third level of involvement. Who is not present or connected to the event/news but is impacted by it? People in this group are often going about their business, only to discover that the news has forced its way into their lives. In the case of the winter storms, most of the stories are from this level, people whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes urgently (first responders) and sometimes with unforeseen consequences (a couple on the verge of divorce but now trapped together by the snow).
  5. Choose the level for your story. To do this, you will likely need to determine how much of the headline you want to write about. Are you interested in the event itself or the way it ripples outward, effecting everyone? A lot of great fiction has been written about war, some of it from the point of view of soldiers (first level), some focusing on family members (second level), and some focusing on the people back home without relatives in the fighting (third level). Once you decide how much distance to put between your characters and the event, you can think about how the event will intrude into their lives. The closer they are, the more forcefully and overwhelmingly it will intrude. The farther they are, the more subtle its effects may be.

Once you choose the level of involvement and know how the event will sneak into the story, you may find that the story begins to write itself. You’ve given yourself something to write toward and, once the event arrives, tension to work with.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

12 Feb
Jacob Appel's latest story collection, Einstein's Beach House, features characters who aren't always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel’s latest story collection, Einstein’s Beach House, features characters who aren’t always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories, many of which have been anthologized, and has won numerous prizes. His nonfiction has appeared in many newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

To read an excerpt from his story “Einstein’s Beach House” and an exercise on writing backstory, click here.

In this interview, Appel discusses living stories in his mind, the inherent subjectivity of narrative, and jumping forward in time at a story’s end.

Michael Noll

This story’s plot has a strong pulse. If you read the end of each section, you can see how each ends with a complication: the father deciding to sell fake tours, the arrival of Einstein’s aunt, the threat of losing the house. How did you create such a tension-building structure? Is it something you do naturally or through a particular kind of revision? 

Jacob M. Appel

I think much of this comes out of the writing process itself. I like to end my day’s writing at the conclusion of a scene; in fact, most of my stories are written roughly on a scene-a-day basis….so if you count the number of scenes in a story, you can often surmise how long I took to write a first draft of that particular piece. (I prefer to “live” the story in my mind as I write—sort of like method acting, only without leaving my chair.) I also prefer to stop writing at a point of particular tension, so I have a crisis to resolve when I return to the story at the next session.  Fortuitously, these two preferences combine to create a synchronicity between the scene breaks and the most dramatic moments in the story. At least, the two elements come together like this when things are going well—when they go badly, my writing reads more like a daytime soap opera.

Michael Noll

The story raises the possibility that the house really was Einstein’s beach house, something that becomes the basis of legal claims, and yet the story doesn’t ever really settle the issue—or perhaps it does. When I returned to the story’s opening to figure out who was right, I realized that you established definite possession of the house in the first paragraph without—and I looked at this paragraph several times—any kind of definite proof, just the narrator’s say-so. It’s such a delicate trick to pull off, and I’m curious how difficult it was to arrive at.

Jacob M. Appel

Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

All narrative is inherently subjective. That’s the only valuable lesson I think I learned in law school. Readers often have a difficult time accepting this. For instance, a few deeply-misguided readers of my first short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, concluded that I was a bigot because I used several racial stereotypes; these readers seemed unable to distinguish between my personal views, as the author, and the disturbing prejudices of the limited third person narrators. In Einstein, the narrator tells the story from a great distance, but carefully withholds information from us along the way. We never know for certain whose house it is. As in many of my stories, characters “lie their way toward reality”—spinning tales that may turn out to be true.

Michael Noll

The end of the story jumps forward in time briefly to the narrator’s adult life before returning to the moment of the story. This is something that, as a writer, I often feel compelled to do at the end of a story, and it’s certainly a technique something that a number of writers use (Alice Munro and Richard Ford for example). But it’s also a move that feels like it might have the potential to become artificial, a crutch to lean on when we can’t quite figure out how to end a story. Your ending works quite well, but I wonder if this was this something you were wary of? 

Jacob M. Appel

I’ll take any comparison to Alice Munro or Richard Ford with both a broad smile and several billion grains of salt, but thank you! The reason I jump forward in time—and I imagine the reason that other, more established authors do as well—is that one wants to garner the maximum of meaning from each narrative. Readers want to know: Why is this story important? Does it matter? But often the importance of a narrative is not clear for years or even generations. I’m reminded of the poetry of the brilliant Philip Larkin (eg. “MCMXIV”), in which the power derives not only from what he describes, but from what we know, unspoken, comes afterwards. Yes, it’s risky. But writing is a risky business. If you’re too risk-averse for a flash-forward, you might try a career in accounting.

Michael Noll

You have one of the most dizzying bios I’ve ever read. By my count, you hold ten degrees, you’re certified to practice law in two states, you’ve published fiction in more than 200 journals (a number so astounding that I can’t quite wrap my head around, especially since your stories are not short), and you’ve published pretty extensively in journals dedicated to bioethics. How have you managed all of this? Do you ever sleep? Are there cloned Jacob Appels—as in the film Multiplicity—doing your work for you?

Jacob M. Appel

It turns out there actually is another writer named Jacob Appel, an economist who co-wrote a book called More Than Good Intentions. I am NOT him. That does not stop well-wishers and detractors from mistaking us on many occasions…..I cannot speak for the other Jacob Appel, but for myself, I keep writing because I like doing it. The day I stop enjoying my time conjuring up imaginary worlds, is the day I’m ready for them to put a pillowcase over my head. (That’s the bioethicist in me speaking, possibly with his tongue in his cheek.)

February 2015

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

How to Build a Tension Machine

10 Feb
Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

There is an often-taught writing rule that backstory should be integrated into the present action. Don’t lump it altogether. Usually, this is pretty good advice, though I’ve read enough lumped backstory in excellent stories lately that I’m beginning to wonder if this rule isn’t trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem may not be chunks of backstory as much as backstory that doesn’t clearly connect to and build toward the present drama.

A good example of backstory that appears as a chunk and that also builds toward drama can be found in Jacob Appel’s story, “Einstein’s Beach House,” which first appeared in Sonora Review and is the title story of Appel’s latest story collection. You can read an excerpt from the story at Sonora Review.

How the Story Works

The story actually begins with more backstory than the excerpt shows (the excerpt picks up about two pages into the story). This story’s first paragraph is almost entirely backstory about a typo that led tourists to believe that the narrator’s house had once belonged to Alfred Einstein. In the excerpt, the section after the space break picks up on this backstory. Here is the first paragraph of it:

The two-story wood-frame bungalow at 2467 South Ocean Avenue had served my father’s family for four generations. Originally, “The Cottage” had been a “beach house”—a fashionable summer address for my great-grandparents—but after the stock market crash of ’29 forced my father’s grandfather from his Washington Square townhouse, the Scraggs took refuge on the Jersey Shore, and we’d been muddling along there ever since. I recently read in a magazine that, on average, it takes four generations to squander a large fortune; if that’s true, our family was People’s Exhibit A. My father completed our social descent when he eloped with Mama, a Jewish-atheist folk singer who’d dropped out of NYU to follow Jefferson Airplane on their West Coast tour. They’d met at Grand Central Station, on New Year’s Day, 1968, after my father absentmindedly wandered into the ladies’ restroom by mistake.

In the most literal sense, this paragraph tells backstory (or context), beginning generations before the present action begins. It’s the sort of passage that writers in a workshop might suggest cutting, but doing so would make some of the best moments in the story (the entire story, in fact) impossible to show. So, the question is how to keep the backstory and connect is to drama, which is where the readers’ interest naturally lies. That connection begins with the line about “four generations to squander a large fortune” and the narrator’s father in finalizing that “social descent” by marrying her mother.

Watch how, in the next paragraph, the story turns those two pieces of information into an opportunity for drama:

My parents had been a bad match from the get-go. Even at the age of eleven, I could sense this to be the case—and sometimes, while they were bickering, I wondered why they didn’t just get divorced. The fundamental difference between them was that, for all her superficial radicalism and musical aspirations, Mama could be ruthlessly practical when the occasion demanded it. But my father, rest his soul, teared up at Disney movies and never embraced a pipe dream that didn’t end in a pot of gold and a Nobel Prize. So the two of them argued about whether to withhold the tenant’s security deposit over a chipped mirror, and when to force Grandpa Byron into a nursing home, and even how much to tip the postman at Christmas. No decision was too trivial for a spat. At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.

The paragraph clearly describes the differences in temperament and philosophy in the father and mother. This is something that many stories do, but those differences are not the same as drama. It’s useful to think of them as a machine. Without a motor, they won’t run. They simply represent potential action. But when energy is applied (when the motor is switched on), the machine begins to work, grinding the characters together and producing sparks, tension, and drama. What is the motor? In this case, it’s Einstein’s beach house.

In a way, all of this backstory has been building the machine and the motor, and the rest of the story shows what happens when this machine is left free to run.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use backstory to build a drama-creating machine, using “Einstein’s Beach House” by Jacob Appel as a model. You can try these exercises in any order. In fact, they may make more sense in another order, so feel free to switch them around:

  1. Create the parts that will grind together. This is almost always done, as Appel shows, by bringing together characters that will, by nature, come into conflict due to their differences. The differences can be in terms of personality, age, gender, religion, politics, job, sports team affiliation, or just about anything that people form their identities around. It may be possible to write a story with two characters who are identical in every way or who always get along, no matter what, but it’s difficult to imagine. In many stories, characters that seem well matched are often revealed to be not so well suited for each other by the plot. Backstory usually serves the purpose of introducing these parts.
  2. Build the motor. This is, essentially, the plot. You’ve got two characters, but they’re still, awaiting some force to put them into motion. That force is the motor of the story. Appel uses the house and its uncertain origins. When visitors ask for tours, the narrator’s father and mother react quite differently, and those reactions supply the story’s tension. So, what motor can set your characters into motion and conflict? Regardless of what you pick, the result will probably be differing reactions, goals, and plans. The thing at the center of those reactions, goals, and plans can be anything: gold (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a tech startup (The Social Network), or a painting (The Goldfinch). It can be something desired, something necessary (food, water, shelter), or something intrusive (illness, neighbor, dog). When writing backstory, aim your introduction of the parts toward this motor.
  3. Switch on the machine. Once you have brought together the parts and motor, you can switch it on. Backstory often ends just before this machine begins running. Appel’s backstory ends with a kind of ready, set, go: “At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.” It’s clear that more will happen (the machine will create more tension) than simply slammed doors. How can you end your backstory on a similar note, summarizing the early workings of the machine in order to set up the highest tension and drama?

Good luck and have fun.

How to Incorporate the Internet into Your Fiction

3 Feb
Ben Lerner is an award-winning poet whose second novel, 10:04, was included in many best-of lists for 2014.

Ben Lerner is an award-winning poet whose second novel, 10:04, was included in many best-of lists for 2014.

Odds are, if you’re a living, breathing writer, then you have a smart phone. You’re probably on it more than you’d like, checking Facebook and Twitter and doing research via Wikipedia. And yet how often does any of this technology show up in our writing?

Ben Lerner’s latest novel, 10:04, breaks from the usual conventions of novel-writing in many ways, but one of the most striking is its seamless inclusion of our ability to search the Internet from the tips of our fingers. You can read an excerpt from the novel, published as the stand-alone story “The Golden Vanity” at The New Yorker.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, in part, about the mundane ways that we observe, encounter, and reflect on the quotidian elements of our days. Much of these encounters take place through or with our phones, which is why, perhaps, that Wikipedia makes three appearances in the book.

In the first, the narrator is walking and thinking:

I walked home through the park. “You have failed to reconcile the realism of my body with the ethereality of the trees,” I said to the mist. Because the park is on the flight path, the city corrals and euthanizes geese. Which mate for life, I confirmed on Wikipedia. The glow of the screen seemed to come off on my hand.

The second comes during remarks during a discussion by a panel of writers:

While preparing these remarks, I was reading up a little on Magee—by which I mean, why hide the fact, that I was reading his Wikipedia entry—when I noted a section called ‘Sources of Inspiration for High Flight.’

The third appearance actually appears twice, first as an illustration of a Brontosaurus skeleton in a book-within-a-book written by the narrator and then as an illustration credit in the back of the book—the illustration having been provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The different ways that Wikipedia is folded into the novel reflects the many ways it’s become part of the fabric of our experience of the world. When we think and question, we Google. When we hold forth on a subject, our holding forth has often been informed by an Internet search. And when we write books, the process has almost certainly been shaped or, at the very least, interrupted by the temptation to open the Internet browser.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s incorporate technology, especially Internet search engines, into our prose, using 10:04 by Ben Lerner as a model. We’ll try three ways of approaching the technology:

  1. An extension of thought. Much research has been done on how our phones have become extensions of our brains, which is why when they break or get lost or die, it’s as if we’ve suffered a stroke. We can’t think right. Most of us use our phones almost unconsciously, checking them as many as two hundred times a day. So, in your prose, try letting a character think about something—any kind of reflection will do: an act of problem solving or remembering or basic curiosity. We write those moments for our characters anyway. Now, simply add a line like Lerner’s: “I confirmed on Wikipedia.” Take it out, and the moment reads the same. The addition simply reflects our new reality.
  2. A reference during a discussion. If you spend any time at all around teenagers or twenty-somethings, then you know that it’s rare to talk with them for more than ten or fifteen minutes without a reference to something they saw on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or somewhere else online. Again, this makes the Internet not so much an addition to our discourse but a continuation of it. We’re doing what we’ve always done—talking about things we’ve seen or heard—but now we’re hearing and seeing them online. This can even be the case for a noteworthy poet, as Lerner shows in his novel. The poet references something he knows and adds, as an aside, that he learned this fact on Wikipedia. This feels authentic to real life. We tend to talk about videos and posts as if everyone knows what we’re talking about; it’s rarely necessary to state where we saw them. So, let your characters talk about something they’ve seen and simply add an aside, like Lerner: Oh, I saw it on _______.
  3. A direct insertion into the text. This one might be easy. You’re probably already switching back and forth between your writing and the Internet. That flipping back and forth is certain to influence your work: in content or in style. What would happen if you recognized a moment where this influence had occurred? What if you simply stated the influence as a kind of footnote. This may mean venturing into David Foster Wallace territory or, for a piece intended to be published online, including hyperlinks within the prose.

Have fun with this exercise. The fact that Lerner’s Wikipedia references stood out so sharply suggests that few writers are including the Internet in their work. So, if you play with this idea, you’re on the cutting edge of a new kind of writing. What’s more exciting than that?

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