Tag Archives: story premise

An Interview with Stacey Swann

4 Apr
Stacey Swann's story "Pull" appeared in Freight Stories.

Stacey Swann’s story “Pull” appeared in Freight Stories.

Stacey Swann has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a contestant on Jeopardy!. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The Good Men Project, and she has served as editor of the journal American Short Fiction. She also edited the mixed-art project, The OwlsShe lives in Austin, Texas.

In this interview, Swann discusses her approach to “Pull,” which offers a contemporary Texan take on the age-old subject of unrequited love. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the way Swann traps together two incompatible characters—can be found here.

Michael Noll

Did you purposefully pair the characters from “Pull” to highlight their incompatibility? Or did Lou and Jo simply find their way to the page?

Stacey Swann

When it comes to drafting fiction, I always like to say that my subconscious is way smarter than my conscious brain. I didn’t set out to make Jo and Lou incompatible, but I suspect that my subconscious, after so many years of writing, tends to maximize tension when it can. I did intentionally want the relationship to make Jo feel trapped and limited, though. Can a person feel trapped and limited by someone they are essentially compatible with? I’m a pessimist by nature, so I’d probably say yes. I’d have to write another story, though, to figure out whether that scenario would have as much tension!

Michael Noll

The parallel between the human couple and dog couple—the dogs can’t help fighting—is very clear and seems intentional, and yet it’s not at all awkward or forced. Perhaps it’s the old saw about dog owners resembling their dogs, but I never thought, “Oh jeez, give me a break.” In fact, the story seems much richer because of the dogs’ presence. The beautiful final line couldn’t work otherwise. How did you make the parallel, highly literary and artificial by nature, seem so natural?

Stacey Swann

Jo’s dog Spider is actually based closely on my real dog (King) that I had as a child, right down to being shot by a neighbor. Funnily, he’s the only “real” character in the whole story. (Most of my settings are autobiographical in my fiction, but almost none of my characters are.) I’m glad you found the parallel natural! The naturalness probably stems from the fact that I didn’t start out with the dog/people parallel in mind. I started with Spider and this idea of Jo returning home to a depressed ex-boyfriend. I didn’t know yet how the story would end, that Jo’s actions would parallel Spider’s and Lou would suffer like his own dog. If I had, I fear the build-up might have been much more heavy handed.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of the story is quite clear about how Jo feels about home. You write that Jo “doesn’t like what home turns her into. She’s less herself in the place where she should most be herself—if we are what we come from.” A lot of beginning writers would shy away from defining a characters’ feelings so clearly, yet you do it right away. How did this early, clear definition affect how you wrote the story?

Stacey Swann

The final version of that paragraph is actually not that different from how it came out on the first draft. It’s likely that I was nailing down the character for myself, as the writer, before I let her loose in a scene.  When I look at my short stories as a whole, I tend to think of them as pretty pared down and minimal. I suspect this is because of the short fiction I was reading at the time and the overall atmosphere of my MFA program, where I got my “training” as a short story writer. A lot of what was getting workshopped was dirty realism in the Raymond Carver vein. Always favor showing over telling. Now that I’m working on a novel, I find myself telling all over the place and those tend to be the sentences with the most heat.  Overtly dealing with my characters’ psychology is what I really want to write about, I just used to tamp it down more. I think that opening paragraph is an example of my natural inclinations. Of course, I still worry that once my novel is drafting, I’m going to have to edit down like Lish did to Carver. Maybe my natural inclinations are still wrong inclinations.

But I digress! As to the question of how it affected how I wrote the story, I think that by stating that Jo doesn’t feel like herself at home, it established a tension in the reader that Jo didn’t belong there. This tension is directly at odds with her stated intent to move back home, and so the engine of the story starts moving from that first page. Perhaps opening with “telling” is more effective if what the author is telling feeds straight into the central conflict of the story?

Michael Noll

In the story’s fourth section (the one that begins with “Lou’s depression started after they left for college”), you quickly sum up months and years of their relationship. Again, this is something that beginning writers often struggle with. How do you know what to summarize and what to dramatize?

Stacey Swann

I had a lot of trouble with the backstory in “Pull.” If you compare my earliest drafts to the final product, you’ll find much of the present day story is the same.  However, the backstory wound up changing quite a bit as I tried to make Lou a more sympathetic character. I knew I wanted the story to have two narrative arcs: Jo after she returns home alternating with the story of both their prior relationship and what happened to Spider. I like symmetry, so I wanted to balance those as equally as possible. Because the present day story was pretty short, covering just a day, I had to compress as much as possible of the backstory. I only put things in scene if they were hugely important. I think the key to good summary is still relying on specific details. It can almost trick you into thinking what you’ve read was really in scene. Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” does this masterfully.

Michael Noll

I’m curious how editing other writers’ work affects your own work. Do you ever read a story and think, “Well, I won’t do that” or “That’s amazing, and I’m going to steal it?” It’s become a cliche that we should keep our editing brains and freewriting brains separate, but it also seems inevitable that the two will affect each other. What do you think?

Stacey Swann

I think my time at American Short Fiction had a huge impact on my learning curve as a writer. I started volunteering as a reader there while I was still in grad school and for the next seven or so years, I read dozens of submissions a month. For some reason, it is so much easier to see the flaws in our own work after we’ve seen them in someone else’s. And I likely picked up the good stuff simply by osmosis. My primary agenda was always whether or not I thought the story would be a good fit for ASF. But subconsciously, I was probably filing away plenty of things to steal.

I tell my writing students that while they are drafting, they should lock their internal critic in the trunk of their car and just drive. I find revision easier and more enjoyable than drafting, and that’s mostly because that internal critic is such a jerk while I draft. If I don’t put him in the damn trunk, he’ll drive me away from the computer. Of course, that also means my first drafts are huge messes, and it can take me multiple revisions to even pin down the basic plot arc. I used to think revision was 100% about the critical brain because that’s the only part I use when editing others. I certainly wouldn’t want to let my freewriting brain loose on someone else’s work, but I’m starting to think there may be room for it when I revise my own.

April 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Put Snakes on a Plane

2 Apr

Stacey Swann’s story “Pull” was published in Freight Stories.

No movie ever had a better premise than Snakes on a Plane. If good fiction traps incompatible characters in a room, then what could better than a crowd trapped 20,000 feet above ground with humanity’s oldest enemy. The problem, however, was that the trapped characters had shallow motivations and desires—bite, not get bitten. As a result, the movie had no way to advance or explore the premise. Why do the snakes want to bite the people? Who cares? They’re snakes. It’s what they do. What is the passenger’s ulterior motives? I’ll let Samuel L. Jackson fill you in

So what does great fiction have to do with a B movie? Like Snakes on a Plane, fiction seeks to trap together incompatible characters. The difference is that the incompatibility itself is complex. A clear example can be found in Stacey Swann’s story, “Pull,” which was published here at Freight Stories.

How the Story Works

Unlike the snakes and the passengers, who hate and despise each other equally, the characters in Stacey Swann’s story, “Pull,” suffer from a far more complex incompatibility: unrequited love. As the story makes clear in the final, devastating line, the two characters are incompatible, but only one of them knows it—and even that knowledge cannot save them.

So how does Swann do it?

First, she carefully sets the stage: Jo and Lou are in love.

Then, she defines each character: Lou is a depressive who drops out of Texas A&M and only feels better when Jo returns home while on break from Stanford. Jo, on the other hand, realizes that “she was sad every time she saw him.”

At this point, a lot of writers might wonder what comes next. If Jo is at Stanford, how do you get her back to small town in Texas that she doesn’t like? How do you trap them together? Swann does it by making Jo a casualty of the economy. Her newspaper job has vanished, and Jo, like so many young people, has no choice but to temporarily move home—where her old boyfriend awaits. Perhaps, Jo thinks, the old romantic fire still smolders. Maybe they’ll catch on together. But, of course, that’s not what happens. The events that occur must occur, and, as a result, we read this brilliant final line: “There will always be things we can’t keep ourselves from doing, no matter who it hurts.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow Stacey Swann’s model:

  1. Create a premise: X and Y are in love. X and Y are in prison. X and Y are sailing across the ocean (Life of Pi), X and Y are college friends.
  2. Define each character, stressing the incompatability: X loves Y, but Y is way too old (Harold and Maude); Y is X’s only friend, but Y is an invisible 6-foot-tall rabbit (Harvey); X is neat and uptight, and his roommate Y is an easygoing slob (The Odd Couple); X loves Y, but Y is impotent and can never be with X (The Sun Also Rises).
  3. Trap the characters in a confined place: a lifeboat, a car, an apartment, a small group of friends in a strange city.
  4. Explore the situation. Don’t worry about story or plot. Write a few scenes and see what happens. For instance, what happens if impotent Jake is at a bar and sees the love of his life Brett with another man?

An effective entrapment will make the situation seem inevitable. Of course Jake Barnes is impotent; he was in the war, and the war was terrible, and many soldiers came home injured, and everything that came afterward was bad. Of course Jo returns to her small Texas hometown; where else would she go after losing her job? She couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco without money.

Spend some time thinking about the entrapment. If you find the right approach, and if your characters are compellingly mismatched, you may find that it sparks your imagination and the story begins to write itself.

Good luck.

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