An Interview with Laurie Stone

20 Oct
Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press. October 2016), the novel Starting with Serge (Doubleday), and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, “has an intelligence rare in contemporary American fiction,” according to Jeffrey Renard Allen.

Laurie Stone is the author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, the novel Starting with Serge, and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark. She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

To read an exercise on using backstory to create drama in the present based on My Life as an Animal, click here.

In this interview, Stone discusses her approach to truth and fiction in “stories,” jump cuts, and why talk of therapeutic writing sends her to the bar.

Michael Noll

My Life as an Animal is subtitled stories, and I’m curious about that. The narrator has your name, and Richard and Andre Glaz (two of the most important characters in these stories) both appear in “Tangled,” an essay you published in Joyland, (I found that essay because, in the book, you tell the reader to google André Glaz, and so I did!) So, I’m assuming that the book, which is fiction, is based in large part on your own life. I’m not interested so much in what is true and what has been invented. Instead, I’m curious about the decision to fictionalize. It’s one that I think a lot of essayists and memoirists face. What made you decide to write these as stories instead of essays? What was your approach?

Laurie Stone

I am delighted you read the piece in Joyland. First, I’d like to speak about the way I view literary genres in relationship to my work. Pretty much everything I write these days is a story. The pieces in this book and elsewhere are dramatic narratives. I would say this of much of my criticism as well, such as a long appreciation I wrote about Spalding Gray published in American Theatre. The piece is a monologue about Gray, a story. It’s not about me, and yet it reflects the elements in Gray’s work and life that quickened my thoughts. That is what I am interested in communicating. What I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary or ordinarily strange. My work incorporates elements of fiction (scenes, dialogue, the build-up of dramatic revelations, etc.), memoir (some of the stuff described happened in some form or other), criticism (my narrators enjoy thinking about art and politics), and nonfiction (some of the reporting is journalistically verifiable).

I do not consciously “fictionalize” events. In literature, I am not especially interested in things that happened because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find dramatic. It might be the relationship I had with André Glaz, a psychoanalyst I saw in treatment who, during my teenage years, took me into his bed. Or it might be driving in Scottsdale’s soul-crushing heat to buy a $5 Ikea rug from a woman about to return to Kolkata. The term “essay” does not apply to my work generally. I don’t seek to convey meaning or understandings. I hope I am staging little provocations for the reader to react to anyway the reader wishes.

I do not believe circumstances are intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Narrators create interest by their passionate investment in the story they are telling. They do this by layering in two time frames. Something happens, the narrator reports a response at the time it happened, and the narrator also looks back and weighs in on the incident now—at the time of the telling—whether the look back is five minutes later or 20 years later. The reader attaches to a story the reader can enter as if the story is about the reader. The less the narrator asks for something from the reader, i.e. feel my feelings, share my understandings, love my friends, hate my enemies, sentence my parents or siblings or lover to death, etc., the more room readers have to feel their own emotions.

The stories are constructed through language, not memory. I write at the level of the sentence. I sit there, looking at the doors and windows a sentence has opened for the sentence that can follow, and so on. I do not write with a plan. I do not know where a story is going ahead of time. There is no prewriting. It all happens in the moment of looking at the words. To get back to your interest in André, I return to him over and over because he stirs contradictions that can’t be resolved. Those are the stories I want to read and write.

Michael Noll

You play with chronology quite a bit. The first story takes place after many of the stories that follow it. In “Leaving Gardner,” the chronology is continually scrambled, with the narrator describing Gardner’s death and them jumping to a time before it and then after it. What was your sense for when to use straight chronology and when some other element made it less important?

Laurie Stone

I start with a dramatic moment and look at it from as many perspectives as I can. I do not know of a story worth its salt that proceeds chronologically. We think associatively. If I am listening to a person tell a story, and they start with getting up and listing what they had for breakfast before getting on the bus where they found themselves next to a lost child who could not speak, I move away for a drink long before learning there was a diamond clasped in the child’s grimy paw.

Michael Noll

Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

On a similar note, one of the things I love about your stories is your ability to jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic with incredible speed and while maintaining a clear sense of direction. I was particularly struck by a passage in “Toby Dead” that jumped from Nebraska City to Gertrude Stein and William James and then to the narrator’s family. How many of these asides and jumps were trimmed or cut from the manuscript? What’s your measure for how far you can stray or jump from the main thread of a story?

Laurie Stone

I am glad you commented on the jump cuts in the texts. I use a number of techniques shared with film and visual art, among them montage, fades, collage, bricollage, etc. The sections you refer to are not “asides.” For there to be “asides,” there would need to be a central intention. Nothing was cut or edited out because it was extraneous. I cut when a sentence is repetitious, obvious, or clichéd. If you feel there is a dramatic build-up in the stories, and I hope you do, it comes from adding complexity or switching from direction A (melancholy in separateness) to direction B (ecstasy in solitude). I hope connections for the reader will jump across the border between one thing placed beside another thing . . . the way we understand what is happening from montage in film . . . a shot of a cat in an open door, the next shot of a mouse behind the leg of a chair. I wonder what you felt reading the example you gave. Having put those bits together experimentally, I can offer this reading now: the narrator of “Toby Dead,” who is caring for a mother she does not actively love, expresses her ease with abjection in two anecdotes of disappointment and entrapment. The juxtapositions are also funny, I hope. As often as possible, I am looking to find comedy in weird, cruel, and sad moments.

Michael Noll

The story “André” is about a difficult, awful subject: the narrator’s sexual assault by the psychoanalyst André Glaz. The trauma is clear in how the piece is written. For example, the narrator tries to describe the way that Glaz has stayed with her for years and says, “He formed me. Not really.” Then she tries out a few other descriptions that don’t quite seem to capture what she feels. And yet I was also struck by how sympathetic your portrayal of Glaz was. For example, you write that the narrator read two articles Glaz had written and was “surprised by their sensitivity.” What was your approach to the character of Glaz? It would be easy and justified in portraying him as a monster, but he comes off as something more complex. Was that difficult to achieve?

Laurie Stone

There would be no story unless André was complex, and I think readers would lose interest in a one-dimensional character. He must have had something compelling in his personality to seduce so many people, albeit naïve and striving ones. It is not emotionally difficult for me to write complexity into a character. If trauma gives you a subject over and over, let’s raise a glass to trauma. When people speak of writing as cathartic or therapeutic, I am off to the bar for another drink. Mel Brooks says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and I’ll go with that. When I’m working, I think, “Okay, if there are no heroes and no victims . . . what does that leave?” I have to be on guard against flashing and showing off—asking the reader to look at me and like me. For me the hard thing to re-experience over and over is Gardner’s death. That section is clinical and listy, and yet for me the most wrenching. The rest of this book, honestly, is a bunch of sentences.

October 2016

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

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

18 Oct
Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, and the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.

A great example of this type of internal conflict can be found in Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, new from Northwestern University Press. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Story Works

The book is a collection of stories, the term that Stone uses to describe her fictions that often use material from her life. (Read about that definition in the interview on Thursday.)  One of the stories in the book, André, revolves around the sexual assault that the main character suffered, when she was 14, at the hands of her psychoanalyst, a man named André. Her reaction to the traumatic event was a kind of dissociation:

Have you ever left your body? People talk about this happening during trauma. Maybe it is a throwback to our chimpy past, when the endangered primate searched for a tree to climb into at the sound of pounding hooves. I looked down at a girl in a blue cardigan with her arms by her sides.

Many years later, she tells the story of this assault at a dinner party, and a man at the party has this reaction:

The man had been quiet until André was mentioned. He had intense eyes and an enigmatic smile. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his work as a landscape gardener. We were drinking margaritas and eating chips. Sailboats raced outside the windows, and I looked around my friend’s peaceful loft with its large, abstract paintings, couches by a window, a coffee table made from an old, green door. I was on a stool and once or twice rubbed my shoulder. The man said, “Can I give you a massage? I have studied massage.” I said, “Okay.” My mother used to say, “Nothing is free.” I did not want her to be right. The man stood too close as he worked on my neck. Softly, he said, “Does it feel good?” I said, “Yes.” He kept working. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like him. His hands were soothing. He was silent for a while and then he said, “Can I kiss your shoulder. These shoulders don’t know they are loved.” I did not want the kiss. I thought he was ugly. I said, “Okay,” and I felt his lips, cool and quick, on my skin.

That night in bed Richard said, “Why did you let him kiss you?” I said, “It felt easier than saying no.’

There is a lot to be learned here about men’s behavior and consent, of course, but the scene also reveals something important about craft: A character’s behavior becomes a lot more interesting and suspenseful if must choose between competing desires. In this case, she wants to be left alone but also wants to avoid a confrontation. The result is that the scene becomes less predictable. There are several different ways it could have gone. The narrator could have slapped the man or told him to get his hands off of her, and it would have made sense. She could have begun crying or stormed out of the room. In short, the narrator’s actions depend on which desire she chooses to act on (to be left alone or to avoid confrontation).

Because the choice between those desires is so difficult, the story becomes about the choice itself (and the stress involved in making it) rather than the action that follows. The narrator alludes to that stress shortly after this scene ends when she says, in one of the best lines of the book, “Suffering does not ennoble people. Suffering mostly crushes people.” The description that leads up to this statement is alone worth the price of the book. And, it’s possible because of the way Stone creates the narrator’s internal conflict.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create competing desires within a character, using “André” from My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone as a model:

  1. Give your character a critical event. In My Life as an Animal, Stone uses the abuse by the psychoanalyst. It’s an event that hangs over the narrator for the rest of her life, coloring the way she understands herself and others. Because the narrator is so complex and well drawn, this critical event doesn’t entirely explain her character, and that is important. Characters who can be distilled to a single event too completely risk becoming flat and unrealistic. So, the event shouldn’t define your character, but it should be an inextricable part of your character. For your own character, consider what memory he or she returns to, loves, or dreads. What past event keeps the character up at night or gets told to others again and again?
  2. Jump forward in time to a similar situation. The situation can be exactly the same or vaguely similar; in My Life as an Animal, the narrator is receiving unwanted attention from a man, and the kind of attention is similar but of a different degree. But the situation can also be similar only from the character’s perspective. In real life, we tend to use our own critical events as yardsticks for much of what happens around us. So, the critical event and present situation may seem totally different to one character but similar to another. The point is that the present situation makes your character feel the same—or in a similar way—as she did in the critical event.
  3. Give the character a desire related to that situation. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s desire is pretty simple: to be left alone, not harassed. The desire can also be small. For example, some people avoid certain foods (oranges, chives, etc) because they once had a negative experience with them (getting sick). As a result, they live their lives with the ongoing desire to avoid those foods. The desire can also be a positive one. If someone had a good experience in the past, he or she might actively seek out similar experiences.
  4. Give the character an expected way to act on that desire. You’re simply following the logic of the desire. If a character wants to avoid oranges, she’ll behave in predictable ways: avoiding certain aisles in the grocery store or never eating breakfast in a restaurant. How does your character usually act on his or her desire?
  5. Create another desire that, if acted upon, has the opposite effect of the previous action. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator also wants to avoid confrontation with the man who is bothering her. She’s at a party and doesn’t want to make a scene. As a result, she allows the man to give her a massage and kiss her even though it runs contrary to her deep desire to be left alone. To a certain degree, she’s also bombarded with mixed feelings about the man. He’s ugly and creepy, but her shoulders do hurt and his “hands were soothing.” So, place your character in a particular place and time with particular people. What else is going on in that moment? What else does the character want (to avoid making a scene, to relax her shoulders)? These desires don’t need to be inherently contrary to the first desire you created, but the actions that result from them should work against that first desire.
  6. Let the character choose. Generally speaking, drama requires release. A scene builds and builds, and readers wonder what will happen. So, what will your character choose?

The goal is to create a scene by exploring the ways that a past event creates desires that can or cannot be acted upon in the present.

Good luck.

An Interview with Leona Theis

13 Oct
Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.

To read an exercise on making characters represent a place or group based on Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” click here.

In this interview, Theis discusses writing about internal conflict in the midst of external drama.

Michael Noll

A lot of the action in the story happens off the page. The scenes seem to focus instead on the interactions and moments that happen in the wake of that off-page drama. I was particularly struck at how the story avoided certain storylines. For example, the drama that’s built on Lisa and Dave’s relationship is an important part of the story, but it remains secondary to what’s going on with Sylvie. Another writer might have made it a much bigger part of the story: what will Lisa do? What will Sylvie do? Those questions are present, but they’re kept to a lower register. In the same way, there is a developing romance with Will that gets folded into all of the other stuff going on in the story. As a result, one could call this a love story, but that wouldn’t feel quite right, I don’t think. When you were working on this story, what was your sense of what kind of story it was? Was there a tag that you placed on it in your mind? Like, “this is my love story” or “this is my yoga story”?

Leona Theis

I never did think of this as “a yoga story” or a “love story”. My process in developing a story or an essay is almost always exploratory for the first few drafts, and that was the case with this one even more than usual. It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of. Once I’d decided what the story was about, I rewrote it several (in fact, many) times, hoping to make all the parts of it work together to make that drama felt.

I wrote this story to stand on its own, but I couldn’t leave Sylvie alone, and eventually it became the second chapter in a novel-in-stories called “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives.” (I’m just about to query agents about it now.) The story of Sylvie and Jack, which is, as you say, “off the page” here, plays out in the story that precedes this one. (That story, “High Beams”, appeared a couple of years ago in The Journey Prize Stories 26, in Canada.)

Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

The tension between Lisa and Dave is apparent in “How Sylvie Failed…,” as is Sylvie’s response to it, but I didn’t put much of the actual, physical goings-on between those two on the page, as this is a story about Sylvie. The drama I was most interested in delving into was happening inside her. She’s trying on different versions of herself and hasn’t yet come to realize that life is serious business. She’s reaching for some idea of cool, and, naively, she half thinks she’s already achieved it. But she’s yet to take a deep look at anything in life, which is one reason the yoga experience baffles her so. She’s terribly self-absorbed, a person tasting things to see how she likes them, to see what will satisfy her. Even her relationship with Will is less a love story and more another angle on Sylvie trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. I love her and I forgive her faults, because she’s young, and a slow learner.

Michael Noll

How did you approach pacing the steps that lead to Sylvie and Will’s increasing closeness?

Leona Theis

I don’t remember much about how I arrived at the pacing of the increasing closeness between Sylvie and Will. I suspect that that part of the process was intuitive, and when the pacing to do with that continued to feel right draft after draft, I knew not to mess with it.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the story is the description of one of Lisa’s friends when Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

I love this line because it clearly describes the guy and also the time and place. Did this line just appear on the page one day, or did you have to revise your way toward it?

Leona Theis

I’m happy that you liked the line about the guy in the quilted vest saying, “Far out.” That line was one of those gifts that comes out fully formed when a writer manages to transport herself to a time and place she remembers well, when she can hear the characters’ voices without straining.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the editors at American Short Fiction, Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits for their fine editing. Also, Elizabeth McCracken for selecting my story for the prize.

October 2016

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

How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

An Interview with Christopher DeWan

6 Oct
Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender said contains "funny, sharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader."

Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender called “funny, hooterharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader.”

Christopher DeWan is a writer and teacher living on Los Angeles. He’s the author of the flash fiction collection Hoopty Time Machines and has published over fifty stories in in journals including Hobart, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. He has had TV projects with the Chernin Group and Indomitable Entertainment and has collaborated on transmedia properties for Bad Robot, Paramount, Universal, and the Walt Disney Company. His screenwriting has been recognized by CineStory, Final Draft, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance, and he is recipient of a fellowship from the International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA). He is currently chair of creative writing at the California State Summer School for the Arts.

To read an exercise on using emotion to make readers care about a story’s big-conceit elements, inspired by DeWan’s story “Voodoo,” click here.

In this interview, DeWan discusses the ways that second-person POV and first-person video games are similar, the pleasure of unknowing in flash fiction, and the emotional punch in works by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier.

Michael Noll

“Voodoo” is written in second person, which is one of those things that often happens without thinking at the beginning of a draft. But at a certain point, you must decide whether to stick with it or use reliable old third or first person. For this story, what made second person the right POV?

Christopher DeWan

I have a theory about second-person—wholly untested—that it works best for stories that are inherently about identity. There’s an effect that happens when I read a second-person story that reminds me a little of playing a first-person videogame, a sort of amnesiac effect where, in the game, I’m supposed to *be* this person but I also know almost nothing about this person: I stumble cluelessly through “my” home trying to collect information to understand who I am. Second-person fiction reads like that to me: the story is a series of puzzle pieces for readers as we actively participate in assembling the identity of the narrator.

In this story, “Voodoo,” the narrator feels alienated and confused by his daughter and, at some level, his whole life: he’s assembled all the trappings of a normal adult, but he doesn’t feel like one. His daughter and her room and his house and his wife should all feel very familiar to him, but they don’t—and I like the way second-person helps convey this alienation. Second-person blindfolds the reader, spins them around, and makes them feel a little lost.

Michael Noll

The story’s opening suggests, broadly speaking, a couple of possibilities: the daughter has made voodoo dolls and is using them to harm her parents or it’s all in her father’s head. The story never chooses one over the other. It also doesn’t escalate the premise into a plot that would require a much longer story, something that seems like it would destroy the great uncertainty that you’ve created. Were you ever tempted to enlarge this story, or did you always know it would hang in this particular moment?

Christopher DeWan

You’ve given away the secret of the entire book: a collection of forty-five short stories so short that I never have to decide anything!

This is one of things I love about flash fiction: the form allows me to write a story about the moment before a story, take it right up to the point that something catastrophic will have to happen—and then the story’s over. The reader is just left there in that moment, teetering on the cliff’s edge, imagining all the things that might happen next. For me, that not-knowing is a more interesting place than the knowing.

But there are many stories in this collection I could imagine enlarging. The book is basically forty-five inciting incidents for forty-five future novels. Now I’m just waiting for a forty-five book deal.

Michael Noll

Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection of flash fiction, Hoopty Time Machines.

The book, Hoopty Time Machines is subtitled, “Fairy Tales for Grownups,” which gets at one of the weird things about fairy tales. The originals from Northern Europe were quite scary and told by adults–maybe to kids, often to each other. The death and other horrors in them reflected the very real dangers that people feared. Then, of course, they got sanitized. In this book, there isn’t much death, but there are a lot of unsettling situations: a changeling child, parents who seem to have been replaced by trolls. What is it about fairy tales that seems to convey the feelings we get from real life?

Christopher DeWan

There are a lot of people who study fairy tales as a genre and I should say I’m not one of those people: I’m no fairy tale scholar. But I am a big fan, and particularly a fan of a fairy tale’s ability to evoke deep, resonant, inexplicable horror: “Why did he grab himself by the foot and tear himself in half?!?” etc.

What I’m hoping to do with this book is explore some of the lingering cobwebby corners of adult psychology that still resonate within those murky kid fears. There are plenty of things in our lives that don’t make sense, exactly, but we push them out of focus so we can function as adults in the world. They’re still in there, lurking, making a mess of our minds in ways we don’t fully understand.

Michael Noll

Your book is blurbed by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier, in whose footsteps it obviously walks, as do so many books. They, along with a few other people, basically created the genre of American fabulism and fairy-tale-inspired fiction. And, of course, they were drawing upon the work of writers like Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme. Was there a particular story that made you think, “Yes, this is the kind of writing I want to do?”

Christopher DeWan

Well, first, I can’t overstate how much I admire both of them—actually, all four of those writers you mention. I first read Aimee Bender around the time her first book came out, and I consumed that book in a single sitting, and I remember being dazzled and awestruck and most of all I remember feeling a great sense of liberation, like, “It’s okay to do that?!” I was always into fabulism—I mean, we all are when we’re kids, but I just never outgrew it. So Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme and then Aimee Bender helped me form a very permissive view of what literature can be, helped reinforce in me this idea that I think I held intrinsically: that strange, magical stories have value to adults, too.

But honestly, the thing I admire most about Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier has very little to do with fabulism and has much more to do with the enormous compassion and empathy they bring to the characters in their stories. Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia is one of the most beautiful books I know, and I think the only reason it tips into fabulism is because the events in the book are too horrible for a person to reckon without inventing some fables to help mediate the horribleness.

I love these two writers. What gigantic, wonderful, fair hearts they both have. I learn so much from how both of them see the world—and yes, absolutely, that’s the kind of writing I want to do, too.

October 2016

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

Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

4 Oct
Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers care about the gun or dead body or whatever.

A great example of making a reader care can be found in Christopher DeWan’s story, “Voodoo,” which was originally published in A cappella Zoo and is included in his new collection Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grownups.  You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

As the title makes clear, the story is playing with a well-known horror/supernatural trope. Any reader will have pretty clear expectations for what will follow: some version of a doll with pins and needles stuck in it. The problem facing DeWan is the same one facing most writers. The story is familiar, and so something is needed to make readers pay attention yet again. He could have used a more horrific doll or added bloodier consequences, but that wasn’t his approach. Instead, here is how the story begins:

You walk into your daughter’s room. You wouldn’t do this normally. You try very hard to respect her privacy, even when this sometimes causes you to wonder if you’re being a bad or neglectful parent. The fact that you wonder means that you probably are not a bad or neglectful parent. But everyone has better days and worse days.

There’s no mention of voodoo or a doll in this paragraph. Instead, we’re shown a relationship and a character who isn’t sure how to proceed, who means well but isn’t is faced with the possibility that good intentions might be insufficient. Or perhaps everything is just fine.

The uncertainty is important. As readers, we’re naturally drawn to situations in which a character is trying to discern the true nature of the world and circumstances. It’s why we’re drawn to conspiracy theories, magic, and Halloween. We love the idea that everything is not as it seems. But we also need to care, and that’s why the emotions in this first paragraph are so important. The character has feelings, and those feelings are tethered to concrete things (the welfare of his daughter) and abstractions (do we ever really know how someone is doing?).

The next paragraph makes good on the title’s promise:

Her alarm clock is going off and she’s nowhere to be found, so you walk into her room, and that’s when you see them: two little dolls. Voodoo dolls of you and your wife.

Now the story kicks into gear, but the reason we keep reading isn’t because of the dolls but because we care (and the character cares) what happens with those dolls.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce emotional stakes to a story, using “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan as a model:

  1. Decide what readers will care about. In other words, what’s the primary story element. In “Voodoo,” that element is voodoo. In monster stories (vampires, zombies, aliens, serial killers), the element is the monster. In detective fiction, it’s the pursuit of the criminal, and in romances, it’s the consummation of love and the struggle to maintain it in the face of difficulty. It’s the movie poster image for your story or novel. What is this element for your story?
  2. Create an emotional attachment to that element. Movies use a lot of the same emotional stakes—protecting a child or other loved one, finding true love or friendship, finding your best self—because they’re part of our lives in an essential way. Great literary works use the same emotional stakes. So, start by choosing something we all worry or dream about.
  3. Find an authentic entry to that emotion. The problem with blockbuster movies is they introduce the emotional stakes using some well-worn tricks (a child saying, “Why won’t you come to my ballgame, Mommy/Daddy?) but then abandon the stakes as soon as the movie-poster element shows up. After all, the filmmakers seem to think, who cares about that kid when the museum exhibits have come to life and are trying to kill you? They’re right some of the time. But in stories and novels, the writer usually needs to stick with the emotional stakes. Rather than using a shortcut, introduce the stakes with more uncertainty. So, find a simple action (walking into the daughter’s room) and then add a choice (should I or shouldn’t I?) and a larger emotional context (am I a good parent or not?).
  4. Lead with the emotion. Very often, as soon as the movie-poster element shows up, it sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the story. It’s hard to introduce emotion for the first time when stuff is blowing up. So, begin with the simple action, choice, and larger emotional context. Let it be the hook for the reader. The movie-poster element will arrive soon enough.

The goal is to make readers care about the big story elements rather than relying on those big elements to keep readers turning the page.

Good luck.

How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

27 Sep
Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right?

The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a high school student, Reshma Kapoor, who wants to be valedictorian but worries that someone might beat her. Her desire is clear, but it’s not enough to build a novel on. More is needed. In this passage, we see some of that more:

When I first told Mummy about the perfects, she laughed and said, “No one can be perfect.”

People say that all the time, as if it’s obvious.

But is it?

That’s the problem with people. They think perfection is about things you can’t control: your intelligence or your wealth or your beauty. But if they thought of it as avoiding mistakes, they’d understand how achievable it is.

We all know that it’s impossible to go one hour without making a mistake. And if that’s possible, then it must be possible to string together twenty-four consecutive mistake-free hours into a perfect day.

Having an entire mistake-free day is difficult, but it’s doable.

She lists the ways she didn’t make mistakes (studying, dieting, etc) and then says this:

And if I can have one mistake-free day, then I can have two, and three, and four, and eventually whole weeks and months and years will pass without mistakes. Is that so insane?

This is a nifty piece of writing. It starts with the idea that some girls are perfect, gives one character’s response (no one’s perfect), and then considers whether that’s really true. If perfection is possible, how would the narrator achieve it? She develops a plan.

Kanakia has used that basic desire (be valedictorian) to create plot. Take out the specifics, and you get this: “Main Character wants ____, and some characters seem to have an advantage in getting ____, but So-and-So says that’s not true. But if it is true, then here is how Main Character will beat those characters at their own game.”

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use desire and community to create plot, using Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia as a model:

  1. Find something that your character wants. It can be anything, and there are a few usual suspects: love, money, success. Try using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and water (and other basics required for human survival), safety and security, love and belonging, respect, and the ability to pursue happiness (self-actualization, American-style). In Enter Title Here, Reshma’s desire is a mixture of the last four. If she’s valedictorian, she’ll be assured of a successful career and the financial security it brings. She’ll feel as if she belongs with a group like the perfects. She’ll gain people’s respect and will be able to pursue the life she wants (or so she thinks). Your character’s desire doesn’t need to tap into all of these categories, but it should hit at least one of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too fleeting to drive plot forward.
  2. Give the character competition. Reshma wants to be valedictorian, but the perfects might beat her to it. Of course, competition doesn’t necessarily require other characters pursuing the same goal. They might have other goals that put them in the way of your character’s pursuit of her own desire. In the way is the key phrase. If nothing’s in the way, there’s no story: I wanted to be valedictorian, and so I did it.
  3. Create a philosophical framework. Resume’s mother doesn’t say, “You’ll never be as good as the perfects.” Instead, she says, “No one can be perfect.” She’s suggesting a way of seeing and understanding the world. Reshma doesn’t just reject her advice, she also rejects this philosophical framework for another: You can be perfect if you have the willpower. In your story, let a character comment on the competition. Is it possible to defeat it? To be like it? Is it desirable to try? We hear versions of this almost every day: when we fail to get something we want, someone will say, “It’s probably for the best.” Whether we agree or disagree with that statement determines what we do next.
  4. Let your main character disagree with this framework. Reshma decides to beat the perfects at their own game. She can be perfect. She’s saying, in effect, it’s not for the best. How can your character refuse to see the problem the same way as the philosophical character?
  5. Develop a plan. Once Reshma decides to do what seems impossible—be perfect—she creates a plan: be perfect for an hour, then a day, then a week, then for months and years. What is your character’s plan to outwit, outwork, or outperform the competition/obstacle?

The goal is use desire as a starting point for creating character motivation and plot.

Good luck.

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