An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll


Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

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


How to Figure Out Who Is Telling Your Story

14 Nov

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “revelatory” and “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

One of the most basic elements that writers must figure out is who should—or is—telling their story. This means point of view: first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and all the shades of each. The possibilities can be overwhelming, and if you start asking yourself, “Is this really the right POV for my novel/story/memoir/nonfiction,” you can drive yourself crazy and never write anything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it, but sometimes the better approach is to forget the jargon and consider these simpler questions: Who is telling this story? What is the nature of that person? Why are they telling it?

A great example of a book whose answer to that question is tied inextricably to the way it is written is July Berwald’s captivating new book about jellyfish, Spineless. You can read the opening pages of the book here.

How the Book Works

The book is two things: a scientific report about jellyfish and argument about how they ought to be viewed by the public and studied by researchers and also Berwald’s personal story about the circumstances that led her to become interested in jellyfish. In terms of POV, the question becomes this: “What sort of person can tell both parts of that story?” It’s an aesthetic question but also a practical one. After all, readers could easily become confused if the scientific text they’re reading suddenly becomes a memoir.

As you might expect, Berwald sets out these different parts of her book right away. She begins with the personal: being in Hiroshima and seeing wild jellyfish. After a few pages and a space break, she breaks into the scientific: “The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa…” It’s a line that could fit into a textbook or article in Nature. But if the book were to simply move back and forth between science/personal, a lot of readers would begin to skim one in favor of the other. The book wouldn’t work. So, what Berwald must do is figure out how the person telling the story—her—would talk about jellyfish. In short, what is the POV for the scientific sections. What is the voice of the narrator?

Here is the rest of the passage that follows that initial scientific line. Watch how it answers the question:

The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa, a moniker shared with the Ancient Greek mythological monster. Medusa is famous for her horrible face, which could turn a man to stone, and her wild locks of hissing snakes. It’s not hard to see the similarities. A swimming medusa could look like a floating head with a wayward mane of terrifying stinging tentacles.

But dig a little deeper into the story of Medusa, and what you find is not at all a monster, but a victim whose story has been misunderstood. Medusa was born to two ancient marine deities and, according to Ovid, was stunningly gorgeous. She served the goddess Athena in her temple. Others say Poseidon couldn’t control himself. As in too many cases like this, it depends who’s telling the story. Since I am: He raped her, right there in Athena’s temple.

The passage goes on to finish the story about Medusa and its connection to jellyfish. This is something that Berwald does throughout the book: convey factual information (in-depth, scientific, scholarly, contextual) in this engaging, personal voice. It makes the book a beautiful, captivating read even if you thought you didn’t care at all about jellyfish.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s figure out who is telling your story, using Spineless by Juli Berwald as a model:

  1.  Identify the parts of the story. I don’t mean the beginning, middle, end, setting, plot, etc. Instead, the parts of the story are the types of information that are conveyed. You see this a lot in novels that include characters with expertise in certain subjects, like Tom Clancy’s experts in warfare and weapons. In his novels, there is the story and also the vast amount of technical information that the characters know and talk about. Most fiction contains some version of this. Science fiction and fantasy has worldbuilding and lore that must be conveyed to the readers. So does historical fiction. In your book—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—what is the area of expertise for the characters. What are they obsessed with? If you’re writing nonfiction like Berwald and focusing on that expertise or obsession, what is the story around it (yours or other people’s)? Who are the individuals involved?
  2. Decide which part will be dominant (or which part will lead the way). In Spineless, Berwald leads with the personal. If I had to guess at a ratio, I’d guess that more than half of the book is actually scientific and factual, but she uses the personal to lead us into the science. In your story, think about both measures. What is the dominant information in your story? What does it focus on most of the time? And, what part of the story most often serves as the hook for the reader? What part leads the reader into a chapter or section?
  3. Weaves the parts together. Berwald starts with the personal and then pivots to the science. But when she does, it’s not a screeching change in direction. Instead, she uses the personal (which led us to the science) to comment upon the science and shape how we learn about it. She does this by overlapping types of information. So, in the passage above, she overlaps science with mythology, which provides an opportunity for explanation. In your story, you can do the same thing. Give your narrator (whoever and whatever POV it is) multiple kinds of information to talk about at once, which usually leads to explanation. She also personalizes the information, moving from a general perspective (“It’s not hard to see the similarities”) to a particular one (“it depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am:”). I don’t know if Berwald has taught university classes, but this technique is what often distinguishes the most popular professors in any field: their ability to convey factual information in an entertaining, engaging, and often personal way. It’s the difference between “Here is what is” and “Let me tell you what is.”
  4. Explore the nature of that speaker. In your story, who is the me that navigates between the different parts of the story? Try using Berwald’s sentence about Medusa as a literal model: “It depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am…” How would the of your story talk about the information in it. This works for third-person and omniscient POVs as well. They often have an attitude. Becoming more aware of it can help you fine tune your story’s voice to make it as engaging as possible.

The goal is to find the voice and perspective that allows you to weave together the different parts of your story as effectively as possible.

Good luck.

How to Use Mystifying Detail to Create Conflict

31 Oct

“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Megan McCarron was published at and was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award.

A few years ago, one of my college-composition students read the Christian inspirational novel, The Shack. In the book, a man receives a letter from God. I asked what seemed like a reasonable question: “Where was the letter from? What city was on the postmark?” The student just shook her head. For her, and for the book apparently, details like that were besides the point. But for a writer, details are exactly the point.

Meghan McCarron embraces this sort of mystifying detail in her story, “Swift, Brutal Retaliation.” You can read the Nebula Award-nominated novelette here at

How the Story Works

McCarron uses a classic ghost-story concept: Look into a mirror and see someone else’s face. It’s an easy way to move a ghost into a story. But once you have a ghost, what do you do with it? The answer depends on the sort of world the ghost has entered. In the novel The Shack, the world is one that God enters easily, where obvious questions such as   “Where did this letter come from?” are never asked. The world of that novel isn’t the world we live in. But what if it was? Part of the beauty of “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” is that it takes one of the oldest sci-fi/fantasy premises and adapts it to a contemporary world. As a result, the fantastical elements almost become realistic. Here are a few examples of the details that McCarron shows us:

  • “Sinead carried a thermometer and a compass, which the internet had told her were useful for detecting paranormal presences.”
  • “Sinead remembered reading somewhere, or maybe seeing in a movie, that you had to ask ghosts what they wanted.”
  • The ghost, when still alive, loved Facebook, and so his sister logged on and typed, “Ian, r u haunting the house?”

The world that McCarron creates—and that the ghost inhabits—becomes almost tangible. We, the readers, believe this place exists because we can see it in such sharp focus. As a result, when the ghost becomes angry, its fury and frustration are manifested in ways that now seem highly plausible—lasagna, hair-removal liquid. We’ve bought into the world, and now we’re scared when it becomes dangerous.

The Writing Exercise

In some ways, this story answers the age-old question, “What would you do if you saw a ghost?” The question has many possible answers, but the sisters’ responses are not limitless because they are shaped both by their personalities and by their world. So, for this exercise, let’s create a premise and a world.

  1. Choose an unusual premise. Ideally, you’ll pick something fun, something you’ve always wanted to write about: zombies, vampires, ghosts, magic, any one of a thousand sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/whatever premises. 
  2. Choose a specific place. It could be your living room. Or whatever is outside your window. Or it could be place in town that you know well. It could even be imagined.
  3. Fill the place with things: silverware, a piano, a fire hydrant, a church pew, a filing cabinet. Give yourself plenty of objects to use later.
  4. Put people in the place—main characters, anonymous faces, it doesn’t matter.
  5. Wind the premise like a toy and watch it run. Imagine a scene: If someone has otherworldly powers, how do those powers affect the things you’ve given yourself? If someone must react to a character with otherworldly powers, how are the things used as protection/weapons or for cover? Play around with the premise and things. In other words, do the ghosts use Facebook?

Happy Halloween!

Read to Write Stories Editor Michael Noll Discusses His Story “The Dependents”

27 Oct

My story, “The Dependents,” is about a couple in a rural Kansas town who tries to help their neighbors and botches it. The story is about race and immigration and personal tragedy, and I got to talk about it in a Facebook live session sponsored by The New Territory, where it was published. In the video, I discuss the craft behind “The Dependents,” including how I chose the POV and the drafting process.

An Interview with Erin Pringle

12 Oct

Erin Pringle is the author of two story collections, most recently The Whole World at Once.

Erin is the author of two short story collections, The Whole World at Once, and The Floating Order. She has written three chapbooks: “How The Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble”; “The Lightning Tree”; and “The Wandering House”. Her work has been four-times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship, and a finalist for contests such as the Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest and the Kore Press Short Fiction Award. She’s a recipient of a Washington State Artist Trust fellowship. Originally from a small town in Illinois, she now lives in Washington State with her partner, Heather, and son, Henry.

To read an excerpt from The Whole World at Once and an exercise on connecting character and setting, click here.

In this interview, Pringle discusses finding narrative where none seems to exist, not naming characters, and writing about the Midwest.

Michael Noll

Early on in “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” there’s a description of small-town teenagers returning home from a carnival: They “drag themselves back to a garage and sit in lawn chairs and pick seeds from dry leaves before filling the pipe and passing it on. They want to talk about the fair but say nothing because it’s the same goddamned thing as last year, which they do say.” Their predicament–nothing to do but the same thing they’ve always done–is something that the characters in all of the stories in the collection encounter. It even describes the plots of their stories to some extent. While some dramatic things happen, the actual happening tends to be in the past or in the near future. How do you approach a story where the dramatic fireworks happen off the page? In a scene or generally, what is the thing that’s drawing you through the story–and what are you using to draw the reader through it?

Erin Pringle

Well, I always viewed my existence as the predicament of arriving into the world after everything wonderful had happened. I was a late-in-life surprise child for my parents, so all of my siblings were a couple of decades older than me, which meant all of their stories were, too. Life had also stopped in some ways because my father had been diagnosed with manic depression and could no longer work, so the economics of my family didn’t lend itself to the vacations they once had, and that I only heard about or saw in albums. All the books I read had much more exciting happenings than what I was experiencing, and turning into an adult promised some adventure, maybe, but more autonomy than anything, since all of the adults I knew lived in the same small town, and most of them had grown up there. I grew up around story-tellers, but I myself had no stories to tell. Later, when I learned that a story happens on a day unlike any other day, I was additionally perplexed because I hadn’t lived a life in which that had ever happened. Not really. I mean, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, it didn’t happen on the day of the diagnosis, the cancer had been growing for how long? Months, years. And the walk my mother took me on to tell me didn’t throw my world out of whack, it was just a revelation of fact.

His death, my best friend’s death, my sister’s death, all the deaths in the town—in the newspaper and the graveyard my school bus daily passed, and of all of my grandparents—these deaths were stories, maybe, but the problem with a story of dying is that then there’s an expectation of somehow curing the dying, stopping the dying. And, sometimes, sure that does happen in real life. But not so much in my real life. The problem with a story that begins with a death is the expectation of figuring out how it happened, who did it, why, the story of the lives connected to the life. It automatically creates a story form that is resistant to how I experience life. The problem with mystery, for me, is that then the story becomes plot-driven, a problem-solution equation, and that then requires complications of happenings, instead of the complications of beauty and language and on-living—the going-on with living that happens despite the death (the day-unlike-any-other).

For a long time, I was drawn to words and not happenings because, like I said, I had no happenings to report. So, I was pretty much headed to the non-narrative, to poetry, to forms that privileged examining over happening. Or the examining of a happening instead of the unraveling of one. Also, I loved visual art, and assumed I’d do something with painting. Painter, then poet. So, again, the examining, the creation of one scene and the light of one. My struggle, then, you can imagine, is and has been creating narrative. In short, I’ve figured out how to create motion. So, my stories are an arrangement of paintings, or panels of a very large painting. My medium is words instead of watercolor, but my process is exactly like painting watercolor. I create, first, the basic painting and wash over it again and again, adding layers and subtracting. Shifting the light. Words are like watercolors but with the agility of oil paint in their ability to be maneuvered over long periods of time before they dry. So, I create motion through the movement of visual panes, or panels, that shift in time in a way that make time (the accumulation of memory), the way we learn about the people within the boundaries of the first and last page.

Michael Noll

Most of the characters in these stories are unnamed (an observation I felt pretty proud about until I saw it mentioned in the discussion questions at the back of the book!). Based on that question, it’s clear there’s some thematic stuff going on, but I’m curious about the process of writing the story. Were these characters named in your head?  I ask in part because I’m terrible at remembering names in real life, and I think a lot of writers struggle with finding names that fit the characters they’ve created. Do names seem superfluous as you write? Of course, one character does get a name, and it’s the dead sister in the first story, which is probably no accident.

Erin Pringle

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Well, I had to write the questions at the end of the book, and I felt like if you got to the questions, you’d already realized the non-naming. So, maybe it makes you feel better that I knew they weren’t named and I wrote the questions, too? But on naming. No, I don’t name the characters in my head. My resistance to naming comes from the way naming hurts people in small towns. Names become not only individual histories but family histories, and a child with a name connected to a family history, especially a family history that is not revered by the town, is harnessed with an unbearable and invisible weight that he or she deals with daily. For example, let’s say The Hendersons have always been poor, always struggled, have, frankly, been caught in the cycle and culture of poverty for over a century. Now, little Denny Henderson is born, and eventually goes to school. All of his teachers know about The Hendersons. They went to school with a Henderson or two. So, when Denny Henderson has a hard time with math, it’s not just because of the way he’s being taught math, or his development at the time of his learning, it’s that he’s A Henderson and Hendersons have always been slow (read: poor, read: had to drop out of school to try to support each other). This snowballs over his years of school until he either drops out because school’s not for him, but then again, school’s never been good to the Hendersons, right? Or, he makes it to high-school, let’s say, but the high-school counselor in the small town is more likely to show Denny or Tricia Henderson pamphlets to the military or advise R.N. work-study, than show Denny or Tricia Henderson the steps to go to college. College isn’t necessarily the end-all, be-all, but it helps, and would certainly help Denny and Tricia see themselves in the larger context of their history and the larger history and the world. College is the way out of the small town, though not necessarily poverty. A better poverty, maybe? I don’t know.

I hated the way people’s names hurt them. The people with rich names were always the popular ones and the middle-class ones. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I’ve seen and know how a name, or your association with a name, can make you be opposed to someone with the same name, and I really don’t have the ability to cure my readers of the associations they have with names. Easier to remove the names. Easier for me to avoid trapping my characters into histories (and the genre of a story loves to blame a character’s life on the character’s history). Easier to focus on their thoughts, their lives, their memories—and to honor these instead of blame them or poke fun at them. In death, of course, all that’s left is the name. The name is what points back to the life. And, technically, it’s easier to write two female characters if one has a name because the “her” pronouns get tricky and an unnecessary impediment.

Michael Noll

One of the things you and I heard in grad school was that writers find a theme or subject or kind of story they’re drawn to and write versions of it over and over. I’m not sure I completely buy that, but in your collection, there is certainly a lot of death and grief. In most of the stories, there’s no real closure for the characters and often for the readers as well. Were you aware, as you wrote them, that these stories were circling death and loss in this way? Or was each story a surprise to you as it showed up on the page?

Erin Pringle

Yes. The stories were written during the mourning of my best friend who died of pulmonary hypertension when she was 28 and I was 26. Then, my sister completed suicide when I was 29 and she was 45. I’d already finished my first book, which was written during the mourning of my father’s death (I was 17, he was 63). I just wasn’t able to leave the state of mourning, not that you ever do, but to leave one of the rooms within that labyrinth. All these stories are written in the world of death, the mourning of it, the attempt to stop it, the happening of it, and the grief following it. Each death is different in how it’s mourned, which I didn’t know, but now I do, and so as I would try to show grief, how it works. But one story wasn’t enough to sing grief or end mine. Grief is such a fissured prism that the light is hard to catch all at once. So, no, it wasn’t a surprise. It was just a moving prison. I would hope the next story would be about something else. But no. It couldn’t be. And that’s fine. Not that the stories are only about death and mourning. They’re about beauty and identity and hope and worry and poverty and memory and time. But, all within the landscape of loss. Loss is the vanishing point.

Michael Noll

All of these stories are set in the Midwest, in small towns. When I think of some of the well-known Midwestern writers that I love, like Dan Chaon, and newer writers like the memoirist Angela Palm, even though their work is set in different parts of the Midwest and pretty different in style and genre, there’s a clear sense of loss, isolation, and abandonment in all of their works. Given that so much of this book is about death and loss, do you think there’s something particularly Midwestern about the subject? I’m tempted to say that anyone who grows up in a small town and leaves has to figure out and reinvent who they are, which can create a sense of loss, but I wonder if that idea would hold up to scrutiny. Is it just coincidence that Chaon and Palm write about trying to figure out what happened to the dead and missing, as you do?

Erin Pringle

In a small town, the places of community are church and the diner. The aisles of the grocery store, to some extent. The football bleachers, to some extent. So, that’s where we gather, and where we gather the main things that are always discussed are the weather and who is sick, dying, or grieving. The newspaper takes care of the honoring and bragging, so the good stories are mainly told by the reporters. Whose child made honor roll, who’s having a 50th anniversary, who has been born, who gave a dazzling performance in the Spring musical. The stories I most often heard, or was very aware of, were the death stories. My grandmother lived in a large city but would send my mom clippings of obituaries of her friends or my mother’s friends. I watched my grandmother lose her friends, and now I’m watching my mother lose hers. My mother has taken on the same tradition of passing deaths along to me via postal mail.

When a girl I grew up with lost her pre-teen son quite suddenly in a four-wheeler accident, I learned immediately. And though I haven’t spoken to her in nearly twenty years, I think of her grief often, of her often, of how she is. After my sister died, I was back home in the grocery, and I saw that same girl. She hadn’t had her grief yet, and we didn’t speak, but we saw each other and I knew she knew of my sister’s death. I think collective grief is how we take care of each other in the small town. Rural death is collective grief, I guess. Religion is used to mediate it, maybe. To give everyone a set of traditions to follow. I’m more generous about it now that I’m an atheist. Also, in a rural town, the cemeteries are not beyond the physical boundary of everyday living. Whenever I’ve lived in large towns or cities, I have a hard time finding the graveyards. They aren’t on the way to the grocery, or to school. And when something is not tangible, it’s also not on one’s mind in the same way. I’d imagine death becomes more dramatic (unreal), the more isolated and away-from people it becomes. Which worries me, really. Because death is a necessary part of our identities and our relationships to each other. I don’t believe I’ll see my loved ones and neighbors in the afterlife so I want to make sure I act in ways that honor and support their lives while they’re alive. Maybe I’m wrong, here, but I feel like my awareness and belief in death as a fact is what helps me better care for the living. And maybe it’s not a coincidence that a small town is more aware of death and dying and, simultaneously, has more of a use for religion. So that’s what we small towners gravitate to, and small town writers are, at the seed of self, small-town people. These are the stories that rural people tell each other, and I’m writing for other rural people. Probably the stories seem strange(r) to the urban-made. That’s my guess, anyway.

October 2017

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

How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

10 Oct

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Sometimes you’re reading along and hit a line that makes you stop. You can see in your mind the thing the words are describing, not just an image or a person but the whole thing: the world, the characters in it, the way they’re all connected. Setting isn’t simply a green screen behind the characters. It shapes every moment of their lives, big and small. Anyone who’s read the high-school literary classic “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is familiar with the big ways that setting shapes character, but the smaller ways are just as important.

A great example of how setting and character become a single entity can be found in Erin Pringle’s story, “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble.” It was originally published in The Minnesota Review and then as a stand-alone chapbook by The Head & The Hand Press. It’s now included in Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once. You can read the beginning of the story here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in a small Midwestern town, the sort of place where the annual Agricultural Fair is an anticipated calendar event. Already, the reader is developing expectations for how setting will affect character. It’s a relationship that’s a staple of probably hundreds of movies: the young person who can’t wait to get in a car and go screaming past the city limit sign. But, just as Erika T. Wurth did in her story Mark Wishewas, Pringle moves beyond this familiar setup in a small but effective way. Here’s an early paragraph describing some girls in the town:

The girls’ new hips pull at the seams of their cutoffs. They walk in the most middle of summer, which, after the fair packs up and disappears down the interstate, will tip toward autumn and school doors and Friday night football fields. The girls carry bottles of water and soda cans like boredom. They roll the bits of string from their cutoff shorts against their thighs, balls of lint under their fingernails. Now and then one of their prepaid cell phones rings, but if it’s not that boy, they don’t answer since their mothers won’t buy another refill card from the dollar store until next month.

It’s that last sentence that made me stop, hit with a flash of recognition. It wasn’t that I recognized the moment from my own past. I did grow up in a small, Midwestern town, but it was before people cell phones. Instead, I recognized the moment because it made a kind of crystal clear sense to me: the idea that your cell phone minutes, doled out by your mother, were so precious that you’d answer only if the right boy called you. In a single sentence, Pringle has managed to show us the place, its economics, its family ties, what different members of those families value (mothers/money and daughters/talking with the right boy), and the scale of those values (the small amount of money required to purchase a refill card and literally minutes of phone time). I was hooked.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a small moment that reveals how setting and character are connected, using “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble” by Erin Pringle as a model:

  1.  Set up the general relationship between character and setting. Pringle uses a pretty simple device: an event (Agricultural Fair) that suggests a usual behavior that is common in the place but wouldn’t be elsewhere. If her story was set in New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Austin or even any of a hundred medium-sized cities in America, nobody would care about an Agricultural Fair. What is an event or situation that quickly characterizes the general population of your setting?
  2. Show the characters in the midst of a usual behavior that suggests their attitude toward the setting. After the fair leaves, there’s nothing to do. The girls carry their water bottles and soda cans, bored and listless. If the fair represents a high point for the population of this place, the days afterward represent the return to regular life. What does regular, everyday life look for your characters? How can you dramatize it with an action (like walking with bottles and rolling lint)?
  3. Introduce one element of that usual behavior. Again, Pringle uses a simple device: something the girls are carrying as they walk and roll lint. A cell phone rings. As you’ll see in the next step, this is a key moment in their day. Look around your scene. What objects or implied actions are present? Introduce them until something strikes you as interesting.
  4. Let the characters react to it with a sudden shift in attitude. Earlier, the girls were bored, but when the phone rings, they’re paying close attention to the caller’s number. (Note that Pringle doesn’t actually show the girls looking at their phones or even what they see. She skips to their conclusions based on what they see. It’s a great example of how to describe a scene without showing every literal part of it, which is crucial to pacing.) In Pringle’s story, as far as the narrative is concerned, it doesn’t really matter who’s calling. What’s important is that the girls care who’s calling, and it breaks them out of their bored walking. Their level of interest and engagement has dramatically changed. So, what is an element that is part of your scene that will cause the characters to suddenly change their level of interest and engagement. That’s the element you want to describe.

The goal is to reveal the way that character and setting are connected and bring a story to life.

Good luck.

An Interview with Erika T. Wurth

28 Sep

Erika T. Wurth is the author of four books, most recently the story collection Buckskin Cocaine.

Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and One Thousand Horses Out to Sea and a collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing and South Dakota Review. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.

To read the story “Mark Wishewas” from Buckskin Cocaine and an exercise on helping readers connect with characters, click here.

In this interview, Wurth discusses narrative arcs in collections of interlinked stories, effective climaxes, and the shape of stories.

Michael Noll

This is a collection of linked stories, and often when I read linked collections, there’s a kind of novelistic sensibility, a sense of growing bigger and broader. But in this collection, I found myself feeling the opposite, almost claustrophobic. This seemed intentional. The characters often seem to feel this way, too, repeatedly referencing the same places and institutions and people with an increasingly intense mixture of frustration and love. How did you think about narrative arc between stories? Was there a particular journey you wanted to take readers on?

Erika T. Wurth

Although I have become increasingly interested in interlinked stories, I feel like there should be a reason why something is a collection of short stories and not a novel. I think that that’s the fault of what agents and big presses think the public wants, which they always think the public wants a novel. That said, I’m really super bored by collections that are ubiquitous in terms of characterization, where the only commonality is in terms of theme and tone (and man, those collections sound the same to me). I ultimately wanted the stories in Buckskin to stand alone –  but still work very well together. All of the personalities are dark –  though sympathetic to a degree, and the journey I wanted people to go on was starting with the darkest personality and the least sympathetic and ending with the most sympathetic (with the novella), resulting in a cumulative feeling of what it is like from the inside in the native film world (though the analogies to the writing world are there). The native film world is so brutal and it’s not talked about. I thought it would be interesting for non-natives to see a dark and sometimes satiric – but more natural version of native life. And for natives to look at that darkness and have something to process it with.

Michael Noll

In several of these stories, the narrators quickly establish traits that make them fairly difficult to be around. Mark Wishewas, for instance, says things like this about his girlfriend: “And I know I keep having sex with her, but it’s just because I’m so used to her by now.” But the reader’s relationship (at least mine) to the characters changes as the stories go along. The characters don’t necessarily change, but we/I find ourselves feeling more warmly toward them. This seems like a different way of thinking about plot and conflict, making it as much about the reader’s relationship to the work as it is about the character’s growth or transformation. Is this something you were aiming for?

Erika T. Wurth

I personally think an effective climax is not one that comes from above. Too many people mistake action for drama, and they have a story that has a series of actions that leads to a revelation that doesn’t seem earned. Personally, I think the most interesting fiction is driven by character. If it’s driven by character, then the decisions they make will be organic and there will eventually be an internal climax, which to me is authentic – and one where the main character has changed. And the main characters in this collection often change by just knowing that they can’t, like in Mark Wishewas. He tells himself that he knows his career is set but he’s smart enough to know that it isn’t – and that he’s fooling himself, and that he will continue to do so.

Michael Noll

The stories in this collection use a lot of different forms. Some are pretty straightforward, but others use repetition, as in the paragraph/stand-alone sentence form of “Gary Hollywood.” Others use a space breaks frequently, and some don’t. At what point in a draft do you begin to sense what shape a story will take?

Erika T. Wurth

I guess I decide on the form in a kind of organic way once I’ve felt the character really rise up. It’s not like I start writing something and then it becomes something, though I’m very led by voice and I don’t like plotting something out deeply beforehand. Ultimately, with this collection I knew that since I hadn’t written a poem in a long time, that part of me was probably gone and so I thought what I’d like to do is take some poetic technique like repetition and the vignette and see what I could do with it in prose. A lot of that was born out of thinking about how people talk about traditional versus experimental/postmodern and how sometimes people use those terms without any concrete definitions – and they seem to use them in order to beat each other up, and I find that really uninteresting. I’ve always thought that form should mirror the content. For example, the first story is written from the POV of somebody who is truly shattered and so that’s why it’s in a series of vignettes, many of them standing for different parts of himself that have nearly split themselves off from the other parts and are holding those other parts hostage.

Michael Noll

Almost all of these stories begin with direct references to Indians or Natives, the narrators placing themselves within that identity. In an interview in The Rumpus, you talked about publishing and said, “It stinks that we have to go outside of our community to be published. But even the Native presses like University of Arizona, University of New Mexico—those are the ones that are left—they kind of repeat the same narrative. Very few Natives are in charge of that.” Were you intentionally pushing against that usual narrative with these stories—or did the characters you created just naturally start pushing against it?

Erika T. Wurth

The characters are native because that’s my world. I think that most people reflect in an imaginative and poetic way, the world that they come from and the world that they’re in. 80% of what I write is still completely made up. What kills me is when white people write racist and two-dimensional characters that’s seen as a really admirable artistic stretch, when most of us do best by writing again, imaginatively and poetically around what we know, even if it’s not autobiographical at all. And I do think that I’ve done some thinking, a lot of thinking over the years about not being a writer who talks overtly about issues and racism, even though obviously those things are in there. I want to write about my world and I feel like I have the same right to do that, that white folks do. Why should my job constantly be educating white people when white people are not sitting around with that same job. I want to write about my tribe in the same way Salinger did about his. Or Richard Wright about his. I want my work to be, and I’m using these words a lot but, an organic and imaginative expression of what I’m interested in and the world that I know. So I think that it seems resistant only because so many native writers are celebrated for centering whiteness by either doing a version of Indian that’s very palatable (defined by their sadness because of whatever experiences they have with racism) or by constantly talking about racism in an overt way, which just centers white people again—it doesn’t allow me the artistic space to write what I want to write about.

September 2017

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

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