An Interview with Joe Jiménez

21 Sep

Joe Jiménez is the author of the books The Possibilities of Mud and Bloodline and, most recently, the essay, “Cotton.”

Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016) and is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize.  Jimenez’s essays and poems have recently appeared in Iron Horse, RHINO, Gulf Steam, Waxwing, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites.  Jimenez was recently awarded a Lucas Artists Literary Artists Fellowship from 2017-2020. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops.  For more information, visit joejimenez.net.

To read an exercise on using misdirection and indirectness, inspired by Jiménez’s essay “Cotton,” click here.

Michael Noll

This essay moves back and forth between first and third person, between “I” and “The man.” I once sat in on a talk with the war correspondent Scott Anderson, and he said that no matter the country he was in or the language the people spoke, as soon as someone switched into second person (you’re walking down the road and…), he knew he was about to hear something bad. The POV shift was a distancing device. Is the shift in this essay is something similar? What was the experience of seeing yourself as an almost fictional character?

Joe Jiménez

Anderson shares an interesting view of the You as a conduit to sharing something “bad.”  I wrote an entire novel in the second-person, Bloodline, a YA retelling of Hamlet, and I agree with Anderson that POV is so much about moving a speaker or narrator closer to or farther away from a reader. In Bloodline, I played with the You as a direct address, an embrace, a reaching out to hold another’s hand.  I’m thinking right now that I really was distancing myself, the writer, from “the man” in the essay “Cotton”—I am not entirely ashamed of that person I was all those years ago, and yet, I’d be lying if I said I don’t cringe every now and again when I consider how I was, not the who, necessarily, but the how of me.  Telling the story of the man, then, for me, in this essay, was all about telling a story of who I used to be, but there’s also a musicality to how “the man” sounds, which I love, and which drives me, perhaps more so than any logical reasoning or thought process that extends beyond the fact that I really just liked how it felt to write about “the man,” how it sounded when I read those lines aloud, or when I put the words inside me and let them do what they did in my mouth and my ears.

Michael Noll

The essay seems to be built upon the story, the one it ends on, the man leaving his old life to start a new one. That story leads to other stories, and I can imagine looking at this in a rough draft and wondering how to juggle and connect these different stories. The cotton seems to be the glue that holds them together. Was it always in the essay, or did it show up later as a way to connect these different parts?

Joe Jiménez

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

I started with the idea of cotton.  It’s something I jotted down on a papelito, a scrap paper, I kept in a notebook.  I started the essay when I was in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and having just read Joan Didion’s essay “Keeping a Notebook,” and while I was trying to do over my life, I collected these papelitos, and later, I laid out a few of them on a table and said, what can I make?  I was staying in my hometown, then, with my mother and brother, when I recalled my visits to the cotton fields, and I remembered growing up, watching my mother looking in the cupboard some nights, which was frequently empty, and looking at what she would cook, which was a treat for us, since she often did not cook, laying out the cans of beans and maybe a can of corn and tomato sauce, a few weenies from the fridge, a potato, and saying, what can I make out of this?  I did the same with my papelitos one day, spreading them out, saying, what can I make out of this?  Rasquache is the word I would use to describe what I made.  Maybe it’s pastiche, maybe it’s lyrical—when I hold it close to me, the word I hear is mestizaje.

Michael Noll

At one point, you write, “My aunts, my grandmother, people I don’t know can sing of how picking cotton can break the back or the spirit or both—how forced labor and low-wage work demolishes a body. These are not my stories. And so, I pause now to know who I am in relation to other people’s grief.” I was really struck by this line, the way you place your own story within a context of place and people. Writers sometimes get asked who they write for–who they imagine their audience to be–and I wonder, if in that moment, if you were asking yourself that same thing. Did you have an imagined audience for this as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Although I didn’t think of audience at that exact moment, I like the idea and perhaps I should ask this of myself more when I write.  What I wrote with that line was fueled by the question of power—I mean, really, how can a brown man in Texas write about cotton without recognizing its legacy?  The story of cotton in the place I am from cannot be divorced from the pain inflicted by people and institutions who have controlled cotton.  The scholar Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez from Fresno State University has written about the role of cotton in the area of South Texas she and I are from—we’re from the same hometown, in fact, Gregory, Texas, and have both published books with Arte Publico Press.  So I can’t write entirely unconsciously about cotton.  I think the history matters, to me it does. And I’ve learned from writing fiction to ask, when writing characters who wield power differently than me:  Am I being fair? What does this portrayal ask of the truth?

Michael Noll

There’s a great passage that begins,”If you have never seen a water tower glimmering with sunrise…” It’s one of a couple of moments where you seem to be explaining the context for your story to people who might lack firsthand experience with it. In part, I ask this because I grew up in  the country, outside a small town a ways from any big city, and so I sometimes find myself feeling the need to say to people, “No, look, here’s what it’s like.” I was talking a while back with another South Texas writer, Rene Perez, and he said that writing about South Texas is like writing science fiction; you’ve got to do a lot of worldbuilding. I thought about this when reading this passage. Do you recall at all what your thinking was as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Perez drives a marvelous point.  Worldbuilding is part of what we do.  I also, and perhaps more immediately to this section of the essay, wanted to speak directly to perils of romanticizing small towns.  As a cisgender man, as a brown man who wears boots and old baseball caps and drives a red truck, my body is often read as straight, heteronormative, and so I am, for the most part, given safety in many small towns in South Texas.  This isn’t the case for everyone.  People I know and love, people I don’t know, have had to leave their hometowns for safer places, for opportunity, for people like them, for a chance at real sustainable joy.  I believe there is power in writing about our blindspots, and to see only the wonder of water towers without acknowledging that small towns, while awesome to me, also echo pain for others.  And like many of us, I’ve become especially aware of the divide between big cities and small towns, of urbanity and rurality, during and after last year’s election.  My partner and I visited Huntington, West Virginia last fall, where I talked about race and class and my YA novel at Marshall University, and while I will never fully understand why poor and working class people vote against our own interests, I do understand what it means to be living without things you need, necessities like jobs and food and health care, and for that reason, to put all your hopes in one basket, one basket that may subvert you, but still, it feels like hope when nothing else feels like hope, and what’s life without hope?  Driving the streets of Huntington, so many of the houses, like several on each street, were for sale, entire neighborhoods, it seemed, were being sold. I saw that despair, and having lived despair of my own, I understood some of it.  Coming from a small town, I have also felt defensive when I’ve listened to others disparage small-town America—like you, I often feel the need to say, “No, look, here’s what it’s like” or “But there’s so much more to it” or “More people from big cities should be interacting with people from small towns.”

September 2017

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

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How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

19 Sep

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working.

It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch. A terrific example of this can be found in Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton.” It was published in The Adroit Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay moves back and forth between passages about the cotton fields that dominated the landscape where Jiménez grew up and personal stories that lead up to, and away from, a moment where he realized that his life needed to change. Obviously, those personal stories will be doing a lot of narrative work, and yet they occupy a surprisingly small amount of space in the essay—because Jiménez exercises a light touch in some devastatingly effective ways. Here’s one example:

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard.  When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds.  But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

There are a lot of ways this passage could have been written more directly, dealing with the events and the emotions of the relationship head on. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it states the premise and a noteworthy detail (“I fell in love with a man with one ear”), sums up some noteworthy points on the timeline of the relationship (“I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri…”), and then focuses on two things: what they ate on the beach and what happened to one of their puppies.

In part, the focus on things that are not the thing itself (the relationship) is a perfect example of what John Gardner was talking about in his famous barn exercise (describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son has just died in a war, but don’t state what he feels or what happened to his son). Jiménez is moving tangentially, getting at the emotionally heart of a scene through an unexpected entry.

But Jiménez is also doing something else: he’s juxtaposing a short, tangential-seeming story with a statement of absolute clarity and directness (“Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die”). It’s a statement that would get our attention regardless of where it is placed in the essay. But it’s particularly breathtaking because it comes at us from outside our line of vision. We’ve been looking at food and puppies. It’s all connected, of course, but we’ve been temporarily distracted. To go back to the theoretical giants, it’s an example of what Kenneth Burke wrote about the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is waiting on a platform for his father’s ghost; while he waits he and the audience get distracted by his drunken uncle, and so the thing we suspect is coming arrives out of nowhere.

Jiménez manages this in one short paragraph, and that brevity makes the passage even more effective.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use misdirection and indirectness, using “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez as a model:

  1. State the premise and a noteworthy detail. In general, premises are simple: somebody loves somebody, somebody hates somebody, somebody wants something and can’t quite get it. They’re built on universal experience and emotion. The noteworthy detail is what makes your universal moment less universal. Not everyone has just one ear. It’s a fairly small detail and not the hinge upon which the entire story turns, but it gets our attention so that we’ll read onto the more important details. So, what is your universal premise and what is a detail that can particularize it?
  2. Sum up some noteworthy points on the story’s timeline. In short, write a montage. This happened, this happened, and this. It can move that fast in your passage. Use short sentences. Be direct. You’re setting the stage for the bigger moment.
  3. Focus on one or two details. Jiménez focuses on food and a puppy. The food is not generic. He and his lover grew it themselves, so it had meaning to them. That’s really the best filter to use when figuring out which details to focus on: what has the most meaning to the characters. It’s often small things that they’re most proud of or most moved by in the moment. The puppy is a great detail because it’s personal to the characters but also because there’s a narrative arc attached to it. That arc creates a story within the story. So, what details are meaningful to you or your characters and which details have narratives attached to them? Describe those details and tell their stories as quickly as possible.
  4. Jump back to the premise. Jiménez jumps to “Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.” That sentence is one of the big reasons he tells this story in the first place. It’s the next part of the premise: I fell in love with a guy, and every year he said… Write a sentence or two that states, as directly as possible, a fact that makes the story significant to your or your characters.

The goal is to juxtapose that direct statement with the less direct details that precede it, and perhaps you can plan that juxtaposition, but it’s more likely that you’ll come at it from a couple of angles before one feels right. Give yourself the space to keep trying until it all clicks into place.

Good luck.

An Interview with William Jensen

7 Sep

William Jensen is the author of the novel Cities of Men, which has been called “deeply moving and complex.”

William Jensen has been a landscaper, a construction worker, a dishwasher, a groundskeeper, and a teacher.  His short fiction has appeared in various literary journals.  He has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.  Mr. Jensen is currently the editor of Southwestern American Literatureand Texas Books in Review.

To read an exercise about bridging between scenes in a novel, inspired by Jensen’s Cities of Menclick here.

In this interview, Jensen discusses invisible first lines, the inspiration of Richard Stark and Thomas Harris, and pushing characters into situations where they must act in ways that contradict their tendencies.

Michael Noll

There are moments in the novel when you flash forward into the narrator’s present tense–moments when he’s reflecting back on the events of the novel and in the time between its end and when he tells the story. What was your strategy for these? When did you know when to include them?

William Jensen

There really wasn’t any “strategy.” At least not in the first draft. I relied a lot on instinct to know when to have the narrator reflect. I tend to write a lot in the first person, and when I do this I mentally slip on that character’s skin and think about why this person is even telling the story—why these events are important, what he hopes to express to his audience. I tend to think of everything I write as having an invisible first line that goes, “This is what changed everything.” So I keep that in mind. I’m trying to explore how these incidents, this story, changed the course of life for a particular character or characters. After a while you can really hear your characters, and I listened my protagonist’s voice as he guided me along. There are times to zig and times to zag, times to stay in the scene and times to get deep into a character’s thoughts, so during revision I asked myself if I needed more or less reflection to earn an emotional impact. It’s important for me to have my characters move on after I’ve set the pencil down.

Michael Noll

You and I both attended the MFA program at Texas State and took classes with Tom Grimes, who likes to talk about how stories and novels need a ticking clock. Your book introduces that clock at the end of the first chapter, which ends with the words “my mother disappeared.” Did you always know what the clock (and, therefore, the frame) of the novel would be? How long did it take you to figure it out?

William Jensen

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember. Novels take years to write, and I tend to get a little lost along the way and go down rabbit holes and come across subplots that work or have to be entirely cut. I think the clock for me was more in the opening line, “I saw my father get into only two fights.” Since the beginning chapter is about the first fight, the rest of the book is a countdown to the second (and final) rumble. I’m not sure how I actually even came up with that now, I think I just heard the line in my head and wrote it down. By the time I had the first chapter drafted, I knew I had a clock and Tom would be proud. I wonder if he’s read it.

Michael Noll

The search for the mother defines the book, but it’s not a police procedural or really any sort of detective novel. It has some moments where clues lead to investigations, but they happen quickly. I wonder what this novel looked like in its early stages, when you figuring out what direction the story would go and which characters it would focus on. Were you ever tempted to lean more heavily on the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre?

William Jensen

No, I was never that interested in those conventions. Obviously, my characters have a clear and distinct conflict, which is a missing person. And this could have become a thriller if the characters were a little different—a bit harder, darker—or if I was just a different type of writer. I did have some scenes in the first draft that were slightly inspired by Richard Stark’s stuff, but these felt out of place and didn’t ring true—however I admit I love writing those types of scenes. I enjoy mysteries and thrillers. I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is excellent. There’s a reason why David Foster Wallace used to teach it. I like the Jesse Stone novels by Robert B. Parker a lot. Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is a total masterpiece. Some of those books are incredibly tight. Though I tend to have crime and violence in my fiction, my first and main concern is writing about devastating moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Michael Noll

There are a few big fights in the novel, and what’s interesting is that those scenes keep going even after the fight ends. The focus becomes less on what the fight was about or who won and more about what happens afterward. I suppose that’s really what the entire novel is about. Did you always intend to write those fight scenes in this way, or was it a case of discovering what you had as you were writing it?

William Jensen

I’d have to say it was a combination of both. Like a lot of guys, I got into my share of scrapes as a boy, luckily nothing serious, but regardless of how it ended—in tears or friendship—it was never like the fights I saw on television or the movies. It was always messier, more chaotic…and a lot more sad. Pain hurts. And pain is scary. I knew from the start that the father figure would get into some fights yet he wasn’t a violent guy, and I wanted to explore that. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories where characters are pushed into situations where they’re forced to act in a contradictory way. The more I wrote about the father, the son, the more I was able to meditate on them and their own views of violence, too. So I knew where things were going, I just didn’t know how it would get there. But that’s writing. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

September 2017

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

How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

5 Sep

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

A great example of how to create a bridge to the next scene in a novel can be found in William Jensen’s novel Cities of Men. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel’s opening chapter begins, “I saw my father get into only two fights” and then proceeds to tell us about one of them, a fight in a grocery store parking lot. The father and his wife have bought their son, the novel’s narrator, ice cream, and their father is walking back to the car when he hears an argument between a man and woman in another car. He steps in, and a fight ensues. The scene is well written and clearly memorably for the narrator, who observes not just the fight but the ways it could have played out but did not—and also his mother’s reaction and the weather. He’s beginning to place himself in the universe, the sort of coming-of-age moment that naturally builds to an Araby-like concluding line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But that’s not what Jensen does because Cities of Men is a novel, not a short story.

Instead, the scene ends like this:

I ran to my room. Seeing Dad cry scared me more than the night’s violence. But I couldn’t tell you why. I pulled the sheets up to my collar. I dug my face into my pillow, closed my eyes, and tried not to think.

I saw Dad fight only one other time. And that wouldn’t happen until four years later, shortly after my mother disappeared.

The ending line echoes the first line of the novel, which is no coincidence. I don’t know which one was written first, and it doesn’t matter. At some point, Jensen knew that there would be a second fight and that the mother, who is so present in this opening scene, would leave, and so the scene is written to introduce both of those elements. Naturally, we want to know more. It’s the last two sentences that do the important work, veering away from epiphany to what-happens-next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a bridge between scenes in a novel, using Cities of Men by William Jensen as a model:

  1.  Write the scene you want to write. It’s the thing that likely drew you to this story, and so don’t give it short shrift. Jensen’s opening chapter, minus the first and last lines, could be a quick short story, almost flash fiction. It has its own narrative arc and emotional impact—which is good. If you have a scene like this in mind, one that you’ve been writing in your head for years or one that you’ve written and don’t know what to do with, let it be itself. Don’t run away from the story you want to tell.
  2. Take away or add something. Play a simple what-if exercise with your scene. What if something essential to the scene was taken away? Or, what if something new and burdensome was added? You’re not subtracting or adding to the scene itself but to what comes next. Jensen takes the mother away at the end, after the scene has wrapped up. It’s a simple move that provides the foundation for the entire novel: establish the emotional relationships in the novel and then mess them up. What can you subtract from or add to your scene in the scene that follows?
  3. Be explicit about the addition or subtraction. I may have said this so many times that I’m beating a dead horse, but there’s nothing wrong with coming out and being direct with your readers—especially if being direct forces you to be direct with yourself about your characters’ motivations. Jensen could not be any more explicit unless he wrote, “Then my mother disappeared.” Actually, that’s basically what he writes, only more artfully. And it’s great. Save your nuance and subtlety for the moments in between big, plot-changing sentences. Make those sentences hard-hitting. Tell the reader what you’ve added or subtracted.

The goal is to turn any scene in a novel into a bridge to the next scene.

Good luck.

An Interview with Christopher Brown

10 Aug

Christopher Brown is the author of the novel Tropic of Kansas, which William Gibson called “a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”

Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas. He was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows, The Baffler, and Reckoning. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he also practices technology law.

To read an excerpt from Tropic of Kansas and an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Brown discusses writing his story from the ending, how he knew what getting hit by a rubber bullet felt like, and writing a near-future dystopian novel in the current political climate.

Michael Noll

The novel starts out with a fairly tight frame, with Sig escaping custody. We learn that the United States is led by a despotic leader, but the narrative seems less about revolution and more about individual survival. Gradually the narrative frame broadens to include revolution, and I’m curious if you always knew this would be the case. Did you know that Sig would get drawn into larger and larger events? Or did you stumble into them, along with him? 

Christopher Brown

I always knew where the story was going to go, but only a vague plan for how it would get there. The ending was the first thing I wrote. I knew who the three core characters were, and where they were going to end up, but not much beyond that. I also knew that I wanted Sig’s trajectory to follow the model traced by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book Bandits, a study across cultures and eras of how a common thief will sometimes evolve into a social bandit and then revolutionary leader.  And I knew that the story had to be found through an episodic approach, in a way that would be truer to real life and structurally similar to adventure pulps. It took a lot of work to write my way into a coherent narrative using that approach, but I think it was the right way to go

Note: Brown discusses Hobsbawm and Bandits further in this post at Criminal Element.

Michael Noll

There are a lot of fighting and battle scenes in this book. What was your approach to writing these? Did you do any research on how they might have played out?

Christopher Brown

The book aims at a speculative realism, constructed as much as possible from the material of the observed world, remixed and inverted. Most of the places the book goes mirror places I have spent substantial time in, all the characters draw from real life, and many of the physical injuries are ones I have suffered (a friend told me what it feels like to be shot with a rubber bullet).  The scenes of armed conflict and uprising draw on a mix of events from revolutions and wars that have occurred in other countries, embellished with real elements I have witnessed (including as a young journalist traveling through conflict zones and as a government lawyer overseeing federal law enforcement efforts), all put together in a way that tries to repurpose the material of American action stories toward more emancipatory ends.

Michael Noll

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the major plot points in the novel hinges on the way people who oppose the government are able to secretly communicate via television. Was this something you made up, or did you discover this as a possibility that could (or actually does) exist?

Christopher Brown

There’s a romance to those analog broadcast technologies, things that once embodied the future and now seem part of a static-ridden past. They have a cool aesthetic that I was intuitively drawn to, boosted by the idea of popular repossession of technologies of institutional power. But the networks I imagined also drew on real technologies I once worked with, at a software company that developed early interactive television systems that could transmit digital information over analog TV networks.  So again, an effort at speculative realism.

Michael Noll

Anyone who reads this book will be struck by parallels with our current state of political affairs. But I’m guessing this novel was written long before our current president had even declared his candidacy. When you began revising in preparation for publication, did you give much thought to these parallels, or did you try to treat the novel’s world as its own creation?

Christopher Brown

I started the book in earnest in early 2012 and finished it in November of 2014. At the time, I thought some of the political elements of the story were so implausible that I sat on it for a while, sending it only to a few colleagues. But everything in the book drew on things I saw in the world around me, in the same way that our current political realities reflect deep currents that have been developing for years. For example, as I wrote in an essay earlier this year, the idea of the businessman-politician running the country like a company has been around for decades. Many science fiction novels that get called prescient are just good examples of naturalistic inversions whose “futures” really just emphasize things evident in the present. During editorial revisions last year, I was obviously aware of current events, but focused more on drawing out the ecological themes that had worked their way to the surface, and fine-tuning the story I already had. The world of the book is an imagined one, almost like another character, and the challenge is letting that world be true to itself within the confines of the story, while at the same time striving for fidelity for deeper truths.

For further reading about the book, some recent essays by Christopher

Dystopia is Realism”—LitHub, July 10, 2017

You’re Fired—Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO”—NewCoShift, March 15, 2017

The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature”—Tor.com, July 13, 2017

The Big Idea Behind Tropic of Kansas”—Scalzi’s Whatever, July 13, 2017

The Summer of Living Dangerously”—Sirens of Suspense, July 2017

August 2017

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

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

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

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