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.

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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.

How to Help Readers Intimately Connect with Characters

26 Sep

Buckskin Cocaine, the new story collection by Erika T. Wurth, tells the complex, gritty stories of eight characters working in the Native American film industry.

When I teach characterization, I often tell people to begin with statements like, “She’s the kind of person who…” as a way to move beyond basic description to attitude, routine, and potential action. But, of course, it’s still a strategy that tends toward generalization, and the characters that stick with us as readers don’t feel generic. They feel fully realized and complex, and, as we read about them, we forget that we’re reading.

That’s the Holy Grail for writers—to create characters who no longer feel created. The difficulty is that they are created and that the creation often starts with generalizations. So how can writers move beyond them? How can characters begin to take on a life of their own?

Erika T. Wurth’s new collection, Buckskin Cocaine, is full of characters that do this. You can find one of them in the story “Mark Wishewas,” first published as “Mason Snap” at Literary Orphans, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Each of the stories in the collection focuses on a different character who is involved in some way in the Native American film industry. The voice of each character is vastly different from the others, but they do share one commonality in that they tend to begin with a trait or statement that makes them immediately recognizable to the reader. For example, the story “Lucy Bigboca” features a narrator who uses LOL, LMAO, sooooooo, and WHATEV. It’s a voice we recognize as a kind of type. Sometimes the characters also see others as types. In the story “Robert Two Stories,” the narrator starts off talking about Oklahoma and how “the homeless there, the Natives, they were so real.” He’s casting them into types. The story “Mark Wishewas” does something similar in its opening paragraph:

I know I’m smart. And a great filmmaker. Just because I haven’t filmed anything doesn’t mean anything. I know what I’d film would be ten, no one-hundred times better than what those other Indians have done. They don’t even deserve all the attention they’ve gotten. I mean, I’m going to be working with George Bull, and though he acts like he can barely stand me, I know he thinks I’m a genius.

Right away, our unreliable narrator alarm goes off. The narrator is not as great a filmmaker as he thinks he is, and pretty soon we see the disdain that George Bull has for him. It’s a characterization that will feel familiar to anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye or watched the show Eastbound & Down. We have a good idea for where this story is going: the character’s sense of his own worth will run into some immovable object and be thwarted in its quest for greatness. Wurth is terrific at creating voice, and she does a ruthlessly effective job of setting this guy up to fail. But that’s not why I think this character and the others in the collection are great.

Instead, it’s the small details that Wurth introduces that makes these characters feel intimately human. We fall into the character and momentarily forget the direction we’re pretty sure the story will take. In “Mark Wishewas,” for me, that moment comes when the narrator, Mark, encounters George Bull at a bar and buys him and another man shots:

I stand at the long, wooden bar fuming, trying not to face punch the drunk white guy next to me who keeps elbowing my ribs when. the bartender finally pays attention to me. I get myself a beer and order shots of Patrón cause that’s the only thing George will drink. He thinks he’s some kind of Navajo G I guess. I walk back over to them, my heart pounding in my chest the whole way, and hand them their tequila.

The detail that gets me isn’t that he gives serious thought to the best drink to buy but that his heart is pounding in his chest as he carries the shots back to them. So much of this story is built on big talk and humiliation, and both are present in this moment, literally and potentially, but what I love is the brief moment of vulnerability. The narrator is a big talker, and we have a good idea what’s going to happen to him, but for a moment, we see that he’s nervous, and it’s endearing. This is what a great characterization can do: make the premise of a story intimately human.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s build a character with a small, intimate detail, using “Mark Wishewas” by Erika T. Wurth as a model:

  1. Set up the character’s attitude. Try finishing the sentence, “He/she is the kind of person who…” In this case, Mark Wishewas is the kind of person who has an inflated sense of his own self, an attitude that is perhaps a defense mechanism. He anticipates rejection, and so he both builds himself up and tears others down. What does your character anticipate? What attitude does the character bring to that anticipated moment?
  2. Give the character a clear desire. Mark Wishewas wants to make a film and wants to be recognized for it the same as others have been. He wants this so bad that it’s the most prominent thought in his head. What does your character want more than anything else?
  3. The desired object is put within reach. The story is set in a bar where Mark can approach the man who might satisfy his desire. What sort of place offers that potential to your character?
  4. Show the reader how that moment really feels. For most of the story, we’re getting the story that Mark tells himself and the broader audience of the people he imagines want to hear his story. When he carries the shots to the filmmakers, though, that story and his rehearsed way of telling it (“face punch the drunk white guy next to me,” “the bartender finally pays attention to me”) gets dropped and we see into the narrator with his facade removed. We see his heart pounding because he’s nervous. So, think about how your character feels when faced with the opportunity to get whatever is desired—not how the character says he/she feels but some detail that slips out, unfiltered and unvarnished. That is the detail that can fully humanize your character.

The goal is to make readers buy in to your characters by unexpectedly revealing something intimate about them. It can be a small detail, glimpsed briefly, but the results can be huge.

Good luck.

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.

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.

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