An Interview with Garth Greenwell

22 Sep
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You, a novel of "originality and power" according to the New Yorker's James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, a novel of “originality and power” according to The New Yorker‘s James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, long listed for the National Book Award, and Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space.

To read an exercise on describing a character’s sense of consciousness, inspired by What Belongs to You, click here.

In this interview, Greenwell discusses feeling his way into the novel sentence by sentence, the traffic between the physical world and the abstract realm of consciousness, and why he doesn’t care for the annual award for bad sex writing.

Michael Noll

The book is written in a distinctive style: long paragraphs with nuanced descriptions of glances and other physical details of interactions between characters—and little dialogue. It reminds me, in a way, of Henry James’ novel The Beast in the Jungle, that is if James had been willing or able to use the word cock. It also reminds me a bit of Ben Lerner’s novels, which contain much more dialogue but are similarly interested in the experience of human interactions. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking this: As you wrote the novel, did you feel that you were writing in a style that you were seeing in books that you were reading, or did you feel that you were doing something different—in either a small or significant way?

Garth Greenwell

I think the truest answer is that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The first section of the novel was the first fiction I had ever written–before that I had only ever written poetry. That said, James has been a hero of mine since I read The Turn of the Screw in high school. And he has a pretty central place in a tradition of novel writing I’ve always loved, a line that includes Proust and Mann and Woolf and, more recently, Bernhard and Sebald and Marías. I admire Ben Lerner’s work a lot, and I think he’s following some of those same currents in his fiction.

So: none of those writers served as a model, really, but they were all in my head, knocking around with other things. As I wrote I was really feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, working without much idea of the shape it might take. The book begins and ends with place, I think, and I wanted to be true both to my experience of Bulgaria (where I wrote the novel) and to the relationship between the characters. I don’t think I was concerned at all about how what I was doing stylistically or formally might fit into any kind of tradition or field of practice

Michael Noll

One of my favorite sentences in the novel is this one:

“For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.”

It follows a line stating that the conversation between these characters lasted only a few minutes, and yet this sentence makes clear why the conversation occupies so much space in the novel. What I find interesting about the sentence is how much it operates without specific detail. Mitko is well-described, of course, but phrases like “some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease” are more about impressions than specific traits. What makes a sentence like this work? Does it depend on details that have come before? Or does the reader simply understand and fill in the spaces around words like beautiful, forbidding, and sureness?

Garth Greenwell

I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator. He tries throughout the book to understand and track his own feeling as carefully as he can, which leads him into rabbit holes of ambivalence and doubt and second-guessing–precisely the sort of thing Mitko’s physical demeanor seems to deny. This sentence does come after a good bit of physical description of the setting and of Mitko, which I hope grounds this more abstract bit of thinking.

Michael Noll

Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

The opening of the novel contains several sex scenes, and it seems at first that you tend toward the literal and specific in describing them. But then the novel offers this image: “clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.” That’s a bold image—effective and terrific, of course—but also noteworthy because it’s figurative. Every year, an award is given for bad sex writing, and some of the worst tends to involve metaphor and simile: a body part like ____. Were you nervous at all about writing the sex scenes, about creating images that readers might be inclined to read more closely and critically than a description of, say, eating a hamburger?

Garth Greenwell

For the narrator, sex is endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating because it’s constantly gesturing toward metaphysics. I’ve always been interested in sex as a writer, in both poetry and prose. I think sex is almost uniquely useful for a novelist because of the opportunity it gives a character to be intensely focused on the experience of another while also thrown back onto his or her own sensations. I’m also interested in the social implications of sex, the ways communities form around it and are disrupted by it—communities like those in the cruising bathroom the novel begins in.

I’m not a huge fan of the bad sex writing award. I think it’s a myth that sex is harder to write well than most other things, and I think it’s a shame to give so much attention to less successful writing when there’s so much extraordinary writing of the sexual body being done right now. Just in the last couple of years, books by Alissa Nutting, Merritt Tierce, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Colm Toibin (in The Empty Family)—just to name a few—have used sex in ways that are revelatory to me for their dramatic and psychological force. I want to talk about and learn from those writers. It seems ungenerous to ridicule a few bad sentences or clumsy metaphors, often in books that are otherwise very fine.

Michael Noll

I believe that this book started out as a novella, and so I’m curious about your process in developing it into a much longer story. Was it a matter of adding complications to the set of characters you had already established? Or did you add characters and broaden the world that you were writing about?

Garth Greenwell

The novel did start out as a novella. When I finished the first section, I didn’t have any idea that it was part of a larger project: I thought the story was done. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through the second section, “A Grave,” that I realized how it was exploring the narrator’s childhood as a way of trying to understand some peculiarities of his character, especially the way he seems both to long for intimacy and hold it at arm’s length. It wasn’t until I was finished with that section that I realized that the narrative of the first section—the relationship between the narrator and Mitko—would continue. And it wasn’t until I finished the whole manuscript and could see certain thematic and structural echoes across sections that I began to trust my feeling that there was a kind of gravity holding the book together. I moved through the whole book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, without looking very far ahead. I tricked myself into writing a novel, I guess, without ever really realizing what I was doing.

Originally published in February 2016

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

How to Describe a Character’s Sense of the World

20 Sep
Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

When I was an undergrad, one of my writing teachers lamented that too many novelists were trying to write books that could easily be filmed. A good novel, she said, moved differently than film; it created a kind of narrative space that could not be captured on a screen. And what filled that space? Human thought.

This isn’t the only view of what constitutes good writing, and it’s probably not even a majority opinion, but it does suggest an interesting question. If a scene that can be filmed—i.e. one with dialogue and action and subtext to inform both—is not the only approach to a scene, then what else is there?

One answer can be found in Garth Greenwell’s new novel What Belongs to You. You can read a long excerpt from the beginning of the novel here.

How the Story Works

In his review of What Belongs to You in The New Yorker, James Wood writes this:

The novel contains no direct dialogue, only reported speech; scenes are remembered by the narrator, not invented by an omniscient author, which means that the writing doesn’t have to involve itself in those feats of startup mimesis that form the grammar, and gamble, of most novels. In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence.

Wood’s “feats of startup mimesis” are another version of “can be filmed,” or at least “can be filmed in the way we’re accustomed to seeing on-screen.” In place of these feats, he claims, Greenwell inserts “larger units of comprehension.” That’s all a bit vague without an example, and so here is a brief passage (only a small part of a longer paragraph) from What Belongs to You. A bit of setup: the novel’s narrator is a young American man teaching in Bulgaria. In this scene, he’s in the National Palace of Culture, in the restrooms,which are frequented by gay men because they “are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else.” The narrator encounters a man there, and that encounter, brief in terms of actual minutes, occupies almost ten pages. Here is why:

I wanted him to stay, even though over the course of our conversation, which moved in such fits and starts and which couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, it had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction. For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence. He had about him a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him.

The first sentence is pretty straightforward: The narrator desires the man but doubts he will get any such satisfaction.

The second sentence starts in a similarly clear way (“For all his friendliness”) but instead of sticking to what is clear and evident, the narrator begins to suss out what lies behind that friendliness. He identifies it as a “more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.” Earlier, the man has been described in specific detail, but this sense of him is particular to the narrator. Someone else might see nothing like this at all. In short, the prose has jumped from what is to what seems to be to the narrator. The world and the people in it are being viewed, thickly, through the narrator’s consciousness. The final sentence extends this filter and the sense of being that it reveals: “a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence.”

Of course, that filter is present in all novels. In first-person narration, the narrator provides the filter. Everything we see is seen through the narrator’s eyes. In third-person prose (and, really, in all novels), the filter is the author’s. And yet we forget this because most novels work hard to make us forget; they want us to see the world of the novel as clearly as an image in a film.

A review in The New York Times by Aaron Hamburger calls the style used by Greenwell “an ‘all over’ prose style, similar to that of a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting, in which all compositional details seem to be given equal weight,” comparing it to the prose of Ben Lerner’s novels. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Greenwell’s narrator isn’t scattered. He’s pretty focused on the man in front of him and his desire for him, and it’s that focus—the act of seeing and thinking about—that becomes the essential material of the novel.

Lerner does something similar. Here’s a passage from his most recent novel, 10:04, after the narrator has had sex:

I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property.

As in Greenwell’s novel, Lerner’s prose is interested in sense and what an awareness of the world feels like: “what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted.”

Of course, these are two very different books with very different narrators. Lerner’s narrator spends a lot of time on social media, and so his consciousness actually is scattered at times because it is pinging along with the rapid delivery of information from Facebook and Twitter. He’s also a poet, and so he’s apt to fall into long interior discourses about art and poetics. In other words, the things he thinks about are different, but the general style of the narrator, its general focus on consciousness, is similar.

Of course, any time reviewers start comparing the book at hand to some deceased writer’s work (Wood chooses Woolf and Sebald) or to writers with highly distinctive styles (Hamburger in The New York Times chooses Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard), you know that the book is doing something so new that it isn’t easily classifiable. Yet, let me take my own shot: In its focus on a mind actively thinking about the experience it is having, Greenwell’s (and Lerner’s) work resembles the prose of Henry James, particularly The Beast in the Jungle.

That book, like Greenwell’s, begins with a charged encounter, a man and a woman at a party. The woman tells the man they’ve met before and asks if he’s forgotten. Here is what comes next:

He had forgotten, and was even more surprised than ashamed.  But the great thing was that he saw in this no vulgar reminder of any “sweet” speech.  The vanity of women had long memories, but she was making no claim on him of a compliment or a mistake.  With another woman, a totally different one, he might have feared the recall possibly even some imbecile “offer.”  So, in having to say that he had indeed forgotten, he was conscious rather of a loss than of a gain; he already saw an interest in the matter of her mention.

Much about James’ novel is different from What Belongs to You. It’s about inaction, and Greenwell’s isn’t. There is dialogue, and Greenwell writes almost none. Yet to quote Wood, both novelists are interested in “larger units of comprehension,” and those units are filled with character’s sense of what is happening around them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character’s sense of an interaction, using What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell as a model:

  1. Choose who will have the interaction. The possibilities, of course, are endless. It can be between lovers, siblings, parents, coworkers, friends, business associates, or enemies, or it can be transactional, like the interaction between store clerk and customer.
  2. Choose which perspective will serve as the filter. In other words, whose eyes are we seeing the scene through? This can work in third-person as well as first-person, as Henry James makes clear in The Beast in the Jungle.
  3. State the desire. Despite the capacious units of comprehension that Greenwell creates for his narrator’s consciousness, certain things are quite clear. Number one would be the narrator’s desire. He wants the man in the restroom. Without that clear desire, the passage that follows might come untethered from the experience it is pondering. The reader needs a reason to wonder what the narrator thinks, and that reason is the possibility that the narrator might get, or not get, what he wants. So, state as clearly as you can what the character wants out of the interaction: money, love, some object, acceptance, permission, refusal, rejection, a chance to fight, a chance to make up, or even a mindless conversation. If no one wants anything in the scene, it’s probably not worth writing. Don’t be subtle. Greenwell’s narrator thinks, “I wanted him to stay.” Be just as direct.
  4. Describe the surface. Greenwell does this elsewhere in the scene and refers to it with the phrase “For all his friendliness.” How does the interaction seem at first glance. If the other character is putting on an act, what is the act? What is intended to be seen?
  5. Peer behind the surface. Greenwell’s narrator finishes the sentence that begins “For all his friendliness” by looking closer and thinking about what lies behind that friendliness. It might be useful to use Greenwell’s actual syntax as a model: “more forbidding quality.” So, you could write a sentence like this: For all his/her ______, there was a more _____ quality.”
  6. Let the character draw conclusions from this sense of things. Once the narrator/character determines that something does, in fact, lie behind the surface, let the character think about it. The desired end of thought is, usually, conclusion, which is what Greenwell’s narrator reaches: “He had about him a sense simply of…” Again, try using that syntax: He/she had about him/her a sense simply of _____.”

The goal is to expand the room your prose offers to its characters consciousness, the narrator’s sense of what is happening. You can make that room an efficiency or a mansion. Either way, the idea is to add a character’s sense of things, something that can be described in prose but not easily portrayed in film.

Good luck.

How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with Hannah Pittard

8 Sep
Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice.”

Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels, including Listen to Me and the forthcoming Atlanta, 1962. Her second novel, Reunion, was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping. Her debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was an Oprah Magazine selection, an Indie Next pick, a Powell’s Indiespendible Book Club Pick, and a “best of” selection by The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Details Magazine, The Kansas City Star, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Hudson Booksellers. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.

To read an exercise on creating an emotional backdrop for characters based on Listen to Me, click here.

In this interview, Pittard discusses finding the timeframe for a novel, zigzagging structure, and a difference between long and short novels.

Michael Noll

The novel takes place over the course of roughly 24 hours, yet two of the most important events, one for each of the characters (I’m referring to the mugging/murder and student-flirtation but won’t give it away in the Q&A), happens before the novel begins. Did you always know that the novel would have this timeframe, or did you begin with those events and discover the timeframe later?

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

From the beginning I was interested in writing a novel that took place over the course of a single day and concentrated on a single action. I’m fascinated with the treatment of time in fiction and I have a lot conversations with myself while I’m writing about the constraints and advantages of short stretches of time vs. long stretches of time. My first novel spans approximately four decades. Deciding what to include as scene (vs. summary) was such an intense process. In many ways, the chapters of that novel (The Fates Will Find Their Way) became for me like sentences in a short story. Every chapter needed to be as tight and deliberate and relevant as possible. Nothing was included that wasn’t essential, which is how I write my short stories (or try to…) I knew in crafting a novel that took place over the course 24 hours, I’d be relying more than usual on summary, backstory, and flashbacks. In general, I’m a writer who likes to stay away from all those things, concentrating instead on juxtapositions between observation and scene and the implications of the quiet ellipses that exist off the page. It was only during later drafts that I realized I would need to fill out those two major events you’re referring to. I put up a fight at first but I’m so glad that I eventually gave in. I think those moments away from the “present tense” of the narrative provide such a necessary reprieve from the current action.

Michael Noll

The novel opens with scenes that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will recognize: disagreements over mundane issues like walking the dog, packing the car, and taking out the garbage. What I found so refreshing about the novel is how the tension from those disagreements really forms the basis of the plot. Many of the early scenes are simply Mark and Maggie together in the car, feeling each other out. As a reader, I found these scenes really engaging and suspenseful. How did you approach suspense and tension in those scenes?

Hannah Pittard

I have never considered myself a suspenseful writer, but I came up with a method for the alternating chapters of this novel and I think somehow it (the suspense) just fell into place. In moving from chapter to chapter, I gave myself the rule of always moving forward in time and place (allowing for occasional flashbacks within each chapter). Next I tried always to pick up close to where Maggie or Mark might have left off but never exactly where the other had ended. Instead of a straight line, I imagined instead a zigzagging thunderbolt that moved right to left, upward and away. I also tried never to allow Mark and Maggie to consider the same moment (with a few key exceptions, including the cowboy and the sex). Somehow, this uneven and off-kilter back and forth provided the perfect balance for whatever suspense does exist.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs on the back of the book, several writers remark on how they read the novel in one sitting, which is easy to do as it’s less than 200 pages long. As a writer, I would imagine that this length would make the novel easier to hold in your head, more like a story. Was that the case? How did the process of writing this novel compare to your others, which are about 100 pages longer?

Hannah Pittard

Man… This novel took me longer than any book or story I’ve ever written. It’s short, you’re right, but there was nothing easy for me in its creation. As with the stories I write, every word in this book mattered to me. And given the aspect of suspense and the moodiness of the Maggie’s fear and Mark’s frustration, it was essential to me that it be as terse and swift as possible.

September 2016

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

Create an Emotional Backdrop for Your Characters

6 Sep
Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice” and a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. A review in The Washington Post said, “You won’t put this story down… Pittard is operating at a level few writers attain.” You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a married couple, Mark and Maggie, who take a trip to visit his parents in the midst of some marital strife. It begins as they get ready to leave and focuses on the small things that must be done: taking out the trash, walking the dog, packing the car. The chores, of course, are also the sort of things unhappy couples argue about, and so each one provides an opportunity for either Mark or Maggie to think about their partner’s failings. One of those internal monologues goes like this:

Maggie had an excuse for her behavior, but it was getting old. It was getting old in part because she’d been getting better. The symptoms now felt disproportionate to the cause. Like, for instance, Patricia Hatchett, who was also in the History Department, had lost a baby last year, and Mark wasn’t the only one to notice that she looked better these days than ever. He’d heard she was considering a run for chair, for Christ’s sake. It embarrassed Mark that his wife had become a completely different person just because she’d been mugged. Strike that—because someone they didn’t even know had been murdered. But what was becoming more and more apparent—and this wasn’t a happy or an easy realization—was that Mark was spending his life with one of the world’s weaklings: the type of person who gets diagnosed with cancer and, instead of going outside and taking on life, gets in bed and waits for the inevitable. He’d expected more from Maggie. My god, he’d expected so much more.

This is some pretty ugly stuff: “one of the world’s weaklings” and using someone else’s tragedy (lost a baby) to justify his own self-righteousness. It might be tempting to write something like this as dialogue, to just come out with it and turn the ugly thoughts into a full-on fight. The problem with doing that, though, is that it doesn’t leave many options for going forward. Once you call your spouse a weakling and compare them unfavorably to cancer patients, the dice have been thrown, so to speak. By making these thoughts simply that—thoughts—Pittard has created an emotional backdrop to everything that Mark says or does, which is almost certainly less awful than the backdrop. This creates tension: we know those ugly thoughts are lurking, waiting to get out, and so as the novel’s plot escalates, we worry about what Mark will do when pushed or stressed too far.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s  create an emotional backdrop for a character, using Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to ME, as a model:

  1. Give your character something to mentally grouse about. Mark is upset with his wife’s behavior after getting mugged. Forget, for a moment, how unfair his reaction might be. The truth in life is that people are often selfish and we manage to maintain relationships and find happiness because we minimize and make amends for our selfish acts. But that doesn’t mean anyone is perfect. So, let your character lash out selfishly—in the privacy of his or her head. The character can be upset with something out in the world (the cable company, a professional sports team, immigrants) or with something that he or she actually encounters: a spouse, family member, coworker, or neighbor. What irritates your character?
  2. Establish why this person/thing irritates your character. This is probably the selfish part. Mark is irritated with Maggie because she’s become less enjoyable to be around. Her reaction to being mugged has interrupted their lives together. But, again, forget whether your character is being fair or not. By letting your character think selfishly, you are, in part, creating an aspect of that character’s self, something the character wants badly to protect.
  3. Let your character compare the irritant to something better. Mark believes that his coworker, Patricia Hatchett, has responded to difficulty in a better way. He’s thinking, in different words, “Look at So-and-So. Is she (acting like you)? No, she’s (what’s she’s doing instead).” This is something that people tend to do when they’re unhappy—they go in search, mentally or physically, of something to justify their unhappiness. What comparison would your character make? Who is the So-and-So in your character’s version of “Look at So-and-So?”
  4. Let your character compare the irritant to something bad (in your character’s view). Mark compares Maggie to a cancer patient who sits at home, waiting to die. Clearly, he thinks this is a bad thing. It’s really just a straw man that Mark has created, a manifestation of his own ideas. That’s why he doesn’t give a name to the cancer patient—as anyone who’s seen cancer knows, the details can get in the way of how we believe a person ought to react. He’s basically saying a version of “You’re like someone who (does something theoretically awful like stealing candy from a baby or eating the last slice of pie without sharing).” Obviously, I’m a fan of pie and so that’s something that I might say. What would your character say? How would you character fill in the blank of his or version of “You’re like someone who ____”?

The goal is to create the emotional backdrop for a character, the worst-case version of his or her feelings on a subject. This backdrop gives readers a sense for how far a character might go in a dramatic moment.

Good luck.

An Interview with Julie Wernersbach

1 Sep
Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swi

Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swimming Holes of Texas.

Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Before moving to Austin in 2011, Julie served as publicist and events coordinator for Book Revue, a large independent bookstore on Long Island. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and Swimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.

To read an exercise on creating conflict in multiple point of view narratives based on Wernersbach’s story “Happiness,” click here.

In this interview, Wernersbach discusses finding the beginning of characters’ story arcs, moving back and forth between those arcs, and the tension that’s created in each moment of the story.

Michael Noll

The story follows three characters over the course of one day. Their storylines eventually intersect, of course, and that’s part of what we’re reading for. That said, one of the challenges of such a story is figuring out where to begin. Not all of the characters’ arcs can begin with a bang. How did you figure out where to begin each characters’ story?

Julie Wernersbach

The story began inside Leslie’s head. I saw a manicured house from the perspective of a woman preparing to leave for an appointment. I knew she wasn’t having a great day and that she was overall anxious and unhappy. Once I had her unhappiness pinned to two other people, I wanted to know what they were doing at that same exact moment. I can’t remember if I specify the day of the week in this story, but it definitely feels like a Tuesday. I figure, for the most part, Tuesday afternoons don’t typically have a whole lot of bang to them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re generally miserable or obsessed about something, the misery and obsession are going to be humming along without a whole lot of deep distraction on a Tuesday afternoon. So I just sort of jumped into where her husband and sister might be in those cases on an average afternoon and went from there.

Michael Noll

The story moves quickly from character to character, never staying with one for more than a few paragraphs. Did you write the story with that structure, or did you write longer sections and then break them into smaller pieces?

Julie Wernersbach

Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Once I understood that the entire story wasn’t going to be told from Leslie’s perspective, I did write it with that structure. In the end, I actually went back and expanded sections. As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote. I could write a little bit, move on and have that character in the back of mind, developing as I wrote the next bit of someone else’s storyline, and then come back to him or her and do more.

Michael Noll

One of the cool things about the story is that, from a wide-lens view, not a great deal happens, yet in each section something occurs: slight but important moments concerning a package, a diet, a visit to the doctor. What was your approach to plot and action in the story?

Julie Wernersbach

It’s funny that Arcadia paired this story on their site with an image of potato chips, because I thought about the structure a bit that way. I wanted to make sure the reader couldn’t eat just one paragraph. I wanted a small hook in each section, a little something to keep each character intriguing and propel the reader forward. To me, the hook was (and probably always is) the small moments that string together a life. Those slight moments of discomfort and dissatisfaction add up to a lot, building pressure and tension little by little. I felt the action had to be incremental for Leslie to blow up in a believable way. Death by a thousand paper cuts! So to speak.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent your career around books and writers. You’re the Literary Director at the Texas Book Festival, and previously you were the marketing director at BookPeople. Great writing can inspire people to write, but it can also discourage them—make them think, “I’ll never write something that good.” How does your reading inform your writing?

Julie Wernersbach

There were definitely many years of believing that what I did was outside of the books I read and the authors I hosted; that those works and writers were legitimate and my work and identity as a writer never would be. But the thing about being exposed to so many books is that you’re exposed to so many books, good and bad, memorable and forgettable. It’s been reassuring to comprehend the volume of what’s published any given week and to acknowledge the multi-faceted reasons behind a publisher’s decision to put a work in print.

It’s also been heartening and reassuring to stand on the sidelines of hundreds (more than one thousand? probably more than one thousand) audience Q&As with authors. There’s always a process question and some version of a “what’s it like to be a writer” question. In addition to picking up a ton of great writing advice, I’ve also learned that virtually every author struggles to feel valid and successful, and that the authors who do have a strong sense of security in their work have one thing in common: they write their asses off. If I’ve felt inferior in the presence of phenomenal books and authors, it’s only stoked the fire to write my ass off. (And to read more really, really good books.)

September 2016

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

How to Introduce Conflict in Multiple POV Stories

30 Aug
Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

We’re all familiar with novels that are told through multiple points of view. The challenge for the writer is not only moving between the points of view but also figuring out where to start each one. Unless you’re writing about an event (a terrorist attack, a wedding, a blizzard) experienced simultaneously by all of your characters, there’s a good chance that a great place to begin one character’s story (April 3, let’s say) is a great place to begin every character’s story. And yet that’s what multiple POV novels require. The same is true of multiple POV stories, except that the challenge is, in some ways, even greater.

A great place to study how to begin different narrative arcs in a multiple POV story or novel is Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness.” It’s included in the newest issue of Arcadia, where you can read it here.

How the Story Works

The story follows three characters on a particularly dramatic day in their lives. Each character encounters a conflict, but the conflicts don’t follow similar arcs. For example, we don’t learn the actual nature of Leslie’s conflict until fairly late in the story, whereas we learn about the other conflicts pretty quickly. This is important to keep in mind. Just because a story or novel contains different points of views doesn’t mean that each one must start with a bang and follow a quick-rising dramatic arc.

So, how does Wernersbach set up her conflicts?

One begins with internal conflict, the sort that a character’s mind chews on over and over:

And why should it be unforgivable, Leslie’s happiness? Her sister was never happy with Lewis anyway. Joanne complained about his ear wax and the hair on his back that he asked her to shave and the tremendous farts he felt entitled to release in bed; complaints which Leslie understands, sure, now that she’s been with Lewis for ten years—but when you love a person there are certain things you overlook until even the hard-to-look-at things become endearing.

At this point, we’re not sure what Leslie’s story is about, but we’ve glimpsed her internal turmoil: the issue that she keeps working over in her head.

Another character’s arc begins with a direct conflict with another person that creates an internal conflict within a character:

Across town, on the third floor of a six-floor building in a sprawling office park, Lewis sits at his desk struggling to articulate his dissatisfaction to a sales rep over a recent shipment. The product arrived late and was damaged. Customer service blamed UPS but the receiving department talked at length with their UPS guy, a man with the jocular personality and off-color jokes of someone who never stays in one place too long, and apparently all shipments coming out of GenTech warehouses are showing up in boxes that look like they’ve been through World War II. This is unacceptable, he types, and deletes the phrase and begins again.

In this case, the conflict is Ye Old Man Versus Man: Lewis against customer service. But the fact that he deletes the phrase suggests that he isn’t sure how to proceed, which sets off the internal conflict.

The last character’s arc begins with an internal conflict that takes place in a public place, and the drama comes from the way the public responds to this internal, private issue:

Joanne walks into a grocery store with a shopping list.

Six pounds of cabbage and three stalks of lacinato kale. One white onion. Four cucumbers—no, five—because cucumbers are a free food. Ditto celery. You burn their calories just by chewing. The smoothie recipe said kale or spinach and she goes for the kale because it feels exotic and also more serious. She’s forging new territory here. A diet that is not a diet, that is a whole new way of life. A holistic approach, the doctor advised. Not a litany of restrictions but a hymn of possibilities. Kale! Cucumbers! Cabbage! Celery! She lays each vegetable on the conveyor belt. The cashier looks at her and thinks the same thing every cashier thinks when Joanne stocks up for a new diet: Good for you.

We’re not yet sure where Joanne’s story is headed, but we can feel the tension between what she’s trying to do and the way it’s perceived by others.

None of these ways of kicking off a character arc is better than the others. They’re merely different—and that’s the point. When character arcs begin to follow the same pattern, the reader is likely to get bored and skim ahead, and, generally, skimming is the first step to walking away from a story. Keeping the reader engaged means mixing up your strategies, as Wernersbach does in “Happiness.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try different strategies for setting up character arcs, using “Happiness” by Julie Wernersbach as a model:

  1. Begin with an issue that a character can’t stop thinking about. In “Happiness,” Leslie can’t stop thinking about her happiness and how it relates to her husband and sister. She is rationalizing it, justifying her as-yet-unknown actions to herself. Rationalization and justification are almost always great places to begin a story because they suggest that a character isn’t comfortable with her behavior. So, what does your character feel the need to justify or rationalize? When does your character become defensive and say/think things like “Sure, but…?”
  2. Begin with a conflict with another person that causes self-doubt. The truth is, we don’t intrinsically care about the package from UPS—unless that package contains a bomb or a body part. What’s important is the effect the package has on Lewis. If it matters to Lewis, then it matters to us. It matters even more when Lewis isn’t sure how to proceed. We naturally wonder, “What will he do?” So, introduce a conflict (as large as a bomb or as small as a dented package) that makes your character deliberate—that causes your character to decide on an action and then revise that decision.
  3. Begin by introducing a distance between a character’s internal conflict and the way it’s perceived by others. Joanne has decided to change her diet, to eat healthier. It’s something that people decide to do and succeed and fail at every day. That success or failure is not what makes the conflict interesting. Instead, it’s the way that conflict is viewed by others—because those other people’s opinions matter to Joanne. She is aware of them, and they shape her own sense of her conflict. So, don’t let your character confront a conflict in isolation. Try putting the character in some public place (a store, a home, a dinner table, a school, work) and see what reaction her internal struggle gets from the people around her. How does that shape her sense of the stakes?

The goal is to keep readers on their toes by introducing character arcs in different ways.

Good luck.

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