Archive | March, 2013

An Interview with Brian Evenson

28 Mar
Brian Evenson's story

Brian Evenson’s story “Windeye” was published in PEN America 11 and selected for the 2010 PEN/O’Henry Prize Stories. It’s also the title story of this story collection.

Brian Evenson is the author of more than fifteen books of fiction, most recently the horror novel The Lords of Salem, co-written (as B.K. Evenson) with Rob Zombie. Such a book might seem like an unusual move since Evenson is also the chair of the Literary Arts program at Brown University, but his career hasn’t followed any typical literary path. On one hand, his novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009 and the novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. On the other hand, he’s won three O’Henry prizes and an NEA fellowship, and he has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He was also named a finalist for the 2009 World Fantasy Award for the story collection Fugue State.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Evenson discusses his approach to “Windeye,” which mixes supernatural elements with the epistemological question of “How do we know what we know?” A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the twist ending—can be found here.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite things about this story is how you set up the twist (the sister never existed). You could have dropped hints that she wasn’t real (not having her speak, not letting her interact with the world), but the story seems to take another approach, dropping hints that the world isn’t quite right. So, we’re introduced to the possibility that the house has a secret window not visible from the inside. We’re focused on this mystery—on the nature of the window/windeye— when, suddenly, the sister disappears. And then we’re focused on that mystery, on trying to understand what sort of world this is, when the mother says, “But you don’t have a sister,” suggesting that it’s the boy’s mind, not the world, that isn’t right. I’m curious if this misdirection was intentional? Did you know that the sister wasn’t real and so work to set up that revelation, or did you start with the mysterious window and discover that the sister wasn’t real?

Brian Evenson

I started with the window. The genesis of the story began when I was at a poetry reading and heard writer Dan Machlin speak about the old Norse word “vindauga”, meaning “windeye”, which our word for window comes from, and which still exists in slight variant form in Norwegian. That kind of percolated in my head for a while since the term windeye seemed so provocative to me. I actually didn’t realize that the sister would disappear until she did, and was surprised and a little exhilarated when I found myself writing those words, but then realized that there were subtle ways that that was prepared for and that the reader might not expect, so that my mind, while writing, was subconsciously directing things that way. And I didn’t end up revising that story much (unlike most of my stories)–there was a simplicity and elegance to the way that shift took place in the story that I was worried about compromising, and it felt nearly right in the initial draft.

Michael Noll

A lot of writers might shy away from a story with such a dramatic twist, believing that such a move is a cheap trick. (That was the criticism leveled against both The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind, fair or not. On the other hand, Vertigo is ranked as one of the best films of all time.) Of course, the twist in “Windeye” isn’t cheap at all. But did you ever worry that you might not be able to make it work? What separates a “literary” twist from a hack’s trick?

Brian Evenson

There are things that I’ve done in stories that I worry about, but I think I mainly worry about them when I feel like I’m forcing them or trying to force a pre-existing idea onto the story. With this story, that twist just seemed right. I didn’t have to worry about making it work because it was there working before I almost knew it, so I felt like it had been given to me, so to speak. If I try to duplicate that effect deliberately while writing another story it rarely works. Still, I think my writing mind is both programmed to move toward moments where reality collapses and to be surprised when that happens, so that makes it possible for my subconscious to work through a series of thematic concerns that interest me but often to do so in a new way while my conscious mind is occupied with the language on the page–the sound and rhythm of the words, the patterns, etc. I think there’s a level of distraction I give the conscious mind that makes it possible for those things to work subconsciously. That may be the difference between “hack’s trick” and “effective trick” (I’m reluctant to call it “literary”): the first you consciously try to bring about, the other arrives organically in the development of the story, potentially surprising your conscious mind as much as it can surprise the reader.

Michael Noll

When thinking about the story, I remembered it as having a first-person narrator, and only when I reread the story did I see that I was wrong (it’s in third-person). The tone seems to waiver between the two points of view; one example of this is the end of the first section:

“So at first those games, if they were games, and then, later, something else, something worse, something decisive. What was it again? Why was it hard, now that he had grown, to remember? What was it called? Oh, yes, Windeye.”

The hesitation in the prose, the sense of a mind talking to itself, seems like a trait more often found in first-person narratives. And yet, if the story was told in first-person, it seems like it would be almost impossible to tell. The reader would expect the narrator to explain certain things that are never explained—or cannot be explained. How did you find the right perspective and tone for the story?

Brian Evenson

I love the ability of third person narrative to color itself with the ideas and feelings and words of a character within the story, giving you in effect the best of both first person and third person. It’s a way of both being close to the character and also continuing to see the character at least partly from the outside, of feeling an intimacy with him but also never being quite able to penetrate his head completely. It lets the narrative perspective slide just a little, which allows you to do a great deal. It can even have some of the characteristics of an unreliable first person voice, but still have narrative authority, which makes for a very unusual combination of authority and uncertainty. It’s a mode I use often for certain kinds of stories. I think I developed my own particularly usage of it when I wrote a story called “By Halves” (in a collection called Contagion) and initially wrote it in first person, but felt that it wasn’t quite right. In revision I ended up “translating” it into third person but tried to keep as much as I could, besides the pronouns, the same. That made me start to realize the possibilities of this sort of voice.

Michael Noll

In Scorcese’s documentary about Bob Dylan, Dylan (as I recall) says that he always knew he’d be successful and famous, but he couldn’t tell anybody. If he had, the dream would have just blown away. I’ve heard similar things from writers; they don’t like to talk about the projects they’re working on because their sense of what the project will become in no way matches its current state. They’re working on the book/story as a matter of faith. We admire this devotion to an idea in artists, but in other people (David Koresh, etc.), the sense of purpose or potential is viewed as dangerously delusional. It seems that this story is tackling this same idea. The boy sees his sister, and after she’s gone, he still feels that she existed. To believe otherwise condemns his life to dull meaninglessness. He struggles between accepting the world as it seems to others and believing in his own, personal, unsharable sense of the world. In order to portray this struggle, your story needs a supernatural element. Without it, the story would fall short of its aims. In other words, it seems to me that some stories cannot be told without elements of genre fiction. Is that a fair statement? What do you think?

Brian Evenson

I think that’s a fair statement. That’s of course nothing new in terms of literature—think for instance of the way that Henry James uses the ghost story or even the romance—so I feel like I’m in good company. At the same time, I do know that for some people these fantastical elements will make them wonder about whether a story counts as literature. More and more I feel that I want to read fiction that is lively and vibrant and intensive, and I’m not so worried as I once was about whether it is literature or genre: often the most interesting work is in a gray space between the two, taking advantage of tools that one mode or the other has forgotten or pushed aside and using it to reinvigorate a particular kind of writing. For instance, John Burnside’s The Glister is in a remarkable space where it feels very literary but it’s still drawing at least on the mood, and maybe more than that, of genre fiction. Or M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, which I’m in the middle of now, is unquestionably science fiction, but has a complexity and level of satisfaction that we more traditionally associate with literary texts. I’d much rather read either of those books than something that’s more firmly and defensively “literary” in a traditional way or that is committed to genre in predictable ways. The work that ends up revitalizing literature, I think, the most exciting work, exists on the edges.

March 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Twist Endings

26 Mar
Brian Evenson's story "Windeye" was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The story was later selected for the 2010 PEN/O'Henry Prize Stories.

Brian Evenson’s story “Windeye” was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The story was later selected for The 2011 PEN/O’Henry Prize Stories.

Twist endings are one of the great pleasures of literature, yet in contemporary fiction, they’ve gone the way of the dodo and the epiphany. No one would dare write a modern version of O’Henry’s classic “Gift of the Magi,” and for good reason. That twist—and others like it—seem manipulative and implausible to modern readers. Perhaps it’s our attachment, as Americans, to realism, but we tend to relegate sudden reversals of fortune or circumstance to reality TV and schlocky movies. As a result, it’s tempting to ask whether a twist ending is even possible in literary fiction.

Brian Evenson would say yes, and he pulls of a doozy in “Windeye.” The story appeared in The 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories and was first published by PEN American Center. You can read it at PEN America’s site, here.

How the Story Works

Evenson uses an old trick: Introduce a character, weave her into the fabric of the story, and then—when our attention is focused elsewhere— make us question the character’s reality.  It’s not unlike the strategy used by Ron Howard in A Beautiful Mind; the brilliant mathematician’s friend is real, and when, suddenly, he’s not, we’re as dumbfounded as the mathematician. In “Windeye”, the reader doesn’t fully understand the truth until the mother says, “But you don’t have a sister.” And like the boy, we can’t quite believe it.

In a classic reversal, such as the one used by M. Night Shyamalon in The Sixth Sense, the viewer or reader’s sense of what is true is completely reversed. In other words, we realize that Bruce Willis is, in fact, not alive but dead. “Windeye” operates differently. The twist is incomplete. The sister likely never existed, but the boy can’t be certain of it – and more importantly, the boy will never be certain. Evenson creates this uncertainty with the fifth and final section, jumping forward in time, explaining the reversal’s emotional consequences. The boy can never shake the feeling that one day his sister will “simply reappear, young as ever, ready to continue with the games they had played.” This is similar to the strategy that Alfred Hitchock used in Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart’s character discovers that he’s been fooled. Instead of ending with the revelation, the film continues, revealing the twist’s emotional consequences.

Once you’ve read the story, it’s easy to go back, section by section, to see how the twist (the fact that the sister isn’t real) is hinted at but not revealed. It’s worth checking out to learn how seeds planted at the beginning gradually sprout and reveal more of themselves.

The Writing Exercise:

  1. Write down an ending (boy gets girl, woman discovers fortune, man finds happiness, woman is revealed to be a zombie). Don’t be afraid to go boldly where you normally wouldn’t dare.
  2. Now, write down a beginning that is the complete opposite of the ending (girl doesn’t know boy exists, woman is poor, man is miserable, woman is the leader of the free world).
  3. You may think that the trick will be getting from Point A to Point B, from leader of the free world to the realization that she’s a zombie. But a story with a twist—in truth, most stories—depends on a point between A and B. So, give the character a goal that has nothing to do with the Point B (boy needs to escape from prison, woman needs to hide from ex-husband, man wants to become the world’s greatest ventriloquist, woman must pass a national budget).
  4. Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.45.45 PMOutline the events that must occur or the stages the character must go through to reach the destination he or she is aiming for. At the same time, outline backward from the Point B ending. The moment where the outlines meet will be a point of high tension (hopefully). If you can create the outline, all that is left is to flesh out the story, dropping hints of Point B in the beginning.

If you’re working on a story and don’t want to start a new one, try this exercise:

  1. Reread the ending of your story. Then fast forward in time (six months, sixty years, whatever). Summarize the emotional consequences of the ending you have already written. How do the characters live with the ending you’ve given them?
  2. You may discover that the story isn’t over. The story’s true conflict may still be unwritten. Or, you may realize that your original ending is the best one. That realization can be as valuable as any.

Have fun writing.

An Interview with Meghan McCarron

21 Mar
Meghan McCarron's story "Swift, Brutal Retaliation" won a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron’s story “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron is a writer based in Austin, TX. She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Los Angeles, rural New Hampshire, and Brooklyn. A former Hollywood assistant, boarding school English teacher, and independent bookseller, she is one of the fiction editors at Interfictions and an assistant editor at Unstuck. She and her girlfriend live in the same neighborhood as the flying burger monster.

In this interview with Michael Noll, McCarron discusses her approach to “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” which asks the surprising question, “Can you contact a dead person on Facebook?” A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the way the supernatural premise is combined with a realistic world—can be found here.

Michael Noll

My favorite part of the story is when Sinead decides to send her ghost brother a message on Facebook. The sheer impossibility of it made my day—not just that it’s impossible for a ghost to log on to Facebook, but the fact that Sinead would even think to try. For me, it was the moment when the story left the stomping grounds of the traditional ghost story and became something fresh and new, something I’d never read before. What led you to write that scene?

Meghan McCarron

I have always been fascinated by the internet presence of the dead. Blogs that have gone dark and silent facebook walls seem to serve as a space where people leave messages that they hope will reach beyond the grave. It makes sense – on the internet we post words in the ether and miraculously, sometimes capriciously, they are received! As a result, these frozen internet spaces feel haunted to me, more so than, say, a room where someone died.

The internet shows up a lot in my fiction in general, especially when my protagonists are kids or teenagers. I spent a few years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire, and I was fascinated by how my students structured their lives between in-person and online interactions. I’ve had a social life split between the internet and IRL since I was twelve, but I was a dorky outlier. It was fascinating to see “popular” kids using social media as obsessively as everyone else.

Ian created a life outside of his home that he far preferred, and the internet was an essential part of it. Sinead’s instinct to contact him over Facebook seemed natural – he was never reachable in their home, but perhaps he could be reached online. I’m saying all of this as if I had it figured it out at the time. Really, picture me huddled in my old apartment in Brooklyn thinking, “Hmmm what now?”, my feet pressed against the space heater.

Michael Noll

Your story does such a wonderful job of giving the ghost objects to play with—the mirror, obviously, but also the lasagna and the Nair. The story pivots very cleanly from the mirror, which we’ve seen before and expect (the mirror almost allows us to settle in, to say, “Okay, I know this story, and I like it”) to details we’ve likely never seen in a ghost story. The details work—and become spooky—because they fit the living characters so well. The world makes perfect sense. It seems real. How did you create this world? Did you start with the characters and populate the house with objects they’d likely use? Or did you have a particular scene in mind and build the world around it?

Meghan McCarron

You know, I have no idea how I started this story. I knew I wanted to write a ghost story – I’d never written one before. I’d been reading a great deal of classic ghost stories, hence the mirror. I also really admire the way the writer Kelly Link makes mundane physical objects creepy and strange. Her story “The Hortlak” features pajamas of lovecraftian horror, and in “Stone Animals,” familiar objects become “haunted” and no one wants to touch them anymore. So perhaps I was thinking a little about that.

My mother had a dusty bottle of Nair hidden in a medicine cabinet, and once someone told me about the prank of putting it in someone’s shampoo. From that moment on, I was terrified of that bottle of Nair. It seemed like a gun on the mantlepiece of my life: sooner or later, someone was going to sneak it into MY shampoo and my hair would fall out. I have no idea why I was obsessed with this – something something fear of puberty?

The lasanga – well, lasanga is disgusting, and delicious because it is so disgusting. It just seemed obvious.

Michael Noll

I love ghost stories. I’ve been hearing them—actual encounters with actual ghosts—ever since I was a kid. As a literary genre, it’s one of the world’s oldest. Even Shakespeare uses ghosts (and witches), and not infrequently. Ghosts—and the supernatural in general—seems to be innately interesting to most of us, even though we’ll likely never encounter an actual ghost–and likely do not (if pressed) believe they exist. Why do you think we are we so attracted to the idea of ghosts?

Meghan McCarron

I recently finished John Crowley’s Little, Big, which has a big section devoted to the magic of memory palaces. Basically, there’s an ancient system of memorizing that involves “putting” pieces of information in various rooms of a remembered house. The memory palace is a perfect metaphor for how our imagination mirrors the physical world. Our memories are always haunted, aren’t they? Ghosts seem like a useful way of externalizing that haunted feeling, of expressing the obsession of grief. If we’ve all got houses in our minds full of wandering people, dead and alive, but only the living ones wander around in the physical world – well, wouldn’t the dead ones be there, too?

March 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Use Mystifying Detail to Create Conflict

19 Mar
full_swiftbrutal

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

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

But for a writer, details are exactly the point. (For theologians as well. For instance, did Adam have a belly button? The answer matters more than you might expect.)

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Have fun.

An Interview with Nina McConigley

14 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, from Five Chapter Books.

The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.

McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”

Michael Noll

Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?

Nina McConigley

Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.

I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.

Michael Noll

Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?

Nina McConigley

A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.

I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…

Michael Noll

I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?

Nina McConigley

I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.

Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.

By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.

Michael Noll

You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?

Nina McConigley

Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.

It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.

March 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.

To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.

Show the Narrator’s Evolution

12 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

If someone asks, “What happens in the story?” the answer can tell you a lot. Maybe it’s a series of actions: guy gets killed in the Louvre, and so another guy interviews people, solves puzzles, meets Jesus’ great-great-etc granddaughter, and together they catch the killer. The main character probably doesn’t have much of an interior life. All changes are plot changes.

But what if the answer is “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” The story is in his head. A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: “Now he felt different.” But how?

Nina McConigley solves this problem masterfully in “White Wedding.” The story is included in her debut collection from Five Chapter Books, but you can read it here at Memorious.

How the Story Works

The narrator, Lakshmi, lives (and has chosen to live) in Casper, Wyoming, a city and state with an almost-entirely white population. She claims to be comfortable with standing out, but by the story’s end, she has perhaps decided to leave, in part because of her feelings about identity and place. As a result, the reader can gauge Lakshmi’s movement toward “the speed of [her] own escape” by how she feels about Casper.

Here are a few examples of her evolution:

  • The first paragraph ends with this statement: “We were used to white people.”
  • Halfway through the story, the narrator remembers her dying mother’s wish not to be “buried in Western clothes.” Instead, her mother asks to be buried in a sari. The problem is that the “people in the funeral home won’t know how.” But neither does the narrator. As she practices putting on the sari, her mother tells her Lakshmi that she should wear one more often. The narrator remembers thinking, “I would like to wear them more often. But where? To the Wonder Bar? To work?” Suddenly, the narrator isn’t so certain about her relationship to the place’s whiteness.
  • By the day of the wedding, the narrator has learned to dress someone in a sari. But that ability does not give her a connection to her Indian identity. When asked how she feels about being bi-racial, the narrator has usually answered, “It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be American, and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!” But she’s learned that “the halves did not make a whole.” She is satisfied with neither white Casper nor her Indian heritage. As a result, she perhaps decides to strike out and find her own place and identity.

Notice how McConigley invests the narrator’s feelings about ethnicity in a specific object: a sari. The writing is never vague. The first paragraph even gives a statistic about the whiteness of Casper. The lesson, then, is to give the narrator an existential concern—Who am I? What am I doing?—and embody that concern in a particular place, object, or person.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a character. You can invent one from scratch or choose an existing character from a story draft. 
  2. Find an existential problem. Answer this question: When the character can’t sleep at night, what does he/she think or obsess about? Write the answer as a general statement (Carl wonders if he’ll ever find love.)
  3. Locate that problem in something concrete. Embody your answer in a place, object, or person. For example, my character Carl might be really ugly, and so he obsesses about a particular feature of his face or body. Or perhaps he lives in a place where no one shares his interests (canning, video games, musicals).
  4. Change the character’s attitude toward the problem. Brainstorm how the character’s feelings toward that place, object, or person change over the course of time. So, Carl might become less self-conscious about his looks. Or he might decide to move somewhere that has people like him. Or he might change his views on the requirements of love—maybe people don’t need to share interests. Maybe there’s something else that can attract lovers. Once you find the change that will occur, you can create a story (obstacles for the character to encounter) that will allow them to take place.

It’s possible that this exercise will feel too didactic, as though you’re telling the reader too much. Keep in mind that these notes are for you. If you know how your character feels (and evolves), it will be easier to keep the story moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

Amelia Gray On the Origin of Threats

7 Mar
Amelia Gray's novel, Threats, was included in the --- best of year list.

Amelia Gray’s novel, Threats, has been called astonishing, bizarre, poetic, and jaw-slugging.

Amelia Gray‘s debut novel, Threats, has received so many glowing reviews that when it was left off The New York Times’ year-end list of notable books—along with books by Gillian Flynn and Salman Rushdie—people got angry. One website, Flavorwire, could only comprehend the snub this way: “We understand: Amelia Gray is just a little too cool for The New York Times. Or maybe they’re just intimidated by her weird greatness. Otherwise, how did this bizarre little wonder of a novel, which will tickle your spine with icy fingers and then pinch your cheek, not strike their fancy?” The judges of the PEN/Faulkner Award agreed, recently naming Threats as a finalist for the fiction award.

Gray lives in Los Angeles, where you can find her telling stories, teaching, and shouting quotes from her novel from the back of a moped. She slowed down long enough to explain the genesis of her novel.

On the origins of Threats

I remember I was doing the dishes when I had this image pop into my head, of a woman at the bottom of a long set of stairs, holding the rail, wearing a heavy jacket and a long skirt, and under the skirt, blood pooling. And in the course of considering the image, I felt myself as a person at the top of the stairs, holding the top rail, and how the two of us were connected by the rail. So that was very interesting and I decided to write it down. Over the course of writing it down—I chose a close third person point of view, because I didn’t know who the “I” would be—I saw that the other person was a man, the woman’s husband, and then the woman died, and so of course other people had to arrive and witness that. A firefighter arrived and by then I didn’t want to leave my main character, who I had named David, I didn’t want to leave his head, and so I thought about how to do it for a couple days and then realized that in his grief, David would like to leave his body and experience someone else’s life briefly. So I did that, and by then I was a few chapters in and we were off to the races.

On outlining (or not outlining) the novel:

I tried to create an outline, writing down all the plot events that had happened on a big poster board as a way to find patterns or wrap up loose ends, but it was a largely fruitless exercise. I would try outlining again, though. Right now I’m writing a historical fiction thing that kind of has a built-in outline going for it, but next time I’m in the woods with fiction I’m going to give planning a shot.

March 2013

For a writing exercise based on Threats, click here.

Also, if you’re at AWP, you can catch Amelia Gray every day of the conference. For a schedule of events featuring Amelia, click here.

%d bloggers like this: