Archive | June, 2013

An Interview with Roxane Gay

27 Jun
Roxane Gay is the author of X and the editor of X. She teaches at X.

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, an editor at both The Rumpus and PANK, and a regular contributor at Salon, where this excellent piece about the Paula Deen controversy recently appeared..

When Roxane Gay claims in the bio on her website, that “I write things,” she’s not being vague, only inclusive. Her long list of publications includes the story collection Ayiti and appearances in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus. On top of all of that, she teaches writing as an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.

In this interview, Gay discusses what it means to write a story in the guise of a restaurant menu, the virtues of exposition, and her response to people who claim that there are not that many good writers of color.

(For an exercise based on her menu-themed story “Contrapasso” click here.)

Michael Noll

The first thing every reader will notice about “Contrapasso” is its structure–which is amazing. I’ve never seen a story like it. How did using the conceit of a menu affect how you wrote the story? Did you write the story first and apply it to the structure, or did you take the menu structure and write a story that would make sense within it?

Roxane Gay

This story went through a few drafts. It’s been a while since I wrote this story but even though it has been through a few drafts, the menu structure was always a part of the story. Originally, it was just a few dishes and I was focused more on seven deadly sins and there wasn’t much story there. The editor of Artifice sent me some editorial suggestions and I really took them to heart, and expanded the story into a full blown narrative and the menu structure still worked really well, particularly because I fully committed to it in the revision.

Michael Noll

Just the other day, I heard someone advocating for “show, don’t tell,” but this story seems to show by telling. In part because of the structure, it rarely descends into a scene for longer than a few sentences. There is almost no extended dialogue. Several stories are told that begin and end within a single paragraph (about the cheesemonger, about cooking lobster.) As a result, I’m curious what your attitude is toward that that old advice of “show don’t tell”?

Roxane Gay

We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.

Michael Noll

The “Writing” page on your website is kind of astounding. You’ve published more than 100 stories and many essays. How do you produce so much material? What does your writing process look like?

Roxane Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia quite often and I also write fast because I’m always thinking through story and essay ideas in my head. My writing process involves a lot of procrastination and then sitting down and just writing and writing and writing until I can’t write anymore.

Michael Noll

Roxane Gay's essay "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere" in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It's long and wonderful, especially if you're a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Roxane Gay’s essay “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It’s long and wonderful, especially if you’re a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Last summer, you wrote a piece for The Rumpus (We Are Many. We Are Everywhere) about the idea within the publishing world that the reason writers of color have little visibility is that there simply are not very many of them. So you put together a list. You also said this: “This is not a token list of writers to go to when you need someone to write about race—these writers write about a wide range of subjects.” What reaction did this statement get? What do you think needs to happen so that a statement like that is no longer necessary?

Roxane Gay

Great question. That whole project was really successful. A great list of writers was compiled. I don’t know that the statement you highlighted got a specific reaction but I included it because all too often, people tend to think that writers from a certain group should only write about issues specific to that group. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t compiling a list of race-related subject matter experts. I was compiling a list of writers who happen to be of different races and ethnicities. For a statement like that to no longer be necessary, a list like the one I compiled no longer needs to be necessary. We’re a long way from there.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.


Why Paragraphs Matter in a Story

25 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kevin Grauke

20 Jun
Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke’s new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been compared to the stories of John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, Andre Debus, Richard Ford, William Trevor, and Richard Yates.

Texas occupies a iconic place in American literature. The state has given us Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and—to some extent—the later works of Cormac McCarthy. Its politicians tend to channel the persona of John Wayne. And yet a truer depiction of modern Texas culture might be the band Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs. A writer whose work reflects this changing nature of Texas is Kevin Grauke, whose new collection of stories, Shadows of Men, recently won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Kevin Grauke is a native Texan who now lives with his wife and two children in the Historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is Associate Professor of English at La Salle University, where he teaches creative writing and American literature.

In this interview, Grauke discusses what it means to write about Texas and how to write a fight scene. (For an exercise based on the fight scene in his story “Bullies,” click here.)

Michael Noll

At the end of Part Four of “Bullies,” two men get in a fight. You describe their fight in close detail, moving back and forth between physical action and one of the fighters’ thoughts. Many writers find such passages difficult to pull off without sounding like a choreographer: hit here, kick there, etc. But this story doesn’t have that problem at all. I’m curious how you approached this scene.

Kevin Grauke

I think brevity is the key; the scene is only about half a page long, and most of it concerns Dennis’s thoughts, rather than a cataloguing of punches and feints and such. Keeping such a scene as short as possible is important for a couple of reasons: for one thing, “action” sequences such as this tend to start dragging very quickly, to my mind, and for another, most fights that actually take place are nothing like the ones we see in the movies. They don’t involve a lengthy exchange of haymakers; instead, they’re usually quick and clumsy, and I wanted to convey that this fight was definitely of the quick and clumsy variety.

Michael Noll

The fight also occupies an interesting position in the story. It’s the climax, releasing the tension that has built up, and yet the scene that follows has little to do with the circumstances of the fight. As a result, the emotional consequences are felt far away from the scene of the action. Was this intentional–did you plan it early in the drafting process–or was it a happy accident?

Kevin Grauke

I think I knew that the story would play out in this way once I realized that Dennis was going to bully the father of Karl’s bully. Like Dennis, I think we tend to want intensely dramatic moments, in both what we read and in our own lives, to “mean” more than they often do, so I tend to want to problematize the significance of such moments just as soon as they happen in my stories. For instance, Dennis hopes that this action will boost his ex-wife’s opinion of him, and this (probably misguided) hope of his becomes what’s most important, not the fight itself.

Michael Noll

The story appears in a journal, FiveChapters, that has an unusual format. Every story is published serially, over the course of five days. Did you write “Bullies” with a five-part shape in mind? Or did you adapt the structure for FiveChapters?

Kevin Grauke

I didn’t write it with that shape in mind, nor did I adapt it for that structure, as a matter of fact. I have Five Chapter’s great editor, David Daley, to thank for finding the best places to break the story into five “chapters.”

Michael Noll

Many of the stories in Shadows of Men are set in Texas, but it’s a Texas that is suburban rather than dusty and western in nature. This view of Texas seems to becoming increasingly common. The writer Scott Blackwood writes about a similar landscape, and even the band Arcade Fire named its last album (inspired by The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston) The Suburbs. Yet most Texas literature classes taught in Texas focus on cowboys and oilmen. Do you think the literature of the suburb will ever be embraced by the Texas literary establishment?

Kevin Grauke

Kevin Grauke's collection Shadows of Men won the XX prize from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read a review of the book here at the Dallas Morning News.

Kevin Grauke’s collection Shadows of Men was published by Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent publisher in Plano, Texas.  According to a Dallas Morning News review, “Grauke details the fecklessness of the American 21st-century urban male with humor and insight.”

Well, if the Texas literary establishment is the Texas Institute of Letters, I would say that it already has to a certain degree, since Scott’s outstanding novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, won TIL’s Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction in 2009, and my collection, Shadows of Men, won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction this year. Whether we like it or not, large portions of Texas are just as urbanized and suburbanized as the rest of the country, so more and more Texas writers will undoubtedly write about such homogenized landscapes. However, cowboys and oilmen live on as myths, and these myths will continue to exert a certain degree of influence in Texas, even if it’s a Texas of malls and subdivisions.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Write an Action Sequence

18 Jun
Five Chapters is an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

“Bullies” by Kevin Grauke first appeared FiveChapters, an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

One of the hardest things to write is a fight scene. The blow-by-blow description often ends up sounding like a choreographer’s notes: hit here, kick there. The most commonly proposed solution to this problem is to condense the action into a line or two (He hit me, and I kicked him, and then we fell to the ground, fighting.)

But a terse summary is not the only way to write an action sequence. An example of the alternative can be found in the excellent fight scene in Kevin Grauke‘s story, “Bullies.” You can read it at FiveChapters. (The fight is at the end of Part Four.)

How the Story Works

The key to this passage is that it never becomes a list of actions. Lists are almost always boring. They’re too much like recipes, and so readers tend to skim them. Grauke solves this problem in two ways. First, he offers an interpretation of the action:

“He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now—a period, not an exclamation point—but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him.”

Notice how the commentary (“He meant this only to be a sign…but he pulled harder than he’d meant to”) sets up the action that follows (“stumbled forward”). Imagine if the commentary were left out. The action would be stripped of cause and effect, and thus of story and meaning.

Second, Grauke repeatedly moves from a particular action to the character’s thoughts. Here’s the first half of a sentence that illustrates this move nicely:

“When their bodies came to a stop in the darkness beyond the glow of the porch light, Mr. Shelley was on top of him, and thinking of everything that he’d ever talked himself out of, all the stands he hadn’t taken, Dennis threw the first punch of his life…”

Again, imagine if the character’s thoughts were left out. The action would suddenly exist in a void. Why does a college professor throw a punch? Why does he throw that punch now, in this moment? We wouldn’t know.

But the phrase containing the thought doesn’t only cue the reader into motivation. It also breaks up the rhythm of the sentence. The twin phrases, set off by commas (and thinking of…; all the stands…) slows the reader down and suggests the ways that time itself seems to slow to the character whose head we’re inside.

The Writing Exercise

This is a simple exercise. We’re going to make two characters fight. Here’s how:

  1. Pick the two characters. You can choose two that you’ve been working with. Or you can make them up. Either way, it will be tempting to make them complete opposites. But the best fights are between characters who share something in common. In “Bullies,” the fighters are both fathers of young children. In Rocky IV (as a magnificent montage makes clear) both Rocky and the Russian, Ivan Drago, are willing to push their bodies against human limits. The difference between the men is less in their personalities than in their motivation.
  2. Pick the ring. Give the characters a place to fight: the flagpole in front of school, a parking lot, a house, a swimming pool. Think about how the place would affect the fight. For instance, water in a pool would reduce the fighters’ mobility but also raise the stakes (drowning).
  3. Write the fight. List the actions that will occur. What would an objective camera capture if filming the scene?
  4. Go back and insert commentary. Grauke uses a version of this: He meant to do X, but Y happened instead.
  5. Insert the character’s thoughts. Use Grauke’s sentence as a guide: X happened, and he thought Y, and so he Z. Give some thought to the character’s motivation. A fight demands that the participants make choices: to fight or not to fight, how hard to fight, how bad to hurt the other fighter, and when to stop. Keep in mind the great line from David Sedaris’ essay “Can’t Kill the Rooster.” Sedaris’ brother gets beat up in the parking lot of a bar, and someone asks when the other quy stopped hitting him. The brother says, “When he was fucking finished.” A good fight scene allows you to write a line like that.

Good luck.

How to Reinvent a Stock Character

11 Jun
M. John Harrison's Light is X.

M. John Harrison’s Light has been called “space opera for the intelligensia,” and Neil Gaiman said it was one of his favorite SF books of the last ten years. Light is the first in a trilogy that includes Nova Swing and Empty Space: A Haunting.

Almost every story begins with an idea that has been written about a thousand times. Detective stories can begin only so many ways. Stories about immigrants to America feature characters who, despite their far-flung origins, share a certain kind of experience. The problem is not to invent a story that’s never been written but to reinvent an age-old tale.

This is what M. John Harrison has done in his novel Light, the first of a science fiction trilogy. The book features space ships and aliens, but Harrison moves far beyond the typical versions of these things. You can read the opening of the novel here, or you can read the short passage below.

How the Story Works

For an example of how Harrison reinvents a stock character, read this passage about an alien invasion:

Drawn by the radio and TV ads of the twentieth century, which had reached them as faltering wisps and cobwebs of communication (yet still full of a mysterious, alien vitality), the New Men had invaded Earth in the middle 2100s. They were bipedal, humanoid—if you stretched a point—and uniformly tall and white-skinned, each with a shock of flaming red hair. They were indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies. It was difficult to tell the sexes apart. They had a kind of pliable, etiolated feel about their limbs. To start with, they had great optimism and energy. Everything about Earth amazed them. They took over and, in an amiable, paternalistic way, misunderstood and mismanaged everything. It appeared to be an attempt to understand the human race in terms of a 1982 Coke ad. They produced food no one could eat, outlawed politics in favour of the kind of bureaucracy you find in the subsidised arts, and buried enormous machinery in the subcrust which eventually killed millions. After that, they seemed to fade away in embarrassment, taking to drugs, pop music and the twink-tank which was then an exciting if less than reliable new entertainment technology.

Thereafter, they spread with mankind, like a kind of wretched commentary on all that expansion and free trade. You often found them at the lower levels of organised crime. Their project was to fit in, but they were fatally retrospective. They were always saying:

“I really like this cornflakes thing you have, man. You know?”

Notice how the passage begins with an alien image we’ve seen before (humanoid, bipedal, white-skinned) but then quickly moves into unexpected territory (red hair, Irish junkies). But the genius of the passage is how Harrison describes the aliens’ attitude. He starts by making them the opposite of the creepy, emotionless creatures from TV and the movies. But then he develops the idea: what would it mean for an alien race to be attracted by Earth’s TV and radio ads? If human culture drew them to the planet, how would they behave? Rather than making the aliens sinister, the passage presents them as both curious and dopey enough to take that culture seriously but also technologically advanced enough to nearly destroy the world. By the passage’s end, Harrison has created an alien race that is entirely new to fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop a stock fictional character the way that Harrison develops the alien invader.

  1. Pick a stock character: hard-boiled detective, crooked cop, bloodthirsty pirate, ambitious drug dealer, too-serious doctor, laconic cowboy, Medieval knight, bold dragon hunter.
  2. Describe the character. Feel free to include setting. Start with a cliche.
    1. A thin and weary private eye in a small, dirty office
    2. A single woman asleep in her cluttered apartment and awoken by a call from the hospital).
  3. Move the description in an unexpected direction. One way to do this is to include an unusual trait and then use that trait to make an unexpected comparison (red hair, Irish junkies).
    1. He had a mustache with the ends pulled to a thin point, like a villain who’d tie a woman to railroad tracks or a hipster with a custom-made bicycle.
    2. She was missing the pinky finger on her left hand. No one at the hospital had yet noticed the absence, but they inevitably would, just as a pickpocket’s victim inevitably pats his pocket to find his wallet gone.
  4. Answer the question of how someone in that character’s position would behave given that unusual trait.
    1. The mustache made it hard to blend in, but he wouldn’t give it up—the greased tips had taken him more than a year to grow out—and so as a result he only took business that involved the low-rent but becoming-gentrified part of town.
    2. The patient in which the finger resided would also discover it, which is why the doctor took a drink before going into work, a habit that was, in part, the reason she lost the finger in the first place.

The key to this exercise is to begin with a stock character and develop him/her by first adding a small, unexpected detail and then imagining how that detail would affect the character’s life.

Have fun.

Setting Up the Inevitable

4 Jun
"Crossing" by Mark Slouka was first published in The Paris Review.

“Crossing” by Mark Slouka was first published in The Paris Review.

Any hack with the smallest facility for plot can walk a character into a situation that cannot be escaped. But it takes skill and craft to make the reader feel the character’s desperation. This is exactly what Mark Slouka does in his story, “Crossing.” By the last paragraph, the tension is nearly unbearable. The ending is powerful: “There was nowhere to go. It didn’t matter. They had to go.”

To find out how Mark Slouka builds the tension so subtly and yet to such an incredible pitch, read “Crossing” at here at The Paris Review.

How “Crossing” Works

Slouka does two things at once in the story.

First, he takes the father back and forth across the river: with the backpacks and then with his son on his back, and then an identical set of return trips the next day. The first set of trips allows the story to show us the river and the care required to cross it. The details are not particularly subtle. For instance, the father remembers when he was a boy crossing the river with his own father and asking, “what do you do if you fall?” His father answered, “Don’t fuckin’ fall.” It becomes clear where this story is headed.

Yet we forget this inevitable end because of the second thing Slouka does. While the river takes a central place in the story, the focus is actually on the father’s memories and thoughts. In fact, the river doesn’t even appear until the fifth paragraph. The story opens in the house of the man’s ex-wife, where the man is picking up his son:

“He went inside, wiping his shoes and ducking his head like a visitor, and when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV, and at some point he saw her watching them, leaning against the kitchen counter in her bathrobe, and when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right.”

Slouka uses this opening to set the stakes: the man is going to use this camping trip to make things right with his family. His thoughts circle this idea throughout the story, even as he’s crossing the river. And so he does not see a second set of story stakes appear. While the story starts out being about making this right with his family, it will end with both two lives in the balance.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a place to which you have a strong emotional connection.
  2. Ask yourself: What is dangerous about that place? Or, what danger could the place pose to someone who feels about it the same as you do? The danger could be literal (drowning) or emotional (the end of a relationship). For instance, if I choose my current back yard, where I’m landscaping, the danger might be that a character such as myself spends so much time thinking about what trees to plant that he misses something more important (kids, spouse, etc.). The danger could also be literal: cutting off a finger with a saw.
  3. Create a character who will face the danger.
  4. Finally outline how he or she will end up facing the dangerous situation. What details are crucial to establishing the danger? Why doesn’t the character avoid the situation? You must decide where the story begins. Doing so will give you a timeframe and help determine how quickly or slowly to dole out information.

Many writers will feel reluctant to plan out a story this way or will be unable to stick to the outline once they begin writing. That’s okay. The point of this exercise is to develop a feel for how to parcel out information in order to create suspense.

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