Archive | July, 2013

How to Use Unusual Words

31 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, has been called “fiercely original” and “a gut punch.” It’s also the only novel you’ll read this year where one of the conflicts is Man vs. Bear.

Ernest Hemingway didn’t mince words about style. About William Faulkner’s, he wrote, ““Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” But what if the two sides are not exclusive? What if you can use ten-dollar words that are also old and simple?

Matt Bell offers a lesson in using unusual vocabulary in his new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. You can read a few of those words in this excerpt published at Guernica.

How the Story Works

Here are a few of the words used in the excerpt:

kith, kin, circumscribing, exhalations, remove (used as a noun), rankled (used as an adjective), sequestered.

Some of these words belong to languages other than fiction’s: sequestered is now a political word. Exhalations belongs to biology, physiology, and yoga. Circumscribing comes from geometry, mapmaking, and travel. Kith and kin belong to another age. To see just how specific our ideas can be about when certain words are appropriate, try this simple experiment: Use any of these words in casual conversation. Example: What were you doing this weekend? Oh, just hanging with my kith and kin. You’ll get some odd looks. Someone might ask, “Why are you talking that way?” But you would have accomplished a sometimes-difficult feat. That person would paying attention to you, trying to figure out, “Why is he talking that way?” or “Who is she that she uses words like that?” Part of the battle of fiction is just to get the reader to wake up and pay attention. Using unusual words can do that.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice using unusual words:

  1. Find your source. Words seem unusual only when they’re used outside of their usual contexts. So, pick up a trade magazine or one that caters to a hobby or special interest. Or visit a website that serves the same purpose. Write down all the words that you understand but would never use in conversation.
  2. Create a character who would use those words. The easiest way is to write a character who is part of the words’ trade or special interest; obviously, doctors don’t talk like studio engineers. But you can also shoot for idiosyncrasy. Ask yourself, what kind of person would use these words casually in a sentence outside of their usual context? Try to hear the person’s voice as he or she speaks.
  3. Write a passage in which the character discusses something mundane: eating dinner, walking the dog, going on a date, putting the kids to bed. If it’s a character with a specific job or interest, make him/her discuss the topic with someone else from that job/interest. If it’s an idiosyncratic character, just let him/her talk. Try to use as many of the unusual words from your list as possible. Some won’t make any sense, or they’ll feel forced. But others will surprise you. They’ll become part of the fabric of the character’s speech, and when that happens, you may discover that you’ve created a character with a voice you’ve never heard before.

Good luck and have fun.

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How to Write about Remembering

30 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel was published by Soho Press and has been called, by the New York Times, “a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergency from some kind of personal hell.”

A novel that’s getting some well-deserved attention is Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the synopsis will give you some sense of this novel’s ambition:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

Think about that phrase: the labyrinth of memory. Many novels—and certainly memoirs—feature narrators telling stories from memory. But what if the novel seeks to represent the act of remembering? It’s not an easy task. In a way, storytelling and memory are incompatible. Fiction moves forward while memory tends to return endlessly to an image or moment. So, it takes a gifted writer to reconcile the two.

Matt Bell is one of those writers. Find out how he writes about remembering in this excerpt from his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

Every paragraph from the excerpt begins with the same four words: And in this room. The effect is powerful and clear. The passage is drilling down into a room, into and through moments, details, revelations that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The first two encounters with memory may seem familiar: “The love letters we wrote to each other” and “the moment of our first lovemaking.” But then comes the third encounter:

“And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

As the passage develops, the phrase “And in this room” continues to be repeated, leaving the narrator no choice to not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: And in this room. The character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s encounter a memory without looking away. (This exercise works for both fiction and nonfiction.)

  1. Choose a powerful memory to write about (yours or the character/narrator’s). It could be something funny or sad, happy or tragic. The best memories often cannot be easily labeled; that is why we remember deaths and births. They’re some of the few times that we, as adults, will encounter something that is wholly and completely outside of our experience.
  2. Let’s borrow from Matt Bell and use the phrase “And in this room.” If the memory takes place outside, substitute the appropriate noun for room.
  3. Write a series of paragraphs that begin with “And in this room.” You’ll write about the obvious things, of course, but don’t stop there. Keep going. Exhaust your memory; excavate the contents. Discover things that you thought you’d forgotten or that the character never realized she knew. Focus on objects in the room and their role in the memory. Think about relationships that define the room and the objects that were picked up or leaned against or sat on by the people in that relationship.
  4. Once you’ve written about a moment, try to remember the moment that occurred immediately before or afterward. You can worry about arranging and rearranging the details later. For now, let your mind surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Marc Watkins

25 Jul
Marc Watkins

Marc Watkins’ story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won Boulevard’s 2008 “Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers” and was included in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

If you liked Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone or the movie based on the book, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Marc Watkins. He was born and raised in Missouri and writes about the down and out of the Ozarks. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the writer Emily Howorth. His stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small PressesBoulevardThird CoastTexas ReviewStoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. Recently, he served as a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology. In his spare time he edits a website,The Rankings.

In this interview, Watkins discusses the challenge of creating hopeful characters in a hopeless place, the influence of Biblical language, and what it means to be a highly literate high school dropout.

(For an exercise based on his story “Two Midnights in a Jug” click here.)

Michael Noll

The story has an interesting line early on: “Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.” There’s a lot of fatalism and futility wrapped up in a line like that. It suggests that the people who reside in that place will not change. How do you create suspense in a story when the setting is resistant to the ingredient necessary for suspense: the possibility of change? I’m curious how you approached setting a story in such a place.

Marc Watkins

Even though the structure of the story is punctuated by fatalism, it is hope, even in its slightest form, which drives the story. Stories that are essentially static in surface action have to rely on the sublet conflicts to develop tension and create suspense. Each character in the story latches onto a sort of absurd personal fantasy as a means of escape: Margret Jean thinks that a pill will save her broken marriage; Cordell believes that keeping the family together on the land that he lost is key to getting it back, even when a fire rains down ash and kills all the crops; and then there’s Abe, who believes his key to escaping his family is going to work for the very company that caused the fire to destroy the land.

I finished the story before I added the first graph. I like framing stories, especially those that use place as a major part of their structure, and trying to explain the environment by describing its rituals and cultures.

Michael Noll

The story’s point of view borders on omniscient, which is rare for any contemporary American work, let alone a short story. What led you to use that POV?

Marc Watkins

“Two Midnights in a Jug” was inspired by the biblical story of Job, and it was also the first time I’d ever written a third-person omniscient type of story. The voice basically fit the narrative, so I went with it as one of those crazy experiments that you’re supposed to engage in when tackling something wholly alien and new. The voice may have its roots in a church pew. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school for several years. They’d send us to two or three masses each week, and I guess that voice from the pulpit, that sort of weird Bible voice stuck in my brain, even when all other aspects of my faith faded.

Michael Noll

The source of the title "Two Midnights in a Jar"

A saying from the Dust Bowl inspired the title “Two Midnights in a Jug.” You can read about an editor who hated the title at Marc Watkins’ website.

On your blog, you wrote about a journal editor who disliked the title because it didn’t make literal sense. In your blog post, you revealed that the phrase “Two midnights in a jug” comes from a Dust-Bowl era description of the blackness of the sky during a storm. There is no mention of this in the story. Do you think it’s necessary for writers to cue readers into the meanings behind the allusions in a work? In other words, are you okay with readers wondering what the title means?

Marc Watkins

The story’s title was actually the last phrase in the final sentence of the story, but it changed because one good piece of advice I picked up from Debra Monroe was to never repeat a title within the confines of a story. The title should encapsulate the world of the story, and when it’s told more than once it risks falling flat like a joke with a punch line told twice. I’m fine with readers left wondering what the title means. I think we all read for challenges and for curiosity, grand or small.

Michael Noll

This story is set in a real place—Eminence, Missouri. Frankly, when I googled the town, I was surprised to find that it was real. Your portrayal of it in the story is so bleak that I assumed that you’d made it up. Obviously the characters in this story don’t seem like the type who might encounter a story in a literary journal, but what about Eminence’s more educated residents? The internet has made the world a small place. Do you worry about what people might think of the way they’ve been portrayed?

Marc Watkins

I’m a walking contradiction; I have a Master’s degree and a G.E.D. In its own private way “Two Midnights in a Jug” manages to convey a level of honesty about how I felt after dropping out of high school. I never grew up in a trailer, but the moment I told people that I was from Missouri and had dropped out, someone asked if I’d been raised in one, and I felt ostracized by the stereotype, so I decided to follow that stereotype down a rabbit hole in the story. The narrative’s bleakness also had to do with my father. He had entered into the final stage of a disease that would claim his life in less than a year.

Even though Eminence, Missouri, is a real town, with real people, “Two Midnights in a Jug” is fiction. As writers we live in conjured spaces that are just as “real” to us emotionally as any physical event or place, and this emotional truth, or as Tim O’Brien calls it “story truth,” matters most. It’s the magic we seek.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Laura van den Berg

18 Jul
Laura van den Berg is the author of X. Her story, "Farewell My Loveds" does x

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming story collection The Isle of Youth. In this interview, she discusses her story, “Farewell My Loveds,” which was published at American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming collection The Isle of Youth, a book that prompted a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly to gush, “If ever there was a writer going places, it’s Laura van den Berg.” Her previous story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books, was called “stunning, desolate, and unforgettable” by Booklist.

In this interview, van den Berg discusses her drafting process, how a childhood spent in Florida gave birth to a slanted sense of reality, and how she reads to solve her own writing challenges.

(For an exercise based on her weird and tender story “Farewell My Loveds” click here.)

Michael Noll

You do such a great job at creating suspense in this story: What is the nature of the hole in the street? How did the parents die? Who was Calvin? I’m curious how you approach a scene or section of a story. Do you begin with an idea (for instance, a hole in the street) and then write a scene that revolves around that mystery, delaying as long as possible the answer? Or do you start with something more nebulous and then create the elements of suspense in revision?

Laura van den Berg

I’m an “intuitive drafter,” which means I usually barrel ahead without any kind of plan and end up with a mess on my hands. The real story often doesn’t emerge until I’m deep into revision. But for “Goodbye My Loveds,” the narrator was always grappling with not having access to certain kinds of information, so many of those questions were present in early drafts. However, the handling of those questions—what will be revealed; what will be denied; what will be offered in the place of the missing information—changed dramatically during the revision process.

Michael Noll

One thing I love about this story is how quickly you’re able to establish the dynamic between the brother and sister. There’s one moment in particular that is really great. The sister has convinced her brother to leave the hole and go back into their apartment. You write, “He thanked me for looking at the hole and apologized for waking me so early. I told him it was okay, I was glad to see it.” There’s such sweetness in that moment. It comes shortly after the sister says that her brother “was twelve, but most people thought he was younger.” In just a few sentences, you’re able to show a basic dynamic (he’s immature and headstrong, she’s protective) but also how much they care for each other. How did you develop these characters in your head? Did you begin with sketches of them? Or did you drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged?

Laura van den Berg

For this story, “drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged” would be the most accurate. I did a lot of work around adding texture/complications to the brother-sister relationship, but that rapport was, happily, there from the beginning.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you describe your own work. If someone asks you, “What kind of stuff do you write?” what do you say? I ask because this story has a strong non-realistic element. I’m not sure what to call it: absurdist, fantastic? At the very least, the premise is elevated beyond what we generally think of as realism. Your other stories do this as well. You have one about an actress who takes a job pretending to be Bigfoot. Other writers (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell) have a similar aesthetic. It’s as if you and they are combining the light, fun qualities of pulp with the emotional depth of literary fiction. What do you think? Do people ever look at you funny when you tell them you’ve written a great, serious, beautiful story about Bigfoot?

Laura van den Berg

I would agree that my work isn’t quite realist, but I’d be hesitant to put myself in league with George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell—and not just because they are all staggeringly good writers whose work I admire greatly!

Laura van den Berg's "Where We Must Be" tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot.

Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot. You can read it at The Nervous Breakdown.

To take the Bigfoot story as an example: a more committed fabulist—or magical realist, etc—might very well have Bigfoot appear as a character in all his (her?) monstrous glory, where as “Where We Must Be” concerns a woman dressing up as Bigfoot, which is certainly unusual, but could, for all we know, be happening somewhere in the world as this very moment (I kind of hope it is!). To me reality seems perpetually multifarious, bewildering; it often evolves, sometimes instantaneously, without our consent. I am most drawn to fiction, and hope to write fiction, where the force of that disorientation is felt.

Aesthetic and perspective are often inexorably linked—how do you see the world? Where are you coming from when you sit down to write? I grew up in Florida, a deeply odd place, in a large family prone to eccentricity. For example, we kept, for a time, a wolf as a pet. Her name was Natasha and she lived in our suburban backyard, where she became a prodigious pacer and digger of holes. In graduate school, the details my peers often tagged as being “surreal” and “bizarre” seemed pretty normal to me; without knowing it, I had carried the eccentricity that I had lived, that felt as much like “reality” as anything, over into my work. In time, I realized that aesthetic/perspective could become not only a stylistic feature, but also a meaningful narrative tool.

I was even more conscious of this when working on my second collection, The Isle of Youth, due out in November. All the stories involve crime/mystery in one way or another: a woman investigating the mysterious death of her scientist brother in Antarctica; a gang of teenage bank robbers called the Gorillas; twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. I love noir, and I was aware of using that stylistic features as a means of reaching a new—for me—emotional/psychological/aesthetic space.

Going back to Bigfoot, people do look at me funny sometimes. Occasionally people seem surprised that a woman would write about Bigfoot, which surprised me as I hadn’t been aware that cryptids were such masculine territory. And a lot of people have asked if I had ever worked as a Bigfoot impersonator. I’m always a little heartbroken when I have to answer “no.”

Michael Noll

I believe you’re currently at work on a novel. When you find yourself stumped, which writer do you turn to?

Laura van den Berg

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

I am often stumped and while, like most any writer, I have a huge stable of “favorites,” I often find myself turning to whatever I’m reading at the time. For example, I recently finished Rachel Kushner’s stunning novel The Flame Throwers and that novel taught me a great deal about writing a certain kind of first person narrator—and also a great deal about endings. So what I’m reading often helps me with whatever puzzle has been tripping me up—Ah! How did the writer pull off that ending/scene/tone/structure?—or even helps in the sense that it shows me what I hope to avoid in my work—Where did things go awry? How could the writer have avoided falling into that particular trap? How can I avoid falling into that trap? I usually am reading a few books at the same time and more often than not, they are all teaching me something.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Creating Suspense and Suspension of Disbelief

16 Jul
Laura van den Berg's story "Farewell My Loveds" was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg’s story “Farewell My Loveds” was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Every writer must learn to create suspense. But how? Laura van den Berg offers a masterful lesson in her story “Goodbye My Loveds.” The story is included in van den Berg’s story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books and was first published in American Short Fiction and republished by Atticus Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Here’s a breakdown of van den Berg accomplishes this trick:

  1. She introduces the mystery (the hole in the street) and a sense of urgency (the brother wakes the narrator up at dawn to look at the hole).
  2. The narrator and her brother argue about whether the hole is actually a crack.
  3. The narrator and brother argue about when to use a flashlight.
  4. The narrator and brother argue about whether the hole is bottomless.
  5. The narrator imagines her brother disappearing into the hole.
  6. The characters go back to their apartment.

After each of the first five sections, the story shows us the hole. With each view, we (along with the narrator) see some new aspect of the hole and it becomes a little bigger, deeper, and darker. Here is each view:

  1.  “a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged”
  2. “he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow”…’Okay,’ I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers.”
  3. “It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda…I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.”
  4. “He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows.”
  5. “I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.”

At the end, the narrator imagines her brother falling into it—and this moment introduces a new mystery: why would the narrator imagine such a thing? It is this mystery that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a small scene around a mystery.

  1. Choose a mystery. You might use a familiar horror from books/movies. In this story, van den Berg has used the bottomless pit. Here are some other options: pit of snakes, endless staircase, secret doorway, cutout eyes in a painting for someone to spy through, trapdoors, secret passages, monsters under the bed, bogeyman in the closet, stranger hiding in the back seat of the car, and spider under the bedcovers.
  2. Translate the mystery into familiar realistic setting. van den Berg makes her bottomless pit a pothole. Think about how you could put a secret doorway, endless staircase, or monster into your kitchen or bedroom. Which familiar objects could be made mysterious? Show it to the reader using non-fantastic details.
  3. Create two characters. One will believe that the mysterious object is truly mysterious, and the other will believe that it’s not. List ways that the first person might investigate the mystery.
  4. Let the characters argue about the nature of the mysterious object.
  5. After each investigation or argument, show the object again, with new details, each more mysterious than the last. Your goal is to make the reader appreciate the object in a new way.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Matthew Salesses

11 Jul
is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (2013), The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor. Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor.
Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

When Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she could have been talking about the writer Matthew Salesses. He was adopted from Korea at age two and then, as an adult, returned to Korea, where he married a Korean woman with whom he now has a child. The questions of identity inherent in such a life are enormous, and, fittingly, Salesses has dug deeply into those mysteries in his work. He’s the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just SayingThe Last Repatriate, two chapbooks, plus numerous essays that have appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, and American Short Fiction.

In this interview, Salesses discusses his revision process, avoiding distractions that keep him from writing, and where he draws the line between fiction and nonfiction.

(For an exercise based on his story, “In My War Novel,” which uses repetition to devastating effect, click here.)

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone explain the difference between a story and a novel by saying that a novel was like a baseball game and a story was like a single pitch. This story seems to fit that description. It’s a single movement. To use another metaphor, it’s almost as if the narrator has an immense lung capacity, and this is the story that he can tell before he runs out of breath. Did you conceive of this story in a rush or is that sense of a single, seamless movement the result of a lot of revision?

Matthew Salesses

In a way, both. I wrote the first draft in a rush. Revision took years. Most of my fiction is written in this way–the rush of the first draft and the long work of shaping that draft into something that reads with that rush. For this story, that meant cutting it up several times and moving the pieces around on my floor, adding and deleting pieces, trying to get the length down and also have enough of an emotional arc.

Michael Noll

Even though the story uses a style of repetition and variation (the phrases “In my war novel” and “Before my wife left me” reoccur in various ways) it actually contains a story that’s been told many times: the demise of a marriage. The difference between all those past tellings and this one is, obviously, the telling. How do you typically approach the plot in a story? Do you outline the events/scenes? Or do you start with the voice and discover where it will take you?

Matthew Salesses

It’s a different process for me from story to story. I wish I plotted everything out beforehand every time–I think that would be easier–but I often start with much less. Here I did start with the voice, and let the anger and sadness and frustration in the voice carry the story where it wanted. Then I trimmed it down like a hedge and guided it closer to where I wanted it.

Michael Noll

Here's a cool book trailer video for I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying.

Here’s a cool book trailer video for I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

You’ve written quite a bit about your own experience as an orphan from Korea, and this story–and others–pick up on that idea. How do you determine what goes into a nonfiction piece and what gets used in a story? Where do you draw the line between the genres–or, how do you separate them?

Matthew Salesses

I don’t determine, other than to keep certain things out of nonfiction that might hurt people close to me. I draw the line at telling the truth about what happened, as it happened, versus telling the truth about what happened through changing what happened.

Michael Noll

You’re a prolific writer. In addition to a story collection, novella, and a chapbook plus numerous nonfiction pieces, you also an editor for The Good Men Project. And, you update your blog often. How do you a) keep up with it all and b) produce so much material. You’re also a father, which means that you’re producing all of this while caring for children. How do you do it? I recently asked Roxane Gay this same question, and she attributed her enormous output to living in the middle of nowhere and insomnia. What’s your method?

Matthew Salesses

Roxane produces far more quality work than I do. I do what I can by not watching TV (except for an occasional kdrama), limiting Facebook time, relying on my wife and Twitter for the news, cutting out most sports (I can’t seem to get rid of my love for football), and not going out much. I also have taken up drinking copious amounts of coffee and only sleeping 6-7 hours a night.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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