Archive | August, 2013

An Interview with Mary Helen Specht

29 Aug
Mary Helen Specht

Mary Helen Specht was recently the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where she posted excerpts of her novel-in-progress, Migratory Animalsas well as interviews with the writers Sarah Bird and Rotimi Babatunde.

Mary Helen Specht might have been born and raised in Abilene, Texas, but after graduating from high school, she’s barely stopped moving. She’s studied at Rice University and Emerson College; worked in Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, and lived in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. Most recently, she was a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, and she’s now an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin.  A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel.

In this interview, Specht discusses introducing characters, the challenges of writing global fiction from an American perspective, and why she chose to use her experiences in Nigeria as the basis for a novel rather than a memoir.

(To read an excerpt from Specht’s novel-in-progress Migratory Animals and an exercise based on how she adeptly introduces two characters, click here.)

Michael Noll

One of the hardest things for beginning writers to do–and even for me–is to introduce characters to each other. So, I admire how easily you introduce Flannery and Kunle. You manage to cover the basics: where, when, and how and how they were dressed. But you also move on quickly. The introduction sets up the story rather than delaying it. Was this introduction always so smooth? Or did it become that way through revision?

Mary Helen Specht

The prologue has been the most worked over part of my novel. Each time I changed anything major about the rest of the book during a revision, the prologue would suddenly seem off. I’d lost the right emphasis or tone for what came next—a reverse domino effect. The fact that the prologue is set in Nigeria while much of the rest of the novel is set in the United States was another challenge—I felt that I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time there while also rooting the readers in scene. I ended up looking for guidance in the short story form for this, particularly in Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent collection Unaccustomed Earth, which inspired me to start on a large scale and then zoom in to the “meet cute” between Flannery and Kunle. I also tried to use concrete physical objects (like palm wine) to transition quickly through time while remaining in scene throughout. For me, introducing characters and places is all about allowing the physical environment to do double duty by standing in for (or at least echoing) the interior lives or relationships of the characters.

Michael Noll

The novel is set in Nigeria, and so, obviously, place plays an important role in the novel. And because you’re writing for an audience that likely hasn’t been to Nigeria, you’re writing about cities and a landscape that most of us don’t know. So I’m curious how you approached the descriptions of place. How did you balance the need to show enough details to locate the reader but also the need to keep the story moving?

Mary Helen Specht

Great question. This has been tremendously complicated, and like the prologue, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and revising the Nigeria sections. In particular, I didn’t want to portray Nigeria one-dimensionally, when in reality it is a country with rural huts and modern houses, dirt roads and concrete flyovers. I had notebooks full of descriptions of Nigeria from my time living there after graduate school, and I combed through them, looking for details that would do the most work in terms of demonstrating the country’s complexity. Instead of spending a paragraph explicating the strange mix of modernity and degradation at the university, for example, I used an image of a woman wearing a traditional wrapper while carrying a computer monitor on her head across campus.

Michael Noll

As the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, you wrote an essay, “The Challenges of Writing Global Fiction in the West.” In it, you talk about traveling to Nigeria for a Fulbright and knowing that you would write about the experience. And, yet, you wondered, “How could I use this setting, use my experiences with the people there, to write in a way that didn’t patronize, exoticize, or simplify the complex world of West Africa?” This is a significant problem with Western stories set outside of the West. Just recently, I saw the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is about a group of British retirees who settle in India. In it, the Indians really only serve the purpose of enlightening the Brits. Yet, the film seemed well-intentioned. Is it possible to step outside of your Western influences when writing about places like India and Africa? Is there a way to somehow embrace your alien status and also honestly represent the people who are from that place?

Mary Helen Specht

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying and writing about this question and my answer is this: I don’t know; but I won’t let myself off that easily. I certainly think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, I think it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “western gaze” when writing about other cultures. I think the most important action writers like myself can take to make this situation less uncomfortable is to support—by reading, reviewing, promoting, assigning to our students etc.—international fiction written by non-western writers. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk (which you MUST watch if you haven’t—she’s amazing), the danger is perpetuating a “single story” about any given place. If there is a multiplicity of voices, native and non-native, all writing about a country or culture, then there isn’t the same pressure to provide some impossible “objective” viewpoint. The beauty of fiction, after all, is in the opposite, in its subjectivity and ability to refract the world through many prisms.

Michael Noll

You published an essay about falling in love with a Nigerian man in Nigeria for The New York Times. It’s a really great essay. It also shares some of the same details as Migratory Animals. What went into your decision to write the story as a novel rather than as a memoir? What did fictionalizing the story allow you to do that wasn’t possible in nonfiction?

Mary Helen Specht

People connected to the publishing industry convinced me to work on a memoir based on my time in Nigeria, and I tried. However, it ended up more of a collection of essays (and is where the NYT piece came from), than one story with a strong arc. So, I returned to what I’d always really wanted to do in the first place, which was write a novel using my time there as a loose inspiration. Fictionalizing allows me to imagine what might have been—if I’d been a different person with different desires and challenges, and if I’d made different choices or been born into a different situation. In the real world, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody other possibilities.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.


How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

27 Aug
Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. For instance, how do you introduce two characters for the first time? A lot rides on the encounter. It’s not so different than dreaming about that guy or girl in middle school and worrying about how you’d ask him or her to the dance. The problem vexed F. Scott Fitzgerald—how to introduce Gatsby to Nick— so much that he slipped the great man in the back door. We meet him without knowing it.

If you want an easier way to introduce two characters, check out Mary Helen Specht’s great novel-in-progress Migratory Animals. The prologue was published at Necessary Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Specht introduces the novel’s main characters: Flannery, a white American woman in her 20s visiting Nigeria, and Kunle, a Nigerian man in graduate school:

“She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.”

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. When and where she met the man
  2. The initial encounter boiled down to a single spoken phrase and action
  3. What the man was wearing
  4. What his appearance reminder her of

If you used this template for every introduction in every story and novel, you’d be set for life. It’s an easy, efficient way to get two characters together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce two characters using Mary Helen Specht’s novel as a model:

  1. Pick a setting: Why is the character/narrator there? In what specific place did the characters meet? Be explicit when starting the passage: He/She/I met So-and-so in this place.
  2. Pick a moment: Boil the initial encounter down to a single spoken phrase and action. When the main character/narrator leaves the encounter, what words of the other person will he/she remember and dream about?
  3. PIck the clothes: What is the person wearing? Be specific.
  4. Describe the clothes/style/appearance more generally: From one character’s perspective, describe the other character. What does he/she reminder her/him of? What feeling does he/she get when meeting the person?

That’s it. The encounter is over, and you can transition next to the next encounter. Mechanically speaking, all you need to do is get the characters onto the page together. The scene doesn’t need to be long, like the initial encounter in Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Be brief and efficient and move on.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write a Dream Sequence

20 Aug
Paul Yoon's novel, Snow Hunters, was published by Simon and Schuster. It follows the travels of Yohan, a Korean who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil.

Paul Yoon’s novel, Snow Hunters, follows the travels of Yohan, a man who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil. The novel prompted a New York Times reviewer to write, “One of the gratifications of literature is to know a character in a book more completely than we can know people in real life.”

Some writing teachers make a rule for stories submitted in workshop: No dreams. No dream sequences. They make this rule because badly written dreams are all the same. They “show” a character’s inner torments/thoughts rather than artfully imbedding them into the narrative. But if fiction is, in any way, supposed to imitate life, then dreams are fair game. The question is how to write them well.

Paul Yoon has written one of the best dream sequences I’ve ever read in his new novel Snow Hunters. You can read the first chapter here. The dream begins at the bottom of page 16.

How the Story Works

The passage begin with Yohan falling asleep and hearing sounds through the open window:

“the tapping of the rain and voices and a car and then a ship’s horn. A single chime of a church bell. a door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine. He heard aircraft and the dust spraying from trucks and the wind against the tents”

We get a short reflection on this noise from Yohan (“it was faint and calm and he did not mind”), and then the dream begins.

“He was riding a bicycle. He felt a hand on the small of his back. Someone familiar spoke to him and he said, —I can go a little longer, and he lifted a shovel and sank it into the earth. A group of children whistled and clapped. And then he was running his hands through a girl’s hair and she took his wrist and they moved through a corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling. Those dresses turned into the sea.”

Then the dream ends. So why does this dream work? First, it has no clear message. It’s not telegraphing crucial information about Yohan’s interior life. At best, the message is mixed: the desire and need to push himself and the desire for friendship and love. The images are not accidental. They reflect encounters and experiences from waking life. Second, the dream does not predict the future. It doesn’t attempt to move the plot forward.  Though dreams sometimes cause us to act (dreaming that someone has an accident and then, upon waking, contacting that person), we tend to be skeptical of someone who claims that valuable information was gained in a dream.

So why does the dream work? Here are four reasons (and lessons to keep in mind):

  1. It’s so beautifully and simply written.
  2. It glides from image to image, never dwelling too long in one place.
  3. It’s short.
  4. The images reflect things we’ve already seen in the novel. The dream feels to us, the readers, the same as it does to Yohan. In other words, the dream feels like a real dream. And that is rare in fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a dream sequence, using Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters as a model:

  1. Choose a character whom you’ve already created and written about.
  2. Bring the character home, to bed, after a long day—not after a life-changing event but simply a day in which things seem to be on the cusp of happening.
  3. When the characters’ eyes are closed, let the sounds of the world drift in. Be specific and precise. You’re describing that odd state in which the mind is both idle and resting and also alert and aware of its surroundings.
  4. Ease into the dream. If you’ve ever heard the voice/sound from the waking world in your dream (a spouse or child talking to you, a professor speaking, the alarm clock), then you know how permeable dreams can be.
  5. Make the dream a reflection of the images of the waking world. Treat the dream’s reflective power like that of an almost-still lake. Remember, the mind is not directing traffic any longer but instead letting images trickle through unfiltered. Move from image to image. End on one that best seems to fit the mood of the day.

Now you have a dream sequence. If it seems inconsequential, that’s good. Beware dreams of great import—unless you’re writing about the Virgin Mary. Let the dream become part of the character’s fabric and, thus, the fabric of the novel.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

15 Aug
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson is a 21-year-old with two novels under her belt. Her first, a YA sci-fi thriller November Snow, was published when she was 16. Her latest work, the YA paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset, was voted a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. Currently, she is finishing her senior year at the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in English (with a creative writing focus).

In this interview, Thompson discusses the idea of prophecy, what it takes for a college student to publish a book, and her strategy for using social media as a promotional tool.

(To read the first chapter of Minutes Before Sunset and an exercise based on how she sets the rules of the novel’s world, click here.)

Michael Noll

You very deliberately set up the rules of the novel’s world in the first chapter: The town is in denial of very plain truths, and yet the narrator would like to join the townspeople’s simple lives–but something prevents him. How did you approach this chapter? Did you set out to establish the mentality of the town and the main character, or did you write the novel and work those things into the first chapter through revision?

Shannon A. Thompson

The first chapter is actually one of the parts that remained remarkably the same during the editing process. I purposely set up the rules so quickly, because they end up being very different from what they seem. As many readers have found out, the “prophecy” idea is not a preordained fate but rather a twisted illusion of choice, identity, and questionable fate. Because of this ultimate change, the beginning was initially set up. In regards to the protagonist, Eric, he is probably more rigid in the ultimate version–a little harsher on the world than he originally was–but I enjoyed it, because his changing from the beginning to the end meant more with his extremities being stretched even further.

Michael Noll

We also learn the basic mechanics of the world’s supernatural elements: the characters can appear and vanish and move quickly across distances. Young members of this community are given guards, either to protect them or protect the world from them (it’s not yet clear in the first chapter). These are crucial details for readers to understand, and it’s important to establish them early, but it’s also important not to stop the story in order to explain these things. You avoid this problem by working the details into the narrative. How did you balance the need to get the story moving with the need to show the reader what the characters can do (which is likely a big part of the book’s appeal)?

Shannon A. Thompson

I balanced them more in the editing process than in the originally writing process. This happened because I had a better understanding after I’d spent so much time with the world and the characters living within it. A good example of this is reflecting on the word count: the first version was 136,000 words, but the published version is less than 80,000 words. This is important, because I was still discovering some of those rules while I wrote the first version. In the editing process, I was able to incorporate those elements sooner.

Michael Noll

Many high school and college students dream of being writers, but you’ve actually published two novels. How were you able to make the jump ambition to actually completing and publishing your work? How do you make time among all the things that typically distract young writers: social life, social media, school, family?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset

Honestly, I believe anyone can make the jump, as you put it, but it requires a lot of sacrifice. I don’t go out on the weekends or watch a lot of T.V. I write–but I also love writing, so this is a beautiful opportunity for me. In terms of making the decision to do this, I’d have to talk about my past. I started writing, because my mother was a writer, and she encouraged me to in order to cope with nightmares and night terrors. She suddenly died when I was 11, and I faced mortality at a young age. I realized that I had to spend my life chasing my dream, so I began immediately, and I had my first novel published in three years. November Snow is dedicated to her, but Minutes Before Sunset is dedicated to my late roommate, Kristine Andersen, who died in October of last year and our other roommate, Megan Paustian. In a way you could say that my passion pushes me forward, but deaths in my life have caused the first shove that turned into the momentum that began it all. However, if I had to give advice, I’d share my mantra: write with passion; succeed with self-discipline.

Michael Noll

I teach at a university, and I often hear faculty lamenting and/or praising our students’ use of social media. The lamenters believe that students are wasting their lives on tiny screens. The praisers believe that students may one day translate their online connections into beneficial ends. I’m curious about your use of social media. It seems like you’ve been successful in creating an online presence for yourself not just as a person but as a writer. Your blog has more than 8000 followers, and Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July. What’s your social media strategy?

Shannon A. Thompson

I like to believe my social media strategy is simple: be available and help others. My website provides a lot of writing, editing, and publishing tips, because I want to help other writers, but I also want to help other artists in general. My ultimate dream isn’t to be a famous author. My dream is to be able to open an affordable art school that connects students with innovative artists within their media. I believe I have connected with so many others over the Internet, because I try to help them, and I’m always reminding people they can email me at any time if they have any questions about the industry.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Set the Rules Your Characters Must Live By

13 Aug
Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July and tells the story of two young adults trying to balance their supernatural gifts with a desire to live in the human world.

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. Pam Houston wrote a novel titled Cowboys are My Weakness. The rules of the novel are announced before you even open the book. Every story ever written or told must announce the rules it will play by.

The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative. Shannon A. Thompson sets the rules clearly and quickly in her Young Adult/Paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset. You can read the first chapter here. 

How the Story Works

Once you’re aware of how stories set the rules that their characters must live by, you can’t avoid seeing it’s done. Whether the fiction is genre or literary, the need to impose boundaries and limitations on characters is the same.

Here’s an example from the title story of Ethan Rutherford’s excellent new collection The Peripatetic Coffin. The story’s about the crew of a Confederate submarine trying to break the Union blockade of the port of Charleston:

“On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed the bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.”

The world is imposing clear boundaries on the characters: literally, a blockade with cannon balls and bombs. At no point in the story will the characters be able to act as if these impediments do not exist.

But the boundaries and rules can be mental as well as physical. To see how, read these two excerpts from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel, Minutes Before Sunset:

“It was Independence Day, and I stood with my family on Willow Tree Mountain. They called it Willow Tree Mountain, but, in reality, it was Willow Tree Hill, and the town denied that reality.”

Here’s the second excerpt:

“I moved my foot closer to the edge of the hill. I wanted to ride the wind down to the crowd. I wanted to dance and smile. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and listen to the exploding fireworks. I wanted to run around in endless circles until I fell down from exhaustion. I wanted to enjoy everything.

But that couldn’t happen. It was impossible.”

In these two passages, we learn the fundamentals of the story: the town has an Ignorance-is-bliss attitude. The narrator would like to join the smiling townspeople, but, for a reason that will be revealed later, he’s prevented from doing so. This mental and physical limitation defines his character and determines how the story will move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice setting the rules, using Minutes Before Sunset as a model:

  1. Choose a character and a world for that character to inhabit.
  2. Define the world with a single adjective: happy, sad, fearful, proud, bored, etc.
  3. Free write about that adjective. Your goal is to find an image of the world or the people in it that demonstrates the adjective, if possible without actually stating it. The image will set the rules for the world. Future descriptions of the world should adhere to this early image in some way. So, in Minutes Before Sunset, the town’s denial of the supernatural elements in its midst is suggested by the fact that it calls a hill a mountain. In Gone in 60 Seconds, the stovetop burns out of control to suggest Kip’s lack of control.
  4. Now, free write about the character. How does he/she feel about the image you just created? Try to find an action that suggests the character’s attitude toward the world. For instance, in The Hunger Games, the fact that Katniss sneaks through the fence in order to hunt suggests that she’s willing to break the rules to protect her family. Thus, the big event at the end of the first chapter—volunteering for the Games in place of her sister—feels like a natural extension of her character, of the attitude that we’ve already witnessed.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Kelli Ford

8 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick,” was published in Drunken Boat, and you can read it here.

Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and grew up in North Texas. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and she went on to earn an M.F.A. at George Mason University. She was awarded a 2012-13 Dobie Paisano Fellowship through the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. While a fellow, she put the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories that takes place in Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country and along the banks of the Red River.

In this interview, Ford discusses her process for describing characters, what it means to write about characters from low-income areas, and her solution to the tricky question of how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it.

(To read Kelli’s story “Walking Stick” and an exercise based on her character descriptions, click here.)

Michael Noll

I admire your character descriptions. They’re quick and detailed, moving from the general (old lady) to the idiosyncratic (the fact that the sole of one of her shoes wears faster than the other) in just a few sentences. They’re also nestled within the story, so that the description leads directly into action or thought. How do you approach these descriptions? It can be difficult to fully visualize an invented character, but you make it look so easy.

Kelli Ford

Well, thank you, first of all. To answer this question, which is a nice, concise question about character descriptions, I think I need to take a step back. “Walking Stick” is one of my “origin obsession” stories. Some of us are blessed/cursed with the obsession of our origins and end up coming back again and again. I often think of this as a fault of mine, but try to both stretch myself to invent more and accept it as a gift with as much grace as I can muster.

So this is a roundabout way of answering your wonderful question with a terrible answer: I don’t know. These characters are inspired by my mom, her sisters, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. Of course—and as I always protest to my mom (too much?)—the people in the stories truly do become characters and take on a life of their own. They look ways, say things, and do things as they live on the page that their inspirational, real-life counterparts would never do.

I don’t know where the one worn shoe comes from. I don’t think my great-grandmother always wore out one shoe before the other, but the Anna Maria character does. Why or how? I think this is a character I know very well. It’s one that, perhaps, came easy. When I was writing the story, I didn’t find myself searching around for what she looks like or how she walks.

Other characters, and I’d imagine especially those who are wholly inventions, I have to search for, maybe, what he would wear or how he may respond to a fly crawling across his arm. (Does he wave it away distractedly, smash its guts on his arm, try but fail to Mr. Miyagi it in the air with chopsticks?) In the early pages of a story, descriptions can sometimes be a struggle with a character I am creating, or just beginning to know. I usually find myself more sure of these choices toward the end of the story. So much so, in fact, that maybe things once again begin to feel mysterious and not like choices at all. By the time I’m nearing the end of the story, I have a much better sense of that character, and it’s simply a matter of making sure I let go of early stuff, worked over as it may be, and truly start anew so this knowledge can be incorporated into the early stuff. On a purely nuts and bolts level, for me, that often means retyping each new draft each day so I’m not just tinkering and my subconscious is free to take off. Probably the invented characters require more cutting because I describe and describe trying to get it right, trying to know things for myself.

Michael Noll

This is a story about people who live without a lot of money. There’s a tendency in American fiction to portray these kinds of characters as either ennobled by poverty or as bloodthirsty and devolved. Your story does neither. Even though it’s about an old woman limping down to the tracks to carve up a cow hit by the train, the story never becomes cartoonish or cliched. Is this something you think about in your work?

Kelli Ford

I worry about sentimentality in my work, perhaps because so much comes back to the characters I write. For many of my characters, and especially Anna Maria and Lula, I feel so much for them. I really do. I feel the weight of their choices, the weight of the way the world acts upon them. Sometimes, you come across a character that can make you cry at your keyboard. So maybe the key, a key, is to be honest about them. Shit. We’re all saints and sinners, and poverty, or near-poverty, isn’t ennobling. Do you pay the light bill or buy the school clothes or do both and skip the car payment? Living with those kinds of choices doesn’t make you somehow more dignified than those around you. To write as if it does is dishonest, at best. Poor people are shitty all the time but, perhaps, have less agency to be shitty on a grander scale. If you work to create fully realized characters, and you aren’t setting out to ennoble or bloodthirst-ify a character, then characters are allowed to become either if that’s what the story demands, or rather what the character demands of the story.

Michael Noll

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers.

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers. To read an excerpt about language and identity, click here.

I’m interested in the story’s use of the Cherokee language. In David Treuer’s essay “Smartberries” from his book Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, he criticizes Louise Erdrich for misrepresenting and slighting the Ojibwe language in her novel The Antelope Wife. He claims that she slights the language in choosing mostly nouns when Ojibwe is a verb-based language and in almost always translating the Ojibwe into English. He says this:

“Erdrich adheres to the most popular conventions that govern the use of foreign words in English…the reader is left with sentiments about the Ojibwe language and instances in which Ojibwe functions as an ornament, not as a working part of the novel’s machinery…As with many other Native American novels, the use of lexical nuggets ends up feeling more like display, with language itself a museum piece.”

What are your thoughts about this problem: how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it. In “Walking Stick,” the characters talk to one another in Cherokee, and their words are not translated. You seem to be honoring the integrity of the language. Is this an intentional move?

Kelli Ford

This is a great question! I’ve thought a lot about it, and to be honest, I don’t think I do a good job of “honoring the integrity of the language.” There’s nothing particularly Indian about the story aside from content, the characters and the tiny Oklahoma town they live in. Anna Maria is living in two worlds. She’s seeing her family become more white with each generation. Her daughter has moved in and has her own set of expectations and needs. Their religion is becoming the most important part of their identity. Anna Maria speaks her native language when she sees the Cheaters, and it’s a comfort, almost a sadness.

In “Smartberries,” Treuer says of the Ojibwe in Love Medicine (a book I’m more familiar with), “Strangely, the use of…words—though done seldom—highlights the longing for culture, not its presence” (64). He criticizes not just Erdrich’s mishandling of Ojibwe, but critics’ discussion of her work as particularly Native American in structure, in narrative approach, etc.

Having Anna Maria speak Cherokee is similar, I suppose, to writing her with a limp and one crappy shoe. I don’t think of these choices as “ornamental,” any more than I think having one of Erdrich’s characters speak Ojibwe is ornamental. These choices are integral to the characters as they are written.

That’s not to excuse mishandling the language. Erdrich didn’t grow up speaking the language. Neither did I, though like her I grew up hearing it. So should that preclude me from writing a character who speaks the language? Because Love Medicine is such a powerful and beautiful piece of literature, I say definitely not. (To be clear, I’m not comparing my work to hers—that would be nuts—I’m only comparing the use of language.) Should I work harder to do a better job and make the Cherokee I may happen to use better, more accurate, more complex? For sure. In “Walking Stick,” Anna Maria uses very basic greetings. It was a conscious choice not to translate the language for the most part, but she’s using simple greetings. It wasn’t really a difficult choice, though I suppose I could have taken it a bit further and used the actual Cherokee syllabary, which would have added another level of distance and work for readers who don’t speak the language. As it’s written, not much was a stake, but you know, she’s limited by my own limitations. That’s a real drag. You never want your character to be limited by your own ignorance, but when you are talking about a language, you can’t really sit down in the library for a couple weeks of research and be good.

This story is many years old. I am not sure I would try to use the language now, but you know, I hope I would. I hope I would simply work harder to get it right, to make it better, understanding that I’m going to get some things wrong. For this one, I used memory and books. I called the Cherokee Nation and talked to someone who was a cultural liaison of sorts to get a-do-la-nv-ss-di, but I don’t know if someone would really use this word as a nickname. I sent the story to a cousin to take a look at the language.

Erdrich is continually revising. In The Paris Review interview published a couple of years ago, she says that improving her use of Ojibwe is one reason she’s always revising, even Love Medicine, which is sort of a holy grail for me, as you can probably tell. It’s a great fear of mine that a native speaker will happen across one of my stories, or one of my cousins will follow a Facebook link, and see faults with the language. That simply means I have to work harder if I have another character that needs to speak the language. I don’t want to shy away from a story. I want my allegiance first to be to the character.

Michael Noll

This is an old story, but it was picked up recently by Drunken Boat. What is your process for sending work out? How did this story find its way to publication?

Kelli Ford

Well, I started out, like many of us do, with the Dick Cheney hunting birds process of submission. Send it out everywhere, hope you hit something, anything. But gradually, I think I’ve gotten a bit more focused. It’s hard, though. On a budget you can’t really subscribe to all the magazines and journals you’d like to, despite your best intentions. I find a few contemporary writers doing stuff I like and look at who is accepting their work, get subscriptions where I can, and send a story into the slush-ether with fingers crossed. If a writer I like edits a magazine, I send something there. I always have my dream magazines like The Southern Review or Oxford American.

This publication came about because Drunken Boat had a Native issue a while back. I submitted something that wasn’t quite right but got a nice note back that essentially said no really, send us something again and do it quickly! So I did. Even so, there was a new fiction editor in place by the time I sent “Walking Stick.” So that’s a small bit of advice to students and folks early in the process of submissions. When you get those nice rejections, act quickly. Send something else if you think you have something better suited for the magazine. Editors move on, and if one asks for more work, I think he or she generally really means it.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Describe A Character

6 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick" appeared in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick” appeared in Drunken Boat. She recently served as the fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch near Austin, where she worked on finishing a story collection, Crooked Hallelujah.

When people call Anton Chekhov the greatest short story writer, they often talk about how quickly he develops characters. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for instance, he sums up a gentleman in Moscow this way: After the main character reveals the tiniest bit of his feelings about a woman to a friend at a dinner club, the friend says, “You were quite right, you know—the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” An entire social dynamic is revealed in those few words.

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world. Kelli Ford writes those kind of descriptions. To see how she does it, check out her story “Walking Stick.” You can read it now at Drunken Boat.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Kelli Ford describes one character:

“At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through.”

We learn not only that Anna Maria is poor and old, that she’s overweight with a limp, and that she lives in a place with gravel roads. But we also learn about how she faces a world that isn’t easy for a poor, old, overweight woman with a limp. We understand her mentality through the simple, matter of fact description of the shoes and the fact that she can feel the gravel. One of the most important words in the passage is always. Thin shoes and poky gravel are facts of Anna Maria’s existence, and she does not complain. A lesser writer would call her stoic, but a description like this one, because it shows us the character so thoroughly, makes us believe that she exists.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character, using Kelli Ford’s description of Anna Maria as a model:

  1. Start with the character’s age: “At — years old, So-and-so did (did not) _______.”
  2. Describe the character in terms of how he/she has always been: “He was still ______”
  3. But then add a recent change: “But (some new thing) made her ______.”
  4. Describe the affect this change has on the character: “As a result…”
  5. Describe the world from the character’s POV. Given the recent change, how does the character see the world? What does the character notice or do?

The idea is to move beyond basic physicality or mentality (short, tall, skinny, fat, smart, dumb, happy, sad) to a sense of interaction with the world. This means creating pressure on both sides: the pressure the world applies to the character and the way the character pushes back.

Good luck and have f un.

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