Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson, where she teaches writing and works in marketing at the University of Arizona.
In this interview, Warren-Pederson discusses dialogue, unlikable characters, and the moment when a narrator’s voice pops into your head.
(To read Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” and an exercise on speeding up dialogue, click here.)
Dialogue is normally structured with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. But that’s not what this story does. Instead, chunks of quick, back-and-forth dialogue are included in the same paragraph. I’m curious about why you chose this structure. It seems to have a few effect: 1) It makes each piece of the dialogue less important than the banter itself, 2) It makes the dialogue read faster than if it was broken into separate paragraphs and 3) It makes the dialogue (both speakers) part of the narrator’s voice. In other words, it’s not so much dialogue as a story being told by the narrator. Did you play around with different ways of writing this dialogue?
I actually didn’t play around with the structure of the dialogue; it just came out that way. This story emerged over a couple of weeks nearly fully formed – I had a sense of done-ness about it without my usual agonizing rounds of revision. The choice to not use hard returns in the dialogue was deliberate but also instinctive, if that makes sense. I’d been admiring run-together dialogue in other writers’ stories for exactly the effects you mention. I think a lot about how to influence the way the writing sounds to others when they read it, by which I mean, I want them to “hear” it how I am hearing it. I use AP style for my work writing, and have a strong allegiance to stylistic convention, so dialogue like this is about as close as I get to experimentation as a fiction writer, at least structurally. But then, paradoxically, I’m an intuitive grammarian, so I’m more interested in using commas to, say, control speed of reading than correctly manage the joining of dependent clauses or whatever. Gah, it was all I could do to even mention dependent clauses. I try to think of them as little as possible.
I love this sentence: “Then she went out to the garden in her Holly Hobbie hat and spent five minutes getting down into a kneeling position on this geriatric-looking green foam “gardening aid” I found in a Lillian Vernon catalog one night when I was looking for something, anything to read while I took a dump.” The sentence covers so much ground: hat, gardening aid, catalogue, taking a dump. In terms of structure, it’s not unlike the chunks of dialogue in that it compresses a lot of information into a small, dense package. Does this voice and style come naturally to you, or is it something you achieve through revision?
This voice and style came naturally to me for this story in particular. Sometimes I have heard or read writers talking about how their characters “won’t shut up” or practically write the stories themselves, and this has always sounded and seemed like hokum to me. The Paris Review interview with Nabokov had a question about characters taking over, to which he responded that his characters are galley slaves—I love this. …but does it sound like I’m protesting too much? Because truly, one day I was driving home from work and the first line of the story popped into my head and then another line, and I had to kind of chant them to myself until I could get to a place where I could write them down. I think a great deal of writing happens in the subconscious, and when it’s ready to emerge, it will. Sometimes it does all at once, other times in dribs and drabs.
Some seemingly-crucial information is left out of the story: the characters’ ages, the exact nature of their relationship, the exact nature of Cynthia’s health problems. We can guess some of this–but not all of it. Why did you choose to not make this kind of information explicit?
Those things were not what the story was about to me. I think that someone probably mentioned the omissions to me in workshop, but I was listening for whether my fellow writers got from the story what I intended, and by and large they did. I remember cleaning up a couple points of confusion in a revision, but the particulars you mentioned didn’t matter to me. I mean, it’s not a story about the pathology of a particular disease, you know? In workshop situations, especially when we’re trying to be good and thorough readers, we reflexively point to this type of omission, and pointing it out seems tantamount to calling it a problem. Lack of detail is kind of an impressionistic technique, and if the right impression is conveying, then I don’t think everything needs to be spelled out. I hasten to point out here that I’m probably the worst judge of what can and should be spelled out in my own work; I left those things out of this story because the direction of my workshop validated that decision. If they spent the whole workshop talking about how old the characters were, I’d figure something was seriously amiss.
This story is about a broke middle-aged man in a relationship with an older, ill woman. In other words, it’s about a character who could be pretty unlikable–but he’s not. But neither is he “likable,” whatever that means. He’s interesting. But as I read, I thought of Claire Messud’s recent comments in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. The interviewer commented that she wouldn’t want to be friends with one of Messud’s characters, and Messud answered this way:
“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
How did you approach Gerald’s character? It seems like it’d be easy to make him purposefully unlikable and throw that in the reader’s face. Or, you could fill the story with trite, sentimental messages about growing old, dying, living, etc. Did you ever think, “Gee, I’m not sure how to write about this guy?”
Claire Messud’s gotten a lot of crap for having written an angry woman narrator, which I think is weird and limiting. In the same interview you mention, she said: “…it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” I’ve never had a problem accessing rage as a writer, but that I’ve channeled that rage into the first person narration of a man is telling. What it tells, I’ll let you decide. I really love Gerald. He’s such an asshole. But he kind of has to be, generationally and socially and culturally: he’s boxed into a specific worldview. His defense mechanisms are airtight; he doesn’t even turn off the bravado in his own internal monologue. To turn it off would be to admit how deeply he loves Cynthia and open himself to the pain of not only losing her, but also bearing witness as she wastes away. One of the things I intuited about Gerald from the very beginning, when those first couple lines came out of nowhere when I was driving, was his genuine love for Cynthia and his awareness of how skeptical people would be of it. Knowing that made him an easy character to write.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.