Archive | February, 2014

An Interview with Benjamin Reed

27 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine. He guest edited the most recent volume of the magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s fiction and essays have appeared in [PANK], West Branch, Arcadia Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, and The Southern Quarterly. He won the 2013 Austin Chronicle Short Story contest, and Junot Díaz selected Reed’s “The Quiet Hunt” as winner of the Avery Anthology Small Spaces Prize. Reed was born in Houston, and grew up near San Francisco. He is a graduate of the University of Texas, and recently earned his MFA from Texas State University, where he currently teaches English. He lives in Austin with his wife and their two boys.

In this interview, Reed discusses Tarzan’s Faustian bargain, writing sex scenes, and the use of metaphor by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

To read “King of the Apes” and an exercise on unrequited love and writing inevitable scenes, click here.

(Reed will be reading at the AWP Conference this week at Big Fiction‘s event at Tony’s Coffee Bar on Saturday at 7:30.)

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Committee Room, you said, “Good stories often show relationships in transition. They often revolve around some kind of power imbalance.” In “King of the Apes,” this is certainly the case—in the jungle, Tarzan has power over Jane, but when he comes to America, the balance shifts in her favor—but it’s also not that simple. To some extent, the characters all use each other. Edgar Rice Burroughs uses Tarzan’s story for money and fame, but Tarzan also uses that relationship for money as well. In New York, the anthropologists and Tarzan use each other—for study and fame (anthropologists) and education and fame (Tarzan). Did that complexity of relationships always exist in the draft? Or, did you start with something simpler (anthropologists taking advantage of Tarzan, Tarzan fighting back) and discover the complexity during subsequent drafts?

Benjamin Reed

Originally, Edgar Rice Burroughs was dead the whole time, just a reference and a quick flashback. No dialogue. I decided to include Burroughs as a living, speaking character in a very late revision. Having him echo Tarzan’s original rejection from Jane totally refocused the nature or “aboutness” of the story: The loneliness and profound sadness a person feels when he can’t let go of someone who has let go of him. For me this was better and more specific than just focusing on my Tarzan’s “alienation” or “strangeness,” which is what I’d been working with before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914 and wrote more than two dozen follow-up novels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. You can read it for free at The Gutenberg Project.

I’m really heartened by this question, because you totally recognize what I was trying to do. After Jane tilts the axis of power by leaving Africa, Tarzan never recovers. He becomes a man shipwrecked on an alien society. In civilized America, his relationships are transactional and exploitive, both parties using each other as a means to an end. These are Faustian bargains of self-sacrifice and bondage: the researchers who replace Tarzan’s social identity, the circus promoter who retains his liberty, and finally the pulp fiction writer who acquires and appropriates his very life story. He sells off his mind, body, and soul. This sinister trifecta has always been in the story, but it wasn’t until Burroughs showed up that I knew what everything meant.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, you’ve got this amazing passage about the love story that Tarzan wants told about Jane and him:

It’d be “a real literary affair where Tarzan has to find Jane. He has to seek her out. Possibly cover hundreds or thousands of miles. A story that spans the globe. He tracks her down, Jane, who’s in this kind of spell, or a haze, or a hypnosis or something. So Tarzan has to save her, not just from the darkness, but from herself, Edgar. A story where Tarzan reaches inside Jane to keep her from falling off some rocky precipice in her own heart.”

In Tarzan’s summary, it sounds hackneyed and ridiculous, but, of course, the line between hackneyed and emotionally-impactful is a fine one (just ask Nicholas Sparks). Were you ever tempted to write this story?

Benjamin Reed

“Hackneyed?” You’re dead to me, Noll.

No, but seriously, yeah, it’s supposed to be trite and make Tarzan look ridiculous, revealing how he sees things when he’s alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. In a way I feel like I did get to explore this fantastic and divergent storyline by having Tarzan narrate it as a kind of embedded text, a story within a story, while also evincing that sometimes he can get a little drunk on his own a delusional sap.

 Michael Noll

The story moves very quickly over some important moments. For instance, Tarzan’s move from Africa to New York happens in a single paragraph. And, before that move, there are these lines about Jane:

When Jane’s stinking clothes finally fell into rags she covered herself in leaves until I could steal a lion pelt from a hunter’s cache. She taught me how to speak some of her language. And of course, she gave me so much more than that. For a brief time, the jungle flowered into paradise.

Again, another writer might have handled that passage very differently. Was it difficult to find the right way to say, “We had sex?”

Benjamin Reed

Isn’t that a lot of what we deal with when we write? Answering mundane questions like, “What does my character do for money?” or resolving issues of taste, such as how to convey that characters have had sex without engaging in the dreaded sex scene? Honestly though, I think I originally did have a less subtextual sex scene in that spot, and it was probably an orgasm of bad taste and falling flower petals. As writers are taught, I wrote my way out of it. I just revised and revised until what I had in front of me didn’t make me cringe.

Michael Noll

A character gives Tarzan a copy of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is apt since both Tarzan and Frankenstein’s monster had to learn to speak. How did you approach the voice of Tarzan? It would seem challenging for a couple of reasons. For one, you have to invent a way of speaking that suggests the consequences of coming to any language (or, in this case, all language) late in life. In addition to that, you’re also working under the “Idea of Tarzan” that every reader will immediately have in mind once they learn your Tarzan’s name. What was your process for finding the right voice?

Benjamin Reed

It might surprise you how much of my time is preoccupied with this exact problem. Right now I’m working on a story about a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers in about 30,000 BCE, and figuring out how they speak is like creating a new language, but one whose only existence is in my own fluid translation. Lately I’ve been grappling with this clan’s dexterity with metaphor. It’s also been made clear to me how heavily English relies upon a modern and contemporary idiom. I thought my “caveman story” would be fun and relatively quick, but it’s become this huge project. I have to create these people’s entire culture and worldview, one word choice at a time.

Tarzan’s voice was easier. As the story is told in retrospect, I totally avoided having to figure out what a “primitive” or transitional Tarzan would sound like. Instead I gave him a normal, only slightly elevated diction, this slight lilting of an ironic aspiration to society, which I hoped would give him that bourgeois tinge of insecurity.

Dr. Kroeber was a real man, an early anthropologist from UC Berkeley who became famous for his work on Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yana people of California. In my story, Kroeber is trying to nudge Tarzan toward greater self-awareness. He gives Tarzan a copy of Frankenstein because, like Shelley’s terrible creation, Tarzan is also a construction, and a kind of monster.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.


How to Write a Scene that Can’t Be Avoided

25 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Some stories have been told so often that, if you try to write one, certain scenes become inevitable. For instance, every sports movie will have its “Rocky Balboa at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art” scene. Every teacher/student movie will contain a version of the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ literature students stand on their desks and recite poetry as he exits the room after being fired. If you’re writing these stories, the problem is not finding a way to avoid the scene but figuring out how to reinvent it.

Benjamin Reed has done exactly that in “King of the Jungle,” a story of unrequited love featuring Tarzan. The story was published in Arcadia Magazine, where you can read it now: King of the Apes

How the Story Works

Any story about unrequited love will include this scene: the frustrated lover crying out in anguish. The moment cannot be escaped, but because every reader will know it’s coming, the writer must find a way to reinvent it. Here is how Reed handles the moment with Tarzan:

Then I received a letter from Jane, at last. She’d read about me in the Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and of course, National Geographic. Although Jane was happy for my new success, she was not necessarily pleased that I had followed her to America. She would not be on the next train to New York. She hoped we could speak again, someday. She closed with a long apology and signed her name in bold, flowery script. In the postscript she stated that she’d married a real estate agent and moved to Des Moines.

Oh, naturally I was bitter. But I was too deeply incarcerated by my new lifestyle to let anyone know how I actually felt. I mean, I wasn’t about to go shouting on the steps of the school chapel, beating on my breast like a goddamn gorilla!

In short, Reed has his character say that he will not participate in such a scene. However, it’s one thing to do this and quite another to make it work. Reed pulls it off by doing two important things:

  1. He creates a character who has limitations. There are certain things that Tarzan will never do. The Book of Proverbs (King James Version) says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In a way, this pride and spirit define all great characters. They would rather suffer than negate some essential part of themselves. This is true of real people as well. People who do not draw personal, moral, or ethical lines tend to be viewed negatively. As Aaron Tippin once sang, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” (And that marks the first and only time I will juxtapose Aaron Tippin with King James.) In Reed’s story, Tarzan will never reveal his anguish by publicly beating his chest like a gorilla because it would betray the identity that he’s worked so hard to create (he’s a man, not a monkey). And why did he create that identity? Out of love for Jane.
  2. He writes the scene that his character promised to resist. Remember, the scene is inevitable. It’s been part of the unrequited love story for a very long time. So, you have no choice but to write it. The key is to make the scene the result of something that is only tangentially related to the love story. That way, the scene comes as a surprise. Reed writes his scene in summary, after one of many nights in which he’s ended up with “buxom Jewish girls from Brooklyn, secretaries and bookkeepers for lawyers.” He drunkenly goes to the top of the Empire State Building:

I’d take the elevator calmly, but once on the deck in the night sky, I’d tear open my shirt and howl my famous cry to the beasts and the birds, my chest heaving, the buttons of my shirts bouncing over the concrete deck like a broken string of pearls. I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.

In a story with an ages-old plot line, you likely won’t avoid the inevitable scenes. But you can make them seem fresh and unexpected by building them into the the character’s limitations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write an inevitable scene using Ben Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” as a model:

  1. Create a character who has limitations. What line does your character draw in the sand? When does he or she say, “I will never do that.” One way to explore those limits is by asking the character to define herself. Treat it like an interview or the Baltimore Catechism: Who are you? Where do you come from? Think categorically: witty, Catholic, Polish, free spirit. Then ask what it would take for those answers to be negated—for the character to no longer be that person, for the character to no longer claim his/her place of origin or be claimed by it.
  2. Find the act that would break those limits. The act should do two things. First, it should force the character into a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Or, it should force the character to do something that goes against how she defines herself. Secondly, it should result from something tangential to the plot. So, if the plot is a love story, the act should result from something love related—but not the key relationship itself. Reed does this by letting Tarzan sleep with women who are not Jane. Rather than making him happy, though, these interactions heighten his anguish. As a result, he acts in a way that breaks the limits he’s set for himself.
  3. Write a scene with the forbidden act and the character’s justification for it. To make the act make sense to the reader, it’s necessary for it to make sense to the character. This is why Reed has Tarzan say about his howl atop the Empire State Building, “I’ve been thrown out three times, but I can always go back. I’m no Mickey Mantle, but I’m still somebody.” He justifies his self-effacing act with the justification of fame. He’s doing what is expected of him, and it’s his right. So, let your character excuse the act that he/she commits.

Good luck!

An Interview with Caeli Widger

20 Feb
Caeli Widger's essay, "X" appeared in the "Lives" section of The New York Times Magazine. Her first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March.

Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free,” appeared in the “Lives” section of The New York Times Magazine. Her first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March.

Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, and the Madison Review, as well as on NPR and CBS Radio. She currently teaches for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and has taught in the past for Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Workshop and at University College London.

In this interview, Widger discusses rage against digital culture, what The New York Times will fact check (text messages!), and moving from novel writing to working within an 800-word limit.

To read “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” and an exercise on using context to discover what a story or essay is about, click here.

Michael Noll

A lot has been written about the way social media and technology are impacting our lives, and I suspect that most of us feel as though our own behavior has been changed—I know mine has. However, I’m not sure that I could pinpoint a moment that illustrates that impact. But that’s precisely what you do in this essay. The simple act of not answering your phone becomes an opportunity to discuss the emotional consequences of how you use technology. How did you choose that moment to use as the basis of your essay? Was it immediately after the missed-call and subsequent follow-up occurred—a lightning strike of understanding? Or did you start with a general feeling about technology and then search for a moment to illustrate it?

Caeli Widger

The call with Stacey actually was not the trigger for the original essay. Her voicemail and our follow-up exchanges occurred a full month before I sat down to write the first draft. My initial motivation came from anger and resentment over how digital culture works against all the elements required to sustain a writing life: silence, contemplation, solitude. Unimpeded focus, minimal distraction, etc. As a writer with young children and a day job, I must stay vigilantly protective of my writing time. I was revising my first novel at the time, and had maybe an hour a day to work on it. And I found that unless I wrote at the crack of dawn, it was nearly impossible to “unplug” mentally and fully inhabit my writing mind in a short amount of time. As soon as I began to engage with the digital world, I always felt it breathing on me. I’d run Freedom (internet-crippling software) on my laptop and then cheat and check my phone for messages five minutes later. Or, even if I didn’t check, some little portion of my brain would still be attuned to the possibility of something happening on some technology platform. And every time I caved to the possibility and turned away from my work, I ended up feeling gross and disingenuous. Disgusted with myself. It felt like a low-grade addiction—and I’m a total social media lightweight compared to most people! I don’t use Facebook or Instagram. But the infringement of texting and email and Twitter on my writing life finally sent me into something of a rage one afternoon (after a lame revision session) and I wrote a spontaneous 2000+-word essay on how technology is anti-art and anti-relationship. The relationship part is where the Stacey situation worked itself into that first draft, but it was a minor part. The original essay was a high-level, “our culture’s going to hell” sort of rant-piece. Really, it was an act of catharsis and I didn’t have submitting to The New York Times or any particular publication in mind. I was just feeling disgusted and emotional about everyone being glued to their stupid smart phones, myself included, and needed to blow off steam.

I revised it over the next few days and decided to submit it to the NYT Mag’s “Riff” page. I hit send and forgot about it. A few weeks later Adam Sternbergh, the mag’s culture editor, wrote and said he liked the piece, but that it wasn’t right as a “Riff”. He asked if he could send it over to Jillian Dunham who ran the “Lives” page. Jillian liked it, but said I would need to 1) cut it down by two-thirds (Yikes!) 2) make the piece a personal essay instead of a cultural-criticism piece. She suggested starting over with the Stacey anecdote at the core, so that’s what I did. And I ended up getting to a deeper truth than I originally had in the long rant. It just took me a long time to get there.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with the story and then, in the fourth paragraph, provides context for that story by explaining your phone habits. This is a common structure in magazine essays (begin in scene or with an anecdote, then provide context), but it can also be difficult to get right. There are usually several ways to talk about the same incident, and so providing context means choosing one and, perhaps, disregarding the others. How did you approach this paragraph? Was it difficult to distill your phone/social media habits down to five sentences?

Caeli Widger

Some iteration of that graph was always in the piece. I don’t think I consciously chose to explain my phone habits that way, but one of my original inspirations for writing it—part of what fueled that first burst of culture-rage—was the viscera of digitial communciation. The swooshes and pings and tinkling glass and other nine million noises that can come from a little machine had become way too present—and desired—in my daily life. Even the way my fingers feel on the glass of iPhone, tapping out a text, or the particular swiping motion I make with my thumb to enter my home screen—these are noises and actions that never existed until recently, and here they were, the gateways to NOT writing my book and NOT talking to people I love! So those sensory details organically worked themselves into the “example” paragraph supporting the opening graph, and then in revision I distilled the language into a succinct portrait of my phone habits.

 Michael Noll

The essay moves through time with incredible efficiency. These lines are a perfect example:

“I’ll call you at 2!” I replied.

“You didn’t listen to my voice mail last week, did you?” she asked when we finally spoke.

Was that transition between conversations always so quick, or did you need to revise out some mechanical explanation?

Caeli Widger

The 800-word limit is incredibly restricting. No room whatsover for mechanical explanation! This felt totally unnatural to me. I’m longwinded by nature. Novel-writing suits me—no parameters! But I simply had no choice with this essay. The original graph you cite was originally MUCH longer. I had to pare down every single inessential word. The NYT’s incredibly diligent fact-checking system also helped impose limits. I had to supply screen shots of my text conversations with Stacey and use them verbatim in the essay—no paraphrasing allowed!

Michael Noll

In her debut novel, family drama leads to a public intervention on a TV reality show and in a seedy Reno motel room.

In Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, family drama leads to a public intervention on a TV reality show and in a seedy Reno motel room.

Your first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released next month. Outside of poetry or highly academic work, there’s probably not a form that is more different than a novel than a personal essay. One is long, digressive, and invented, and the other is short, narrowly-focused, and true. Was it difficult to move from novel-writing to essay-writing?

Caeli Widger

In ways yes, but in others, writing this essay felt like a reprieve from the open-endedness of my usual genre. I’d never really written a personal essay before, outside of one workshop back in grad school. I’d spent years writing short fiction, and when my stories began to creep beyond 10k words, I decided it was time to take the plunge and commit to a novel. And it was totally liberating. But also overwhelmingly free, if that makes sense. You can go anywhere in a novel: into any character’s head, anywhere in time. You can indulge in descriptive language, you can digress for chapters at a time. Of course, in the end, you must impose control and revise endlessly, but there is a Wild West feeling to the early drafts that was pleasantly minimal in the crafting of my essay. Even in that very first “rant draft,” I was fueled by specific subject matter and knew I couldn’t go on too long. This is not to say that I found the form easier—certainly not! Not only did the prose require strict discipline, but it took a long time to tease what I truly wanted to stay out of the piece while staying within 800 words. The piece must have had 30 different endings. Jillian kept sending it back to me saying, Try again. I kept trying to force a transformation on the end. I was avoiding (subconsciously) being honest and facing the fact that what I learned from the experience is that probably won’t change. And that was an uncomfortable, if painful, realization. In this respect, the two forms (novel and short essay) are similar: both require a great amount of patience and openness on the part of the author in order for the true subject to “reveal” itself.

February 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Context to Discover a Story’s Aboutness

18 Feb
Caeli Widger's essay, "Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I'm Free" appeared in the "Lives" section in The New York Times Magazine.

Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” appeared in the “Lives” section of the October 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you write a true story, one that’s been on your mind for a while, and then wonder, “What’s the point?” The answer often isn’t simple. A single story can be part of multiple arcs. The question is, which arc is the right one for this particular telling? One way to find out is with a short passage about context.

Caeli Widger illustrates how this kind of passage works in her essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free.” It appeared in the “Lives” section of the October 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay’s inciting event (to use film terminology) is one of the most common occurrences of daily life: a phone call. Widger didn’t answer and didn’t listen to the voicemail. She “fired off a text instead,” a decision that she would later regret—but not because something awful and life-changing happened as a result. At worst, Widger was guilty of a small lack of kindness that would have significant consequences, the sort of selfish act everyone commits on a more regular basis than we might like to admit. So where’s the story? What’s at stake? Why did this essay appear in the prestigious New York Times Magazine?

The answer is context. In this passage early in the essay, Widger explains why she sent a text rather than listening to the voicemail or even answering the call:

I had time to talk. I had the privacy and quietude I rarely have at my home full of little children and happy chaos. Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacey. But my reflex was to avoid her call.

These days, I hardly ever pick up. Most of my daily phone-based exchanges are conducted via text and messaging on social-media platforms. With those, I’m rapid-fire on the turnaround. Every ping signaling a text or swoosh alerting me to a Twitter direct message feels like a tiny gift in waiting. The trill of an unexpected incoming call, on the other hand, feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.

The context does three things:

  1. It turns a one-time act into a pattern of behavior: “These days, I hardly ever pick up.”
  2. It makes that pattern run counter to both logic (“I had time to talk”) and the author’s own sense of her best interest (“Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacy.”)
  3. It explains why this established pattern has overwhelmed everything else: texts and Twitter messages feel “like a tiny gift in waiting” but “an unexpected incoming call…feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.”

The anecdote about the missed call could have been about anything: enduring friendship despite faults, the healing passage of time, etc. But, as this context makes clear, the anecdote is about the way technology affects how we interact with the world, even people we love.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a passage of context about an anecdote/story in order to discover what it’s about. We’ll use the passage from Caeli Widger’s essay, “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free,” as a model:

  1. Choose a story. It can be something small like a missed phone call or huge like dropping a winning lottery ticket into the toilet. The important thing is that the story impacted you somehow. So, take a few minutes to sit and think. What stories have you written about in the past? Which stories are part of unfinished essays sitting in a drawer or in a buried folder on your computer? In other words, which stories have meaning that is unresolved?
  2. Turn the one-time act into a pattern of behavior. It’s true that there are essays about events that arise from nowhere and leave the participants stunned. But I’d guess the majority of essays are about patterns. It’s in our nature to view life as a series of patterns and recurring moments. We tend to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why didn’t I see this coming?” The question now is this: What pattern is your story part of? It could be a very specific pattern like Widger’s (not answering calls) or something more general (a tendency toward forgetfulness or selfishness, a habit of choosing the easy over the good).
  3. Make the pattern run counter to logic and your own best interest. In general, this is the story of modern literature, from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse” to the memoirs of Mary Karr. The behaviors that we return to in our thoughts have trumped our general sense of what was good for us or even what made sense—if not in the moment, then in the long run. For an essay, it’s useful to articulate the logic and best-interest that the action/behavior has veered away from.
  4. Explain why this established pattern has overwhelmed everything else. The reasons can be elements of behavioral psychology (like the effects of technology) or explained through religion, socioeconomics, geography, family history, or genetics. A common self-help trick is to ask yourself what attitudes you have inherited; in other words, what would your parents or the people you grew up have said about money, pleasure, fault, health, etc. The idea (in self-help and in this exercise) is to uncover the sometimes hidden rationales for our own behavior.

These steps may seem like they will require the bulk of an essay to explain, but your goal should be to condense them to a paragraph or two (or more, depending on the length of your essay). Once you have the context in hand, you can move on to the work of a storyteller: what happened, what happened next, the decisions you and others made, and what came of those decisions.

Good luck!

An Interview with Nicholas Grider

13 Feb
Nicholas Grider's debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called "vital" by Publisher's Weekly.

Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called “vital” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Nicholas Grider is a writer and artist living in Milwaukee. He received an interschool MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His photography has been exhibited internationally, and his writing has appeared in Caketrain, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Hobart, among others. His first book, the story collection Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange Object.

In this interview, Grider discusses OuLiPo writing rules, the delight of breaking rules, and his attempt at writing at story without making editorial judgement.

To read “Millions of Americans are Strange” and an exercise on point of view, click here.

To start our conversation, here is how Grider explains the writing process behind “Millions of Americans Are Strange”:

Nicholas Grider

“Millions” is the newest story in the collection and is indicative of where my writing, at least in short fiction, is headed for the next batch of stories. As I was finishing up the manuscript I started getting really interested in the OuLiPo, and still am, with books by Perec and Mathews on my desk as I write this. I made up a simple rule to begin the story, then: Sentence one must be related to sentence two, and sentence two should be related to sentence three, but sentences one and three should be unrelated. That got me off to a start but I realized that I kept inadvertently breaking the rule, so I introduced the stock phrase “Millions of Americans do X or Y” as a bridge, but then decided that wasn’t working well either so I slowly increased their volume until every sentence was a “Millions” sentence and I approached the end of the story more like a prose poem than a narrative.

Michael Noll

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec's novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User's Manual.

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec’s novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User’s Manual.

My favorite moment from any OuLiPo work is from Georges Perec’s La Dispiration. As you know, the text contains no letter e’s. There’s a scene where a character orders a drink at a bar, and the lack of e’s becomes crucial. This is what Harry Mathews said about the scene: 

“Perec took this absurdly confining idea and made of it a way of creating incident, situation, and plot. Eggs (oeufs) are declared to be taboo because they sound like e. And so a barman drops dead when asked to concoct a porto flip, a cocktail requiring port wine and eggs.” 

As you’ve experimented with OuLiPo-type limitations, have you found that the limits “create incident, situation, and plot?”

Nicholas Grider

This has a bit to do with being reserved and shy person, but in my art and writing I often start with the questions: what boundaries can I push and what can I get away with? Meaning, how many rules can I break, what can I talk my way into, etc. And breaking all the usual rules means making up my own, which applies not just to this story but to most of my art and writing. I’ll make up a set of rules, then follow them or break them as I see fit. The rules in “Millions” were an attempt to write a story that does not move forward in any way—it slides laterally through dozens of characters too briefly for anything to develop and ends up piling into an anaphora of generalities at the end. When it came to writing the story, though, making a good aesthetic choice always outweighed (and outweighs) following my rule or someone else’s. For me, the rules are less about developing content and more a way to do an end-run around a well-told “beginning, middle, end, character develops” kind of story. I’m currently writing a new collection and there are even more self-made rules, and more complex ones, but rule-making is part of the enjoyment of writing for me.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, we studied a few OuLiPo writers—plus, Italo Calvino was pretty popular in the U.S. at the time—and I remember that the few experiments people tried with the methods often failed because the limitations ended up being too inflexible. I’m curious how you handled this problem. I know that you adjusted or added to your rules once you began. Did you ever break your rules in order to let the story do what it needed to do?

Nicholas Grider

I got ahead of myself and explained this already, but yes: I delight in breaking other peoples’ rules and will break my own as I see fit. A compelling story is always more important than strict adherence to any rules.

Michael Noll

The story never settles into a single plot line or character’s point of view. If anything, the character of the story is those millions of Americans in the title.  Were you temped to follow Gary or George and Allen or Hannah and make the story about them? Was it difficult to maintain a forward momentum without an individual to use as the focus of tension and suspense?

Nicholas Grider

There are snippets in the story that I think would make for interesting stories, and some of those incidents are real things that people have told me about being involved in, but I was more invested in trying to keep the story moving laterally very quickly to want to linger over any individual character. What I can say, though, is that a lot of the obsessions, indecision, illness and weirdness in “Millions” had been explored earlier in a different form in the other stories that comprise Misadventure, so if anything, the incidents in the story serve as a very weird kind of precis for what later happens with other characters in other situations.

Michael Noll

The story’s tone at times seems to mimic the language of certain kinds of news sources, or even Wikipedia. Here’s one example:

“Millions of Americans are suffering due to the current economic climate. Sometimes persons without jobs receive unemployment insurance while they look for new jobs. Jason receives unemployment insurance because he was laid off when the plant closed.”

In this passage, especially the first two sentences, there’s an intentional vagueness that seems common to cable news segments (those 15 second headline readings that anchors do). Generally, as writers, we try to avoid that kind of language, but you really embrace it, and throughout the story, the language develops a sharp edge. How did you approach the tone and language? Did it appear through luck and experiment, or did you have something in mind when you began the story?

Nicholas Grider

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

The generality and bluntness of the style was something I had in mind at the start, for two reasons: first, I wanted the story to seem to have a veneer of scientific or academic detachment, where the story is simply a collection of facts presented in a particular order—an effort to try to decrease narratorial presence, and second because so much of what gets referenced is so bizarre or extreme that I wanted to deliberately underplay people having themselves kidnapped or firing shotguns in malls—trying to avoid sensationalizing anything in an effort to let the incidents do the sensationalizing themselves, so to speak. In other words, I didn’t want to make it seem as if I had any editorial opinion over what I was recounting, but emphasize instead that one character firing a shotgun in a mall and another character being described as three years old bear an equivalent amount of narrative weight.

February 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

11 Feb
Nicholas Grider's story, "Millions of Americans are Strange," was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure.

Nicholas Grider’s story, “Millions of Americans are Strange,” was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure, now available from A Strange Object.

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.

(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)

How the Story Works

If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.

A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.

The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:

Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.

The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:

Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.

The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

  1. Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
  2. Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
  3. Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

  1. Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
  2. Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
  3. Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jennifer duBois

6 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer Dubois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer duBois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included in at least eight best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Dubois attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed a Stegnor Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and others. She was the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award, and she currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

In this interview, duBois discusses sentence structure and style, her reason for telling a story from multiple points of view, and how she chose Buenos Aires as the setting for Cartwheel.

To read the opening pages of Cartwheel and an exercise on controlling narrative pace with sentence structure, click here.

Michael Noll

The book is a whodunit thriller, and yet the sentences move at a deliberative, almost stately pace. The sentences rarely move in a smooth, straight line. In the first paragraph, for instance, four out of the five sentences contain a phrase that is literally offset by punctuation: commas, dashes, or hyphens. The same thing happens throughout the novel, and, as a result, I was forced to slow down instead of racing ahead to see what happened on the next page–which was a pleasurable relief. Anxious page flipping always causes me to feel as though I’m blindly devouring a jumbo bag of Doritos. I’m curious how aware you were of this sentence style. Was the pace purposeful or simply the way your voice appears on the page? Or was it something that began naturally but fine-tuned through revision?

Jennifer duBois

I never thought of the book as a whodunit, or even really as a thriller. To me Cartwheel is more of a whoisit than a whodunit, I guess you could say: I wanted readers to experience a sense of suspense regarding the question of who Lily Hayes really was, and what they thought she was capable of; I wanted the plot’s twists and turns to stem not only from events, but from readers’ shifting interpretations of those events. And so the sentence structure wasn’t really a conscious effort to slow down the pace; I think I probably do tend to write long sentences anyway—and I definitely get a lot of mileage out of the em dash (case in point). And that tendency was probably amplified by the fact that each chapter is embedded so deeply in each character’s perspective. I really hoped that readers would be persuaded by the logic of each character’s thinking while they were with them, so I tried to capture that thinking in as much detail as I could—there’s a lot of time spent in each of their heads.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from four different points of view: the accused murderer, her father, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. As a finished product, the novel seems whole and complete, but I imagine that in the early stage of writing it, you were unsure of basic things such as whose point of view to follow. There are other important characters in the novel, but their actions take place mostly off the page. Was it difficult to decide on these four viewpoints? Did you ever try writing from the POV of any other characters?

Jennifer duBois

I knew from the beginning that I would include the prosecutor’s and Lily’s father’s point of view, since it seemed natural to hear from a character totally convinced of Lily’s guilt and a character totally convinced of her innocence. I also knew I’d include Lily’s point of view, but that her sections would end the night of the murder—I wanted her chapters to offer psychological revelations about her character, but not factual revelations about the crime itself. The fourth point of view, Sebastien’s, was the last addition. I liked the idea of hearing from a character whose sympathies weren’t necessarily so pre-ordained as the prosecutor’s or Lily’s father’s were. I also liked the idea of introducing another character whose behavior inspires wildly different reactions, and whose interiority doesn’t always match the way he’s externally perceived. I didn’t think Lily should be the only character in the book who is at the mercy of other people’s interpretations—because in real life, we all are. To misquote St. Francis, I wanted Lily not only to be misunderstood, but to misunderstand.

 Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sense of place. It’s set in Buenos Aires, but most of the action takes place in a series of closed spaces, not just houses but rooms in houses: Lily’s bedroom, the parlor in her boyfriend’s house, the prosecutor’s bedroom, the rooms in the jail cell where Lily is allowed to talk to her family and lawyers, and the inside of a restaurant where Lily worked. The rest of Buenos Aires appears only briefly, through Lily’s photographs (or as she tours the city, photographing it) or the travels of the other characters to and from the prison. I can imagine beginning this novel and feeling the need to capture the city, to do a kind of travel-show introduction. But this never happens. Were those passages cut, or did you know from the beginning how to approach descriptions of the city?

Jennifer duBois

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin's political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington's Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin’s political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington’s Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

That’s such an interesting observation and question—I never really thought about the number of closed spaces in the book, but you’re totally right. I think it relates to my sense of the book as being “set” in a hazy sphere of personal perception much more than in an objective external reality. There were a few reasons I selected Buenos Aires—I needed a city an American study abroad student might fall in love with, in a country with a judicial system similar enough to our own that said student might not be aware of some key differences. I wanted a country with a language that an American college student might have mastered sufficiently to feel overly confident in. I thought that setting the book in a Catholic country could provide an interesting dimension to its exploration of misogyny/ideas about female sexuality, and that setting the book in a country with such a fraught history with the U.S. could add an interesting angle to the questions about American entitlement/anti-American resentment. But ultimately I didn’t see Cartwheel as trying to depict a particular place as much as trying to depict four different characters’ minds. In a very fundamental way I think Cartwheel is a story that could have been set anywhere—this was very different from my first book, A Partial History of Lost Causes, in which the Russian setting is, in many ways, the book’s soul. And so that’s probably partly why Cartwheel doesn’t linger in the Argentinean setting very much; I hope that readers believe Buenos Aires as the book’s backdrop, but I think its real setting is in the characters’ heads (talk about enclosed spaces).

Michael Noll

 A lot of young writers tend to stick close to home with their work, but this isn’t the case for you. So far, your novels have been about characters who seem, at least on the surface, pretty different than yourself: an American exchange student charged with murder, a father, an Argentinean prosecutor, a Russian chess champion and political dissident. Plus, your novels have mostly been set in countries other than the United States. What draws your imagination to these characters and places? Are you drawing on the books that you read as a child? Were you a news and Time magazine junky as a kid?

Jennifer duBois

I don’t think my own life has really been interesting enough to generate a ton of material for fiction—but even if it had been, I’m not sure writing about it would appeal to me very much. I’m in my own life and memories every day anyway, and there is a real limit to my curiosity about myself. For me, the fun of fiction writing is in imagining lives and experiences that are very different from my own, and in getting to explore ideas or situations that I think are interesting. And because I’ve always been interested in other countries–and in international politics in particular (I was a political science major in college)—that interest winds up showing up in my fiction, along with assorted other preoccupations and hobbies and fun facts and jokes and pet conspiracy theories, etc. If I’m curious about it, it’s going in.

February 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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