Archive | May, 2014

Henry Louis Gates on the Legacy of James Baldwin

29 May
James Baldwin

James Baldwin once appeared on the cover of Time after writing a best-selling book of essays. In the essay, “The Fire Last Time,” Henry Louis Gates discusses the complex legacy of Baldwin’s work.

In Texas, many high school required-reading lists include To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that often provides the students with their sole glimpse of the Civil Rights era and issues of racism. Sometimes the students also read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is a start, but clearly more African-American voices are needed in high school curricula. One of those voices ought to be James Baldwin.

Baldwin was, for a time, one of the most famous writers in America. Time put him on the cover in 1963, following the publication of his book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. (This was three years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. To say that the books portray the world in different ways is putting it lightly.) Baldwin was also the author of many novels, including Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and collections of essays, including Notes of a Native Son, which contains a complex discussion of Richard Wright’s novel. Baldwin was gay, and because of the way this fact was received, he eventually moved to France, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Ironically, despite his immense literary output and former prestige, most high school and college students today rarely encounter Baldwin’s work, the lone exception being the story “Sonny’s Blues.” I’ve taught college composition and literature for almost ten years and used many different anthologies, and the only other work of Baldwin’s that I’ve ever encountered in a course text is his essay about living in Switzerland, “Stranger in a Village.” 

There are likely numerous reasons for the absence of Baldwin’s work in many classrooms and texts: American’s enduring racism, Baldwin’s sexual identity, his criticism of Christianity, the fact that he lived most of his life in Europe, his at-times contrarian attitudes toward some of the major African-American of the time. Rather than attempting to discuss these, I’ll leave that work to someone much more knowledgeable and smarter than me. A few years ago, Henry Louis Gates wrote an essay, “The Fire Last Time,” for The New Republic. In it, Gates talks about meeting Baldwin and wrestling with his work. The essay is one of those shining examples of a highly erudite and entertaining intellectual discussing and assessing a writer’s work in the context of changing movements and aesthetics. In other words, it’s very good. You can read it here at The New Republic.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.


How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

How to Describe a Character’s Mental State

20 May
Nami Mun's novel Miles From Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten Novel in 2009.

Nami Mun’s novel Miles from Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten First Novel.

Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?

A good example for how to approach this problem can be found in Nami Mun’s story, “Club Orchid.” It was a chapter in her novel Miles from Nowhere, a startling book about a homeless teenager that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009 and appeared on many best-of lists. “Club Orchid” was originally published in Evergreen Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a homeless teenage girl in New York City in the 1980s. She rents a blood-stained mattress at night and has found a job in a brothel. Here is a passage that demonstrates the narrator describing her own thoughts and feelings about the club:

But the club was all right for what it was and I was just glad to come in from the rain. After a whole day of walking around downtown looking for work at grocery stores, gas stations, and donut shops, it was nice to hear someone say you’re hired, just by looking at you. Like I was a model or something. Miss T. didn’t give me any forms to fill out, didn’t ask how old I was or where I went to school. She did ask if I was over eighteen, and I felt bad about lying, but I really needed the money. And to be honest, she didn’t seem to care all that much about my answer. Rajeev the night manager at Bombay Palace Hotel had asked me the same question before renting me a room, and I’d lied to him, too. But I didn’t feel guilty about fibbing to him because he charged too much money.

Notice the indicator phrases: “I was just glad,” “it was nice,” “I felt bad,” and “But I didn’t feel guilty.” These types of phrases are available to a narrator talking about herself. But, they’re not available if she’s describing the interior mind of someone else. Here is a passage that shows how the description changes. The narrator is talking to a man who has hired her services, and she’s failed to follow the act he expected:

I turned back and caught the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands, like he was washing it or something, then he rattled his head to shake off the invisible water. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out, sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic. His face squeezed out a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything, and he pulled up his chair closer to the table, sitting upright and tall. He was a new man. He was gonna take it from the top.

One key to this passage is that the narrator not only describes the man but mentally engages with the things she is describing. In other words, the thoughts and intentions behind the man’s actions are important to the narrator. She’s in a dangerous and unfamiliar situation, and so it’s necessary for her to figure out what is happening around her. As a result, the narrator provides specific descriptions of the man’s appearance and behavior and experiences these descriptions in different ways: she compares them to actions she’s familiar with (“like he was washing it”) and smells them (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). She also imagines the physical sensations that he feels (“a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything”). Finally, she interprets his intentions (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

If you go back and look at the first passage, you’ll see the difference. In the paragraph about the man, Mun uses none of the indicator phrases that appeared in the paragraph about herself. This may seem fairly obvious, but in early drafts of stories, it’s not unusual to find writers forcing narrators to convey their own emotions by describing their physical appearance (the most common way is to have a narrator look into a mirror). Or, the writer will force a narrator to describe another character’s emotion without describing that character physically; the result becomes speculation that can make the reader wonder about the narrator’s reliability.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe the thought processes and emotions of a character whose head is closed to us, using Nami Mun’s story “Club Orchid” as a model:

  1. Choose the characters. You’ll need a narrator and another character. Give them a relationship (friends, spouses, lovers, siblings, parent-child, customer-service provider, etc).
  2. Determine the situation. You don’t want to choose a scene in which nothing is at stake. Think of the situation as a transaction: the narrator is trying to get something from or give something to the other character (or vice versa). The thing being transacted could be information (where were you last night?), a word (yes or no), an agreement (what do you want to do?), or even engagement itself (talk to me, look at me, don’t ignore me). The thing could also be money or some object or action. I read a lot of Matt Christopher’s baseball novels when I was a kid, and the transactions in them were often between pitchers and batters. The thing being transacted was a baseball, but it was also cues that might give away the character’s intention for that ball (curveball, fastball, changeup). Be specific about what the narrator is trying to get out of the situation.
  3. Let the narrator describe the character using a comparison. So, you’ll need a description of the character (“the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands”) and the narrator’s sense of what that description is like (“like he was washing it or something”). The key is to give the character something to do. Try to avoid gazes (he looked at me like he was a jackal).
  4. Let the narrator engage physically with the description. Again, you’ll need a description of the character (“He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out”) and a way for the character to engage physically with it (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). The physical engagement can be through any of the four senses other than sight. Your goal is to make your narrator more than a distant observer. It’s one thing to watch somebody have a breakdown through a window, but it’s another to watch it from across the table. Make whatever the narrator is observing difficult to evade or hide from.
  5. Let the narrator imagine the character’s physical experience. In other words, let your character notice something (“a big clown smile”) and then imagine what it feels like (“more painful than anything”). This might be the easiest of the descriptions. One way to approach it is to watch for act and reaction: for instance, a character slamming the table with her fist and then the grimace that immediately follows. Allow your narrator to comment on what he sees.
  6. Let the narrator interpret the character’s intentions. Think of everything that the narrator has described (all of the character’s actions) as a transition from one mental state to another. So, is the character transitioning from joy to anger, from confusion to clarity, from grief to frustration? What is the outcome after these actions take place? Because the narrator cannot escape what is happening (Step 4), this outcome matters a great deal. So, let the narrator try to understand what that outcome might be (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

This exercise may yield a lot of writing. The next stage will be paring it back to a passage that propels the story forward. This likely means simply picking the descriptions that work best.

Good luck!

An Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston

15 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's story collection, Corpus Christi, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. He has just published his first novel, Remember Me Like This.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s first book, Corpus Christi: Stories, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. His new novel, Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a boy who disappears in Corpus Christi and then mysteriously turns up.

Bret Anthony Johnston new novel Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a Corpus Christi family whose young son disappeared for years and then mysteriously reappeared. A review in the Washington Post says that the book asks, “But what happens after the cable news hysteria fades away, and the mayor issues a proclamation and the tearful grandparents fly back home? Are these rare families like lottery winners who celebrate in public and then, in the months that follow, squander their good fortune?”

Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In this interview, Johnston discusses suspenseful imagery, the challenge of finding the right tone, and his approach to place in fiction.

To read an excerpt from Remember Me Like This and an exercise on setting the mood in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a body facedown in the water. This image doesn’t return until almost the end of the novel. In fact, it’s almost possible to forget about it since it’s not long before the drama of the novel takes over. What went into your decision to open the novel with that image? Did you worry that the reader would become impatient with wanting to return to it?

Bret Anthony Johnston

My hope was that the image would embed itself in the reader’s subconscious memory, that it would be something of a shadow that followed them through the story. I wanted them to wonder about the body; I wanted it to keep them from getting too comfortable in the story, to preclude them from taking survival for granted. That is, I wanted them to share the experience that the family endures. Starting the book that way seemed to invite a necessary kind of empathy. Of course you’re right, though, in that it’s almost possible to forget about the image. That’s the gamble I had to take so that when the body returns, the reader is jolted and yanked back toward a kind of raw vulnerability. I hope it works. If it didn’t, don’t tell me.

Michael Noll

The scene where Justin appears for the first time is really well done and uses a deft trick of misdirection. I can imagine that scene was difficult to write. The readers been waiting for it intently, and so there’s a need to both meet and confound their expectations. How did you approach that scene?

Bret Anthony Johnston

Your reading of the scene, the craft behind it, is incredibly accurate and I really appreciate such close reading, Michael. Thank you. What you’re pointing out, though, actually came with relative ease—meaning, it was stunningly difficult and time-consuming, but still not as difficult or time-consuming as other scenes—because it was the result of empathizing with the characters. I only had to understand what the characters would be feeling in that moment, and because I knew them well by that point in the book, their reactions were readily available. Once I understood that she would fixate on her memory him being afraid of snakes, I felt really at home in her reaction.

What took an enormous amount of time was striking the right balance in what might be called tone. I revised and revised and revised to get the scene to move evenly toward the revelation. I struggled with the pace for many drafts. I struggled with the cop’s reaction and the district attorney’s entrance. As you say, it was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.

Michael Noll

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

The novel returns to certain places (the empty pool at the “half-razed TeePee Motel” and the Marine Lab). The places begin just as places where the characters go, but over the course of the novel, several of the most important events occur there. Did you have certain dramatic scenes in mind when you first introduced those places into the novel? Or, did you explore the places and return to them until the drama presented itself?

Bret Anthony Johnston

The latter. When I start writing anything, I have no intentions of any kind, and the novel was no different. I approach every piece of fiction the same way, which is to pay attention to the details, images, and artifacts of the story and take nothing for granted. My impulse is to reach backwards in a story rather to stretch forward, so I’m always asking myself what’s already in play that I can use again, that I can recycle in a manner that will reward the reader’s attention. It’s a mechanism of repetition and evolution. In this case, I returned to various places until those places evolved to mean something other than what they had. I think a lot of new writers are excited by the prospect of constantly bringing in new material, new imagery or settings or objects, but I think the more satisfying move is often to juggle what you already have so that the reader sees something familiar in a new, more revelatory light.

Michael Noll

It’s been ten years since Corpus Christi: Stories was published. Since then you’ve continued to write stories, and you’ve also published a book of creative writing exercises and written a film documentary about skateboarder Danny Way. Plus, you direct the writing program at Harvard. In other words, you’ve been pretty busy. And yet, I can imagine there was pressure to produce a novel, especially since your first book was so well received. How were you able to resist that pressure, to discover the novel you wanted to write and then write it at a pace that would allow it to become the book you had in mind?

Bret Anthony Johnston

You’re absolutely right about the pressure, but I regard any kind of pressure as a privilege. I’m incredibly fortunate to have editors and readers who want to read my work, and I refuse to take that as a given. Honestly, it still surprises me. It really does. It surprises me to the degree that I don’t fully believe anyone when they ask to read something I’ve written; I think they’re just being nice.

And yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m a slow writer and there will be years between the books that I’m lucky enough to publish. Meaning, I don’t want to publish something until I think it’s ready, until I’ve written the book I want to read, because it will be a long, long time before I have the opportunity to redeem myself. What this means is that I’ve missed many deadlines. I know I missed at least three for the novel, though maybe I missed more. The book just wasn’t ready, and publishing it would have seemed a kind of malpractice. I always gave the publisher the opportunity to cancel my contract, and I apologized profusely, but I also wouldn’t show them the book until it was ready. I worked with an amazing editor named Kendra Harpster, and she was beyond supportive. Not only would the book not have been published without her, the published book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without her guidance. It’s another way that I got lucky. I’ve been lucky my whole career. Lucky and slow, that’s my life as a writer. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set the Mood

13 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered.

Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This. The book is set on the Texas coast, in and around Mustang Island, a place that can inspire many emotions. But the novel quickly focuses on a specific mixture of them that hints at the story to come. You can read an excerpt at the Random House website.

How the Story Works

Most writers are probably familiar with John Gardner’s famous exercise for emotion in description: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” This is a brilliant exercise—unless you can’t do it. I’ve seen very good writers in workshops tackle this exercise and come up with nothing. Yet, Gardner’s goal of establishing emotion and mood through description is still a valid one; the thing that might be tripping up some writers is the exercise’s focus on an emotion stemming from a specific event: the son’s death. Emotion and mood can also be general, as seen in this paragraph from the first chapter of Remember Me Like This. Pay attention to the word choices Johnston makes, the way they seem to have been pulled from a stream with a pan that lets all but a certain kind of word sift out the bottom:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.

You may have paused at these words and phrases: gauzy, glomming, close, pale as caliche, played-out, dragging, holding out, humid and harsh, stung like wasps, surrendered, cut bait, dogged, scalding. And, of course, there’s the static image of the cars lined up, waiting for the ferry. Taken together, the words don’t describe a particular emotion so much as a general sense of an end of things. If this was a film, it might be called a tone poem: the mood is unmistakable. As readers, we’re made uneasy.

And then there’s that last line: “Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.” Its tone is markedly different, even the opposite of everything that came before it. It might be tempting, if reading this in a workshop, to suggest cutting the sentence. But, in fact, it might be the most important line in the paragraph. It’s the postcard from Hawaii taped to the bathroom mirror in a Chicago apartment in February—the reminder, good or bad, that there are other ways of being and other perspectives on the world. Placing this bright line in a dreary description makes the dreariness even harder to bear. It also suggests that there are entities in the world that relish conditions that the rest of us find unbearable.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the mood in a story, using the passage from Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel Remember Me Like This as a model:

  1. Choose the place to describe. Be specific. Johnston shows us a particular spot on the beach. In the prologue, he focuses on the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi.
  2. Choose the moment to describe it. Descriptions tend to focus on moments of transition. So, Johnston shows us the beach as the weather is driving the surfers, fishermen, and sunbathers away. The bridge in the prologue is shown at its beginning and then in the moments before and after a group of people walking over discover something terrible. So, think about what often happens in the place you’ve chosen. Or think about an incident that occurs there in your story. Describe the place just before or after that moment has occurred.
  3. Choose the emotion or mood. Unlike your choice of place, specificity is less important here. It might even be easier to think in terms that are tangential to emotions: positive, negative, bright, dark, still, frenetic. Emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, or jealousy can be too pointed and produce obvious personifications: skies shedding tears, happy breezes, etc. Leave room for the language to surprise you. Sometimes you’ll discover lines like this one from Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: “a child up on its knees on the mattress howled out of a face like a fist.”
  4. Choose a narrative arc. Think of the description as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, Johnston begins with the weather conditions, which drive the people away, who then sit in line for the ferry while the porpoises swim. In other words, the end of the description should be different from the beginning: a narrative arc, no matter how small, is a way to ensure this.
  5. Write the description. Keep all of the above in mind: the moment of transition, the arc, the mood. After each phrase or sentence, take a look back at the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in it and ask yourself if they can be changed to fit the mood. Play around with the diction. In Johnston’s paragraph, the difference between “small waves” and “small played-out waves” is small but significant. That difference is the source of much of the pleasure in writing. Challenge yourself to lean toward the mood at every opportunity. If you lean too far, you can always pull back.

It’s possible that these steps may seem overwhelming. You might wonder if Johnston approached the paragraph in this way or if he simply wrote it. The odds are, he just wrote it, and perhaps you will, too. But one drawback to modeling your work after published writing is that you’re trying to achieve the same effect as someone who’s been working for many years. As beginners, we must sometimes parse out the processes that more experienced artists seem to manage naturally, without thinking. So, give yourself permission to scramble these steps, to forget some or focus more heavily on others. Let yourself experiment. You’re giving your imagination room to work.

Good luck!

An Interview with Sarah Bird

8 May
Sarah Bird's eighth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

Sarah Bird’s ninth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

Sarah Bird is the author of eight novels that have been honored by the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list, Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, People Magazine’s Page Turners, and Library Journal’s Best Novels. Her latest novel, Above the East China Sea, tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love. Bird has written screenplays for many studios and independent producers and has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and Texas Monthly. As a kid, she moved all over the world with her air force family, and now she lives in Austin, Texas.

In this interview, Bird discusses composting research into story, writing in bed, and why some surprises aren’t good for readers.

To read excerpts of Above the East China Sea and an exercise on moving characters around in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

You’re an American writing about a place—Okinawa—that has a long, difficult relationship with Americans and the United States. You spent part of your childhood in Okinawa, and so you’re familiar with the island from the American perspective. In this excellent interview with Mary Helen Specht, you said that you tried to imagine yourself “outside of the fence and ask questions like, How would an American would feel if, say, the entire eastern seaboard, were occupied by foreigners?” That seems like a necessary but difficult imaginative leap. How did you approach the problem of crossing that fence, so to speak, and trying to see things from the Okinawan view with as little of the inherently residual American view clouding your perspective? 

Sarah Bird

The major question I wanted to look at in this novel is how the price of imperial ambition is always borne most heavily by the young. That was true when Japanese industrialists seized control of the government around the turn of the century and began militarizing that country. And it’s been tragically true for our country.

History is a kaleidoscope that can be twisted in an infinite number of directions. Settling on the correct lens through which to view both the contemporary and historical stories in this novel required years of education. Like most writers, I was a born observer, outsider, and almost burdened by a high degree of imaginative empathy. So shifting perspective wasn’t hard, but getting the factual context right did require lots of research.

Michael Noll

At one point in the novel, the characters visit a strip of Sōpus, or bath houses. The passage approaches these places a couple of ways. There’s direct description (“The two-story building is covered in bathroom tile and features giant posters of young Japanese girls in sexy nurse uniforms and pink scrubs.”) and also historical summary (“Whorehouse? Technically, no, since prostitution has been illegal in Japan since the mid-fifties.”). The latter seems easier than the former to write: in theory, you’re relaying your research to the reader. But in the direct description, you’re bringing that research to life. How did you approach these kinds of scenes and descriptions? Or, in other words, how did you convert the facts of research into the breath of story?

Sarah Bird

Michael, I love the entire process of converting research into fiction and think of it as composting. I try to toss rich, nutritious items onto the pile, horse manure, food scraps, along with grass clippings and dead leaves. I let it steep for months in a spot that receives ample sunshine. And I trust that a dark, buried world of microbial beings will convert the whole mass into a medium capable of sustaining a character, a story.

For this novel in particular, I spent many happy months researching in libraries, online, and doing personal interviews. Most useful, probably, of all these avenues in creating a character are diaries, personal narratives, and fiction set in the time and place of interest. Then, when it comes time, after this mulch pile has stewed in my brain long enough, I put all my books and notes aside and channel the character. If I’d absorbed enough of the right ingredients, something good usually sprouts.

Michael Noll

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea. Signed, personalized copies of the novel can be pre-ordered from BookPeople, the Austin independent bookstore.

The novel takes place in two different time periods (1945 and present day). An inherent risk in this structure is that every time you switch between time periods and stories, you break, at least momentarily, the narrative momentum. Did you find that this was something you had to think about in structuring the chapters and novel as a whole? 

Sarah Bird

Without intending to, I seem to gravitate toward telling stories from two points of view. It was essential for this novel since I wanted to show how we are all formed by our national narratives. This was a right-brain, left-brain process so distinct that worked in two entirely different spots. When I was in full fiction mode, the dreaming, empathy, channeling part, I wrote in bed, in longhand on a yellow pad. That was where the characters spoke to me and I took dictation. For the shaping part I sat at my desk edited the material and made the two girls’ stories cohere.

In the end, I was astonished at how well the two narratives braided together. How, guided by their deepest yearnings, they told stories that wove together and amplified each other.

Michael Noll

The promotional copy for Above the East China Sea describes the novel as a “stunning departure.” I’m curious what this phrase means to you. It’s not like you’ve been writing zombie erotica. At a recent panel sponsored by The Writer’s League of Texas, you described your books as midlist literary fiction. What makes this novel different?

Sarah Bird

Okay, the “stunning departure” thing is a way to signal to readers that this one is not funny. I’ve written both intensely serious books and others that are regarded as comic novels. And, whoa doggies, judging by reviews on Amazon, if a reader comes to you expecting larfs aplenty and they get, oh say, the invasion of Okinawa when more people died than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, well, that is not a happy reader. And that reader departs. Stunned.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Take Your Characters for a Drive

6 May
Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

At some point in almost every story, characters will move from one place to another. This change in scene ought to be simple, but it can be one of the most aggravating problems writers face. Too often, we try to mimic the actual experience of driving or walking, the way our minds wander across subject and time. Not infrequently, we use a car ride as an opportunity to insert backstory. Maybe this works—and if it does, that’s great. But if it doesn’t—if the reader begins to skim—then perhaps a more succinct strategy is required.

Sarah Bird’s new novel Above the East China Sea demonstrates perfectly how to quickly and effectively move a character through space. You can read an excerpt (and an interview with another great writer, Mary Helen Specht) at Necessary Fiction. You can also find a free sample at iBooks and Amazon.

How the Story Works

Moving from one place to another in fiction is an opportunity for something to happen, for something to change. If a character drives or walks somewhere, and the place she ends up is identical to the place she left and if the things that happen there are the same as the things that happened in the last place, then the move was not important. Unimportant moves should probably be cut from the story. Or, they should be made more impactful.

In this scene from Bird’s novel, notice how much changes along over the course of the drive. You don’t even need to know the plot to understand that something is about to happen:

He flips the photo back onto my lap and pulls into traffic. “I know exactly where and what that is.”

The rain has stopped by the time we leave the broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise and turn onto narrower and narrower streets until we’re creeping along a nearly deserted back street. On either side are abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows and weeds growing through the concrete steps sporting signs so faded by the sun that I can barely make out the names: Club Kentucky. High Time Bar. The Manhattan. Girls Girls Girls. GI Welcome.

Suddenly, amidst all the gray buildings, we encounter one painted a vivid crimson. The shocking color frames a painting two stories high that depicts a beautiful woman in a red-and-lilac kimono sniffing a flower. A few blocks later there is another painted a shocking pink. A two-story poster depicts a pair of animé girls in French maid costumes, breasts overflowing laced bodices. An invisible fishing line hoists up the backs of ruffled skirts to reveal the clefts of their butts. With a weirdly sarcastic tone, Jake translates the caption beneath the girls: “‘Welcome home, Mr. Married Man. Your wife is out shopping for the day. Is there anything we can do for you before she gets back?’”

Two important things happen in this passage:

  1. The change in place corresponds to a change in something else. Obviously, the characters have driven to a different part of town. The streets look different, and this difference is an indicator that the people who live and work on those streets are different as well. They have less money and less opportunity. In short, this is the economic hinterland of the city. The things that happen here are not the same things that happen on the “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. The characters discover something unexpected. Yes, one of them is driving and knows what they’re going to find, but, for the narrator, the brightly painted buildings are new. At a very basic level, this discovery sets up suspense: What are these buildings? What happens inside them? Why has this person brought me here? This suspense is important because it forces the readers to recalibrate their expectations. We were led methodically down gradually narrowing streets, to a poorer, forgotten part of town, and then suddenly things have changed. The expectations we had for “abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows” are no longer useful.

In almost every kind of fiction, a trip usually indicates that something is about to happen. If you find yourself writing scenes that change locations aimlessly, it can be a sign that something deeper is wrong with the story. Those kind of “smart bombs” as one of my former teachers once called them can be immensely helpful; recognizing them helps you begin revising sooner.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s change locations in a story, using the passage from Sarah Bird’s novel Above the East China Sea as a model:

  1. Choose the point of origin. What kind of place is it? Is it a neighborhood, a business, a park? Is it private or public? What kind of area is it? Rural, urban, or suburban? Wealthy, poor, working class, or white collar? Are its fortunes rising or falling? Once you’ve got the place set in your mind, write a few descriptions of it that convey this information to the reader. Keep in mind Bird’s description of her point of origin: “broad boulevards lined with royal palms and shops spilling out their glittering merchandise.”
  2. Choose the new location. The same questions as before still apply. What kind of place is it? Once you’ve got it set in your mind, pick some descriptors that tell the readers what they need to know.
  3. Transition between locations. The easiest way to do this is to find a description from the point of origin that can be continued into the new location. Bird uses streets: their width and appearance and the buildings along them. This trailing description allows the reader to do what we all do in real life. As we drive somewhere, we mentally chart what is happening around us and make educated guesses about what those changes mean. So, look back at the descriptions you’ve written so far. Are any of them parallels? Can you easily connect a description from the point of origin to a description of the new location?
  4. Introduce something unexpected. The discovery can be totally unexpected (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”), or it can fit within the world you’ve brought your character into. Bird introduces brothels after taking us to an economically disadvantaged side of town. It’s not shocking that they’re there. Instead, the surprise is that any number of things are likely on that side of town, and this is the thing we’ve found. In other words, treat your new location like the backdrop on a stage. The scenery gives the audience a clue about what will come, but the actual scene must still surprise us. You’re creating expectations with the transition, and now you must both fulfill and scramble those expectations. One way to do this is with an abrupt shift in landscape. Interrupt the smooth transition with a quick change. Regardless of what you introduce with the change, the fact that things have shifted so quickly gets the reader’s attention.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about plot or story at all. Of course, you’ll need a story to go along with your change of location. But sometimes a change in location can inspire or prompt a story. Play around with different locations and see what happens.

Good luck!

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