Archive | July, 2014

An Interview with Mathilde Walter Clark

31 Jul th-261_mathildewalterclarkprint
Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation.

Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation. Her story, “The Disappearance of Things,” appeared in translation in The Chattahoochee Review.

Mathilde Walter Clark is the Danish-American author of three novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Patron Wanted, is a work that doesn’t fit neatly into any literary category. The project started with Clark writing letters to rich men whom she thought might fund her writing—who would, essentially, play the role of patron of the artist. Every single person turned her down, and she turned their responses into a kind of literary performance art. Clark eventually won a grant from the National Arts Foundation, and the book was self-published with a foreword from a former Danish Minister of Culture and an afterword by yet another Danish Minister of Culture. Clark has also written the screenplay for and starred in the Danish-language television show, In Seven Minds. Clark lives in Copenhagen.

In this interview, Clark discusses crafting stories around a flaw in logic, her revision strategy (she sometimes doesn’t), and the challenge of translation when only six million people speak your language.

To read Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things,” and an exercise on writing plot, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about this story is that it’s entirely about the character’s mental state. Until the end, almost nothing really takes place. Instead, the focus of the story is on a consciousness in transition, and all of the paragraphs and the details in them are aimed at illustrating that transition from “orderly surroundings make an orderly mind” to the disintegration of both surroundings and mind. In a way, this is a conception of “story” that is different from how we often define the word, with its emphasis on plot and occurrence. Is this a coincidence–in other words, is this simply the way the story arrived on the page–or is it a purposeful choice on your part? Are you trying to write a different kind of story?

Mathilde Walter Clark

First of all: Thank you for asking me to answer these excellent questions and to be part of this great site. This is actually the first story I ever wrote, so I didn’t have much clue what I was doing. What got me started was a very real annoyance over how things sometime disappear, and it occurred to me that this annoyance comes from a belief that things don’t really disappear – they are somewhere, you just can’t find them. But what if they did in fact disappear, go on to non-existence from one moment to the next? It then becomes a matter of acceptance, a mental state. The character in the story is (like most of us) bound up in the logic of classical physics, but perhaps even more so. And so, to make the point of that stuckness, I imagined him a traditionalist, somebody working in a ministry as a public servant, an archiver of sorts, a ring-binder manager.

Michael Noll

The amount of detail in this fairly short story is staggering. For instance, there is an entire paragraph about the type of paper the character prefers. Again, this seems like a different conception of the role of detail. Very often as writers, we try to invent one detail that illustrates some quality of a character, and then we push that quality into a conflict: thus, plot is born. But in this story, you don’t seem satisfied with a few well-chosen details. This emphasis on exploring an exhaustive quantity of details reminds me in a way of the work of David Foster Wallace. He once wrote about his style, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Is this something that you’re aiming for in your fiction? Trying to make the reader see obvious realities in a new light?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Absolutely. It is a trick I use in many of my stories: a world we know, but there is a missing piece somehow, or some logic or law of nature gone awry. Perhaps these disorders of things are what makes us see our world in a clearer light. This story has only one motor. You quickly get the drift: at some point all his stuff will be gone (some of my later stories have other story threads that complicate matters). As I wrote the story it very much became a story of lists and categories that was intended to reveal something about how we – or the character – make sense of the world. A matter of detailing as revelation.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is when the disappearances escalate from minor things like shoes to large items like a grandfather clock and then, very quickly, to people: his wife. How did you know when to make that escalation? Did you initially write many more mid-level disappearances (more large items like grandfather clocks), or was the escalation always that fast—shoes to wife?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Yes, it always went shoes to wife like that. No mid-level stuff. I thought of it as a reversal of the familiar scheme: a husband pops out to buy cigarettes never to return. In this case the wife disappears as he is out to get tobacco for his pipe. The suddenness of this disappearance. She’s gone, just like that, in one word. It also reveals something about the character, that his wife figures on his detailed lists of belongings alongside – one must suppose – less animated items.

Michael Noll

Nothing about the story should be funny–a man is growing old, losing his sense of self and the things and people around him. But it does have moments of sharp humor. After we learn about the disappearance of his wife, for instance, the very next sentence is this: “Yet it was the shoes that tormented him the most.” He also makes lists of everything that he owns, and then the lists disappear. This is kind of a dark humor, of course, but it’s definitely not the somber tone that one might expect given a story about someone in this situation. Was that humor always present in the story? Or did it arrive through revision?

Mathilde Walter Clark

I didn’t do any revision of this story. I wrote the beginning, and then nothing for a year or so. As I started writing some of the other stories for my first collection Disorder of Things, I finished it. The change of mental state, stretching that to absurdity, until finally the point where he accepts the loss and another state of mind takes over: now he wants to get rid of the last of his pitiful belongings. I saw something almost zen-like in this acceptance and riddance, that maybe, somehow, there is a strange sort of happiness, or at least calmness, involved in that loss. Many of the other stories in that collection center around the themes of language, matter, madness, loss, the possibility of serenity. How dependent we are on language to make sense of things, and what happens to our minds when language somehow fails? To me, the dark humor is inherent in these subjects, not something I can edit forth.

Michael Noll

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, "Report From the Flatlands of Statistics," essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in "gun culture" between Denmark and Texas.

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, “Report From the Flatlands of Statistics,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in “gun culture” between Denmark and Texas.

A question about translation: Americans have been justly criticized for not reading much work in translation, and American authors themselves have been criticized for not translating other writers into English. But the opposite is very common: American works are translated into dozens of languages. I’m curious how this particular translation came about. Did the translator, Martin Aitken, contact you? Or did The Chattahoochee Review discover your story in its original Danish and find a translator for it?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Translation is a catch 22. Especially into English – the most exclusive market in the world, and also the most attractive. As the translator is initially paid quite a lot more than the author, it’s too big an investment for the home country’s publisher to have the manuscript translated for the sole purpose of trying to sell it to other markets. But how can foreign publishers judge a manuscript they can’t read? Well, in this case only numbers speak. Most of what gets sold to publication in foreign territory – especially America – are books with impressive sales. Besides bestsellers, Hans Christian Andersen, Kafka and other deceased writers from the literary canon account for most of the meager 2% of foreign literature that finds its way into the US market. That, unfortunately, leaves out a lot of the interesting contemporary literature. As a writer in a language with only six million speakers, it is hard not to feel a little locked up. So for foreign language writers, translators rule. It’s thanks to their interests and passions that literature finds its way into other languages. I’m lucky enough to have had a little more than a handful of my stories translated and published in various American journals. This particular story was translated some years back by one of our best translators, Martin Aitken out of his good heart. He also made the connection with Lydia Ship, the editor on The Chattahoochee Review, and I am extremely grateful for the work he has done.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

29 Jul Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

An Interview with Matthew Gavin Frank

24 Jul
Matthew Gavin Frank's new book, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, contains "some stunning writing and perversely wonderful research," according to a New York Times review.

Matthew Gavin Frank’s new book, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, contains “stunning writing and perversely wonderful research,” according to a New York Times review.

Matthew Gavin Frank left home at age seventeen to travel and work in the restaurant industry. He ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco. He received his MFA in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction from Arizona State University. He taught creative writing to undergraduates in Phoenix, Arizona, and poetry to soldiers and their families near Fort Drum in upstate New York on the Canadian border.

Frank is the author of two food memoirs: Barolo, a food memoir based on his illegal work in the Italian wine industry, and Pot Farm, about his time working on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California. He’s also written three poetry collections: “The Morrow Plots,” “Sagittarius Agitprop,” and “Warranty in Zulu.” His most recent book is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer.

In this interview, Frank discusses the unpredictable rabbit holes of research, the line between fact and conjecture, and getting lost in sentences.

To read an excerpt from Preparing the Ghost and an exercise on creating space for digression, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m really taken with the line, “The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel.” Beyond the lovely effect of the imagery, I’m curious about the research involved in such a line. How does one come across a piece of information like this (that sailors once believed the fog to the last remnant of the Flood)? What is your research method like? It would seem to be pretty far-reaching and not necessarily specifically focused on giant squid.

Matthew Gavin Frank

My research process, like my writing process, was digressive. Squid led to ice cream which lead to cold weather which led to hot weather which led to ocean which led back to squid.  And so on.  I read plenty of late 19th century fisherman’s accounts and articles about the fishing industry in Newfoundland. The fishermen of that time would also trap auks—those fat unwieldy beautiful seabirds—driving them aboard the ships, caving in their skulls with clubs, salting and drying their breasts, feasting on their eggs, selling their bones to the superstitious and the spiritual, stuffing coats with their feathers, burning their bodies for fuel. Reverend Moses Harvey, who plays a great role in Preparing the Ghost (he was the one who first photographed the giant squid in 1874, rescuing it from the realm of mythology, and finally proving its existence) felt that, “It is not wonderful that, under such circumstances, the great auk has been completely exterminated.”

In scholar Weldon Thornton’s annotated Allusions in Ulysses, the author wonders if, in regards to the source text’s line, Auk’s egg, prize of their fray, the auk indeed “has any special mythological or symbolic meaning” or if its usage is “to represent something exceedingly rare.”  The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica provides a soft, wishy-washy answer of sorts, declaring, “A special interest attaches to the great auk (Alca impennis), owing to its recent extinction, and the value of its eggs to collectors.”

So, this is what I mean. Case in point. One thing leads to another, and it’s this lovely cascade down the rabbit hole of research. What fun! When I’m sifting through a roomful of research, I’m seeking out that “exceedingly rare” thing, and I’m interested in seeing what happens when we hold it up against a more known thing. I’m interested in seeing where such a collision will lead. Oftentimes, the most interesting thing we can do as essayists is draw a chalk outline around our main subject in order to suggest its shape; in order to evoke its essence. This ancillary engagement is often more powerful than a direct engagement, as it reveals to us (during the seemingly wayward research process) the specific and intricate blend of chalk necessary to evoke the body.

Yet again, I digress. Anyhow, these early accounts of fishermen [sailing into the St. John’s Narrows] were oddly rife with biblical allusions—I mean the giant squid was known as the Devil-fish before it was known as the giant squid. So the Noah’s flood reference seemed a natural extension of such documented accounts.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your use of the first person point of view in this excerpt and in the book in general. The excerpt at The Nervous Breakdown is about Moses Harvey in a particular spot on the Newfoundland coast in 1874, and yet you include this line: 

I envision Harvey wiping his nose with his right hand, his left never leaving the squid’s body which had a “total number of suckers…estimated at eleven hundred,” and “a strong, horny beak, shaped precisely like that of a parrot, and in size larger than a man’s clenched fist.”

I can easily imagine an editor trying to cut that I—obviously, you weren’t there, and, and, in a way, it’s probably extraneous. And yet it also seems essential. Without it, the detail about Harvey wiping his nose would be out-of-place conjecture. Did you ever struggle with when and how to use the first person point of view?

Matthew Gavin Frank

Oh, yes. It’s always a struggle for me—a holy one—trying to determine to what degree I should signal to a reader that I’m speculating, that I’m imagining, that I’m caught up. Usually, my initial instincts are that I should not overtly signal at all. That context will do its job; that a reader will figure it out. And if it’s muddy in the book—this blurry line between fact and conjecture—that’s because it’s actually muddy. Supposedly factual historical research yields varying—and often conflicting—narratives. Once we impose narrative(s) onto a fact, it ceases to be a hard fact. It softens. It’s shapeable. Like boiling water into which we dissolve sugar teaspoonful-by-teaspoonful, it doesn’t become another thing completely. Until we add that ultimate spoonful which supersaturates the solution, it’s still water, still maintains the integrity of water. It’s still maintains the shape of the original fact. It’s just sweeter.

Throughout the book, there’s this overlap between the contemporary and the historical, our time and Harvey’s. The intrusion of the I sometimes forces this overlapping. It’s funny that you think an editor would be tempted to cut this I. In fact, my editor wanted me to add more of this kind of signaling to the draft I originally submitted, so that the reader felt a bit more tethered; could more easily distinguish between “fact” and speculation on said fact.

Michael Noll

Preparing the Ghost: An Essay... tells the story of the obsession that led Moses to photograph the mysterious giant squid.

Preparing the Ghost is Matthew Gavin Frank’s third book of nonfiction and has been called, by Matt Bell, “a triumph of obsession.”

There are two sentences in this excerpt about Harvey sailing into the harbor at St. John’s that contain pretty noticeable digressions. The first sentence lists various sites around the harbor, beliefs about those places (“Deadman’s Pond, rumored to be bottomless), and some notable historical events that took place there. The other sentence zooms in on a girl cleaning fish. There’s definitely a more-is-more attitude in these sentences, both in terms of detail and grammar. You can’t really read them once through. I found myself stopping, rereading a phrase or word—but this was not an unpleasant experience, simply a different way of reading. How do you approach passages like these? Do you simply write them when so moved, or is there some underlying strategy at work?

Matthew Gavin Frank

Years ago, I took a class from the fiction writer, Paul Friedman, the gist of which was entirely devoted to the notion of the sentence—its parameters and pitfalls, its strong tightropes and its weak ones. The sentence, in this course, was something to navigate, traverse; something that required the strapping of the essential gear onto one’s body. Ropes. Cleats. Hooks. As my father-in-law would say: the whole toot. I love getting lost in the middle of a sentence— both as writer and as reader, and then having to bust my metaphorical flashlight out of my metaphorical fanny-pack in order to illuminate my way to its end. And then, of course, to re-write it a thousand times. I’d like to say that I wrote this passage in order to empathize with Moses Harvey’s assured ecstasy at approaching the port of St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1874, shell-shocked and bemused beneath the suspended and snotty chandelier of the first intact specimen of the giant squid. But the truth is probably that I was rendering my own ecstasy in the face of all of this wonderful research I uncovered. I fall in love with the objects of my research sometimes, and then all of the tightropes snap, and I’m falling, or rising, or just plain airborne, grabbing at all of the beautiful tinsel-y shrapnel floating past, trying to stitch it all into something that resembles a navigable sentence.

Michael Noll

You’re a writer of astoundingly varied experiences and interests, though they do seem to center on food and consumption. You’ve written books about working in the Italian wine industry and at a medical marijuana farm in northern California. So, a book about the man who first photographed the giant squid seems like a bit of a curveball. What drives your writing? I’d hazard to guess that you have no shortage of things to write about. What makes you choose one over another—and then spend the time necessary to write a book about it?

Matthew Gavin Frank

It’s funny. In trying to shun food writing for a while, I find myself working on a new project that’s attempting to interrogate not only our relationship with food (within regional context), but also our expectations of food writing. Food is complicated. The new book-in-progress is tentatively titled The Food You Require is Heavier: 50 States, 50 Essays, 50 Recipes. At the risk of sounding totally overblown, I’m trying to cobble together this spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook of sorts that also may be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history.  I’m trying to concentrate on the small events—incantatory and ponderous and horrific and mundane— that we glossed over when we originally (and then subsequently) attempted to set down regional definitions.  Each essay begins with this line of questioning: What does Illinois mean?  What does deep-dish pizza mean?  What ancillary subjects will I have to engage in order to stalk both food and state toward the blurry answers to these questions?  The Rhode Island essay, for example, is concerned with Clear Clam Chowder and the Cognitive Psychology of Transparency—how we think and react differently to things we can look through rather than look at. The Louisiana essay deals with the intersection of Crawfish Etouffee, bad weather, and autoerotic asphyxiation.

Being a little OCD helps to dictate my projects and focus for a while as well.  I mean, when, during my research process, I found out that squid ink is immortal—invulnerable to decay—and that in the South of England in the 19th century, the petrified remains of a 150-million-year-old squid were discovered entombed in solid rock, and that its own, perfectly intact ink was used to draw a picture of its remains, and that scientists called the resulting image, “the ultimate self-portrait,” how couldn’t I be seduced to catalogue the onrush on implications?  I’m easily seduced, is what I’m saying.  Immortal cephalopod melanin is all it takes, and I’m yours for a while.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Space for Digression

22 Jul
Preparing the Ghost: An Essay... tells the story of the obsession that led Moses to photograph the mysterious giant squid.

Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer has been called “a triumph of obsession” by Matt Bell.

For certain kinds of readers and writers, the best part of any book (often literary, though not always) is not a moment of supreme tension or complex gathering of plot strands. It’s an astute observation or unexpected description—some digressive phrase or passage that the writer seemed to pluck out of thin air. Yet when we sit down to write, we’re often overwhelmed with the practical necessities of motivation and plot and momentum and, as a result, find ourselves barreling down a straight line. The problem, we realize, is that we don’t know how to step off that line.

A writer who excels at digression is Matthew Frank. His latest book is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. While its subject is exactly what it seems—the mysterious giant squid—the book is a black hole, sucking into its center as many side stories and details as it can hold. You can read an excerpt here at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Story Works

The trick to writing digressively is knowing when and how to digress. Your goal is to swerve from the main narrative without losing the reader, and to do this, you must prepare the reader for the swerves. One way to do this is to pry open a simple sentence and insert a small digression. Frank does exactly that. The excerpt from Preparing the Ghost focuses on the squid’s photographer as he rode a ship with the carcass of the squid aboard. The scene begins “at the 1874 port of St. John’s, Newfoundland”  as “the fishing boat entered The Narrows, the only entrance to the harbor.” Here is how Frank begins to digress:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel…

The sentence is simple in construction and subject. Without the digression, it reads this way: “The fog began to shroud the vessel.” To digress, all that Frank has done is add a description of the fog. He could have said it was thick or white, but he instead told us “that the early sailors believed [it] to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood.” On one hand, that tangential fact is simple, just a phrase. But it’s also a huge leap in time and logic. A passage that began in a specific time (1874) has now broadened its frame to include earlier sailors and even Old Testament times.

That digression made, Frank continues it after the sentence’s initial statement (the fog began to shroud the vessel) is finished. Here is the entire sentence:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea.

Frank has now expanded the geographic frame of the passage, from the port at St. John’s, Newfoundland to the forests that stretch far inland. Now that he’s expanded the frame, watch how he continues to digress. (Remember, he’s writing about a particular ship in 1874.) Here is the entire passage:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea. The early sailors believed that this fog housed ghosts of fishermen and fish, mermaids that they’d either have to love or decapitate, that the only way to eradicate this terrible fog would be to set a great fire to the forests. At the sea-bed beneath them, the skeletons of two-hundred ships lay unidentified in the soupy mass grave, lifeboats and their corpses embalmed in the deep freeze. The Labrador Current threw at them more and more ice.

Because he has created that initial space in a sentence about fog, Frank is able to make much larger digressions about ghosts, mermaids, and shipwrecks—the sort of details that give his writing energy and that we remember even after we’ve turned the page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s digress using the passage from Matthew Frank’s Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer as a model:

  1. Choose any sentence that you’ve written to start a paragraph. Or, write a sentence that begins a new paragraph about a particular place and time. Ideally, the sentence will be focused on mechanics: who, when, where. Simplicity is best, even something as rudimentary as “The dog began to bark.”
  2. Find a place to pry the sentence open. A great place to start is after nouns, where we already tend to add descriptive phrases. Instead of a simple adjective, though, add a phrase that expands the dimensions of the sentence (space or time). Try using transition words like that or which or an en dash.  So, “The dog barked” can become “The dog that the neighbor brought home five years ago as a little barking puppy began to bark.” Or, it could become “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark.” Is it rough? Sure, but it has expanded the sentence’s sense of time.
  3. Continue the digression at the end of the sentence. If, after prying the sentence open, the beginning and end are still clear, it’s easy to simply keep the digression going by replacing the period with a comma. So, “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark” can become this: “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark, first at squirrels and then somebody taking out the garbage and then the rustling of leaves in Thailand and in France and finally at the Voyager space probe puttering along somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy.” Now, we’ve expanded the sentence’s sense of geography.
  4. Keep digressing. Once you’ve set new boundaries for time and geography, there’s no reason to return to the limits of the original first sentence. Explore the space you’ve created for yourself. Frank picks up on the early sailors that he added and expands on some of their other beliefs. Then, he picks up on the geography of these beliefs (mermaids) and stays underwater, showing us shipwrecks. This kind of literary play is what makes writing fun and not simply the search for the next plot point.

If you read the entire excerpt from Preparing the Ghost, you’ll understand that I’ve simplified Frank’s work a bit. He begins to digress before the sentence about the fog and Noah’s flood. You may even get lost in some of his digressions. He’s a writer who pushes the usual boundaries of narrative—which means he’s a good writer to read because he’ll push your sense of what narrative is capable of. When reading someone like that, though, it’s useful to tease out a single passage for study. Otherwise, it’s like trying to puzzle out the structure of an entire symphony in one listening.

Good luck with your reading, and have fun with your writing!

An Interview with Domingo Martinez

17 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is in works to become a HBO series.

Domingo Martinez is the author of the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2013 Pushcart Prize and was a Gold Medal Winner for The Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s currently in development as a new series for HBO by Salma Hayek and Jerry Weintraub. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, The New Republic, This American Life, Huisache Literary Journal, All Things Considered, and Saveur Magazine.

In this interview, Martinez discusses building stories out of memories, his best-ever teaching moment, and taking the piss out of Rick Perry.

To read an excerpt from The Boy Kings of Texas, an essay Martinez wrote about the impact of the Affordable Care Act among immigrant communities in Texas, and exercises based on both, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay begins with a call you made to your grandmother, and that section ends with the lines: “Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.” Those sentences are addressing such big issues–the way that poverty and cultural barriers shape people’s lives. When you write about them, how do you begin? Do you start with sentences like those and work backwards, searching for anecdotes or details? Or do you start with a story (“I phoned my 84-year-old grandmother”) and wait for the right moment to open the story up to its larger implications?

Domingo Martinez

This was an issue I had when I first started in this business, in that my particular métier in writing is in anecdotes and storytelling; I’m not a journalistic/researcher-type writer. So when I begin on a topic, I scour my memory for something in my personal past that is at once relevant and, if I’m particularly lucky, unusual or comical in the cultural collision I’ve come to symbolize. Meaning that, I suppose I start from the project and let my imagination and experience wander, and hopefully where I end up, or the memories that surface, are still framed in the original intent. That’s why I usually bend the borders a bit. Which again, I suppose is my designation as an author. Ha.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about a Mexican immigrant living in South Texas published in a Washington D.C.-based journal. In other words, most of your readers almost certainly do not share your subject’s background or geography, and so you necessarily explain things that your grandmother’s community takes for granted. And yet, I’m guessing, you probably also wanted to write something that makes sense to readers in South Texas. So, there are sentences that seem aimed at less knowledgeable readers (“Many families there lived a dual life, on both sides of the border”) and details that are more intimate (“My brother, Dan, knew a kid whose grandmother made him eat Vicks VapoRub when he had a fever.”) How do you strike that balance? How do you know how much basic background information to explain?

Domingo Martinez

There’s a certain “sweet spot” you navigate when you’re writing about a culture that is at once so familiar and intimate to you, as the author, and unknown to your reader. First of all, you have to trust your reader, and trust that they’re capable of following insinuation or inflection, enough so that when you pause and explain something, they unconsciously register that this was important enough data to
 stop the story telling and define. If you stop and define every level of foreign information, it dulls the story, and comes off as condescension in a way. The best description I’ve ever come up with was at Breadloaf, this one fantastic woman in particular who was writing her own memoir, but was stuck very much in the “macro” telling of her origins, her family, their lives in Iran. The first part of her story read like the Old Testament, and I don’t mean the good parts. I sat with her and came up with the idea of the “dual
 perspective,” for her to write in the “micro” and have a constant awareness of the “macro.” Sort of like writing in a depth, with two
 points of view. That keeps your reader submerged in the particular of a story, and brings along the larger themes and intention of your
 work. It was a breakthrough, and she actually cried and hugged me. I think it was the best moment teaching I’ve ever had, and I really don’t like teaching.

Michael Noll

You write about the Republican presidential candidates in the last election promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, about the cuts to medical services already made by Texas governor Rick Perry. And yet in South Texas, your grandmother is rubbing WD-40 on her arthritic joints. It would seem easy to become pretty angry while drafting this essay. How do you manage your emotions when writing about such a profound political disconnect?

Domingo Martinez

That was a depth I wasn’t really willing to tread in that piece, politically. Rick Perry is too easy a target to “take the piss out
 of” if you don’t mind the Britishism. So I wanted to stay away from him; he’s too cartoonish. (I do a great imitation of him, too, by the
 way.) It’s like when W was in the White House and every half-wit across the country felt he or she had the authority or superior
 to make fun of him, and that grew so tiresome so quickly. Anyhow, in this case, there is so much about Texas and its governance that I find absolutely appalling as a West Coaster from a nanny state, and probably in violation of several human rights. My younger brother lived in an apartment complex where, if he was two days late with rent, he’d be locked out of his apartment until he coughed up the full amount. I was astonished when this happened, while I was visiting. What if he was a diabetic? What if his kid lived with him? What if, like me, he had terrible asthma and his ventolin was in there? This would NEVER happen in Washington State. It just seemed so predatory. So I drove him to the Home Depot and figured out how to break in without the management knowing. That’s the sort of stuff that makes my blood boil, when it’s personal and immediate. Writing and witnessing the larger political objectives that are designed to cut support to impoverished (read: Mexican) communities in Texas, I’m overcome with more of a muted sense of defeat, especially because the Republicans in Texas are so good at getting Mexican American voters to vote for their pecuniary incentives as business owners because they hide their malicious political intentions behind a veil of religion and conservative “family values.” That disgusts me to no end, how easily Mexican Americans had been manipulated because “…Jesus wants it so. Jesus hates veterans and old people.” But that sense of defeat is as far as that goes, especially when it comes to Gramma and her weird choices in self-medication. I know her, and I know her people very well, and it wouldn’t really matter if she had access to healthcare at the Mayo Clinic: Gramma would augment her doctor’s prescriptions with WD-40 and anything else that would make sense to her, like chewing on rusty nails for the iron and sodium.

Michael Noll

Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Your memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is being adapted into a series for HBO. HBO (and cable TV in general) has a good track record of offering shows that portray communities that are often hidden from national view (Baltimore in The Wire and Albuquerque in Breaking Bad come to mind). In the past, though, attempts at portraying Mexican-American communities near the border didn’t fare so well. The writer Dagoberto Gilb has written about his frustration in writing for a series set in Juarez/El Paso a decade or so ago. Do you worry about your story making the leap to television?

Domingo Martinez

I didn’t know that about Dago; I’ll have to ask him about his experiences. He briefly mentioned he’d taken a run at a script once but he didn’t expand on it. Truth be told, I’ve just developed momentum again on this project with Salma Hayek and her producer, so I’m not feeling like I can write about it here. It’s one thing I’ve learned in this business is that things are much better left untyped, as lawyers can’t sue you on insinuation alone. (Well, they can, but a good judge would throw it out.) However, I will say this: it’s certainly proving to be a challenge from the outset, and oddly, I’m really excited about it. Also, I’m incredibly naive and unsophisticated in the ways of Los Angeles, so I’m looking forward to being used, profoundly disappointed, and thrown aside as a spiritually desiccated husk, while the likes of George Clooney step over me on the sidewalk. It’s every author’s dream. (Not the success, but getting that close to success and failing, so that you can have something to write about.)

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Natalia Sylvester

10 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage -in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester is a Peruvian-born Miamian now living in Austin, Texas. Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, follows a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife’s kidnapping in 1990s Peru. Booklist called the novel’s ending “smart and unexpected.”

In this interview, Sylvester discusses restarting a novel after setting it aside for six years, the things that pull a marriage apart, and what happens when you pitch to American editors a novel set in Peru with an all-Peruvian cast of characters.

To read an exercise on moving the plot forward in a novel and an excerpt from Chasing the Sun, click here.

Michael Noll

I know the novel is based in part on the kidnapping of your grandfather in Lima in the 1990s. I’m sure that’s a story that you’ve been thinking about for a long time, not just what happened to your grandfather but the larger political situation in Peru at the time. What finally allowed you to turn that story into a novel? Was it a question of finding the right backstory for the kidnapping?

Natalia Sylvester

I think more than anything, it was time that allowed me to tell this story. I started writing it as part of my undergrad Creative Writing thesis back in 2005/2006, and back then (like I’d been most of my life) I was hesitant to talk to my family about my grandfather’s kidnapping. It’s something I’d known about and wondered about, but since we rarely spoke about it in much depth, I didn’t ask. I let all my questions pile up and even when I wrote the first drafts of Chasing the Sun, I wrote it quietly, keeping all my questions between me and the page.

Not surprisingly, the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. (Also, I was 21, newly engaged, and trying to write a story about a troubled marriage. I don’t really buy into the “write what you know” belief, but when I write I do need to find an access point into a story, and for me it can be almost anything, as long as it feels true.)

I set the book aside for nearly six years. I had no plans to ever revisit it, but my husband had read parts of it and would constantly insist, based on one scene he loved, that there was something there. This time I approached it with a heavy emphasis on research—not just on Peru and its political situation and the years of terrorism it experienced, but also the main thing I’d been avoiding all along, which was talking to my family about the kidnapping. Though none of the characters are based on my family, having their insights (and now I realize, their support) was so necessary because I wanted to restart this story from a place of truth and honesty.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the backstory, I loved the relationship between Andres and Marabela—it’s so complex. Even after Marabela is kidnapped, I found myself wondering not whether she’d survive but what would happen after she returned. This seems like a real accomplishment—to create a story that can rival kidnapping for suspense. How did you come up with it?

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster Gone Girl.

Thank you, I’m really touched by that. Their relationship took me by surprise from the very first draft. I’d originally written my thesis as a set of linked short stories, all told from different POVs, about Marabela’s kidnapping. I started with Cynthia’s POV, then Consuelo, then Ignacio, and then finally, Andres. When I got to his story, it was like they’d been keeping their troubled marriage secret from me all this time. And I thought that was pretty fascinating, because life never happens in a vacuum, even (or maybe especially) the kinds of things we most fear. I wondered if Andres would be able to compartmentalize, and not let his feelings about his failing marriage affect the decisions he makes as he tries to save Marabela. Their relationship became almost like an additional character I wanted to explore and dissect and understand.

Also, in the six years that I’d set the story aside, I’d gotten (happily!) married but seen a lot of marriages around me fall apart. So I became kind of obsessed with how that happens. How does something as huge as two lives, lived side by side for decades, fall apart to practically nothing? I thought it’d have to be something equally big and traumatizing, like a kidnapping, when really it’s the little things, the everyday, mundane gestures and regrets that can build up and pull us apart.

Michael Noll

I love the way the beginning of the novel sets up Andres’ value system (hard work pays, be assertive in business, honor your promises) and also the holes in that system (he doesn’t really pay attention or express concern for his family’s domestic employees). How important was it to establish those values early in the novel?

Natalia Sylvester

It’s interesting that you mention it because a huge chunk of that early scene, I didn’t end up writing until after the book had sold and I was working on my first round of revisions for my editor. Looking back, I feel very lucky the book sold like that, because I think it’s crucial to establish who a character is, what they stand for, and what world they’re living in, before you disrupt it all with something as earth-shattering as a kidnapping. What good is the “after” picture without the “before”? In fiction we’re often told, “Start with the inciting incident” but the false sense of security in the calm before the storm is equally rich in possibility.

Michael Noll

It’s not unusual to set novels in “exotic” locations, but it’s less common for American novels set in one of those places (in this case, Peru) to follow a cast of characters that doesn’t feature any Americans. I wonder if you encountered any resistance to the fact that it’s truly a Peruvian novel, about Peruvian characters. Did anyone, a reader or agent or editor, ever say, “Gee, couldn’t you make Andres an American?”

Natalia Sylvester

Not in exactly those words, but yes, several publishers that rejected the story expressed concern that it wasn’t tied at all to the U.S. Some wished there could be an American character, or maybe at some point, they go to the U.S. And you know, if there’s one thing I wish I could unlearn about publishing, or that I could make other aspiring authors unlearn, it’s this. Because I was blissfully unaware as I wrote Chasing the Sun that it being so Peruvian was unusual. I just thought, I’m writing a story, and of course I’m going to set it here, and these are the people who live in that world. It never occurred to me that they’d be seen as “difficult to relate to” because I’ve always believed we’re more alike than we are different, and that universal stories are just that—they can belong to any of us.

I’m very lucky that my publisher understood this; they actually loved that the book was so Peruvian. But my heart breaks when I realize what a struggle it was, and what a struggle it still is, for us to get our stories heard because they’re not perceived as part of the mainstream world.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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