An Interview with Monica McFawn

8 Jan
Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for her story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Monica McFawn is a writer and playwright living in Michigan. Her short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of a hybrid chapbook, “A Catalogue of Rare Moments,” and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She teaches writing at Grand Valley State University and trains her Welsh Cob cross pony in dressage and jumping.

To read McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” and an exercise on using danger to create plot, click here.

In this interview, McFawn discusses the difference between “writing my way in” to a story and outlining it in advance, the challenge of exposition, and avoiding long volleys of dialogue.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the way this story was written. It has such a clear progression: the boy’s mother tells the babysitter, Grace, not to let him talk on the phone, and then Grace lets him do just that four times, with each call having higher stakes. The structure is so straightforward and clear that I can’t imagine the story existing any other way. Did you have this structure in mind from the beginning, or did you have to write your way into it?

Monica McFawn

The structure was very carefully mapped out before I wrote the bulk of the story. I did it out of desperation. I had been trying to “write my way into” the stories I was writing for years, mostly because that’s what I thought most writers did. You hear so many writers talk that way, i.e. “I just start writing and see where it goes!” “My characters just take over!” I thought that was how it was done, and I believed that there was something stiff or false about plotting a story beforehand.

But when I actually tried the “write my way in” method, my stories would end up shapeless, overlong, and unfinished. One story in particular had gotten so bloated and meandering that I made myself set it aside and start a new story. This time, I thought to myself, I’ll do the exact opposite: I’ll plot it out beforehand. If it’s stilted as a result, who cares? At least I can finish something this way.

I like making tables, so I made a table in Word, then populated it with different phone calls and different recipients. I spent some time experimenting with the table—adding calls, deleting them, and just thinking about how to escalate the calls throughout the story. Using a table felt very businesslike, far from the mystical experience I thought writing stories should be. I worried that writing a story this way might prevent me from experiencing any surprise or serendipity, but in fact it was the opposite. The clear structure was freeing, and I found plenty of surprises in the details.

Michael Noll

The last two phone calls are made to Grace’s boyfriend/private investigator and to her sister. In order to understand these calls, we need to know certain things about a lawsuit and the family drama that led to it. The problem is that the information needs to be revealed before the calls are made, and this is difficult because it can’t come out in dialogue because there are only two characters in the story, and one of them spends the entire time on the phone. So, I really admire how you handle this problem, the way you reveal this back story through Grace’s thoughts in a way that seems perfectly natural. Was this a difficult thing to pull off?

Monica McFawn

"Bright Shards of Someplace Else," the debut story collection from Monica McFawn, won the 2014 Flannery O'Connor Award.

Bright Shards of Someplace Else, the debut story collection from Monica McFawn, is populated, according to National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon, ‘a strange and wondrous band of misfits, isolatos, geniuses and obsessives of every stripe.”

I think exposition is the biggest challenge of writing short stories. There is so little space for backstory, yet often the backstory is critically important to what’s driving the character in the present moment. It’s something I’ve studied obsessively in the short stories and novels I’ve read. Some writers, like Phillip Roth, do a kind of exposition dump early in the story to get it out of the way. That can work for a novel, but for a short story it slows the action down too much.

Reading Eileen Pollack’s story, “The Bris”, really showed me how subtle and artful backstory can be. It’s a wonderful, hilarious story, but one that is highly dependent on the character’s history—with his father, his ex-wife, his present girlfriend. Pollock is a master at dropping bits of her character’s history throughout the story. As a reader, I’d find myself knowing things about the character’s past without knowing how I knew it. I’d have to flip back in the story to see where Pollack slipped in that detail—that’s just how smooth she was.

I studied that story at length to see how she did it: highlighting all the backstory, and then noting all the ways she segued in and out of it. She often used a phrase from the present action to trigger a related memory, yet did this so cleverly that it was hardly perceptible as a technique. So, for “Babes,” I used what I learned from Pollack and other short story writers to find those small triggers within the prose that could bounce readers back in time for a moment.

Michael Noll

Last year, Claire Messud was asked about writing unlikable characters (specifically, if she’d want to be friends with one of her characters) and Messud’s angry answer prompted a lot of pubic debate about whether men and women have the same freedom to write unlikable characters. As I reread “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” it occurred to me that, obviously, Grace doesn’t behave well (getting drunk while babysitting) but also that the story never tries to make her particularly sympathetic. She’s kind of a sad sack and there’s not really a moment where we’re supposed to say, “Ah, but she means well” or “Ah, but she has a good heart.” The closest the story comes to this might be where Grace wonders if her sister embezzled from the Girl Scouts as a gesture toward Grace, but Grace is pretty inebriated at this point. Was this something you thought about as you wrote the story?

Monica McFawn

I find the whole debate about “likable” characters interesting. As a reader, I never think of characters in those terms. I tend to think of characters as believable or not, and any empathy I have for characters comes from believing in their existence—not from whether or not they behave ethically, charmingly, reasonably or whatever else “likable” might mean.

Another way I think of it: I like to read stories that feel “warm,” or intimate in some way.  That’s why I like writers as disparate as Phillip Roth and Richard Russo. While Roth’s characters are far less pleasant people than Russo’s, generally, both authors pull you in with a narration that streams the world through the prism of their characters’ impressions. Same thing with Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Readers ride along with every dip and spike of Nora’s exhilaration, obsession, and frustration. I think an intimate narrative style, more than the character’s goodness, is what creates empathy in readers.

For me, unlikable characters are not those that act badly, but those that are handled distantly by the narration of a story. Some experimental fiction does this, some realist fiction in third person does this, even some first person stories can give a sense that the writer is keeping a safe distance from the inner world of his/her characters. These stories can be beautifully written, but they always feel a bit cold and ascetic to me.

In “Babes,” I wanted only to leave readers with a feeling that they knew Grace by the end of the story. I wanted to get close to her in the narration, and expose the mix of abandon, skewed logic, and righteousness that drives her. I didn’t write her to elicit sympathy or condemnation, because I think few real-life people are wholly deserving of either. The world “likability” seems to miss how complex people are, and how any one person is a dense mix of (oftentimes interrelated) flaws and virtues. One of my favorite Hawthorne quotes sums up how I like to think of even the most badly behaved characters:

“What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely-mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid.”

Michael Noll

In addition to writing stories, you’ve also written plays. How much has the dialogue in your stories been influenced by your playwriting? Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say that your stories are dialogue-heavy at all. Do stories provide a kind of relief from relying so heavily on dialogue?

Monica McFawn

I think some readers are surprised by the lack of dialogue in my stories, considering my experience with playwriting. Paradoxically, playwriting has really taught me how to use less dialogue, not more.  In a play, every utterance from the character matters. There can’t be any idle filler, or you’ll lose the audience. I watched an interview with the playwright Edward Albee recently where he stressed that every word spoken on stage must either further the plot or our understanding of the character. That’s how I see dialogue in fiction: something that should be used sparingly and deliberately to do one of those two things, and nothing else.

That’s what you won’t see a lot of back and forth volleying between characters in my stories, i.e:

“Where’s the pancake batter?” she asked.

“In the cupboard,” he responded.

“What color is the bag?”

“Beige”

“Do you mean taupe?”

“No,” he snapped.

“Oh, I see it now,” she exclaimed.

“Good.”

“Yes, it is good to have found it.”

“Indeed it is.”

This can easily fall into a dull pattern that eats up the page visually.  Instead, when I use dialogue, I want it to be highly significant.  In the above example, I’d pull a single line or two that showed something about the characters—perhaps just the clarification about the color, rather than use the whole thing. A few carefully placed pieces of dialogue broken off from a block of prose has a lot more impact—visually and story-wise—then a long tit-for-tat between characters.

January 2015

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

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