An Interview with Bess Winter

12 Mar
Bess Winter's fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter’s fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.

To read her story “Are You Running Away?” and an exercise on writing quick-starting first paragraphs, click here.

In this interview, Winter discusses quick-starting stories, quick characterizations, and writing past epiphanies.

Michael Noll

I love how fast the story opens, moving from “fuck school” to a mysterious possibility for how to get school canceled in one short paragraph. Did the story always begin this quickly? Or did you have to cut and revise your way to this beginning?

Bess Winter

The story always began this quickly. In fact, I’m most comfortable with stories that are on the shorter side, so it takes a lot of coaxing and prodding to get me to write long, well, anything: sentences, paragraphs, etc. I’m envious of writers who can blast out a lot of material and then scale back. Also, because this is a story that’s more about what happens because of, and coincidental to, “the plan,” rather than the plan, itself, it felt best to get the big stuff out of the way A.S.A.P. and move on to the less causal elements of story. Make the most outrageous stuff a given. They’re going to get school canceled. Pipes will be involved.

Michael Noll

The story also quickly establishes characters: Val doesn’t care, and the narrator finds this trait interesting when everyone else finds it grating. Again, I’m curious about your approach to these characterizations. Do you write your way into them? In other words, do the characters take shape on the page, and eventually you’re able to sum them up quickly? Or do you start with a clash of opposites and see what happens?

Bess Winter

Usually I start with a key characteristic that serves the story I want to tell, and get that down on the page early. So you could say it’s more a “clash of opposites” than anything, though Val and the narrator aren’t necessarily opposite to each other. Then I build the character around that characteristic, try to add complexity. In the case of this story, and of many stories, I actually have a specific person in mind—often someone I’ve known in the past, but sometimes even film actors or historical figures—who either physically or emotionally resembles the character.

Michael Noll

The story expands in the middle, adding the perspective of a teacher and jumping out of the present action to past incidents. Then, it moves back and forth between these moments and the present action. Is this a structure that you use often? Or is it particular to this story?

Bess Winter

Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

This is a structure I’ve used a few times over the past few years, particularly because “Are You Running Away?” was intended to be part of a triptych. All three of the stories in the triptych were originally going to be structured this way, jumping through time and using this sort of filmic technique, a braided narrative. But it turned out that the third story in the series just didn’t work. Structurally, it wasn’t quite in line with the other two, and the subject matter was actually too close to the bone to make good fiction.

Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite “braid” in that novel so much as “saddle stitch” or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.

Michael Noll

The event at the heart of this story is astonishingly awful. As you were writing it, did you ever consider pulling back or moving in another direction? Or did you always feel pretty certain where the story was headed?

Bess Winter

In terms of actually hacking open the pipes, I knew the story was going in that direction when I sat down to write; the act, and its implications, was the idea that spurred the story, and was loosely based on an event that happened at my own all-girls school when I attended in the late ’90s-early ’00s. Maybe the story could have veered away from the actual hacking open of the pipe, focused more on the dissolution between friends or something else about their relationship. But, honestly, I was so dead set on writing about the pipe incident that it never occurred to me to go another way.

But, in writing the story, I did struggle—not with how far the event would go, as the natural dramatic shape of the fiction, and its style, seemed to demand the worst thing, but with how the characters would deal with it. There’s a point in the story (when she’s sitting on the grass in the park) where the narrator could have had some sort of epiphany, at least tried to make things right. Irony might demand that she try, and fail, to fix things. But when I sat down to write that section in the park—which was actually an addition—the failed epiphany didn’t feel right. I realized, at that point, this character’s flaw is that she’s a teenager—incredibly self-absorbed, melancholy, selfish and, in some ways, as spoiled and tortured as Val. In fact, she’s not very different from Val, at all, and it felt better for her to become more Val-like than heroic in that moment. That’s not to say Val is a horrible person, either, just a confused person—as many teenage girls are. If anything, this story actually helped me empathize with the sort of girl who used to tease and torture me in high school.

March 2015

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

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