Archive | April, 2015

An Interview with Stefanie Freele

30 Apr
Stefanie Freele

Stefanie Freele “recasts suburban ennui as existential terror,” according to J. Robert Lenon. Her latest story appeared in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water and Feeding Strays. Her story “While Surrounded by Water” won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award and “Us Hungarians received second place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest. Stefanie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American ReviewWitness, Western Humanities Review, Sou’westerQuarterly WestThe Florida ReviewNight TrainAmerican Literary Review and Edge. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

To read an exercise on writing descriptive passages and Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans,” click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the story’s approach to close description. The first paragraph focuses on Maribel’s shoes and purse and then zooms in on her tights, particularly on the crotch. The language seems meant to make the reader feel claustrophobic (and from your blog post for Tahoma Literary Review, I know that feeling is intentional). I’m curious in the last sentence of that paragraph:

She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense. 

It’s a line that seems to sum up the details that we just read. This is a strategy that I actually teach in writing classes: present details and them sum them up by telling the reader what they mean. Did you wrote this sentence with any purpose in mind or were you were simply following the rhythm of the prose?

Stefanie Freele

Typically I don’t intentionally tell the reader what I’ve meant, because I assume they’ve caught what I mean, but in this case I think you are partially right: I was following the rhythm of the prose. Also, I think having this list emphasizes that for Mirabel, she is counting and focusing on her discomforts. While another child might be proud of this attire and show it off to the aunties, Mirabel is physically sensitive – pride and appearances aren’t her vices.

Michael Noll

In this story, the dialogue is italicized and not broken out into separate paragraphs. There are no quotation marks. This is a technical question that comes up a lot in drafts and in writing classes. Did you format it this way to avoid slowing down the prose? Were you trying to embed the dialogue within the voice, rather than getting caught up in prolonged scenes?

Stefanie Freele

Both. I very much enjoy prose that doesn’t break dialogue into paragraphs by quotes. I find it a distracting break from the story and I often jut out of the dream to inquire, who is talking now? I realize that some people abhor italic dialogue, but I may unapologetically continue writing this way.

Michael Noll

The narrator is listening to the grown-ups in the room and noticing them “using adult words like Naugahyde and paisley,” This is a recurring idea in the story, the distinctions marked by particular words and phrases: “something special” and “smile and shape up” and “smirk.” This seems like a really useful way to clue readers in to the narrator’s age and relationships with the other people in the house. Is it something you fell into—one of those happy accidents in writing—or was it an effect you were intentionally trying to achieve?

Stefanie Freele

Let us go with the happy accident theory. I think I am watcher, like all writers I suppose, and a collector of the phrases people say. There can be a ton of dialogue between people, but there are those certain words that will stand out and directly indicate something about the character. I try not to waste any words that don’t have to do with the revealing the character, the story or some sort of underlying message.

Michael Noll

I guess this story would be classified as “flash fiction,” both because of its length but also because it takes place in an instant. Was it always confined to this particular moment in time? Or, was it carved out of a longer piece of writing?

Stefanie Freele

Ray Vukcevich's story

Ray Vukcevich’s story “The Sweater” is included in his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room from Small Beer Press.

It isn’t yet carved out of a longer piece of writing. I was exploring the idea of anxiety in children and what adults might miss or can’t see. I was also recalling certain memories (will never forget the awful tights) and that sensation that one feels like they might burst or rip apart due to discomfort from all angles.  To the other characters in the story, they have no idea what is going on with Mirabel, with that explosive distress. She has made some connections and decisions including that stealing what is forbidden is acceptable. So much is happening to her in a few minutes, in one room, in one scene, and nobody one knows. I love the idea of exploring what is happening to someone in an iota of time. Ray Vukcevich did this in his story “The Sweater” where the entire story is told while a character is trying on a sweater. A must read.

April 2015

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


How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

28 Apr
Stefanie Freele's story, "Davenports and Ottomans" was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans” was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.

How the Story Works

In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.

Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:

The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.

In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”

Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.

Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:

The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.

The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:

  1. Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
  2. Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
  3. Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
  4. Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.

Good luck.

An Interview with Sora Kim-Russell

24 Apr
Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, where she writes and works as a teacher and translator.

Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, and her translations of the Korean writer Bae Suah are among the first of that form-breaking writer’s work to appear in English.

Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There and Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time, as well as Bae Suah’s Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found. Her translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari will be available on April 27, 2015 through Periscope (UK).

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae Suah’s novella, Nowhere to Be Found, and also an interview with Bae, click here.

Michael Noll

The style of the language in Nowhere to Be Found is plain and direct. There are moments of metaphor and some lovely writing, of course, but from the first page, the narrator’s voice is very matter-of-fact. I’m not a translator myself, but I can imagine the difficulties of trying to find a match in English for the tone of the original prose. Did you have a strategy for this? Did you play around with different approaches until you found one that was right?

Sora Kim-Russell

I did play around with the narrator’s voice, especially in the opening pages. It was important to me to capture the narrator’s tone and attitude right from the get-go. Korean-to-English translation has an innate tendency to veer abstract and indirect, so I really tried to push against that and keep the language clear and direct. That way, when the story later takes its flights of fancy, those parts would have room to shine. As for capturing tone and voice, I think my approach is a combination of text analysis and method acting. In terms of text analysis, I look for rhetorical patterns—words or images or emotions that reappear, particular sentence styles and shifts in sentence structure, anything at all that gets repeated—in order to pin down how the narrator is telling her story. As for the “method acting” part, I thought about my own experiences in my twenties and tapped into those memories of dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, fear of the future, and so on, in order to channel those emotions into my translation. By that, I don’t mean that I wrote myself into the character—it was more like orienting myself emotionally onto the narrator and mapping where our choice of words and phrasings aligned and diverged.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about challenges you had as a translator in finding English equivalents for basic aspects of the Korean setting. There aren’t very many well-known Korean writers in America and certainly not many who are being translated. As a result, I found myself realizing as I read how little I know about Korea, especially as it was during the 80s. In some ways, the narrator seems like any young, single person. In other ways, though, the effect that poverty and the cultural expectations for single women feels quite different from what an American might experience. Does the prose in Korean take for granted certain things that had to be illustrated or explained a bit for an American audience?

Sora Kim-Russell

There were a few “taken for granted” parts, though to be fair, at least one of those references would be just as tricky for young Korean readers today—namely, the “officer-in-training” system that Cheolsu was in. I got really stuck on how to translate Cheolsu’s rank (silseupsodaejang). I guess it’s very roughly analogous to the ROTC system in the US, with the critical difference being that most Korean men don’t choose to go to the military. In South Korea, all able-bodied men have to undergo two years of military service, usually right in the middle of their college years. Cheolsu’s situation is different because he goes into the service after college, his stint is very short, and he starts at a higher rank than other men. He has it easy, in other words. The writer explained to me that, back in the ‘80s when the novella takes place, the officer-in-training system offered a loophole intended to benefit men from elite families, but as the man on the phone (towards the ends of the book) explains, some lower-class men were able to take advantage of it if they could pass the exam. So that was a very specific historical detail that is not explained in the original but which sheds light on who this Cheolsu guy is. I opted to add in a brief explanation, because there was no way to pack all that context into a single word translation.

Also, more broadly, the whole system of military conscription and the idea of women providing support and encouragement (from food, visits, and letters to perhaps more than that) to men undergoing military service is a ubiquitous part of modern Korean culture. If you know that, then it might be easier to understand why the female protagonist resists it. It also helps with understanding South Korea in general, though I would argue that this notion of women feeling pressured to provide “comfort” to men in the military is close to universal and no doubt found in every patriarchal, militarized culture around the world.

Another “taken for granted” part worth pointing out is the title itself. The original title was “Cheolsu,” but it didn’t work in translation because Cheolsu is an extremely common male name in Korea, comparable to “John.” In English, the name comes across as exotic and foreign, which is exactly the opposite of its intended effect in the original, so we opted to change the title in order to convey that sense of ordinariness and anonymity in a different way.

Michael Noll

How much freedom did you take in structuring sentences? For instance, a street in Uijeongbu is described this way: “A perfectly gray street. An old and dirty street.” Were the original lines fragments as well, or is that a construction you used in order to achieve a particular effect?

Sora Kim-Russell

I actually stuck very close to the author’s original sentence structures. There’s something jarring about her sentences in Korean, especially the shifts from long, antithetical sentences where she takes a phrase and turns it back and forth before moving on, to abrupt fragments where the speaker seems to have run out of breath. If I changed anything, it was because it didn’t work grammatically in English, but wherever possible I followed the author’s lead. There were a few places where I had copy editors suggest changes, either deleting a fragment or changing a word choice that seemed out of place, but I stuck to my guns and insisted on keeping them, or looked for ways to smooth them out just enough to allow them to fold into the text but still assert their presence. Whenever there was any doubt, I checked with the writer, and she gave me her opinion on what she thought could be changed or deleted without hurting the text, and which things needed to stay in place. She likes to jar her readers, but the challenge was to find the right words in English that jar without completely unseating the reader.

April 2015

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

An Interview with Bae Suah

23 Apr
Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah was born in Seoul and has published seven books in Korean, three of which have been translated into English: the novellas Highway with Green ApplesTime in Gray, and, most recently, Nowhere to Be Found. She currently lives in Berlin and translates German literature into Korean, including Martin Walser’s Angstblute and two works by W. G. Sebald. She is currently translating the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae’s novella, Nowhere to Be Foundclick here. The following interview was translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

Michael Noll

The narrator in this novella—as well the narrator in your story “Highway with Green Apples”—seems to be struggling with what it means to be a young, single woman in a place where the expectation of marriage is quite strong. Given that expectation, I was sometimes surprised at how “liberated” she sometimes sounded. For instance, in a passage about what makes a relationship special, she casually mentions watching porn. Even in the present American culture of TV shows with strong, sexually independent female characters like Girls and Broad City, this reference to porn still took me by surprise. Is it something that would have surprised Korean readers in 1998 when it was first published?

Bae Suah

Well, in that particular passage, the viewer of porn isn’t specified as either male or female, but I do think women watch porn. Of course, men probably watch it for different reasons… In this case, some readers may wonder why the act of watching porn in particular would remind a person (male or female) of someone. It’s not about porn, per se, but about the way a certain someone can suddenly come to mind when you’re busy doing something. I think most of the Korean readers of this novella have been young women, and they didn’t seem put off by this passage. Or at least, I don’t think they were. I don’t think they were surprised by it either.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the novella, there’s a jump in time. You write:

“That year was my beginning and my end. It was one year of my life that was neither particularly unhappy nor particularly happy. It wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998. The things that happened in 1988 had also happened in 1978 and would happen again in 1998.”

The passage continues on that way. It’s a bleak sense of an absence of logic and progress that you end up calling “third person random.” It’s something that appears in “Highway with Green Apples” as well, a sense of disorientation and disconnectedness, not just between the narrator and her life but among almost all aspects of life. There’s a kind of cruel senselessness at work. It makes me wonder at the reception of these stories in Korea when they were first written. Did readers say, “Oh yeah! This is how it is.” Or did they bristle at the portrayal of their world and the people in it?

Bae Suah

As with the first question, I think that young female readers responded positively to this novella. I guess you could say that what I portrayed in this novella is a kind of volcano inside women’s hearts—volcanoes that threaten to, but never actually, erupt. However, older readers and male readers reacted differently. Male readers bristled at this book, and specifically said that they felt put off by the narrator. The female protagonist is not very nice to the male protagonist; she throws his food in a latrine just to dramatically demonstrate how she is feeling (one younger male reader told me that chicken was highly prized in the army back in the ‘80s); and she has a brusque way of speaking (in fact, she tends to be curt, unfriendly, and rude with others). In other words, she’s the opposite of what’s expected of a woman in Korean society, and that made older readers and male readers uncomfortable. Plus, the novella doesn’t take a delicate approach to emotion and makes no attempt to appeal to universal sentiments. It tosses out unfamiliar and idiosyncratic words and expressions without pampering the reader, and it offers no cause-and-effect explanation in a way that could be understood by anyone and everyone, and I think that is why Korean (male) critics weren’t too happy with this book.

Michael Noll

The novella contains a Kafka-esque moment when the narrator visits Kim Cheolsu at the army base. She ends up running around, being misinformed about his whereabouts, being told that there is more than one person by that name. Was it difficult to find scenes or actions that would convey that sense of “third person random” that is subtly present in so much of the novella?

Bae Suah

The events in the story are all based in reality: the fear a young woman feels as she’s on her way to visit a boyfriend in the army, the anxiety of an uncertain future, the terror of love, and so on. That fear and anxiety is not something that can be overcome simply by escaping poverty. As soon as one insecurity dissipates, another drops before us like a curtain. The young woman on her way to meet her boyfriend doesn’t know this yet, but the older woman narrating the story does. She’s no longer troubled by the pain and uneasiness that follows love (i.e. relationships with men), and she doesn’t regard it as the source of her misfortune. She accepts this anxiety as part and parcel of life and love. While writing this novella, I recalled how I felt back in my twenties, so it really wasn’t that difficult to follow the narrator’s emotional trajectory.

April 2015

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

How to Capture an Entire Society

21 Apr
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Some stories are about individuals, and the drama between them is so intense that the backdrop could be the Death Star or a blank wall and it wouldn’t matter. In other stories, the backdrop matters. Take it away, and the story vanishes. Whether the story is about a society as a whole or a particular town or neighborhood, the challenge is to establish the backdrop as quickly as you’d establish a character. This is, of course, not easy.

One story that shows how it can be done is Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found. It was originally published in 1998 in Korean and was recently translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell and published in the United States. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novella Works

Here is how the novella begins:

In 1988 I was temping at a university in Gyeonggi Province.

Mostly what I did there was send lecture requests to part-time instructors, make adjustments to their class schedules, mail them their paystubs, and field complaints from students. As far as the work went, I didn’t have any major complaints of my own. It was the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.

Many readers will likely be familiar with the tedium of such work and also the way it was done:

At this job we could chew gum or do our nails while answering the phones and take over two hours to type even the sparest syllabus. We weren’t lazy or indifferent or anything. It was just the nature of the work…I didn’t have too many tasks, but I also wasn’t so idle that I could have passed the time knitting. When I was working, the hours went by at what I can only call a measured pace.

Another writer might have dug into the absurdities that are intrinsic in such work, but Bae has something different in mind:

We got a month off while classes were out of session. I spent that month working part-time in a dye factory close to my house. My job was to screw caps onto tubes of dye using a mechanical device. That was a long time ago. I’m sure that dye factory has since found a more modern solution to that primitive final step of production. But then again, if they had modernized any earlier, I wouldn’t have spent that summer wrapped in the suffocating smell of acrylics.

Bae is up to something larger than the story of a single person stuck in a soul-killing job. The novella’s target is 1980s-era South Korean society as a whole, and, as you might expect given the nature of the work, there is some large, inhuman imagery:

“That’s how things get done, just as the less delicate components of a machine submit to the will of the machine without any conscious thought or shred of volition while being ground down.”

What makes this novella bold and interesting is that it finds perverse ways of bringing the machinery of society to bear on the components. Here is a great example from early on:

Even now I think maybe my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day.

These are recurrent themes in the novella: larger, impersonal forces and disconnection. They’re powerful and interesting, and yet they have the potential to lose their power as soon as the reader becomes used to them. And so Bae introduces the novella’s first dialogue, between the narrator and a “guest lecturer on criminal sociology”:

“This week’s topic is murder.”


When I was an undergrad, one of my literature professors made fun of 1920s political poetry, with its predictable imagery of downtrodden masses and greedy capitalists. This novella is different because it so often jolts the readers out of their expectations—causing them to lean forward to really pay attention and setting them up to be smacked down by the societal machinery all over again. Nowhere to Be Found manages to replay that cycle—beat-down, jolt, beat-down, jolt—for 100 pages. It’s an impressive feat.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about society (without becoming predictable) using Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah as a model:

  1. Create a machine for the society. Another way to put this is this: Create a metaphor. In Nowhere to Be Found, the jobs are clearly representative of the society as a whole. The jobs are noteworthy because of how they reveal the mechanics of the society. While you can create a metaphor by thinking, “I’m going to create a metaphor now,” you can also approach the task from another angle. Try finishing this sentence, “When I think about (the place), I immediately think of _____.” Trust your imagination to fill in the blank with a job or hobby or whatever. Don’t worry about if it’s a good metaphor. If it’s an essential part of the place—not to everyone but to you—it will eventually take on the role of a metaphor.
  2. Acknowledge the machinery. In other words, give the narrator or characters some awareness of the situation. (Without that awareness, you risk writing a morality play.) There are different levels of acknowledgment. The highest level requires a statement like this: “The whole society was about _____.” While this is possible (Bae writes sentences like this), it’s also difficult to pull off. It’s often more manageable to let the characters think practically about their immediate surroundings, as the narrator does in this sentence: “It was just the nature of the work…” Try using that word, nature. Let the character ponder or make a statement about the nature of whatever surrounds her. You may find yourself working up the scale to the nature of the society as a whole. Or, you won’t. Stop when the writing begins to crumble under its own weight.
  3. Give the characters agency. Part of the reason that Albert Camus’ The Stranger is so powerful is that the narrator acts. He chooses to do things. The motive behind those actions isn’t always clear, but the action is dramatic. This is an important lesson to remember: even if characters are just floating along, they need to occasionally act as if they have some control over themselves. (In The Stranger, the narrator chooses to help set up his friend’s girlfriend for a cruel joke.) In Nowhere to Be Found, some of the moments of highest tension occur when the narrator behaves in ways that grind against the machinery she’s caught in. A good rule of thumb is this: When a scene feels like it’s about to end on a down note, keep writing. What if the character suddenly pushed back and refused to accept that down note? What would happen then?
  4. Reveal the machine at work in a surprising way. Machinery tends to work on several levels: the obvious one and the less obvious one. In Bae’s novella, the machinery is the economics of South Korea: the way that low-paid, tedious work turns people into laborers and into automatons. In other words, the machine is exterior to people. What’s surprising is when Bae makes the machinery interior as well, as in the passage about family members seeming like random people. Don’t create an impermeable wall between a character’s interior and exterior. How can her thoughts or actions reveal the presence of the forces she tries to resist?
  5. Throw a wrench into machine. Make the readers believe that the machine can be broken or that it’s possible to step outside of it for a period. Again, there are obvious and less obvious ways to do this. There’s the V for Vendetta method: bomb Parliament. Then, there’s the Nowhere to Be Found method: introduce a wild card: “This week’s topic is murder.” These wild cards don’t need to become part of the plot, they only need to throw askew the reader’s expectations. No society is totally flat. Every place contains pockets of unexpected absurdity or evil or goodness. Create those pockets in your story. How can you introduce a character, even momentarily, who is working not against the system but on a different plane altogether? He or she may still be part of it, but the level of acknowledgement or the choices he makes are different and upend our perhaps simplified ideas of the place.

Good luck.

How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

14 Apr

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

As everyone knows, Star Wars begins with a two-paragraph intro that scrolls up the screen, prefaced, famously, with the line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Just as the text that followed laid out the basics of the war (who is fighting, what’s at stake, and one of the characters), the opening paragraphs of On Sal Mal Lane lay out the basics of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The problem, though, is that a novel is not like a film, or, at least a literary novel is not like a B movie (which Star Wars absolutely was). If the voice that opens the novel vanished suddenly like the text that opens Star Wars, the reader might close it and walk away. It would be like a film changing from color to black and white, which can be done, but only under very special circumstances. Rather than risking that readers might not make the jump, the novel creates a narrator that can handle both the large scale of the war and the small scale of a few characters affected by it.

Of course, many readers will encounter that narrative voice and quite naturally ask, “Who is telling this story?” So, the novel provides an answer:

And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passed through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors. I am the road itself…

This self-identification goes on for a bit and ends this way:

To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing. I am that.

You can’t state the problem and solution more neatly than that. Now, how does such a voice operate, on a practical level?

Mostly, it follows different groups of characters, with each getting their own sections in the novel. In these sections, characters will be spoken about as groups (an entire family, for instance) and as individuals. But the voice will occasionally speak about things in general, as it does here:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

So, it operates by speaking in a kind of godlike voice but also, quickly, zooming down to a more human perspective—a perspective that we’re more comfortable with, being, as we are, humans and not gods.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing from an omniscient point of view,  using On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman as a model:

  1. Create a reason for such a point of view. The reason should be practical: what about your novel cannot be conveyed by a narrator with a limited point of view? Freeman’s reason is the complexity of explaining the context and development of a civil war. Your reason may be similarly political. Does the novel’s conflict involve parties larger than a single person or handful of individuals? Does it involve groups and national or international politics or movement (like migration)? Does writing the book require the occasional use of a kind of professorial or journalistic mode? If so, you might need an omniscient narrator.
  2. Identify the registers the narrative voice must hit. What is the range the voice must cover? Every novel (at least every one that I can think of) follows individual characters. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? To use the language of film, how far out must the camera move? Will the voice talk about a community as a whole? About a region or country? About the entire world? The universe? The range doesn’t really matter; the important thing is to know in advance how much ground you must cover.
  3. Identify the voice. This may be the trickiest part. Freeman writes that the voice is the wind and the road (in other words, the world itself and also the people as a whole). Some reviewers have found this identification awkward. You can probably imagine how such a move would be met in workshop: “How can the wind talk?” But the move is probably also necessary. Without the identification, the same reviewers might ask, “Who is telling this story?” There’s no perfect solution. The short passage about the narrator’s identity is a bit like the scene from the original Rocky, when Apollo Creed is choosing his challenger, eventually picking Rocky Balboa. It’s the most contrived part of the film, a scene where the mechanics are laid out in the open, and yet it’s necessary because, without it, Rocky will keep collecting debts and will never meet Apollo. In short, without that scene, one of the most iconic American films of all time doesn’t exist. In the same way, without the passage about the narrator’s identity, Freeman’s great novel might not have come together. So, think about the identity of your narrator. Is it God? Is it some manifestation of the world? If so, what manifestation would make sense for your novel’s particular world?
  4. Write from the broadest register. What is the grandest, largest scale the voice can manage? Think about the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” Or think about Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” How can you craft a voice that is vast enough to make such statements?
  5. Transition to a more narrow register. Unlike Star Wars, a novel must make this transition as smooth as possible. This is where Freeman’s novel really shines. In two sentences, she moves from “God was not responsible for what came to pass” to “surely, these children were beautiful.” The first part is vast and the second is beginning to focus on specific characters: these children. Freeman links the two with a single world: surely. It’s not a causal connection but a logical one. Here’s the full sentence: “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful.” Basically, the sentence says, “Beauty exists in the world, and these children are beautiful.” It’s moving from a general statement to an illustration of the statement. This is a great way to transition. Make a general statement and then illustrate it: “and here they are.”

Good luck. Take risks. Have fun with the exercise.

An Interview with Jaime Netzer

10 Apr
Jaime Netzer's journalism has appeared widely, and her story,

Jaime Netzer’s journalism has appeared widely, and her story, “How to Die” was published in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger.

Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and journalist living in Austin. She served as the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence in Smithville, TX, and the nonfiction editor for the literary journal Front Porch. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Parcel, and Twelve Stories; her journalism has appeared all over, including (most recently) Variety, USA Today Special Publications, Cowboys and Indians, and Austin Monthly.

To read an exercise on writing self-aware prose and Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” click here.

Michael Noll

The story starts really fast: right to the reality show and its irresistible hook. Did the story always start this way? Or was this a conscious decision that you made, to start in a way that would immediately grab the reader?

Jaime Netzer

I started this story in the thick of work on my thesis project at Texas State, back in the spring of 2012. I had been plodding away at this truly terrible attempt at a novel while also enrolled in a workshop with Tom Grimes, who asked me to turn in something other than part of the thesis, for everyone’s sake, I think. My memory is usually awful but I do remember the idea coming to me sort of whole, or something close to it. I wanted to write about a girl competing on a reality show to earn her own suicide. The published version is not that different from the version I sat down and wrote in one fell swoop—which is wholly unusual for me. Small things changed, but this story always felt more like play than work. Her voice was there from the start, which I think helped a lot.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Kansas City, which caught my eye, not just because I’m from Kansas, but because I so rarely read stories set in KC. In fact, I can’t think of another short story set there. Did you ever consider setting the story in a generic location, or did you always want to put it in Kansas City, at Arrowhead?

Jaime Netzer

I’m from Kansas too, just west of Kansas City. So I’ve sat in that weird concrete stadium and seen its shadows and felt the height and bowl-feeling of it—it’s an amazing place to watch a game, and it’s weird and cold and huge, and somehow that felt like the right place to start. The other part of this answer, honestly, is that I’m a chicken, and I don’t usually set stories places I haven’t had some serious experience with. The story is obviously a bit speculative, a bit not-here, not-now, but I wanted it very, very close to now and here. So I wanted to set it somewhere, and Kansas City felt right. Lawrence, the narrator’s name, is actually the name of my hometown.

Michael Noll

The thing I love most about this story is the demented sexuality of the narrator, the way she tries to seduce the guy who will interview her for the TV show. Her sexuality, and the way she wields it, is so unexpected. The story could have easily been about how the character lacks power and so wants to die, but the story gives her incredible power and control. Is this one of those characterizations that just appears in your head one day, or did you have to write toward a point of discovery, when you realized who the character was?

Jaime Netzer

She came to me fully formed, but I wouldn’t say her sexuality is demented at all, actually. And maybe it’s because she was always the voice in my head, but it doesn’t seem unexpected to me, either. Don’t we all wield our sexuality in an attempt to get what we want? I never saw her as lacking power, so in my head, the story hasn’t given power to her. She is the story, her power and control (and desires) are the story.

Michael Noll

A lot of readers will probably think of The Hunger Games when reading this story. I’m curious how much you thought about it. Did you read the books or watch the movies and feel compelled to write your own (different, weirder, better) version? Or is the connection coincidental or the result of reality TV’s prevalence in our lives?

Jaime Netzer

To be honest, I didn’t give The Hunger Games a moment’s thought when writing it—I saw one of the movies (now I’m curious about the timing) at some point, but it’s the opposite story, right? Those people are not fighting of their own accord, and they’re fighting to live. I have, however, long admired Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and The Hunger Games‘ premise is fantastic. I actually had three people ask me if I’d seen Black Mirror after reading the story. I haven’t, but apparently it’s similar in tone and there may have even been an episode with a reality show of some kind.

April 2015

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

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