Archive | June, 2016

An Interview with Robert Boswell

30 Jun
Robert Boswell has published 12 books, 2 plays, and more than 70 stories and essays and won more awards than can fit beneath a headshot.

Robert Boswell has published 12 books and more than 70 stories and essays and won some of the most prestigious literary awards in America.

Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had two plays produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. His novels include The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction; Mystery Ride, named by the Chicago Tribune and Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year; The Geography of Desire, picked by The London Independent as one of the best books of the year; and Virtual Death, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and named by the Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year. A New York Times review said that his most recent novel, Tumbledown, contains a “deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page.”

Boswell has published more than 70 stories and essays, which have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Colorado Review, Epoch, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies. He holds the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston. He lives in Houston, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado. He also spends time in a ghost town high in the Rockies.

To read an exercise on dialogue based on Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” click here.

In this interview, Boswell discusses the early drafts of “The House on Bony Lake” and his approach to withholding and revealing key information in the story.

Michael Noll

The story moves back and forth between the main character’s present and his family’s past. Did the idea for the story begin in the present—and then you added the family history? Or did the family history come first?

Robert Boswell

The story began with the idea of the house, built by a distant ancestor and improved upon by each generation until Paul inherits it; Paul’s carelessness causes the house to burn to the ground. This idea told me enough about Paul that I could begin to imagine him, and it also demanded that I picture the house and conceive the manner of its construction and the types of improvements that followed. The two threads were linked from the start.

Why I found this idea interesting or where the idea came from, I can’t say.

But I can guess.

Some years ago my wife and I bought a big hunk of a ghost town, and we’ve been fixing up the old post office, turning it into a cabin—a writing retreat, supposedly. I would guess that my subjecting that old building to my fiercely lousy carpentry had something to do with the origin of the story. (I have not burned the post office to the ground, but there’s time yet.)

Sidebar—it was actually a combination post office and tavern. Why didn’t that idea catch on?

Michael Noll

What was your approach to that back and forth between the story’s present and past? Both parts move chronologically, but I’m curious about your strategy for how to juxtapose the different sections.

Robert Boswell

Early drafts of the story opened with the grandfather building the house, and the narrative moved forward chronologically, generation by generation, until Paul finally took possession of the place. This strategy did not work. Characters were introduced, their lives were summarized, and then they died. By the time the narrative reached Paul, the reader (assuming she was still awake) would have been exhausted.

I decided to start with Paul and weave the history of the house into his narrative. My first draft after making this decision was purely mechanical. I scissored up the history and shuffled it into Paul’s story. With each subsequent draft, I experimented, eventually cutting roughly a third of Paul’s story and maybe half of the family history. I looked for logical points at which to break from the history, I rearranged the segments of Paul’s narrative, and I kept tinkering until things clicked into place. (Chris Cox at Harper’s made a number of good suggestions, as well.)

All of these decisions were matters of craft, meaning that I worked to apply to the decision-making all that I’ve studied over the years, and then I compared the result with my own intuitive sense of story. (This is something like choosing a mate by making lists of positive and negative traits; no matter how much you employ logic to solve the problem it will never trump irrational emotional attraction.) Craft permits me to align story elements, but it’s ultimately my own instincts about narrative that decide. I work a story until a mysterious something sends a spark along the narrative circuits in my mind. That’s about as close as I can come to honestly answering this question.

And, yes, even now, after working at it for decades, I find writing fiction as mysterious as falling in love. Fortunately, I also find it every bit as compelling. Ultimately, my fidelity is not to the craft of writing but to the mystery of living that literature relentlessly explores. I am not a fan of well-made stories that merely advertise the inventiveness of their architecture. The stories I love reek of life.

I am drawn to stories with multiple timeframes, but writing them exhausts me. The key, I believe, is that every movement between frames, regardless of chronology, has to feel like an acceleration of the narrative.

Easier said than done.

Michael Noll

There’s a big reveal in the story, and you keep it to hidden for a long time—in fact, we don’t really even know that it’s there to be found. We only know that his house burned down and that this was a significant event. Did you always know that you would wait to reveal what happened?

Robert Boswell

How a writer manages the release of information is crucial to any story’s success. As you point out, the reader of “Bony Lake” has no idea that a reveal is coming. To my way of thinking, this is the key to withholding information.

If a narrator alludes to a dramatic event without giving the reader enough information to feel settled, it will likely come off as coy. Imagine that you notice someone at a party and you ask the host about him. The host says, “He’s my new colleague, and he has a dark secret in his past. Catch you later.” You’ll no doubt find yourself annoyed with the host. But imagine that the host says, “He’s my new colleague. When he was a kid, he lost his parents in a hurricane.” While you may wonder if there’s more to the story, this information is not a tease. You now possess one solid tidbit about the person.

Time passes. You encounter the man, and the information about him that you possess colors your understanding of him. One evening in a bar, he tells you about the hurricane, and you discover that he was responsible for his mother going out in the storm to fetch something for him. His father then went out to retrieve her. The real secret is that he’s responsible for the deaths of his parents. Revealed in stages, the secret is not a tease and the writer is able to insert the information wherever it best serves the narrative.

Moreover, when a reader feels that she understands a situation and then realizes that the terms are larger or stranger than she conceived, the discovery is stimulating. It forces the reader to rethink all she thought she knew.

That’s more or less the effect that I’m striving for in “The House on Bony Lake.”

Michael Noll

This is a story where things end but not a door-slamming way—with an emotional resolution rather than a plot conclusion. I think this is something that story writers struggle with. When a character’s struggle is primarily interior, how do you dramatize the resolution (at least in terms of the story) of that struggle? When did you know how the story would end?

Robert Boswell

Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I knew early on how the story would end, but I did not know why or how the narrative would get there. I had to discover all that while revising. Paul’s final act in the story is meant to, as you say, provide an emotional resolution; however, the ending is also meant to complete the narrative shape by suggesting that the there is another way of interpreting the family’s history.

Having avoided talking about the reveal in the reply above, I don’t think I should give away the end of the story with this response. So I’ll try to talk about it by referring to other stories—great stories—that make analogous narrative moves.

In Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” the end of the story reframes Ivan Ilych’s deathbed question from “Why me?” to “How should I have lived?” And then the question is answered in an astonishing manner. Until the very end, the character and the reader are engaged with the wrong mystery.

In Peter Taylor’s “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen’s behavior at the end can only be understood when the reader lets go of the terms by which he’s interpreted events (the racial divide among Southerners in the middle of the 20th century) and adopts a new set of terms (the gender divide in that same population).

NoViolet Bulawayo deftly orchestrates a similar narrative maneuver in the first story (“Hitting Budapest”) of her novel-in-stories We Need New Names. The final moments of the story complicates the reader’s natural desire to side with hungry children. Such a desire tends to sentimentalize characters, and Bulawayo refuses to let this happen. By denying the reader a romanticized vision of the children, Bulawayo insists on the characters’ full share of humanity.

I do not mean to suggest that my story belongs in the same category as these great stories; rather, that the ending, if it works, comes from an understanding of an elusive narrative strategy that I did not so much mimic as discover—a startling discovery made during the writing of the story. And it’s only later, of course, that I realized my discovery is a merely variation on the work of some writer on whose shoulders I have been for some time attempting to stand.

June 2016

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


How to Set Up Dialogue with Declarative Statements

28 Jun
Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The best writers have a way of making their prose seem light and effortless. It’s the effect we’re all seeking because in our minds, the story races along, but on the page, it too often plods along, one thing after another. The place where that slow, predictable, stuck feeling tends to reveal itself the clearest in our drafts is in dialogue. Conversely, in a great piece of writing, the dialogue snaps.

A great example of light and fast dialogue and prose can be found in Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake.” It was published in Harper’s Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A passage early in the story begins like this: “Lew’s All Nite was a dark tavern attractive to serious drinkers.” The paragraph ends with “The All Nite was not a place for optimists.”

Now, look at the dialogue that follows:

“Hey, genius,” a regular called, a woman in her late thirties named Kay Timmons, a gin drinker, who liked to talk, who needed his attention, who would tip him a twenty on a thirty-dollar tab. “If you’re so smart, why’s my glass empty?”

Paul responded immediately, “Nobody thinks I’m smart but you.”

“I’m putting all my eggs in that basket,” Kay told him. “Be kind to my eggs.”

The dialogue (why’s my glass empty, nobody thinks I’m smart but you, all my eggs in that basket) illustrates the claims made in the declarative statements at the beginning of the passage (serious drinkers, not a place for optimists).

The same thing happens throughout the passage. Here is another example of declarative statements:

Melinda wore the shortest skirts of any waitress. The men in All Nite studied her hungrily. From the first hour of her first shift Paul had the feeling they would wind up in bed together.

Of course, they have sex, and afterward “He remembered thinking that she’d cast a longing look at her crossword.” He notices a rectangle-shaped tattoo, and here is the dialogue that follows:

“It’s Colorado,” she said, “my home state.”

“You’re from Ohio.”

“It’s a book, then.”

“It’s not a book.”

“It might be a book. I read.”

“Looks more like a television.”

“All right, then,” she’d said. “Are we done?”

Again, the dialogue illustrates what we can infer from what we’ve already been told: she’s something less than smitten with him.

Finally, in the same passage, we learn the history of the building where Lew’s All Night is located. At one point, it housed “a storefront church — the Holy Committee of Righteous Christ — whose floppy-haired minister plastered flyers of his face all over town, declaring himself god’s delivery system. He played electric flute and drum machine during hymns. Paul met him once, in a bar on the north end of the lake.”

At this point, it’s interesting to consider what dialogue might follow. How will it confirm what we already know? There are a few possibilities. This is the path it takes:

“You recognize me, don’t you?” the preacher asked as he slid a creased five into the tight filament of a stripper’s thong. “You’ve seen my posters,” he insisted.

It’s as if the story is saying to the reader, you just met the preacher and you’re suspicious of him–and, turns out, your suspicions are correct.

What Boswell has done is write a passage that contains dialogue from four different characters who aren’t talking together. It leaps from one thing to another so smoothly that it’s possible to read the passage without noticing how much time and space it covers. This may sound complicated, but it’s similar to how many of us talk. We make declarative statements all the time, followed by a piece of evidence to substantiate our claim. This is especially true of the preachers in our lives. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people have heard someone talk about So-and-so from the Such-and-such church and then add, “And do you know where I saw him? In a ____, with a ___.” The blanks are not positive, and we knew that before they even arrived in the conversation.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use declarative statements to set up dialogue, using Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” as a model:

  1. Set your scene in a particular place with particular individuals. Stories and novels can, of course, make general statements (Tolstoy made a lot of hay with his statement about happy and unhappy families in Anna Karenina), but it’s easier to work with specific details. Where is this passage from your story/novel taking place or referring to?
  2. Choose a particular voice. This might mean that the statement will come from a character (who may or may not be the narrator) or the narrator or some other voice you’ve concocted. It doesn’t matter who you pick, but you must pick. The voice needs attitude. When Boswell’s story states, “It was not a place for optimists,” that’s not a neutral statement. It has attitude. There are, probably, characters who would disagree with that assessment of the bar. What is your voice’s attitude on the subject you laid out in the first step?
  3. Make a statement. Let the voice you’ve chosen hold forth. Imagine that the voice is being interviewed by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” She’s asking your voice about the places and people in its life. What does it have to say now that it’s suddenly an expert?
  4. Illustrate the statement with dialogue. You can use the scaffolding of real-life conversations to comment on the people and places within the statement: “And you know what he/she said then?” or “You’ll never guess what So-and-so did the other day” or “Case in point: ____.” You’ll likely end up cutting this scaffolding and moving directly from the statement to the dialogue.

We question dialogue when we don’t know where it’s going, when we have no sense that it knows where it’s going. So, give it a sense of direction: it’s moving toward the statement you’ve already given us. The goal is to make dialogue snap by divorcing it from plot and attaching it, instead, to statements about people and place. If you can do this once, you can do it again and again, often with different subjects within the same passage.

Good luck.

An Interview with D Watkins

24 Jun
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, tells the story of his journey from drug dealer to writer.

D. Watkins is a columnist for Salon. His work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He holds a master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a college professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins has been the recipient of numerous awards including Ford’s Men of Courage and a BME Fellowship. Watkins is from and lives in East Baltimore. He is the author of The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

Originally published March 2015

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

How to Defy Readers’ Expectations for Characters

21 Jun
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” was one of the most-read essays of the year in 2014.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us as readers, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay as a whole suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. The essay could work at the level of the broad categories  and still make its point. Yet something would be lost. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. But that’s not what Watkins is interested in writing about. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that many of us are familiar with, which means it’s a language that carries with it certain expectations.

Now, watch how Watkins moves away from those expectations, from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Once the people in the essay are allowed to participate in the discussion, they show their wit and intelligence. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. The line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” not only reveals that the speaker knows about corporate bailouts but also reveals a sense of goofball, idiosyncratic sense of humor. It complicates the portrayal of someone who is “disenfranchised,” a term that can flatten the people it describes.

Once you honor the people’s or characters’ complexity, you can begin to describe the complexity of their world:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

This is a passage that does not fit into much of the political speech we’re hearing at the moment–because it’s complex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. Use Watkins’ headline as a model: “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” Fill in the blanks: Too ___ for ____. This won’t be difficult for essay writers, but it applies to fiction writers as well. Many love stories are about characters who believe they’re too ___ to be loved or, conversely, too ____ for the person who loves them. Most fiction is driven by a sense of a character’s dissatisfaction. What is it in your story?
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: “I call us disenfranchised” and “one of those spots where.” Fill in the blanks: So-and-so calls them _____ because ___” and “It was one of those places that ___.” You’re inherently working with categories, with types of characters or places, and these types carry expectations for readers.
  3. Let the characters or people speak for themselves. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. So, let your characters/people comment on the categories you’ve just made. Imagine that they’ve just read your line from Step 2. Or, someone in the room has said something similar. How would they respond?

The goal is to create categories that are both real and that seem familiar to readers and then let your characters/people surprise you and the reader by speaking for themselves.

Good luck.

An Interview with Callie Collins

16 Jun
Callie Collins is the co-editor of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is the codirector of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here.

In this interview, Collins discusses two pieces of flash fiction and linearity, titles, and listening to the sound of your sentences.

Michael Noll

When I read these stories, the thing that immediately caught my eye is the nonlinear jumps in the narration. Sometimes they’re on the content level, like when the gar arrive in the story or when we see the girl at the bar practicing her vowels. But they also happen on the sentence level, as with the line “They approximate well” in this passage: 

Hold the grip like you’re shaking a man’s hand, Billy instructs the boys, but who among them has really shaken a man’s hand, he thinks. They approximate well. He doesn’t have children. 

That line seems to arrive out of nowhere. It’s not a logical extension of “They approximate well.” Is this just the logic of your imagination, or do you have a kind of internal rule or approach that you follow for these sort of jumps?

Callie Collins

It’s strange; when I first read this question, I was surprised you pulled that line, cause it strikes me as a super linear extension of that thought, which now I realize it is not at all and I must be crazy. So yes, the logic of my imagination is maybe a bit more leapy than usual. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm and geometry when I write. In this particular case my logic worked a little like this.

“He doesn’t have children” seemed necessary for a couple reasons. The six syllables of “They approximate well” didn’t feel like enough rhythmically to stop the forward momentum of the multi-clausal sentence before it—I wanted a stronger wall. “He doesn’t have children” is really satisfying to me because of the internal symmetry of consonants and emphasis: (he) DOES-N’T (have) CHIL-DREN. Those two lines together sounded closed and tight because they’re syllabically equal. Also, “They approximate well” shifts the paragraph’s focus to the boys, so I wanted to extend a line back to Billy to balance the scale. I tried to jump back and forth from the boys to Billy almost sentence-by-sentence in order to both alienate them from each other and tie them together in this room while the storm rages outside. I also wanted to go one step further down into Billy, to reveal some new, personal knowledge of his character, before the last sentence of the paragraph zooms back out to an overhead view of the scene.

Yeah… it seems kind of nuts. Thankfully there’s another, parallel answer to this question, and that’s because this story comes out of a bigger project. Billy is the youngest of five siblings in a generation of a family, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have kids. It was a piece of information I wanted to fit in there somehow, and to my ear that was the right place to put it.

Michael Noll

Your titles are wonderful. They remind me of the chapter headings that you see in certain novels from the 1700s and 1800s. What’s your approach to titling stories? It’s something that most writers I know find so difficult.

Callie Collins

Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” was published along with one other at Conflict of Interest.

Oh, thank you! I feel lucky when I land on serviceable, or at the very least somewhere near I-can-see-she’s-trying-to-move-me-and-am-not-entirely-repulsed.

I cheat a little. I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth. My hope is that each title alone will function pretty straightforwardly, but that using the structure repeatedly will help the stories accrete and flow differently—as variations on a theme. I can, of course, take this way too far. Currently I’m using the same exact title for at least five different stories and for the manuscript they all come out of—man, stop me—which has become inconvenient and messy.

But I like this sort of repetition. It’s how my brain works most naturally. There are pieces of language and slices of syntax that lodge in my mind, and I return to them compulsively but hopefully from new angles and alignments. And it’s one of the really big pros to writing page-long stories. It wouldn’t work if I had fewer pieces to title.

Michael Noll

Both of these stories have a kind of thematic structure. You could, if you wanted, distill them to their major images (for example, cocoons/butterflies, gar, the O shape the girl makes), and then it seems as if the purpose of the story is to connect these images in a way that makes sense. This makes me wonder: Do you start with the images and try to connect them or start with one image and write your way into the story, discovering new images as you go?

Callie Collins

Mostly I start with one image and write my way into the story. I think a lot about thematic structure and particularly the idea of thematic return, movement back toward the home of an original moment or sound. I used to study some music theory and composition a long time ago and was really pretty awful at it, but I found some comfort in the fact that our brains are kind of wired to find closure and satisfaction in music that returns to the tonic—the piece’s tonal center. There are certainly many ways to come home to the tonic, or to approach coming home and not make it all the way, or to refuse that closure entirely, and I think the same is true in fiction. I love endings for that reason; I’m attracted to the urgency of the choice whether or not to return.

I’ve written stories that come all the way goddamn home, middle C, climb back in the bed they were born in—there’s a horse story I read at readings sometimes that does this—but the gar story doesn’t. I tried to end it with a stand on the dominant: an anticipatory feeling, a settling in the front yard of the tonic and pointing at the door.

The tonic is usually an image. Here, the gar. I set the tonic and then work my way into other images that orbit it. I wanted the last note, the couple at the bar, to recall the gar in certain ways—to approach the ideas of foreignness, animal transformation, and alienation from a new perspective. What I really hope, though, is that none of my crazy scaffolding is visible—that the story reads cleanly and easily. Thinking about structure in these minute ways is, it turns out, the only way I know how to get anything done at all.

Michael Noll

These stories are quite polished. You’re also co-editor of the independent press A Strange Object. A lot of people would look at both of those statements and think, “She’s doing pretty well.” Yet this fall you’ll enter the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you hope to learn there? Obviously you want to work on your writing and craft, but you’re entering from a different position than a lot of writers, with more experience and success in the publishing world–more than many people who graduate from writing programs. Is it simply the desire to grow and improve that’s at work, or is there something in particular that you wish to gain?

Callie Collins

I hope to learn many things. Where to buy a good coat, for one—anyone know? I’m hoping someone’ll teach me how to do that weird Michigan vowel shift, too.

But really, what a kind question to ask! I didn’t take creative writing courses in college and have very little experience with the formal workshop setting, so even though I’ve spent some time on the publishing side, I’m much more of a newbie in certain ways than most folks entering programs. Mostly I’m just excited and feeling very lucky to have the time and funding to work on the novel-thing, and to get to do that with amazing faculty whose work I deeply admire.

My work’s pretty invested in central Texas, and I think leaving will help me write about the place with more nuance. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the mythology of Texas while I’m in it, and I hope being away will give me new perspective and energy. I’m very sad, but it seems like time to go. Just keep everything exactly the same while I’m gone, thanks! Or at least cool it with the condos.

June 2016

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

How to Spark the Imagination

14 Jun
Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Once you’ve got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.

Part of the terror and joy of writing anything creative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or poetry, is that you often have no idea what will happen. You sit there, and maybe magic will happen—or maybe you’ll just sit there, at least that’s the fear, and being a writer probably means accepting that sometimes you’ll write uninspired dreck that you’ll toss out.

And, yet, I recently heard a writer say that when you look back on your drafts, it’s impossible to tell when the words were flowing and when they weren’t. I suspect that what many writers learn is how to create the opportunity for magic. If you create the conditions for a spark, sooner or later something will happen. A good example of creating the conditions for the imaginative spark can be found in Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015.” It was published in Conflict of Interest, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

At some point, every writer (and every kid in a writing camp or class) will play the game, “Exquisite Corpse.” It was invented by the Surrealists, who wanted to bypass the learned logic that their minds had picked up through living in the rules and strictures of civilization. They wanted to access the wild root of the imagination. To do this, (as you know if you’ve played the game) they’d write down random phrases and words, toss them in a hat and then pull them out. You couldn’t control what you’d pick, and so you might pull out two slips that add up to “Exquisite Corpse.” The logical brain might never invent that phrase, and yet there it is, meaningless and full of potential. As soon as you read it, you begin to make sense of it. Turns out, the phrase is beautiful and magical. You could, if you wanted, write an entire poem or passage based on it.

The trick, then, is to create the conditions for a kind of surrealist game on the page as you write. If you can somehow get a phrase like “exquisite corpse” on the page, your imagination will do the rest. But how? Collins’ story offers a guide if you pay attention to the imagery.

It begins with the phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings,” which is sort of the point: to get yourself lost and then reorient yourself within strange horizons. Collins immediately does this, giving us fishing—but inside a building. Then she pairs boys and caterpillars. In the next paragraph, she adds gar—and, as with the fishing at the story’s beginning, the usual setting has been scrambled, a fence instead of the water. These are unexpected images, and yet you can see Collins’ brain beginning to make (to invent) sense out of them. The character imagines the fish saying “Here we are…where are you?” which echoes the line from the beginning: “we’ve lost all our bearings.” In the last paragraph, we’re suddenly in a bar, next to a woman practicing vowel sounds—and, again, there’s that sense-making happening. Her mouth resembles a fish’s: O, O, O.

In literature classes, the focus is on reading and interpreting such connections as these. But, for writers, the emphasis is on making those connections in the first place. Collins creates those opportunities—the conditions for the imaginative spark—by pairing unlike images and throwing familiar images into unfamiliar terrain. Her creative juices may not have been flowing when she first sat down, but when you’ve got gar in fences next to caterpillars and women practicing English in bars, an imagination can’t help but get intrigued.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create the conditions for an imaginative spark, using “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” by Callie Collins as a model:

  1. Start with an image. Just pick one out of your head, something you’ve been thinking about, that you keep returning to. It doesn’t need to be “beautiful,” whatever that means. Collins starts with kids practicing casting. It’s simple and straightforward.
  2. Put it in unfamiliar territory. This is like the improv game where actors play out a scene in front of a green screen. They’re having tea or celebrating a birthday while dinosaurs or whatever rampage behind them. Again, don’t think too hard. Take your image and place it somewhere unexpected—but somewhere that your character would go. It doesn’t need to be the Jurassic period. Think about the usual places: work, school, kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, street, church, post office, store, bar, restaurant. You probably have a natural inclination about where to place your image. Don’t follow it. Instead, try a place that seems not to fit.
  3. Create a scene or passage around it. You’ve got the image and place; now write. What gets said, thought, felt? Again, be practical. Collins puts casting in a building and then sticks to the logistics: how to cast, a manager on an intercom.
  4. Jump to another, different image. Collins jumps to the caterpillar—and then to the gar, and then to the bar. Each one is unexpected, but each also fits within the frame of the story. There’s been a flood, and so gar could get washed out of their natural habitat. A cocoon is a great image for transformation. Try this: Use Collins phrase “we’ve lost all our bearings.” Figure out why that’s the case for this character in this moment. While disoriented, what does the character notice? Run with that image.
  5. Continue the scene or passage. Keep the scene going. The character sees the gar after work and walks over to look at them. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowel sounds and watches. Again, what gets said, thought, felt?
  6. Make sense. You’ve juxtaposed two or more images. Rather than trying to make sense of them as the writer, let your characters make the sense, as Collins does. Uncle Billy sees the gar and imagines what they’re saying. The narrator sees the woman practicing her vowels and connects woman’s mouth to the fish mouths. Letting the characters do the work takes the pressure off of you. You can always say, “I didn’t come up with that stupid idea; it was my character.” Of course, what you come up with could very well be the key to the entire piece of writing.

The goal is to create the conditions for your imagination to fire up by juxtaposing compelling images.

Good luck.

An Interview with Sean Ennis

9 Jun
Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which "expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia" according to a review by Largehearted Boy.

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Sean Ennis is the author of the story collection Chase Us, a finalist for the 2016 Saroyan Prize. Ennis is a Philadelphia native now living in Water Valley, Mississippi. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Mississippi and with the Gotham Writers Workshop. His work has appeared in Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Good Men Project, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, Hot Metal Bridge, LitNImage, Filter, and The Best New American Voices anthology.

In this interview, Ennis discusses staged and real violence, how the real story can be found in repercussions to dramatic events, and why game theory helps explain adolescence.

To read Ennis’ story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase,” and an exercise on plot spoilers, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the fact that the story puts the characters into two fights. The obvious thing to have done would be for the narrator to have learned a lesson from the first fight and responded differently in the second. But that’s not what happens. In fact, the second fight sort of sneaks up on him. He doesn’t even see it clearly. Did you always handle these fights in this way, or were there other versions of them in early drafts?

Sean Ennis

The structure for this story was a bit of a happy accident.  I had just finished reading a group of great, super-short novels (Ray by Barry Hannah, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustaffson), so I thought I might try my hand at something longer than my typical 15 page piece, and see what happens if I took my foot off the gas a bit.  My own experience playing soccer for ten years seemed like good enough fodder, and so I thought I’d tell every soccer story I had and see what fell out.  If I had originally approached the subject matter without thinking of it as a longer project, I probably just would have written the one long scene of the boy’s death.

A lot fell out though. Lengthy descriptions of indoor soccer, which is a bizarre game played with tiny goals and enormous tennis balls on basketball courts.  Errant coaches with hard drug problems who couldn’t keep their genitals from falling out of their shorts.  Feral sideline mothers who preyed on teenage referees.  The taste of yellow oranges in November at halftime.  All fine details, I guess, but eventually they felt irrelevant to the piece, and got cut. I didn’t want it to be turned into my lame soccer memoir.

The heart of the piece really seemed to be violence—the somewhat staged violence of the sport, and the real violence of the neighborhood.  On the field, there was, theoretically, some adult who would stop things from going too far.  Off the field there was not, even when their help was requested.

To the point of the narrator learning something, I guess my thought is that there is nothing to be learned.  He’s a coward in the best sense—he doesn’t believe that violence solves problems, or at least that he can use violence to solve problems—but might be surrounded by people who do.  I guess if he’s learned anything is that from now on, there is no one blowing a whistle to stop bad behavior.  He’ll have to manage it himself.

Michael Noll

I also really love the soccer field that you create in Fishtown. It’s not just a poor version of other fields—it’s not really even a field. What I love is how the absurdity of the field seems to change the tone of the story. We start out in familiar territory, familiar descriptions of poor neighborhoods, but then the field alters the scope of what is possible. It’s so beyond the bounds of what we think we know. I wonder if that second fight would have been believable in the story without that gravel soccer field. What do you think? Did any of this occur to you as you worked on the story?

Sean Ennis

This may diminish me as a story-teller, but that field was a real place. I played on it. This probably isn’t a shocker, but is it a bummer when writers say their best details are real?

Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

And in real life, I think the field was a metaphor. That neighborhood was very serious about soccer. They always kicked ass. They could have come up with money for grass. But it was a rite of passage in Philadelphia to play on that cinder field. We were shocked by it and had no idea how to negotiate it, so we complained and were totally intimidated and then lost. I distinctly remember my dad telling me it was a “cinder” field while we were driving there, and I had no idea what he meant. Had it been on fire?

Something that I think the whole collection is interested in is the idea of real objects out of place in a way that causes anxiety. Expanses of gravel and glass are not strange territory in an urban setting.  But when a hundred yards of them are contained by white lines and called a “field,” there’s something not right. To me, it’s the first clue for the narrator that something universal is off. The adults just shrug about the field.  Just say, sorry if you don’t like the rules, but you must play. For me, this is an idea running through most of the stories in the collection. For a while the whole manuscript was called “Deep Play,” an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, a British political philosopher. He was talking about instances where players get involved in a game where it is impossible to win, but they play anyway. A lot of young adulthood feels like this, I think. I’m no expert in game theory, and “Deep Play” isn’t the sexiest of titles for a collection, but that superficial version of Bentham’s idea struck a chord with me in terms of the types of stories I was writing.

This relates to the second fight, I think. The natural progression of violence among these kids is that someone is going to be killed; it’s already in motion. Also, the narrator’s team’s manicured field is the place of real danger. Even the brutes from Fishtown understood when a fight was over and won. But the swarming idiots from the suburbs were less equipped to understand the repercussions of their actions.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a spoiler (“The night Roger was beaten to death…”). That’s a move that can really work and can also backfire (in this case, of course, it works really well). What went into your decision to start the story that way? And, how did foregrounding that line affect the way you structured the story?

Sean Ennis

My thought there was to just get that bit of drama out of the way. I think we all know stories about kids who died too early, and, of course, they are tragic, but I was interested in figuring out a way where that death wasn’t the climax of the piece. If the reader knows it first thing, then hopefully something else is going on to keep people reading. In general, I’m much more interested in the repercussions of dramatic events than the dramatic events themselves. Things that seem bad can have positive outcomes and vice versa. So, my hope is that what happens after the death is where the real heart of the story is.

Michael Noll

This is not the only story I’ve read that combines sex and death. First to mind is Stuart Dybek’s story, “We Didn’t.” But the novel Skippy Dies also came to mind. To that end, I guess even the movie Dead Poet’s Society fits the description. What is it, do you think, about sex and/or death that makes it natural to bring them together?

Sean Ennis

This question is probably above my pay grade, but I’ll speculate that there’s something evolutionary about an animal’s interest in these topics.  The ultimate conflict—have sex or die. The echoes of that impulse remain, right?  Freud?  Darwin? Help me out.

I also think for young people these are both concepts becoming real at about the same time.  By the age of twelve or so, most young boys are waging their virginity against their potential death in some stunt.  Before that age, neither sex nor death seem like possible outcomes, or even knowable outcomes. When they both come crashing in: chaos.

In terms of story-telling, a piece needs stake, and sex and death impart this pretty quickly. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe they do it cheaply.  Still, they’ve been staples in story-telling for thousands of years, which suggests readers are usually compelled by it.  All of which to say, I think this story, if it succeeds, is retreading very familiar thematic territory, if only because it is the story-telling I was trained in.

That said, I’m working to figure out how sex and death are no longer the backbone of my stories without becoming a bad version of Carver or Salinger (heroes of mine).  Surely there is a drama in between.

Originally published August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

%d bloggers like this: