Archive | July, 2016

An Interview with Adam Soto

28 Jul
Adam Soto is the author of "The Box," which appears in the latest issue of Glimmer Train.

Adam Soto is the author of “The Box,” which appears in the latest issue of Glimmer Train.

Adam Soto is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Versal Journal, and in 2012 he was named a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s 30-below contest. A Chicago native, Adam currently resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as a schoolteacher and is completing work on a novel. He writes a multimedia serial at

To read an exercise on hooking readers with a character’s emotions based on Soto’s story “The Box,” click here.

In this interview, Soto discusses his approach for creating characters who are unlike him and his theory for narrative structure and the delivery of information.

Michael Noll

This is a story whose true subject isn’t revealed for several pages. At what point did you know what it was about–the conflict and the characters it would settle on? Did you always know, from the beginning? Or did you discover it in writing about the box?

Adam Soto

The body, Ebola, and the box were unified from day one. I heard an NPR piece detailing a particularly gruesome scene in which an infected infant had to be quarantined in a box of some sort, and it was so devastating I knew I had to stay connected to it in someway, I couldn’t just forget it, and that connection turned out to be this story. I went all the way back to the factory floor, and from there the box just started gathering characters like a gyre, taking on attributes of the disease and the fleeting nature of human relationships.

Michael Noll

These are characters who are quite different from yourself–and it’s set in a place, in the midst of a situation, that I’m assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that you haven’t spent much time in. What allowed you to enter this story? These characters and the place?

Adam Soto

You’re right, I’ve never been to West Africa, but the characters arrived rather easily, without pretension, human, and burdened/ driven by challenges that are pretty universal. A guy gets high and loses someone’s keys; a doctor’s work takes her away from her family; a man is called upon by his father to help him with the family business; a woman, in a state of loss, redefines herself against adversity. For the particulars, I researched. Everything from local flora to migrant work policy to medicine to regional history and social taboos. And these details brought the world to life for me, creating a space the characters could react to in ways true to their deepest selves.

Michael Noll

Endings can be so difficult–finding the right note, the right moment or event to end on. In this story, you don’t close with a kind of plot closure so much as emotional closure. What was your approach to the ending?

Adam Soto

Ira Glass read an excerpt from Stuart Dybek's story "We Didn't" on This American Life.

Ira Glass read an excerpt from Stuart Dybek’s story “We Didn’t” on This American Life.

The story is actually quite short, especially given how much ground it covers/ how many plot points it has. It’d be quite easy to dismiss it as choppy and distracted, difficult to hold onto. Maybe some people will. A number of years ago I listened to Stuart Dybek discuss his story “We Didn’t,” which is this beautifully repetitive, lyrical piece about two teenage lovers interrupted by a corpse just as they are about to consummate their love on a Chicago beach one night. He had this theory about narrative structure and memory that really resonated with me. Dybek stated that story, since the dawn of abstract thinking, has been a tool for passing on information, and that plot—especially traditional plot structure—is just an easy and familiar way to keep that information in order, similar to the outlines and concept maps we use when studying in school or planning for projects at work. Pretty basic structuralist argument, I suppose. But he also noted the importance rhythm and rhyme have played in passing down information, citing ancient oral traditions as perfect examples, where a kind of musical part of the brain was employed to memorize something of importance.

I think “The Box” surpasses its narratological shortcomings by way of its musicality and image-driven lyricism. From the first draft there was this unspoken thread running through, and with each revision I tried to honor it, whatever it was. The ending, to me, was letting the music take over, such that it adopted this strangely antiquated language, harkening back to something perhaps like an oral tradition. Trusting the language paid off and made it possible to conflate the body, Ebola, and the box into one as the final resting image. It made sense to end this way. The story can’t end with another death, it can’t even end with the eradication of the disease. The story’s brevity and pace and lyricism all work towards this effort to write honestly about something gratuitous in a way that isn’t gratuitous, which makes use of an age-old technique of writing about death by way of life.

Michael Noll

I know you’re working on a novel. How does this story fit into the process of writing that novel? Was this something you wrote on the side, stepping away from the novel? Or is this connected in some way–in subject or form, perhaps. I ask because novels often introduce problems that we don’t know how to solve, and I’m wondering if you were working out craft problems in this shorter form.

Adam Soto

This story was written during a vacation from the novel. My major craft issue at the time was knowing whether or not I still knew how to finish something. The novel has an ensemble structure, and these days “The Box” is worth reflecting on to see how subtle connections—a shared object, a friend of a friend, proximity—can be more moving than major plot developments. There’s probably a term for it, but people get goosebumps when strangers tell stories they can relate to—an impression they share, a concert they both attended, a really weird website no one else has ever heard of. I’m sure people have gotten married over these types of things. They’re like these internal notes we share, waiting to resonate together. In this way, I guess “The Box” is this oboe helping me tune the orchestra that is my novel.

July 2016

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


How to Use a Character’s Emotions to Hook the Reader

26 Jul
Adam Soto's story, "The Box," appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

Adam Soto’s story, “The Box,” appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

As a short story writer, one of the realities that you must accept is that your story is one of hundreds or thousands that a journal editor will read. Those editors are almost always unpaid, reading slush pile manuscripts out of a sincere devotion to short fiction—but also at night, after work, when they’re tired. When they turn to your story, they don’t rub their hands together and say, “Ah, finally, I’ve been longing to read this one.” In fact, just the opposite happens. Editors and their first readers begin to look for reasons to say no, to reject the story before finishing it because that will create time to read the many other stories in the pile.

As a writer, this is the world your story enters, and so it’s a good idea to craft your opening so that it will catch a reader’s attention—so that it will make the reader forget about all the other stories that must be read. Perhaps the best way to do this is to immediately introduce conflict. But, not all conflict is created equal. The first line, “The vampires attacked,” works only if the editor’s never read a vampire story before. The sentence contains conflict but is generic. So what if the vampires attack? Big deal, a vampire-weary editor might think. The conflict needs to become personal, and the best way to make something personal is to attach emotion to it.

This is exactly what Adam Soto does in his story, “The Box.” It appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and it follows a handcrafted box as it moves from owner to owner. As a result, each part (at least in the first half) focuses on a different character. This means that the story must hook the reader not just once but several times, each time a new character is introduced.

Here is how Soto introduces the character in the second section of the story:

The box becomes a half-Liberian, half-Belgian doctor’s laundry basket. It sits beneath her desk all winter. At night she turns on a soft paper lamp to write observational notes and letters. At some point she writes: I am sorry I came this time. I will be back before the spring. The work has always been challenging and meaningful. But now it was also selfish, she has realized. The hiccups, she writes, they will haunt me forever. In early March, she leaves. She goes to Brussels, where her husband and son are. It was not like before, she explains to a colleague over coffee, when it was only her, the work, and the long solitude of memory.

“Of course not,” he agrees, tearing open a strip of sugar, staring at the plinths of rain outside the restaurant window. “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients.”

She feels put off.

Notice how many emotional indicators are in this passage: sorrychallengingmeaningfulselfishhauntfeels put off. At this point in the story, we’re not yet clear about the nature of her work and why she finds it challenging and meaningful. But because we know how she feels about the work—about how leaving it—we’re curious to know more about it, which is the entire purpose of an opening paragraph, whether it’s at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new section.

The character’s emotional connection to her work becomes more complex when it gets reflected back at her by the colleague she meets for coffee. He says, “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients,” a statement that puts words, accurate or not, to the way the doctor is feeling. The doctor could have said, “Yes, that’s right.” But she doesn’t. She resists and “feels put off.” Now we’re curious why her emotions are mixed, why she doesn’t have a clear feeling about her actions. Again, this is a great way to hook the reader. We want to know more.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hook the reader with a character’s emotions, using “The Box” by Adam Soto as a model:

  1. Find something that your character feels strongly about. Strong, of course, is a relative term. In this case, I mean that the emotion should be worth telling someone about, which is why the passage begins with the doctor writing, “I am sorry.” This doesn’t mean that your character needs to tell someone how they feel—only that the feeling needs to be close to the skin and not buried. So, look around your character’s life. What are the big things that evoke an emotional response? Think about jobs and relationships and pivotal choices the character has made. And, what are the small things that evoke a response, arguments or dilemmas that might be forgotten in a month but which are pressing in the moment?
  2. Put your character into that moment. Show the readers your character in the midst of the conflicting emotion. Such scenes have an inherent interest to them. Think about the times you’ve seen people in coffee shops or stores or anywhere in public having an argument or clearly feeling some emotion. You can’t help but watch them. But if they’re simply telling someone, “Yesterday, I felt…” we’re less inclined to eavesdrop because the emotional state has passed. It’s more interesting to have someone actively feeling rather than having already felt.
  3. Let the character attempt to grapple with the emotion. As a rule (and you’re free to disagree), I believe it’s important to make characters as smart and self-aware as possible. Of course, some characters will be less aware than others, but when we make characters who act stupidly and blindly all of the time, the reader is tempted to feel that the story is unrealistic. If fiction partly works through readers identifying with characters, it’s good for the readers to feel that the character is as smart and self-aware as them. So, let your character try to manage or cope with the emotion he or she is feeling. Give the character mechanisms for doing so, strategies to fall back upon or the ability to consider why he or she is feeling this way. Soto does this in “The Box” with the line, “But now it is also selfish, she has realized.” This shows the character being thoughtful and giving consideration to her own feelings. As a result, the readers are more likely to buy into the story and her actions.
  4. Let the character act on the emotion. As you well know, anytime you get the feels strongly enough, you act on them. If you can forget your feelings or act as if they aren’t present, they probably aren’t that strong to begin with. Think about the small irritations that happen every day. You get wound up—but only a little. Then you move on. Don’t let your character move on. Let the character respond to the emotion. Because Soto’s doctor feels the way she does about her work, she returns home to  Brussels.
  5. Reflect the character’s feelings back at her. To do this, you can, like Soto, let the character discuss her feelings with someone else. That person then uses the good conversational strategy of repeating back what he hears. Or, you can use the “But you said,” strategy. If the action from the previous step impacts the actions and choices of others, you can have them report the results of their actions. If they’re unsatisfactory to your character, this other character can say, “But you said ____.” In short, you’re creating a real, tangible consequence for the character’s emotion: She feels ____, and so she does ___, which  means someone else does ___, which isn’t what she expected or wanted to happen.

The goal is to quickly engage the reader by showing the emotional attachment a character has the world and conflict around her.

Good luck.

An Interview with Natalia Sylvester

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

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

Natalia Sylvester was born in Lima, Peru, and came to the U.S. at age four. As a child, she spent time in south Florida, central Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas before her family set roots once again in Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Carries Their Own Water, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Natalia Sylvester

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Natalia Sylvester

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

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Natalia Sylvester

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

Michael Noll

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

Natalia Sylvester

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

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

First published in July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

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

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages.

The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book.

An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must embed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jeffrey Renard Allen

16 Jul
Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, was named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.

To read an excerpt from Song of the Shank and an exercise on stretching present action, click here.

In this interview, Allen discusses the “thick narration” of Song of the Shank, writing characters who are different from the author, and the transforming power of art.

Michael Noll

The most striking thing about the novel is its narration, which feels like stream of consciousness but isn’t, of course, because it’s written in third-person. But there is a definite narrative consciousness at work, one that sees into the characters’ heads with a kind of detached empathy but that also roams where it wants—following, for instance, a group of black Civil War soldiers through the dangerous early months after the war and back home to New York. How did you develop this narrative style?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories. At the same time, I wanted the book to feel loose in the way it moves backwards and forwards and sideways in time, although the book novel’s overall structure is carefully orchestrated.

Michael Noll

You can chalk this up to denseness on my part, but I assumed at first that Eliza was black. I caught on, of course, but it took a few pages. Then, in the second section, when I got to Tabbs, who is black, I became aware of the difficulty of the characterization that you accomplish in the novel. It’s not a secret that some, perhaps many, male writers are notoriously bad at writing female characters. And, white writers often create black characters that tend to reflect the writer’s perception of the role filled by black people (The Help) more than the reality that black people actually inhabit. Was it more difficult to write Eliza than Tabbs? Or, to generalize a bit, why do you think it’s so difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

It was not any more difficult for me to write Eliza, Perry Oliver, Seven or any of the white characters in the novel than it was for me to write Tabbs, Charity, Ruggles or any of the other black characters. And the reason why is simple: the imagination is a vehicle that carries us to that honest place where we can put ourselves into the bodies of other people. Of course, it requires a lot of hard work to create a convincing character, a person who had the entire emotional and intellectual range of felt life. That said, I might note that I did encounter one great difficulty in this novel in terms of characterization. At first I found it hard to hear my characters, to create dialogue that was both convincing and engaging for people who were alive in New York City in the 1860s.

Any good writer seeks to avoid generalization, which is both an aesthetic and moral dead-end. Instead, you must choose to be, to engage the world as it is. The long and short, I don’t think that it is difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them. Some writers knowingly or unknowingly, simply choose to embrace their privilege, which means that they must create cardboard stereotypes of people who they feel lack any agency and who are therefore in need of sympathetic white saviors.

Michael Noll

One of most fascinating details in the novel is about the Freedmen arriving in the North, the way begin talking faster than they did while in the South: “Their once slow tongues up the pace too, stumbling into strange conjoinings of consonants and vowels, a metamorphosis that Tabbs has heard seen with his own skeptical ears and eyes.” Do you recall where you learned this detail? Or, if not, how sort of things were you reading? What did your research process look w like?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

I was intrigued by the whole process of the Freedmen’s acquisition of language, this matter of freedom and literacy, as some have called it. So I read quite a number of books on this topic, numerous personal testimonials from both former slaves and from the northerners who taught them, along with historical texts. Like with most things in this novel, I tried to find appropriate but striking metaphors that could help turn fact into image, scene, illustration. But language is also a central concern in this novel where language, where words both constrict and liberate, create and destroy. After all, “Blind Tom” begins as a linguistic construction borne out of Perry Oliver’s desire to exploit Tom for financial gain. At the same time, Tom has a kind of mastery of language that knows no bounds, that no one can contain.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of this novel is several pages long. The plot is minimal. The narration requires slow reading. In other words, this is a novel that asks for (and rewards, I believe) patience on the reader’s part. As a result, it’s a novel whose value will be measured in literary terms rather than sales. So, I’m curious how you see this novel fitting into Big A, Big L American Literature. If it should win some major award (and if you imagine such an event), what do the judges say about it?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

Of course, I have high hopes for my novel. The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art might be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist. Indeed, Song of the Shank required a process of personal growth that I could not have expected when I first began writing the book more than a decade ago. I could not have written a better book.

First published in December 2014

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

How to Stretch Present Action

12 Jul
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu

7 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the Japanese folktale and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, Bat City Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

To read Nagamatsu’s story “Placentophagy” and an exercise on defamiliarizing the familiar, click here. In this interview, Nagamatsu discusses first lines, his process for outlining stories, and why realism sometimes falls short.

Michael Noll

The story starts with a solid impact: “My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.” I’m curious about the genesis of that line. For some writers, first lines simply appear and the challenge is finding the story that follows, but I know others who start with a scene or an idea and then need to find a line to kick it all off. Was this first line always present in the story?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

For me, I like to do a lot of “writing” in my head long before I actually put any words down. I knew I wanted to write a story about Placentophagy but it took another week or so of thinking about the idea to attach a grieving couple to the practice vs. the story focusing on folk medicine and celebrity mothers who have eaten their placenta (i.e. Alicia Silverstone). Once I had the grieving couple tied to pieces of folklore, I knew I had the necessary emotional tension plus the fun facts that interested me to begin writing.

I believe first lines (and first paragraphs) are crucial to pretty much any story (but especially so for flash pieces where you need to draw the reader in, provide some kind of map of what the story will be about (even if only via tone), and establish character and world building in short order. As an editor, I want a story to provide the central characters, introduce a central tension, and do something unexpected and interesting within the first few lines. Don’t reveal all your cards certainly, but I don’t believe in messing with readers too much. Give them a map of an unfamiliar town. Give the reader something they can navigate as more information is revealed.

As a writer, I don’t continue with a story until I’m satisfied with at least the first few sentences. For this story, the first lines came pretty quickly (with other stories, it can be more of a slog . . . and sometimes I’ll think I have a first line I’m happy with until I finish the story and realize my first line is actually buried somewhere else b/c, as a writer, I was navigating to a destination just askew from where I thought I was going when I started).

This question has made me revisit many of my first lines. A few from my forthcoming collection:

Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of––no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love.

Our daughter, Kaede, has returned to us five years after the police fished her out of the community pool, her body sodden and distended like the carcass of a baby seal when I identified her in the morgue.

On our wedding day, you weighed 115 lbs. When you died, you weighed 97. You are now 8.7 cups of ash, and I figure I can make enough 1:25 scale figurines of you from what you’ve left behind, so we can see the world.

Michael Noll

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is "an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original," according to Pinckney Benedict.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is “an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original,” according to Pinckney Benedict.

Backstory is crucial to the present action in this story, but it’s handled in a quick, compact line: “Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.” Again, I’m curious how much revision was required to achieve such efficiency. Many of your other stories are quite long, which would seem to require a different process than a piece of flash fiction like this.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

When I conceive of a story or a character or a place that I think could contain some kind of world, I start with sketches and summaries. For a longer short story, this might take the form of a rough synopsis. For the novel I’m working on, these sketches might take the form of bulleted points which represent important scenes within an act. I knew from the get go that Placentophagy would most likely be a flash piece, so instead of thinking about my initial sketches as guidelines to be fleshed out later, I made more of a concerted effort to make my notes resemble lines that could potentially be included in the story. The line in question was born from knowing that I needed to capture the loss of a child. Instead of noting “enter scene of miscarriage,” I immediately played around with a couple of variations that captured the essence of this plot point. In other words, when I’m writing smaller and shorter, I inhabit the atoms that make up the molecules of a larger story’s architecture. I need to capture what’s going on at that level.

Michael Noll

I love the essay-ish section about the practice of eating placentas, but I can also imagine workshop readers advocating for it to be cut—because that’s the sort of thing that workshops do. How did you approach that section so that it moved the story forward?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Whenever I become fascinated with something and consider treating the topic in a story, I tend to be cautious because there’s a real danger that I might dilute forward motion and character with unnecessary minutiae. With that said, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with tracts of reportage and “essay-ish” writing in fiction so long as 1) the conventions of the story have been firmly established to allow for such asides (esp. if they are lengthy and a bit more detached from character) and/ or  2) the momentum for characters and the overall story are not completely lost or forgotten. For this section, considering the length of the piece, I knew I would have to pick and choose a couple of interesting facts, tie them to the emotional tension of my narrator, and quickly move on. The facts in this story, while certainly stepping outside of my main character, illuminate her research, as well as her relationship to her children and to her body, so if I chose, I probably could have added a line or two more without much lost momentum.

Michael Noll

When I first read this story, it seemed like a piece of horror fiction. Then, I read some of your other work, which involves science fiction situations and characters, and it all seemed to cohere as a single vision. Horror and sci-fi are obviously different genres, but both depend, to some extent, on defamiliarizing the familiar. Is that what attracts you to these types of stories?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Defamiliarizing the familiar is something present in pretty much all fiction. But to the degree of horror and fantasy and sci-fi (and its genre-bending cousins by various names: magical realism, slipstream, fabulism), the defamiliarizing is often illuminating aspects of reality whether that be racism or rampant consumerism via what many might consider obviously unrealistic, surreal, or fantastic.

I’ve long been a fan of literature and film that forces me to suspend my disbelief, that takes me to other worlds. I love these kinds of stories because I find them entertaining and imaginative. I love these stories because the primal part of me wants to be afraid, wants to use that fear. I love these kinds of stories because they force me to consider the gadgets around me and how they factor into who I am and who I’ll be 10, 20, 50 or more years from now. To quote the title of a Chan-Wook Park film (of Oldboy notoriety): I’m a cyborg, but that’s okay.

These kinds of stories are important and increasingly necessary because we live in complex times and sometimes “realism” falls far short of what we need to comprehend how fast we are evolving, how we process information, and how we define personal, cultural, and geographic borders and spaces. What we consider fantastical fiction used to simply fall in the realm of story or religion. Our stone age ancestors needed a way to understand and process the world around them. For countries who have had to deal with colonial and post-war transitions, the fantastical has become a vehicle where the distant native past and the unhinged identities of the present intermingle. Today we’re compounding these past relationships born from colonialism and warfare with globalization and technology.

Many of my stories are set in Japan. And for me, Japan is a unique case b/c it is a country that has had to reinvent itself multiple times over a short amount of time (notably in the 1800s when there was a push to westernize and again after WWII when the country shifted from military empire to technological and commercial super power). These shifts occurred so rapidly that Japanese culture & identity couldn’t keep pace, and you’ll note that creatures of Japanese folklore often share the stage with technology or modern society gone awry in anime, showcasing the tenuous relationship between the past and present. Akira was released nearly thirty years ago but has never been more relevant for Japan and the rest of the world.

In short, I’m drawn to and write in the realm of the fantastic because, for me, they are the stories that help me navigate the many spheres constituting who we are.

First published July 2015

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

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