Archive | October, 2016

An Interview with Natashia Deón

27 Oct
Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of the novel Grace. She’s the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Feminist Wire, and You: An Anthology of Second Person Essays, among others. She has taught creative writing for Gettysburg College, PEN Center USA, and 826LA. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School.

To read an exercise on creating tension by playing against reader expectation based on Grace, click here. (If you’re in the Austin area, you can see Deón at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday at 2:00 on a panel with Yaa Gyasi.)

In this interview, Deón discusses writing in dialect, writing within genre perceptions and writing violence.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Nervous Breakdown, you quoted Walt Whitman: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” How did you find that close-to-the-ground entry to the language of the characters in your book? To my reading ear, it sounded fresh and almost contemporary, not stilted the way that some historical fiction dialogue can. What was your approach to these characters’ language?

Natashia Deón

In every writing class I had ever taken before finishing Grace, I had been taught that one of the golden rules of writing was to never write in dialect. And even though “the rules,” which otherwise seemed sound, also said that it was acceptable to deviate from these “rules,” every writing instructor, writer, speaker, who discussed language and voice always seemed to come back to that same advice: Don’t write in dialect. Or, if you do, do so sparingly. I struggled with that advice. I struggled because the voice I wanted to create for the main character, the narrator of Grace, was in dialect. For a long time, it kept me from writing at all.

Eventually, I gave myself permission. Not because someone told me yes but because I told myself yes. Every day, writers have to tell themselves yes. You are good enough. What you have to say is good enough. You matter.

Maybe it seems obvious to other writers. It wasn’t for me. And coming to that realization was a moment of freedom. But permission was only the beginning. New questions arose about dialect. For instance, I didn’t want readers to assume that my narrator’s dialect was a reflection of her intellect as people often—wrongly—assume about a southern accent. But, rather, that her language was an expression of her exposure and physical limitations. As a writer, this was one of my biggest challenges. How would she express herself if she didn’t know a word like “compete” or “busking?” If it wasn’t in her vocabulary, how would she say those words without using the word? Then I’d have her describe the word in three words or less. And here she was about to narrate the entire novel. In something like poetry.

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Maya Angelou once said, “English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.” In writing Grace, I had to decide what I wanted the language to do. In the early drafts, the dialect was much more rugged. I thought accuracy was the primary point of dialect. So the language in Grace was phonetically accurate to the time and place. And it didn’t sit well with me. As I revised, I began to understand that I was creating a language pattern, somewhere in between the past and our present use of English in the U.S. And in this new understanding, I had to make a decision about how hard I wanted readers to work, and about other craft issues like what I wanted the dialect to do. Do in the sense that everything in a scene, every word, serves the scene. If I read that there’s a fire burning in the fireplace, it needs to serve—ambiance, some future purpose, frame a moment, a thought. Usually, it does more than one thing. In the same way, my narrator’s language had to serve and not just exist on the page…accurately.

So, her language evolves in the novel as she goes on her journey, and it reaches us here in the future, blending the past and present together, which is one of the  themes in Grace. For this reason, her language softens. She learns new words, speaks differently as she’s exposed to new people, new experiences. The same way you or I would. And in this way, her language is close to the ground. It is alive. And my goal was for readers, after the first chapter or so, to read it effortlessly.

Michael Noll

In a recent New Yorker review of the film Birth of a Nation, Vinson Cunningham writes, “The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted, over and over, for the screen…This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.” He goes on to write, “Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story,” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of your book, which, of course, is a ghost story. Your novel also doesn’t strike me as “upper-middlebrow art.” And, because of Naomi’s journey out of slavery, it feels like a different approach to the “slavery genre.” How much did you try to write toward or away from the ways this type of story has been told in the past?

Natashia Deón

When I first began to write Grace, as strange as this may sound, I never set out to write a slave narrative. All of the main characters are not slaves. I saw them first as people, not defined by their station, though their station was of serious consequence.

For me, Grace is and was always a story about women. Women who are survivors, who fight valiantly, and learned to keep their dignity and humanity despite their circumstances. Women who created families of their choosing when family was withheld from them—families that were more than blood but a powerful kind of kinship. And the black people in this story, some of whom are slaves, were not only brutalized bodies or victims of a dehumanizing system, but resilient lovers, dreamers, mothers, daughters, thinkers, heroes, and more. This was always Grace. And Grace is also a slave narrative.

There is diversity even within genres, within any life, real or imagined. Freedom in Grace isn’t a place to get to. It’s not north. It’s a question that all of the characters—Black, White, Latina, and other, have to ask themselves. It’s what we all have to ask ourselves today. Is what we have right now freedom?

I am honored that Grace is included with other great books about slavery—BelovedThe Known World, and others. And because America hasn’t been out of slavery for as long as we were in it, I imagine that there are books coming in the future that will continue to give fresh eyes to this period of time. And those books, like books about baseball, won’t care how many brothers or sisters it has.

Michael Noll

The book contains some scenes that are really difficult to read: graphically-rendered murder and sexual violence. The scenes aren’t gratuitous at all. Each one is necessary and well-written, but I also wonder if you worried about losing readers. To paragraph a character from the novel, not all women have the same sort of strong, and not all readers have the same capability for reading scenes and stories like these. Did you think at all about how to keep readers turning the page in the midst or after such scenes?

Natashia Deón

Yes, I worried about losing readers. But not when I was writing it. I wanted to stay true to the story, to the things that have haunted me in dealing with violence in real life. Our country, our world, is a violent place. We live in a society where even death and the dead are removed from our sight at once. And most of us are blessed to be removed from those realities and the realities of violence, except for occasional episodes in our lives, or what we see on our computer, phone or television screens. I say this because almost all of the descriptions of violence in Grace are details of real life cases I haven’t been in a position to look away from as an attorney, a friend, family member, etc. The violence in Grace was my response to the quintessential command: Write what you know. The violence rings true because it is true. Of course, fictionalized. But I didn’t want to hold back in creating. I was asking readers to trust me to get them through it. I wanted to be trustworthy, for my narrator to be trustworthy. It was a gamble. A choice. And in the end, I wrote the book that I wanted to read, that I felt compelled to write, that I felt readers were ready and mature enough to hear. One that was honest in every way that it could be.

October 2016

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

How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense

25 Oct
A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “Her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Anton Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in the third act. This is good advice, of course, but it’s also pretty bare-bones. So much remains unaccounted for: Who gets shot? Who does the shooting, and why? Is the shooting on purpose or accident? Is it done out of rage, necessity, pity? Does the reader root for the shooting or against it? That final question can be one of the most powerful to answer. Writers sometimes talk about giving readers what they want, but it can be just as effective to give readers something they absolutely do not want.

This is what Natashia Deón does in her novel Grace. You can read an excerpt from the novel at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel tells the story of an escaped slave, Naomi, who finds refuge in a brothel in Georgia, taken under the protective wing of its madam, Cynthia. At least that’s part of the novel. There’s more, but the scene I want to focus on takes place in the brothel. It’s not a nice place, of course, but Cynthia is a strong, complex character who realizes that Naomi is still a virgin. That virginity becomes a kind of amulet in Cynthia’s eyes, freighted with meaning and importance and luck, which is good news for Naomi since it frees her from the obligations of the other women in the brothel.

Into this scene walks Jeremy, a likable gambler who flirts with Naomi (despite the fact that he’s white and she’s black) and whom she falls in love with. Are we more savvy than Naomi? Do we see where this affair is headed? Of course, we do. But Jeremy is also sweet and sincere, and so, if we can’t hope for the best, we’re lulled into dropping our guard, the same as Naomi. And then…

In this scene, Jeremy has lost every penny to his name and is begging Naomi to offer herself to the house dealer in exchange for money—which he will use to win back his losses. She reluctantly agrees to do it:

I stand on the wrong side of this door with my belly quivering, waiting for Mr. Shepard to greet me. He’s counting his money, slipping bills through his pinchers. He folds a wad of dollars and slides it through a silver clasp and into his pocket.

I shift in the doorway, hope he see me move.

He don’t.

He lops a deck of cards in his bag, his dice, then fastens it closed. I clear my throat. “Uh-hum,” I say softly. Louder, “Uh-hum?”

“Didn’t know y’all served breakfast,” he say, and stacks his chips in piles on his table, then sits down. “You here for my order?

No one wants this moment to take place. Naomi doesn’t want to have sex with the dealer, and he recognizes the situation for what it is. As readers, we definitely don’t want the scene to happen, yet the characters begin to go through with it anyway. First, Mr. Shepard says, “Twenty years and I’ve seen hundreds of gals like you.” When she doesn’t leave, he becomes more aggressive:

He puts his hand gently behind my head. I shiver as he kisses my cheek softly. Only Jeremy’s kissed me there. That way.

He slaps it. Grabs my face around my cheeks, squeezing too hard.

It gets worse before he finally calls out the situation for what it is: “Your boyfriend want a chance that bad?” he asks and then:

He clutches my ass, presses his face on the side of mine. I flatten to the door as he breathes in my ear, telling me things I don’t want to hear. Telling me about me. About Jeremy. Nasty things I won’t tell nobody.

He unlocks it, pushes me out the door, tells me to go.

The scene ends the way we hope: she doesn’t have sex with him. But it’s hardly a moment that makes us feel good. Instead, we feel like Naomi: “Withered away” and “nasty.” The novel has met our hopes as readers: Naomi has been spared. But it also brought us to face-to-face with the thing we hoped wouldn’t happen, so close that the very nearness of it affects us. This is an important strategy to remember for creating suspense (will the horrible thing happen?), but it’s also a good example of using Chekhov’s gun. This is a novel where a lot of guns, literally and figuratively, go off. If they always go off, they become less effective as narrative devices. If the worst thing always happens, we become immune to it. We reflexively deaden ourselves to it. But if we’re given evidence that perhaps the worst thing can be avoided, then the impact of the fired bullet is that much greater, even if we knew it was coming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a gun on the wall and make readers dread its use, using Grace by Natashia Deón as a model:

  1. Choose your weapon. In Grace, the weapon is prostitution. Naomi lives in a brothel, and so the risk of being forced to have sex for money is ever-present. The fact that it’s sex and not a gun is a good reminder that Chekhov’s gun can be anything. It could be peanuts—if a character has a peanut allergy. Anything is dangerous if placed in the right circumstances. So, what are the circumstances of your story? What is dangerous or feared?
  2. Pave a path past the weapon. Deón does this twice. First, she creates Cynthia, the madam with the heart of gold (sort of, not exactly), who tries to protect Naomi from participating in her trade. (Incidentally, for a similar character who does the complete opposite, read Alexander Chee’s excellent novel The Queen of the Night.) Second, she creates Jeremy, the suitor who will take her away from the place where the weapon hangs on the wall. Note that Deón offers two characters to guide Naomi down the safe path. Who are those characters in your story? You don’t necessarily need two, but you probably need one.
  3. Make readers buy into the path to safety. This can be a fine line to tread. If you show the path but readers don’t think it’s a plausible direction for the story, they’ll feel like the writer is trying to trick them. But convince readers to go down the path with the characters, and you’ll devastate them when they find themselves facing the gun again. So, take your time. Develop the characters you created in the previous step. Make them likable. (Hint: great characters mix likability with failure, for various reasons, to do the right thing at the right time.)
  4. Stick the character and the readers into a situation they hope to avoid.  Find a place or situation where the weapon you chose is impossible to avoid. To return to Chekhov’s gun metaphor, take your character to the shooting range. This could mean a place where the weapon naturally resides or where it’s use is provoked by a character (as Naomi tries to provoke Mr. Shepard into having sex with her). The trick, of course, is to find the entry to such a place and situation. Deón does this by having one character push the protagonist into doing something she doesn’t want (a version of the age-old “If you really loved me”). So, find a character who, for nefarious or practical reasons, pushes the main character into the dangerous situation.
  5. Sell the readers on the danger. Just as readers feel cheated by safe paths that don’t feel plausible, they also get angry at dangers that don’t feel real. In a successful scene of this type, the reader needs to feel that the gun might really go off, that, in fact, there is a better-than-50-percent-chance that it will.

The goal is to create tension and suspense by thinking beyond the gun on the wall to what the viewer hopes will happen (or not) with the gun.

Good luck.

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

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

An Interview with Laurie Stone

20 Oct
Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press. October 2016), the novel Starting with Serge (Doubleday), and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, “has an intelligence rare in contemporary American fiction,” according to Jeffrey Renard Allen.

Laurie Stone is the author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, the novel Starting with Serge, and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark. She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

To read an exercise on using backstory to create drama in the present based on My Life as an Animal, click here.

In this interview, Stone discusses her approach to truth and fiction in “stories,” jump cuts, and why talk of therapeutic writing sends her to the bar.

Michael Noll

My Life as an Animal is subtitled stories, and I’m curious about that. The narrator has your name, and Richard and Andre Glaz (two of the most important characters in these stories) both appear in “Tangled,” an essay you published in Joyland, (I found that essay because, in the book, you tell the reader to google André Glaz, and so I did!) So, I’m assuming that the book, which is fiction, is based in large part on your own life. I’m not interested so much in what is true and what has been invented. Instead, I’m curious about the decision to fictionalize. It’s one that I think a lot of essayists and memoirists face. What made you decide to write these as stories instead of essays? What was your approach?

Laurie Stone

I am delighted you read the piece in Joyland. First, I’d like to speak about the way I view literary genres in relationship to my work. Pretty much everything I write these days is a story. The pieces in this book and elsewhere are dramatic narratives. I would say this of much of my criticism as well, such as a long appreciation I wrote about Spalding Gray published in American Theatre. The piece is a monologue about Gray, a story. It’s not about me, and yet it reflects the elements in Gray’s work and life that quickened my thoughts. That is what I am interested in communicating. What I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary or ordinarily strange. My work incorporates elements of fiction (scenes, dialogue, the build-up of dramatic revelations, etc.), memoir (some of the stuff described happened in some form or other), criticism (my narrators enjoy thinking about art and politics), and nonfiction (some of the reporting is journalistically verifiable).

I do not consciously “fictionalize” events. In literature, I am not especially interested in things that happened because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find dramatic. It might be the relationship I had with André Glaz, a psychoanalyst I saw in treatment who, during my teenage years, took me into his bed. Or it might be driving in Scottsdale’s soul-crushing heat to buy a $5 Ikea rug from a woman about to return to Kolkata. The term “essay” does not apply to my work generally. I don’t seek to convey meaning or understandings. I hope I am staging little provocations for the reader to react to anyway the reader wishes.

I do not believe circumstances are intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Narrators create interest by their passionate investment in the story they are telling. They do this by layering in two time frames. Something happens, the narrator reports a response at the time it happened, and the narrator also looks back and weighs in on the incident now—at the time of the telling—whether the look back is five minutes later or 20 years later. The reader attaches to a story the reader can enter as if the story is about the reader. The less the narrator asks for something from the reader, i.e. feel my feelings, share my understandings, love my friends, hate my enemies, sentence my parents or siblings or lover to death, etc., the more room readers have to feel their own emotions.

The stories are constructed through language, not memory. I write at the level of the sentence. I sit there, looking at the doors and windows a sentence has opened for the sentence that can follow, and so on. I do not write with a plan. I do not know where a story is going ahead of time. There is no prewriting. It all happens in the moment of looking at the words. To get back to your interest in André, I return to him over and over because he stirs contradictions that can’t be resolved. Those are the stories I want to read and write.

Michael Noll

You play with chronology quite a bit. The first story takes place after many of the stories that follow it. In “Leaving Gardner,” the chronology is continually scrambled, with the narrator describing Gardner’s death and them jumping to a time before it and then after it. What was your sense for when to use straight chronology and when some other element made it less important?

Laurie Stone

I start with a dramatic moment and look at it from as many perspectives as I can. I do not know of a story worth its salt that proceeds chronologically. We think associatively. If I am listening to a person tell a story, and they start with getting up and listing what they had for breakfast before getting on the bus where they found themselves next to a lost child who could not speak, I move away for a drink long before learning there was a diamond clasped in the child’s grimy paw.

Michael Noll

Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

On a similar note, one of the things I love about your stories is your ability to jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic with incredible speed and while maintaining a clear sense of direction. I was particularly struck by a passage in “Toby Dead” that jumped from Nebraska City to Gertrude Stein and William James and then to the narrator’s family. How many of these asides and jumps were trimmed or cut from the manuscript? What’s your measure for how far you can stray or jump from the main thread of a story?

Laurie Stone

I am glad you commented on the jump cuts in the texts. I use a number of techniques shared with film and visual art, among them montage, fades, collage, bricollage, etc. The sections you refer to are not “asides.” For there to be “asides,” there would need to be a central intention. Nothing was cut or edited out because it was extraneous. I cut when a sentence is repetitious, obvious, or clichéd. If you feel there is a dramatic build-up in the stories, and I hope you do, it comes from adding complexity or switching from direction A (melancholy in separateness) to direction B (ecstasy in solitude). I hope connections for the reader will jump across the border between one thing placed beside another thing . . . the way we understand what is happening from montage in film . . . a shot of a cat in an open door, the next shot of a mouse behind the leg of a chair. I wonder what you felt reading the example you gave. Having put those bits together experimentally, I can offer this reading now: the narrator of “Toby Dead,” who is caring for a mother she does not actively love, expresses her ease with abjection in two anecdotes of disappointment and entrapment. The juxtapositions are also funny, I hope. As often as possible, I am looking to find comedy in weird, cruel, and sad moments.

Michael Noll

The story “André” is about a difficult, awful subject: the narrator’s sexual assault by the psychoanalyst André Glaz. The trauma is clear in how the piece is written. For example, the narrator tries to describe the way that Glaz has stayed with her for years and says, “He formed me. Not really.” Then she tries out a few other descriptions that don’t quite seem to capture what she feels. And yet I was also struck by how sympathetic your portrayal of Glaz was. For example, you write that the narrator read two articles Glaz had written and was “surprised by their sensitivity.” What was your approach to the character of Glaz? It would be easy and justified in portraying him as a monster, but he comes off as something more complex. Was that difficult to achieve?

Laurie Stone

There would be no story unless André was complex, and I think readers would lose interest in a one-dimensional character. He must have had something compelling in his personality to seduce so many people, albeit naïve and striving ones. It is not emotionally difficult for me to write complexity into a character. If trauma gives you a subject over and over, let’s raise a glass to trauma. When people speak of writing as cathartic or therapeutic, I am off to the bar for another drink. Mel Brooks says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and I’ll go with that. When I’m working, I think, “Okay, if there are no heroes and no victims . . . what does that leave?” I have to be on guard against flashing and showing off—asking the reader to look at me and like me. For me the hard thing to re-experience over and over is Gardner’s death. That section is clinical and listy, and yet for me the most wrenching. The rest of this book, honestly, is a bunch of sentences.

October 2016

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

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

18 Oct
Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, and the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.

A great example of this type of internal conflict can be found in Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, new from Northwestern University Press. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Story Works

The book is a collection of stories, the term that Stone uses to describe her fictions that often use material from her life. (Read about that definition in the interview on Thursday.)  One of the stories in the book, André, revolves around the sexual assault that the main character suffered, when she was 14, at the hands of her psychoanalyst, a man named André. Her reaction to the traumatic event was a kind of dissociation:

Have you ever left your body? People talk about this happening during trauma. Maybe it is a throwback to our chimpy past, when the endangered primate searched for a tree to climb into at the sound of pounding hooves. I looked down at a girl in a blue cardigan with her arms by her sides.

Many years later, she tells the story of this assault at a dinner party, and a man at the party has this reaction:

The man had been quiet until André was mentioned. He had intense eyes and an enigmatic smile. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his work as a landscape gardener. We were drinking margaritas and eating chips. Sailboats raced outside the windows, and I looked around my friend’s peaceful loft with its large, abstract paintings, couches by a window, a coffee table made from an old, green door. I was on a stool and once or twice rubbed my shoulder. The man said, “Can I give you a massage? I have studied massage.” I said, “Okay.” My mother used to say, “Nothing is free.” I did not want her to be right. The man stood too close as he worked on my neck. Softly, he said, “Does it feel good?” I said, “Yes.” He kept working. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like him. His hands were soothing. He was silent for a while and then he said, “Can I kiss your shoulder. These shoulders don’t know they are loved.” I did not want the kiss. I thought he was ugly. I said, “Okay,” and I felt his lips, cool and quick, on my skin.

That night in bed Richard said, “Why did you let him kiss you?” I said, “It felt easier than saying no.’

There is a lot to be learned here about men’s behavior and consent, of course, but the scene also reveals something important about craft: A character’s behavior becomes a lot more interesting and suspenseful if must choose between competing desires. In this case, she wants to be left alone but also wants to avoid a confrontation. The result is that the scene becomes less predictable. There are several different ways it could have gone. The narrator could have slapped the man or told him to get his hands off of her, and it would have made sense. She could have begun crying or stormed out of the room. In short, the narrator’s actions depend on which desire she chooses to act on (to be left alone or to avoid confrontation).

Because the choice between those desires is so difficult, the story becomes about the choice itself (and the stress involved in making it) rather than the action that follows. The narrator alludes to that stress shortly after this scene ends when she says, in one of the best lines of the book, “Suffering does not ennoble people. Suffering mostly crushes people.” The description that leads up to this statement is alone worth the price of the book. And, it’s possible because of the way Stone creates the narrator’s internal conflict.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create competing desires within a character, using “André” from My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone as a model:

  1. Give your character a critical event. In My Life as an Animal, Stone uses the abuse by the psychoanalyst. It’s an event that hangs over the narrator for the rest of her life, coloring the way she understands herself and others. Because the narrator is so complex and well drawn, this critical event doesn’t entirely explain her character, and that is important. Characters who can be distilled to a single event too completely risk becoming flat and unrealistic. So, the event shouldn’t define your character, but it should be an inextricable part of your character. For your own character, consider what memory he or she returns to, loves, or dreads. What past event keeps the character up at night or gets told to others again and again?
  2. Jump forward in time to a similar situation. The situation can be exactly the same or vaguely similar; in My Life as an Animal, the narrator is receiving unwanted attention from a man, and the kind of attention is similar but of a different degree. But the situation can also be similar only from the character’s perspective. In real life, we tend to use our own critical events as yardsticks for much of what happens around us. So, the critical event and present situation may seem totally different to one character but similar to another. The point is that the present situation makes your character feel the same—or in a similar way—as she did in the critical event.
  3. Give the character a desire related to that situation. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s desire is pretty simple: to be left alone, not harassed. The desire can also be small. For example, some people avoid certain foods (oranges, chives, etc) because they once had a negative experience with them (getting sick). As a result, they live their lives with the ongoing desire to avoid those foods. The desire can also be a positive one. If someone had a good experience in the past, he or she might actively seek out similar experiences.
  4. Give the character an expected way to act on that desire. You’re simply following the logic of the desire. If a character wants to avoid oranges, she’ll behave in predictable ways: avoiding certain aisles in the grocery store or never eating breakfast in a restaurant. How does your character usually act on his or her desire?
  5. Create another desire that, if acted upon, has the opposite effect of the previous action. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator also wants to avoid confrontation with the man who is bothering her. She’s at a party and doesn’t want to make a scene. As a result, she allows the man to give her a massage and kiss her even though it runs contrary to her deep desire to be left alone. To a certain degree, she’s also bombarded with mixed feelings about the man. He’s ugly and creepy, but her shoulders do hurt and his “hands were soothing.” So, place your character in a particular place and time with particular people. What else is going on in that moment? What else does the character want (to avoid making a scene, to relax her shoulders)? These desires don’t need to be inherently contrary to the first desire you created, but the actions that result from them should work against that first desire.
  6. Let the character choose. Generally speaking, drama requires release. A scene builds and builds, and readers wonder what will happen. So, what will your character choose?

The goal is to create a scene by exploring the ways that a past event creates desires that can or cannot be acted upon in the present.

Good luck.

An Interview with Leona Theis

13 Oct
Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.

To read an exercise on making characters represent a place or group based on Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” click here.

In this interview, Theis discusses writing about internal conflict in the midst of external drama.

Michael Noll

A lot of the action in the story happens off the page. The scenes seem to focus instead on the interactions and moments that happen in the wake of that off-page drama. I was particularly struck at how the story avoided certain storylines. For example, the drama that’s built on Lisa and Dave’s relationship is an important part of the story, but it remains secondary to what’s going on with Sylvie. Another writer might have made it a much bigger part of the story: what will Lisa do? What will Sylvie do? Those questions are present, but they’re kept to a lower register. In the same way, there is a developing romance with Will that gets folded into all of the other stuff going on in the story. As a result, one could call this a love story, but that wouldn’t feel quite right, I don’t think. When you were working on this story, what was your sense of what kind of story it was? Was there a tag that you placed on it in your mind? Like, “this is my love story” or “this is my yoga story”?

Leona Theis

I never did think of this as “a yoga story” or a “love story”. My process in developing a story or an essay is almost always exploratory for the first few drafts, and that was the case with this one even more than usual. It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of. Once I’d decided what the story was about, I rewrote it several (in fact, many) times, hoping to make all the parts of it work together to make that drama felt.

I wrote this story to stand on its own, but I couldn’t leave Sylvie alone, and eventually it became the second chapter in a novel-in-stories called “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives.” (I’m just about to query agents about it now.) The story of Sylvie and Jack, which is, as you say, “off the page” here, plays out in the story that precedes this one. (That story, “High Beams”, appeared a couple of years ago in The Journey Prize Stories 26, in Canada.)

Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

The tension between Lisa and Dave is apparent in “How Sylvie Failed…,” as is Sylvie’s response to it, but I didn’t put much of the actual, physical goings-on between those two on the page, as this is a story about Sylvie. The drama I was most interested in delving into was happening inside her. She’s trying on different versions of herself and hasn’t yet come to realize that life is serious business. She’s reaching for some idea of cool, and, naively, she half thinks she’s already achieved it. But she’s yet to take a deep look at anything in life, which is one reason the yoga experience baffles her so. She’s terribly self-absorbed, a person tasting things to see how she likes them, to see what will satisfy her. Even her relationship with Will is less a love story and more another angle on Sylvie trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. I love her and I forgive her faults, because she’s young, and a slow learner.

Michael Noll

How did you approach pacing the steps that lead to Sylvie and Will’s increasing closeness?

Leona Theis

I don’t remember much about how I arrived at the pacing of the increasing closeness between Sylvie and Will. I suspect that that part of the process was intuitive, and when the pacing to do with that continued to feel right draft after draft, I knew not to mess with it.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the story is the description of one of Lisa’s friends when Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

I love this line because it clearly describes the guy and also the time and place. Did this line just appear on the page one day, or did you have to revise your way toward it?

Leona Theis

I’m happy that you liked the line about the guy in the quilted vest saying, “Far out.” That line was one of those gifts that comes out fully formed when a writer manages to transport herself to a time and place she remembers well, when she can hear the characters’ voices without straining.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the editors at American Short Fiction, Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits for their fine editing. Also, Elizabeth McCracken for selecting my story for the prize.

October 2016

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

How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

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