Archive | December, 2016

An Interview with Sam Allingham

22 Dec
Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, Epoch, n+1, The Millions, and Full Stop, among other publications. He currently lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University.

To read an exercise on not over-explaining characters’ behavior based on Allingham’s story “Stockholm Syndrome,” click here.

In this interview, Allingham discusses his story “Stockholm Syndrome” and openings that don’t focus on main characters, explaining only what is necessary, and writing characters with desire in cold worlds.

Michael Noll

There is so much misdirection in this story, though it doesn’t feel that way at the time. For example, the story begins with the blind man and his wife, but they’re not really central characters. They exist in large extent as something for other characters to comment on. There’s also Valerie’s old boyfriend, a character who is entirely off page but who plays a significant role in how we understand the action and world of the story. Because (I think) of both of these sets of characters, I was absolutely bowled over by the ending—stunned. I did not see it coming. Did you? How early into the draft did you know where the story as headed?

Sam Allingham

The opening scene, like so many of my openings, was written as a set piece: I had no idea who the characters were, or whether any of them were going to be central to the story. I don’t subscribe to the concept that an opening ought to focus entirely on the principal characters; to me, it’s more about establishing mood and perspective—in this case, Valerie’s tentative, somewhat apologetic attitude toward the world. She wants to know people intimately, and yet her past experiences have made this difficult. In a sense, every character within the story—whether metadiegetic, like the characters from Valerie’s research, or biographical, like Thomas—are ultimately about trying to understand Valerie’s relationship to trauma. The opening was about me learning about her: what will her observation of this couple come to represent for her?
By the time of her initial dinner with Thomas, I knew Valerie pretty well—I knew that if Thomas invited her to visit, she would come. And I’d already decided that Thomas was a master manipulator, so the ending didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Really, Valerie already knows, too—she’s already seen the way that Thomas’ charm is actually about hiding his true face from the world. But by this point she’s too emotionally invested in him to let herself see.
What did come as a surprise was the use of the Fritzl case, which was coming out more or less as I wrote the piece. So, being a magpie, I slotted it in.

Michael Noll

This is a story that begs explanation: What’s going on with Leigh Anne? What does she think is going on? Why does Thomas act the way he does? What do all those women at the end think? By the end of the story, I’m able to answer these questions part way—but not completely. How did you know how much to reveal or suggest and how much you could get away with keeping inaccessible and mysterious?

Sam Allingham

My basic rule is that you only have to explain the things that aren’t a mystery to your ordering perspective: in this case, Valerie. She doesn’t know Leigh Anne, and so Leigh Anne remains unexplained. Ditto Thomas: the reader is forced to judge him through Valerie’s (admittedly) unreliable eyes. I guess I trust my readers to fill in the blanks. As I said before, the story is really about Valerie: the way her perspective tricks her into mis-seeing the world, by overlaying her own trauma onto Thomas.

Michael Noll

When was “Stockholm Syndrome” written relative to the other stories in the collection? It feels of a piece in terms of the characters and their preoccupations, but it’s formally quite different from, say, “Rodgers and Hart” and “One Hundred Characters.” Were those stories (or “Stockholm Syndrome”) written to try out a different style, or did the style reveal itself as you wrote?

Sam Allingham

Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

Funnily enough, those three stories were more or less contemporaneous. I write in two modes: shorter, lighter, and more linguistically experimental stories, and longer, darker, more narrative pieces. The shorter ones are usually constrained, stylistic experiments. With a piece like “One Hundred Characters,” for example, I was primarily interested in seeing if it was possible to maintain a reader’s interest without offering any narrative beyond a list of one hundred characters; with “Rodgers and Hart” I was interested in seeing if a series of comparisons could be a story. With the longer stories, I’m generally interested in investigating one character’s psychology, or sometimes two: the monomaniacal builder in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” for example, and the narrator who serves as his recorder.

Michael Noll

The book is blurbed by Dan Chaon, a writer whose work exudes the Lovecraftian belief that the world cannot be understood except that it a) doesn’t care about you and b) might be actively hostile to you. So many of the stories in this book resist closure and conclusion. By the end of “Stockholm Syndrome,” I felt as though I were hurtling into the abyss. “Rodgers and Hart” is about a relationship that will never be fully realized. “One Hundred Characters” takes a very long-distance view of its world, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ash” has a character whose motivations remain utterly shrouded even at the end. For this, I love these stories, the same as I love Dan Chaon’s work. But these stories also have a kind of warmth, a promise of hope and connection, that I’m not sure always exists in Chaon’s work. In stories, the world is cold, but the characters are hot, filled with desire. I’m curious how you navigate your way through your work. Do you start with the characters and their desire and then frustrate it with the disregard (or hostility) of the world? Or do you start with the cold world and drop into it characters full of desire?

Sam Allingham

Dan was my advisor as an undergrad, and a wonderful teacher. It’s funny, his novels (and later stories) can be extremely Lovecraftian, but I tend to think there’s human connection in his world, too. His second collection, Among the Missing, was a big influence on me, because it contains so many stories of people who are actively enduring tragedy and suffering, even in the face of a nearly supernatural sense of doom. I mean, my general sense is that most people, at some point in their lives, press up against the limits of what life offers them, or have life press forcibly against them in some traumatic way. For the narrator in “Tiny Cities,” his friend’s construction of a model version of their town comes to stand in for the way his own family has become somewhat trapped in the real town of Elverton; for Cheryl, this comes when her mother takes her father’s place (and clothes) after his death. I suppose I always try to put people in conflict with the limits of their world – which is probably why I tend to write female characters as much (or more) than men; women, in my experience, tend to be much, much more aware of the ways in which the world is out to restrict their free thought and action.
This is all probably a long-winded way of saying that for me, desire is always delimited by the coldness of the world, and the way it restricts our actions. That’s what makes it desire!

December 2016

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

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How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

20 Dec
Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

A good example of how less-is-more can drive a story forward can be found in Sam Allingham’s story, “Stockholm Syndrome.” It was originally published in Epoch and is included in his debut collection The Great American Songbook.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman, Betty, who has come out of an abusive relationship with a man named Will. Most of the story takes place after the relationship has ended, when she works in a coffee shop with a magnetic, mysterious barista, Thomas, that she has a crush on. The foundation for how she interacts with this new guy and what happens next is that early relationship. Here’s one scene from that backstory:

But then there was the rest stop, just after they crossed into Idaho. When they passed through the double doors and passed the crane machine to Roy Rogers, he grabbed her arm and held her close, as if he was afraid of losing her—as if she might disappear into the crowd and leave him behind. She remembers wanting to whisper, You don’t need to hold so tight. He looked so sad in those days, pale and skinny in his Smiths T-shirt. You could see in his eyes this overwhelming need for love.

When she went to pay, she found that her wallet was missing.

“You dropped it on the floor of the car,” he spoke from behind her shoulder. “Lucky I picked it up.”

He took out her money and paid for them both.

It’s good I have Will around to remember things, she often told people. I’m so absent-minded.

The end of this scene packs a punch because we, the readers, understand the flaw in her thinking. We know she’s being manipulated. We’re worried about his “overwhelming need for love” and pick up on the gross detail about him paying for them both with her money. Naturally, we wonder why she doesn’t pick up on these things, too. After all, it’s her story. We get inside her head. We trust her perspective. If this story was being workshopped, someone might ask, “Why doesn’t she see what he’s doing?” and then trot out that dreaded statement: “I want to see more of this relationship.”

The problem is that showing more of the relationship won’t explain why Betty didn’t recognize what Will was doing (or didn’t admit to herself that she recognized it). It’s like when I’m searching the refrigerator for something and can’t find it. Then, my wife comes over and finds it immediately. “How did you not see it?” she’ll ask. I don’t know. I just didn’t. There’s no explaining it.

In “Stockholm Syndrome,” explaining why Betty doesn’t see through Will would ruin the story. So, Allingham doesn’t try. Instead, he does something much more interesting. Here’s the beginning of the next scene (after a space break):

Betty doesn’t really know Thomas’ girlfriend, Leigh Anne. Nobody at the shop does. She never comes in; when she does come to meet Thomas, she calls in advance and has him meet her in a health food store a few blocks away, where Thomas says she buys her tinctures and herbal supplements. Leigh Anne has a number of health problems that Thomas can never quite explain, problems that make it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Taken on its own, without context, this description of Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship might sound a little off, but coming as it does after Will’s manipulation of Betty, this passage rings some pretty clear warning bells. Allingham drives this home with a bit of dialogue from another coffee shop worker:

It’s sweet of Thomas to take care of Leigh Anne like that,” Valerie says. “A lot of people would have let somebody like that drop.”

Instead of explaining Betty’s own relationship, Allingham drops her into a situation where something similar seems to be happening. The question becomes, “What will she do?” In short, the important question to answer is not “Why did she do that?” but “What will she do next?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the reader ask “What will she do next?” using “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham as a model:

  1.  Give your character a blind spot. What does the character not see that others recognize? Betty doesn’t see (or doesn’t admit) that she’s being manipulated by Will. Shakespeare did this constantly: Othello and Macbeth don’t see some pretty significant things. For them, this blindness is a so-called fatal flaw, but the blind spot doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a bad ending. Most romantic comedies are also built around blind spots: everyone knows the two characters are meant to be—except the two characters. What does your character not recognize?
  2. Juxtapose the thing and the blindness. Allingham does this with the wallet scene, following Will’s manipulative actions immediately with Betty’s thoughts: It’s good I have Will around to remember things…I’m so absent-minded. Putting these so closely together highlights the blind spot. So, find a clear scene that contains both the thing that is not seen and the character not seeing it.
  3. Don’t belabor this juxtaposition. Drop it on the reader and then get out. Allingham literally gets out of the scene with a space break.
  4. Put the blind character in a situation with someone else who is blind in the same way. Betty sees a similar situation in Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship, but she’s not blind to it because it’s not happening to her. The trick to making this work is laying out the situation clearly so that everyone understands the connections. Don’t be subtle or sly. In fact, don’t be afraid to drive home the connection, as Allingham does with Valerie’s dialogue. He makes Valerie blind in the same way that Betty was blind in the earlier scene—or so it seems.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a character to act. It’s like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If a character has been fooled or blinded in the past, he or she will naturally want to get it right the next time around. The question becomes, what will the character do this time—and is the character actually seeing things more clearly now?

Good luck.

An Interview with John Pipkin

15 Dec
John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer's Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the novels Woodsburner and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Pipkin attended Washington & Lee University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received his Ph.D. in British Literature from Rice University. He was an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Rhetoric at Boston University before moving to Austin, where he served as the Executive Director of the Writers’ League of Texas. Currently, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern University, where he teaches literature and creative writing, and he also teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  Pipkin has received research and writing fellowships from the Harry Ransom Center,  the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program, and the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and son.

To read an excerpt from Pipkin’s novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter and an exercise on building suspense, click here.

In this interview, Pipkin discusses outlining to prepare for the moment that inspiration strikes, titles, and capturing a historical language and rhythm.

Michael Noll

I loved The Blind Astronomer’s Novel in large part for the same reason I love Andrea Barrett’s work, because it explores the hopes and fears that we attach to scientific discovery, reminding us of how essential these discoveries are to our sense of the world and ourselves. In some ways, the novel is held together by the theme/metaphor/idea of stars and heavenly bodies. In almost every chapter, they play a practical role (a physical element in the story) but also a larger one. All of the characters, in some fashion or another, imbue the stars and other heavenly bodies with meaning. There’s the expected stuff: People calling comets “evidence of a God whose works are as magnificent as they are mysterious” or worrying that they’re harbingers of doom. And there’s the more personal: the question of who gets to name comets, which is important in a novel in which lineage is muddled. And that’s just in one chapter. The characters also use the heavenly bodies to give meaning to the things on Earth, like Finn being described as “pale as the crescent moon.” I could go on and on. How much of the attachments that characters give to the stars did you anticipate, and how much was discovered in writing the characters?

John Pipkin

Thanks for referencing Andrea Barrett, whose work I greatly admire. Her short story, “The English Pupil,” (a truly amazing story) is an outstanding example of how historical fiction can use history as a means of accessing the deeper questions of what it means to be human and to pursue ambitions at the cost of all else, (and it raises the more existential questions of whether or not a life spent in pursuit of noble goals will result in meaningful satisfaction or regret.)

The short answer to your question is that it was always my intention to have astronomical and scientific imagery serve both a structural function and a thematic function (as relates to the characters’ pursuits) from the very first draft of the story. But of course I didn’t think of all of these connections at the beginning, and this is one of the reasons why I outline obsessively (and continue to re-outline as I write), so that I have a framework in place to be ready for the accidental discoveries of thematically connected imagery when it occurs in the writing process. Louis Pasteur is credited with saying that “chance only favors the well-prepared,” (there are several different versions of this) and I think that’s absolutely true when it comes to writing a novel-length narrative. You have to be prepared for spontaneity, or it will slip through your fingers. I think a lot of beginning writers tend to hear the word “outline” and shudder; they immediately think of something restrictive or limiting—something rigid that dictates what will happen at every point in the story—but I think that a good outline is an organic framework that is actually liberating and makes it possible for a writer to be able to take advantage of spontaneous discoveries when they occur. In a day of writing, a dozen different thematic connections might arise (if it’s a good day and I’m lucky), but only the accidental ideas that actually fit the narrative make it into the story. So having a thematic outline helps to keep the narrative focused by weeding out what doesn’t belong, and it also keeps me prepared for the accidental discoveries when they come along.

The same is true of the structural role that the interconnected imagery plays in holding the narrative together; novels are unwieldy things, and a writer needs to be able to find an architecture to support the narrative without suffocating the characters under over-zealous plotting. Here again, having a thematic outline helps identify the scenes and transitions where a thematic connection (when it arises in the writing process) can serve to help bind the scenes together. (Yes, I think of blank spaces in the outline as being just as important a part of the outline as the places that are filled in from the start.) So, when I say that all of the thematic and metaphorical connections throughout the novel were intentional from the start, that’s true, but I didn’t know what all of those connections would be when I started. In that way, writing really is like exploring a thematic continent that you’ve partially mapped in advance; you have a pretty good idea of where you are going and where you want to arrive, but you don’t yet know everything about the terrain you’re planning to traverse.

Michael Noll

Many writers dread coming up with titles, but you invent one for every chapter in the book. I can imagine this starting out easy and then becoming more challenging as you get into the middle of the book. Were the chapter titles difficult to create? Did you write them after the chapter itself was written or earlier in the process, using them as an organizing tool?

John Pipkin

The chapter titles did not appear until the last major revision of the manuscript, four years after I started. The titles were among some of the last things that I wrote, and, in fact, I had not even planned to give titles to the chapters at all. The decision to give the chapters titles has everything to do with what I was describing in the previous answer—that in writing a novel length narrative, you have to be open to make use of a variety of techniques to help tie the story together. There are several different stories, subplots, and interwoven themes in The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, and even though I am drawn to complexity as an aesthetic, complexity in and of itself doesn’t have half the merit as clarity. So after I completed the early first draft, I rewrote the novel, completely, at least four times, each time trying to greater clarity and focus to the story. When I began my final revision, I wanted to “foreground” the themes, but I didn’t want to over-explain any of the thematic moments in the story. So it just occurred to me that I could give each chapter a title that, in a way, identified what the main thematic focus was of each chapter. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that doing this also had the benefit of tying the whole narrative together, while also mimicking the style of 19th-century novels, many of which use chapter titles for an episodic effect. Coming up with titles was actually fairly easy, since all of the chapters where already fully written and I already knew what I wanted them to convey, so the titles were a way for me to flag what I saw as the central idea in each chapter. And if you look closely, each title is almost an exact quote from a sentence in the chapter itself.

Of course, the danger of using something like chapter titles early on is that if the chapters don’t already cohere on their own and flow one into the next based solely on their content, then having cute titles won’t help, and even worse, the device can seem like a structural gimmick if you’re relying on them too heavily. So, from the beginning, I try to focus only on the writing itself—just the writing—and any kind of structural devices—like chapter titles, illustrations, italics, inter-chapters, etc.—all of these extra-narrative devices come later.

Michael Noll

The diction and phrasing of the novel sounds, at least to my ear, like something written in the time of the novel. I’m curious whether that’s because it actually is how people wrote at the time or if it simply sounds like I imagine people wrote. I remember hearing Denis Johnson once say that when he was writing Train Dreams, he used a dictionary from the time of the novella and did not use a word that could not be found in it. Were you that scrupulous with your language as you wrote?

John Pipkin

John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

Well, yeah, I’m obsessively scrupulous when it comes to historical diction. I kept an 1828 edition of Webster’s nearby, but actually I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary much more frequently to make sure that the terms I was using actually existed at the time period about which I’m writing. I am not as concerned with making sure that I use a wide range of archaic vocabulary or idioms from the period—since too much of this sort of thing can make a novel feel more like a lesson in linguistics—but I’m absolutely conscientious about making sure that no modern anachronisms sneak into the story. And this is harder than you might think.

Many words that sound old-fashioned are often not that old. When I was writing Woodsburner, for example, I had planned to have a character call Henry David Thoreau a “layabout”—many people at the time were suspicious of him and thought him lazy and an idler. But when I checked, I found that “layabout,” even though it sounds old, is actually a Depression-era word and didn’t appear in the language until 1932. One of the big concerns I had in writing The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter is that many of our scientific terms did not yet exist. For example, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist yet during the period in which the novel is set. Science was such a new pursuit, there was no word to describe someone who did nothing but pursue scientific investigations full time. They called such people “sciencers” or “men of science.” The word “scientist” was not coined until 1834, after Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that there should be a word for people who do science, just as people who make art are called “artists.” (William Whewell is credited with coming up with the term.) So I checked and doubled-checked any word that I suspected might have originated later than the story.

And it wasn’t only dictionaries that helped establish the feel of the language. I read a large number of old letters and diaries from the period to get a feel for the language, not just in terms of vocabulary, but also for syntax, how people put nouns and adjectives together, and for how they used prepositions. Something as simple as inserting a prepositional phrase where we would ordinary elide the preposition—since it is implied and understood—goes a long way to making the language sound like it came from any period. But you really have to be careful. The goal, I think, is to make the language sound like the language of the time, without actually being so true to the diction and syntax that it becomes inaccessible or obfuscating to the modern reader. I could write a novel in a style that is absolutely true to the 18th-century, but that would be an unproductive exercise because I’ll never have a single 18th-century reader. So in this, as in all things, it’s important to keep your reader in mind. The narrative has to remain clear and accessible, while conveying a sense of the rhythm and feel of the language of the period.

Michael Noll

We talked about your novel at a NaNoWriMo panel at the Austin Public Library, and you mentioned (or you did in my recollection) that you’re drawn to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because it’s how you make sense of the present day, not necessarily in a one-to-one sense but more generally as a way to see precursors to the concerns we have now. I wonder if you could elaborate on this. Your last novel was set in the mid-1800s. This one is set about a hundred years earlier. What about these time periods draws your imagination?

John Pipkin

I’ve talked a lot so far about the structural and thematic structure of narrative, and the necessities of historical accuracy in language and detail, and all of these things are crucial, but really what is most important to me in writing a story are the characters and the potential of those characters to help us come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. So, first and foremost, I always want to make sure that I am writing about characters, and not about a historical period. It doesn’t matter how interesting or important a historical period is, there have to be characters (real or fictional) that I am drawn to writing about. That said, I’m drawn to those historical moments that can serve as a lens through which to view our own experience of the contemporary world and our own place in the sweep of time. In writing fiction, I am much more interested in conveying a sense of the human experience, the emotional and psychological dimension of inhabiting a specific time and place than with trying to convey a catalogue of facts about the period. When I’m researching, I’m not just looking for information but for blank spaces and gaps in the historical record; this is where fiction is able to explore the motivations and yearnings of characters. Writing about the past gives you the point of view of the outsider—even if you are writing about your own community—since the time elapsed creates the kind of distance that makes it possible to look at people and events with fresh eyes.

One of the reasons why I am drawn to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in particular is that the Romantic Period (and in America the Transcendentalist Movement) were pivotal in setting in motion the historical forces that shaped the modern world. Art, music, literature, politics, science, medicine, philosophy, psychology–all of these disciplines undergo radical transformations in this historical period, which saw a re-centering of the human subject, and we are the inheritors of this re-centering. Right now, I’m working on a new manuscript based in the 20th century, so I’m getting closer to the present, but still there is a temporal distance between my narratives and my subject matter. But regardless of the historical period or the narrative context, I think it’s crucial that the novel is always centered on the fundamental experiences of being human.

December 2016

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

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

13 Dec
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

An Interview with Octavio Solis

8 Dec
Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he's writing a series of stories set in El Paso.

Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he’s writing a series of stories set in El Paso, two of which appear in the most recent issue of Huizache.

Octavio Solis is a playwright and director whose works have been produced across the country and include Alicia’s MiracleSe Llama CristinaJohn Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the RiverQuixoteLydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, GibraltarThe Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El OtroMan of the FleshProspectEl Paso BlueSantos & Santos, and La Posada Mágica. His collaborative works include Cloudlands, with Music by Adam Gwon, Burning Dreams, cowritten with Julie Hebert and Gina Leishman and Shiner, written with Erik Ehn. Solis has received an NEA 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center, the Will Glickman Playwright Award, a production grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the 1998 TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the 1998 McKnight Fellowship grant from the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and the National Latino Playwriting Award for 2003. He is the recipient of the 2000-2001 National Theatre Artists Residency Grant from TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust, the United States Artists Fellowship for 2011 and the 2104 Pen Center USA Award for Drama. Solis is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, New Dramatists alum and member of the Dramatists Guild. His new anthology, “The River Plays” has been published by NoPassPort Publishing. He is working on commissions for the Magic Theatre SF and Yale Repertory Theatre.

To read an exercise on creating tension between desire and thought, inspired by Solis’ story “The Want,” click here. More of Solis’ stories in this series can be found in the new issue of Zyzzyva and forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review. On March 4, Solis will read from these stories at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In this interview, Solis discusses his approach to fiction and nonfiction, laying the mental groundwork for stories, and moments that lead characters to speak in code.

Michael Noll

Huizache doesn’t label this story as fiction or nonfiction, and so I’m wondering how you would categorize it. Is it one or the other?

Octavio Solis

I would categorize it somewhere between. I started writing these pieces that reflect things that happened in El Paso: turning points in how I recognized how I functioned in the world and who I am, so they’re moments of discovery. But as I was writing, some of them seemed so surreal that they seemed like dreams, and so if I didn’t write them down, they’d be relegated to just dreams. But as I started writing them down—I’m a storyteller, it’s what I do—as I started writing the story, the details and characters started to take on a life of their own. There are details on the sides that aren’t clear, I can’t see them as clearly, and so I give myself permission to make them up. But they’re made up in the sense that I insert them in the moments when they weren’t there, but they’re part of my background, personal history, youth, my past. So they fall into place very readily. I don’t even feel like I’m making them up. But usually the central moments are real and true except that they take on a life of their own. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, “Once you start writing something down, it starts to become fiction. It just can’t help it.” That’s what I gave myself permission to do: tell a story. I realized I had bigger fish to fry than just write an autobiographical story. I’m more interested in telling stories that will resonate in a more universal way.

As for what really happened, I remember that it happened in the winter, but I don’t remember if it was right around Christmas time. It could have been. I remember that I was in college, so it had to have been over Christmas break. But to write that way, frankly about something like that, I’m running a risk because it doesn’t cast me in such a positive light. At the very least, I look like an idiot. But I was young and stupid and horny and crazy—and something else was operating. I also had recently lost my faith. I was told I’d been saved by my drama teacher, was reborn in Jesus and all that, and warned not to stray in college. Then all of that fell away, and I realized the reason I wanted to be saved and be a Christian was to be in the theater. And that felt like it was my way in. But then in college, that all fell away. There were consequences for all that—feelings of grief and remorse about the loss of that community. So I was dealing with loneliness on an epic, metaphysical scale. Not just physical loneliness. And once you have all of those ingredients working together, you become sensitive, aware of the invisible connections that were already emerging. You just let them happen. You don’t even have to force them that much. And so suddenly this girl becomes the virgin Mary and I’m offering her refuge. Of course it’s a complete negative image of that. She’s not looking refuge. I’m looking for a good time and she’s ready to provide it, which is quite different, and that’s the point. It’s an inversion of the Christ story.

Michael Noll

Did you always know the story was headed for that moment? The beginning is filled with Christmas imagery—Bing Crosby, the lodestar in the Franklin Mountains—but there’s also a shock of recognition at the end for the narrator (“And how fucking Catholic of me…What a fucking cliché.”)

Octavio Solis

It also happened to me as a writer, that sort of discovery, oh shit, what have I been writing? It’s all so clear to me now. How could I have missed it? That’s the wonderful thing about writing these stories. I’ve amassed 50 of them.The wonderful thing about them is that I make discoveries as a writer as I’m working on them. I’m not there to share an epiphany. I’m having the epiphany. That final paragraph is also me as a writer thinking, “Oh Jesus, unbelievable.” No matter how much of an atheist I am, all this Catholicism has made me think this way—and I’m so blind to it. I’m hoping that if I’m having the discovery, the reader will land in this same place. And that comes from my theater background. I was trained by a great writer, María Irene Fornés. She taught us to be available to the moment, to discoveries, to not have everything so planned out, to see the journey, the starting point clearly and follow the thread. It will take you to a place as a writer you didn’t expect. Then it becomes a delightful discovery for the writer and will be that for the audience. If you can predict how it’s going to end, the audience will, too. But if you don’t now what’s around the corner, then the audience won’t, either.

Michael Noll

There’s something pretty uncomfortable about that discovery, especially in the moment right after he picks up the girl. He claims to be doing it out of concern for her, but when he says, “Dangerous for a girl in her condition…I hope you didn’t drink too much,” it’s creepy. As I read it, I thought, “Oh no.”

Octavio Solis

Oh yeah, it’s very uncomfortable. But then it turns around the other way as well: she looks innocent and stranded, but she’s not. She’s also looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. The dynamics are constantly shifting inside the car. They start shifting from the time I see her. The dialogue in the car—because of the discomfort, because it’s harder to just lay out baldly what the needs and wants are—you start speaking in a kind of code, unconsciously, without the narrator really knowing what he’s really after, what he’s really saying, until she makes it very clear: You wanted this. You were after this. Don’t pretend otherwise. Because he’s functioning on two planes. I explain a little in that passage about the difference between want and need: I want someone in the carnal way, I need company, I need to be good again, the good Christian again and find myself in fellowship with other people just to do that. He’s opening on this level where he’s wanting someone. He even says, I want someone to give me some nighttime CPR, and goes into bars looking for that. He wants to take her home. He’s a boy scout, but he also won’t admit to himself that he wants something else.

December 2016

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

How to Create Tension Between Desire and Thought

6 Dec
Octavio Solis' story, "The Want," appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Octavio Solis’ story, “The Want,” appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

How the Story Works

The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.

Here is the next paragraph:

The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.

The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.

The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.

Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”

The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to HeavenQuantum LeapTouched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.

The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:

  1. Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
  2. Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
  3. Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
  4. Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?

The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with Angela Palm

1 Dec
Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine.

Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here.

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She is the editor of a book featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove. She has taught creative writing at Champlain College, New England Young Writers’ Conference, The Writers’ Barn, and The Renegade Writers’ Collective and is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship in nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Creative NonfictionEcotoneAt Length MagazineBrevity, DIAGRAM, Essay DailyPaper Dartsapt, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hippocampus MagazineMidwestern Gothic, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and Sundog Lit. She was raised in the rural Midwest and lives in Vermont.

To read an excerpt from Riverine and an exercise on writing expansively, click here.

In this interview, Palm discusses finding the thread in connected essays, moving beyond the self in memoir, and what it means to be a Midwestern writer.

Michael Noll

Early in Riverine, you write about visiting your riverside home years after leaving it:

“The road had  anew name, the one-way arrow of time expanding here as it was anywhere else on Earth, but the defining entropy of the place was the same. There was no aftermath through which I could proceed as story, as I’d hoped for—no obvious tale waiting to be told.”

This passage encapsulates what I think a lot of people feel as they begin to write their own stories, whether it’s through essay or memoir. What was the moment that happened—in a draft or in your head—that showed you the way into the story?

Angela Palm

I had written four standalone essays in which the landscape of my home featured prominently as metaphor and as setting. I knew the river would be one of the main threads that stitched the different pieces together. I also knew that Corey’s crime was the central narrative hook. But I needed more. Those pieces alone didn’t make a book, didn’t organize a book, so I began doing some research and found different maps of the Kankakee Marsh from different time periods. Mapping—my obsession with its accuracies and inaccuracies, with its erasure, history, and inherent limitations—became the book’s organizing principle. I would use mapping as a way to chart story, I decided, and everything began to take shape from there. It was then that I wrote the opening essays, “Map of Home,” which begins with the epigraph “Every map is a fiction,” by DJ Waldie. That essay and epigraph are a guide to the whole book.

Michael Noll

In the early scenes with your father and friends playing cards, it’s hard not to think about Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. That was a book that inspired a lot of memoirists, but it’s also 21 years old. A lot of great memoirs have been published since. Was that a book that shaped your thinking about memoir? What other memoirs were important to you in terms of craft?

Angela Palm

It’s interesting—everyone assumes my book was informed by Karr’s work. But I didn’t start reading her work until after I’d sold Riverine and in some ways I think that was for the best. I fancy myself an essayist at heart, or a writer of books that can’t commit to a subgenre. But the books most influential in writing Riverine were Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard which informed my voice in some way, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston which informed my female psyche, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson which gave me permission to mix narrative with research and science and philosophy and lyricism.

Michael Noll

Angela Palm's memoir "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir “Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

The central relationship in the book is between you and Corey, and so, naturally, there are moments when you write about him outside of the frame of your friendship. For example, at one point you write, “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when he got in trouble for taking a gun to school and stashing it in his locker.” The passage goes on to explain what happened, ending up in an intimate moment shared by both of you. But I wonder, though, about the authority in that first sentence: “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when…” Did you worry at all about stepping into a more journalistic space, writing about others, rather than the personal space of memoir/essay?

Angela Palm

Limiting myself to those personal spaces—those memories shared directly with Corey—would have resulted in an overly sympathetic and possibly sentimental rendering of story. And I didn’t want that. In order to tell the whole story, I had to move beyond myself in some places—this place in particular. No, it didn’t worry me. I was committed to tracking his transition from innocent kid to traumatized kid to juvenile delinquent to adult criminal. The event of the gun at school was part of that sequence. I spoke with him to clarify my memories of those events and to pin down the timeline. The phrasing of that paragraph combines information and my perception of that information.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how the literary geography that you place yourself within. If this book had been set in, say, rural Georgia, the word Southern would almost certainly be used in descriptions of both the book and you, its writer. Of course, it’s set in Indiana. Yet I can’t find the word Midwest used in reviews or descriptions of the book—which seems to suggest something about the Midwest as a literary place. I suppose one could say, truthfully, that it’s large and varied, but so is the South. Do you think of yourself as a Midwestern writer? Does that adjective have any meaning for you?

Angela Palm

In some sense, I do consider myself a Midwestern writer. I’ve also called myself an anti-pastoral writer. My writing sensibilities about place come almost directly from the Midwest’s landscape, its people, its history, and its specific challenges. Despite often being considered unremarkable, I find there’s plenty to say and consider and unpack, still, in the region. The connotations of anything labeled “Midwestern” are typically negative, but I reject that. It’s a place full of contradiction, full of rich identity like anywhere else. There are too many boxes to put writers in and too much time spent doing so. Midwestern writer, anti-pastoral, place-based writer? Memoirist or essayist? Advocacy journalist, true crime writer, or prose lyricist? My work has been called all of these things by different people, and still I write without thinking of how a piece might be construed or constricted by its organizational terminology.

December 2016

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

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