How to Write a Great First Sentence

16 May

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was a staff pick at The Paris Review and a highly anticipated book at several prominent websites.

There are few sentences so vexing as the first one. Perhaps the final sentence of a story or novel is just as tough, but at least by then you’ve written a complete thing that has led up to it, and so even if you don’t nail it (which many stories and novels do not), at least you managed to build up enough momentum to carry the reader all that way; they’re getting off the ride, regardless of how it ends. But first sentences can make or break a story. How many of us have flipped to a story in a collection, read the first sentence, thought, “Nah,” and closed the book.

You need those sentences to be great.

But also: a sentence that appears to be trying too hard, no matter how intriguing or beautiful it manages to be (in spite of all that effort, or because of it) will turn off a reader as quickly as a sentence that did not try at all.

The key is to be great without seeming to try.

A great example of a story collection full of first sentences that have the tempting quality of a first drink or bite of cake (of course you will keep eating or drinking), but also the same sneaky nonchalance of liquor and cake, is Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up. You can find the book here.

How the Stories Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.


Write Like Anne Enright? You Should Be So Lucky.

8 May

Write Like Anne Enright? You Should Be So Lucky” was published at Fiction Writers Review.

In seventh grade, I won a story-writing contest at my small, rural Kansas middle school. This may seem like no great shakes since there are, in any given day, more shoppers in your nearest JC Penney than were competing in that contest, yet I was proud of myself. I had beaten Ian, he of the dirty rhyming poems; Lucy, whose poem about an angel would later wow our freshman class; and Jacob, author of the first short story I ever read that was not “Gift of the Magi” (entitled “The Gig,” it was about a band getting a gig). My winning piece was sent on to the next level, sponsored, as I recall, by the American Legion. My parents seemed genuinely awed, asking how I had come up with something so wild. I hadn’t actually thought about the origin of the story’s best elements: the magic necklace, the wizard, the boy who would save the day. In horror, I realized that I had cribbed almost every detail from Chessmen of Doom or whatever John Bellairs novel I had just devoured during the daily, hour-long bus ride home. I kept this fact a secret, but every night I prayed to God (literally, because I was Catholic) that the judges would not select my story.

They did not.

Legally speaking, my story may not have been plagiarized, but to me it felt like a cheat. Imagine my surprise, then, when years later as an MFA student, a professor suggested that we retype the opening to one of our favorite novels or stories to get the feeling for the words on the page. Keep typing until your imagination takes over and makes the story your own.

“But won’t that make our work sound just like theirs?” someone asked, just as someone always asked. We all feared sounding like our idols.

Another professor in the same program told us, “You should be so lucky.” It was both a joke and meant quite seriously. We, all of us, desperately wanted to be so lucky.

Can one really learn by copying?

Read the rest of the essay at Fiction Writers Review.

How to Lift Your Story Beyond Its Outline

1 May

Tom Hart is the bestselling author of the memoir Rosalie Lightning and founder of the Sequential Arts Workshop. How to Say Everything is his book about the craft of storytelling.

Sometimes you discover a pearl of wisdom about writing so great that it forever transforms how you think about craft. I found one recently in How to Say Everything by cartoonist and graphic memoirist Tom Hart. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while and met him at the AWP conference, where I picked up a copy of his book. It’s great, full of practical information meant for graphic storytellers but applicable to narratives of any kind. The part that really struck me was about that feeling you get sometimes when reading a book or manuscript-in-progress, the sense that it’s flat and boring and uninspired. It can be hard to figure out what’s wrong. Hart zeroes in on what might be the problem.

You can get the book as a free download at Hart’s website. (He also teaches some terrific online classes through the Sequential Arts Workshop.)

The Brilliant Idea

It’s in a chapter titled “Shooting the Outline.” Here’s what Hart writes:

My wife Leela and I were trying various episodic TV shows from HBO, and we watched our first episode of Rome. Hundreds of Caesar’s troops on horseback are trading through the woods towards the Capitol. They come to a river. One centurion looks to another and says, “What river are we crossing? It’s the Rubicon, isn’t it?” The troops cross it.

Leela looked at me and scowled, “They’re just shooting the outline!”

You can imagine the dramatic outline of the story here: Caesar makes his decision. The troops prepare. The march starts. They cross the Rubicon, marking the first act of war in Caesar’s civil war.

What’s missing in the producer’s execution is some grace, some evocation of emotion, some decorative element, some genuine grubby humanity.

I love this, in part because it states such a clear, simply truth. Bad writing states the obvious. But “shooting the outline” is more than that. It’s artlessness, the difference between a story and an itinerary. Even in a thriller, nobody actually cares what happens in the story. Instead, they care about the way the thing that happens makes them feel.

It’s an excellent exercise, then, to read through your manuscript-in-progress and ask yourself if any of the lines, especially in dialogue, sound like they could have been copied and pasted from the outline or from an unseen itinerary that your characters are following. If so, take the line out of dialogue. State it as simply as possible. In the HBO show, it would be easy to show an army massed against a river. What’s more important is the human element that Hart talks about. Now that you’ve parked the army on the literal physical edge of a decision, how can you dig into the details of life on that edge to reveal the characters’ hopes and fears?

If you want help with this, pick up a (free, seriously) copy of Hart’s book, where he talks about adorning the outline.

Good luck.

Don’t Pokémon Your Monsters: An Interview with Robert Ashcroft

12 Apr

Seven years after the Hollow War decimated Earth, only 50,000 humans fight for survival in Los Angeles. Theo Abrams is sent on a mission to destroy the enigmatic being that initiated this apocalypse.

There’s a quote that pops up now and then, usually in reference to Star Wars, though it can be applied to a lot of great films and books: Great villains believe they are the hero of the story. It’s a useful line because it forces an author to give villains their own narrative arc. At their most poorly written, villains have the same qualities as the bad guys that used to wait at the end of stages in the old Super Mario games: no context or motivation, existing only to provide a bump on the road of the hero’s journey.

There’s another danger that villainous characters run into: we see them too clearly. In so many great horror films, the monsters remain on the periphery for a long time, cloaked in shadow, glimpsed only fleetingly. When we finally do see them close up, it’s with a turn of the camera and BOOMthe monster is right in front of our faces, almost too close to take it all in. This is why villains so often wear masks; to see and know them clearly is to reduce the fear of not seeing or understanding them.

Great villains, then, often lurk just off the page, seen mostly through the hero’s anticipation and dread. Robert Ashcroft gets this in his debut novel, The Megarothke. In it, an apocalyptic war has reduced humans to a small colony in the remains of Los Angeles. The creature responsible for that war, unheard of for several years, has begun to be whispered about again. In this scene, the novel’s main character, a police officer, is talking to one of his superiors:

Looking out the window, she asked, “What do you know about the Megarothke?”

A loaded question, to be sure. The secret shifted within my stomach. It rose and lay upon my tongue. I’d long learned that no one suspected anything, but I felt the secret scream from every pore whenever the Megarothke’s name was mentioned.

Back when I’d awoken from the coma, I’d had some very definite theories. I’d been convinced that I’d witnessed the creation of the Megarothke—even aided and abetted it to a certain degree.  Unlocked it. But I learned very quickly that this sort of talk was seen as “mentally unsuitable” and would get you removed from the force.

“The Shadow King. The Spider-Creature that kidnaps kids…” I said. “The first few years he was the very incarnation of the enemy. But then he disappeared. Vanished.”

Aria nodded.

“I can’t remember the last time someone told me not to touch a cobweb,” I continued. “The question should really be, ‘What happened to the Megarothke?’ I mean, the last incident was in…what? 2047? HW3? No one’s really talked about him since.”

Of course, the Megarothke is back, and the police officer will eventually face it. The book, then, depends upon readers wanting to see that encounter, on their curiosity about the monster building and building. To that end, notice how Ashcroft keeps the details vague: The Shadow King, The Spider Creatures that kidnaps kids. These are not precise character traits so much as descriptions of the monster’s legend.

Ashcroft also introduces the suggestion that a true understanding of the monster is dangerous to one’s health, both professional and literal. Someone out there doesn’t want you to know—and even that threat is vague, which is crucial to the story. Vague threats with specific outcomes (death, end of the world as we know it) provide the opportunity for characters to solve a mystery, and it’s that search for truth that usually provides the structure for the entire book.

Robert Ashcroft has worked as a State Department contractor and was recently mobilized to serve abroad with the U.S. Army Reserve. He is trained as a cryptologic linguist (with experience in Korean and Spanish). His first novel is the dystopian military thriller The Megarothke.

In this interview, Ashcroft talks about world building, writer dialects, and the challenge of creating so much suspense that it’s difficult to give readers a pay off.

Michael Noll

The book builds an entire world (post-apocalyptic LA with only a few thousand people protected by a police force that keeps back animal/human/AI hybrid beasts trying to kill them) and also a save-the-world quest, and despite these very large elements, the novel has an intimate feeling, focusing as it does on one character and his family (even as he embarks on the quest). How did you balance the need to build the world and also craft a story that revolves around relationships?

Robert Ashcroft

Back when I was majoring in creative writing―around ten years ago―genre fiction didn’t receive as much respect as it does now. I felt like in order to “deserve” to write in science fiction/horror, I had to prove that I could use what I had learned. Stories like, “Coming Attraction” by Tobias Wolff, or “For Esmé―with Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger, really left a big mark on what I wanted to do with words.

Great fiction, but especially great short fiction, has to tear at the heart of human struggle. In “Coming Attractions,” this girl tries to drag a bike out of the pool for her little brother and she can’t quite do it. The story ends with her catching her breath, laying on her back, looking up at the stars. She’s freezing. All of your senses are wrapped up in the moment. The image is crystal clear. You understand how much this bicycle means to her, to her brother, to her concept of family and responsibility. It’s no longer a bike, it’s a young girl desperately fighting to grow up and be a better person.

I would love for my science fiction to be able to approach this magic.

The main goal within the Megarothke was to make sure that any action scene included both a personal and a thematic aspect. So, in the first chapter, the final scene touches on the memory of his lost daughter and the central question of what it means to be human.

Or later, in the standoff where a Korean guy has a knife to the girl’s throat, I wanted Theo to have to struggle with questions on multiple levels: his career, his custody battle, his fear that society might accuse him of police brutality―and on top of all that, you’ve still got a life or death situation.

Michael Noll

You’re working within an established genre with a few titanic writers working in it. Aspects of it reminded me of William Gibson and others, even though it’s not space opera, reminded me of M. John Harrison’s work. How did you approach putting your mark on a story that’s been told so well so many times?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a big fan of retyping, which helps you get a sense of punctuation and flow, but also forces you to take ownership of their vocab sets and preoccupations. Every writer has a dialect of sorts. William Gibson will mention a word like “wetware” in several different stories of Burning Chrome, and you get to see the context in which it’s introduced each time. Then there were entire passages of The Megarothke where I would retype a section of Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer, and then go back and revise my work. More than just descriptions, he’s the master of unspooling an abstract concept in a character’s head while physically tracking their motion through an equally strange landscape.

In terms of the Megarothke, while the concepts aren’t new, I wanted to juxtapose two dueling misinterpretations of Evangelical Christianity and Nietzschean philosophy. The wrong view of Christianity forsakes our current life for the afterlife. The wrong view of Nietzsche ends up sacrificing everything for the ubermensch. These both blend with the age-old science fiction question: will some new form of technology replace humanity? And should it?

I should be clear here that I really respect the overall messages of Christianity and Nietzsche, but just like with ISIS and Islam, problems are usually created by a misinformed reading of the original text.

Michael Noll

The novel features a monstrous villain who, until the end of the book, is an unseen source of fear. We’re not told what the Megarothke looks like, which sets up a challenge for the story: when the Megarothke shows up, it needs to be as monstrous and terrifying as we’ve come to expect. How did you approach creating that character?

Robert Ashcroft

This was actually really difficult for me. I probably rewrote that page of description twenty times. I read it aloud, pulled it apart, and debated with people about word choice. I vividly remember fighting to keep the word “auroch” during the early critique group meetings.

If you boil the Megarothke down to his baseball card statistics, he’s really nothing we haven’t seen in a million video games and movies. But when wrapped up with his mythology, his goals, his undefined powers, his detached cruelty―I hope that he transcends your average first-person shooter entity.

The description is also integrated with the setting: the staircase, the metal turn style, the speakers on the walls. And then you have the state of Theo, our protagonist at the same time: is he still really alive? How long was he unconscious? How close to arriving are his peers? All of these things have to be factored into the description to produce the maximum effect.

There’s a real danger, largely due to the video game and toy industry, to remove the context and seek firm definitions for any given monster. I call it the “Pokémon-ization” of characters. Each power needs a name, a range, a strength, etc. For me, this is the death of good fiction.

Michael Noll

Sections begin with quotes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. How did that book inform this one?

Robert Ashcroft

The short answer is that the Megarothke is an attempt to create the ubermensch.

But as a writer, the book means a lot more. I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra when I was twenty, living alone in Mexico. I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know anything about Nietzsche, but I knew the book was on all the right lists. This was during a time when, even if I didn’t comprehend something, I would still power through it. Sort of like when I read Ulysses as an undergrad. I had no clue what was going on, but I knew it was important.

And, this is going to be a digression, so I apologize, but I’m going to launch into it:

I heard once, I think Glenn Gould said it, that all great art is about the distance the artist feels between himself and the world. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there are these quotes that reach out and grab you. They encourage, implore and goad you all at the same time. Things like, “Go into your loneliness,” or “They hate you because you have gone beyond.” Zarathustra is arrogant and self-loathing but also really inspiring. He hates everyone but he wants to save them. He’s not sure how, but when he gets an idea, he presents it ferociously. There’s a truth―a charisma―that’s really breath-taking.

These are things that every writer has to embrace at some point. You have to isolate yourself, to cannibalize your own personality, to go really deep, because that’s where all the marrow of the best fiction resides.

Is the Megarothke the Ubermensch? Is Theo the “last man?” Do they represent the master/slave morality, respectively? Does Mathew go through the stages of the Camel, the Lion and the Child? I don’t think it can be boiled down so simply, but I want these ideas to play out in the reader’s mind. What allegiance do we owe to a creature with far greater physical and mental capacities than ourselves? What allegiance do we owe to God? To each other?

Michael Noll

I believe I saw you write on Facebook that you worked on this novel for years, printing versions for your friends to read at times. How do this published version differ from those earlier versions? What problems did you have to solve or figure out over the course of revision?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a huge fan of printing your own work. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars at this point just to be able to read my own writing in a paper book sized, spiral bound format. You can give it to friends. You can read it and see how the pages work. It’s really rewarding, and given the incredibly long time it takes to get published, I think every writer owes it to themselves. These days it should probably cost you 15-20 dollars to do a decent version, but it’s still quite possible. I’ve done it in Mexico, in Korea, in Texas―the staff is always really curious and helpful. It’s kind of an unusual request.

The biggest difference between those versions and the final print is length. At the very end of the final version, there’s a single chapter, almost more of an epilogue, where we meet a different character. In the previous version, that character had about five chapters of case notes, describing his investigations. Then there were newspaper articles, folk songs, and editorials as well, sort of like in Watchmen.

I workshopped four versions of the book through I also had a bunch of friends and acquaintances read it, and I was part of a weekly critique group for over a year. The biggest problem I solved was streamlining the story. There was just too much going on. It felt like pulling teeth but eventually it was the right move. I hope the story carries people smoothly from start to finish, and even if not every detail gets explained, it should be a fun ride!

April 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Dallas: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction at Interabang

26 Mar

Heads up, Dallas, TX: I’ll be reading from The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction at Interabang Books tonight, Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m. You can find Interabang at 10720 Preston Rd, Set 1009B, Dallas, TX 75230.

I’ll be joined by special guest, Tex Thompson, who will read an excerpt from her rural fantasy novel One Night in Sixes (think of something along the lines of Steven King’s Dark Tower series). I’ll create an exercise based on the excerpt and talk with Tex about the craft in the novel and in turning points in general.

I hope to see you there!


AWP and The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction

8 Mar

unknownIf you’re in Tampa for AWP this week, this is where you’ll find me and The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Friday, 10:30-11:30 am, A Strange Object’s booth, 1708.

I’ll be signing books and, for anyone who brings a book or chapbook they’ve picked up at the book fair, I’ll create a writing exercise on the spot based on one page of that awesome new story or novel that you’re so excited about!

And, since A Strange Object is my wonderful publisher, you’ll find tall stacks of The Writer’s Field Guide there.

Friday, 7-9 pm, Gram’s Place (3109 N. Ola Ave)

I’ll be reading along with four other fantastic writers: Rita Bullwinkle, Jen Sandwich, Tom Hart, and Claire Vaye Watkins. The venue is a Gram Parsons-themed tree house. Yep. There will be free drinks as long as they last.


The Slide That Passes Through Two Dark Rooms: An interview with Kirsten Imani Kasai

6 Mar

The House of Erzulie is a Gothic horror novel that moves between a Creole-owned slave plantation and the home of a notorious New Orleans voodoo practitioner.

The first time I encountered the concept of verisimilitude was in an undergraduate fiction workshop. I was wowed by the size of the word but also underwhelmed by what it meant. Of course fiction ought to achieve the air of reality. Any liar knew this perfectly well. And yet writing realistic-seeming fiction quickly began tripping me up because it led to so many difficult-to-answer questions: Who is the narrator telling this story to? Why is he/she telling it? Would he/she really think/do/say that? Plus, so much of any story or novel is inherently unrealistic. Narrative creates a frame that leaves some information out and directs the reader’s attention to details that, in real life, might go unnoticed. As a beginning writer, once you start worrying about verisimilitude, you often can’t stop (and can’t start writing).

A great example of how to move past the block of seeming realistic can be found in Kirsten Imani Kasai’s new novel The House of Erzulie. In it, an architectural historian is working on a house outside of New Orleans that once was a plantation and discovers letters written by the Creole daughter of the former owner and the diary of her mixed-race husband who sailed from France for the marriage. The novel (and the historian) follows the couple as their marriage and world fall apart. It’s told through three first-person accounts: a standard narration for the historian, Emilie’s letters, and her husband Isidore’s diary.

If you’ve ever tried writing a story in the guide of letters, you will immediately understand the problem such a form poses. Letters are not written with the same intent as a novel, and any novel that adheres too closely to the form risks losing the reader by moving too quickly or not quickly enough. And yet letters have an innate appeal. Reading them (especially when they’re not written to us) gives the sense of peering into a life we weren’t meant to see. So, how can a writer use them in a way that seems realistic but also meets the requirements of a good narrative?

Here’s the opening of Emilie’s first letter:

April 19, 1851

Dearest friend,

Monsieur Saint-ange has been detained in New Orleans, and this delay throw Belle Rive into a phrenzy of anticipation. We have exchanged many cordial letters over the past year, and although he strikes me as the soul of gentility, I know nothing of his true nature. Is he kind and good-humored? Ill-tempered and brusque? Will my heart quicken at first sight of him or will dread chill my frame, knowing that I am to be forever harnessed to one whose form repulses me? I have received but one daguerreotype, of which he is very proud (having sat for this portrait at the Great Exhibition in London with the famed Crystal Palace glimmering behind him) and so I know him to be fine-looking, of deeper complection than myself, with black pomaded hair longer than is fashionable. There is a certain poignancy to his expression, a longing perhaps, expressed in the intensity of his gaze and the sensuous, mustachioed mouth that belies the sorrows of our ancient race. It is a face I shall have to look upon each day for the remained of our natural lives, and I nightly pray that his countenance shall gaze upon my own with tenderness.

Obviously, the letter looks like a letter; it has a date and a greeting. It also does the work of a letter, updating a friend on the latest news. But it also jumps straight to the business of creating suspense. Yes, the letter writer and recipient are in suspense as well, waiting for the future husband to arrive, but the paragraph could have been written much differently, giving details about the frenzy, for example. Or, it could have gone on any number of asides, the way one does in a letter. It could have also moved too quickly; after all, letters are designed to be read fairly quickly, all at once, not over a period of time like a novel.

The letter both creates the verisimilitude of a letter but also does the narrative work of introducing a mystery that the reader will desperate want to see resolved.


Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author three novels, most recently The House of Erzulie. She is the publisher and editor of Body Parts Magazine.

In this interview, Kasai talks about structuring storylines that take place in different years, using an epistolary narrative, and writing against the usual tropes in the novel’s portrayal of vodou.

Michael Noll

In a way, this novel is working in a popular genre: the multi-generational novel, in which storylines from different time periods eventually connect. But you did something quite different with the structure. Many novels move back and forth, chapter to chapter, between the time periods, but you didn’t break up the writing from Emilie’s letters and Isidore’s journal. Each comes in a long, uninterrupted section. For me anyway, this really worked. Once I got into one character’s story and POV, I didn’t want to leave. I’m curious, though: did you ever consider using a different structure?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Establishing the structure was one of the more difficult aspects of the book and partly why it took so long to write (about four years). Because it’s a Gothic novel, it had to include the genre convention of the story-within-a-story. I played around with other structural iterations, but I wanted each section to be immersive, inescapable. To separate them would have been to dilute them. If I were to construct a model of the story, it would be a slide (Lydia) that passes through two dark “rooms” (Emilie and Isidore) but ends on a slight upward lift to indicate a break in the downward momentum and a potential propulsion into a more hopeful narrative, which the reader must imagine.

My intent was to write a “deconstructed” Gothic novel that hearkened back to the genre’s Victorian heyday and served as a testament to enduring classics like Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe and wanted to evoke the sensual and textural ambience of his works. Structure, therefore, became just as important as the language, settings and themes.

Narrative structure is like the framing of a house. Everything else is built upon it. If the frame is weak, the story will collapse under its own weight. At the time, I was earning my creative writing teaching certification at Antioch and found the academic space to expand upon and explore my ideas and theories about narrative structure (as outlined in my thesis) being integral to a story’s initial construction, and as a diagnostic tool for revision. I even diagrammed the book to identify the sections and overlapping incidents or themes. This was very helpful. I expected, actually, that I might run up against some opposition about the structure, but I felt that it was right for this story, and necessary to its integrity. I’m just so glad that I found a publisher who appreciated my vision!

Michael Noll

Emilie and Isidore’s sections tell essentially the same story, built around the same central events, but they feel like utterly different narratives. What was your process for writing them? Did you start with a timeline and then write each section? Did you write one in its entirety and then write the other, or did you move back and forth as you wrote?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Isidore was the first character who appeared to me, and so I worked on him first to establish the historical timeline. The back and forth came more during revision and editing. I wrote their sections in blocks, but each one had to also reflect the others to get that “funhouse mirror” effect I sought, where the readers sees multiple or overlapping images. Mirroring and thematic unity is very important in Gothic literature, and so I went back through the book toward its completion to make sure that all the links in the chain were intact.

Michael Noll

One of the things I loved about both sections, but in particular Emilie’s, is how the letters sounded like actual letters but also moved the story forward. In real life, of course, letters don’t always move with narrative efficiency. Did you have any trouble in maintaining the verisimilitude of the letter form while also doing the basic work of a novel?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Letter writing was much different when it was the primary means of interpersonal communication. I did read a number of 19th century letters that were archived in historical collections to see how good correspondents shared their stories. Emilie is a competent writer who loves to read, and so it made sense that her letters would be as effusive and thorough as they are. Writing each character’s section as a whole piece helped keep me rooted within their voices, too.

The challenge with writing the letters was staying within the boundaries of her narrative voice. Same with Isidore. We are only privy to the thoughts they chose to share on paper, while we get to be inside Lydia’s head. So the Letters and the journal had to be constrained by what was likely to have been shared or reported by those authors. Isidore is more expansive in his journal because he’s only speaking to himself, but there’s a sense with Emilie that she’s putting on a brave face for her friend, who is more worldly.

Michael Noll

One of the things Isidore’s section does (and also the present-day sections told by Lydia) is blur the line between consensual reality and something resembling dream/madness/supernatural. In particular, Isidore’s crumbling reality is centered around vodou, which is seen by the characters around Isidore as both exotic and a practical aspect of everyday life. It’s also a religious practice that has been the subject of caricature in many stories. How did you research the practices that P’tit Marie would have used and the way it would have been seen by people at the time?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Depending on your perspective, any religious practice can be viewed as strange or exotic.

However, I really strove to present vodou in a realistic way and avoid the fetishistic or lampoonish portrayals that often characterize it in popular culture. Albert J. Raboteau’s book Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South was incredibly helpful in helping me to access the intersection of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean religions. One of the themes of the novel is how “othering” is used to further isolate or sublimate those who have less socio-economic power, but because this is a Gothic novel, however, I had to play up certain aspects of it to maintain the atmosphere of horror.

Slavery is all about breaking down the individual and dismantling any sense of personal and cultural identity. The determination about what is allowed and sanctified, versus what is heathenish and forbidden has always been decided by the conquerors. European colonizers villainized any religious or spiritual practice that challenged their rule and empowered its practitioners. Christian conversion was enforced because it destroyed the cultural bonds of African religions and substituted the convenient panacea of a “heavenly reward.” The Bilodeaus attempt to constrain the practice of vodou at Belle Rive plantation because they’re afraid of it, but they also rely on it for healing. It’s no wonder that Isidore becomes enthralled by P’tite Marie’s vodou and Emilie’s Spiritualism. Insanity or any form of mental illness has long been blamed on “conjuration” or witchcraft, so a part of him is easily convinced that he, too, has been conjured. Isidore is entirely alienated. He has no “home”—nowhere that he really belongs, and no foundational belief system to support him—therefore, he’s highly suggestible. This alienation contributes to his sense of disconnection and his ultimate unraveling.

Primarily, I wanted to convey the similarities between the Bilodeaus’ Catholicism Spiritualism and vodou—a belief in invisible forces and powers, the importance of ritual, the human need to commune with something greater than ourselves and the necessity of using religion to define the moral structures within our lives.

Finally, I was very drawn to the sense of the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dolorosa, as Erzulie (the Black Madonna) in her numerous manifestations (Erzulie Dantor, Erzulie Ge-Rouge, Erzulie Freda, etc.). Erzulie is a complete woman with many faces—she is loving, kind, wise, protective and maternal but also jealous and vengeful. In a way, I felt like she was the guiding spirit of the book, and so I had a duty to honor her with my portrayal.

March 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

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