Creating Your Own Omar or Vito Corleone: An interview with crime novelist Steph Post

16 Jan

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood, A Tree Born Crooked and, most recently, A Walk in the Fire. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics.

Pretty much everyone’s favorite character in the television series The Wire was Omar, the gay, sawed-off shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets. And his most memorable scenes were also some of the most mundane in the show: Omar walking down the street, whistling “Three Blind Mice” as kids ran ahead of him, calling out a warning: “It’s Omar!” The theft and shooting that happened afterward was thrilling but rarely as satisfying as the stroll that preceded it. It was the equivalent of Marlon Brando’s best scenes as Vito Corleone, which mostly involved him sitting in a room, holding court.

As writers, we often look for moments that break routines, moments of exaggerated or unusual action, but some of the best scenes in literature and film are set directly in the midst of everyday routine. The key, regardless of the genre you’re writing in, is to discover what makes the mundane exciting.

This is what Steph Post does in all of her crime novels. They’re set in rural northern Florida, among swamps, run-down gas stations, and evangelical churches that prefer the image of money-changer-ass-kicking Jesus rather than Beatitude/turn-the-other-cheek Christ. It’s a potent setting filled with drugs and guns, but some of the most vivid scenes take place while nothing is really happening. Those scenes also happen to be essential to the everyday routine of the place: driving from one spot to another.

Moving characters around is a challenge for all writers, one that’s often solved by skipping it. A character gets on a train and then steps off, leaving the actual train ride off the page. This can be an effective strategy, but Post does the opposite. She digs into the lull of driving to show us her characters. Here is a typical scene:

Lesser glanced over at Judah, relaxed behind the wheel, and then purposefully slouched down on the other end of the F-150’s maroon vinyl bench seat. He cranked the window down and resisted the urge to brush his chin-length hair of out his face. It whipped across his eyes, but he tried to ignore it as he slung his elbow up on the edge of the window and squinted through the streaked windshield into the lowering twilight. He rode in silence for a few miles, trying to watch Judah out of the corner of his eye, but not be noticed doing so.
In the luminous green glow from the dash, Judah seemed so at ease, his arm half out the window, fingers just barely touching the steering wheel, a lit cigarette burning down in the other hand, resting lightly on the gearshift. The wind seemed only to graze his hair. Judah appeared to be completely engrossed in the monotony of the road ahead of them. Or maybe he was preoccupied with some kind of deep thoughts, of Ramey most likely, and Lesser was startled when Judah suddenly tossed his cigarette out the window and picked up the pack from the dash console.
“Go ahead, kid. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.”

In this moment, we see the kind of vehicle these characters drive, how they drive it (windows rolled down, wind in their hair), and what they do while driving (thinking and smoking). The scene also builds character by showing how effortlessly Judah is able to make smoking and driving look cool and how much Lesser would like to be like him. Post turns a passage that could easily be cut into great, engaging writing.

She does this throughout the book, returning again and again to the characters’ vehicles, showing them rolling up before a crime and peeling out afterward, being worked on, and sitting abandoned. You can’t tease out the novel’s plot from the way the characters interact with an essential part of the place where they live: their cars and trucks.

A Walk in the Fire is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at a bookstore near you.

In this interview, Post talks about how she made driving around northern Florida an opportunity for great crime writing.

Michael Noll

I’m from Kansas, not Florida, but I recognize the spirit of certain parts of your novels’ setting, if not the actual place itself. One of the things I love about how you write about the place—the swamps and run-down houses and bars and weird churches—is that they aren’t metaphors. And they’re not overblown to elicit a kind of false emotion in the reader. They’re just the places where the characters happen to be. This is hard to pull off, at least based on my reading experience. Maybe it’s because writers who come from those places tend to leave, or because they consciously or unconsciously write for an audience that isn’t from that place, their portrayals of it feel a bit like giddy cultural tourism. Did you have an audience in mind for these descriptions?

Steph Post

Wow, first of all thank you so much for your kind words. And I’m so glad you picked up on the fact that none of the places or settings are metaphors or tableaux or symbols to represent something in a character’s unconscious. They are, as you say, just places where the characters happen to be. Which doesn’t lessen the setting’s importance- it simply makes it more relevant to the characters of the novel.

And so perhaps that’s the audience I have in mind when I write descriptions of a landscape or a dive bar: the characters themselves. The characters are everything and so whenever I craft a scene I have to keep in mind whose point of view I’m writing from. I can have a little more poetic license when writing, say, from Ramey’s point of view. She looks at the world through a more open, more considering, lens than a character like Judah or Benji or Clive. Judah might look out at a landscape and feel something remarkable, but he’s not going to expound upon it. And so when writing from his point of view, I can’t go off into some florid description of the light filtering through the trees and liken it to a stirring in his soul or something. Judah would call bullshit. Actually, Ramey probably would, too.

Michael Noll

A great example of your great descriptions is the early junkyard scene. You write about the characters in it as if it’s the most natural place in the world to get some alone time. What do you draw upon when you write a place like this?

Steph Post

I’ve never had the exact experience that Ramey has in the opening scene of the novel—where she is able to find time alone surrounded by towers of crushed cars out in the salvage yard—but my dad worked on and sold cars and had no idea what to do with a little kid when it was Sunday and his turn to take me for the week, so I spent a lot of time alone, hanging out in the garage or the car lot or whatever junkyard he’d brought me along to.

As a teen onwards, my way of finding those moments was always to head out into the woods or the swamp and lose myself among the trees. When I was writing this particular scene, I think I combined the two ideas. I had this vision of Ramey sitting in a forest—a more conventional place where one might find solitude—but instead of trees, she’s surrounded by these stacks of cars. She’s finding her peace in the only place she can.

Michael Noll

Cars feature prominently in the book, whether they’re junked or in the shop or being driven. Do you know a lot about cars? I ask because I don’t, and so when I’m talking to a mechanic, I’m intensely aware of my lack of knowledge, which is easy to give away. You even have brief scenes where characters are working on cars, and you give details–fairly specific. I don’t know if you researched the mechanical parts, but I’ve seen books where the writer was clearly showing off his or her research with passages that went on too long. How did you strike the right balance between enough detail to be convincing but not too much to drag down the narrative?

Steph Post

Well, I’m glad that it looked like I sort of knew what I was talking about! Because honestly, I don’t know much about working on cars. My brother is a mechanic and my husband knows a lot, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to anything technical under the hood. So when in doubt, I just asked one of them. I think the balance comes off because I’m only supplying just enough detail to give an idea of what a character is working on. Again, it goes back to a character’s point of view. If Judah is working on a car, he’s going to just assume that everyone knows what a catalytic converter is and so there’s no need to take it further. I spend a lot of time on research for a novel, but I only use about a tenth of what I learn. I don’t ever want the research to overshadow the story.

Michael Noll

In all of your books, your characters spend a lot of time driving. It’s necessary, of course, since you can’t exactly take the subway where they live. Moving characters around requires a lot of time. You could show it on the page or not. For instance, you could write, “They drove to the gas station and got out.” Or, you could show them en route. You tend to show them, and those moments tend to be contemplative. Is this just a natural way of writing those scenes? Or is there something about the act of driving in North Florida that is particular to the place?

Steph Post

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, so I’m glad you brought it up. I think it comes down to growing up in the country and now writing about characters who live and move in the same landscape. In these places, it takes time to get anywhere. Where I grew up, it was ten miles at least to the nearest stop light and another five to get to the first gas station. And spending a lot of time riding and driving around means that a lot happens in cars. Fights, confessions, hearts won and broken. So it seems only natural to set scenes with characters on the road. A lot also doesn’t happen when you’re driving half an hour just to get to the nearest grocery store, so being on the road gives you a lot of time to contemplate or daydream. I don’t think this is specific to Florida, but rather to anywhere where long distances factor into everyday living.

Michael Noll

I love the small moments that you describe in cars. For example, there’s a moment where Sister Tulah adjusts the air conditioning vents even though they’re pointed in the right direction–she’s just fidgeting to calm herself. There’s another scene where a character rolls down the window, rests his arm on it, and doesn’t brush his hair away as it blows in his face. These are visceral driving moments. What is your own car history? What do you draw upon when you describe a character’s experience driving?

Steph Post

I think in a lot of ways cars are an extension of us, even if it’s just the car we’re riding in at the moment. The fact that Sister Tulah buys a new Lincoln every year—that she is so particular about its tiniest details—this is clearly part of her character. Her car is as much a part of her as her Bible. If you watch how people ride and drive, you can tell so much about who they are or who they are trying to be. Lesser, for example, is a teen just trying to be cool when he’s riding in the car with Judah in the first chapter. He’s mimicking Judah’s movements inside the space of the car—the slouch, the arm on the rolled down window—because it’s encompassing the sort of person he wants to be.

I’ve spent a lot of time on road trips and it’s these times in particular that I draw upon when I write about characters in cars. The wind whipping through open windows, the smell of asphalt blistering in the sun, the buzz of destination possibilities. The, as you say, visceral driving moments. To go back to your first question, my characters don’t move in a world of metaphor, they move in a world of gut feelings and reactions. So I do my best to draw upon my own raw feelings and hope that it comes through in the writing.

January 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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How to Keep Readers From Skimming Over Your Passages about Setting

11 Jan

Pre-orders available now.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the term “page turner.” I love thrilling novels as much as the next person and remember lying on the mattress on the floor of my bare-walled college apartment one summer, reading the latest Harry Potter novel until about four in the morning. But as much as I love dying to know what will happen, I just as equally loathe when I’m so compelled to reach the end that I start flipping ahead. That’s the wrong sort of page-turner. At the very least, the prose ought to hold your eye to every word.

The passages most likely to get skimmed by readers are descriptions of setting—and for good reason. Done badly, they are mere lists of adjectives and florid metaphors. Readers skim them because they don’t do anything. “Yes,” we think, “we get it: the mountains are tall and pretty. Now, move it along.”

The best writers can make descriptions of setting as interesting and compelling as the drama that follows. The trick is learning how to do it yourself.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from one novel and three stories: “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are is step one for each exercise:

Take a Tour, inspired by “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley

  1. IDENTIFY THE MOTIVE FOR THE TOUR. The character leading the tour may have a destination in mind. Or the tour might be a way to kill time until some scheduled or expected moment. In McConigley’s case, the tour leads to both: a destination where Larson will make his request. This intention, or motive, is crucial. Without it, the characters are simply wandering around.

 

 

Break Setting into Neighborhoods, inspired by “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A NEIGHBORHOOD TO INHABIT. To start, choose a common term (downtown, suburbs, etc.) that broadly applies to the neighborhood where your character lives, works, or spends time. Imagine that the character (or someone else) is explaining the location of this neighborhood. What phrase or term would be used? Not every character will necessarily use the same term. People who live downtown often view anything beyond their borders as the suburban hinterland, but people living outside of downtown will say things like, “I’m only 10 minutes from downtown,” suggesting that the suburbs are farther out. What does your character (and others) call your character’s neighborhood?

Give Setting a Human Geography, inspired by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER BEHAVIOR TO OBSERVE. Just as people who buy cars or have babies tend to pay close attention to other cars and other parents with babies, all people/characters tend to notice certain behaviors more than others. The question is this: What concerns are on your character’s mind? Someone who just bought a car, for example, is worried about buying the best/cheapest/safest one. What decision has your character made or what decisions must the character make on a daily basis? The rationale for those decisions will likely cause the character to notice people with the same rationale or, perhaps, who make different choices.

Manipulate Characters with Setting, inspired by “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis

  1. START WITH A PRONOUN. Davis’ story begins with we. It’s impersonal; we could be anyone. By the end of the sentence, it’s clear that the identity of we is wholly contingent on the setting. We are the people on the airplane. Nothing else about them matters. So, give yourself a pronoun: we, he, she, us, they, it. Don’t use a name. Avoid nailing down details for now. The point is to give your story a warm body, nothing more.

 

Setting should be more than a backdrop. The best writers find ways to bring setting and drama together, forcing them to interact.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How to Start and Keep Writing After a Long Break

5 Jan

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

It’s the start of a new year, a time when dormant writing projects are taken out of drawers and dusted off and new projects are finally started. You feel as though you only need to reach out and grab the book out of the ether. Then, of course, reality sets in. You stare at the void of the blank page, and it stares back. Soon, you remember an errand that needs to be run, some housework that has been put off, a work email that needs to be answered, and before long the book has returned to the drawer.

Starting a project and continuing to write often requires a set of exercises designed to get words on the page. Give yourself enough of those words, enough images and interesting situations, and eventually your writing brain will take over.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: “The Heart” by Amelia Gray, “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton, Jam on the Vine by Lashonda Katrice Barnett, and Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett. These stories and novels are as different from one another as night and day, which means they offer very different but highly accessible approaches to setting up a situation and giving it the opportunity to grow into story.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Drop an Elephant into the Room, inspired by “The Heart” by Amelia Gray

  1. FIND YOUR ELEPHANT. Because there are in nite possibilities for a story’s elephant, there are likely in nite ways to nd them. Let’s try two. First, dig into obsessions. Here’s a good way to identify them: imagine…you’re a guest on your favorite podcast. What are you talking about? If it’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross (not really a podcast, I know, but it’s where I fantasize myself being interviewed), then you’re probably talking about your life and childhood and where you come from. But the podcast could center on some aspect of pop culture—like Back to the Future Minute, the daily podcast that discusses the lm Back to the Future one minute at a time. (Yes, such a podcast really exists.) Almost all stories follow the writer’s interests or sensibilities. What are yours? Make a list. Brainstorm. Then pick one and search within it for some object (specific, tangible) to use as your elephant.

Give Your Characters What They Wish For, inspired by “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton

  1. IDENTIFY WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS. This should always be one of the first steps to writing a story. The only thing more boring than a character getting what she wants is a character sitting in a chair, not wanting anything. Most stories revolve around desires for common things: love, vengeance, money, possessions, security, certainty, self-validation (the ability to say, “I told you so”), or the resolution to some unresolved matter. Lazarus and his sisters desire life—and, more broadly, an escape from death and suffering. What does your character want? What keeps your character up at night?

Let a Character Respond to an Expected Scene, inspired by Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

  1. FIGURE OUT YOUR STORY’S EXPECTED SCENE. To do this, think about the premise of your story. If it involves ghosts, there will be an encounter with a ghost, right? If it’s a war story, someone’s going to kill or get killed. In a coming-of-age story, a character will be humiliated or embarrassed. Immigrant stories and American-abroad stories usually involve a moment of cultural difference, ignorance, or miscommunication. What is a scene that is promised by your premise? These scenes are usually the reason people want to read your type of story. Readers want to see encounters with ghosts. What do they want to see happen in your story?

Turn a Premise into Drama, inspired by Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett

  1. IDENTIFY THE SOURCE OF DANGER IN THE PREMISE. For many stories, this should be simple. If there’s a villain, you’ve found your danger. If something can be broken (contract, relationship, trust), there’s got to be a character who acts as the bull in the china shop. If someone doesn’t play by the rules (whatever the rules are), that person is the agent of danger. In Everett’s novel, the risk comes from the drug-dealing neighbor. He and his brother are the ones who will likely do something bad. So, ask yourself, who in your story has the potential to behave badly?

In this first section of the book, we’ll examine some of these skills and how great writers put them to work. They might not seem glamorous at first, but they’re the basic building blocks of the artistic vision. Learn these skills, and you’ll always have them at your fingertips, even when your artistic vision feels lost or dimmed.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

Big Changes Are Coming to Read to Write Stories in 2018

2 Jan

I’ve been posting writing exercises and author interviews at this blog for five years, for a total of around 150 interviews and almost 200 exercises. It all started when the journal American Short Fiction asked me to teach a few creative writing workshops, and I doled out some standard workshop advice, most of it phrased in the negative (“Don’t do this, don’t do that”) and someone finally asked the million-dollar question, “What should we do?” I didn’t have a great answer (or any answer), so I brought in some short stories that I admired and asked the students to read passages from them closely so that we could figure out how celebrated authors had handled the same issues that we were facing. From those close readings, I developed writing exercises for my students. When the classes came to an end, I wanted to keep creating exercises based on published work, and so I told my wife, “I’m going to start a blog,” and she said, “What is this, 1994?” (She was also the one who suggested I interview authors about their craft, one of the first being George Saunders, who graciously took time from being a genius to answer some of my questions.) Now, five years later, the blog has led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

The book contains all-new exercises based on one-page excerpts from 40 writers that I admire, including Alexander Chee, Gillian Flynn, Roxane Gay, William Gibson, Kiese Laymon, Laila Lalami, George Saunders, Benjamin Sáenz, Jim Shepard, Zadie Smith, and Jesmyn Ward but also writers who challenged me. Quite frankly, I didn’t get Ben Marcus when I read his work in graduate school. I also struggled at first with Marlon James’ deep dives into his characters’ voices in A Brief History of Seven Killings. I don’t read romance and read very little women’s fiction (which I’ve learned is a defined genre), but I kept seeing Jennifer Weiner’s byline on essays arguing for the respectability of those genres and thought I’d check out her work. I was jealous of Karen Russell because she found success so early. I put off reading Teju Cole for years because I thought his novel premise sounded pompous. Like so many MFA graduates (and non-MFA writers and readers), I thought I knew what I liked. Then I actually read the books I had been avoiding or had put down early and found that they were brilliant. I think about A Brief History of Seven Killings almost every time I sit down to write.

This is easy praise, of course. Marlon James has won so much acclaim that one day someone will rent one of his old apartments and find a shoebox of awards stored behind the furnace vent. Here is, perhaps, more surprising praise, for literary writers, at least: Jennifer Weiner is a hell of a writer. In her novel, Who Do You Love, she wrote a scene that was eerily similar to a scene that I had written in a failed novel, and her scene was so much better than mine, so sharply defined and hard-hitting, that I had one of those moments all writers encounter: I thought, “Why do I even do this?”

The reason I created this blog—the real reason—was because those exercises I created for my students made me a better writer. I was teaching myself, but not just about craft. All writers continually hone their craft. Anne Lamott once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that you publish a book and feel elated, and then the next day you realize you’ve got to do it all over again. Nobody ever perfects craft. I learned that through this blog. But I also learned to read positively.

As a MFA student, I tore apart published books in order to see their faults and the seams where they didn’t quite hold together. This is natural. In workshop, you spend three hours explaining why the stories at hand don’t work; of course that mindset will bleed into your leisure reading. But the inability to enjoy new fiction is also a function of jealously. You want so badly to be recognized as a writer and so you get frustrated when people you view as your peers get tapped on the shoulder while you labor in obscurity. It makes you bitter. This, too, is natural. Some very successful, quite famous authors have made spectacularly poor shows of restraining their jealously. It makes for juicy Facebook news, but jealously also makes you a bad writer. If you can’t read your contemporaries and get excited, what sort of art will you create? Maybe you’re a seer, a remarkable genius who will invent a voice and form that revolutionizes literature. Or maybe you’ll just write the same half-baked stories over and over until you give up because journal editors and agents just don’t get it.

The thing I have learned through five years of creating exercises for this blog is to read with the expectation that the story, novel, essay, or memoir I’m about to begin will be amazing. That I will be reading in bed and shake my wife until she stops reading her own book so that I can tell her about the thing I just read. When you read positively, you don’t worry about poorly-crafted sentences or creaking plot mechanisms. Every story has its faults. Lord knows the Internet was designed for the sole purpose of explaining in great detail why the plot of The Last Jedi doesn’t hold together. (For the record, I felt like cheering when Luke brushed off his shoulders.) If you read exclusively for the faults, you only learn what not to do. You never answer the question that really matters: What should you do?

This isn’t to say that you should read without taste or aesthetic. As a former reader for two literary journals, I can tell you with 100% certainty that writing can be bad. Even published books can be bad. Generally speaking, though, you can assume that published books have achieved a basic mastery of craft, plus a little more. They’ve done something to make an agent and/or editor say, “Hey, I like this.” That isn’t easy. If you want to get jaded, sit in front of a slush pile.

The challenge as a writer is to keep jealousy and bitterness at bay. To read the way that K-12 children read, with a hunger and sense of awe. I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ brown, stained, worn living room chair, reading the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the Ring, my mom hollering that lunch was ready, my five siblings thundering into the kitchen, and me (a kid who once ate so much candy at a church Christmas party that I threw up on the way home) hollering back, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Nobody but a writer gives a damn about craft. But only the craft of creating gripping characters, worlds, and stories can keep a hungry reader in the chair at meal time.

The best writing instruction, whether it’s in a MFA program or ad hoc, is focused on the strategies that  make readers put off eating and sleeping. If you read with that idea in mind, you don’t care about genre or style. You don’t only read the authors who speak to your own experience. You read anyone that you can learn from. The best thing about reading positively is the giddiness that you feel when you hit upon a sentence or scene you can imitate or steal.

Shameless plug: Pre-order the book by clicking here.

I was once at a reading by Junot Diaz, and someone asked how he felt about the proliferation of MFA programs, and he answered that everyone who wants to do it should write a book. Not all of those books will get published. So what? Publication and publicity are the least fun parts of creating a book. The most enjoyable part is writing. I hope that The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction will help you hone the skills that bring your enthusiasm for your own story to the page.

To that end, you’ll see some changes at this website. The front page has changed, giving information about the book. The blog is still there, under the blog tab. I’ll be giving some previews of the book over the next two months before its publication date: February 28. I’ll also be posting some new exercises by authors I love. If you love the blog, buy the book. (Shameless plug, I know). Tell your friends.

Thank you for reading these exercises for the past five years. Thank you for the kind notes you’ve sent, for the likes and retweets and shares. Good luck with your writing. I hope you all write books that will keep your readers turning the pages even as food sits on the table.

An Interview with Kelly Davio

30 Nov

Kelly Davio is the author of the new essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry Northwest, The Normal School, Vinyl, The Toast, Women’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.

To read an exercise about creating story by making and breaking routine, inspired by Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio,” click here.

In this interview, Davio discusses writing with audience reaction in mind, figuring out essay length, and ordering essays within a collection.

Michael Noll

Perhaps my favorite part of the essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio” is the moment at the end you begin with “This is the part of the story when I am supposed to…” How much of that “supposed to” comes from previous essays that you’ve read and stories you’ve heard and how much of it comes from just anticipating what the reader’s reaction to your story might be?

Kelly Davio

Part of that response comes from the way that friends reacted when I told them about the incident that the essay circles around. People were upset on my behalf and were well meaning, but they mostly told me “I hope you punched the guy,” or “I would’ve called security and gotten him thrown out of the building,” or even “I wouldn’t let someone get away with that.” It became clear to me pretty quickly that, somehow, people thought I did something wrong in how I handled myself, and that if they were in my place, they’d know how to perform my role in a way that had a more satisfactory ending. As a person with feelings, that frustrated me. As a writer, it was an interesting human behavior that I wanted to investigate a little further.

Another part of the “supposed to” comes from the really simplistic ways that we treat disability in pop culture; when I think about films or books that have characters who use mobility aids of any kind, I can’t think of a single one in which that medical device isn’t turned into a prop that the character has to “overcome” in order to have a breakthrough of some kind. I wanted to subtly underscore the fact that that cinematic expectation has bled over into how we think people in very real circumstances should be expected to act.

Michael Noll

The incident that you write about in the essay is pretty awful, yet it doesn’t actually arrive on the page until over half of the way through. Did you ever try putting it at the front–that’s what young writers are told, right? To get the reader’s attention? Did you always think of the incident as part of a series of falls?

Kelly Davio

Kelly Davio’s essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability led Sheila Black to write, “If you want to know what it feels like to be a person with a disability in the 21st century, read this book.”

You know, I never did try the essay in any other order, even though many of my essays do start in the middle and then circle back to the circumstances that brought the action about. In this particular essay, I liked starting where I did because it gave me a chance to win the reader over a bit. I felt that, if I could get the audience onboard with the voice and the humanity of the person telling this story, maybe they’d care what happened to that person later.

I didn’t really think about the punch as being a fall in a literal sense, but it did seem to me like a type of fall—a falling of expectations that I had of others in my community of writers, or maybe even a fall from grace in being a “good” sick person who takes crummy treatment without complaint.

Michael Noll

I wonder if you could talk a bit about essay form and your approach to it. Most of your essays are a few pages long and were published originally (like most essays written today) in online journals. How much of their length, scope, and structure has been dictated by how they’re read and where they’re published (online versus in print)? On the other hand, “Our NHS” is quite long. What prompted the change in length and form?

Kelly Davio

Most of these essays did appear online first, as you say, and I wrote them with specific word counts in mind for the venues that were publishing them. When I was writing for The Butter, for example, 500 words per piece was about right for the format and the audience. It was also about right for the pace at which I was writing the essays; my column appeared every two weeks, so I needed to write shorter material if I was going to have enough time to get each piece into publishable shape on deadline.

That’s a pretty tight word count, though, and when I was putting the entire collection together, I didn’t want the whole book to read as a series of snappy takes, as though I was the Dave Barry of disability. That’s why I wrote some longer-form pieces, like “Our NHS,” that didn’t appear anywhere else before they came out in the book; I wanted to give the reader a chance to settle in a little bit, as though they were driving on a nice, open highway after a lot of stop-and-go traffic.

It was also enjoyable for me to write some longer, researched pieces, because that challenged me as a writer in different ways than short pieces did; brief essays don’t really have as many structural options to work with, but an extended essay can be put together in any number of different ways, and I found it really pleasurable to puzzle out how I wanted them to gel and how I wanted them to connect the shorter pieces in the book.

Michael Noll

What was your approach to ordering the essays in this collection? 

Kelly Davio

I didn’t intend for these essays to be ordered chronologically, but as I shuffled the table of contents around, it made more and more sense that some of the first essays I wrote would open the book, and that I’d move toward the most recent.

There are some exceptions, but in general, I wrote these essays about topics that were immediate to me; in many cases, the pieces in the collection were written within a few days or weeks of the incidents that they describe, so ordering the book in a chronological way allowed me to present a coherent narrative set in a mostly contained time interval.

You pointed out earlier that I break with advice that’s often given to writers (about getting right into action). I’m also a big fan of ignoring advice about letting situations cool off so that you can gain perspective before writing about them. Some of the pieces that I’m happiest with are ones that I started working on right in the thick of the events that they revolve around. Those essays needed a lot of revision, of course, but there’s a kind of immediacy and unvarnished openness that (for me, anyway) comes with writing in the moment, and that’s something I want to give the reader. I don’t want to duck behind cleverness or distance—I want to be brave enough to be earnest.

November 2017

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

How to Knock Your Characters Back to Square One

28 Nov

Kelly Davio’s essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability led Sheila Black to write, “If you want to know what it feels like to be a person with a disability in the 21st century, read this book.”

Here’s another maxim of workshop: Stories are built out of broken routines. It’s a true and useful piece of advice, but when taken too directly, it can lead to a thousand versions of “A funny thing happened on the way to the ____.” While many stories eventually reach a sentence that rephrases that line, what happens before they do can make or break what comes next.

A great example of building and breaking routine in an interesting way can be found in Kelly Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio.” It was originally published at Change Seven Magazine and is included in her new book It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins with a straightforward presentation of a routine:

I’m pretty good at falling. Over the past few years of living with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned how to come down on the flats of my hands without jamming my wrists, and even if my knees bruise, I can always wear something that covers the worst of the marks so I don’t look like the victim of some kind of alarming knee-related crime.

Soon, she adds to it:

Finally, I had to admit I needed a cane; there were times when I had no shoulder to hang from, and I needed a better strategy than hoping I’d magically stay upright every moment I was alone.

So, I did it: I ordered myself a green paisley cane. Fifteen bucks, two days, and some free Prime shipping later, and I was in business.

Between her practice at falling and her new cane, Davis is doing pretty well. But then she attends AWP, the big conference for writers. She’ll see people she knows, people who will be surprised at the cane and her appearance, and so a wrench is thrown into the gears of the routine:

Heaving myself out of the car with my cane, I felt like a grade school kid worrying about what the schoolyard bullies would say about her coke-bottle glasses—my new accessory was a necessity, but something that made me uncomfortably visible.

Things at the conference go well. She even gets quoted at a panel discussion she’s attending, a writer’s dream exceeded in pleasure only by seeing a stranger reading your book. She’s feeling good…and then the routine gets broken (or remade):

It was while shuffling through the corridors with my renewed sense of confidence that I felt the fist in my back. A man walking behind me had, for no reason I can imagine, punched me between the shoulder blades.

I flew forward. I came down, knees cracking hard on the concrete floor, trying to fall so that I wouldn’t injure myself, but failing in the brute surprise of it all.

The usual order of a routine break goes like this: routine, introduction of some new and disruptive element, no more routine. But Davio has done something that is at once more realistic and more interesting. She develops a routine and then adapts it to her surroundings and changes she cannot control. She rolls with the punches, so to speak, until one literally knocks her down. That punch also knocks her back to the conditions that existed before her routine began, when she was not yet “pretty good at falling.” The question for the reader becomes this: What will happen now that she’s back at square one?

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create, break, and remake a routine, using “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Find the conditions that force your character to create a routine. For Davio, it’s the physical condition that causes her to fall. Most of us know our own conditions. For me, I don’t buy chips or candy because I know that I’ll eat it all in one feeding. I have plenty of will power—except around those things. Other people avoid or seek out other items or experiences. This step goes hand-in-hand with the creation of the routine. What does your character (or, in the case of essay and memoir, you or your people) need to seek out or avoid? Why?
  2. Let the routine adapt to failure. Davio needs to avoid falling but cannot. So, she gets better at falling. What she avoids is not falling itself but the dangerous landing. If a routine removes your character from danger completely, it’s probably not a good routine—at least for story purposes. (In real life, it might be a great routine.) How can you make the conditions from the previous step unavoidable or impossible to embrace (if sought out)? In other words, how can you make the routine a matter of dealing with the conditions but not changing them completely?
  3. Continue to adapt. Davio eventually buys a cane. Falling well is no longer sufficient or possible. What happens when your character’s routine no longer works as well as it needs to? What does your character add, remove, or change?
  4. Introduce a moment of doubt. For Davio, this comes when she enters a new place: a conference as opposed to her home and usual surroundings. For your character, what change or shift in setting or situation makes the chronic conditions seem suddenly more intense or more dangerous?
  5. Let the character thrive—at least for a moment. For a while, Davio has a terrific conference experience. It’s a relief to her and also to her readers, who are dealt a reprieve from the dread of wondering what bad thing will occur. As a general rule, avoid ramping up your plot or complications in an orderly or predictable way. If things seem to be getting worse (or better), change up the trend.
  6. Knock your character back to life before the routine. For Davio, this happens literally. She started the essay by learning to fall well, but now she has fallen badly. The pivotal moment in her story, then, is both the introduction of something new and disruptive (the guy who punches her) and also a return to the original conditions as they existed before she adapted to them with her routine. What new element could return your character to square one?

The goal is to create a trend (problem, solution, fine-tuned solution) and then break it in a way that play toward and against the reader’s expectations.

Good luck.

An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll

Spineless

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

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

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