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An Interview with Katie Chase

20 Apr
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

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

An Interview with Alexandra Burt

9 Mar

Alexandra Burt is the author of the bestselling Remember Mia. Her new novel is The Good Daughter.

Alexandra Burt is the author of the novels Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. She was born in Fulda, Germany, a baroque town in the East Hesse Highlands. Days after her college graduation she boarded a flight to the U.S. She ended up in Texas, married, and explored a career in the student loan industry. After the birth of her daughter she became a freelance translator, determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations.  The union never panned out and she decided to tell her own stories. She currently lives in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Chocolate Labrador Retrievers.  One day she wants to live on a farm and offer old arthritic dogs a comfy couch to live out their lives. She wouldn’t mind a few rescue goats, chickens, and cats. The more the merrier. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.

To read an excerpt from Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter and an exercise on moving between exterior action and interiority, click here.

In this interview, Burt discusses prologues, shifting between time periods in a novel, and the lure and importance of setting.

Michael Noll

I really admire the prologue of The Good Daughter, which does the work that so many prologues do: setting up situation, creating suspense. But it also spends time in Dahlia’s head, building her as a character, which can be difficult to do when you’re focused on hooking readers with story. How did you approach this prologue? Was it written early or late in the process?

Alexandra Burt

Prologues shouldn’t be too elusive, after all we don’t care about the characters, haven’t even met them yet. You can reveal character and move the plot along at the same time, like an opening scene in a movie. In The Good Daughter I wanted to create suspense and arouse curiosity regarding plot as well as characters.

The prologue was written early on as a vignette, it was the moment two characters meet; Dahlia as a child doing what she spent the better part of her life doing, going from place to place without really belonging, wondering what’s in store in the next state, the next city. It is a crossroads of sorts for the main character, a metaphor for her life and the beginning of putting down roots in Aurora, Texas. She has an encyclopedia in her lap and if she can’t figure where she’s going, she can at least look up the meanings of words she encounters along her journey. So in a way she does what she’s going to do for the entire novel: figuring out the meaning of her memories, her mother’s stories. The prologue is also chockfull of symbols: the first few pages of the encyclopedia are missing, the number seven (the seeker of truth), Red Vines turning her lips crimson. I play with symbolism a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes it’s just the way my scrabble ends up on the page. It is also very concrete in being a scene at a diner, a suspicious meeting by the side of the road. A prologue can do many things, like the opening scene of a movie.

Michael Noll

The novel moves back and forth between Dahlia’s present and past. Moves like this can be a risk in that readers become so engaged in one story line and moment that the shift in time feels like an interruption. That isn’t the case here. Did you move back and forth as you wrote, or did you focus on one and then the other before breaking them into pieces?

Alexandra Burt

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

I immensely enjoy novels that move back and forth between present and past—The Weight of Water by Anta Shreve comes to mind—but moving back and forth can be a tricky structure, I agree. Advantages of a dual timeline are a deeper plot and theme and greater character development. Disadvantages are that readers lose interest or get confused and frustrated. One can lose a reader at the drop of a dime unless both storylines are equally captivating.

The characters in The Good Daughter fed off each other and I jumped back and forth as I wrote. I had a plot in mind but I allowed the present and past to feed off each other. There was a tangible connection that I explored as I went along—the past had never died, its symbol the farmhouse that stood untouched for decades. I had to pay close attention to the transitions and really connect the two plots toward the end of the story. In general, there should be a strong relationship between the two plots, geographically, symbolically, or otherwise, and both stories must be strong in their own right.

Michael Noll

The novel is a mystery, but it’s also in many ways a quiet novel about a particular place. I’m curious which of these elements—the mystery or the sense of place—first drew you to these characters and story?

Alexandra Burt

It began as a mystery in a Texas setting: a body in the woods, an olfactory disorder, and a possible serial killer. The original title was Scent of a Crime. At some point I realized that I wanted to add another layer to the novel; I may have constructed a plot-driven mystery but something was amiss. I wanted the setting to be a character in itself and in many ways the story required a kind of Texas that was deeper than tacos and football and rodeos—forgive me for stereotyping—a Texas that could seep into the reader’s pores. I imagined a small town forgotten by time but also a place where secrets don’t die, where buildings sit untouched for decades, where the ghosts of the past remain. Once Aurora came alive, the story changed from plot-driven to a more character-driven novel. There is history wherever you go all over this country, some well-known and documented, but there need not be a historical marker or tourist attraction in order to tell a story about the place and the people. Aurora, though fictional, was such a place; once I imagined it, there was no going back and it took on a life of its own.

Michael Noll

You’re a member of Sisters in Crime, the national network of women crime writers–and I know there’s an active group here in Austin. A lot of writers are familiar with MFA programs and don’t necessarily know about groups like Sisters in Crime. What role has the group played in your development as a writer?

Alexandra Burt

I live about an hour north of Austin and I can’t participate in meetings as much as I want to, unfortunately. As a writer—and writing is a solitary profession—we need to belong and network and support each other. There still is a gender bias when it comes to women writing crime, even though women seem to dominate the headlines ever since Gone Girl hit he shelves. But the numbers speak to a deeper truth: only one third of published authors across all genres are women and therefore, by default, books written by men will be disproportionately reviewed more in the media and consequently men win more awards than women. It is important for women to support each other.

There are local chapters all over the country, even a special chapter, The GUPPIES, with beginning writers who share publishing information and offer critique groups. The organization has been around since 1986 and has been thriving ever since. We are here to stay.

“You write alone, but you are not alone with Sisters,” as they say.

March 2017

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

An Interview with Siân Griffiths

2 Mar
Sian Griffiths

Siân Griffiths directs the creative writing program at Weber State University. Her story, “The Key Bearer’s Parents” was published at American Short Fiction.

Siân Griffiths directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She holds a BA from the University of Idaho and an MA and PhD from the University of Georgia, where she specialized in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewAmerican Short FictionRedividerFifth Wednesday JournalQuarterly West, Ninth Letter, and Baltimore Review, among many other publications. Her poem “Fistful,” first published in Ninth Letter, was included in the 3rd edition of Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses, a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was inspired, in part, by her work with the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1999-2000. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse and is at work on her second novel.

To read an exercise on grounding a story’s hook, inspired by Griffiths’ story “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” click here.

In this interview, Griffiths discusses her favorite advice about structuring flash fiction, using tense shifts, and the different creative impulses that drive poetry and fiction.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from Ron Carlson, who says that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story enters. I was struck in “The Key Bearer’s Parents” how clearly you lay out both. The first paragraph introduces the characters (clown parents, resentful son) and then next paragraph shifts gears pretty dramatically, introducing the possibility of nuclear war and the “key bearer plan.” The juxtaposition is unexpected and exciting. Was the story always laid out this way? Or did you have to discover this structure?

Siân Griffiths

It was definitely one I discovered as I drafted. I knew where the story was going before I started writing, which is actually fairly rare for me, but in my first draft, the key bearer plan came in much later, closer to when the son volunteers to fill the position. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s an amazing reader, and he asked if I had considered introducing that element earlier in. As soon as he asked, I knew that was exactly what the story needed, and I realized that Congress would have been debating this for some time, and so the story of the bill’s creation became a story running on a not quite parallel line to the son’s. Each plot line culminates at the moment they intersect.

Michael Noll

I recently heard someone say that flash fiction takes places within a scene, but not this story. It covers decades. Did it start out longer? Did you ever try out different chronological frames?

Siân Griffiths

My favorite advice about structuring flash fiction is something that the writer Pam Houston said, which was that in flash, the conflict doesn’t need to resolve, but the key image must resolve. I think that may be true of this story, though it’s less obviously true for me here than in other flash I’ve written. For this one, I had the ideas that I wanted to put in this story for some months before I figure out how I could weave them together. It was the voice that got me. As soon as I had “We were good parents,” I had all the pieces I needed and wrote it quite quickly (that is, if we’re defining writing as the actual putting into words and not the lengthier conceptualizing part.) I think because it takes that voice–that of parents telling their story–it’s able to jump through years quite quickly. It acts like the kind of story we tell our friends at a party or a bar–or, maybe in this case, sobbing over a coffee. It takes on that kind of relationship to time, where hindsight allows us to see the relevant events that led to the current moment.

Michael Noll

I also love the tense shifts. For example, near the end, the story shifts from past to present tense: “Our son was already filling out the online application. And now that he’s been selected…” This is the sort of thing that writing workshops tend to chew up, but it seems to give you great flexibility in moving through time in the story. Was it difficult to get these tense changes right?

Siân Griffiths

Oh, that’s well spotted! Honestly, I think that move came instinctively, arising out of that voice and the moment of the narration. I wanted to capture the voice of these parents right in the moment where they’re dealing with this new reality, the moment of fear and not knowing what will happen next. For me, that’s the moment of honest emotion. If it’s further ahead in time, when they know whether the son will be safe or not, then I think it would lose its heat.

Michael Noll

You’re a poet in addition to a fiction writer, a not unheard-of combination but also not very common. Are the impulses to write a poem and story similar? Do you sit down to write and discover, as you write, what form the piece will take? Or are the two forms separate in your mind: poetry on Tuesday and fiction on Wednesday, so to speak?

Siân Griffiths

Yes—I’ve never been any good at sticking to a single genre, which was always a bit of an issue in both undergraduate and graduate school, where I was asked to specialize. I tend to write prose most often—essay/memoir or fiction—but poetry has definitely always been an interest and I’ve just drafted my first screenplay, which was a whole new challenge. I feel like each genre offers its own possibilities and limitations. For instance, a poem doesn’t necessarily have the same push for closure as a story, so if I start with an image or bit of language and just want to kind of languish there with it a while, then I tend to write a poem. If I want to explore a character or a situation, then I write a story. If I want to talk about a real life incident I can’t stop thinking about, then I write an essay. Everything starts in my journal as fragments and notes, many of which go nowhere. The once that have heat stay with me and bug me to keep writing about them. Each piece comes with its own impulse, and I tend to know what I’m writing when I start.

“Tend to” is the operative phrase here, though, because I’ve definitely been wrong. For instance, I wrote this poem that I wrote that I really loved, but every time I sent it out, it was rejected. I couldn’t understand it. I was as proud of that poem as I’d been of anything, but I stopped sending it out, deciding I needed to figure out what was wrong. A year or two later, I read a Steve Almond essay suggesting that some failed poems might actually be flash fiction. (For those interested, the essay is called “Getting the Lead Out: How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories” and it’s in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.) I pulled out my line breaks, revised a bit, sent it out again, and sure enough, it was quickly picked up by a great journal. And so I learned that sometimes I need to loosen the reins, and that as much as I think I know what I’m writing, I always have to be ready to be wrong and let the piece become something else.

March 2017

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

An Interview with Paige Schilt

27 Feb

 

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Dr. Paige Schilt is a writer, mother, teacher, activist and band wife. Her stories have appeared on The Bilerico Project, Offbeat Families, Mutha Magazine and Brain, Child. She is a frequent speaker and facilitator at conferences, including Gender Odyssey, Contemporary Relationships, Creating Change and Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. Schist is married to Katy Koonce, frontman for the band Butch County. They live in Austin, Texas, with their son.

To read an excerpt from Queer Rock Love and an exercise on structuring a character’s internal conflict around action, click here.

Michael Noll

Queer Rock Love covers a lot of years, starting literally at the births of you and Katy and moving far beyond the falling-in-love and getting-married part of your story together. How did you approach the book’s structure? Or, to put it another way, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the book?

Paige Schilt

I wish I had a smart answer to this question. The truth is, many of the chapters in Queer Rock Love originated as blog posts for The Bilerico Project. In fact, the last few chapters were among the first stories that I wrote. As a result, I struggled for a long time to find the plot. I knew that I wanted to write against the typical transgender partner narrative, which tends to portray coming out as the crisis and surgery or transition as the resolution. That led me to begin with the moment I first saw my wife in a full beard and prosthetic man chest—not because it was love at first sight (which it was), but because there would be no secrets to reveal about her trans status.

I also knew that I wanted to write about the imbrication of life and death, and that Katy’s struggle with hepatitis C would unfold in the context of our son’s infancy. Writing about hepatitis C was a challenge, because chronic illness doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable crisis. It’s more like a miasma, which is what makes it so oppressive. I had to think a lot about how much sickness I thought my readers could handle. I ended up leaving out certain medical events, which continues to be a bone of contention in my marriage! That’s something you rarely hear memoirists talk about—the possibility that the people you wrote about will dwell on the details you didn’t tell.

Michael Noll

In her review of the book, Marion Winik points out that you don’t do “a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues.” On one hand, this seems like a natural choice since the story you’re telling isn’t exactly theoretical: it’s about love and marriage and the challenges that married people face all over the world. On the other hand, it’s a love story that is new to a lot of people—and you’re an academic who name drops Lacan, so the language of theory is one you’re intimately familiar and comfortable with. How difficult was it to find your voice in this memoir?

Paige Schilt

Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

I started writing these stories in 2008, and I didn’t finish the book until 2015, so I had a lot of time to transform my voice. I was teaching LGBT film studies for a large part of those years, and the book is informed by my readings of Jack Halberstam, Eve Sedgwick, José Munoz, and many others. At first, I was tempted to plunk down a quotation from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in my chapter on breast feeding. Now that I’ve read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I feel like I could have indulged that impulse a bit more. At the same time, the fellow writers in my writing workshop tended to feel like I was losing the thread of the story when I made theoretical asides. In the end, I think I found a kind of compromise position. I’m proud of the section in the prologue where I write about my aversion to gender essentialism through the story of my 1970s childhood dolls, the Sunshine family. I think the key is helping the reader feel what’s at stake, in a personal way, with theoretical ideas.

Michael Noll

Going along with the lack of theoretical heavy lifting, I love the way that you mix action with interiority. So, for example, you start a chapter with buying a duplex rather than thoughts about your relationship. Did these scenes and moments come together naturally in your writing, or did you have to realize, oh yeah, that happened and it’s a good opportunity to write about what I was thinking at the time?

Paige Schilt

I didn’t think specifically about mixing action with interiority, but I did think a lot about pacing and economy. And I do experience my inner life as a dynamic dialogue with ideas and people and things. For instance, the moment when I realize that Katy has thrush because I’ve read about the symptoms in AIDS memoirs—I literally did have that sense of recognition. Was I really rummaging through the linen closet when it came to me? I’m not sure—but I needed to place that realization in a context of collecting extra toiletries for Katrina survivors, because I wanted our personal tragedy to be contextualized by the epic tragedy in New Orleans.

Michael Noll

I was recently at the AWP conference, moderating a panel on writing about class, and I asked the panelists how they handle perceived or real exoticism in their work—details that seem shocking or weird to some readers but are just part of the fabric of life for the characters or narrator. As a writer, how do you use those details to maximum effect and hook the reader but also portray them as they seem to the people involved with them. I thought of this again with your book. In an interview in OutSmart, you write about pitching the book to editors and agents, who wanted a more “tragic, sensational story.” The title of the memoir seems to accomplish two things. It’s probably pretty eye-catching to some readers, but it’s also an accurate, unembellished description of the book. Was it difficult to pull off both at once?

Paige Schilt

I think this connects back to the question of plot. A lot of transgender partner or family narratives focus on surgery or physical modifications to the body. I wanted to write matter-of-factly and informatively about Katy’s chest surgery and other potentially sensational matters, including how we conceived our son. In those chapters, my imagined readers are other gender nonconforming families like ourselves, those who might need some roadmaps for this unorthodox journey. At the same time, I didn’t want our family life to be reduced to just that one thing, because I wanted to portray the complexity of our life. In the end, I think that’s what compels most readers. They find some other aspect of our lives that they identify with. A lot of readers write to me because they have also nursed someone through a long illness and they’re glad that I wrote about how hard it is to be a caregiver.

Some of my mentors cautioned me not to put the word “queer” in the title. For a long time, I thought Queer Rock Love was just my working title, but then it stuck. The phrase comes from the song “Dyke Hag” by the band Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, who also appear in the book. The song is a celebration of queer creative community and the non-nuclear-family ties that bind. When I was writing the book, the title was like a string around my finger, reminding me to always keep the big picture of queer community in mind, even as I was writing about marriage and parenting. In other words, this iteration of “queer” is less about the (possibly sensational) subject of who you have sex with. It’s about community.

February 2017

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

An Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

16 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called "a wealth of talent."

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called “a wealth of talent.”

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s also taught creative writing to bilingual second graders, sold Mexican handcrafts at a flea market in Spain, and played Santa Claus at a French school in Silicon Valley. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs will be published by Scribner on March 10.

To read an excerpt from his story “Madrid” and an exercise on writing moments of high emotion, click here.

In this interview, Ruiz-Camacho discusses beginning stories with a strong lede and haunting images and introducing unexpected twists in dialogue.

Michael Noll

The opening of “Madrid” ends with an almost Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger: “There are no curtains or blinds on the windows to keep the buzz away because we don’t worry about privacy and security here. We don’t have to care about that anymore.” It not only made me want to find out what was going on, it also set up a sense of dread well before the first grisly detail of the kidnapping arrives. Did you always begin the story in this way?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Yes, I wanted to open with an intense sense of the kind of traumatic experience the protagonist was going through, even though you could say it’s a rather slow opening in terms of movement or action.

I always like to start with a striking image, or at least a lede strong enough to hook the reader in–an opening so intriguing and complex that the reader feels she has no option but to keep reading. I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning, you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.

Michael Noll

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The father’s kidnapping is juxtaposed with the birth of the narrator’s son, and this juxtaposition makes a lot of sense (death and life), but then you introduce the dog and its wounded paw, which fits in terms of the sense of being wounded. But, it also complicates the imagery, making it difficult to think in the fairly simple terms of birth and death. I’m curious if the dog was always in the story–or if the baby was always in it. I imagine it could be tempting to start out with a simpler story and then gradually make it more complex.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I think both of them were in the story since the very beginning. I don’t plan ahead the topics in my stories or even the personalities or circumstances of the characters that populate them. Usually it all starts with a character showing up in my mind in the form of a haunting image. In the case of “Madrid,” it was the image of the first box that appears in the story. The moment I saw it I knew exactly what it contained, but that was it. Writing the story then became an investigation around that image, trying to find out who was the recipient of that box, what had happened to him. As I kept working on the story I realized that he was the son of a man who had disappeared, that he’d just had his first son, and that his dog was sick. It all came together at once. I would like to say that I get to make decisions about the characters in my stories, but that’s not the case. They show up as they are, and keep haunting me until I put their story on paper. The most I can do is to highlight one aspect of their personality over others less relevant to the story in order to build a compelling narrative. What you leave out in a story is many times more important than what you keep in.

Michael Noll

The story ends with a kind of ghostly appearance and involves some pretty weighty dialogue. This scene could have been unbearably sentimental, a kind of literary Touched by an Angel, but it’s not that at all. What was your approach to this scene, especially the dialogue? Did you struggle to keep it from being overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, the way last lines between characters (and real people) are often overwhelmed with the realization that the end has come?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

That section of the story was actually one of the easiest to write. These two characters had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate through that exchange since the beginning. What I personally like about it is that both characters remain honest and true to their feelings throughout, regardless of the significance of the moment. They stay fragile and funny and cynical and confused, and neither one of them tries to “make sense” of this encounter, or to purposely deliver any message to the reader–their transformation as characters, if you will, emerges from their acceptance of the moment as it comes. My work there was to make sure that I didn’t interfere with the relationship between them or try to force the ending of the story or the direction of this final exchange to a perfect closure.

My personal opinion is that dialogue works best when we let characters express what they really want, and then work with that material, trying to incorporate it organically into the story, instead of forcing them to say what we think would be “better” to advance the story. Also, if I may add, having unexpected twists in dialogue exchanges is always useful to enhance their impact. This is a pretty dramatic, emotionally charged, scene, and yet there are some really funny or just downright absurd lines in it. I think that’s what, hopefully, makes it work.

Michael Noll

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's essay, "Keepsakes from Across the Border," was published as one of The New York Times "Private Lives" essays.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s essay, “Keepsakes from Across the Border,” was published as one of The New York Times’ “Private Lives” essays.

You published an essay in The New York Times about taking your kids to Mexico for the first time. You grew up there, and so you saw in their experience of the country the same wonder and bafflement that you saw on your early trips to the United States. It’s a sweet essay about universal experience. And yet, many of the readers’ comments were blistering, accusing the piece of bigotry against Mexicans, of all things, and also of simplistic assumptions about Americans—which other commenters complicated by spouting racist garbage. The reaction to the essay seemed to sum up a kind of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic writers in the United States. As a writer, do you just have to ignore all of that? Is that even possible? How do you approach your work in what seems like such a charged, toxic environment?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

First I’d like to say that I don’t perceive the environment in which I write as especially charged or toxic, just the opposite. The encouragement, support, and opportunities my work and I have received over the last few years have been just incredible. Also, maybe because of my journalistic background, or maybe because I’m morbidly curious, I’m one of those rare writers who look forward to reading all kinds of comments from readers–they’re like little pieces of characterization in and of themselves. Commenters reveal so much about themselves in those posts, especially in both the most scathing and the most heartfelt ones, and I find that fascinating.

All of that said, one of the things that you must assume as a writer since the very beginning, regardless of your background, is that your work is public and everyone is free to have and express an opinion about it. Some people will relate to, or even like, your work, and many others won’t. It’s impossible to write something that pleases everybody. That’s why I think the writer should only write for herself. Once a story or an essay is finished, I, of course, hope many people will connect with it, and I love when a reader reaches out to say he or she liked what I wrote, but none of that matters when I’m writing.

At the same time, a negative opinion is, after all, a reaction to your work, emotional, intellectual or otherwise, which is pretty great. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that readers welcome her work with indifference. As writers, I think we should aim at eliciting intense, memorable reactions on our readers, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The nature of those reactions is, to a great extent, beyond my control and, therefore, none of my business.

Originally published in February 2015

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

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

12 Feb
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

Originally published in May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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

8 Feb

unknownThis fall, I’ll have the privilege of publishing a book inspired by this blog: a collection of writing exercises accompanied by one-page excerpts from the novels and stories that inspired them. The book is titled The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, and it’s forthcoming from A Strange Object.

This week at the AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., I’ll moderate a panel on narrative structure with the authors of four of the novels excerpted in the book: LaShonda Barnett, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, and Daniel José Older. Their books are—and I’m understating this—freaking awesome, and I can’t wait to pick their brains. If you’re around, come say hello. Here are the details:

A Field Guide for the Craft of Fiction: Finding Structure

Virginia Barber Middleton Stage, Exhibit Halls D & E, Convention Center, Level Two
Thursday, February 9, 2017
12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Following the panel, be sure to stop by A Strange Object’s table (421-T), where I’ll be hanging out with a special preview of the book.

I’ll also moderate a panel about writing fresh narratives about class, featuring the writers Kelli Ford, Rene S. Perez II, Natalia Sylvester, and Justin St. Germain:

Beyond Rags to Riches: New Approaches to Writing about Class

AWP Bookfair Stage, Exhibit Halls D & E, Washington Convention Center, Level Two
Friday, February 10, 2017
3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Finally, as Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas, I’ll be holding down the fort and talking up Texas at the Writers’ League table: 756-T. Come say hello!

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