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An Interview with Christopher Brown

10 Aug

Christopher Brown is the author of the novel Tropic of Kansas, which William Gibson called “a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”

Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas. He was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows, The Baffler, and Reckoning. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he also practices technology law.

To read an excerpt from Tropic of Kansas and an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Brown discusses writing his story from the ending, how he knew what getting hit by a rubber bullet felt like, and writing a near-future dystopian novel in the current political climate.

Michael Noll

The novel starts out with a fairly tight frame, with Sig escaping custody. We learn that the United States is led by a despotic leader, but the narrative seems less about revolution and more about individual survival. Gradually the narrative frame broadens to include revolution, and I’m curious if you always knew this would be the case. Did you know that Sig would get drawn into larger and larger events? Or did you stumble into them, along with him? 

Christopher Brown

I always knew where the story was going to go, but only a vague plan for how it would get there. The ending was the first thing I wrote. I knew who the three core characters were, and where they were going to end up, but not much beyond that. I also knew that I wanted Sig’s trajectory to follow the model traced by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book Bandits, a study across cultures and eras of how a common thief will sometimes evolve into a social bandit and then revolutionary leader.  And I knew that the story had to be found through an episodic approach, in a way that would be truer to real life and structurally similar to adventure pulps. It took a lot of work to write my way into a coherent narrative using that approach, but I think it was the right way to go

Note: Brown discusses Hobsbawm and Bandits further in this post at Criminal Element.

Michael Noll

There are a lot of fighting and battle scenes in this book. What was your approach to writing these? Did you do any research on how they might have played out?

Christopher Brown

The book aims at a speculative realism, constructed as much as possible from the material of the observed world, remixed and inverted. Most of the places the book goes mirror places I have spent substantial time in, all the characters draw from real life, and many of the physical injuries are ones I have suffered (a friend told me what it feels like to be shot with a rubber bullet).  The scenes of armed conflict and uprising draw on a mix of events from revolutions and wars that have occurred in other countries, embellished with real elements I have witnessed (including as a young journalist traveling through conflict zones and as a government lawyer overseeing federal law enforcement efforts), all put together in a way that tries to repurpose the material of American action stories toward more emancipatory ends.

Michael Noll

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the major plot points in the novel hinges on the way people who oppose the government are able to secretly communicate via television. Was this something you made up, or did you discover this as a possibility that could (or actually does) exist?

Christopher Brown

There’s a romance to those analog broadcast technologies, things that once embodied the future and now seem part of a static-ridden past. They have a cool aesthetic that I was intuitively drawn to, boosted by the idea of popular repossession of technologies of institutional power. But the networks I imagined also drew on real technologies I once worked with, at a software company that developed early interactive television systems that could transmit digital information over analog TV networks.  So again, an effort at speculative realism.

Michael Noll

Anyone who reads this book will be struck by parallels with our current state of political affairs. But I’m guessing this novel was written long before our current president had even declared his candidacy. When you began revising in preparation for publication, did you give much thought to these parallels, or did you try to treat the novel’s world as its own creation?

Christopher Brown

I started the book in earnest in early 2012 and finished it in November of 2014. At the time, I thought some of the political elements of the story were so implausible that I sat on it for a while, sending it only to a few colleagues. But everything in the book drew on things I saw in the world around me, in the same way that our current political realities reflect deep currents that have been developing for years. For example, as I wrote in an essay earlier this year, the idea of the businessman-politician running the country like a company has been around for decades. Many science fiction novels that get called prescient are just good examples of naturalistic inversions whose “futures” really just emphasize things evident in the present. During editorial revisions last year, I was obviously aware of current events, but focused more on drawing out the ecological themes that had worked their way to the surface, and fine-tuning the story I already had. The world of the book is an imagined one, almost like another character, and the challenge is letting that world be true to itself within the confines of the story, while at the same time striving for fidelity for deeper truths.

For further reading about the book, some recent essays by Christopher

Dystopia is Realism”—LitHub, July 10, 2017

You’re Fired—Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO”—NewCoShift, March 15, 2017

The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature”—Tor.com, July 13, 2017

The Big Idea Behind Tropic of Kansas”—Scalzi’s Whatever, July 13, 2017

The Summer of Living Dangerously”—Sirens of Suspense, July 2017

August 2017

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

An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

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

An Interview with Nicky Drayden

20 Jul

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods, named a Wall Street Journal and Barnes & Noble pick for best read of the year so far.

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shimmer and Space and Time. She is a systems analyst and resides in Austin, Texas, where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required.

To read an excerpt from The Prey of Gods and an exercise on foreshadowing later novel developments, click here.

In this interview, Drayden discusses throwing together random characters from her sketch file, creating consequences for fantastical elements, and getting readers to identify with characters.

Michael Noll

There are so many different characters in the book—and so many different aspects from various types of science fiction and fantasy genres. Were all of the characters and all of the elements (gods, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation) present from the beginning, or did you discover some of them as you wrote?

Nicky Drayden

Right before I started writing The Prey of Gods, I picked six random characters from my character sketch file and stuck them in a setting together. I had a pretty good idea of what would happen in each character’s first chapter, so many of the plot and genre elements were at least seeded in my mind, but I had no outline beyond that. Weaving together these disparate storylines was one of the most challenging parts of writing the novel. But it was a lot of fun, too.

Michael Noll

In the same vein, there are so many wild things that happen in the book—which is one of the traits that reviewers have remarked upon, favorably. In a way, the novel reminds me of when I used to teach creative writing to third-graders, and every story they wrote gradually added new layers: dinosaurs, ninjas, robots, meteors, etc. At a certain point, their stories weren’t really stories anymore but accumulations of interesting things. Your novel is like that in a way–it’s full of scenes that seem more imaginative and interesting than the last one, but never collapses under the weight of so many cool elements. Was it ever difficult to maintain an air of plausibility? Did you find yourself cutting scenes or parts because they seemed like one thing too many? 

Nicky Drayden

Wow, I would totally read a story about dinosaur robot ninjas in a meteor shower! Yeah, I probably walked right up to that line of “too much” and spit over it. I never questioned if I was throwing in too much spectacle, but I did spend a lot of time setting up consequences to the fantastical elements to make them more palatable. Mind control can be seen as your standard wish fulfillment scenario, but when you learn that every time Muzi control someone’s mind, he gets imprinted with that person’s darkest memory, all of a sudden readers are like….ohhhhh. The plot is outrageous and fantastical, but the consequences of those fantastical elements are real and relatable. At least, that’s what I was aiming for.

Michael Noll

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

The basic premise of the novel is eye-catching, but we don’t really learn what it is until about 60 pages in—and that one short lab scene is just one part of the overall plot. One of the things that you sometimes hear as a writer is that the plot should kick off early. Did you ever experiment with front loading the plot in a different way?

Nicky Drayden

Establishing six different characters takes a bit of time, and basically you have the equivalent of asking your reader to start six different books. This requires a reader to put tremendous trust in the author, which can be tough with a debut novel. If you start off with interesting characters in sticky situations, I think you can get away with quite a bit before readers start wondering when the plot is going to kick in. A hallucinogenic drug. A secretly sentient AI. A nail tech giving magical manicures, and a little girl who discovers she can fly. You get all that in the first four chapters, which gives you a taste of the strangeness to come. And the upside of having six characters is that almost every reader will be able to identify strongly with at least one of them.

July 2017

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

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

15 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which has been called “auspicious,” “complex,” and “caustically funny.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Greenidge discusses describing characters, acknowledging the role of power in race, and finding an agent who appreciated her novel.

Michael Noll

I love the way you introduce Charlie. A character says that “it’s best we all meet Charlie now,” but the introduction isn’t given to the reader in a direct way. First, we see the place where Charlie lives. Then, we’re told that he’s sitting beside a fern and that a man kneels beside him—and then we’re introduced to the man. Only after this do we get to see Charlie. I love this approach because it takes the weight off his character. It’s as if the novel is saying that Charlie is important, yes, but he’s less important the everything around him. Was this introduction to Charlie simply how it arrived on the page? Or did you write it with a particular goal in mind?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I didn’t want this novel to be about chimpanzees. That isn’t, to me, what this novel is about or what it is concerned with. So, it was important to let the reader know this from the beginning. Part of it was just keeping the reader’s interest in that first chapter. Part of it was also me, as a writer, not being ready to engage with the character of Charlie yet. All of those things went into that first introduction to the character.

Michael Noll

I also love the description of Dr. Paulson, in particular this:

When she parted her lips to grin, behind her white, white teeth, I caught a glimpse of her tongue. It was the yellowest, craggiest, driest tongue I had ever seen. It surely did not belong in that mouth, in her, and I shot a look at my mother, who widened her eyes, who gave one quick shake of her head that told me to ignore it.

It’s a monstrous trait, that tongue. In an interview with Lambda Literary, you said that you love the grotesque and the mechanics of horror stories, and the tongue certainly seems to fit. It’s also a detail that turns Dr. Paulson into a kind of monster. In that same interview, you talked about writing fully-developed characters, and so I’m curious how a detail like this works in terms of character development. Did you worry that giving characters monstrous characteristics would make them more difficult to develop? Or is the monstrosity part of that complexity? It’s certainly part of what makes the book so compelling.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

That was more a private joke with myself, while I was writing. I had a teacher in school when I was a kid who used to eat chalk. He carried a stick of it in his back pocket and during class, he would bring it out and lick it. His tongue was pebbled and yellow. And, no one ever mentioned it! It was like, is no one else seeing this, how disgusting it is? So, when I was writing, I just wanted to include that detail as a reminder and a joke with some younger part of myself.

I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about.  I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.

Michael Noll

The characters are put into situations that highlight their blackness and make them objects of fascination and study. For example, Laurel likes to say of her childhood in Maine that she was the only black person in a one-hundred mile radius. The town of the novel is segregated, and the school that the girls attend is mostly white. At the Toneybee Institute, the family is made a literal object of study, and several reviewers have pointed out connections to the Tuskegee Institute. There’s a sense, then, that the Freemans’ weird situation isn’t, actually, so weird. When you began to sketch out the plot of the novel, did you have ideas or themes in mind? Did you, in other words, have something you wanted to say? Or did you invent the premise and plot first and discover what it had to say about the world?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

I wanted to write about race in post-Civil Rights America. Which is a very big and wide topic. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which we don’t really have a way to describe living race right now, because we are so averse in America to talking about power.

I just read an editorial on Al Jazeera, about how “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term. It’s an old argument, one that anyone familiar with that debate can recognize. Basically, culture is universal, all cultures borrow from each other, it was 19th century racists who popularized the idea of distinct, cultural productions in the first place so why do we cling to that idea?

All those historical facts are true, but they are missing that question of power. What does it mean that I probably won’t be hired at many places because my hair is in dreadlocks but an upper-middle class white man could wear the same hairstyle to work and be considered a wonderful iconoclast? That is a question of power, that those who go on and on about how it’s all the same never really have an answer for that.

I grew up in the 90s, when so much talk about race was about “diversity”, how everyone everywhere came from a different culture so let’s all flatten it out. The Irish potato famine is the same pain as the Holocaust is the same pain as American slavery so let’s just not talk about any of it. That is ludicrous, of course, and not how memory or history or culture or politics works. But it’s a convenient idea to cling to in order to avoid really talking about all the ways our wounds are different, and how they are serving, or not serving, us well.

It’s similar to that self-serving, smug, and ultimately meaningless phrase “Everyone is racist.” Usually, the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “so don’t worry about it/don’t try to talk about it.” We have to get to a point where we have another way to talk about racism and white supremacy beyond just calling people out. Calling people and institutions out is a powerful tool, but we also have to get to a point where we can have conversations past naming someone or a practice or an institution as racist. What does it mean to work to change an institution? Knowing that we are all imperfect, that we will never live in a utopia, that there will always be bias, that over 500 years of racist thinking and oppression cannot simply be erased over night? How do we get to a point where we get real gains, and keep them for another generation to build on? One of the heartbreaking things about studying race post-the Civil Rights era is how many things have been lost, even in the last 8 years, how much we’ve lost. It’s terrifying. So how do we begin to keep what we’ve got and what’s working?

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Daniel Jose Older about his essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” He said that he loves books that multitask and that demand multiple things of the reader. So, for example, he’s written Half-Resurrection Blues, an urban fantasy novel about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal detectives, but it’s also a novel that has a lot to say about issues of race. Kiese Laymon’s Long Division does something similar: it contains time travel and an absurdist vocabulary contest, and it’s very much a book about race. In his case, he struggled to find an appreciative editor and publisher for that book. Your book also seems like it’s multi-tasking. Did you ever think, Uh oh, I’m taking on too much? Was it ever suggested to you that the novel contained too many different elements—or elements that seem too different to some readers?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Never by my agent or my editor. When I sent it out to some agents, that was definitely a response. But Carrie read it and got it immediately. My editor Andra read it and got it as well. That was most important to me: that the people I worked with on it understood that it is a book that is “multi-tasking”, as you put it. That is a natural place for me to read from. My older sister was in college in the early to mid nineties, just in time to be hit with the full bloom of post-modern theory. She brought some of that stuff home to me and tried to talk to me about it. Like, I remember, she rented The Celluloid Closet and Paris is Burning for me when I was in elementary and middle school and we’d watch them together while she babysat me. And so, I grew up reading things for multiple meanings at a really early age—not because I was some genius, but because I was lucky enough to have an older sibling to say, “Hey, you can read things this way.” It was great: like discovering a secret code. It also meant that I could indulge in reading “low” culture books and avoid the classics, because I could always look for (and invent in my imagination) that subtext. I like books that do that and I always wanted to write one.

First published in April 2016

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

An Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

25 May

A review in Vogue called Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir a “true crime masterpiece.”

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, BookRiot, and the Huffington Post as well as a must-read for May by Goodreads, Audible.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

To read an exercise on giving a character description context, inspired by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoirclick here.

Michael Noll

The book took ten years to write—and over that ten years, you inevitably grew and changed as a person. I often find when I read work that I wrote years ago that I want to totally rewrite it. Did you do any of that with this book? I’m thinking of a moment like the one where you write, “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape” but then go on to write, “But I think now that I write because of Lorilei.” Did you have to, at times, resist the temptation to rewrite older sections so that they fit the sense of things that existed at that moment in your mind?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Oh, I rewrote this book so many times! That’s just the way I work. It’s a quirk of the book that though the idea’s been ten years in the making, and I’m been flat-out working on this conception of it for the past seven years, about half the book was written in the last year before I turned it in to my publisher. The way I thought about shaping the book was that while there’s a consistent narrator, she’s not narrating from a place where she has figured it all out already. She knows approximately where she’s going—the work I did before this draft let me know that—but there’s still a lot to figure out. So she’s telling herself a story about the past—both her past and what she understands and imagines from the records about Ricky Langley’s past—to try to understand why she’s so drawn to this story. Joseph Epstein calls personal narrative “the genre of discovery,” and that’s always felt true to me. The narrator is telling herself and the reader the stories of the past to try to discover the hold they have over her—and the structure of the book is meant to dramatize or re-enact that discovery, to induce that experience in the reader.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the sections about Ricky and his family. I can imagine how even a small detail like “Alicide driving the whole way back like a dog with his tail between his legs” could prove problematic from a journalistic perspective, prompting questions like “Did someone say this about him? How did you know?” How much license did you take in fleshing out scenes that must have occurred.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The book is written from research conducted on some 30,000 pages of court records and other documents, and at first, when I started writing from that research, I tried to do so in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. But there were several problems with that. First, the records contradict themselves in many places. They have holes and ellipses. In many cases, the legal narratives elided the contradictions, gliding right over them into a pretense of certainty—yet in my telling, I wanted to actually highlight the ellipses, and highlight that the legal narrative was constructed. Second, when I read the records, I found them incredibly vivid. I couldn’t help but see the scenes unfold in front of me. I decided that I need a more active narrator who was explicitly telling herself this story and could highlight imagining and speculate and muse on discrepancies. For example, in the scene you’re referencing, Ricky Langley’s father, Alcide, is driving. I begin the scene this way, talking about the car: “I imagine the station wagon my parents had when I was a child, but that was the early 1980s, so subtract, now, the faux-wood paneling, the power steering.” It was very important to me that the reader understand that I was telling myself a story based on the records of the past. The book is a record of one mind—mine—trying to piece the past together into a story. So the imagining is only done in service of that aim, to try to put the pieces together. That means no invented events or dialogue, just taking what’s already in the records and trying to imagine them into color, the way we all do when we hear or read something that feels real to us. As it says in the source note that precedes the text: the book became a story not just about what happened in the past, but even more than that, about the stories we make from it. It’s a true crime book and a memoir, yes—but it’s also a story about how we tell ourselves stories.

Michael Noll

This is partly a coincidence of timing, but as I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the podcast S-Town, which starts with the narrow frame of a possible crime and then explodes to a much broader frame, with people and storylines that weren’t there in the beginning. Your book does something similar as it digs into the history of the people involved. How did you figure out the frame for each section of the book and what to include and what to leave out?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

The structure of this book was one of the things that took the longest. I thought about it in a couple of ways: first, I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a braid that alternated between my life and Ricky Langley’s life, if I were going to capture the way these stories had seemed linked in my subconscious. Two, those braids couldn’t strictly remain separate over the course of the book, or I wouldn’t capture the powerful sense of how entwined they sometimes became in my mind—I wouldn’t capture the sense of being haunted that so drove me. And finally, I knew that in a book that’s largely about the way we make stories out of the past, and which concerns two crimes—Jeremy Guillory’s murder and my grandfather’s abuse of me and y siblings—stories about which have already been told many different ways, I had to have a structure that would allow me to tell and re-tell and complicate the telling of the same events without losing forward my momentum. I thought about suspense as though it were a baton in a relay race—which strand of the book was carrying it at any given moment, and how could I hand it off between sections?

Michael Noll

You’re going on tour for this book, which makes me curious how you’ll read from it. It’s one thing, I suppose, to write about painful personal details from the safety of your home and desk, but it might be quite another to read from those sections in front of strangers. How do you handle the emotional aspect of reading from this book?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the good things about how long this book took me to write is that I had many years to get used to reading from it. And to my surprise, I found that I absolutely love giving readings. After so many years of working, as you say, alone at my desk, it’s such a gift to bring these stories to people and experience the emotional connection that happens when you share your story. Yes, there are parts of the book that can feel vulnerable to share. For those, reading the audiobook of The Fact of a Body let me practice. But I’m mindful that we all have private stories hidden away inside of us, and if I can offer mine forth to help create connection between people—well, isn’t that the role of the writer?

May 2017

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

An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

18 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “unlike anything else you’ve ever read” by Robert Boswell.

Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University.  His fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review OnlineGulf CoastPost RoadPANKUnsaid, and other literary magazines, and has been anthologized in Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Gigantic Books’ Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and &NOW’s The Best Innovative Writing. Joseph is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University.  His lives in Lewisburg, PA, with his wife, daughter, and dog.

To read the story “One of the Days I Nearly Died” from Big Lonesome and an exercise on finding the right emotion for a story’s beginning, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is able to fit a tremendous amount of information into a small space. For example, there’s this bit from one sentence: 

“I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t at the time go to our family’s weekly Family Dinner Nights because he was way away in another state (Texas) with a woman we all liked (she liked him) and he for some reason didn’t…”

Another writer in a different story might have slowed down and given Texas its own sentence (Texas’ ego certainly believes it’s worth its own sentence!), but you blast past that piece of info—and then do the same thing again with “she liked him.” Did this sentence actually come out in a rush, or did you condense it from many sentences?

Joseph Scapellato

 

I happen to have one of the first drafts of this story!  Here’s that same passage, early on:

I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t go to weekly family dinner nights because at the time he was in Texas with a woman we all liked and he for some reason didn’t…

It looks like that part of the sentence definitely began in a rush.  But as you can see, it’s a blurry rush—it’s not doing much to tag its separate parts in a trackable manner.  There’s a greater risk of the reader missing things.  In later drafts, I tried to add more clarity while still preserving the crowdedness.  My goal was to enact the verbal spillage of a narrator telling a brush-with-death story, and at the same time, to suggest the “everything happening at once” experiential density of a car crash/near-car-crash.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of specific detail about place and people but leaves out at least one really important detail: what the narrator and his wife were arguing about when they said all those big ugly things. In this story, those left-out details don’t matter, but I’m curious about the process that led to this story. What’s your internal guide for what details to include and which to leave out?

Joseph Scapellato

This is such a great question.  It’s also a tough one to answer accurately, I think.  For me, I’m always trying to include details that firmly root the reader in the world of the work, so that the reader can see, feel, and smell where the character is at, coming from, and headed; however, I also want to include details (or half-details) that move the reader into the openness of the world of the work, an openness that is the same thing as mystery, the sort of mystery that permits the reader to understand the story on their own terms.

It’s almost as if there are two separate but complimentary ways for a reader to be immersed in a work: immersion through knowing, and immersion through mystery.

Practically speaking, this means that I read a draft over and over, imagining what it would be like to be a reader.  Would a reader be intrigued?  Would a reader be lost?

Michael Noll

You have published a lot of pieces, both fiction and nonfiction. When it was time to put this collection together, how did you figure out which stories would go into it and which would not?

Joseph Scapellato

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Kevin McIlvoy, an amazingly gifted writer and teacher, once told me that he thought of story collections as being somewhere on a greatest hits album/concept album continuum.  On the “greatest hits album” side are the collections that are made up of the writer’s very best stories at that moment in the writer’s life.  There’s going to be thematic resonation between these stories—they’re going to speak to one another—but this isn’t necessarily the most important guiding principle when the writer is putting together the collection.

On the “concept album” side are the collections where thematic resonation is the most important guiding principle—the stories very consciously complement and complicate one another.  They seem to have sprung from each other, like songs in a concept album.

I tried to put Big Lonesome on the concept album side of the spectrum, to make it so that the stories, when considered together, go on a journey: they begin in a mythic west (a centaur cowboy, a cowboy who encounters a filthy monster-boy in a laundromat, a cowboy who can sing animals into easy dying), move to a contemporary west (a mother who buries her son’s gun in a desert, a hike that results in a snakebite), and migrate to the contemporary midwest (two troubled brothers in Chicago, an old man forced into a retirement home by his son).  Along the way, the stories shift from the non-realistic to the realistic and from the rural to the urban.  And certain ideas (American mythology, masculinity, lonesomeness) are returned to and riffed on in different ways.

At a certain point, I looked for thematic gaps (aspects of the American West that the stories weren’t investigating) and for possible pairings (ways to connect stories, directly or indirectly).  For example, the story “Cowgirl,” which is about a human girl born out of a cow, is a sister story to “Horseman Cowboy,” which is about a centaur cowboy who goes around smashing things and having sex.  Initially, I wrote “Cowgirl” to be in conversation with “Horseman Cowboy,” to explore the same brand of damaging hypermasculinity from a different point of view.  It very quickly became its own story—with its own set of intentions—but it grew out of the thematic center of “Horseman Cowboy.”

“One of the Days I Nearly Died” is in conversation with “It Meant There Would Be More,” the story that immediately precedes it, in an even more direct way: the narrators are brothers.  They refer to each other in their respective stories.  After finishing “It Meant There Would Be More,” which is one of the longest stories in the book, I thought it might be fun to follow it up with a very short one—to shade one story with the world of another story, and to play with “dynamics.”

May 2017

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

An Interview with Maria Pinto

4 May

Maria Pinto’s story, “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” was published in Flapperhouse.

Maria Pinto‘s work has appeared in Word Riot, Pinball, The Butter, Cleaver, Menacing Hedge, and Flapperhouse, among others. She was an Ivan Gold Fellow at The Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where she walks dogs, grows a veggie garden, and does Karaoke. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She’s working on the next.

To read Maria’s story “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” and an exercise on creating character desire, click here.

In this interview, Pinto discusses the light brush strokes of flash fiction, framing narratives, and how language connects novels and much shorter forms.

Michael Noll

The opening paragraph introduces the character’s desire—to sleep with her professor—but the description of the professor depicts him as, shall we say, having less than the classic male beauty. You admit this up front: “She did not interrogate why. She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of do, do, do.” I can imagine this piece in workshop, someone saying, “Yes, but why would she be attracted to him?” Or “What does she look like?” Were you ever tempted to answer those questions?

Maria Pinto

I’m rarely tempted to answer questions like that in shorter form pieces. One reason I love flash fiction is that its brevity allows for light brush-strokes. If this story works it’s because it reflects what life is really like–people are mysterious and their motivations are mysterious, so often even to themselves. I don’t think the protagonist’s feelings are wrapped up in any deep affection, and I’m not sure it truly matters whether she’s attractive, but I do think her willingness to see “past” her professor’s looks speaks to something we do all the time without necessarily being conscious of it, and that’s surrender to invisible forces. In this student’s case, that invisible force is chemistry. Or is it physics? Sometimes the big cartoon magnet in each of us just starts working towards another person’s magnet; attraction doesn’t only happen between supermodels, right? I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic ways lust works, and by how some people feel freer to engage with their lust even when it rears up in inconvenient or even ugly places. The fact that we have no idea whether this “chemistry” is one-sided is part of the fun.

Michael Noll

This story is almost entirely composed of the character’s thoughts. Her only interaction with the professor is incidental, entering a unisex bathroom as he steps out. Other interactions might be entirely in her head—imagining that he notices her. Did you ever try to write an actual interaction? Was this story always focused on her imagining thinking about him and what that interaction might look like?

Maria Pinto

I never did try to write an actual interaction, no. Things would have gotten a little too steamy! I think this student has been enjoying that space in between “what if” and “I’m actually doing this,” unlike Prufrock, who will go through a hundred indecisions and revisions before breakfast. For her, all that imagining amounts to a kind of foreplay, and for the reader, I hope, it reminds them of the last time they watched and wanted and it was good. At the end of this piece I hope people wonder whether the professor will be able to maintain his institutional standard of ethics in the face of his student’s brazenness, but I also hope they see her fantasy as a world in itself, complete and silly and hot and mildly funny.

Michael Noll

One of my professors in grad school talked often about a narrative clock, and this story has one. She sees her professor on the bus, and we know that eventually both of them will have to get off the bus. I find that rough drafts often suffer from one of two problems: they don’t have that natural timer ticking in the background, or they have the timer but nothing else going on. Which came first in this story? The bus or the lust?

Maria Pinto

They came at the same time! Public transportation is such an odd environment–if you haven’t pressed your nose against a device or a book for your ride’s duration, chances are good you’ll make eye contact with someone. And then your relationship with that person is cemented until one of you gets off. Either you’ll look at each other again or you won’t. When you look again (and lord help you, if you smile), no matter whether you’re attracted to that person, a frisson is born. I wanted to write something that took place in that interval of a bus ride with that frisson, and the not-quite-stranger dynamic of teacher and student was the frame that immediately presented itself to me.

Michael Noll

You’re working on a novel, which is about as far away from flash fiction as one can get. Is there anything that you’ve done in a piece like this that transfers to the novel form?

Maria Pinto

This is a really interesting question. I guess it depends on what you mean by “anything.” If you mean “is there a premise in one of your pieces that could have been a novel,” I’d say that I once wrote about a grieving widow living in the sort of future where she’s able to make a suit from her dead husband’s skin and experience the world through his literal eye sockets. That could maybe get the novel treatment. And if you’re asking another type of question, I’d say that even though novels and flash fiction are worlds apart, they’re both so much better when an author is surgical and economical and cares about the poetry of her word choice–if her love of all that can be done within a single sentence shines through on the page.

May 2017

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

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