Tag Archives: A Strange Object

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.

Create Tension by Using Character Stand-ins

18 Apr
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. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” It’s included in her collection, Man and Wife, and was originally published in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008. You can read it online here.

How the Story Works

The story begins with a bold sentence: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” You don’t have to read very long before realizing that the change isn’t the one we expect. (If you don’t want details of the story spoiled for you, stop and read it now. You’ll be glad you did.)

We learn that the narrator, Mary Ellen, is remembering the day when she was nine years old and was told that her parents had promised her in marriage to a much, much older man, Mr. Middleton. From this point, we meet the husband-to-be and follow Mary Ellen through the elaborate process that will culminate in their wedding. At all times, we’re aware of the looming prospect of sex. It’s mostly addressed obliquely, as in the wry first line, but there are moments when it’s brought to the forefront of the story. For example, Mary Ellen’s mother hands her a book titled Your Womanly Body and says, “This will tell you some of what you need to know about being a wife. I imagine Mr. Middleton won’t expect much from you at first. After all, you’re still very young.”

Yet the prospect of sex presents a problem for Chase. If shown in detail, such a scene would push away many, if not most, readers. So, we never see any sex. But there is a scene like the one from Alien, and it conveys all of the creepiness and horror that is suggested by the premise.

Chase uses Barbie dolls. Mary Ellen loves to play with them, and one day Mr. Middleton comes over to her house unannounced and asks her to take him to the basement to show him her dolls. We’re shown the dolls in close detail:

Mr. Middleton dropped my hand and approached the Barbies’ houses slowly, as if in awe. The toys sprawled from one corner of the room to the other, threatening to take over even the laundry area; the foldout couch, which I maintained took up valuable space, sometimes served as a mountain to which the Barbies took the camper. There was one real Barbie house, pink and plastic; it had come with an elevator that would stick in the shaft, so I had converted the elevator to a bed. The other Barbie home was made of boxes and old bathroom rugs meant to designate rooms and divisions; this was the one Stacie used for her family. The objects in the houses were a mixture of real Barbie toys and other adapted items: small beads served as food, my mother’s discarded tampon applicators were the legs of a cardboard table. On a Kleenex box my Barbie slept sideways, facing Ken’s back; both were shirtless, her plastic breasts against him.

In Alien, there’s a pause when the Alien’s dot disappears and we’re left to wait breathlessly for it to appear again. The same thing happens here. Mr. Middleton chats with Mary Ellen about the materials used in the construction of the dollhouse—the threat has disappeared. And then, this happens:

Then he leaned down and stroked Barbie’s back with his index finger. “Do they always sleep this way?” he asked.

In Alien, when the Alien’s dot reappears, a character screams at the man in the vent to leave, to get out of there. But he’s not sure what to do or where to go. The same is true of what follows in this scene, except that we’re the ones who are freaked out, even as Mary Ellen stays put. We never see the thing itself, unlike in Alien, but the sight of the dolls standing in for that thing is just as unsettling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pivotal scene with character stand-ins, using “Man and Wife” by Katie Chase as a model:

  1. Know what is implied or promised by the premise. A good test for your story is to finish this sentence: “We know the characters are going to ____.” Or finish this one: “I hope that ___ doesn’t/does happen.” As a side note, if these sentences are impossible to finish, it may suggest that your story isn’t building suspense. After all, dread and hope can only exist if it’s possible to imagine what will happen next.
  2. Search for possible stand-ins. In Alien, the stand-in is an element of technology, which makes sense in a film about space ships in the future. In “Man and Wife,” the stand-ins are Barbies, which, again, makes sense for a 9-year-old character. Perhaps both were planned from the beginning, but it’s just as likely that both Ridley Scott and Katie Chase made use of the objects at hand. So, figure out what sort of objects/items/materials are important to your characters. What would they feel attached to or compelled to keep close?
  3. Incorporate the stand-ins into a scene. Both scenes start with the threat of something and then introduce the stand-ins. Mr. Middleton shows up unannounced (creepy!), and then they go into the basement to see the dolls. This order may be important. If he’d shown up while Mary Ellen was playing with her dolls, it might have felt too heavy-handed. Because he arrives first, creating the tension, the introduction of the dolls is unexpected, which further ratchets the tension because we’re not sure what’s coming. In your story, start writing a scene that feels as though it could be important. Then, introduce your stand-ins. You may not be sure which ones you’ll choose. Try several until one feels right.
  4. Focus on the stand-ins, not the rest of the scene. The scene from “Man and Wife” works so well because everything is channeled through the dolls. In Alien, we can’t see the Alien and so we’re forced to look at the dots. Force your characters to use the stand-ins. Give yourself and them constraints. If they must use the stand-ins (if we’re forced to pay attention to the stand-ins), what happens?

The goal is to create tension by showing an expected scene in an unexpected way. You may eventually reveal the thing itself, as in Alien, or you might not, as in “Man and Wife.” Either way, you’re using stand-ins to build suspense.

Good luck.

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!

An Interview with Sam Allingham

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sam Allingham

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

Michael Noll

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

Sam Allingham

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

Michael Noll

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

Sam Allingham

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sam Allingham

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

December 2016

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

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

He took out her money and paid for them both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

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

Good luck.

An Interview with Callie Collins

16 Jun
Callie Collins is the co-editor of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is the codirector of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here.

In this interview, Collins discusses two pieces of flash fiction and linearity, titles, and listening to the sound of your sentences.

Michael Noll

When I read these stories, the thing that immediately caught my eye is the nonlinear jumps in the narration. Sometimes they’re on the content level, like when the gar arrive in the story or when we see the girl at the bar practicing her vowels. But they also happen on the sentence level, as with the line “They approximate well” in this passage: 

Hold the grip like you’re shaking a man’s hand, Billy instructs the boys, but who among them has really shaken a man’s hand, he thinks. They approximate well. He doesn’t have children. 

That line seems to arrive out of nowhere. It’s not a logical extension of “They approximate well.” Is this just the logic of your imagination, or do you have a kind of internal rule or approach that you follow for these sort of jumps?

Callie Collins

It’s strange; when I first read this question, I was surprised you pulled that line, cause it strikes me as a super linear extension of that thought, which now I realize it is not at all and I must be crazy. So yes, the logic of my imagination is maybe a bit more leapy than usual. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm and geometry when I write. In this particular case my logic worked a little like this.

“He doesn’t have children” seemed necessary for a couple reasons. The six syllables of “They approximate well” didn’t feel like enough rhythmically to stop the forward momentum of the multi-clausal sentence before it—I wanted a stronger wall. “He doesn’t have children” is really satisfying to me because of the internal symmetry of consonants and emphasis: (he) DOES-N’T (have) CHIL-DREN. Those two lines together sounded closed and tight because they’re syllabically equal. Also, “They approximate well” shifts the paragraph’s focus to the boys, so I wanted to extend a line back to Billy to balance the scale. I tried to jump back and forth from the boys to Billy almost sentence-by-sentence in order to both alienate them from each other and tie them together in this room while the storm rages outside. I also wanted to go one step further down into Billy, to reveal some new, personal knowledge of his character, before the last sentence of the paragraph zooms back out to an overhead view of the scene.

Yeah… it seems kind of nuts. Thankfully there’s another, parallel answer to this question, and that’s because this story comes out of a bigger project. Billy is the youngest of five siblings in a generation of a family, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have kids. It was a piece of information I wanted to fit in there somehow, and to my ear that was the right place to put it.

Michael Noll

Your titles are wonderful. They remind me of the chapter headings that you see in certain novels from the 1700s and 1800s. What’s your approach to titling stories? It’s something that most writers I know find so difficult.

Callie Collins

Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” was published along with one other at Conflict of Interest.

Oh, thank you! I feel lucky when I land on serviceable, or at the very least somewhere near I-can-see-she’s-trying-to-move-me-and-am-not-entirely-repulsed.

I cheat a little. I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth. My hope is that each title alone will function pretty straightforwardly, but that using the structure repeatedly will help the stories accrete and flow differently—as variations on a theme. I can, of course, take this way too far. Currently I’m using the same exact title for at least five different stories and for the manuscript they all come out of—man, stop me—which has become inconvenient and messy.

But I like this sort of repetition. It’s how my brain works most naturally. There are pieces of language and slices of syntax that lodge in my mind, and I return to them compulsively but hopefully from new angles and alignments. And it’s one of the really big pros to writing page-long stories. It wouldn’t work if I had fewer pieces to title.

Michael Noll

Both of these stories have a kind of thematic structure. You could, if you wanted, distill them to their major images (for example, cocoons/butterflies, gar, the O shape the girl makes), and then it seems as if the purpose of the story is to connect these images in a way that makes sense. This makes me wonder: Do you start with the images and try to connect them or start with one image and write your way into the story, discovering new images as you go?

Callie Collins

Mostly I start with one image and write my way into the story. I think a lot about thematic structure and particularly the idea of thematic return, movement back toward the home of an original moment or sound. I used to study some music theory and composition a long time ago and was really pretty awful at it, but I found some comfort in the fact that our brains are kind of wired to find closure and satisfaction in music that returns to the tonic—the piece’s tonal center. There are certainly many ways to come home to the tonic, or to approach coming home and not make it all the way, or to refuse that closure entirely, and I think the same is true in fiction. I love endings for that reason; I’m attracted to the urgency of the choice whether or not to return.

I’ve written stories that come all the way goddamn home, middle C, climb back in the bed they were born in—there’s a horse story I read at readings sometimes that does this—but the gar story doesn’t. I tried to end it with a stand on the dominant: an anticipatory feeling, a settling in the front yard of the tonic and pointing at the door.

The tonic is usually an image. Here, the gar. I set the tonic and then work my way into other images that orbit it. I wanted the last note, the couple at the bar, to recall the gar in certain ways—to approach the ideas of foreignness, animal transformation, and alienation from a new perspective. What I really hope, though, is that none of my crazy scaffolding is visible—that the story reads cleanly and easily. Thinking about structure in these minute ways is, it turns out, the only way I know how to get anything done at all.

Michael Noll

These stories are quite polished. You’re also co-editor of the independent press A Strange Object. A lot of people would look at both of those statements and think, “She’s doing pretty well.” Yet this fall you’ll enter the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you hope to learn there? Obviously you want to work on your writing and craft, but you’re entering from a different position than a lot of writers, with more experience and success in the publishing world–more than many people who graduate from writing programs. Is it simply the desire to grow and improve that’s at work, or is there something in particular that you wish to gain?

Callie Collins

I hope to learn many things. Where to buy a good coat, for one—anyone know? I’m hoping someone’ll teach me how to do that weird Michigan vowel shift, too.

But really, what a kind question to ask! I didn’t take creative writing courses in college and have very little experience with the formal workshop setting, so even though I’ve spent some time on the publishing side, I’m much more of a newbie in certain ways than most folks entering programs. Mostly I’m just excited and feeling very lucky to have the time and funding to work on the novel-thing, and to get to do that with amazing faculty whose work I deeply admire.

My work’s pretty invested in central Texas, and I think leaving will help me write about the place with more nuance. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the mythology of Texas while I’m in it, and I hope being away will give me new perspective and energy. I’m very sad, but it seems like time to go. Just keep everything exactly the same while I’m gone, thanks! Or at least cool it with the condos.

June 2016

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

An Interview with Katie Chase

12 May
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.

%d bloggers like this: