Tag Archives: A Strange Object

An Interview with Bess Winter

12 Mar
Bess Winter's fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter’s fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.

To read her story “Are You Running Away?” and an exercise on writing quick-starting first paragraphs, click here.

In this interview, Winter discusses quick-starting stories, quick characterizations, and writing past epiphanies.

Michael Noll

I love how fast the story opens, moving from “fuck school” to a mysterious possibility for how to get school canceled in one short paragraph. Did the story always begin this quickly? Or did you have to cut and revise your way to this beginning?

Bess Winter

The story always began this quickly. In fact, I’m most comfortable with stories that are on the shorter side, so it takes a lot of coaxing and prodding to get me to write long, well, anything: sentences, paragraphs, etc. I’m envious of writers who can blast out a lot of material and then scale back. Also, because this is a story that’s more about what happens because of, and coincidental to, “the plan,” rather than the plan, itself, it felt best to get the big stuff out of the way A.S.A.P. and move on to the less causal elements of story. Make the most outrageous stuff a given. They’re going to get school canceled. Pipes will be involved.

Michael Noll

The story also quickly establishes characters: Val doesn’t care, and the narrator finds this trait interesting when everyone else finds it grating. Again, I’m curious about your approach to these characterizations. Do you write your way into them? In other words, do the characters take shape on the page, and eventually you’re able to sum them up quickly? Or do you start with a clash of opposites and see what happens?

Bess Winter

Usually I start with a key characteristic that serves the story I want to tell, and get that down on the page early. So you could say it’s more a “clash of opposites” than anything, though Val and the narrator aren’t necessarily opposite to each other. Then I build the character around that characteristic, try to add complexity. In the case of this story, and of many stories, I actually have a specific person in mind—often someone I’ve known in the past, but sometimes even film actors or historical figures—who either physically or emotionally resembles the character.

Michael Noll

The story expands in the middle, adding the perspective of a teacher and jumping out of the present action to past incidents. Then, it moves back and forth between these moments and the present action. Is this a structure that you use often? Or is it particular to this story?

Bess Winter

Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

This is a structure I’ve used a few times over the past few years, particularly because “Are You Running Away?” was intended to be part of a triptych. All three of the stories in the triptych were originally going to be structured this way, jumping through time and using this sort of filmic technique, a braided narrative. But it turned out that the third story in the series just didn’t work. Structurally, it wasn’t quite in line with the other two, and the subject matter was actually too close to the bone to make good fiction.

Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite “braid” in that novel so much as “saddle stitch” or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.

Michael Noll

The event at the heart of this story is astonishingly awful. As you were writing it, did you ever consider pulling back or moving in another direction? Or did you always feel pretty certain where the story was headed?

Bess Winter

In terms of actually hacking open the pipes, I knew the story was going in that direction when I sat down to write; the act, and its implications, was the idea that spurred the story, and was loosely based on an event that happened at my own all-girls school when I attended in the late ’90s-early ’00s. Maybe the story could have veered away from the actual hacking open of the pipe, focused more on the dissolution between friends or something else about their relationship. But, honestly, I was so dead set on writing about the pipe incident that it never occurred to me to go another way.

But, in writing the story, I did struggle—not with how far the event would go, as the natural dramatic shape of the fiction, and its style, seemed to demand the worst thing, but with how the characters would deal with it. There’s a point in the story (when she’s sitting on the grass in the park) where the narrator could have had some sort of epiphany, at least tried to make things right. Irony might demand that she try, and fail, to fix things. But when I sat down to write that section in the park—which was actually an addition—the failed epiphany didn’t feel right. I realized, at that point, this character’s flaw is that she’s a teenager—incredibly self-absorbed, melancholy, selfish and, in some ways, as spoiled and tortured as Val. In fact, she’s not very different from Val, at all, and it felt better for her to become more Val-like than heroic in that moment. That’s not to say Val is a horrible person, either, just a confused person—as many teenage girls are. If anything, this story actually helped me empathize with the sort of girl who used to tease and torture me in high school.

March 2015

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

How to Write a Quick-Starting First Paragraph

10 Mar
Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by volunteers—on the weekend, at night, when they could be reading a favorite novel or, who knows, parasailing. Imagine yourself in these volunteers’ shoes, a tall stack of submissions in front of you and an approaching deadline to complete them. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your story easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention?

One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. One of the quickest and most interesting first paragraphs that I’ve read lately is from Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” It was published in Covered w/ Fur, the weekly digital magazine published by Austin’s indy press A Strange Object. You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Here is the first paragraph. Watch how quickly it kicks into gear:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

In just 51 words, the story introduces two characters, a sense of their personalities and relationship, and a mystery: what are the pipes and how will they cancel school. How does the paragraph do this? By beginning with drama, not information. Think about what we’re not told: the characters’ ages, the nature of the situation, the time of day. Rather than set up the drama, the story immediately zooms in on a moment when a choice is made: Wouldn’t it be great it school were canceled? What is said next (Yeah, it would be great) might not seem like a conscious decision, it functions that way, giving Val permission to proceed. In other words, it’s sometimes not enough to simply introduce a mystery. You also need to introduce a decision that leads to that mystery (even if that decision, at the time, seems like no decision at all).

Once that mystery has been set, you can spend time re-introducing the reader to your characters: who they are, their typical behavior.

In the second paragraph of “Are You Running Away?” Winter does exactly that:

She shoves everything aside. Goldenrod, green, purple study notes. Her chem binder clicks open and the sheets slide everywhere, across the Persian rug and the hardwood and into corners of the room and up against Rolph the snoring yellow lab. She steps on the notes, leaves her dirty shoeprints on them. She doesn’t care. I love Val because she doesn’t care about anything. The first time we met, in the changing room before gym, she looked me up and down and said, Those boobs are low. I could have hated her for that, I guess, but instead I was like, who says that? And I said, Thanks! And, from then on, we were friends, even when everyone else pushed her away. Even when they asked Her? Why? and made sour faces. Later, we snuck things from the pockets of the backpacks they looped onto the outside of their lockers when they went to gym: silver bracelets, digital watches, lip gloss.

Though the paragraph is building character, it also deepens the mystery from the story’s opening. If the characters are already stealing things and acting in other socially unacceptable ways, what else will they do? If I’m a reader working my way through a slush pile, my attention has been grabbed before the end of the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s start a story quickly, with drama, using “Are You Running Away?” by Bess Winter as a model:

  1. Introduce a strong desire. In Winter’s story, the desire is the nearly universal desire of so many school stories and real-life students: get out of school. In other words, the desire doesn’t need to be something we’ve never seen before. Most desires are pretty common. Why else would love stories and stories of adultery be among the oldest we possess?
  2. Introduce a plan to satisfy the desire. At the very least, a character could say, “I have a plan.” But you can do better than that. Hint at the nature of the plan. Be sly. In Winter’s story, Val mentions pipes but not what they’re for or how they might be used. If you read the story, you’ll see that the plan is pretty simple—it’s horrible and frightening, but simple, too. You don’t need something convoluted. The important thing is to tease the reader. In this case, Val also teases the narrator, who is allowed to discover the plan along with us.
  3.  Make the plan hinge on someone’s assent. Someone needs to give the plan the go-ahead. The need for this agreement or cooperation forces the character with the plan to be conniving, to try to persuade another character to go along. Without this external approval, the plan may roll out too easily, without encountering opposition or obstacles. In short, you’re making the characters act on different levels from the very beginning, and those different levels will give the story room to grow and develop.

Good luck.

An Interview with Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

6 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree are the authors of Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories written through the lens of the films from the Criterion Collection.

McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. He is also the author of Dismantling the Hills, a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire.

Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review and is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute.

To read their story, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” and an exercise on writing sentences that push past expected endings, click here.

Michael Noll

The version of “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” in Our Secret Life in the Movies is slightly different than the version published in Tin House. The girl becomes a kid, who we learn, through pronouns, is a boy. A line of dialogue is cut (“I’m seventeen and a half,” she said. “My dad’s a cop down in the hills. He didn’t like my boyfriend. I guess that sums it up.”), as is a line in the last paragraph (I ripped the pom-pom off my ski hat and used it to clean up her face.) I’m curious about your thoughts behind the revisions. To some extent, the scene can be read quite differently depending on the kid’s gender and how we view that act of the characters sharing a sleeping bag in an abandoned mansion. The final version is more fraternal, less potentially creepy. Was that purposeful?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

As readers, we tend to assume that a story is done because it has been published. As writers, we know better, because we stay awake at night worrying about all the ways we got it wrong. The important point to keep in mind is that publication is only one part of the creative process. In this case, the ending seemed better when the genders were reversed because that way you could never rule out the possibility that this character was actually alone the entire time, or that he had run into his doppelganger. Something along those lines. There are at least four kinds of stories – the kind you never get around to writing, the kind you write and abandon, the kind that come out right the first time, and the kind that come at great cost after a struggle and too many drafts to mention. This story was one of the last kind.

Michael Noll

In the book’s introduction, you write that the book began as sketches written while you watched films from the Criterion Collection. At a certain point, you figured out that these sketches were part of a narrative. How did you turn those early sketches into a coherent book? The process of free writing for fun and the process of revising for narrative coherence would seem to be very different. Was there a point at which you created a timeline or outline to follow? Did you discuss in advance of watching certain films or writing certain pieces what direction you might go with them?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

We never had an outline or a timeline. I think we were both surprised as the book gained momentum, almost of its own accord, to look less like a smaller “cycle” of sketches and more like a book. A pile of sketches began to look like it had a trajectory, showing the parallel lives of characters growing up during the last days of the Cold War. It was honestly more a matter of subtraction, of removing material from the book so that the linkages of the stories made more sense and a sense of continuity could be inferred or imagined. The book wound up as something more like a fragmented novel, or a mosaic with some of its pieces missing. The painful thing about working the way we did is that a lot of good material got left on the cutting room floor. Like any film! As with so much writing, paring things down often makes things clearer.

Michael Noll

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan's GZA's album Liquid Swords. GZA discusses the album here.

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA’s album Liquid Swords. GZA discussed the album at WaxPoetics.

It’s exciting to me that this book wears its inspirations so clearly on its sleeves. Many writers work out of homage to or inspiration from another artist, but that influence is not often made explicit in fiction. It’s much more common (it seems to me, anyway) in poetry, music, and, to some extent, film. Do you think the fact that one of you is a poet and the other is a film critic (in addition to being a fiction writer) allowed you the freedom to create this particular narrative structure?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

It’s funny, but we never thought of not mentioning the movies. We could have left them out but we did want to expose the mechanism a little bit, as well as to relate the parts to the whole. We wanted the stories to be accessible to any reader, whether they had seen the movies or not. But we wanted to lead interested parties deeper into the maze with us. One of the influences on the book’s overall structure was the hip-hop album Liquid Swords. How certain snippets of dialogue from the Kung-Fu movies on that album – “I see you are using an old style” or “special technique of shadowboxing” – got repurposed and suddenly made a new kind of sense. We wanted to emulate the way sampling works in music.

Michael Noll

Many of the stories reference Ronald Reagan and the economic disillusionment that much of the country was feeling at the time. For instance, the early piece, “Boxcars,” pairs these two passages:

  • “Bodies without work permits, addicts, drunk high-school kids come down from the valley to slum through the rhythms of the rural American night. Dead bodies, dumped bodies, bodies alive with fear, bodies of elation, bodies that should have known better. A one-day notice in the Bay River Gazette, then the ten-mile stretch of industrial waterfront was closed.”
  • “In the paper, on AM talk radio, at the State Capitol, the regulators blamed the deregulators, the state the country, the county the wood beams collapsing in the rail tunnels, the loggers the environmentalists, and the end-of-days folks blamed our perpetual slipping from grace.”

There’s a pretty clear moral vision at work here, not laying blame, exactly, but clearly articulating a situation that we’ve tended to gloss over with some happy political speech. Did this image of an America in decline arise naturally in the course of viewing the films and writing, or was it something that you discussed and wanted to write about?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

What we’ve both found is that a lot of writing is just luck. You stumble around in the dark, rely on your instincts, and try to stick to your impulses, no matter how strange those impulses might be (in one of our stories the speaker’s child is an invisible boy, in another the speaker’s father marries an egg). All the leitmotifs and connections and echoes in Our Secret Life in the Movies are there because we both wrote stories rooted in our own experiences, which happened to parallel each other in unexpected ways. This isn’t a work of autobiography by any stretch, but it does reflect some facets of the experiences of working-class life for folks in our generation. In one sense, we got lucky that there was so much overlap in the book. But, as writers, it was our job to craft a book and tell good stories, not just rely on luck. We highlighted many of these overlaps and themes in the revision process, and we had some great help from trusted readers, friends, and our editors at A Strange Object. I think the important point here is that we didn’t set out to move from A to B and specifically hit on themes X,Y, and Z. Instead, we had faith that the interesting and worthwhile would surface in our writing if we kept exploring our shared love for the movies and our desire to be connected to them.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Nicholas Grider

13 Feb
Nicholas Grider's debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called "vital" by Publisher's Weekly.

Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called “vital” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Nicholas Grider is a writer and artist living in Milwaukee. He received an interschool MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His photography has been exhibited internationally, and his writing has appeared in Caketrain, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Hobart, among others. His first book, the story collection Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange Object.

In this interview, Grider discusses OuLiPo writing rules, the delight of breaking rules, and his attempt at writing at story without making editorial judgement.

To read “Millions of Americans are Strange” and an exercise on point of view, click here.

To start our conversation, here is how Grider explains the writing process behind “Millions of Americans Are Strange”:

Nicholas Grider

“Millions” is the newest story in the collection and is indicative of where my writing, at least in short fiction, is headed for the next batch of stories. As I was finishing up the manuscript I started getting really interested in the OuLiPo, and still am, with books by Perec and Mathews on my desk as I write this. I made up a simple rule to begin the story, then: Sentence one must be related to sentence two, and sentence two should be related to sentence three, but sentences one and three should be unrelated. That got me off to a start but I realized that I kept inadvertently breaking the rule, so I introduced the stock phrase “Millions of Americans do X or Y” as a bridge, but then decided that wasn’t working well either so I slowly increased their volume until every sentence was a “Millions” sentence and I approached the end of the story more like a prose poem than a narrative.

Michael Noll

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec's novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User's Manual.

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec’s novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User’s Manual.

My favorite moment from any OuLiPo work is from Georges Perec’s La Dispiration. As you know, the text contains no letter e’s. There’s a scene where a character orders a drink at a bar, and the lack of e’s becomes crucial. This is what Harry Mathews said about the scene: 

“Perec took this absurdly confining idea and made of it a way of creating incident, situation, and plot. Eggs (oeufs) are declared to be taboo because they sound like e. And so a barman drops dead when asked to concoct a porto flip, a cocktail requiring port wine and eggs.” 

As you’ve experimented with OuLiPo-type limitations, have you found that the limits “create incident, situation, and plot?”

Nicholas Grider

This has a bit to do with being reserved and shy person, but in my art and writing I often start with the questions: what boundaries can I push and what can I get away with? Meaning, how many rules can I break, what can I talk my way into, etc. And breaking all the usual rules means making up my own, which applies not just to this story but to most of my art and writing. I’ll make up a set of rules, then follow them or break them as I see fit. The rules in “Millions” were an attempt to write a story that does not move forward in any way—it slides laterally through dozens of characters too briefly for anything to develop and ends up piling into an anaphora of generalities at the end. When it came to writing the story, though, making a good aesthetic choice always outweighed (and outweighs) following my rule or someone else’s. For me, the rules are less about developing content and more a way to do an end-run around a well-told “beginning, middle, end, character develops” kind of story. I’m currently writing a new collection and there are even more self-made rules, and more complex ones, but rule-making is part of the enjoyment of writing for me.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, we studied a few OuLiPo writers—plus, Italo Calvino was pretty popular in the U.S. at the time—and I remember that the few experiments people tried with the methods often failed because the limitations ended up being too inflexible. I’m curious how you handled this problem. I know that you adjusted or added to your rules once you began. Did you ever break your rules in order to let the story do what it needed to do?

Nicholas Grider

I got ahead of myself and explained this already, but yes: I delight in breaking other peoples’ rules and will break my own as I see fit. A compelling story is always more important than strict adherence to any rules.

Michael Noll

The story never settles into a single plot line or character’s point of view. If anything, the character of the story is those millions of Americans in the title.  Were you temped to follow Gary or George and Allen or Hannah and make the story about them? Was it difficult to maintain a forward momentum without an individual to use as the focus of tension and suspense?

Nicholas Grider

There are snippets in the story that I think would make for interesting stories, and some of those incidents are real things that people have told me about being involved in, but I was more invested in trying to keep the story moving laterally very quickly to want to linger over any individual character. What I can say, though, is that a lot of the obsessions, indecision, illness and weirdness in “Millions” had been explored earlier in a different form in the other stories that comprise Misadventure, so if anything, the incidents in the story serve as a very weird kind of precis for what later happens with other characters in other situations.

Michael Noll

The story’s tone at times seems to mimic the language of certain kinds of news sources, or even Wikipedia. Here’s one example:

“Millions of Americans are suffering due to the current economic climate. Sometimes persons without jobs receive unemployment insurance while they look for new jobs. Jason receives unemployment insurance because he was laid off when the plant closed.”

In this passage, especially the first two sentences, there’s an intentional vagueness that seems common to cable news segments (those 15 second headline readings that anchors do). Generally, as writers, we try to avoid that kind of language, but you really embrace it, and throughout the story, the language develops a sharp edge. How did you approach the tone and language? Did it appear through luck and experiment, or did you have something in mind when you began the story?

Nicholas Grider

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

The generality and bluntness of the style was something I had in mind at the start, for two reasons: first, I wanted the story to seem to have a veneer of scientific or academic detachment, where the story is simply a collection of facts presented in a particular order—an effort to try to decrease narratorial presence, and second because so much of what gets referenced is so bizarre or extreme that I wanted to deliberately underplay people having themselves kidnapped or firing shotguns in malls—trying to avoid sensationalizing anything in an effort to let the incidents do the sensationalizing themselves, so to speak. In other words, I didn’t want to make it seem as if I had any editorial opinion over what I was recounting, but emphasize instead that one character firing a shotgun in a mall and another character being described as three years old bear an equivalent amount of narrative weight.

February 2014

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

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

11 Feb
Nicholas Grider's story, "Millions of Americans are Strange," was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure.

Nicholas Grider’s story, “Millions of Americans are Strange,” was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure, now available from A Strange Object.

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.

(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)

How the Story Works

If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.

A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.

The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:

Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.

The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:

Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.

The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

  1. Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
  2. Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
  3. Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

  1. Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
  2. Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
  3. Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.

Good luck!

An Interview with Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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