Tag Archives: A Tree Born Crooked

An Interview with Steph Post

4 Dec
Steph Post's crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post’s crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.

To read an excerpt from A Tree Born Crooked and an exercise on writing active character descriptions, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses writing about making the Florida panhandle feel authentic, creating intimate spaces within plot, and working under the influence of Cormac McCarthy.

Michael Noll

This book seems to be as much about its setting in the Florida panhandle as the actual story. On one hand, this seems like a good move as a storyteller since it’s a place full of colorful characters. On the other hand, I’d imagine it could be hard to create characters in this place without running into stereotypes. How did you create this place in a way included drugs, alligators, and poor, uneducated white people without falling into the caricatures so often connected with popular images of those things?

Steph Post

I honestly didn’t even think about the stereotype issue until I was deep into the revision process. I just created a place and a set of characters that were real and true to the people of this area of Florida. Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.

Michael Noll

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

I’m interested in how you approached plot in the novel. The book starts with James getting a postcard telling him to come home because his father has died. But the plot doesn’t really begin until his brother and cousin commit a crime. How did you bridge the gap between James showing up in town and his getting drawn into the crime? It would seem tempting to make that gap quite large, with James meeting various characters and visiting old haunts. Was it difficult to get the next part of the plot moving?

Steph Post

I won’t lie—developing the plot was the hardest part of writing A Tree Born Crooked. I’m on my third novel now and crafting plot has become a much more fluid process, but it was a bit difficult for me with A Tree Born Crooked. It was tempting to let James play in Crystal Springs a while and to bring out new characters and places, but I wanted to keep the pace accelerated throughout the novel. There’s a definite balance between pushing the action forward and then allowing for pauses where readers can become more intimate with the setting and characters. I had to establish James and his inner conflict before I could focus on the external conflicts of the plot, and from there I had to make sure there were enough peaks and valleys between the two.

Michael Noll

Crime novels tend to have a particular kind of main character, one who has, as your book jacket puts it, “a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside.” But, of course, book jackets are not novels. How did you create a character who fulfills the description in the jacket (and the readers’ expectations for a crime novel) but is also a nuanced character with depth?

Steph Post

I was much more concerned with creating a character with depth. It wasn’t until after the novel was finished that I realized James fit into the role of anti-hero in a crime novel. And, of course, that came from the subliminal effects of researching and writing in this genre. As I was writing, I was focused on developing James as a character who is having to come to terms with events outside of his control. He’s thrust back into a world that he wants no part of and he must decide how he wants to navigate the situation. James’ story is really one of a character peeling, or a times ripping, back layers in a difficult process of self-discovery. He just also happens to be dodging bullets in the process.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs for the novel, you’re compared to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews. I’d add another writer: Joe Lansdale, the crime and horror writer from East Texas. I’m curious which writers were in your head as your wrote this novel. Was there a book that you looked to for help? What did you learn or borrow?

Steph Post

A lot of books were influential in getting A Tree Born Crooked started. Novels such as Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and David Eddings’ High Hunt definitely inspired me to write about underdog characters in an underbelly world. I fully fall prey to Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” though, and so try to avoid reading fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. However, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was crucial in helping me to craft dialogue. There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel with Llewellyn sitting in his trailer—what the character doesn’t say is almost more important than what he puts into words. I definitely relied on McCarthy when working to create “negative dialogue” and to utilize the spaces in a scene to their fullest.

December 2014

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

How to Write Active Character Descriptions

2 Dec
A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post is set in the Florida panhandle and follows a man who tries to save his brother from the consequences of a theft-gone-wrong.

When we first start describing characters, there’s often a tendency to aim for a perfect representation, the equivalent of a photographic portrait. So we state the character’s body type, hair color and style, and clothes. But does even the most exact detail add up to something interesting? It’s often the case that a good character description, rather than being a snapshot, is more like the magical moving photographs that hang on the walls of Hogwarts. They’re active and dramatic.

A great example of this kind of description can be found early in Steph Post’s new crime novel A Tree Born Crooked. You can read the opening pages of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set on the Florida panhandle and follows a man who is living in a trailer park when he receives a note that his father has died. So he returns home to the small town where he was born. There, we meet his mother:

Birdie Mae was a fat woman. She wasn’t big enough to be called “obese” or any other such ridiculous medical term. But she wasn’t small enough to be just “large” or “big-boned” either. “I’m fat, dammit. What the hell’s wrong with that?” she would yell at the doctors who tried to use polite euphemisms. She had big hands, with small fingernails that made them look bigger. Her eyes were a pretty blue, but always framed with gunky mascara, and when she worked at the store she wore peach eye shadow up to her eyebrows. Her thin lips usually carried the outline of sticky, pink lipstick. She had to constantly reapply it, as it always ended up smeared on her Virginia Slims. Her hair was long and dishwater blond, but James couldn’t remember ever seeing it down. Birdie wore her hair twisted and piled up on top of her head, sprayed into a motionless nest that didn’t even look good back when she first started doing it in the seventies. Birdie Mae had some delusion that she resembled Farrah Fawcett and running out of Aqua Net was cause for a family crisis. On more than one occasion, Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went out to the drugstore and brought back a can. She wore the clothes from the Citrus Shop that had defects and couldn’t be sold, so she usually stuffed herself into gaudy T-shirts and culottes. The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees. Above all, Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.

This description gives a pretty thorough portrait of Birdie Mae: her size and shape, her makeup, her hair, her clothes, and her attitude. What makes them interesting is the way Post makes them active, which she manages in four ways:

  1. The character is allowed to comment about the details. The description doesn’t just say that Birdie Mae is overweight; it lets her talk about being overweight (“I’m fat, dammit”). Without that snippet of dialogue, the character’s weight is static, something the reader sees and forms an opinion about. With the dialogue, though, the weight becomes active, something the character is thinking about. A a result, the reader is forced to deal with Birdie Mae’s opinion about herself. It’s the difference between judging people from a distance and sitting at a table, talking to them. The dialogue puts us at the table with Birdie Mae.
  2. A detail is given and then used to created drama. Post tells us that Birdie Mae uses Aqua Net on her hair. Then, she tells us what happens when the hair product isn’t available (“Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went to out to the drugstore and brought back a can”). Again, a simple detail is put into action.
  3. A general behavior or tendency is stated and then shown as it happens. We’re told that the character only wears gaudy clothes that she can’t sell at her store, and then we’re given this sentence: “The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees.” The tendency becomes active because it is happening as we speak.
  4. The details are summed up as an attitude. The problem with listing details about a character is that the items on the list often don’t cohere into something that resembles a living, breathing character. Instead, the details seem like the accessories of a Mr. Potato Head, something that can be changed or added at will. One way to make the details cohere is to end with a generalization, from the point of view of the narrator, another character, or the character being described. In this case, Birdie Mae’s point of view is privileged. After this long description, we’re told that “Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.” In short, we’re given a lens through which to view the details.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character using A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Identify the character and make a list of details. You can also use a description that you’ve already written but aren’t happy with. It’s often the case that a description becomes active in revision, not in the first draft, when we’re trying to visualize the most basic aspects of the character.
  2. Let the character comment on a detail. It’s one thing to tell us that a character always wears a Chicago Bulls hat or goes back for a second helping at meals. It’s quite another to learn that and then hear what the character says about it. Is the character ashamed? Proud? Does the character make light of it? Direct our attention elsewhere? Rationalize it? Does the character have good reasons for the detail? State the detail and then let your character talk about it.
  3. Use a detail to create drama. If a character always does something or wears something, what happens when that something isn’t available? Anyone with kids immediately will understand this idea: try to put your kid to bed without their favorite stuffed animal or security blanket, and there’s going to be trouble. What happens when your character’s tendency or routine is thrown out of whack?
  4. Introduce a tendency and then show it in real time. Your character tends to do something, and they’re doing it right now. This is a good way to move the description from a place of timelessness to the immediacy of a scene.
  5. Sum up the details. Make them cohere into a whole that is larger than the pieces. Post does this by stating the character’s attitude about herself. You can also use metaphor and simile. The basic structure (which, once you realize it exists, you’ll see in books and stories everywhere) is this: detail, detail, detail, comparison. The character was this and this and this. She was like/a this. Here’s a bad example: He was always smiling, always laughing, always telling jokes. He was like a circus clown who’d wandered out of the tent and into someone’s home. You can do better than that, but it gives you the idea.

Good luck!

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