Tag Archives: American Short Fiction

An Interview with Leona Theis

13 Oct
Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.

To read an exercise on making characters represent a place or group based on Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” click here.

In this interview, Theis discusses writing about internal conflict in the midst of external drama.

Michael Noll

A lot of the action in the story happens off the page. The scenes seem to focus instead on the interactions and moments that happen in the wake of that off-page drama. I was particularly struck at how the story avoided certain storylines. For example, the drama that’s built on Lisa and Dave’s relationship is an important part of the story, but it remains secondary to what’s going on with Sylvie. Another writer might have made it a much bigger part of the story: what will Lisa do? What will Sylvie do? Those questions are present, but they’re kept to a lower register. In the same way, there is a developing romance with Will that gets folded into all of the other stuff going on in the story. As a result, one could call this a love story, but that wouldn’t feel quite right, I don’t think. When you were working on this story, what was your sense of what kind of story it was? Was there a tag that you placed on it in your mind? Like, “this is my love story” or “this is my yoga story”?

Leona Theis

I never did think of this as “a yoga story” or a “love story”. My process in developing a story or an essay is almost always exploratory for the first few drafts, and that was the case with this one even more than usual. It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of. Once I’d decided what the story was about, I rewrote it several (in fact, many) times, hoping to make all the parts of it work together to make that drama felt.

I wrote this story to stand on its own, but I couldn’t leave Sylvie alone, and eventually it became the second chapter in a novel-in-stories called “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives.” (I’m just about to query agents about it now.) The story of Sylvie and Jack, which is, as you say, “off the page” here, plays out in the story that precedes this one. (That story, “High Beams”, appeared a couple of years ago in The Journey Prize Stories 26, in Canada.)

Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

The tension between Lisa and Dave is apparent in “How Sylvie Failed…,” as is Sylvie’s response to it, but I didn’t put much of the actual, physical goings-on between those two on the page, as this is a story about Sylvie. The drama I was most interested in delving into was happening inside her. She’s trying on different versions of herself and hasn’t yet come to realize that life is serious business. She’s reaching for some idea of cool, and, naively, she half thinks she’s already achieved it. But she’s yet to take a deep look at anything in life, which is one reason the yoga experience baffles her so. She’s terribly self-absorbed, a person tasting things to see how she likes them, to see what will satisfy her. Even her relationship with Will is less a love story and more another angle on Sylvie trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. I love her and I forgive her faults, because she’s young, and a slow learner.

Michael Noll

How did you approach pacing the steps that lead to Sylvie and Will’s increasing closeness?

Leona Theis

I don’t remember much about how I arrived at the pacing of the increasing closeness between Sylvie and Will. I suspect that that part of the process was intuitive, and when the pacing to do with that continued to feel right draft after draft, I knew not to mess with it.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the story is the description of one of Lisa’s friends when Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

I love this line because it clearly describes the guy and also the time and place. Did this line just appear on the page one day, or did you have to revise your way toward it?

Leona Theis

I’m happy that you liked the line about the guy in the quilted vest saying, “Far out.” That line was one of those gifts that comes out fully formed when a writer manages to transport herself to a time and place she remembers well, when she can hear the characters’ voices without straining.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the editors at American Short Fiction, Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits for their fine editing. Also, Elizabeth McCracken for selecting my story for the prize.

October 2016

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


How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

An Interview with the Editors of American Short Fiction

12 Oct
The latest issue of the Austin-based journal American Short Fiction features a story by Roxane Gay and a Pushcart Prize winner "Teen X" by X. ASF also publishes work online, such as this story by Anthony Abboreno.

The last issue of the Austin-based journal American Short Fiction featured a story by Roxane Gay and the Pushcart Prize winning “Teen Culture” by Elizabeth Ellen. The next issue will feature Joyce Carol Oates and Kevin Wilson. ASF also publishes work online, such as this story by Anthony Abboreno.

American Short Fiction was founded in Austin, TX, in 1991 by Laura Furman (editor of the O’Henry Prize Story Collections) and has published stories that have found their way into most of the big, yearly story collections. Like most literary journals, American Short Fiction gone through multiple incarnations. After a brief hiatus in 2012, ASF is publishing once again. The forthcoming issue features work from Kevin Wilson, Joyce Carol Oates, Kellie Wells, and others, including Barrett Swanson. The journal also publishes web-inclusive stories and essays at americanshortfiction.org. One of those stories, “Filler” by Anthony Abboreno, was featured this week here at Read to Write Stories.

In this interview, American Short Fiction co-editors Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits discuss the editing process, the limits of readers’ attention span for online fiction, and the advantages of publishing online content as well as a traditional print journal.

(To read Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.)

Michael Noll

The funny thing about reading published stories is that you can’t imagine them existing in any other version. At least, that’s how I feel about Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler.” And yet I know from experience that most stories that are accepted by journals are usually revised before being published. As a result, I’m curious about your role as an editor for this story. How close to the published version was the first draft that you read? What sort of suggestions did you make?


A huge part—in some ways the most important part—of an editor’s job is simply being selective. And “Filler” was definitely a case where this was the most important part of our job—choosing to publish the story in the first place. Filler came in already as very clean copy, which is lovely for an editor. I seem to remember we made a couple of tiny changes for clarity, added or removed a comma here and there for technical, grammatical reasons, maybe turned one sentence into two, or two sentences into one, but nothing which would have made you respond any differently to the story than the final version you read on our website. That’s not always the case, and sometimes we do make some significant changes to stories that come our way (especially, sometimes, stories we really love), but we try to trust the authors’ instincts as much as possible, and if we have too big an issue with something, simply choose not to publish the story, rather than trying to “fix” something that may in fact just be a question of taste preferences. We fell for “Filler” right away, though.

Michael Noll

American Short Fiction is a traditional print journal, but it also publishes stories online. Do you think there’s any difference in the way readers approach stories in print versus online? It would seem that someone who picks up the print journal has made a firmer commitment to the work than someone who happens across your website. Does that mean that an online story must have a catchier or somehow sharper-edged first paragraph?


That’s a great question. And as more and more print journals (both fiction and non-fiction) are being driven, by economic realities, to online-only existences, one wonders to what extent that’s changing the nature of our reading content. The easiest answer to your question is that our policy is fairly simple: we limit our online fiction to stories that are roughly 2000wds or fewer. Now, we might well publish a story that’s 2000wds in our print journal, but you won’t see us publishing a story that is 7000wds long online. I don’t know if it is so much a question of attention span, but it is simply physically a little unpleasant to focus on the same backlit computer screen for that long. And, as you say, relief is such an easy click away. But there are probably more complicated answers to your question, as well. The fact that our online fiction changes every month somehow gives us a little more freedom to experiment in that space than we perhaps feel we have in the tri-annual print edition. And of course the online space has dynamic potential that print lacks: our current online fiction exclusive, for example, was written as a companion piece to a track on an album, and we were able to embed the SoundCloud of the music file right there next to the story, which was great. We love how the online space gives us the opportunity to have fun like that.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how a journal’s identity and mission are shaped by its online presence. In the past, a print journal needed to offer content only a few times a year. But being online requires you to offer new material on the website with enough frequency to keep people returning to it. Does this new publishing schedule change the way that you approach submissions or editing? You’ve run a literary NFL preview (which was great, by the way), and this is probably something that wouldn’t happen in a strictly print journal. On one hand, some people might say this is watering down the “literary” content of the magazine, but on the other hand, a feature like that one broadens our sense of what it means to be a writer (we don’t often think of writers as die-hard NFL fans). It also gave you the chance to publish a lot of writers all at once.


I’m so glad you enjoyed that NFL preview—it was a lot of fun, all credit to our fantastic managing editor Jess Stoner, whose brainchild that was. Jess actually offers me a good way into answering your “pretty big question.” She’s a great aficionado of Internet culture (do I sound geriatric enough yet?) and has what I think is one of the most important qualities in an editor: an always-open mind. That means that she’s full of ideas about how to use the web to expand the often too-narrow idea of what a literary journal can do, which can result in fantastic surprises like that NFL series. In our case, I think it would be accurate to say that our website and our print journal have pretty separate identities. For one thing, other than the monthly fiction web exclusive, the website features entirely non-fiction, where as the print journal is fiction-only. That makes it pretty easy to separate out the two without feeling anxious about image questions. To a certain extent, the audience for the website is also probably a little different than the audience for the print journal. The website offers us a chance to join in the conversation about wider cultural issues that aren’t necessarily fiction-related (we have a regular series called “Things American” that gives us a great outlet for that sort of thing). But most of all, we like to use the website as a compliment to the journal, so that if we publish an author in the journal, or have published someone in the past who, say, has a new collection coming out, we feature an interview with her on the site. Or we can use the site to add a fresh dimension to the content in the journal, in the way I discussed above, by having, for example, playlists or visual material that might compliment a story in print. Ideally, a reader of both the print and online versions of American Short Fiction will find the two experiences not redundant, but also not add odds; companionable; two sides of one coin.

Michael Noll

American Short Fiction is located in Austin, which has always had a strong literary community. But it also seems to be a community that is growing and developing a stronger national reputation. What does it mean to be an Austin literary journal?


We LOVE being an Austin literary journal! As you say, the writing scene here is lively and growing quickly, with new publications and independent bookstores springing up all the time, and it’s great to be a part of that. We’re also excited about getting involved with the artistic community in general, so, for example, we try to feature art by local artists on our covers, and local musical acts at our events, etc. Literary hubs like New York obviously present their own advantages, but it’s nice, as a national journal, to swim around in a smaller pond too, sometimes, especially as the other fish are so colorful, and we like the relaxed atmosphere down here in Austin. It just feels nice and neighborly, and it’s great to have a local community that’s really invested in what you do. Plus, the tacos are just better!

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Anthony Abboreno

10 Oct
Anthony Abboreno's story "Filler" was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Southern California. In 2008, he earned a Master’s in the same subjects at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has work forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review.

In this interview, Aborreno discusses organic surprise vs goofball chaos in character creation, how to begin a story, and whether present tense is the root of all storytelling evil (hint: he says it’s not).

(To read Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the description of the daughter’s eating habits:

“She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.”

The passage captures so well the way that parents’ hopes for their children (and for themselves) color even basic observations. It’s also a great demonstration of how characters are built using the smallest details. I’m curious how you approached this description and, in general, how you created the characters in the story. Did you have a sense of them in your head from the beginning and find details that matched? Or did a detail occur to you that helped you to imagine the characters?

Anthony Abboreno

In general, I would say a little of both. I have a rough sense of characters when I first introduce them to a story, I think, but my ideas sharpen as I introduce details, or write the characters in a scene. For me, I seem to have the most success creating lively characters when I allow the writing to shape them a little spontaneously: for me, what makes a piece of fiction or a fictional character seem alive is that small element of surprise. When a person says or does something that doesn’t quite fit your preconceptions, but when you look at the context that led up to it, and the consequences that come from it, it all makes sense. The second part of that formula–the consequences–is especially crucial, I think, and is how you avoid things seeming totally random, or (heaven forbid), quirky.

The only way I know how to strike that balance–organic surprise vs goofball chaos–is to start with a rough image, but allow things to shape themselves as I write. If I allow myself to feel surprise as I write, and I follow through on that surprise, usually it works for the reader too. If I plan too much, I get bored with the writing, things start to feel contrived, and then the reader is usually bored as well.

Michael Noll

I was reading a few stories by a writer the other day and noticed that each story started immediately in scene: washing dishes in the kitchen or at a table in a restaurant. Your story doesn’t do this. It begins with the description of the daughter–and it’s a large-frame description, not one focused on the daughter in a particular moment in time but rather a facet of her personality. Did the story always begin this way? Or did you find the beginning through revision?

Anthony Abboreno

The story always began that way. It seems relevant to mention that I originally wrote this story for a workshop assignment, where I was supposed to bring in something around four pages–I knew the story couldn’t be too long. I had an idea that I wanted the story to traverse a large span of time, but I wanted all of that time to pivot around the key scene with the lobsters. The only way I knew how to do that in such a small space was to include some generalized description, and so I started with that.

If I were writing a much longer piece–something Alice Munro length, or even a novel–I might have tried to begin with more in-scene writing, but I’m not sure that the lobster incident could hold a longer piece. In general, I try to write as much in scene as possible: if I catch myself writing a lot of broad description in a first draft, it sometimes means I am dawdling because I don’t want to engage with the gross unpredictability of people doing and feeling things. The stories that result, if I let myself do that for too long, are usually pretty dull, and nothing happens in them. At the same time, however, sometimes a little generality is just the right way to go. The key for me, I think, is not to let it go on for too long. You don’t want to spend more time setting a scene than making a scene.

When I was a little kid, we had a bunch of car tires in the backyard that I could play with. My Dad would get annoyed throwing a baseball with me, because I always wanted to spend more time picking out which tire was going to be the catcher, or first baseman, or whatever, than throwing the actual ball. That made the game more interesting for me. But you want to make sure you don’t waste the whole afternoon picking car tires.

Michael Noll

The story’s main scene is told in present tense. I once heard a well-known editor say that stories should never be told that way. Obviously, you don’t agree–and, clearly, your story is successful. Did you ever question your use of present-tense? Did you try out any other ways of writing the scene with the lobsters?

Anthony Abboreno

I like the present tense. For one thing, it suits many of the characters and situations that I am interested in–occasions when people are self-aware, but maybe not as much as they should be, and impulsive action overtakes reasoned action. At times like these, consequences are only recognized later, if at all. The unpredictability of present tense–the sense that anything could happen because things have not yet happened–suits this type of situation, I think, and it’s why I used it in the scene with the lobsters.

My understanding of the anti-present-tense stance is that it creates stories that don’t engage with time in a measured enough way; that the stories which result blow past quickly without enough time for reflection. But that’s how life is experienced, much of the time, and there is a sadness in that that is worth capturing.

Michael Noll

You’re a PhD student in Literature and Fiction Writing at USC. The PhD in creative writing is a relatively new, but fast-growing, option in creative writing graduate studies. How is it different from your Master’s experience? What went into your decision to pursue a PhD?

Anthony Abboreno

A few things went into my decision to getting a PhD. For one thing, I would like to make my living as a teacher someday, and the PhD seemed like a way to make myself more competitive on an increasingly competitive market. I was tired of being an adjunct.

But it was mostly, to be honest, a way to get myself some more instruction and time to develop as a writer. I rushed into my Master’s program a little, almost straight from undergrad, and while I learned a lot, I think I could have gotten more out of it if I had been a little older, or more mature (of course, that’s hindsight, always). The PhD is a chance to give that another shot.

You know, since there isn’t much of a paying market for stories, landing a graduate fellowship is the only opportunity most beginning writers have to live off their fiction, and get a lot of useful feedback on it. You want to use that opportunity wisely, and take as much advantage of it as you can. I’ve done this whole thing on fellowship, and I am extremely grateful.

In terms of the coursework, it’s not terribly different–maybe more advanced. My MA was a split MA, with some measure of critical and creative writing involved, as was my BA, so I’ve balanced both sides, always. My understanding, talking to people who have received MFAs that were specifically in creative writing, is that they did relatively little critical writing in their programs. But I like the critical side! Sometimes literary criticism is very helpful in informing the craft of writing, and sometimes it isn’t, but it’s another enjoyable way of experiencing and talking about books. That’s the main thing writing stories or essays is really about, for me: enjoying fiction so much that I want to find new and better ways of enjoying it.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use a Single Detail to Create a Character

8 Oct
Anthony Abboreno's story "Filler" was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” was published at American Short Fiction.

When creating a character, we tend to think about the entirety of the character—asking questions like, who is this person, really—but sometimes all we need is one good detail.

Anthony Abboreno demonstrates how a single detail can be used to create a complex character in his story, “Filler.” You can read it now at American Short Fiction.

How the Story Works

The story is about a father and his daughter, who likes food. It’s a minor detail (and not, at first glance, a terrifically unusual one), but watch how Abboreno uses that detail to create not only a fine-lined portrait of the daughter but also a dynamic picture of the hopes and dreams of the father as well.

In this first paragraph, the detail is introduced:

“One of the many things that I love about my daughter is that she loves food. When she was three, when most children are at their pickiest, my wife and I were amazed by what she enjoyed. Soup with kale in it, breaded veal, snails covered in butter that we would pry from their shells with a hat pin, then arrange on a plate for her to eat with her pudgy hands. And most of all she loved lobster—which is an easy food to like, but still outré for a three-year-old. On nights when my wife and I would hire a babysitter to go out with friends, we would brag about our daughter’s eating habits.”

In the next paragraph, the detail gains an added dimension:

“She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.”

This passage does two things:

  1. It places the daughter (and the one key detail about her) in context. Lines like “she was three, when most children are at their pickiest” and “still outré for a three-year-old” essentially tell the reader why the detail is noteworthy: she’s not like other kids her age.
  2. It lets the father talk about what this detail about his daughter means to him. A line like “the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied” clues the reader into the father’s attitude toward his daughter but also toward life and the world in general. The reader learns that his greatest fear is that one day he’ll be lonely.

At some point, every story must set a stake in the ground: the characters are moving toward the stake or they’re moving away from it. In “Filler” the regret and love that the father expresses at the end only make sense if we know that his greatest fear is that he’ll end up an outcast from society. And we learn that about that fear through a discussion of the daughter’s love for food. That is how a single detail can create a character.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create two characters using the food paragraphs from “Filler” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters who know each other. They could be family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or people who regularly run into each other at restaurants or bars or cafes or any of the social places in the world.
  2. Choose something for one of the characters to like. Or choose a behavior for that character to exhibit often. The behavior or preference can be something mundane like smiling a lot, tapping a foot, clicking a pen, clearing a throat, or liking movies or avocados or sunny days. In “Filler,” the daughter likes food.
  3. Place the character’s preference or behavior in context. Is the preference or behavior unusual or taken to an unusual degree?  In “Filler,” the daughter likes foods that other three-year-olds wouldn’t touch. Perhaps your character smiles more than most people or at unusual times. Perhaps the character adds avocado to every dish or only goes outside on sunny days or simply talks an unusual about her love of these things.
  4. Give examples of the preference or behavior. Let the reader “see” the character expressing the preference or behavior, In the first excerpted paragraph from “Filler,” we learn all the things that the daughter eats. So, in other words, flesh out the preference or behavior that you’ve created.
  5. Let the second character comment on the first character’s preference or behavior. This part is important: the comment shouldn’t be neutral. The comment should be judgmental (either positive or negative). So, in “Filler,” the father brags about his daughter’s love of food.
  6. Finally, let the second character explain or suggest what the first character’s preference or behavior means. In the real world, we do this all the time, making claims about other people’s personality or value system based on minor details about them. These claims often tell us more about ourselves than the other people. Good fiction achieves this same effect. So, let the second character talk in a judgmental and “knowing” way about the first character. See what comes out. It may surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Laura van den Berg

18 Jul
Laura van den Berg is the author of X. Her story, "Farewell My Loveds" does x

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming story collection The Isle of Youth. In this interview, she discusses her story, “Farewell My Loveds,” which was published at American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming collection The Isle of Youth, a book that prompted a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly to gush, “If ever there was a writer going places, it’s Laura van den Berg.” Her previous story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books, was called “stunning, desolate, and unforgettable” by Booklist.

In this interview, van den Berg discusses her drafting process, how a childhood spent in Florida gave birth to a slanted sense of reality, and how she reads to solve her own writing challenges.

(For an exercise based on her weird and tender story “Farewell My Loveds” click here.)

Michael Noll

You do such a great job at creating suspense in this story: What is the nature of the hole in the street? How did the parents die? Who was Calvin? I’m curious how you approach a scene or section of a story. Do you begin with an idea (for instance, a hole in the street) and then write a scene that revolves around that mystery, delaying as long as possible the answer? Or do you start with something more nebulous and then create the elements of suspense in revision?

Laura van den Berg

I’m an “intuitive drafter,” which means I usually barrel ahead without any kind of plan and end up with a mess on my hands. The real story often doesn’t emerge until I’m deep into revision. But for “Goodbye My Loveds,” the narrator was always grappling with not having access to certain kinds of information, so many of those questions were present in early drafts. However, the handling of those questions—what will be revealed; what will be denied; what will be offered in the place of the missing information—changed dramatically during the revision process.

Michael Noll

One thing I love about this story is how quickly you’re able to establish the dynamic between the brother and sister. There’s one moment in particular that is really great. The sister has convinced her brother to leave the hole and go back into their apartment. You write, “He thanked me for looking at the hole and apologized for waking me so early. I told him it was okay, I was glad to see it.” There’s such sweetness in that moment. It comes shortly after the sister says that her brother “was twelve, but most people thought he was younger.” In just a few sentences, you’re able to show a basic dynamic (he’s immature and headstrong, she’s protective) but also how much they care for each other. How did you develop these characters in your head? Did you begin with sketches of them? Or did you drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged?

Laura van den Berg

For this story, “drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged” would be the most accurate. I did a lot of work around adding texture/complications to the brother-sister relationship, but that rapport was, happily, there from the beginning.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you describe your own work. If someone asks you, “What kind of stuff do you write?” what do you say? I ask because this story has a strong non-realistic element. I’m not sure what to call it: absurdist, fantastic? At the very least, the premise is elevated beyond what we generally think of as realism. Your other stories do this as well. You have one about an actress who takes a job pretending to be Bigfoot. Other writers (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell) have a similar aesthetic. It’s as if you and they are combining the light, fun qualities of pulp with the emotional depth of literary fiction. What do you think? Do people ever look at you funny when you tell them you’ve written a great, serious, beautiful story about Bigfoot?

Laura van den Berg

I would agree that my work isn’t quite realist, but I’d be hesitant to put myself in league with George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell—and not just because they are all staggeringly good writers whose work I admire greatly!

Laura van den Berg's "Where We Must Be" tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot.

Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot. You can read it at The Nervous Breakdown.

To take the Bigfoot story as an example: a more committed fabulist—or magical realist, etc—might very well have Bigfoot appear as a character in all his (her?) monstrous glory, where as “Where We Must Be” concerns a woman dressing up as Bigfoot, which is certainly unusual, but could, for all we know, be happening somewhere in the world as this very moment (I kind of hope it is!). To me reality seems perpetually multifarious, bewildering; it often evolves, sometimes instantaneously, without our consent. I am most drawn to fiction, and hope to write fiction, where the force of that disorientation is felt.

Aesthetic and perspective are often inexorably linked—how do you see the world? Where are you coming from when you sit down to write? I grew up in Florida, a deeply odd place, in a large family prone to eccentricity. For example, we kept, for a time, a wolf as a pet. Her name was Natasha and she lived in our suburban backyard, where she became a prodigious pacer and digger of holes. In graduate school, the details my peers often tagged as being “surreal” and “bizarre” seemed pretty normal to me; without knowing it, I had carried the eccentricity that I had lived, that felt as much like “reality” as anything, over into my work. In time, I realized that aesthetic/perspective could become not only a stylistic feature, but also a meaningful narrative tool.

I was even more conscious of this when working on my second collection, The Isle of Youth, due out in November. All the stories involve crime/mystery in one way or another: a woman investigating the mysterious death of her scientist brother in Antarctica; a gang of teenage bank robbers called the Gorillas; twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. I love noir, and I was aware of using that stylistic features as a means of reaching a new—for me—emotional/psychological/aesthetic space.

Going back to Bigfoot, people do look at me funny sometimes. Occasionally people seem surprised that a woman would write about Bigfoot, which surprised me as I hadn’t been aware that cryptids were such masculine territory. And a lot of people have asked if I had ever worked as a Bigfoot impersonator. I’m always a little heartbroken when I have to answer “no.”

Michael Noll

I believe you’re currently at work on a novel. When you find yourself stumped, which writer do you turn to?

Laura van den Berg

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

I am often stumped and while, like most any writer, I have a huge stable of “favorites,” I often find myself turning to whatever I’m reading at the time. For example, I recently finished Rachel Kushner’s stunning novel The Flame Throwers and that novel taught me a great deal about writing a certain kind of first person narrator—and also a great deal about endings. So what I’m reading often helps me with whatever puzzle has been tripping me up—Ah! How did the writer pull off that ending/scene/tone/structure?—or even helps in the sense that it shows me what I hope to avoid in my work—Where did things go awry? How could the writer have avoided falling into that particular trap? How can I avoid falling into that trap? I usually am reading a few books at the same time and more often than not, they are all teaching me something.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Creating Suspense and Suspension of Disbelief

16 Jul
Laura van den Berg's story "Farewell My Loveds" was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg’s story “Farewell My Loveds” was published by American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and is included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Every writer must learn to create suspense. But how? Laura van den Berg offers a masterful lesson in her story “Goodbye My Loveds.” The story is included in van den Berg’s story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books and was first published in American Short Fiction and republished by Atticus Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces a mystery right away: the hole in the street. But the exact nature of the hole is unclear. Is it bottomless as the little brother believes or simply a hole as his big sister, the narrator, suggests? In delaying the answer, the story not only makes the readers want to know the answer but also changes the readers’ expectations: perhaps the hole really is more than just a hole. In other words, when a story creates suspense, it also creates a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

Here’s a breakdown of van den Berg accomplishes this trick:

  1. She introduces the mystery (the hole in the street) and a sense of urgency (the brother wakes the narrator up at dawn to look at the hole).
  2. The narrator and her brother argue about whether the hole is actually a crack.
  3. The narrator and brother argue about when to use a flashlight.
  4. The narrator and brother argue about whether the hole is bottomless.
  5. The narrator imagines her brother disappearing into the hole.
  6. The characters go back to their apartment.

After each of the first five sections, the story shows us the hole. With each view, we (along with the narrator) see some new aspect of the hole and it becomes a little bigger, deeper, and darker. Here is each view:

  1.  “a dark circle on the asphalt. It was the size of a dinner plate, the borders uneven and jagged”
  2. “he reached inside, his arm disappearing to the elbow”…’Okay,’ I said, hoping he would stop before a rat found the soft tips of his fingers.”
  3. “It looked like a patch of asphalt just melted away, a miniature sinkhole precariously close to the rear of a brown Honda…I saw a narrow stream of darkness, as though I was gazing through a telescope trained on a black and starless sky.”
  4. “He aimed the light into the hole; the beam was swallowed by shadows.”
  5. “I examined the diameter and, to my relief, decided it wasn’t large enough for him to squeeze through.”

At the end, the narrator imagines her brother falling into it—and this moment introduces a new mystery: why would the narrator imagine such a thing? It is this mystery that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a small scene around a mystery.

  1. Choose a mystery. You might use a familiar horror from books/movies. In this story, van den Berg has used the bottomless pit. Here are some other options: pit of snakes, endless staircase, secret doorway, cutout eyes in a painting for someone to spy through, trapdoors, secret passages, monsters under the bed, bogeyman in the closet, stranger hiding in the back seat of the car, and spider under the bedcovers.
  2. Translate the mystery into familiar realistic setting. van den Berg makes her bottomless pit a pothole. Think about how you could put a secret doorway, endless staircase, or monster into your kitchen or bedroom. Which familiar objects could be made mysterious? Show it to the reader using non-fantastic details.
  3. Create two characters. One will believe that the mysterious object is truly mysterious, and the other will believe that it’s not. List ways that the first person might investigate the mystery.
  4. Let the characters argue about the nature of the mysterious object.
  5. After each investigation or argument, show the object again, with new details, each more mysterious than the last. Your goal is to make the reader appreciate the object in a new way.

Good luck and have fun.

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