Tag Archives: Anabel Graff

An Interview with Anabel Graff

5 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World" won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff received her B.A. from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Texas State University. She has lived in London, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and New York City. She is the winner of the 2014 Prada Feltrinelli Prize. Her work has appeared in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One, as well as Prada Journal.

To read her story “The Prom at the End of the World” and an exercise on writing human stories in the face of cosmic disaster, click here.

In this interview, Graff discusses getting readers to forget logistics, stealing from writers (especially Ramona Ausubel and Amy Hempel), and why writers write the same story over and over.

Michael Noll

As it’s title suggests, “The Prom at the End of the World” strikes a balance between the normal (prom dates and dresses) and the apocalyptic (asteroid). Mostly the story sticks to the prom, and the asteroid stays in the background, informing the choices that the characters make. It’s the opposite of how the film The Day After Tomorrow operates. Did the story always have that balance, or did the asteroid ever take over in some drafts? In other words, did it ever threaten to turn into The Road or The Walking Dead?

Anabel Graff

It’s funny, but despite the topic, “Prom” was never really concerned the particulars of an apocalypse. I had no interest in writing that story—it’s one we’re almost too familiar with. The circumstances of “Prom” didn’t really feel like that much of a stretch to me. It’s hard not to feel like the world is on the edge of the apocalypse anyway (just turn on the news). Instead, I was fascinated by the emotional territory the apocalypse allowed me to explore: How would we act if we knew the end was near? And how would that reveal what we value? Who we were? Jenny’s answer is connection. That would be my answer, too.

That answer was satisfying to early readers of this story, and I revised “Prom” to strengthen that effect. In many ways, this was a test of narrative authority. I wanted to write a story that felt so emotionally true that people wouldn’t feel the need to ask logistical questions. It will resonate for some readers and not for others. But that’s okay—those are the limitations we must accept when we venture into writing stories that aren’t strictly realism.

Michael Noll

Even though the prom dress and date take center stage, there is a certain amount of general action going on in the background. For instance, two consecutive paragraphs begin this way: “The men bought supplies” and “The women made plans.” Each paragraph tells, generally, about those supplies and plans. This seems like a pretty succinct way to capture the larger commotion caused by the asteroid without getting sucked into the details. I’m curious if this strategy simply occurred to you while writing or if you borrowed it from another writer or story.

Anabel Graff

I wanted to write a new story for the Prada contest, but I had a hard time starting that first sentence. So I turned away from my blank computer screen and dove into the books on my shelf. I read. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received to overcome writer’s block, and I would tell anyone who would listen to do the same. I think I read about ten books the week before I returned to that blank computer screen. When I read fiction, I always pay close attention to how it is made. I look for tricks to steal (I’ve always believed that great writers are great liars and thieves)—this is how I’ve been taught to read like a writer (like you do on your site!). When I finally sat down to write “Prom,” those tricks were at my fingertips. It was quite astounding actually how quickly I wrote this story, especially after being stalled for so long.

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that "No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge."

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that “No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge.”

One book I read that week was No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel. It’s narrated in the third person plural, though the narrative sometimes shifts to a first person. This is done to great effect—the combination makes the narration at once authoritative (the power of the “we”) and personal (the intimacy of the “I”). After I read this book, I was inspired to try this device, and I felt the freedom to play with point of view in this way.

I also immersed myself in Amy Hempel’s short stories. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hempel talks about the notion of moving plot in terms of moment building. And that was another technique I was interested in, in terms of the construction of “Prom.” Hempel also discusses letting white space speak through the story’s transitions. Can I just quote her here? She says:

Transitions are usually not that interesting. I use space breaks instead, and a lot of them. A space break makes a clean segue whereas some segues you try to write sound convenient, contrived. The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented, and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way. If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.

Much is left unsaid in “Prom,” and that silence speaks volumes. The story, in a weird way, is all about what’s not being said. That thought’s in every line—what people are too scared to say is as important as what they say out loud.

Michael Noll

In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Saunders writes that every writer has “The Thing This Writer Loves To Do, and Does Naturally” and that the “writer started writing so that he or she could endlessly and effortlessly do this thing and nothing else—be funny, say, or verbally brilliant, or write lush nature vignettes, or detailed descriptions of the interiors of rich people’s houses.” As I read your story, I noticed two things that you seem very good at: inventing wonderful details about teenage sensibility (the term promapocalypse and the last-minute decision to decorate the auditorium like outer space) and also capturing those universal moments of teenage uncertainty that we all experienced and recognize immediately. How much of your writing process is simply finding a plot that will allow you to do these things?

Anabel Graff

Wow, thanks! Well, I first have to credit Jane Hawley from my cohort with the “promapocalypse ” line. A lot of the details I labor over as I build the world of the story never seem to get noticed, and the ones that come easily are the ones that some readers hold onto (like the prom decorations, for example). Debra Monroe, my professor at Texas State, taught me about the importance of specific details in fiction, and she brilliantly explains how they constellate to create the tension of a story and reveal its meaning. So that’s something I always work towards in my writing—how I can be as particular as possible, by using a lot of specific details, to capture the universal, to create meaning.

Which brings me to the second part of your question—I believe that a writer writes the same story until she has answered the question the story poses. All of my stories are about these moments of uncertainty of adulthood—whether my characters are 8, 18, 28, or 88. I don’t ever start writing with a theme in mind—I always start writing with plot. But I am interested in these particular moments because they have both meaning and dramatic potential. Will Jenny find a date for the prom? That is the plot. What does it mean to take a risk to connect? Therein lies the theme.

Michael Noll

The story was written for a specific prompt: “What are the signs of a changing world? And what situations can we envision? Taking a good look at the details might give us the answer.” Did writing for those questions change your process at all? Did you write a story that is unlike your normal subject matter, or did you simply adapt the kind of story you usually write to the prompt?

Anabel Graff

Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

I think I was the only winner who wrote a new the story for the contest. Since this prompt was inspired by Prada’s latest eyewear line, I always knew that the idea of vision (what we see and what we don’t) would be central to the story. But I was having a hard time finding a plot to lay over that as a backdrop. Sometimes, when I am looking for inspiration, I read weird news sites for ideas. I came across a story about a meteor that was supposed to hit Earth. As soon as I saw that, I knew my story would center on a teenager’s last night on Earth. From there, the prom seemed an obvious setting. It’s a night full of expectation, and these expectations were intensified by the impending apocalypse. But, honestly, this process is similar to how I begin many of my stories—I like the idea of taking two or three ideas, images, thoughts, and figuring out a narrative that weaves them all together to make the fabric of a story. This how I always feel like I’m writing towards something. And it’s how I try to bring richness and texture to my fiction, by finding images that fascinate me, that I can imbue with meaning to function as a central metaphor for each story.

Prompts are a helpful tool we have as writers. It’s a way to explore ideas that may lie outside our regular instincts, thought processes. They provide structure and limitations. For me at least, when I have those kind of limitations, I’m always trying to figure out how I can bend them. And that’s when I’m the most creative.

March 2015

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

How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

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