Tag Archives: Anthony Abboreno

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.

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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.

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