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.)
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.