Tag Archives: Austin writers

How to Turn Information into Scene

2 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel Good as Gone “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene and introduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

Amy Gentry does an excellent job of doing both in her novel Good as Gone. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. It’s getting a big national marketing campaign and big-time reviews—for good reason. The book is a thriller that is also thoughtful, with well-developed characters. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The story is set in Houston, which is information that must be conveyed quickly—not just the name of the city but the particular details of what the city is like and how it feels to be there. That information and more is introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Julie’s been gone for eight years, but she’s been dead much longer—centuries—when I step outside in the steaming air on my way to teach my last class of the spring semester. The middle of May is as hot as human breath in Houston. Before I’ve even locked the door behind me, a damp friction starts up between my skin and clothes; five more paces to the garage, and every hidden place sickens. By the time I get to the car, even my bent knuckles are sweating up the plastic sides of the insulated travel cup, and my grip sips as I climb into the SUV, throwing oily beads of black coffee onto the lid. A few on my hand, too, but I let them burn and turn on the air conditioning.

Here is the information delivered in this paragraph:

  • The situation (“Julie’s been gone for eight years”) and how that absence feels (“dead much longer”)
  • The temperature (steaming)
  • The narrator’s job (college instructor)
  • The month (May)
  • The city (Houston)
  • How the weather feels (“a damp friction”)
  • The exact location of the scene (outside the narrator’s front door and then in her SUV)
  • Something about the narrator’s mindset (“I let them burn”)

This is a tremendous amount of information, and one thing that beginning writers tend to do is dump it onto the page. Such info dumps are almost always tedious and boring—but this paragraph isn’t because it’s in scene. As a result, the passage has a sense of movement. Because it begins with situation, we want to know more about what’s going on. Because the setting is made palpable, we feel the narrator’s discomfort along with her. Because the narrator reacts to a detail in an unexpected way (“I let them burn”), we want to understand what’s going on in her head.

In short, Gentry manages to include an info-dump’s worth of detail and make it feel like story because of how she weaves it into the scene. If Gentry can make such mundane information come alive, you can imagine how exciting the book becomes once she’s working with the twists and turns of a thriller plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s turn information into scene, using Good as Gone by Amy Gentry as a model:

  1. Prioritize the basics of setting. For Gentry, this means city, month, and weather, but this is because those details are impossible for her narrator to ignore every time she walks out of her house. So, put your character into motion. Move her from one spot to another and find out what part of the setting affects her most acutely. If your character doesn’t notice the weather, then the weather doesn’t matter. What does the character notice about setting? What is the character’s attitude toward this noticeable detail? It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, only that it’s charged.
  2. Give the character some necessary task to do. Gentry sends her narrator to work. The job isn’t pressing; it’s not like she’s a fire fighter rushing to a burning building. But it’s necessary for the narrator to go. This tethers the narrator to the world. Too often in drafts, characters are left floating in infinite space, thinking big thoughts. It’s almost always the case that no thought—no matter how deep or well-stated—is interesting if it’s not given context or background. So, before the character thinks, let the character do something she has no choice but to do. This task could be a job, or it could be some other essential task (household, community, family). You’re connecting the character to other characters and institutions, and these connections reveal small, yet important information.
  3. Be specific about setting. Gentry’s scene is set in Houston, but it’s also outside the narrator’s front door. Without that detail, we wouldn’t know if the narrator was leaving an apartment, a doctor’s office, a super-secret spy agency; we’d only know she was outside.
  4. Be aware of your character’s state of mind. Perhaps the best detail in the paragraph is the one about letting the coffee burn her skin. We begin to read into such a detail, making guesses at why the narrator would act that way. Once the readers begins to do that work, they’re hooked. So, put yourself in your character’s head; what is the single most pressing emotion or feeling in it? What is the source of that feeling? We already know that Julie is dead and gone, and so we can begin to connect that piece of information with the unexpected action. You can do the same thing. Let your character’s state of mind affect how she reacts to some small detail.
  5. Introduce the situation. The state of mind and reaction from the last step will make more sense if we know what’s going on. In this case, what’s going on isn’t the narrator going to work but the fact that Julie is gone. The situation is ongoing, not acute. The advantage to clearly stating the situation and how it feels (as Gentry does in the first sentence) is that is quickly orients the reader. Every new piece of information will be read in relation to the situation. I made this the final step because writers often don’t know what the situation is until they’ve gotten into their character’s head and seen the character react to the setting. Then, as writers, we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

The goal is to make basic information about setting and character interesting by putting it into scene.

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An Interview with Owen Egerton

28 Dec
Owen Egerton's novel The Book of Harold has been called...

Owen Egerton’s novel Everyone Says That at the End of the World prompted the novelist Charles Yu to write, “People at the coffee shop were actually staring at me—I don’t think they fully believed that a book could make a person laugh that hard.”

Owen Egerton is the author of Everyone Says That at the End of the WorldThe Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and the forthcoming story collection How to Avoid Dying, which was recently named by The New York Times as having one of the best book covers of 2013.

In this interview, Egerton talks about theme and variation in fiction, how to write a scene as well-known as a Christmas pageant, and the role of Christianity in literature.

To read the first chapter of The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God and an exercise on the expectations of sequence, click here.

Michael Noll

The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?

Owen Egerton

I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.

Michael Noll

Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant—and perhaps appeared in them—and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.

Owen Egerton

Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.

You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.

It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.

I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 Michael Noll

In his New York Times essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to "a dead language or a hangover."

In his New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to “a dead language or a hangover.” Owen Egerton disagrees.

In a New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?

Owen Egerton

I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.

What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.

And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.

The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.

I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.

Michael Noll

In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?

Owen Egerton

Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.

First published in February 2013

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Meghan McCarron

21 Mar
Meghan McCarron's story "Swift, Brutal Retaliation" won a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron’s story “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron is a writer based in Austin, TX. She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Los Angeles, rural New Hampshire, and Brooklyn. A former Hollywood assistant, boarding school English teacher, and independent bookseller, she is one of the fiction editors at Interfictions and an assistant editor at Unstuck. She and her girlfriend live in the same neighborhood as the flying burger monster.

In this interview with Michael Noll, McCarron discusses her approach to “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” which asks the surprising question, “Can you contact a dead person on Facebook?” A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the way the supernatural premise is combined with a realistic world—can be found here.

Michael Noll

My favorite part of the story is when Sinead decides to send her ghost brother a message on Facebook. The sheer impossibility of it made my day—not just that it’s impossible for a ghost to log on to Facebook, but the fact that Sinead would even think to try. For me, it was the moment when the story left the stomping grounds of the traditional ghost story and became something fresh and new, something I’d never read before. What led you to write that scene?

Meghan McCarron

I have always been fascinated by the internet presence of the dead. Blogs that have gone dark and silent facebook walls seem to serve as a space where people leave messages that they hope will reach beyond the grave. It makes sense – on the internet we post words in the ether and miraculously, sometimes capriciously, they are received! As a result, these frozen internet spaces feel haunted to me, more so than, say, a room where someone died.

The internet shows up a lot in my fiction in general, especially when my protagonists are kids or teenagers. I spent a few years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire, and I was fascinated by how my students structured their lives between in-person and online interactions. I’ve had a social life split between the internet and IRL since I was twelve, but I was a dorky outlier. It was fascinating to see “popular” kids using social media as obsessively as everyone else.

Ian created a life outside of his home that he far preferred, and the internet was an essential part of it. Sinead’s instinct to contact him over Facebook seemed natural – he was never reachable in their home, but perhaps he could be reached online. I’m saying all of this as if I had it figured it out at the time. Really, picture me huddled in my old apartment in Brooklyn thinking, “Hmmm what now?”, my feet pressed against the space heater.

Michael Noll

Your story does such a wonderful job of giving the ghost objects to play with—the mirror, obviously, but also the lasagna and the Nair. The story pivots very cleanly from the mirror, which we’ve seen before and expect (the mirror almost allows us to settle in, to say, “Okay, I know this story, and I like it”) to details we’ve likely never seen in a ghost story. The details work—and become spooky—because they fit the living characters so well. The world makes perfect sense. It seems real. How did you create this world? Did you start with the characters and populate the house with objects they’d likely use? Or did you have a particular scene in mind and build the world around it?

Meghan McCarron

You know, I have no idea how I started this story. I knew I wanted to write a ghost story – I’d never written one before. I’d been reading a great deal of classic ghost stories, hence the mirror. I also really admire the way the writer Kelly Link makes mundane physical objects creepy and strange. Her story “The Hortlak” features pajamas of lovecraftian horror, and in “Stone Animals,” familiar objects become “haunted” and no one wants to touch them anymore. So perhaps I was thinking a little about that.

My mother had a dusty bottle of Nair hidden in a medicine cabinet, and once someone told me about the prank of putting it in someone’s shampoo. From that moment on, I was terrified of that bottle of Nair. It seemed like a gun on the mantlepiece of my life: sooner or later, someone was going to sneak it into MY shampoo and my hair would fall out. I have no idea why I was obsessed with this – something something fear of puberty?

The lasanga – well, lasanga is disgusting, and delicious because it is so disgusting. It just seemed obvious.

Michael Noll

I love ghost stories. I’ve been hearing them—actual encounters with actual ghosts—ever since I was a kid. As a literary genre, it’s one of the world’s oldest. Even Shakespeare uses ghosts (and witches), and not infrequently. Ghosts—and the supernatural in general—seems to be innately interesting to most of us, even though we’ll likely never encounter an actual ghost–and likely do not (if pressed) believe they exist. Why do you think we are we so attracted to the idea of ghosts?

Meghan McCarron

I recently finished John Crowley’s Little, Big, which has a big section devoted to the magic of memory palaces. Basically, there’s an ancient system of memorizing that involves “putting” pieces of information in various rooms of a remembered house. The memory palace is a perfect metaphor for how our imagination mirrors the physical world. Our memories are always haunted, aren’t they? Ghosts seem like a useful way of externalizing that haunted feeling, of expressing the obsession of grief. If we’ve all got houses in our minds full of wandering people, dead and alive, but only the living ones wander around in the physical world – well, wouldn’t the dead ones be there, too?

March 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

An Interview with Nina McConigley

14 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, from Five Chapter Books.

The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.

McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”

Michael Noll

Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?

Nina McConigley

Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.

I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.

Michael Noll

Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?

Nina McConigley

A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.

I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…

Michael Noll

I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?

Nina McConigley

I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.

Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.

By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.

Michael Noll

You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?

Nina McConigley

Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.

It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.

March 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.

To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

28 Feb
Owen Egerton's novel The Book of Harold has been called...

Owen Egerton’s novel The Book of Harold walks “the fine line between hilarity and heart” according to one reviewer.

Now that Lance Armstrong is disgraced, the title of Most Interesting Person in Austin may belong to Owen Egerton. Here are a few reasons why: His short film, Follow, is debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, he’s a regular performer in one of the most popular comedy tickets in town, and his book launches are standing-room only. It’s no wonder the Austin Chronicle routinely names him the city’s favorite local writer. With his most recent novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and his soon-to-be-released Everyone Says That at the End of the World, the rest of the world is discovering what Austin has known for a long time.

Pick up any of Egerton’s books, and you’ll find the rare combination of humor and spirituality. As a result, The Book of Harold has been called beautifully-crafted, wise, and poignant, but it’s also very funny. The promotional video for the novel even caught the interest of late-night host Jimmy Fallon, who linked to it on his website.

Egerton was kind enough to answer a few questions about this comic-religious novel.

Michael Noll

The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?

Owen Egerton

I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.

Michael Noll

Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant–and perhaps appeared in them–and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.

Owen Egerton

Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.

You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.

It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.

I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 Michael Noll

In his New York Times essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to "a dead language or a hangover."

In his New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to “a dead language or a hangover.” Owen Egerton disagrees.

In a recent New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?

Owen Egerton

I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.

What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.

And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.

The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.

I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.

Michael Noll

In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?

Owen Egerton

Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.

February 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories. A writing exercise based on the first chapter of The Book of Harold is available here.

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

21 Feb
Manuel Gonzalez's story "Farewell, Africa," was published in Guernica and the inspiration for this writing exercise. His new collection of stories, The Miniature Wife, is being mentioned in the same breath as George Saunders and A.M. Holmes.

Manuel Gonzales’s story “Farewell, Africa,” was published in Guernica and is included in The Miniature Wife, a new collection of stories that has been compared to the work of George Saunders and Aimee Bender.

Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection of stories, The Miniature Wife & Other Stories, has been called “extraordinary” by the LA Times. A review in The New York Times reveled in the stories’ “delightful freakishness.” His writing can also be found weekly on the 1000 Words project, where he writes and posts a weekly story inspired by an image created by the photographer Emily Raw. Gonzales serves as the Executive Director of Austin Bat Cave, a writing & tutoring center for kids located in Austin, Texas.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Gonzales discusses his approach to “Farewell, Africa,” which tells the unexpected story of a pool malfunction set against the backdrop of the destruction of the entire continent of Africa. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the immediate suspense created in the first line—can be found here.

Michael Noll

In the first sentence of the story, you introduce a problem (the pool didn’t work), but you don’t reveal what happens until several paragraphs later. Was this an intentional move on your part to create suspense in the reader, or did the opening paragraphs come about gradually, over the course of revision?

Manuel Gonzales

When I write these stories that have a sense of non-fiction to them, I always approach them with this idea in my head that the audience already knows the larger points of the story. So with this, I assumed that the imagined reading audience for this piece would already know that the African continent has sunk into the sea. So the world I created that would contain this essay had to be larger than the essay itself, because otherwise the essay wouldn’t work, and that world included an audience for the essay. And since everyone who was going to read this essay would already know about Africa, the starting point had to be something small and specific, this based on the kind of New Yorker article made popular by Talk of the Town contributors and Malcolm Gladwell that I had in mind as my model. So really, how I started the piece was determined as much by the structure of it as anything else, and the fact that this also developed a sense of tension in the real reading audience was a side-effect—a good one—of the early decisions I made about what kind of story I wanted to write.

Michael Noll

I’ve heard some writers claim that funny stories are impossible to write. But this obviously isn’t true for you. One of the best parts of this story is the weirdly detached tone the characters have toward the sinking of Africa. For instance, the first thing Owen Mitchell says about his famous speech “Farewell, Africa” is that it was fifteen minutes too long. But even the name of the speech itself seems oblivious to any sense of real tragedy. The disconnect works so well. Was it part of the story from the beginning, or did you have to figure out the right tone? Comedy (even black comedy) and the loss of civilizations wouldn’t seem like an obvious starting point for a story.

Manuel Gonzales

The comedy is generally there at the beginning all of my stories. I had this title in my head long before I wrote the story. I’d misread a NY Times headline (Farewell, Africa) as us saying goodbye to the African continent, as if it had gone away, and that made me think of the idea that we would have written a speech to work against the tragedy of the African continent sinking into the sea—because we turn to speeches in almost all times of crisis—and that struck me as sad and absurd and really funny because of the absurdity and futility of it. I think that comedy has to be paired with tragedy in order for both of them to achieve the effects you want them to achieve.

Michael Noll

At your book launch in Austin, you mentioned your love of stories that sound like nonfiction. This story seems to fit that description–journalistic in tone and approach. It’s almost possible to imagine this story appearing as a magazine profile. What draws you to the voice or style of the essay?

Manuel Gonzales

I really like reading essays, the New Yorker profile or a good GQ essay by Wells Tower or Rolling Stone piece by Mark Binelli or the old profiles and essays about New York written by Joseph Mitchell, and I liked the idea of using the techniques of a nonfiction piece in fiction. For one, you can get away with a lot of different things—exposition, for instance. You can load a nonfiction piece with exposition (telling instead of showing) without a lot of consequence, and then you also can use the tone and form to sidestep a number of obstacles that otherwise might gum you up when writing a piece of fiction. The tone gives you a certain kind of pre-set credibility, in fact, in the same way that medical language or legal language or scientific language can. Because when we read something in this tone and style, our expectations become set to ‘nonfiction’ almost subconsciously.

For this story specifically, I tried a few times to write about the guy who wrote the Farewell, Africa speech as a straightforward short story but found every time that the focus would become him and his small and narrow personal investments, and the story never achieved the tone or the largeness I wanted it to, never became the thing I wanted to read. So, after a few false starts, I decided to try writing a Talk of the Town piece about that guy, and that led me to the idea that what I would write about would be a fundraiser party for a museum dedicated to these continents that had sunk into the sea, and from there, everything else fell into place.

The other thing about using this kind of form is that you can break out of it and by breaking out of the form, for just a moment, in the middle of the piece, you create a space that’s a little surprising and potentially more emotional because of how and when it arrives.

Michael Noll

Here’s sort of a weird question: Lots of writers/people apparently send Bill Watterson their work, simply because they loved his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. They don’t expect a response from him. They’re just happy knowing that he might see their work. If you could send your story or your collection to any writer, living or dead, just in the hope that he or she would read it, who would you send it to?

Manuel Gonzales

Joss Whedon. I could go on and on about his work and how he creates story and how he moves in and out of genres, uses various compelling and fascinating forms, and how he works from a very emotional and very relatable starting point with all of this, which is what makes the stories work the way they do. As a writer, he’s been one of my bigger influences. He was one of the first in television to create season-long story arcs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (not a Joss Whedon show but the two overlap a little) you could say led to, ultimately, shows like The Sopranos, Alias, The Wire, and Lost—full of complicated storylines, deeply felt and inhabited characters. He also traffics in a mix of genres. He’s worked in horror and in space westerns and in sci-fi thrillers, but what makes them successful, when they are their most successful, is his investment in character-driven stories. He and his writing staff are great at plotting but the plots serve the characters and their growth, helps complicate our understanding of these people and the worlds they inhabit, which has always struck me as a literary approach to storytelling.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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