Tag Archives: Black Warrior Review

An Interview with Jaime Netzer

10 Apr
Jaime Netzer's journalism has appeared widely, and her story,

Jaime Netzer’s journalism has appeared widely, and her story, “How to Die” was published in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger.

Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and journalist living in Austin. She served as the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence in Smithville, TX, and the nonfiction editor for the literary journal Front Porch. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Parcel, and Twelve Stories; her journalism has appeared all over, including (most recently) Variety, USA Today Special Publications, Cowboys and Indians, and Austin Monthly.

To read an exercise on writing self-aware prose and Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” click here.

Michael Noll

The story starts really fast: right to the reality show and its irresistible hook. Did the story always start this way? Or was this a conscious decision that you made, to start in a way that would immediately grab the reader?

Jaime Netzer

I started this story in the thick of work on my thesis project at Texas State, back in the spring of 2012. I had been plodding away at this truly terrible attempt at a novel while also enrolled in a workshop with Tom Grimes, who asked me to turn in something other than part of the thesis, for everyone’s sake, I think. My memory is usually awful but I do remember the idea coming to me sort of whole, or something close to it. I wanted to write about a girl competing on a reality show to earn her own suicide. The published version is not that different from the version I sat down and wrote in one fell swoop—which is wholly unusual for me. Small things changed, but this story always felt more like play than work. Her voice was there from the start, which I think helped a lot.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Kansas City, which caught my eye, not just because I’m from Kansas, but because I so rarely read stories set in KC. In fact, I can’t think of another short story set there. Did you ever consider setting the story in a generic location, or did you always want to put it in Kansas City, at Arrowhead?

Jaime Netzer

I’m from Kansas too, just west of Kansas City. So I’ve sat in that weird concrete stadium and seen its shadows and felt the height and bowl-feeling of it—it’s an amazing place to watch a game, and it’s weird and cold and huge, and somehow that felt like the right place to start. The other part of this answer, honestly, is that I’m a chicken, and I don’t usually set stories places I haven’t had some serious experience with. The story is obviously a bit speculative, a bit not-here, not-now, but I wanted it very, very close to now and here. So I wanted to set it somewhere, and Kansas City felt right. Lawrence, the narrator’s name, is actually the name of my hometown.

Michael Noll

The thing I love most about this story is the demented sexuality of the narrator, the way she tries to seduce the guy who will interview her for the TV show. Her sexuality, and the way she wields it, is so unexpected. The story could have easily been about how the character lacks power and so wants to die, but the story gives her incredible power and control. Is this one of those characterizations that just appears in your head one day, or did you have to write toward a point of discovery, when you realized who the character was?

Jaime Netzer

She came to me fully formed, but I wouldn’t say her sexuality is demented at all, actually. And maybe it’s because she was always the voice in my head, but it doesn’t seem unexpected to me, either. Don’t we all wield our sexuality in an attempt to get what we want? I never saw her as lacking power, so in my head, the story hasn’t given power to her. She is the story, her power and control (and desires) are the story.

Michael Noll

A lot of readers will probably think of The Hunger Games when reading this story. I’m curious how much you thought about it. Did you read the books or watch the movies and feel compelled to write your own (different, weirder, better) version? Or is the connection coincidental or the result of reality TV’s prevalence in our lives?

Jaime Netzer

To be honest, I didn’t give The Hunger Games a moment’s thought when writing it—I saw one of the movies (now I’m curious about the timing) at some point, but it’s the opposite story, right? Those people are not fighting of their own accord, and they’re fighting to live. I have, however, long admired Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and The Hunger Games‘ premise is fantastic. I actually had three people ask me if I’d seen Black Mirror after reading the story. I haven’t, but apparently it’s similar in tone and there may have even been an episode with a reality show of some kind.

April 2015

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

How to Write Self-Conscious Prose

7 Apr
Jaime Netzer's story, "How to Die," appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in LitRagger.

Jaime Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in Litragger.

It’s been said that every writer secretly wishes to be a musician—on stage, performing before a crowd. The experience is very different from the life of a writer, working alone in a room and being read by people who are far removed in other rooms. Yet the idea of performance has a place in writing. In fact, when it comes to first-person narration, a writer’s voice often becomes a consciously public act. You can see this clearly in Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, in stories like “How to Tell a True War Story,” when the narrator says things like, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times many versions—but here’s what actually happened.” The narrator is performing for his audience, and the effect is powerful; as a reader, you can feel yourself leaning forward into the prose.

This is the same strategy used (to the same effect) by Jaime Netzer in her story, “How to Die,” which was published recently in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The writer’s performance begins with the title: “How to Die.” It’s a particular kind of title (a How to) that has become almost a genre in itself. Tim O’Brien has written a version, and Lorrie Moore has written several. The genre often employs a second-person narration (You do this, you do that), and even in first-person stories, you tends to pop up a lot. It’s the nature of the story, not unlike when you were assigned to stand in front of a middle school classroom and deliver a demonstration: how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or how to give someone a buzz cut (at least that’s the speech that I gave). It’s a story that’s difficult to tell without directly engaging the audience. That engagement is an inevitable part of the story’s voice, as you can see in the first two paragraphs of “How to Die.”

Everybody knows this, but, die young. I look around at my fellow contestants and start to smirk. I’m only twenty, won’t even be drinking legal for months and months. I can see them peering at me, thinking thoughts they don’t realize are petty and unflattering, thinking, for example, why would little One-Eye want to win her own death?

But they’re here, too. We aren’t any different. Except I have a better story.

In the first sentence, the narrator is speaking directly to us. She doesn’t say “you,” but it’s understood who “die young” refers to. The narrator is also self-conscious in her performance. She’s aware of the effect she is trying to make and is delivering a spiel that feels rehearsed, if not in front of an actual audience, then to herself in her head.

The entire story is about performance. The narrator is auditioning for a reality show in which the contestants are competing to receive a show-assisted suicide at centerfield of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. They “win” by being both sexy and appealing and also miserable enough to want to die. The very nature of this premise requires the characters to put on an act and to think about how best to put on that act. This is why the narrator says things like, “Die sexy,” and “Die while you’re still sharp, smart, with it. Don’t let them pull one over on you.” She is calibrating her performance for the audience but also calibrating her own ideas for how to live, which is the subject of most fiction—how to be in the world.

What Netzer has done, then, is create a narrator who feels compelled to tell her audience how to be in her particular world—in the immediate, reality-show sense and in the broader, 20-year-old-in-America sense. It’s this voice telling us how to be that pulls us into and through the story, not the premise, as outlandish and engaging as it is.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write narration that tells the reader how to be, using “How to Die” by Jaime Netzer as a model:

  1. Create a narrator with something to say. In real life, we have obsessions that feel the need to explain to people: what it means to grow up in _____ or what it’s like to be _____ or do _____. Sometimes these obsessions center around traumatic or elevated experiences (going to war or encountering racism or sexism), but just as often these obsessions involve nuances that most people probably overlook but which are important to us. For this exercise, try giving your obsession(s) to a narrator. Or, if you’re a born fiction writer, create a character with an obsession that he/she feels compelled to explain. Obsession, of course, can mean something unusual (licking lamp posts) or something quotidian (how to die).
  2. Give the narrator a reason to explain the obsession. Most of us don’t need much of an excuse to talk about the things that preoccupy our minds. But, as an audience, we’re more receptive to those thoughts if there’s some reason for us to listen. This is the difference between wanting to listen to someone rant or lecture and wanting to run away. The reason doesn’t need to be something huge. Mostly, it needs to be dramatic. In Lorrie Moore’s story “How to Be an Other Woman,” the reason we listen is because we can’t help but want to know about affairs. So, rather than wringing your hands over that age-old workshop question, “Why is the narrator telling us this?” instead ask yourself, “What is the story or dramatic action that has prompted the narrator to start talking?” Give your character a story to talk about—not just an obsession to talk about.
  3. Shake the character. In a story like this, the narrative arc takes a toll on the narrative voice. In other words, the narrator has changed by the story’s end and that change is evident in how he or she talks. Often, this means undermining the narrator’s certainty about the world he or she is narrating—making the narrator vulnerable. For all her bluster about how to die and how to appeal to a reality-show audience, the narrator in “How to Die” doesn’t end up quite where she expected, in part because she did not anticipate something essential about her world. When that unanticipated thing arrives, her voice is shaken. So, in your story, find a way to introduce an element that will shake the narrator. If the voice talks as if it knows everything, introduce something that it does not know.

Good luck.

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