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An Interview with Juliana Goodman

10 Apr
Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, "Hot N' Spicy," appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. She is the recipient of the 2012 and 2013 Cordell Larner Award in fiction, as well as the 2013 Cordell Larner award in poetry and the 2013 Lois C. Bruner award in Nonfiction. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in Blackberry.

In this interview, Goodman discusses where to start stories, why she writes about characters she knows, and why Mary Gaitskill’s stories are so great.

To read “Hot N’ Spicy” and an exercise on speed in flash fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

This story starts fast. With two words—”This time”—you sum up the entire relationship and jump into the most recent argument. Did you always know to start that way, or did you write about the characters’ history together before figuring out where to begin?

Juliana Goodman

I really just started off in the middle of a relationship that basically runs in a circle. I drew a lot of the background of this couple from some of my own relationships and relationships I’ve seen other people go through. They fight and makeup over the same things over and over again. I usually like to start all of my stories right in the middle of the action to draw readers in and I feel it is even more important to get the ball rolling when it’s flash fiction. Every single word counts and should add to the piece as a whole.

Michael Noll

The story is full of lines that speed up the narrative. Some skip over explanation, like this one: “Will he take the hoodie?” We didn’t know he had one yet, and the story could have explained that he had one, and that it was his favorite, and so on, but it just moves on. Other lines have well-chosen words that convey a lot of information, like this one: “And then he’s gone out into the hot summer night, my heart stuffed in his back pocket with his wallet and a gold condom.” There’s something unexpectedly specific about the word “gold.” But it’s also not too specific. You could have named the condom brand, but you don’t, but we still know, which makes the line funny. That one word tells us a lot about this guy. Does this sort of condensed language happen naturally on the page? What’s your revision process look like? 

Juliana Goodman

I wanted this piece to have a very intimate feel, like a woman writing in her diary.  She doesn’t explain everything because she’s  in the midst of it all. A lot of the language came naturally because I’ve been in similar situations and the feelings she expressed were my own at the time. That’s a big reason why I always write about characters and situations I know because it makes the emotions easier to convey on the page.  My revision process is a little bit different than the traditional one. Rather than writing a rough draft and going back to edit lines, I revise as I write. I may write a paragraph and then go back and reread it to make sure it sounds good before I continue on with the piece. I read the entire piece again when I’ve completed it, but the amount of changes I make at the end is very small since I’ve already looked it over multiple times.

Michael Noll

I sometimes teach undergraduate creative writing workshops, and I’ve found that my students haven’t read a lot of short fiction, neither stories or flash fiction. So, I’m curious who you’ve been reading. I ask in part because the tone of this story is so sure and confident, simultaneously funny and angry. Are you modeling your work after any writers? 

Juliana Goodman

Mary Gaitskill's collection Because They Wanted To

Mary Gaitskill’s collection Because They Wanted To

A couple of my favorite short story collections are by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill. I enjoy Diaz’s work because it’s very honest and incorporates his culture in a way that’s easy to relate to. Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To, my absolute favorite short story collection, really changed the way I write.  There’s no filter or sugar coating and the emotions are illustrated without cutting any of those embarrassing or shameful feelings that people are sometimes too afraid to write about.  Reading her stories really taught me to write without restraint. If I’m feeling or thinking about something a lot, whatever it is or how humiliating or crazy it may sound, I put it on the page and take it from there.

Michael Noll

Undergraduate students also often don’t know how to submit their work for publication—not the process or where to submit. How did you find Blackberry ? Did some of your writing teachers at Western Illinois point you in its direction, or did you find it on your own? 

Juliana Goodman

One of my creative writing professors at Western Illinois University, Erika Wurth, sent me the link to Blackberry and encouraged me to look into submitting. The process was fairly simple and now I’ve learned to look around for magazines that publish the type of stories I write by browsing the internet and reading past issues of lit magazines.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar is by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

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