Tag Archives: Book of Harold

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.

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How to Use Theme and Variation in a Story—Christmas Edition

24 Dec
images-2

“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

The success of a story is often determined by how well it goes off the tracks. In order for that to happen, though, the story must first lay those tracks. A great example of derailing a story can be found in the opening chapter of Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. You can read that chapter, titled “Nativity,” on Amazon here. (Look inside and read the first pages.)

How the Chapter Works

One of the oldest ways to create suspense in a story is to create a repeating sequence of events. So, in “The Three Little Pigs,” we watch the wolf blow down two houses before going to the third—where his plan goes awry. In a more contemporary example, the film Oceans Eleven, plus every heist movie ever made, first shows the thieves planning the heist and then practicing the heist, and when they finally put their plan into action, something goes wrong. Both of those stories—the fairy tale and the blockbuster film—spend time establishing how events should go so that they can go wrong.

With that strategy in mind, count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant in “Nativity”:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist. 

In addition to repeating the pageant, the passage contains words that clearly cue the reader into where things will go wrong. For instance, Egerton writes, “We practiced for two weeks. My part was simple enough.” The word simple is similar to Chekhov’s proverbial “gun on the wall.” If you show a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third. If you use the word simple in the beginning of a story, the story had better complicate that simplicity.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a sequence of events that will repeat itself, using Owen Egerton’s “Nativity” chapter as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters. For instance, a wedding or party will have guests. A door-to-door salesman will visit homeowners.
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out. Be detailed. First, X will happen. Then X. Then X. Finally, X. The more detailed steps you provide, the more opportunities you have to make things go wrong.
  4. Show the scene once or twice. In each of the tellings, something should go slightly wrong but not so wrong that the characters can’t deal with it.
  5. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding big, unexpected challenges. Ideally, you’ll let the challenges build on one another. So, something goes wrong in the first step of the sequence, and that problem creates a slightly larger problem in the next step, and so on, until the final step, when the sequence has devolved into chaos.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Good luck and have fun.

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.

Show It Once, Show It Again

26 Feb
images-2

“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

Maybe you’ve heard this one: A doctor, a corpse, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The doctor says, “Give me a stiff one.” The corpse says…

Or this one: Three little pigs each built a house. A big, bad wolf knocked on the first pig’s door and said…

Or possibly this one: A man named Ocean gets 11 thieves to break into a casino. First, they plan the heist, then they practice it, and then they do it for real, except…

These three stories share one of the world’s oldest storytelling strategies: put characters in a situation that will be repeated, but each repetition is slightly different—different enough to keep the reader’s attention but also essentially the same. The storyteller allows the reader to develop an expectation for how a situation will play out. But of course, there is a twist in the final repetition; the sequence goes awry. The success of a story is often determined by how well its sequence goes off the tracks.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. The paperback edition of the book was published by Soft Skull Press, and you can read the first chapter, “Nativity,” on Amazon here.

How the Chapter Works

Count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Because the story repeats the pageant five times, the reader develops an expectation for what will occur—and also that something will go wrong. Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters (wedding/party guests, salesman/homeowners).
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out, and then show the scene once or twice.
  4. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding unexpected challenges.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Happy writing.

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