Tag Archives: Boston Review

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov
image

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

Advertisements

How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov
Boston-Review-logo


“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

How to Withhold Crucial Plot Information

21 Jul
Sarah Layden's story, "Bad Enough With Genghis Khan," appeared in Boston Review.

Sarah Layden’s story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” appeared in Boston Review.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, sleuthing along with Hercule Poirot, determined to solve the mystery before he did. I figured out pretty quickly that Christie was holding out on me, not showing me everything I needed to put the pieces together. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be a little bit shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information in order to create a surprise ending, but it’s not easy to do. Many times, the readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. The best shock is the one that seems to come out of nowhere, and this is exactly what Sarah Layden pulls off in her story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” which you can read now at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The ending is suggested, though we don’t know it yet, in the story’s first sentence:

The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal, we went to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant for a celebration dinner with another couple.

Notice how smoothly that sentence operates. It begins with a trial and verdict and ends with Mongolian barbecue and a celebration. The rest of the paragraph is ostensibly about the meal and what happens to the other couple in the future (they get divorced). There is an emotional undercurrent present—the narrator gets drunk and starts to cry—but it’s not clear why she’s upset. (Remember, the trial only received half a sentence and hasn’t been mentioned again.) The next paragraph, which is its own section, moves onto a different situation. The trial is behind us.

The middle of the story uses different scenes and situations to develop a connection between sexual encounters and Genghis Khan, the infamous conqueror who raped and pillaged his way through Asia. Each of these scenes is compelling, but the relationship between them isn’t clear. We’re not sure where we’re headed, but lines like these have us intrigued:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Then, in the second to last second, we encounter this (spoiler alert):

When a young woman has lived an unharmed life, she is not so much naïve as incredulous at the threat of harm. No way will she wind up like the kidnapped and presumed-murdered girl who was about to inform on drug dealers; or the girlfriend knocked down the stairs in a fight and then dismembered, her limbs, head, and torso hidden in the walls; or the very young girl secreted to the hills above her family’s home, enduring daily rape by a man old enough to be her grandfather; or the teen runaway kept as a sex slave in the secret compartment of one man’s basement. I sat beside the judge’s bench and typed these words, transcribed these testimonies, remembering meeting my husband in the same courtroom: his arm in a sling over his police officer’s uniform, the gold wedding band on his finger both remnant and reminder, his eyes hooded. His missing wife’s body never turned up.

The passage seals the connection between sex and violence and then, in the middle of a sentence, finally returns to the trial we saw briefly at the beginning of the story. We finally learn what the narrator might have discovered in her husband’s Internet browsing history. It’s an effective move. When I first read the story, I actually gasped when I finished the line and realized what it meant. What else could a story possibly hope to achieve?

What makes the story great, though, is that it doesn’t stop there. In the final section, our discovery is given emotional resonance. The narrator is talking to a friend who says, “Never get divorced…it’s cold out here.”

The distance between that piece of advice and what we’ve learned about the narrator’s marriage is what gives the story the evil chill of great crime fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s withhold crucial information using “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” by Sarah Layden as a model:

  1. Figure out the effect you want the story to have. In the case of “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” the effect is the shock of realizing that a woman has married a man who may have murdered his wife. The obvious way to approach this revelation would be to put the reader in the room with the narrator when she first learns that her lover’s wife has disappeared—or when she discovers clues to his misdeeds on his computer. But if the point is to shock the reader (and not the narrator), then the revelation doesn’t need to occur in the moment that it happens for the narrator. In fact, because it happens in a passage about something else, it becomes that much more shocking. So, what will your readers find shocking or funny or heartwarming or poignant in your story? That’s the moment we’re going to surprise them with.
  2. Write a sentence that clearly states the shocking/funny/poignant moment. For example, Layden could have written this: “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal for murdering his wife, we went to a Mongolian barbecue.” Notice how the sentence doesn’t end with the shocking thing but uses it as the catalyst for something else: This, then this. You can use this structure for any situation, for instance this one: “The week after I farted loudly during my own wedding, people cheered and high-fived me when they saw me around town.” Try it. Write a sentence that states the shocking/funny/poignant thing and then moves on to whatever comes next.
  3. Edit out the best part of the sentence. In Layden’s case, this is the fact that the guy was on trial for murdering his wife. In my example, I’d cut the fart and leave this: “The week after my wedding, people cheered…” The sentence operates just fine without the excised information. We’re being shown the same scene, just without one detail.
  4. Find a moment to slip the detail back into the story. Because you’ve already shown the readers the scene, you’re relieved of the obligation to convey the detail in scene. Instead, it can show up anywhere. This is what Layden does so masterfully. She writes a passage about other instances of sexual violence and then adds another to the list—which just happens to be connected to her. I could do the same thing with my example: write a passage about other farts or other embarrassing moments and then add in this particular moment. So, give it a try. Write a passage that lists moments (not necessarily experienced by the same people, just connected in some way) and then add in the detail that you’ve been withholding.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Kalpana Narayanan

25 Sep
Kalpana Narayanan's story, "Aviator on the Prowl," won Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.

Kalpana Narayanan’s story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” won Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize.

Kalpana Narayanan was born in New Delhi and raised in Atlanta, and she now lives in Brooklyn. She has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, The Hambidge Center, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, and, in 2011, received Boston Review’s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize. The judge, novelist Francisco Goldman, called the story “a pretty dazzling mix of charm, humor, strong emotion, jump-off-the-page liveliness.” Narayanan teaches writing at Fordham University.

To read Narayanan’s story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” at Boston Review and an exercise on making creating character foils, click here.

Michael Noll

I love how so much of the dialogue shows the characters talking to themselves or talking to others and getting no response. When there is some extended back-and-forth, it gets summarized, as with the dialogue with the mom in the first paragraph. One effect of this is that it reinforces just how alone these characters are. Was the dialogue was always written this way or did it start out longer and then get pared back in revision?

Kalpana Narayanan

That’s a lovely read of the dialogue in the story. Thank you. The dialogue in the first draft of the story is the same as it was in the final draft—short.  Someone pointed out to me that the narrator only speaks once, which was so surprising to me, because in my head, she has this interior world that is constantly in dialogue with what she’s seeing, with the people around her.  But it’s true, we only hear her speak once at the end.  I think that was something I was interested in—a narrator who has a rich interior life, but the outside world can’t necessarily see that. I was interested in these characters who are in this house that feels at times as if it’s about to collapse in on them.  Their one way out is to communicate—but they can’t. There’s something really human about that problem to me—about not being able to communicate with the people who are closest to you.

It was also the first time I’d written in first-person, which I think unlocked something in me as I wrote it—I realized that I could just have her be in her head, imagining what she would say.  She’s this character who is enveloped by grief, and has all this emotion brimming in her, but she can’t vocalize it—she absorbs more and more, until she can’t one day—and I wanted for the reader to be in her head as this is happening, to be with her in this moment when she is finally able to connect, and act, and speak.

Michael Noll

Was the character of the narrator’s boss always such a significant part of the story? I ask because the story begin with the narrator struggling with her brother’s death, but very quickly the conflict with her boss becomes at least as pressing—and maybe more pressing—than this original conflict. The boss is such a great character—and a great opportunity for the story to direct the narrator’s grief into an unexpected direction.

Kalpana Narayanan

Thank you.  I think I started out wanting to bring the narrator out of her house.  I wanted her to try to move forward.  That couldn’t happen in her house, because her family is so consumed by the death of their son, and stuck in this holding pattern in a way.  So she begins to work at a restaurant.

The second the boss entered onto the page, he stuck. And I was interested in that—in the boss being someone who was unlikable, and abrasive, and in that way, someone who would push the narrator, and be really hard on her, because he has this lack of boundaries, and lack of reverence, for what has happened to the narrator’s family. And it would be that push that would allow the narrator to move forward. I don’t think I had any idea how the story would end, but by the time I got there, it seemed to make emotional sense. Her boss is this outsider who is in no way affected by this death that has happened.  And he’s so cruel, which makes the reader empathize with the narrator—but he’s also more complex than that, he’s also able to unlock this part of the narrator that no one else can—and in that way, push her. And that’s what I really wanted—for the narrator to be caught off guard, and for her to surprise herself, and to be suddenly able to move slightly forward.

Michael Noll

Kalpana Narayanan discussed death and the novel Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, in this essay at The Millions.

Kalpana Narayanan discussed death and the novel Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, in this essay at The Millions.

You recently published an essay about the novel Skippy Dies—“A Physics of the Heart: On Grief, M-Theory, and Skippy Dies—and wrote that the “descriptions of young love, and of grief, are so raw and vivid that they make for an alternate, enveloping universe, one created by the friction of words brushing up against each other in new ways.” I’m curious if you had something like this in mind with “Aviator on the Prowl.” Do the death of the narrator’s brother and her sexuality belong to different universes that have been momentarily brought together?

Kalpana Narayanan

Part of why Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies was and is so moving to me, is the language of his book.  It’s so energetic, and heated, and it mirrors the world and imaginations of these kids who are dealing with heartbreak, and loss, and other incredibly difficult things.  His language is so raw, and his descriptions are so fresh, that you feel like you’re in a different world, as you read—you have these sentences that explode like fireworks across the page. I think that’s part of what I was getting at in that description—this idea that you can create a universe through language, which I think is what any writer is trying to do.  I think when you’re writing about really difficult human experiences, death being the most difficult, you have to find a language that can do that work, a language that is raw and in that way perhaps mirrors the experience of your characters. I wrote Aviator years before I read Skippy Dies, but perhaps it’s part of why I was drawn to Murray’s book. In our real lives, our worlds are constantly overlapping—our work lives, our personal lives—they’re overlapping in messy ways—in fiction you can use language to make these worlds collide, and explore the friction that happens when they do.

Michael Noll

The story is full of cultural mash-ups. In one section alone, Japan is confused with Okinawa, a fat Korean man’s favorite word is “copacetic,” and the character mops up Sriracha stains by skating on sponges like Pippi Longstocking while her boss watches while drinking an Akitabare. On one hand, these juxtapositions seem like the natural result of the many cultures present in a place like this. But, on the other hand, they also seem to reinforce, in a way, the narrator’s confusion. Was this mashup intentional or just one of those happy accidents that sometimes occur in fiction?

Kalpana Narayanan

That’s an interesting question.  It wasn’t intentional, but I’m happy if it comes through as something that’s natural. I do think that those kinds of juxtapositions that you’re speaking to are just a really natural part of our lives. When you’re living in one place, but were raised in another, and born in yet another, as so many of us are, the connections you make when you are viewing the world are going to be unique, and beautiful, and surprising, and complex. I’ve always been interested in writing about what happens when different worlds, cultures collide. Ultimately that collision is an interior collision, or a collision between two people. The person who is standing in one place, but who has lived all of these other lives, is going to see the world through all of these lenses, and tell stories that are really layered, and in that way hopefully tell a story that feels real, and moving.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Character Foil

23 Sep
Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review's Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, "Aviator on the Prowl."

Kalpana Narayanan won Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Short Story Prize with her story, “Aviator on the Prowl.”

In high school literature classes, students are often taught about character foils—a yin-and-yang concept in which characters tend to be polar opposites of each other, as in the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” As a story device, an opposites-attract approach often works. But it isn’t the only way to develop character conflicts.

In her story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” Kalpana Narayanan creates two characters who are remarkably alike rather than different. The result is a story that won Boston Review‘s 2011 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest. The judge, Francisco Goldman, wrote that the story “makes you laugh a lot, makes you feel great affection, and breaks your heart. I have to admit, I finished it with tears in my eyes.” You can read “Aviator on the Prowl” here.

How the Story Works

There are many ways to establish a character (physical traits, social position, job), but one of the most memorable to the reader is through the character’s attitude toward the world around her. In this first paragraph of “Aviator on the Prowl,” notice how prominent the narrator’s voice is. It could have been made transparent, like a clear window for us to see the events of her past, but, instead, the voice colors our view:

That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking. Each night I came home I peeled off my shirt and pants that smelled of the juice of a thousand pigs, and I stood outside my room. My brother Aalap had hanged there the year before, the starched, yellow fold of his karate-class belt rounding his neck like a scarf. I’d been at college, and my mother had made it clear it was the belt and not her own strangle that had writhed small Aalap purple. You could still see the hole where the nail had been. It was just above my bedroom door and everyone had remembered everything but no one had remembered it.

This is a tough, jaded narrator. Her brother has committed suicide, and she’s developed a kind of emotional scab over her still-raw feelings about his death. This attitude becomes clear as she’s put into an interaction with her mother:

My mother said it wasn’t nice how I stripped outside my room like that, that my father might see my triangle bra and shriveled-up breasts and then what. (Buchu, put your breasts back in your buttons!) I said maybe you shouldn’t stick your sad face in my business like that or maybe I just said it in my head.

This clear attitude makes it easier to create a foil for the narrator; the usual way would produce a character who has an opposite attitude toward life, a sort of bleeding heart. But Narayanan does the complete opposite and creates a character who shares the narrator’s combative attitude—and shares it in an exaggerated way. The character is her boss at the restaurant where she works. The similarity of their attitudes becomes clear as soon as he’s introduced:

I told an Asian girl that came in the restaurant our beer was from Japan. My boss screamed I was a humiliation, that it was from Okinawa and if I didn’t get it straight he’d really do something bad. I told the girl it was from Okinawa and gave her the bottle for free. She mouthed an apology when my boss wasn’t looking, but I didn’t care.

The story wastes no time before the boss’s attitude is applied to the central event of the narrator’s life: her brother’s suicide. In this scene, the narrator has come into work even though it’s her off day. She likes working in the kitchen, and so she helps the sous-chef cut some garlic. But, she does it badly, and her boss notices and digs the cut ends out of the trash:

His hand opened to show the end of the bulb I’d just tossed. His fingers rolled the end like mucus then threw it at my face. I twitched.

I don’t fucking care who’s dead and who’s not, he continued, if you waste my money like this again you’re out.

In a way, the story has taken the narrator’s tough attitude toward her brother’s death and, through the character of her boss, exaggerated it into a grotesque version of itself. It becomes a kind of contest between the character’s: how desensitized can they become? As you read the rest of the story, you’ll see how Narayanan steers this contest in a surprising direction and how the final scene offers a release from this contest of wills.

By creating this particular character foil—two characters who are similar rather than opposites—Narayanan creates a framework in which the story’s emotional tension (how does she grieve her brother’s death) can play out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character foil using “Aviator on the Prowl” by Kalpana Narayanan as a model:

  1. Create a character and a problem that will not go away quickly. The character can be anyone, but the problem should be persistent, as opposed to one that can be solved with a decision (to leave or stay, to take this job or that one). A problem like this tends to be in the background of everything else in the character’s life. So, think about big issues: love, death, or existential dilemmas (what kind of person am I?).
  2. Clearly define the character’s attitude toward that problem. If you’ve ever listened to people talk about themselves in the midst of a significant difficulty (death of a loved one, career change, big move, or some other dramatic life transition), you’ve likely noticed that the stories they tell often change, depending on how they’re feeling about the situation. In other words, we tell ourselves stories that support our basic view of the world and ourselves. So, think about the character’s attitude as a thing he or she has created. How has the character chosen to approach the problem that won’t go away?
  3. Create a second character, one whom the first character cannot avoid. Our lives are full of such people: bosses, coworkers, spouses, children, parents, neighbors, and friends. Particular situations also bring unavoidable people into our lives. If the toilet is backed up, you’re stuck with a plumber. If a storm has blown a tree over onto your house, you’re stuck with a contractor and team of workers. Hospitals have doctors and nurses. Schools have teachers and administrators. In short, think about your character’s situation and choose a character who is an inevitable part of it.
  4. Give this new character the same attitude as the first character. You don’t need to know why the character has this attitude, only that it exists. So, if your first character is tough, make this new character tougher. If your first character is highly rational, make the new character even more logical. Once you know the attitude, you can find ways for it to be expressed. Be practical. If the new character is a nurse who copes with all difficulty with laughter, there will be plenty of difficulties in a nurse’s routine to prompt that laughter.
  5. Find opportunities for these attitudes to collide. You have already created characters who cannot avoid each other. Now, create scenes that force them onto different sides of a problem. Both characters will address the problem in the same way, and that similar approach may produce conflict.

Good luck!

How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

5 Nov
Tiphanie Yanique's story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" was first published at Boston Review.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and lives in Brooklyn. She was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Prize in Fiction.

When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.

Tiphanie Yanique’s story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” perfectly demonstrates how to build plot by answering the why question. The story was first published at Boston Review, where it won the journal’s annual short story contest. It was eventually included in Tiphanie Yanique’s story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press). It’s as good a story as you’ll ever read. You can find it here at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The title of the story—”How to Escape from a Leper Colony”—makes clear what will happen in the story:  someone, almost certainly the narrator, will try to escape the island. The question is why. The answer, of course, will be some version of Because they must or Because they have no choice. But that is not enough. The driving impulse to escape must be more than a plot mechanism. It must originate from the characters’ sense of themselves and their world—even if the cause is due to external events.

Here is how Yanique introduces the characters’ attitudes toward what will eventually happen:

“What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us.”

That sentence sets up two important ideas:

  1. Something has happened in Lazaro’s past that shapes his sense of the present
  2. He (and the narrator and others) are part of a group—which suggests that there is another group with different ideas about what will happen.

So, what is the belief system or attitude of Lazaro’s group? Much of the story is spent developing the particular way the group members view the world, and in this passage, that attitude comes into sharp focus:

“From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

Because the story so clearly establishes the characters and their attitudes, the events of the story become not simply things that happen but the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to what happens.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s discover the attitudes of our character(s) using “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” as a model.

  1. Identity the source of the character’s trouble. In high school, many of us learned about literary conflicts: man vs. man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs. society. While these aren’t particular useful outside of a classroom, they can point us in the right direction. Who or what is your character at odds with?
  2. Identity when the trouble began. You might create a timeline. At the least, you should know if the conflict is old or relatively new. All conflicts warp (or, to put it more positively, conflicts shape) a character’s sense of him/herself in the world. The older the conflict, the stronger the resentment or attitude is likely to be.
  3. Identify the character’s group. All people tend to classify themselves into groups, and those groups often take “an us vs. them” philosophy. The groups can be based on large ideas like class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or politics, or they can be based on behaviors. Try defining the group with a phrase such as “The kind of people who…” or “The kind of person who…” For example, there are the kind of the people who love Neil Diamond and those who do not. There are the kind of people who are kind to everyone and those who are not—the kind of people who like to try new food and those who do not.
  4. Introduce the conflict and let the character comment on it both as a member of the group and as someone with a history with the conflict. Think of the story’s conflict as being like herpes. The root problem–the virus–never goes away, and so the conflict occurs when the symptoms reappear. In many stories and novels, the characters’ problem is chronic, a reoccurrence or new manifestation of something he/she has been dealing with for a long time. Try reintroducing the problem–a new occurrence or manifestation of it–and let the character talk about it as someone experienced with dealing with it. Then, let the character view the conflict through the prism of the group beliefs. If it’s herpes, and the group is defined by people who complain and those who do not complain, you might write this: “There wasn’t any point in whining or moaning about it. You just had to get on with things, and people who couldn’t do that–well, he wasn’t going to hang out with those kind of people.”

Play around with these different steps. Try commenting on the conflict in a variety of ways. Once you find a comment that resonates with your character, you may find that the plot (and the way forward into the story) becomes clearer.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

14 Feb
image

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review and the inspiration for this writing exercise.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Word Riot, BLACKBERRY: A Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and elsewhere. Her work was recently featured at Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. Her story, “Xochimilco,” tells the story of two Los Angeles children who wake up one morning and discover that every item in their living room has been taken. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the masterful description of the empty room—can be found here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses her approach to “Xochimilco.”

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be mulatto—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

%d bloggers like this: