Tag Archives: Brian Evenson

An Interview with Erin Pringle-Toungate

3 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle’s first collection The Floating Order was called “poetic, lush, gripping” and “rather disturbing.” She recently finished her new collection, How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Tuongate’s first collection of stories, The Floating Order,  has been called “dense, experimental, thick with dread and the dead.” The stories are full of inventive language and powerfully weird images.  They’re also gripping reads, similar to the work of cross-genre horror writers like Brian Evenson and John Burnside.

Pringle-Toungate currently lives and teaches in Washington, where she was awarded an Artist Trust fellowship. One of her stories was a finalist in the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award (2012). Her work has been twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship. She recently completed her second story collection, How the Sun Burns.

In this interview, Pringle-Toungate discusses the challenge of moving through time in fiction, the structural requirements of writing in present tense, and the difference between the sentences “A man walks into a bar” and “A man walks into Hooters.”

(To read Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” and an exercise based on the story’s movement between the main character’s past and present, click here.)

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” switches between the past and present, a structure that can pose difficult questions: How often do you switch? How long do you stay in one time period? Your answer is to switch as often as every sentence. The result is that you sort of avoid those questions about block structure. Because past and present are so closely intertwined you can decide to stick with one thread for as long or briefly as you want. Did you experiment with different ways of mixing past and present, or did you know how you’d handle it even in early drafts?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

It took me about two years to get to this draft of the story. I wrote multiple versions, and many of those were attempts to deal with time and to avoid the problems caused by a previous version, such as staying in the past for so long that the present conflict seemed to lack energy, or staying so long in the present that the past began to belong to one character instead of all of them. The midwife’s age changed several times before I realized she needed to be expert now—the younger she was, the more the delivery became about sex and all sorts of junk that got in the way of the story I wanted to tell. Maybe as soon as a character has a history that is important to the present, time becomes an issue to be dealt with.

Michael Noll

I’ve read quite a few stories lately that explain the entire premise in the first paragraph(s) and then explore the consequences of the premise. But “The Midwife” withholds a basic piece of information about the premise until the end. It makes for an effective story–I wanted to know the secret. I wonder if you always structure stories this way (it’s not unlike the structure of a detective novel, except we’re the detectives). How do you know what to withhold and what to disclose?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

My stories are typically structured like this, or something like this—in which a key bit of information that is guiding the story is withheld. For example, in “The Only Child,” the main character is with her imaginary friend in a morgue, but I let these two facts remain unstated and what drive the suspense aspect of the story. This sort of structure is mainly due to my tendency to write in present tense. Because of that, it would seem contrived to begin with a recounting of a story that hasn’t occurred yet—and suspense can’t work quite in the same way. So, withholding is how I attempt to create suspense.

What I withhold is based on what is most obvious and familiar to the character because what is most obvious and familiar to the character is what he or she wouldn’t think to say to anyone. In “The Floating Order,” a woman has drowned her children, but she uses the terminology of floating her children and thinks she has saved them so that’s the language she uses, so it takes a while for readers to realize what she has done. This gives me time to make them learn about her. I think to make readers allow themselves to think about difficult issues, the writer has to figure out how to strip those issues of any familiarity so that they can be thought about. In my story “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” a girl is struggling to understand why anyone could let her sister disappear and die, but never does she say that or talk about it—until the end, when she’s begging a carnival worker to pretend to have seen the sister disappear. In “The Midwife,” she knows where she is going, so I let her walk—just like you know why you’re going to the grocery so you don’t bother to tell anyone why. But if someone saw you walking down the street at night, they may think they you’re going to do something else entirely. Whatever is most on the character’s mind, I delay revealing. It may help that I’m not sure what leads to the man’s death myself—it’s not only the woman, it’s not only the illness, it’s not only the whole decaying town, it’s not only. . . and so this also helps me, as there’s never any one thing in any story that has caused, or led from, any one event.

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” is quite long, about 8500 words. You’ve also written some stories (like this one) that fit within a paragraph. This ability, to write both long and short stories, is unusual. Many writers have a particular length that they’re comfortable with. What’s your mindset when you first begin a story? Have you written it already in your head? Or is there some process of discovery that happens on the page that tells you how long the story will be?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

The stories in The Floating Order are short mainly because I was teaching myself how to write. I was teaching myself how to use language—what its limits were, what its possibilities were, besides that the perspectives and ideas allowed a shorter form where the language had to work much harder than it has to work in long form. So the stories were somewhat like unbuilding houses in order to build the smallest, habitable house possible in order to understand what a house didn’t need in order to stand—and to understand whether or not a house had to stand in order to work.

All the stories in my next collection, How the Sun Burns, are longer stories. My characters are older and so the causes of their behaviors, or the background of their lives, or their thoughts, are more complicated. I think children’s lives are equally complicated, but typically most adults wouldn’t agree with me, so my characters are somewhat older (at least in this story) so as to avoid issues of verisimilitude. And I have to explain the complications so as to avoid readers assuming they know why the characters do what they do. The recent cultural tradition of leaving comments on newspaper articles has terrified me about what readers can think, and so the stories are longer in some ways probably so as to avoid myself imagining the comments readers might leave. I hope that tradition ends soon.

Michael Noll

Erin Pringle-Toungate's debut collection The Floating Order has been called.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s debut collection The Floating Order tells stories that resemble the nightmares of children.

The Short Review called your first collection, The Floating Order, “a contemporary Brothers Grimm for adults.” Like fairy tales, many of your stories are set in a kind of everyworld. This seems true of the “The Midwife” even though it mentions strip malls, the 1980s, and a “heavy-hipped Midwestern woman in beige pants and a striped pastel shirt.” Maybe it’s because it’s about a barber performing deliveries, an activity that seems from another time. I’m curious how you think about place in your writing. Are you, in fact, writing fairy tales?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

I’ve found that if you don’t use names and don’t use advertising, every story sounds like a folktale. It’s a sort of sad situation that one of the ways our time is marked is by having characters sit at Starbucks instead of at a coffee shop. What’s the difference? Well, the focus, for one. Readers will probably always feel, these days, that they understand something more if they recognize a brand; this is not to say that readers are stupid but that all of us have been trained to feel that we understand someone more if he or she shops at the same store that we do—it’s knee-jerk. But if I’m writing a story, I don’t want readers to feel like they understand something about my characters just because they’re at Starbucks. Plenty of books demonstrate the depravity of living in a world of brand names. I don’t have anything to say about it, I’m not interested in it, so I’m not going to bring up details that make the conversation change its focus. A man walks into a bar. Good. A man walks into Hooters. What a stupid difference it makes. Now the man is no longer the focus. His life, his movement, his death—gone, erased. Now it’s all glaring orange and white T-shirts and opposing arguments about breasts and chicken wings and coupons and kitsch problems. Bring up that detail, and a writer has to work five times as hard to convince the reader that the man isn’t a chauvinist, that the man is—well, whatever he actually is.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Brian Evenson

28 Mar
Brian Evenson's story

Brian Evenson’s story “Windeye” was published in PEN America 11 and selected for the 2010 PEN/O’Henry Prize Stories. It’s also the title story of this story collection.

Brian Evenson is the author of more than fifteen books of fiction, most recently the horror novel The Lords of Salem, co-written (as B.K. Evenson) with Rob Zombie. Such a book might seem like an unusual move since Evenson is also the chair of the Literary Arts program at Brown University, but his career hasn’t followed any typical literary path. On one hand, his novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009 and the novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. On the other hand, he’s won three O’Henry prizes and an NEA fellowship, and he has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He was also named a finalist for the 2009 World Fantasy Award for the story collection Fugue State.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Evenson discusses his approach to “Windeye,” which mixes supernatural elements with the epistemological question of “How do we know what we know?” A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the twist ending—can be found here.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite things about this story is how you set up the twist (the sister never existed). You could have dropped hints that she wasn’t real (not having her speak, not letting her interact with the world), but the story seems to take another approach, dropping hints that the world isn’t quite right. So, we’re introduced to the possibility that the house has a secret window not visible from the inside. We’re focused on this mystery—on the nature of the window/windeye— when, suddenly, the sister disappears. And then we’re focused on that mystery, on trying to understand what sort of world this is, when the mother says, “But you don’t have a sister,” suggesting that it’s the boy’s mind, not the world, that isn’t right. I’m curious if this misdirection was intentional? Did you know that the sister wasn’t real and so work to set up that revelation, or did you start with the mysterious window and discover that the sister wasn’t real?

Brian Evenson

I started with the window. The genesis of the story began when I was at a poetry reading and heard writer Dan Machlin speak about the old Norse word “vindauga”, meaning “windeye”, which our word for window comes from, and which still exists in slight variant form in Norwegian. That kind of percolated in my head for a while since the term windeye seemed so provocative to me. I actually didn’t realize that the sister would disappear until she did, and was surprised and a little exhilarated when I found myself writing those words, but then realized that there were subtle ways that that was prepared for and that the reader might not expect, so that my mind, while writing, was subconsciously directing things that way. And I didn’t end up revising that story much (unlike most of my stories)–there was a simplicity and elegance to the way that shift took place in the story that I was worried about compromising, and it felt nearly right in the initial draft.

Michael Noll

A lot of writers might shy away from a story with such a dramatic twist, believing that such a move is a cheap trick. (That was the criticism leveled against both The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind, fair or not. On the other hand, Vertigo is ranked as one of the best films of all time.) Of course, the twist in “Windeye” isn’t cheap at all. But did you ever worry that you might not be able to make it work? What separates a “literary” twist from a hack’s trick?

Brian Evenson

There are things that I’ve done in stories that I worry about, but I think I mainly worry about them when I feel like I’m forcing them or trying to force a pre-existing idea onto the story. With this story, that twist just seemed right. I didn’t have to worry about making it work because it was there working before I almost knew it, so I felt like it had been given to me, so to speak. If I try to duplicate that effect deliberately while writing another story it rarely works. Still, I think my writing mind is both programmed to move toward moments where reality collapses and to be surprised when that happens, so that makes it possible for my subconscious to work through a series of thematic concerns that interest me but often to do so in a new way while my conscious mind is occupied with the language on the page–the sound and rhythm of the words, the patterns, etc. I think there’s a level of distraction I give the conscious mind that makes it possible for those things to work subconsciously. That may be the difference between “hack’s trick” and “effective trick” (I’m reluctant to call it “literary”): the first you consciously try to bring about, the other arrives organically in the development of the story, potentially surprising your conscious mind as much as it can surprise the reader.

Michael Noll

When thinking about the story, I remembered it as having a first-person narrator, and only when I reread the story did I see that I was wrong (it’s in third-person). The tone seems to waiver between the two points of view; one example of this is the end of the first section:

“So at first those games, if they were games, and then, later, something else, something worse, something decisive. What was it again? Why was it hard, now that he had grown, to remember? What was it called? Oh, yes, Windeye.”

The hesitation in the prose, the sense of a mind talking to itself, seems like a trait more often found in first-person narratives. And yet, if the story was told in first-person, it seems like it would be almost impossible to tell. The reader would expect the narrator to explain certain things that are never explained—or cannot be explained. How did you find the right perspective and tone for the story?

Brian Evenson

I love the ability of third person narrative to color itself with the ideas and feelings and words of a character within the story, giving you in effect the best of both first person and third person. It’s a way of both being close to the character and also continuing to see the character at least partly from the outside, of feeling an intimacy with him but also never being quite able to penetrate his head completely. It lets the narrative perspective slide just a little, which allows you to do a great deal. It can even have some of the characteristics of an unreliable first person voice, but still have narrative authority, which makes for a very unusual combination of authority and uncertainty. It’s a mode I use often for certain kinds of stories. I think I developed my own particularly usage of it when I wrote a story called “By Halves” (in a collection called Contagion) and initially wrote it in first person, but felt that it wasn’t quite right. In revision I ended up “translating” it into third person but tried to keep as much as I could, besides the pronouns, the same. That made me start to realize the possibilities of this sort of voice.

Michael Noll

In Scorcese’s documentary about Bob Dylan, Dylan (as I recall) says that he always knew he’d be successful and famous, but he couldn’t tell anybody. If he had, the dream would have just blown away. I’ve heard similar things from writers; they don’t like to talk about the projects they’re working on because their sense of what the project will become in no way matches its current state. They’re working on the book/story as a matter of faith. We admire this devotion to an idea in artists, but in other people (David Koresh, etc.), the sense of purpose or potential is viewed as dangerously delusional. It seems that this story is tackling this same idea. The boy sees his sister, and after she’s gone, he still feels that she existed. To believe otherwise condemns his life to dull meaninglessness. He struggles between accepting the world as it seems to others and believing in his own, personal, unsharable sense of the world. In order to portray this struggle, your story needs a supernatural element. Without it, the story would fall short of its aims. In other words, it seems to me that some stories cannot be told without elements of genre fiction. Is that a fair statement? What do you think?

Brian Evenson

I think that’s a fair statement. That’s of course nothing new in terms of literature—think for instance of the way that Henry James uses the ghost story or even the romance—so I feel like I’m in good company. At the same time, I do know that for some people these fantastical elements will make them wonder about whether a story counts as literature. More and more I feel that I want to read fiction that is lively and vibrant and intensive, and I’m not so worried as I once was about whether it is literature or genre: often the most interesting work is in a gray space between the two, taking advantage of tools that one mode or the other has forgotten or pushed aside and using it to reinvigorate a particular kind of writing. For instance, John Burnside’s The Glister is in a remarkable space where it feels very literary but it’s still drawing at least on the mood, and maybe more than that, of genre fiction. Or M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, which I’m in the middle of now, is unquestionably science fiction, but has a complexity and level of satisfaction that we more traditionally associate with literary texts. I’d much rather read either of those books than something that’s more firmly and defensively “literary” in a traditional way or that is committed to genre in predictable ways. The work that ends up revitalizing literature, I think, the most exciting work, exists on the edges.

March 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Twist Endings

26 Mar
Brian Evenson's story "Windeye" was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The story was later selected for the 2010 PEN/O'Henry Prize Stories.

Brian Evenson’s story “Windeye” was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The story was later selected for The 2011 PEN/O’Henry Prize Stories.

Twist endings are one of the great pleasures of literature, yet in contemporary fiction, they’ve gone the way of the dodo and the epiphany. No one would dare write a modern version of O’Henry’s classic “Gift of the Magi,” and for good reason. That twist—and others like it—seem manipulative and implausible to modern readers. Perhaps it’s our attachment, as Americans, to realism, but we tend to relegate sudden reversals of fortune or circumstance to reality TV and schlocky movies. As a result, it’s tempting to ask whether a twist ending is even possible in literary fiction.

Brian Evenson would say yes, and he pulls of a doozy in “Windeye.” The story appeared in The 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories and was first published by PEN American Center. You can read it at PEN America’s site, here.

How the Story Works

Evenson uses an old trick: Introduce a character, weave her into the fabric of the story, and then—when our attention is focused elsewhere— make us question the character’s reality.  It’s not unlike the strategy used by Ron Howard in A Beautiful Mind; the brilliant mathematician’s friend is real, and when, suddenly, he’s not, we’re as dumbfounded as the mathematician. In “Windeye”, the reader doesn’t fully understand the truth until the mother says, “But you don’t have a sister.” And like the boy, we can’t quite believe it.

In a classic reversal, such as the one used by M. Night Shyamalon in The Sixth Sense, the viewer or reader’s sense of what is true is completely reversed. In other words, we realize that Bruce Willis is, in fact, not alive but dead. “Windeye” operates differently. The twist is incomplete. The sister likely never existed, but the boy can’t be certain of it – and more importantly, the boy will never be certain. Evenson creates this uncertainty with the fifth and final section, jumping forward in time, explaining the reversal’s emotional consequences. The boy can never shake the feeling that one day his sister will “simply reappear, young as ever, ready to continue with the games they had played.” This is similar to the strategy that Alfred Hitchock used in Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart’s character discovers that he’s been fooled. Instead of ending with the revelation, the film continues, revealing the twist’s emotional consequences.

Once you’ve read the story, it’s easy to go back, section by section, to see how the twist (the fact that the sister isn’t real) is hinted at but not revealed. It’s worth checking out to learn how seeds planted at the beginning gradually sprout and reveal more of themselves.

The Writing Exercise:

  1. Write down an ending (boy gets girl, woman discovers fortune, man finds happiness, woman is revealed to be a zombie). Don’t be afraid to go boldly where you normally wouldn’t dare.
  2. Now, write down a beginning that is the complete opposite of the ending (girl doesn’t know boy exists, woman is poor, man is miserable, woman is the leader of the free world).
  3. You may think that the trick will be getting from Point A to Point B, from leader of the free world to the realization that she’s a zombie. But a story with a twist—in truth, most stories—depends on a point between A and B. So, give the character a goal that has nothing to do with the Point B (boy needs to escape from prison, woman needs to hide from ex-husband, man wants to become the world’s greatest ventriloquist, woman must pass a national budget).
  4. Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.45.45 PMOutline the events that must occur or the stages the character must go through to reach the destination he or she is aiming for. At the same time, outline backward from the Point B ending. The moment where the outlines meet will be a point of high tension (hopefully). If you can create the outline, all that is left is to flesh out the story, dropping hints of Point B in the beginning.

If you’re working on a story and don’t want to start a new one, try this exercise:

  1. Reread the ending of your story. Then fast forward in time (six months, sixty years, whatever). Summarize the emotional consequences of the ending you have already written. How do the characters live with the ending you’ve given them?
  2. You may discover that the story isn’t over. The story’s true conflict may still be unwritten. Or, you may realize that your original ending is the best one. That realization can be as valuable as any.

Have fun writing.

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