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Creating Your Own Omar or Vito Corleone: An interview with crime novelist Steph Post

16 Jan

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood, A Tree Born Crooked and, most recently, A Walk in the Fire. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics.

Pretty much everyone’s favorite character in the television series The Wire was Omar, the gay, sawed-off shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets. And his most memorable scenes were also some of the most mundane in the show: Omar walking down the street, whistling “Three Blind Mice” as kids ran ahead of him, calling out a warning: “It’s Omar!” The theft and shooting that happened afterward was thrilling but rarely as satisfying as the stroll that preceded it. It was the equivalent of Marlon Brando’s best scenes as Vito Corleone, which mostly involved him sitting in a room, holding court.

As writers, we often look for moments that break routines, moments of exaggerated or unusual action, but some of the best scenes in literature and film are set directly in the midst of everyday routine. The key, regardless of the genre you’re writing in, is to discover what makes the mundane exciting.

This is what Steph Post does in all of her crime novels. They’re set in rural northern Florida, among swamps, run-down gas stations, and evangelical churches that prefer the image of money-changer-ass-kicking Jesus rather than Beatitude/turn-the-other-cheek Christ. It’s a potent setting filled with drugs and guns, but some of the most vivid scenes take place while nothing is really happening. Those scenes also happen to be essential to the everyday routine of the place: driving from one spot to another.

Moving characters around is a challenge for all writers, one that’s often solved by skipping it. A character gets on a train and then steps off, leaving the actual train ride off the page. This can be an effective strategy, but Post does the opposite. She digs into the lull of driving to show us her characters. Here is a typical scene:

Lesser glanced over at Judah, relaxed behind the wheel, and then purposefully slouched down on the other end of the F-150’s maroon vinyl bench seat. He cranked the window down and resisted the urge to brush his chin-length hair of out his face. It whipped across his eyes, but he tried to ignore it as he slung his elbow up on the edge of the window and squinted through the streaked windshield into the lowering twilight. He rode in silence for a few miles, trying to watch Judah out of the corner of his eye, but not be noticed doing so.
In the luminous green glow from the dash, Judah seemed so at ease, his arm half out the window, fingers just barely touching the steering wheel, a lit cigarette burning down in the other hand, resting lightly on the gearshift. The wind seemed only to graze his hair. Judah appeared to be completely engrossed in the monotony of the road ahead of them. Or maybe he was preoccupied with some kind of deep thoughts, of Ramey most likely, and Lesser was startled when Judah suddenly tossed his cigarette out the window and picked up the pack from the dash console.
“Go ahead, kid. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.”

In this moment, we see the kind of vehicle these characters drive, how they drive it (windows rolled down, wind in their hair), and what they do while driving (thinking and smoking). The scene also builds character by showing how effortlessly Judah is able to make smoking and driving look cool and how much Lesser would like to be like him. Post turns a passage that could easily be cut into great, engaging writing.

She does this throughout the book, returning again and again to the characters’ vehicles, showing them rolling up before a crime and peeling out afterward, being worked on, and sitting abandoned. You can’t tease out the novel’s plot from the way the characters interact with an essential part of the place where they live: their cars and trucks.

A Walk in the Fire is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at a bookstore near you.

In this interview, Post talks about how she made driving around northern Florida an opportunity for great crime writing.

Michael Noll

I’m from Kansas, not Florida, but I recognize the spirit of certain parts of your novels’ setting, if not the actual place itself. One of the things I love about how you write about the place—the swamps and run-down houses and bars and weird churches—is that they aren’t metaphors. And they’re not overblown to elicit a kind of false emotion in the reader. They’re just the places where the characters happen to be. This is hard to pull off, at least based on my reading experience. Maybe it’s because writers who come from those places tend to leave, or because they consciously or unconsciously write for an audience that isn’t from that place, their portrayals of it feel a bit like giddy cultural tourism. Did you have an audience in mind for these descriptions?

Steph Post

Wow, first of all thank you so much for your kind words. And I’m so glad you picked up on the fact that none of the places or settings are metaphors or tableaux or symbols to represent something in a character’s unconscious. They are, as you say, just places where the characters happen to be. Which doesn’t lessen the setting’s importance- it simply makes it more relevant to the characters of the novel.

And so perhaps that’s the audience I have in mind when I write descriptions of a landscape or a dive bar: the characters themselves. The characters are everything and so whenever I craft a scene I have to keep in mind whose point of view I’m writing from. I can have a little more poetic license when writing, say, from Ramey’s point of view. She looks at the world through a more open, more considering, lens than a character like Judah or Benji or Clive. Judah might look out at a landscape and feel something remarkable, but he’s not going to expound upon it. And so when writing from his point of view, I can’t go off into some florid description of the light filtering through the trees and liken it to a stirring in his soul or something. Judah would call bullshit. Actually, Ramey probably would, too.

Michael Noll

A great example of your great descriptions is the early junkyard scene. You write about the characters in it as if it’s the most natural place in the world to get some alone time. What do you draw upon when you write a place like this?

Steph Post

I’ve never had the exact experience that Ramey has in the opening scene of the novel—where she is able to find time alone surrounded by towers of crushed cars out in the salvage yard—but my dad worked on and sold cars and had no idea what to do with a little kid when it was Sunday and his turn to take me for the week, so I spent a lot of time alone, hanging out in the garage or the car lot or whatever junkyard he’d brought me along to.

As a teen onwards, my way of finding those moments was always to head out into the woods or the swamp and lose myself among the trees. When I was writing this particular scene, I think I combined the two ideas. I had this vision of Ramey sitting in a forest—a more conventional place where one might find solitude—but instead of trees, she’s surrounded by these stacks of cars. She’s finding her peace in the only place she can.

Michael Noll

Cars feature prominently in the book, whether they’re junked or in the shop or being driven. Do you know a lot about cars? I ask because I don’t, and so when I’m talking to a mechanic, I’m intensely aware of my lack of knowledge, which is easy to give away. You even have brief scenes where characters are working on cars, and you give details–fairly specific. I don’t know if you researched the mechanical parts, but I’ve seen books where the writer was clearly showing off his or her research with passages that went on too long. How did you strike the right balance between enough detail to be convincing but not too much to drag down the narrative?

Steph Post

Well, I’m glad that it looked like I sort of knew what I was talking about! Because honestly, I don’t know much about working on cars. My brother is a mechanic and my husband knows a lot, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to anything technical under the hood. So when in doubt, I just asked one of them. I think the balance comes off because I’m only supplying just enough detail to give an idea of what a character is working on. Again, it goes back to a character’s point of view. If Judah is working on a car, he’s going to just assume that everyone knows what a catalytic converter is and so there’s no need to take it further. I spend a lot of time on research for a novel, but I only use about a tenth of what I learn. I don’t ever want the research to overshadow the story.

Michael Noll

In all of your books, your characters spend a lot of time driving. It’s necessary, of course, since you can’t exactly take the subway where they live. Moving characters around requires a lot of time. You could show it on the page or not. For instance, you could write, “They drove to the gas station and got out.” Or, you could show them en route. You tend to show them, and those moments tend to be contemplative. Is this just a natural way of writing those scenes? Or is there something about the act of driving in North Florida that is particular to the place?

Steph Post

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, so I’m glad you brought it up. I think it comes down to growing up in the country and now writing about characters who live and move in the same landscape. In these places, it takes time to get anywhere. Where I grew up, it was ten miles at least to the nearest stop light and another five to get to the first gas station. And spending a lot of time riding and driving around means that a lot happens in cars. Fights, confessions, hearts won and broken. So it seems only natural to set scenes with characters on the road. A lot also doesn’t happen when you’re driving half an hour just to get to the nearest grocery store, so being on the road gives you a lot of time to contemplate or daydream. I don’t think this is specific to Florida, but rather to anywhere where long distances factor into everyday living.

Michael Noll

I love the small moments that you describe in cars. For example, there’s a moment where Sister Tulah adjusts the air conditioning vents even though they’re pointed in the right direction–she’s just fidgeting to calm herself. There’s another scene where a character rolls down the window, rests his arm on it, and doesn’t brush his hair away as it blows in his face. These are visceral driving moments. What is your own car history? What do you draw upon when you describe a character’s experience driving?

Steph Post

I think in a lot of ways cars are an extension of us, even if it’s just the car we’re riding in at the moment. The fact that Sister Tulah buys a new Lincoln every year—that she is so particular about its tiniest details—this is clearly part of her character. Her car is as much a part of her as her Bible. If you watch how people ride and drive, you can tell so much about who they are or who they are trying to be. Lesser, for example, is a teen just trying to be cool when he’s riding in the car with Judah in the first chapter. He’s mimicking Judah’s movements inside the space of the car—the slouch, the arm on the rolled down window—because it’s encompassing the sort of person he wants to be.

I’ve spent a lot of time on road trips and it’s these times in particular that I draw upon when I write about characters in cars. The wind whipping through open windows, the smell of asphalt blistering in the sun, the buzz of destination possibilities. The, as you say, visceral driving moments. To go back to your first question, my characters don’t move in a world of metaphor, they move in a world of gut feelings and reactions. So I do my best to draw upon my own raw feelings and hope that it comes through in the writing.

January 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

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How to Carve Out Space for Character Development in a Violent Setting

17 Jun
Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction for his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. The stories are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

The stories in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

There are places in the world that dictate the type of stories that happen there. Violence exerts an overwhelming gravitational pull, and a story that at first has nothing to do with violence—a love story, or a story about family or business—will eventually get pulled into orbit around the violence that exists in the place. Set a story in Mosul, Iraq, and it will eventually run across militants and dead bodies. The key as the writer is not to avoid the violence at all costs but to resist it for as long as possible—in other words, to allow the story to develop dimensions beyond the inevitable.

An excellent example of this resistance can be found in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” It was included in his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. You can read it now at Narrative Magazine.

How the Story Works

If you hear a reference to Juarez, Mexico, you automatically prepare yourself to hear a story about violence. For a time, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the residents on either side of the border knows real stories of people who have been murdered or kidnapped. From the safe distance of Washington D.C., it’s possible to believe that violence is the only thing happening there. And yet the people who live along the border go about their lives, and so, as a writer, it’s crucial to push back against the readers’ expectations of cartel executions. It’s necessary to find a way to create characters who have lives that exist outside of, or alongside, the violence.

This is exactly what Sáenz does in his story. In it, two men meet at a coffee shop in El Paso. One is American, and the other is Mexican. The border, and it’s associations, are present from the beginning but not at the center of the story, which instead follows the developing romance between the two men. It’s not until a third of the way through the story that violence forces itself onto the page:

Monday morning, I got this text from him: I thought about you when I woke up this morning. I read the text and then reread it. And then reread it again.

I felt like a schoolboy reading a note from a girl. No. A note from a boy.

I didn’t know how to answer his text. I only engaged in the practice because my nephews and nieces demanded it of me. We wrote silly and affectionate things to each other. But this was different. Finally around noon, I texted him back. Stay safe. That’s what I wrote. That’s when it occurred to me that I was afraid. I didn’t like to think of Javier walking the streets of Juárez, doing an errand, going to a store and getting killed, randomly, for no reason. What good does it do to be afraid? He was right. Of course he was right. But so many people had left already. Why couldn’t he leave too? I knew the answer to that question even before I asked it. He wasn’t the leaving kind. He loved his Juárez. I could see that in his eyes, in his unshaven face, in the way he moved and talked. I could almost taste his love for that poor and wretched city in his kisses. It enraged me that Juárez had become so chaotic and violent and capricious. A city hungry for the blood of its own people. How had this happened? I was sick to death of it, sick to death of the body count, sick to death that every killing went unprosecuted and unpunished. You could kill anybody. And what would happen? Nothing. The fucking city no longer cared who was killed. Soon, they would just be stepping over the bodies. Stay safe. Stay safe. Stay safe.

Because Sáenz has created characters with lives and concerns other than avoiding violence, he’s able to make their interactions with the violence personal, as opposed to the generic way that cable news viewers react against stories of border violence.

So, how does Sáenz create these characters without letting them be overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds them? First, he introduces us to them in a place that lies outside of the violence: a coffee shop in El Paso, the safer side of the border. Of course, a coffee shop doesn’t have to be safe. Think about the coffee shop scene in the film Children of Men. When the bomb explodes, the viewer understands that no place in the film is safe. Sáenz could have done that in his story, but if he had, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know the characters except as people caught in violence—which is how we know Clive Owen’s character in the film. But the point is to know these characters as more fully developed people. So, Sáenz puts them in a safe place and shows us nuances of their lives:

I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.

He drank his coffee black. Not that I knew that.

Sometimes, I could see that he’d just come in from a run, his dark wavy hair wild and half wet with sweat.

He was thin and had to shave twice a day. But he only shaved once. There was always that shadow on his face. Even in the morning light he appeared to be half hidden.

Sáenz develops these details. The two men have conversations about their jobs and families, and when the violence is mentioned, it’s in the contexts of these things. For instance, here’s one of the men, Javier, talking about his uncle, who has cancer and whose care is being managed by Javier:

“He used to love to go out. He would laugh and tell me about how life used to be for him. Now, he won’t go out. He’s afraid. Before, the only thing he was afraid of was my aunt. Now, he’s like a boy. He cries. He reads the newspapers. He thinks he’s living in Juárez. I tell him that we’re in El Paso, that he’s safe. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s afraid to go out. Nos matan, he says. I try to tell him that no one’s going to hurt us. But it’s no use. Every time I go out he tells me to be careful.”

By the end of the story, when the violence cannot be avoided, its inevitable arrival is so much more personal than if it had been directly present all along.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create characters in the midst of some overwhelming situation, using Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women,” as a model:

  1. Determine the overwhelming situation. As the writer Ron Carlson says, every story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. Almost every story, including blockbuster films whose sole purpose of existence is to blow stuff up, spends time developing the characters who will be consumed by the situation. In blockbuster films and many genre novels, though, the character development is as lean and minimal as possible (think of the description of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). In those stories, the violence or destruction (or aliens, monsters) shows up almost immediately. But in Sáenz’s story, the violence doesn’t really appear until the end. So, decide what situation will eventually consume your characters: violence, family or marriage drama, economic distress, death, disease, or any inescapable deadline.
  2. Determine how that situation will affect the characters. You can be succinct. Someone will die, get sick, get divorced, get shipped off to prison or war or work in some far-off place, or get fired. Know where your story is headed.
  3. Put the characters in a place that is outside of the situation. You likely already know how the characters will behave or respond when the situation presents itself. There are, frankly, only so many ways that people can respond to inescapable deadlines or outcomes. Now, find out how your characters behave when the deadline is out of sight and (mostly) out of mind. Find a location where this is possible, some emotionally neutral or positive place. Put them there and see what they do. What other parts of their lives are revealed?
  4. Choose one of those parts and develop it. Sáenz gives Javier an ailing uncle, and that uncle’s health worsens. Think about the parts of your characters’ lives that you discovered: how can you make those parts dramatic? How can they change or develop (improve or worsen)? How can this change draw other characters into the person’s life? It is this dramatic arc that you’ll focus your story on. The inevitable deadline or outcome will arrive eventually, but if you make the reader forget that it’s there, its arrival will be all the more effective and impactful.

Good luck!

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