Tag Archives: Charles Baxter

An Interview with Charles Baxter

21 Nov
Charles Baxter's most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper

Charles Baxter’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper.”

Charles Baxter is probably as well known for his essays on craft as he is for his novels and stories, which is impressive given that his short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted as a film starring Morgan Freeman. His essays, though—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.

Baxter’s most recent book of fiction is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which is now out in paperback.

In this interview, Baxter discusses entering the world of a wrongdoer, stumbling toward the write tone, and “rogue longings.”

(To read Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” and an exercise on raising the stakes in a story, click here.)

Michael Noll

The story is about a man who wants to be taken seriously, to be seen as someone with the potential to profoundly affect other people’s lives–essentially, to make his existence known and recognized. So, when he’s accused of being “harmless,” he sets out to prove that he isn’t. Here’s what I find fascinating about this story: The man wants to be recognized, but when he first walks into the police station to report the slip of paper he’s found, he chickens out. He fears that “if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone.” That’s a pretty serious contradiction. In some ways, it makes what follows seem less like a moral fable. The sequence of events is neatly laid out, but it’s less neat if we believe that the man at the center of it is unpredictable. Was this chickening out always part of the story?

Charles Baxter

Writers can’t always reconstruct what they were thinking while writing a story. Sometimes our thinking is so specific and so contextual and instinctive that we don’t know afterward why we did what we did. Anyway, here goes.

Many people in our society suffer from their own anonymity. This response is likely to occur in a culture built on celebrity, as ours is. Harry’s “harmlessness” is another word for a life that seems inconsequential, unimportant. But if you try to enter the world as a wrongdoer, or even someone who brings in the sign of wrongdoing (a slip of paper), you yourself may be judged, exposed. Think of Ted Kacynski. Notoriety is a double-edged sword. Everybody (or most people) carry around these contradictions in themselves. Fiction needs to point up those contradictions, to be honest to itself and its readers.

Michael Noll

After the man bristles at being called harmless, it’s not surprising that he acts out. But his preferred way to act out is unexpected. And then the scene proceeds through a series of unexpected moments: the kid’s guess at the drawing’s rendered location and the subsequent description of the kid as “slinky and warm, like a cat.” It would be so easy to write this scene toward what is expected, toward cliche: of course the societally-suffocated man is into boys. But in this case, the boy is not what we might expect, and the description is unexpectedly cuddly. Do you have, as you write, a kind of internal compass pointing you toward the unexpected, or do you stumble around a story, searching for the right detail?

Charles Baxter

Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.

Michael Noll

I love this line of dialogue from the man’s wife: “You’re handsome and stable and you’re my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today?” The line clearly sets up the world that the man is acting out against. In other words, it’s a line that a literature teacher would pull out and read to students in order to illustrate the story’s theme, a word that probably makes makes most writers cringe. But it doesn’t seem theme-like on a first read because of the speed. Even on subsequent reads, it makes me laugh. I’m curious how you approached the line. Did you think, I need to have someone state the values of the world that the man is rebelling against–and then revise the line to achieve that speed? Or did it arise more accidentally?

Charles Baxter

I wasn’t thinking of the theme at all. I was just trying to imagine what Harry’s wife would say, in an effort to “normalize” everything within that marriage. Also, I like dialogue that changes direction within the same sentence–does a swerve–as that one did. So the line arose out of a combination of accident and calculation.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Tea Party politicians are shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world’s economy so that the country will pay attention to them. In other words, they’re acting a bit like Harry Edmonds. The difference is that, unlike him, they’ve found a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their fear of not being seen and heard. In your novels and stories, things generally don’t end well for these types of characters or for the people around them. Care to make any long-term predictions for our current set of characters? When people like Harry Edmonds begin to act out in order to be noticed–and when that need to be noticed stems from some internal deficit that can’t be filled with any amount of attention–are the only outcomes bad ones?

Charles Baxter

Someone, it may have been Christopher Lasch, once said that narcissists can’t negotiate. They suffer from insecurity and grandiosity simultaneously, a terrible combination. The other side of the Tea Party’s belligerence is fear, particularly a fear that the old world they knew is disappearing, and a world they don’t recognize is here. I didn’t think Harry Edmonds was a dangerous character, but just a guy who wanted to be more consequential than he actually was. Kafka would have recognized him. Standard married middle-class life is not enough for him. He has what I’d call “rogue subjectivity” or “rogue longings”–I think the Germans have a word for this: “sehnsucht.” Such people sometimes do free fall parachute jumping, or they do little protests against the settledness of their lives. You want a story to be “telling”–that is, to tell us about how people live now. And that was what I hoped that story would do.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Raise the Stakes by Challenging a Character’s Identity

19 Nov
Charles Baxter's story, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb" is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

One of the most common suggestions for improving a short story is to “raise the stakes.”  The writer Lee K. Abbot apparently once “dismissed a graduate class in less than five minutes by holding up a story, asking “Is there anything at stake in this?,” and upon hearing silence, said they were done with class.” But how does one make something hang in the balance? One option is to dangle a sword over the character’s head as in the Greek tale of Damocles.

Another option is to give your character something to resist or push back against. Most often, this means impugning your characters’ reputations and watching them push back.

A perfect example of this can be found in Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” It’s included in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, and you can read it now at The New York Times.

How the Story Works

In John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband,” a man almost dies in a plane crash, but when he comes home, no one wants to talk about it. His wife and children essentially refuse to recognize him as a human being whose experiences and responses to those experiences might not fit into the neatly packaged world they’ve created for themselves. As a result, he begins to act in ways that force people to take notice of him–which is  what Harry Edmonds does in Charles Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” Baxter introduces the one personal slight that Harry cannot bear and so must resist, even at the sake of his own security.

The story raises the stakes by having this personal slight delivered by the person closest to the character, his girlfriend:

“You’ve never committed a crime in your life. You’re a banker, for Chrissake. You’re in the trust department. You’re harmless.”

Harry sat back in his chair and looked at her. “I’m not that harmless.”

“Yes, you are.” She laughed. “You’re quite harmless.”

“Lucia,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”

“‘Harmless’? It’s a compliment.”

“Not in this country, it isn’t,” he said.

This conversation has a direct effect on the character and, by extension, the story’s plot. The story began with Harry stepping into the police station to turn in a possible bomb threat but, at the last minute, turning around and leaving. After this conversation, he returns to the police station. From there, the story takes off, with Harry acting out to prove that he’s not harmless. “in this country,” he eventually tells someone, “if you’re harmless, you get killed and eaten.”

For this character, the stakes are his own self-regard, the sense that he’s a potent actor in the world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s raise the stakes in a story by giving a character a personal slight to resist or push back against. We’ll use the dialogue from “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” as a model. (This exercise can be used to create a story from scratch, but it may work best with a set of characters and a story that you’ve been working on for a while.)

  1. Put two characters who are close to one another together in a room. The room should be somewhere intimate, a place where personal things can be said.
  2. Make one character tell the other character everything that he/she is and is not. People do this all the time, often to themselves, saying things like, “I don’t eat muffins. I don’t watch baseball. I don’t do roller coasters.” Or they do it to other people: “He’s such a boy. She’s the kind of person who…” But while people don’t mind labeling themselves, they almost never like being labeled by someone else. So, a great way to create tension in a story (which is a roundabout way of raising the stakes) is by letting one character label another.
  3. Let the other character respond. The character should defend him/herself. “You say I’m X, but I say that I’m not.” Or, “You say that I’m not X, but I am.” If you’ve been in any kind of relationship, then you know that this is how many arguments go. Any time a character’s sense of him/herself is challenged, the stakes are being set.
  4. Make the character prove his point. Once your character’s identity has been challenged, make him or her prove that the challenge is incorrect. The proof could be literal (hitting a home run to show that he’s good at baseball) or more unpredictable (yelling at someone for not returning a grocery cart in order to prove that she’s tough).

Good luck!

The Inscrutable Stranger Comes to Town

16 Apr
Kirstin Valdez Quade's story "Nemecia" won first place in Narrative Magazine's Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia” won first place in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself  mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.

That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.

(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)

How the Story Works

The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction.  Here are some select lines:

  1. Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
  2. I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.

The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:

  1. The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
  2. I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
  3. At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.

A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”

Nemecia remains inscrutable.

The Writing Exercise

This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.

1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.

2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.

3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.

4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.

Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.

Good luck.

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