Tag Archives: coming-of-age stories

How to Jump Out of Scene into Backstory

29 Sep
Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene S. Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?

This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the JohnsIt will be published on November 3, which means you can take off work to buy it and tell your boss that you were voting.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene with two couples meeting for dinner. Their sons are long-time friends and have just left home together to attend the University of Texas and play together on the baseball team:

He held out a glass of bourbon to Andres while Angie poured a couple of margaritas in stemware waiting on the table. They raised their glasses, the four of them, and looked at each other as though they’d all just rolled out of bed after an afternoon of intimacy.

“To our boys,” Angie said.

The novel uses this moment as an opportunity to give a brief history of the relationship between the Mejias and Robisons, a history that begins this way: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” We learn that the Robisons are older. They’re white and the Mejias are Hispanic. They’re upper class, and the Mejias are working class. The history of the relationship, then, is, to some extent, the history of how the couples dealt with these differences.

The passage tells that history from the Mejias’ point of view and begins with a description with the meals that the Mejias prepare for guests:

The Mejias rarely strayed from their standard foods—fideo and meat, tacos and chalupas, easy ricotta-free lasagna, beef and, more rarely, chicken enchiladas.

Then, the novel sets up the difference between the Mejias’ food and the Robisons’ food:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

And what is that difference?

That first meal together, the Robisons served blackened catfish, which Julie thought was too fancy for her taste.

But what makes the passage interesting is the next line:

Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.

This is how a novel or story uses a snapshot to suggest a life. Seeing Off the Johns starts with a dinner and uses it as touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between the two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reveal a life with a scene, using Seeing Off the Johns by Rene Perez II as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that contains a recurring moment. Perez builds his scene around a dinner, something that occurs every day and is shared by these couples on a regular basis. There are many potential, daily moments like this, and there are also other less mundane ones: recurring arguments, recurring obstacles, recurring bad habits or giving-in to vices. Even first-time moments (sex, drugs, murder) are often part of longer arcs: “the character walked this street every day until…” or “she’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” So, first, figure out which scene you’ll use as the jumping-off point for the backstory.
  2. Jump from scene to backstory. You can make the jump by reversing the order of the lines used to introduce the scene. “She’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” becomes “On every other night at the bar…” This is essentially what Perez does: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” The line could have read, “Every other time they’d met for dinner, they’d gotten on this well.” What he adds is the word despite, which is a great way to add tension. It adds a charge to the mundane: “She’d been coming to the same bar for years and never been hit on despite…” Give the line a try by combining the usual with the word despite.
  3. Build a narrative upon that despiteThe word inherently suggests story. Why didn’t guys hit on the woman? Why did the Mejias and Robisons get along? The answer almost certainty involves a revealing detail about human nature (She was six-foot-five and intimidating to the sort of men that drank at the bar) or a character’s decision (Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.) Note that word accepted. They could have refused to accepted the difference in wealth, but they didn’t. They decided to get along. What you get, then, is a narrative that goes something like this: ___ has been happening for a long time despite ___, and the only reason this scene is happening now is because _____.

The goal is to craft piece of backstory that jumps out of a scene and illuminates the lives behind the scene.

Good luck.

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An Interview with Syed Ali Haider

29 Nov
Syed Ali Haider

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing. His essay about bacon and Islam, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

To read “Porkistan” and an exercise on using sensory details, click here. In this interview, Haider discusses the challenges of describing religious confusion and writing about family and the way that telling a story to a live audience can help shape its written form.

Michael Noll

The descriptions of food in this essay are really great. You capture the essence of bacon. the sound of it cooking in its own fat, the look of it. You write that after you tried it for the first time, you “wanted to lick the greasy paper towel.” You also capture the weird grossness of turkey bacon (“salted rubber tires”). Finally, you make a really interesting statement when talking about the food of South and Central Texas, comparing it to the food of Pakistan: “Carne Guisada Con Papas is Aloo Gosht. Aloo Qeema is Picadillo Mexicano.” Food can sometimes be a difficult thing to describe: our sense of taste doesn’t correspond neatly to adjectives. Was it difficult to put your love of bacon, disgust at turkey bacon, and appreciation for Tex-Mex into words?

Syed Ali Haider

I think it’s difficult for me to put nearly anything into words because I’m such a stickler about precise language. But when it comes to writing about food, I think I have an easier time than with anything else because I think about it so damn much. Seriously, I am nearly always thinking about food, reading about food, talking about food. And when I was growing up, bacon was such a constant obsession of mine, that it was so much fun to write about at length. Earlier drafts of the essay were much more focused on bacon that it read like a cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff. But, yeah, because food occupies so much of my time and thought, it was the easiest part of the essay to write. Everything surrounding food was much more difficult because I had to explain how religious confusion feels. I had to somehow put into words the moment your family is ready to disown you and everything that is going on in your head and your body. Bacon tastes smoky and salty. It has texture. It’s crunchy and chewy and fatty. But how does it feel when your mom tells you she won’t see or speak to you? What does that feel like? That’s much more difficult.

Michael Noll

This essay started out as a story told to a live audience. I’m curious how much you had to change the story to adapt it to a written form. Was there a significant difference between telling and writing this essay?

Syed Ali Haider

I think that because of the way Story Department was framed to me—tell us stories about your mom!—the stakes were lower than when I’m writing. I’m much more comfortable with oral storytelling. Because I can talk for days, and I don’t nitpick and stress about sentence structure and the precision of language and all that. I gave myself permission to just talk. Because I wanted it to sound like a conversation, I wrote a loose outline and allowed room to just freestyle and flesh it out on the spot. This might make some people really nervous, but it removed the possibility of me forgetting lines or anything like that. I rehearsed it four times, and each iteration was drastically different. And when I got up and told it to the audience, it was a whole new beast. Sort of stand-up routine/storytelling. Mike Birbiglia-esque. Telling the story to a live audience sort of activates all these devices we have as natural storytellers. You very quickly get a feel for the room and what sort of things are and aren’t working. When a joke bombs, you feel it. The silence of the room is so awful. You’re standing up there thinking, “I thought that was going to be hilarious.” So you get this instant feedback that you don’t get when you’re writing. When you’re telling somebody a story, you’re forced to cut out all the uninteresting parts that don’t really pertain or aren’t important to what you’re trying to say. Unless you’re just completely ignoring the look on the other person’s face in which case you’re going to miss most of that and tell a really long and boring story and completely lose the person’s attention. I think that’s what live storytelling did for me. Forced me to think about the audience and their attention. How can I tell this story in the best way so that they’ll keep listening to me. And the feedback I got that night was so positive that I wanted to keep that voice and sound in the essay. I wanted it to more or less be as direct an adaptation as I could get. There’re pieces that I culled from an older essay of mine and fit it in, but for the most part I wrote down what I remembered telling at Story Department.

Michael Noll

Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

This is a wide-ranging essay. It’s about your relationship with your parents, especially your mother. But it’s also about religious belief, persecution based on religious and ethnic stereotypes, food, and creating a mixed identity—one that is part one thing and part another. I’m curious how long it took for this essay to find its structure. How often did you wade into this material before finding the right way to begin?

Syed Ali Haider

When I wrote the essay two years ago, it was more about me and my love of food. But when I told the story at Story Department, I opened with a story about my mom that is essential to understanding who she is. She’s at JFK and accosts a Delta Airlines lady and is nearly arrested for climbing over the counter. It’s such a bizarre story that all these years later, I’m still baffled that she did that and I wonder if I made it all up. I love telling this story about my mom because she’s so whackadoodle but also equal parts graceful and wonderful. The story comes back toward the end of the essay because I understand her and the story in a whole new way. She’s this totally fierce protector of her kids and is willing to look silly and risk arrest if her kid isn’t allowed on an airplane. In telling this story and focusing on my mom, I realized that her story and my story are so similar, which is why sometimes there’s so much tension between us. She grew up with the same religious confusion that I did except mine was so entirely food-centric. So everything just clicked and I realized that she was the missing piece to the whole thing.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about your religious beliefs, practice and identity, but it’s also about your mother’s conversion to Islam. That conversion is essential to understanding your own, not least because it led to your being born. But, it’s also someone else’s experience, not your own. Relationships with parents can be a touchy subject, especially for writers. Was it difficult to write about this part of your mother’s life? How did you approach telling the story of her conversion?

Syed Ali Haider

Yeah, this was an extremely difficult piece to write. When I told the story, it was a one-off thing, so I didn’t have to worry about my mom reading it, but when I sent it to The Butter, and they published it, it was suddenly out there for anyone to read. The strange thing about this essay is that it pivots on this secret—that I’m not a Muslim or at least that I don’t really know what I am—and the necessity to continue lying to her to maintain our relationship. But I still have this responsibility to tell her story in a way that honors her experience. So in trying to honor her, I asked her a lot about growing up and what that was like, and she was really open about it with me. I’m not sure what her reaction to the essay would be, but I tried very hard to write a piece that respects her and shows her how much I love her because I don’t want people to read it and think she’s a horrible person who disowns her kids. Like yes, that threat was there, but it’s like a fucked up love thing.

November 2014

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Judy Chicurel

20 Nov
Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman coming of age in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel’s writing has appeared The New York Times, Newsday and Granta, and her plays have been performed in NYC theaters and at festivals, including the NYC International Fringe Festival, New Perspectives Theatre, and Metropolitan Playhouse. She is a member of the New York Writers Coalition and was a 2011 Fellow in the CUNY Graduate Center Writers Institute Fiction Writing Program. She recently published her first novel, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.

To read an excerpt from If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go and an exercise on creating a narrative clock, click here.

In the following interview, Chicurel discusses endings that aren’t neat, staying true to a character’s voice, and the writer as outsider.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in your conception of the book as a collection of linked stories. On one hand, the book doesn’t quite build and develop its story lines the way a novel would. On the other hand, many of the stories do seem like chapters, with narrative arcs of their own and endings that seem incomplete, like the prelude to another story or chapter. Also, some of the chapters are almost character sketches, which is probably insufficient to drive a stand-alone story, but which, in the context of the book as a whole, are really probing and thoughtful. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

Judy Chicurel

The content and structure of If I Knew… almost had a life of its own. I wrote the last story first and knew it was going to be the last story, but really had no idea what would come before. I just started writing the stories pretty much out of sequence and I would send them to my agent as they were completed; I was simultaneously working on another novel at the same time, and at one point she said about If I Knew…, “I think this is your book.” I still didn’t know if it was going to be a novel or a story collection until the manuscript was finished, and then the linked stories made the most sense, particularly within the contextual setting of Elephant Beach. I liked the idea of stories about these connected lives that didn’t necessarily have neat, tied-in-a-bow conclusions and might haunt readers a little after they finished reading. This seems to have been accomplished, according to some of the reviews.

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone talk about the drug experimentation of the Beats. They’d expected to create a cultural revolution, he said, but, in the end, many of the changes wrought by drug use were bad, both in the effects of addiction and the conservative societal and governmental response that followed. This book seems set after the glow has worn off. There’s not a lot of sense of promise and positive excitement to the drug use. For instance, the narrator talks about “boys I’d gone to school with, known forever, groping, sniffing, sliding around me, everyone high on acid or THC, thinking I was just as stoned as they were and it would be easy.” The drug use seems more predatory than hopefully experimental here. Is this a depiction you were aiming for?

Judy Chicurel

No. The sniffing and sliding around were more a result of hormones, not drug use, which, like alcohol, has been known to lower inhibitions when it comes to sexual activity. And don’t forget the sexual revolution was in full swing, which heightened expectations. But there’s a scene in the same chapter that you’re referring to where Katie considers having sex with one of her friends on a lifeguard chair, but it never happens because he passes out from too many Quaaludes, so I don’t think you can really call that predatory behavior.

I think we tend to delude ourselves with the notion that excessive behavior is always excusable if you’re some kind of artist because then drugs or alcohol have a creative purpose, when in reality people at all ends of the spectrum fare just as badly from resulting addictions. Whether we’re talking about the Beats or working class kids in the 1970s or young people today, a lot of experimentation with heavier drugs promised mind-expanding possibilities that yielded mind-diminishing consequences. Keep in mind not all the Beats enjoyed William Burroughs’ productivity and longevity.

Michael Noll

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

The Guardian called If I Knew...”a beautifully evocative portrait of one tight-knit working-class community on Long Island during the summer of 1972.”

You occasionally let your characters talk for long, uninterrupted stretches—especially Mitch. He has one piece of dialogue where he’s talking about the flowers in Vietnam, and he talks for at least a page. I don’t often read dialogue—or monologues—that last that long? Is that the effect of your experience as a playwright? How did you know when to let a character keep talking and when to shut him down?

Judy Chicurel

I think whether writing dialogue for plays or narrative fiction, you have to pay attention to your characters, more so than to the rules of whatever medium in which you’re writing. Mitch loves to drink and the drunker he gets, the more he likes to talk; in that particularly monologue, he’s finally found someone in Luke who can empathize with his experiences in Viet Nam and he’s sharing what for him was a critical memory. Luke, the other Viet Nam vet, is more taciturn; his war experiences have made him more of a brooder. I like to picture my characters and imagine their speech patterns, the sound of their voices, conversations they might have; sometimes I’ll write snippets of dialogue and think, “That’s a nice couple of lines, but would this character really say that?” So for me it’s more about respecting the characters, trying to stay true to their voices.

Michael Noll

At one point Katie is walking through her neighborhood, watching kids play and their parents hanging out on the stoops, and the description of the place is chaotic and messy, and Katie’s heart begins to beat faster and she thinks to herself, “These are my people.” That sense of belonging is really strong in the book, and I’m curious about how much you felt—and still feel—the same way. This stretch of Long Island is not a place you’d expect to find a published writer living. How has your sense of belonging to that community changed as you’ve grown as a person and an artist?

Judy Chicurel

I think I’ve almost always felt like something of an outsider no matter how much I appear to belong to a particular group. I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve experienced this kind of psychic detachment, where externally you’re part of the scene, but internally you might as well be on an island, alone, and on some level, you’re always observing. It’s an interesting paradox because most of the time, unless you tell them, nobody else knows how you’re really feeling.

I no longer live on Long Island and haven’t for over twenty years, though I still have friends who live there. But I’m often struck by the expectations of where published writers live and don’t live, and the typecasting of people who live on Long Island by folks both familiar and unfamiliar with the geographical terrain. When I did live there, I was a journalist who contributed to The New York Times and Newsday, as well as national magazines, and I knew many other writers doing the same thing who still enjoy living there or have moved there because they want to live five minutes from the beach. So I do think these types of assumptions tend to put limitations on people that probably shouldn’t be there. Readers might also keep in mind that If I Knew…takes place over forty years ago and that the demographics of Long Island, like practically every place else in America, have changed quite a bit.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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.

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