Tag Archives: crime fiction

An Interview with Sarah Layden

23 Jul
Sarah Layden's novel Trip the Wires has been called "compulsively readable" and "a welcome antidote to despair."

Sarah Layden’s novel Trip Through Your Wires has been called “compulsively readable” and “a welcome antidote to despair.”

Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires and the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an AWP Intro Award. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, The Evansville Review, Booth, PANK, and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, NUVO, and The Humanist. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana Writers Center.

To read Layden’s story “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” and an exercise on withholding plot information, click here.

In this interview, Layden discusses crime fiction and Gone Girl, lyric versus story impulses, and plot twists that cause readers to make Scooby Doo noises.

Michael Noll

The story begins with “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal,” but we don’t learn what he was accused of until much later, almost at the end. When that information arrives, it’s stunning. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about the retrial–the opening paragraph moves on from the trial so quickly. I think I may have made a Scooby Doo noise when I realized what I’d just read. So, I’m fascinated by this strategy of delaying the info. Did you always do that in the story? How did you approach the structure?

Sarah Layden

I know exactly the Scooby Doo noise you mean, and couldn’t be happier that the story elicited it from you. The structure of this piece was always in short vignettes, I think starting with three or four. Initially I’d numbered them, though the numbering was discarded later. Each vignette initially had some sort of tie to Genghis Khan, even if it was a distant link. It took several drafts before I started seeing what some of the connections were between the different parts. That first sentence about the retrial and acquittal was built into the last revision I did: I finally had a sense of the characters and what had –or had not—happened, and I realized that because the narrator had that information prominently in mind, that it should be prominent in the beginning, too.

Michael Noll

The story is doing something really interesting with Genghis Khan. At times, past and present blur together, as they do here: “We don huge fur hats and pound our utensils on the table. Bring us all that we desire, we growl, even if we don’t know what it is. We stab our meat with sharpened knives I pull from my purse.” I’ll admit that when I first read these lines, I was confused. But it was a good confusion. It was such an odd shift that I wanted to keep reading to figure out what was going on. But it’s a strategy with risks. How do you know when a passage is confusing in the good way as opposed to the bad way?

Sarah Layden

Having good readers is crucial to me for this very thing. When I began writing this, I was experimenting: I didn’t know what it would become. My friend Bryan Furuness, also a writer and editor, gave me early feedback that helped me see places where it was confusing rather than mysterious. Part of our conversation was about the lyric impulse versus the story impulse, and how they can work together. Early on, I was probably writing more toward the lyrical. As I revised, it turned more narrative. It’s funny that you mention past and present and the blurring of boundaries, because that does seem to be something that crops up in my work. My novel, Trip Through Your Wires, alternates between past and present, and concerns itself with memory. That interests me in fiction: a character wondering, in the Talking Heads song sense of the line, “How did I get here?” (By the way, one of my all-time favorite songs, “This Must Be the Place,” just came on. Talking Heads asks, Talking Heads answers.)

Michael Noll

In general, there are some amazing shifts of tone in the story. At one point, a paragraph moves from “flecks of charred flesh between his teeth” to “Genghis didn’t give a fuck about floss” to “Jengis was a guy who conquered and then didn’t call because he was high and playing Xbox and just, like, forgot.” I love this. Is it simply the stuff your creative mind is spitting out? Or is there a method to the madness? If not, how do you put yourself in the right mind frame to write prose that seems, at first glance, to move in idiosyncratic rather than linear ways?

Sarah Layden

Thank you. It’s definitely associative. The title, in fact, does come from a line I overhead in a café: “It was bad enough with Genghis Khan.” From there, I started thinking up links and connections and was writing in sections. Those sections took on their own voices, and at first I wondered if I was writing different characters. Instead, the story pointed to a narrator across different moments in her life. At times she’s mimicking the person she describes, as if trying to take on his perspective, to be the conqueror rather than the conquest.

I’ve always been a little bit of a mimic, and as demonstrated, a big eavesdropper. I love trying to recreate different voices and train my ear. I used to be a reporter and I strove to quote people accurately. What’s fun about fiction is stretching accuracy into a shape that fits a story. Or making it weirder, more complicated, and multi-layered than the thing that was actually said, such as an offhand remark about Genghis Khan.

Michael Noll

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend's death.

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend’s death.

You’ve published a novel, Trip Through Your Wires, that involves a murder and some uncertainty about a character’s culpability. Now, you have a story about an unsolved murder/disappearance. You’re working over material that is the heart and soul of the thriller genre. Do you ever consider going “full thriller?” Or, what’s the difference between your stories and those?

Sarah Layden

Unexpectedly, this does seem to be the material I’ve been returning to. I’ve read a little in the thriller genre, and it’s so intricately plotted and painstakingly resolved. I hesitate putting my work in with that type of craft, because I’m definitely a novice there. Someone described my novel as a “literary thriller” or “literary mystery.” I like that a lot, maybe because it gives me some wiggle room to focus on place, character, and scenes that drive the story forward, but not necessarily at a breakneck pace. Moments of being or reflection or ambiguity are definitely more characteristic of literary fiction than something shelved under Mystery, and I’ve been learning that mystery readers definitely want closure. And may be a little upset if you don’t give it to them.

Michael Noll

Out of curiosity, what’s your verdict of Gone Girl? At a writer’s conference last weekend, I heard two very different opinions about the book from people I respect. Care to weigh in?

Sarah Layden

I thought it was a terrifically entertaining read. The writing was fun, lively, and engaging. My sister passed it on to me when we were on vacation a few years back and kept asking me where I was in the story. I’d tell her what I thought was about to happen and usually was right or at least close. There’s a little reading thrill in confirming your predictions.

There’s been lots of criticism about the book and how it portrays women, and I’d like to reread it with that in mind. You certainly don’t want to reaffirm stereotypes of women as fakers and man-trappers (I’m trying not to spoil it for the three people who haven’t read it yet.) But as I remember it, both the male and female leads behaved with equal awfulness, thus leveling the playing field.

July 2015

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

How to Withhold Crucial Plot Information

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck and have fun.

Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation

23 Apr
Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

“The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor can be read online at Timber and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Literary fiction could learn a lot from the TV show CSI. If that claim sounds absurd, consider this: The show does not follow a traditional plot structure. No episode can be summed up with the old saws “Stranger Comes to Town” and “Character Goes on a Trip.” Those plot lines are present in the show, but they occur quickly—usually, within the first two minutes—and serve only to introduce the true story: the investigation, which consists almost exclusively of people standing around, talking to one another. Sounds pretty cerebral, right?

The problem with most detective shows is that their investigations have the same emotional impact as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The detectives remain untouched by their work. In a literary investigation, however, the characters are forever changed by the information they uncover.

A recent story that illustrates the dramatic potential of an investigation is “The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor. It appears in his new collection vs. Death Noises, and you can read it online at Timber.

How the Story Works

Here is the story: Steve is dead, and the narrator is searching through the items left in his apartment. With each discovered item, the narrator begins to piece together the story of Steve’s death. A show like CSI would maintain its focus on this search and puzzle solving. But the focus of “The Archived Steve” shifts away from the corpse and onto the man searching the apartment, a man who will learn that he is partly culpable in Steve’s death. The story, then, becomes about the emotional consequences of his investigation.

So how does the story work? While its premise may seem disconcerting at first—some readers may be thrown off by the matter-of-fact listing of evidence—the story does not plunge into the evidence without purpose. The first paragraph makes clear that the narrator’s goal is to “correct that fool doctor” and his autopsy report.

Aside: I’ve mentioned this idea several times on the blog, and it bears repeating. It’s important to give readers a sense of where the story is going. There are many ways to do this. For more examples, check out these exercise based on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story “Pull.”

Once Marcus Pactor establishes the direction of the story’s investigation, he quickly sets it into motion, offering and explaining evidence. Notice how the type of evidence changes, moving from the concrete (“technological equipment and books”) to the more abstract (“Steve’s Inverted Pyramid of Suffering”). As this shift occurs, the reader requires more explanation from the narrator, which leads the narrator to insert himself more fully into the story. As a result, the pronouns begin to change halfway through the story. The words “we” and “I” appear more frequently as the story becomes the narrator’s, rather than the corpse’s.

What begins as the search through items left in an apartment becomes the story of a man’s growing sense of guilt and failure.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use “The Archived Steve” as a model. Just as Marcus Pactor’s story focuses on items rather than the dead man who left them behind, let’s create a story from the things that our characters pull in their wakes.

  1. Choose a mysterious premise: someone has disappeared, someone has died from undetermined causes, something has been stolen, something has gone missing.
  2. Put yourself into a room where the person was last seen or where he/she spent a great deal of time—or the room where the item went missing from. What is in the room? Make a list. Be exhaustive.
  3. Now that you’ve created the items, give yourself an investigative goal: to sift through the items in order to find/figure out X.
  4. Begin explaining the relevance of each item to the missing person or the connection to the missing thing. Keep in mind your goal. What clue does each item offer you in your effort to reach the goal?
  5. If you find that explanations of certain items tend to veer unexpectedly or slide into unexpected tangents, that’s great. Follow those tangents. Just as a true crime investigator leaves no stone unturned and follows every tip, you should follow every trail that your subconscious provides. Keep in mind: you’re uncovering a story just as your narrator or character is uncovering a crime. Give yourself permission to explore.

Have fun and good luck.

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