Tag Archives: Davenports and Ottomans

An Interview with Stefanie Freele

30 Apr
Stefanie Freele

Stefanie Freele “recasts suburban ennui as existential terror,” according to J. Robert Lenon. Her latest story appeared in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water and Feeding Strays. Her story “While Surrounded by Water” won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award and “Us Hungarians received second place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest. Stefanie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American ReviewWitness, Western Humanities Review, Sou’westerQuarterly WestThe Florida ReviewNight TrainAmerican Literary Review and Edge. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

To read an exercise on writing descriptive passages and Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans,” click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the story’s approach to close description. The first paragraph focuses on Maribel’s shoes and purse and then zooms in on her tights, particularly on the crotch. The language seems meant to make the reader feel claustrophobic (and from your blog post for Tahoma Literary Review, I know that feeling is intentional). I’m curious in the last sentence of that paragraph:

She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense. 

It’s a line that seems to sum up the details that we just read. This is a strategy that I actually teach in writing classes: present details and them sum them up by telling the reader what they mean. Did you wrote this sentence with any purpose in mind or were you were simply following the rhythm of the prose?

Stefanie Freele

Typically I don’t intentionally tell the reader what I’ve meant, because I assume they’ve caught what I mean, but in this case I think you are partially right: I was following the rhythm of the prose. Also, I think having this list emphasizes that for Mirabel, she is counting and focusing on her discomforts. While another child might be proud of this attire and show it off to the aunties, Mirabel is physically sensitive – pride and appearances aren’t her vices.

Michael Noll

In this story, the dialogue is italicized and not broken out into separate paragraphs. There are no quotation marks. This is a technical question that comes up a lot in drafts and in writing classes. Did you format it this way to avoid slowing down the prose? Were you trying to embed the dialogue within the voice, rather than getting caught up in prolonged scenes?

Stefanie Freele

Both. I very much enjoy prose that doesn’t break dialogue into paragraphs by quotes. I find it a distracting break from the story and I often jut out of the dream to inquire, who is talking now? I realize that some people abhor italic dialogue, but I may unapologetically continue writing this way.

Michael Noll

The narrator is listening to the grown-ups in the room and noticing them “using adult words like Naugahyde and paisley,” This is a recurring idea in the story, the distinctions marked by particular words and phrases: “something special” and “smile and shape up” and “smirk.” This seems like a really useful way to clue readers in to the narrator’s age and relationships with the other people in the house. Is it something you fell into—one of those happy accidents in writing—or was it an effect you were intentionally trying to achieve?

Stefanie Freele

Let us go with the happy accident theory. I think I am watcher, like all writers I suppose, and a collector of the phrases people say. There can be a ton of dialogue between people, but there are those certain words that will stand out and directly indicate something about the character. I try not to waste any words that don’t have to do with the revealing the character, the story or some sort of underlying message.

Michael Noll

I guess this story would be classified as “flash fiction,” both because of its length but also because it takes place in an instant. Was it always confined to this particular moment in time? Or, was it carved out of a longer piece of writing?

Stefanie Freele

Ray Vukcevich's story

Ray Vukcevich’s story “The Sweater” is included in his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room from Small Beer Press.

It isn’t yet carved out of a longer piece of writing. I was exploring the idea of anxiety in children and what adults might miss or can’t see. I was also recalling certain memories (will never forget the awful tights) and that sensation that one feels like they might burst or rip apart due to discomfort from all angles.  To the other characters in the story, they have no idea what is going on with Mirabel, with that explosive distress. She has made some connections and decisions including that stealing what is forbidden is acceptable. So much is happening to her in a few minutes, in one room, in one scene, and nobody one knows. I love the idea of exploring what is happening to someone in an iota of time. Ray Vukcevich did this in his story “The Sweater” where the entire story is told while a character is trying on a sweater. A must read.

April 2015

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

How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

28 Apr
Stefanie Freele's story, "Davenports and Ottomans" was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans” was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.

How the Story Works

In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.

Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:

The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.

In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”

Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.

Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:

The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.

The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:

  1. Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
  2. Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
  3. Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
  4. Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.

Good luck.

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