Tag Archives: details in fiction

An Interview with Justin Carroll

16 Jan
Justin Carroll's story, "Darryl Strawberry," appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California but often writes about Montana, where he spent his formative years. His Montana story, “Darryl Strawberry,” appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California, raised in Montana, and now lives in Texas. He has an MFA from Texas State University and is an assistant editor for the Austin-based literary journal Unstuck. His work has been previously published in Juked, Saltgrass, and Brink.

In this interview, Carroll talks about the necessity of palpable detail, the greatness of Andre Dubus, and revising toward what feels organic.

To read an excerpt from “Darryl Strawberry” and an exercise on descriptive passages, click here.

Michael Noll

This is a story about waiting—and as such, it means that much of the story is dominated by characters thinking and talking (or not talking) about the thing they are waiting for. One risk that seems inherent in this kind of story is that there won’t be enough action or forward movement to keep the reader interested. The note that Kidd Fenner finds under his windshield wiper (“I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?”) seems to solve that problem by giving the reader something specific to anticipate. Was this note always part of the draft?

Justin Carroll

This story, like most, has seen its fair share of revisions. The first one did have a note, but it was given in passing, as back story. I was given the idea of putting the note into a scene in a workshop with Debra Monroe at Texas State University. It was in that workshop that I realized readers need a break from interior matters. They need something palpable to grip onto, something that breathes new life into the narrative. In Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” after a few pages of the narrator summarizing his views on faith, Dubus introduces the reader to his narrator’s daughter, who has just left the narrator’s horse ranch after a visit and who, later, become the catalyst for the story’s climax. We need this; without this introduction, the narrator’s views on faith (which, for the record, are wise, interesting, and entertaining) would begin to seem too one-note. Dubus introduces this different aspect of the story at just the right time. Without this break, stories begin to drag. In the beginning, “Darryl Strawberry” was frustratingly slow; the note was able to enliven this story’s step.

Andre Dubus' short story, "A Father's Story," was reprinted in Narrative Magazine, where you can read it bowl

Andre Dubus’ short story, “A Father’s Story,” was reprinted in Narrative Magazine. If you’re not familiar Dubus, you should set aside half an hour and read this.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a scene that isn’t directly related to the conflict between Kidd Fenner and his son, but by the end of the first paragraph, the conflict insinuates itself into the scene (“Wasn’t as good as Henry, but no one in Hamilton was. This, of course, was before the trouble.”) I can imagine writing a story like this and beginning by discussing the conflict directly, laying out its terms for the reader (The kid’s in trouble again, and his parents aren’t sure what to do this time.) Did you ever try such a direct opening?

Justin Carroll

In the first few drafts, Henry’s issues were revealed too clumsily: “This, of course, was before the meth fiasco,” or something equally cringe-worthy. That was too transparent, obviously. Then I erased any obvious hints of the Henry’s problems until Nora goes to the support group meeting. I think I settled with the line after I discovered that “the trouble” was in Fenner’s own language—this is the only way he’d be able to describe Henry’s status (in the beginning of the story, at least). I still got conflicting views on this matter from some of my colleagues, but in the end “the trouble” felt organic.

 Michael Noll

One of my favorite paragraphs is this one:

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line.

It tells the reader that Fenner is at the baseball field without ever saying, “He’s at the baseball field.” Was this intentional? It certainly made me pay closer attention to the language. If you’d identified the field right away, I probably would have skimmed over the details: bleachers, dugout, cyclone fence.

Justin Carroll

Yes, this emphasis on language was intentional. Fenner needed to experience the baseball field in the emptiness of winter. To see the field in direct contrast to the way he’d seen it when Henry had been in tip-top shape seemed important to me.

Michael Noll

This story is full of details that situate it pretty firmly in a particular place, not just details about snow and landscape but also specific proper nouns: Sapphire Mountains, Daly Mansion, Whitman’s Towing, Ravalli County, Chinook Winds, Chapter One Bookstore, Safeway, Town Pump. The effect is that story feels like it occurs in a real place–but, ironically, those specific details also make it relatable. So, even though I’m from rural Kansas, I found myself recognizing aspects of my own hometown in Hamilton, Montana. I’ve heard other writers say that they try to make the places in their story vague so that it seems as though the story could be anywhere. But that’s not what you do. What’s your philosophy toward specific place details like these?

Justin Carroll

Thanks for the compliment! I think specificity of detail is crucial for this story—for all stories, really. I want to be able to walk down the streets of a story, much like I want to feel a beer bottle in a character’s hand. If I can’t access the place of a story, then I probably won’t remember it fifteen minutes after I read the story. My favorite stories build towns and landscapes I can revisit long after experiencing them for the first time; specificity of detail is responsible for this effect.

January 2014

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

An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie

24 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest, she lives in Oakland, California.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story, “What We Left Behind” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest.

Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.

In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.

(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)

Michael Noll

This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?

Mũthoni Kiarie

When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?

Mũthoni Kiarie

I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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