Tag Archives: Dialogue

An Interview with Justin Taylor

6 Aug
Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.

To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here.

In this interview, Taylor discusses the moral universes of stories, creating bombs and aftershocks in fiction, and his testing process for writing characters’ text messages.

Michael Noll

One of the writer-sayings from workshop is that a story should walk characters through danger doors–situations that put them at risk. This story does a terrific job of that. First, Charity is seated next to a pervy older man on a plane. Then, he gives her his number. Then he invites her to meet him. As empathetic humans, we don’t want Charity to go along with any of this, but as readers, of course, we want her to choose poorly since it makes a better story. Given all of this, I’m curious about how you approached the ending. She has the opportunity to meet Mark but talks herself out of it—with some help from his aggressive behavior. I love this ending, but I’m also curious if, in early drafts, Charity ever met Mark as he asks? How did you know when to put an end to the chain of bad events?

Justin Taylor

I’ve never heard that expression before—“danger doors.” It reminds me of old-school video games, specifically those colored bulbs in the original Metroid or the ante-chamber to the boss room that you’d find in any given Mega Man. Anyway, to answer your question, there are no drafts in which Charity meets up with Mark. To me, the story is about Charity’s inner life, her self-perception, particularly with regard to questions of age and maturity. To me, the major conflict of the story is between the part of her that still feels young—like a daughter, like a child—and the part of her that craves independence, wants to grow up faster. Mark’s intentions are predatory, but he’s not a very effective predator. Charity’s autonomy and safety are never truly put at risk. The public space of the airplane, and later the distance of the phone, conspire to place a concrete limit on the damage that Mark can do, and that’s because the story is far less interested in what he wants from her, than in what she thinks about it. In the moral universe of this story, questionable choices (and/or the mere fact of being an adolescent girl) are not understood as debts to be repaid through suffering. Mark’s impatience and his demands are somewhere between the ravings of a tyrant and the tantrum of a child. To hook up with someone like that would be to cede the very independence she’s been fighting for, and as soon as she sees that, she’s repulsed. That in mind, I wanted to end the story with Charity on her own, to reinforce that this is not a “him and her” story, but just hers—he was just this weird interlude in her life, like a bottle episode on a TV show, where it doesn’t quite connect back to the main arc of the season. That’s how I came back to the aquarium: she’s on her own, and doing exactly what she wants to do. It may be that the most dangerous thing you can do with a teenager is pay her the same respect that you would someone your own age. That, to me, is the main “danger door” the story walks through.

Michael Noll

Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

I’m interested in the pacing of the story. It begins with a long scene aboard the plane that occupies about 1/3 of the story, and in that long scene, we’re introduced to the character and the plot (will Charity call the guy?), but I can also imagine a workshop teacher suggesting that it all get condensed to a paragraph, which sounds right in theory but, of course, would have been terrible advice. How did you keep that scene going without losing tension?

Justin Taylor

You cannot condense those pages into a paragraph. They are, as you have said, 1/3 of the whole story, and therefore are doing 1/3 of the work. That scene establishes Charity’s psychology through her perceptions of the world around her, her relationship with her mother and various other establishing and background details. Maybe most important of all, it builds up mood. When Mark assaults her, that mood is (hopefully) shattered. I wanted his change in tone and behavior to feel like a bomb going off in the story, and then for the rest of the story to sort of reverberate with the aftershocks of that blast.

Michael Noll

The story contains some extended text conversations. Do you approach those any differently than you would spoken dialogue?

Justin Taylor

I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are. Charity, for example, is a more deliberate texter than Mark is. There are a couple places where he runs two sentences together in a hash of unpunctuated shorthand (“Cmon sumthing to look fwd to ur teasing me bad here”) whereas she bothers herself to put a comma in the middle of “Pajamas I guess, like a shirt”. She also prefers “you” to Mark’s “u,” though at the end of the conversation she adopts his style, possibly because she wants something from him—“Will u send one back?” Originally, I wanted Mark to be borderline incoherent, because I liked the idea that he was this rabid bro falling all over himself, but then I did some test-runs with my own phone’s autocorrect and saw that it tended to save him from the worst of himself. Overall the punctuation is pretty true to an iPhone 5, though I took a few liberties, such as the un-capitalized “I”, which reads like hasty texting but in real life could only be the result of extra effort, because the phone would always fix it for you unless you stopped it from doing so. Also, “Now were talking.” The phone has enough grammar to know that you meant “we’re” in that sentence. Or anyway mine does. But it’s also true that autocorrect learns from usage, so it’s at least plausible that Mark’s phone wouldn’t make that fix. Also—and I know I’m giving away the depth of my own insanity here—I originally had Mark using “2” for “to” but I eventually realized that while 2 is faster on a computer keyboard, on a phone screen it takes several extra touches to get over to the number screen and then to get back. So he wouldn’t do that.

Michael Noll

The story is about a 15-year-old girl’s sexual encounter with a 30-ish man. It’s a story in a similar vein as Lolita, and when that novel was published, a lot of early reviews claimed that the young girl had somehow entrapped or seduced Humbert Humbert. The reviewers were, it seems, reading Lolita as older than she was because of the way she was viewed by the narrator. In your story, did you worry that the reader would somehow forget that Charity, because she’s interacting semi-sexually with an older man, is only 15? Did you build in reminders of her age?

Justin Taylor

I don’t see how you could forget Charity’s age—the story is entirely defined by it. She’s only on this trip in the first place because her mother thought she was too young to stay home alone. Plus there’s her homework, her friends back home, the presence of her mother and grandmother, and Mark’s own word choice with regard to her. Lolita is 12 years old when the novel begins, and is literally kidnapped by a murderer. If she can be said to eventually “seduce” Humbert, it’s only in the sense that a captive figures out how to “seduce” her captor. I think Nabokov himself is very clear about this, even if the critics haven’t always been—most of the book doesn’t make any sense without this element, and the ending certainly doesn’t. Charity’s problems aren’t nearly as grave—she has a lot more power than Lolita, and she’s older. Not “older than her years” (which is what all abusers of children tell themselves—it’s a fantasy of permission) but old enough to understand the world, and the body, she inhabits. To the extent that, as I said before, the story places superlative value on Charity’s capacity for self-determination, it would have to respect her decision to hook up with him just as much as it does her decision not to. She doesn’t cut him off because she suddenly realizes he’s too old for her—that was the main thing that made him attractive in the first place. She cuts him off because he’s a creepy scumbag, which to me is a better reason. Adolescence comes and goes, but a well-tuned creep-detector is something you carry with you through life.

August 2015

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

An Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

26 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called "a wealth of talent."

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called “a wealth of talent.”

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s also taught creative writing to bilingual second graders, sold Mexican handcrafts at a flea market in Spain, and played Santa Claus at a French school in Silicon Valley. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs will be published by Scribner on March 10.

To read an excerpt from his story “Madrid” and an exercise on writing moments of high emotion, click here.

In this interview, Ruiz-Camacho discusses beginning stories with a strong lede and haunting images and introducing unexpected twists in dialogue.

Michael Noll

The opening of “Madrid” ends with an almost Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger: “There are no curtains or blinds on the windows to keep the buzz away because we don’t worry about privacy and security here. We don’t have to care about that anymore.” It not only made me want to find out what was going on, it also set up a sense of dread well before the first grisly detail of the kidnapping arrives. Did you always begin the story in this way?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Yes, I wanted to open with an intense sense of the kind of traumatic experience the protagonist was going through, even though you could say it’s a rather slow opening in terms of movement or action.

I always like to start with a striking image, or at least a lede strong enough to hook the reader in–an opening so intriguing and complex that the reader feels she has no option but to keep reading. I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.

Michael Noll

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The father’s kidnapping is juxtaposed with the birth of the narrator’s son, and this juxtaposition makes a lot of sense (death and life), but then you introduce the dog and its wounded paw, which fits in terms of the sense of being wounded. But, it also complicates the imagery, making it difficult to think in the fairly simple terms of birth and death. I’m curious if the dog was always in the story–or if the baby was always in it. I imagine it could be tempting to start out with a simpler story and then gradually make it more complex.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I think both of them were in the story since the very beginning. I don’t plan ahead the topics in my stories or even the personalities or circumstances of the characters that populate them. Usually it all starts with a character showing up in my mind in the form of a haunting image. In the case of “Madrid,” it was the image of the first box that appears in the story. The moment I saw it I knew exactly what it contained, but that was it. Writing the story then became an investigation around that image, trying to find out who was the recipient of that box, what had happened to him. As I kept working on the story I realized that he was the son of a man who had disappeared, that he’d just had his first son, and that his dog was sick. It all came together at once. I would like to say that I get to make decisions about the characters in my stories, but that’s not the case. They show up as they are, and keep haunting me until I put their story on paper. The most I can do is to highlight one aspect of their personality over others less relevant to the story in order to build a compelling narrative. What you leave out in a story is many times more important than what you keep in.

Michael Noll

The story ends with a kind of ghostly appearance and involves some pretty weighty dialogue. This scene could have been unbearably sentimental, a kind of literary Touched by an Angel, but it’s not that at all. What was your approach to this scene, especially the dialogue? Did you struggle to keep it from being overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, the way last lines between characters (and real people) are often overwhelmed with the realization that the end has come?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

That section of the story was actually one of the easiest to write. These two characters had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate through that exchange since the beginning. What I personally like about it is that both characters remain honest and true to their feelings throughout, regardless of the significance of the moment. They stay fragile and funny and cynical and confused, and neither one of them tries to “make sense” of this encounter, or to purposely deliver any message to the reader–their transformation as characters, if you will, emerges from their acceptance of the moment as it comes. My work there was to make sure that I didn’t interfere with the relationship between them or try to force the ending of the story or the direction of this final exchange to a perfect closure.

My personal opinion is that dialogue works best when we let characters express what they really want, and then work with that material, trying to incorporate it organically into the story, instead of forcing them to say what we think would be “better” to advance the story. Also, if I may add, having unexpected twists in dialogue exchanges is always useful to enhance their impact. This is a pretty dramatic, emotionally charged, scene, and yet there are some really funny or just downright absurd lines in it. I think that’s what, hopefully, makes it work.

Michael Noll

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's essay, "Keepsakes from Across the Border," was published as one of The New York Times "Private Lives" essays.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s essay, “Keepsakes from Across the Border,” was published as one of The New York Times’ “Private Lives” essays.

You recently published an essay in The New York Times about taking your kids to Mexico for the first time. You grew up there, and so you saw in their experience of the country the same wonder and bafflement that you saw on your early trips to the United States. It’s a sweet essay about universal experience. And yet, many of the readers’ comments were blistering, accusing the piece of bigotry against Mexicans, of all things, and also of simplistic assumptions about Americans—which other commenters complicated by spouting racist garbage. The reaction to the essay seemed to sum up a kind of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic writers in the United States. As a writer, do you just have to ignore all of that? Is that even possible? How do you approach your work in what seems like such a charged, toxic environment?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

First I’d like to say that I don’t perceive the environment in which I write as especially charged or toxic, just the opposite. The encouragement, support, and opportunities my work and I have received over the last few years have been just incredible. Also, maybe because of my journalistic background, or maybe because I’m morbidly curious, I’m one of those rare writers who look forward to reading all kinds of comments from readers–they’re like little pieces of characterization in and of themselves. Commenters reveal so much about themselves in those posts, especially in both the most scathing and the most heartfelt ones, and I find that fascinating.

All of that said, one of the things that you must assume as a writer since the very beginning, regardless of your background, is that your work is public and everyone is free to have and express an opinion about it. Some people will relate to, or even like, your work, and many others won’t. It’s impossible to write something that pleases everybody. That’s why I think the writer should only write for herself. Once a story or an essay is finished, I, of course, hope many people will connect with it, and I love when a reader reaches out to say he or she liked what I wrote, but none of that matters when I’m writing.

At the same time, a negative opinion is, after all, a reaction to your work, emotional, intellectual or otherwise, which is pretty great. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that readers welcome her work with indifference. As writers, I think we should aim at eliciting intense, memorable reactions on our readers, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The nature of those reactions is, to a great extent, beyond my control and, therefore, none of my business.

February 2015

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

How to Create Energy in Dialogue with Summary

1 Jul
Smith Henderson's highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called "the best book I've ready so far this year" by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Smith Henderson’s highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called “the best book I’ve ready so far this year” by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Dialogue is not the same as real-life conversation. While this isn’t exactly news to anyone who’s tried to write a story or novel, it’s something we often forget. Most obviously, dialogue is brief, a few pages at most (and that’s some very extensive dialogue), whereas even short conversations, if transcribed, would last at least probably twice as long. There are some common ways to condense dialogue: skip the greetings and chit-chat. Get down to business. Jump ahead to the tense part of the dialogue—the bit where something is at stake. Leave out the filler that we often think is required to get to the good stuff but which can usually be cut.

But what if it’s all good stuff? What if, for instance, a character is telling another character a story, and it’s all tense and interesting, but it’s also going on and on? How do you keep the material but shorten the dialogue? One answer is to use summary.

A great example of using summary in dialogue can be found in the highly-praised debut novel Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. It was published by Ecco, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

In the novel’s opening scene, a social worker, Pete, has been called out to a dispute between a woman and her teenage son. A neighbor called the police, and after subduing both individuals, the cop called the social worker. In this piece of dialogue, the officer is telling Pete what happened. Notice what Henderson puts into dialogue and what he summarizes:

Pete nodded and wrote some more…

“And the situation when you got here? ”

The situation was a perfect fucking mess. The situation was the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.

Then the situation got interesting.

“The mother has the air rifle and—”

“No way,” Pete said.

“Yeah, fuckin way,” the cop said.

“She shoot him? ”

“Before I get to her, yeah, she shoots. You can see the big old welt on his forearm.”

Pete started to write.

“And then what?”

At this point, dialogue moves back into summary, describing what happened next between the boy and his mother. Take another look at the dialogue and imagine if the summarized part (the paragraph that begins with “The situation was a perfect fucking mess”) had been put into dialogue. In other words, what if the police officer had told the entire story in his words? It would have taken longer—perhaps only slightly longer, but if you’ve ever listened to someone tell a good story, anything that slows the pace is annoying.

So what does Henderson summarize? Notice where the summary ends and the dialogue picks back up again: “Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.” The summary has given us the setup, the logistics of the story: who and where and what. But when the setup turns into a moment of action, of potential drama becoming actual drama, the scene is told through dialogue. We’re put immediately into the question of what happened:

“The mother has the air rifle and—”

“No way,” Pete said.

The dialogue is saved for the moment of greatest intensity and interest. Everything that is required to get to those moments is summarized.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s summarize within sections of dialogue, using the passage from Smith Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek as a model:

  1. Choose the scene. You’ll need two or more characters and a story for one of them to tell. While the story doesn’t need to be connected to the immediate situation (people just sitting around, telling stories), the dialogue will feel more pressing if it impacts the characters. Henderson makes his story impactful because the story dictates how the social worker will handle the situation. One way to handle the scene is to have a character enter in a hurry, or with great purpose, and begin telling a story that must be told. Think of a child running into a house to tell his mom that his brother is hurt. The story will answer the question, “What happened?” And what happened will dictate what the mom does next. So, how can you invent a scene where a character enters in a hurry and causes another character to ask, “What happened?”
  2. Write out the dialogue in full. Don’t worry about summarizing yet. In a way, you don’t know what to summarize because you don’t yet know the entire story or how it will unfold.
  3. Listen for the slow parts. As you reread the dialogue, or as you write it, attune yourself to the voice in your head telling the story and also the voice that’s listening to the story. When does that second voice begin to lose interest? When does its attention flag? When does it perk up?
  4. Summarize the slow parts. Slow doesn’t mean uninteresting, only less interesting than the most exciting parts. Usually, these parts are the interstitial moments, the parts of the story that connect the moments of true drama. Imagine telling the story at a bar or coffee shop. When the listener leans forward and says, “And then what?” that’s almost certainly a moment of high interest or suspense. Put that part in dialogue. The setup that was required to get there can be summarized.
  5. In the summary, use sentences that emphasize action. It’s almost like you’re blocking out a scene for a play, directing the actors where to stand and what to do. Henderson does this with -ing words: “the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight.” These words give the scene a sense of immediacy because the make the action ongoing, rather than completed and over with. We do this naturally: “So I was standing there, minding my own business when…”
  6. In the summary, use sentence structures that emphasize latent energy. Latent energy is the energy required for a substance to undergo a transition (water: ice to liquid; a car: not moving to rolling down a hill). Latent energy is what makes an audience lean forward and ask, “Then what?” Notice the latent energy in this sentence from the scene in Henderson’s novel: “the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight.” The kid is applying force to the carport, and at a certain point, that force may supply the necessary latent energy for the carport to fall apart. In story terms, the act of the boy jumping on the carport is also applying force to his mother. When the force is strong enough, she will act. So, in your scene, find a way for one character to apply a type of force against another character: you’re looking for the amount of force that will supply the necessary latent energy to make that character act. When the character is about to act, that’s when you quit summarizing and begin using dialogue again.

Good luck!

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

kelly luce

Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

How to Find a Story’s Tone

10 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story XXX appeared at Tor.com

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking” appeared at Tor.com. (Illustraton by Scott Bakal)

Some stories have been told countless times. Yet, as writers, we often feel compelled to take another crack at them. So how do we make our stories different? Sometimes the answer is to find an unexpected tone.

Benjamin Rosenbaum does exactly that in his zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking.” I guarantee that even if you’ve read a thousand zombie stories, you’ve never read one like this. You can read it now at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

Playing with tone in a story is a bit like improvising in music. A simple melody is easier to improvise than one that requires concentration just to play straight. So, when you’re thinking about tone, it’s helpful to make everything else simple. Here’s the opening of “Feature Development for Social Networking.” Notice how simple it is. (If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s written as a series of Facebook posts and comments).

Marsha Shirksy Got bitten . . .

Roland Wu wtf? Are you kidding?

Buster Day that is so not funny

Emily Carter omg Marsha are you serious?

Marsha Shirksy I’m not kidding, you guys! There was a rager at the supermarket. I could tell he was acting weird & I know I was totally stupid not to just drop my stuff and run! I’d just been in line forever & they had this terrific local asparagus on sale. Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus.

The first two words of the story (after the character’s name) provide everything the reader needs to know about the plot (“Got bitten…”). Anyone who’s ever read a zombie story knows how this one will end. So, instead of focusing on the plot, Rosenbaum can play with tone. He finds his tone by doing a couple of simple things:

  • He chooses a place with a particular style of communication. In this case, it’s Facebook, with its users’ tendency to exaggerate the emotion in all statements (omg, wtf, exclamation marks galore) in order to not be misunderstood.
  • He gives himself room to play with tone. The first line introduces the plot, but then that plot is not explained or developed in any way until Marsha Shirksy speaks up again. In that lull, there’s space to play with tone. Notice how Roland, Buster, and Emily all say basically the same thing in slightly different ways—but also in ways that reinforce a kind of philosophy toward communication (or tone): informal, intimate, and performative (wtf, omg).
  • He uses the tone to convey an important piece of story information. After the Facebook tone is set, Rosenbaum uses it to tell the story of the zombie attack. Notice how that paragraph uses all of the traits established in the previous three lines: it’s informal (the ampersand, “totally stupid”), intimate (“you guys”), and performative (“Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus).

Once the tone is set, the story is off and running. If you read the entire piece, you’ll see how Rosenbaum introduces a second set of characters and a slightly different form of communication goes through this process all over again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play with tone, using “Feature Development for Social Networking” as a model:

  1. Choose the oft-told story that you want to tell. Make it as simple as possible: zombie attack, quest, boy/girl falls in love with boy/girl and has to woo him/her, ghostly apparition, relationship goes sour.
  2. Choose a place with a particular style of communication. Think about the places where characters code switch (adapt to a language that is particular to one group): a bar, a workplace, a church, a classroom, or the hallway or space immediately outside the classroom or church or office or bar, a dinner table, a restaurant.
  3. Introduce the plot immediately. I got bit. I had to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. I had to make him love me. The ghost handed me the shampoo. I used to love her, but now I don’t.
  4. Give yourself room to play with tone. Establish the communication style. You can do this by putting your character into conversation, having him/her tell the story to someone else. Or, you can simply adopt the tone of the place/group and use it in what is essentially a monologue. Think about the language’s phrasings, idioms, approaches to emotion (exaggerated, muted), use or avoidance of literal or figures of speech, directness or roundabout-ness. Think about speed. How fast or slow do the character talk? Play with the voice until you begin to hear it in your head, almost as if the voice is speaking to you.
  5. Use the tone to convey an important piece of information. How I got bit. Why I need to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. Why it’s not easy to make him love me, or why I love him. What the ghost looks like. Why I don’t love her anymore.

Once you find the tone, you may find that the most enjoyable part of writing the story is the tone itself. Keep playing with it. Drop in a plot clue or reference now and then to keep the story moving forward.

Have fun.

An Interview with Liz Warren-Pederson

30 Nov
Liz Warren-Pederson's work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson, where she teaches writing and works in marketing at the University of Arizona.

In this interview, Warren-Pederson discusses dialogue, unlikable characters, and the moment when a narrator’s voice pops into your head.

(To read Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” and an exercise on speeding up dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

Dialogue is normally structured with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. But that’s not what this story does. Instead, chunks of quick, back-and-forth dialogue are included in the same paragraph. I’m curious about why you chose this structure. It seems to have a few effect: 1) It makes each piece of the dialogue less important than the banter itself, 2) It makes the dialogue read faster than if it was broken into separate paragraphs and 3) It makes the dialogue (both speakers) part of the narrator’s voice. In other words, it’s not so much dialogue as a story being told by the narrator. Did you play around with different ways of writing this dialogue?

Liz Warren-Pederson

I actually didn’t play around with the structure of the dialogue; it just came out that way. This story emerged over a couple of weeks nearly fully formed – I had a sense of done-ness about it without my usual agonizing rounds of revision. The choice to not use hard returns in the dialogue was deliberate but also instinctive, if that makes sense. I’d been admiring run-together dialogue in other writers’ stories for exactly the effects you mention. I think a lot about how to influence the way the writing sounds to others when they read it, by which I mean, I want them to “hear” it how I am hearing it. I use AP style for my work writing, and have a strong allegiance to stylistic convention, so dialogue like this is about as close as I get to experimentation as a fiction writer, at least structurally. But then, paradoxically, I’m an intuitive grammarian, so I’m more interested in using commas to, say, control speed of reading than correctly manage the joining of dependent clauses or whatever. Gah, it was all I could do to even mention dependent clauses. I try to think of them as little as possible.

Michael Noll

I love this sentence: “Then she went out to the garden in her Holly Hobbie hat and spent five minutes getting down into a kneeling position on this geriatric-looking green foam “gardening aid” I found in a Lillian Vernon catalog one night when I was looking for something, anything to read while I took a dump.” The sentence covers so much ground: hat, gardening aid, catalogue, taking a dump. In terms of structure, it’s not unlike the chunks of dialogue in that it compresses a lot of information into a small, dense package. Does this voice and style come naturally to you, or is it something you achieve through revision?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

This voice and style came naturally to me for this story in particular. Sometimes I have heard or read writers talking about how their characters “won’t shut up” or practically write the stories themselves, and this has always sounded and seemed like hokum to me. The Paris Review interview with Nabokov had a question about characters taking over, to which he responded that his characters are galley slaves—I love this. …but does it sound like I’m protesting too much? Because truly, one day I was driving home from work and the first line of the story popped into my head and then another line, and I had to kind of chant them to myself until I could get to a place where I could write them down. I think a great deal of writing happens in the subconscious, and when it’s ready to emerge, it will. Sometimes it does all at once, other times in dribs and drabs.

Michael Noll

Some seemingly-crucial information is left out of the story: the characters’ ages, the exact nature of their relationship, the exact nature of Cynthia’s health problems. We can guess some of this–but not all of it. Why did you choose to not make this kind of information explicit?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Those things were not what the story was about to me. I think that someone probably mentioned the omissions to me in workshop, but I was listening for whether my fellow writers got from the story what I intended, and by and large they did. I remember cleaning up a couple points of confusion in a revision, but the particulars you mentioned didn’t matter to me. I mean, it’s not a story about the pathology of a particular disease, you know? In workshop situations, especially when we’re trying to be good and thorough readers, we reflexively point to this type of omission, and pointing it out seems tantamount to calling it a problem. Lack of detail is kind of an impressionistic technique, and if the right impression is conveying, then I don’t think everything needs to be spelled out. I hasten to point out here that I’m probably the worst judge of what can and should be spelled out in my own work; I left those things out of this story because the direction of my workshop validated that decision. If they spent the whole workshop talking about how old the characters were, I’d figure something was seriously amiss.

Michael Noll

This story is about a broke middle-aged man in a relationship with an older, ill woman. In other words, it’s about a character who could be pretty unlikable–but he’s not. But neither is he “likable,” whatever that means. He’s interesting. But as I read, I thought of Claire Messud’s recent comments in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. The interviewer commented that she wouldn’t want to be friends with one of Messud’s characters, and Messud answered this way:

“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

How did you approach Gerald’s character? It seems like it’d be easy to make him purposefully unlikable and throw that in the reader’s face. Or, you could fill the story with trite, sentimental messages about growing old, dying, living, etc. Did you ever think, “Gee, I’m not sure how to write about this guy?”

Liz Warren-Pederson

Claire Messud’s gotten a lot of crap for having written an angry woman narrator, which I think is weird and limiting. In the same interview you mention, she said: “…it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” I’ve never had a problem accessing rage as a writer, but that I’ve channeled that rage into the first person narration of a man is telling. What it tells, I’ll let you decide. I really love Gerald. He’s such an asshole. But he kind of has to be, generationally and socially and culturally: he’s boxed into a specific worldview. His defense mechanisms are airtight; he doesn’t even turn off the bravado in his own internal monologue. To turn it off would be to admit how deeply he loves Cynthia and open himself to the pain of not only losing her, but also bearing witness as she wastes away. One of the things I intuited about Gerald from the very beginning, when those first couple lines came out of nowhere when I was driving, was his genuine love for Cynthia and his awareness of how skeptical people would be of it. Knowing that made him an easy character to write.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

26 Nov
X story "Paper Tiger" appeared in Fiddleblack.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” appeared in Fiddleblack.

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation?

One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

To see how this works, check out Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger.” It’s so good that you’ll read the first sentence and think, “That was great,” and then the next sentence will be even better. It was published at Fiddleblack, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Almost everyone has told (or heard) this story: “She said, then I said, then he said, then this total stranger jumped in and said, so I told him…” It’s one of the most natural storytelling methods in the world. It probably predates written language. Yet, it can’t be captured within the constraints of normal formatting rules for dialogue (paragraph breaks for every speaker change).

Here is how Liz Warren-Pederson captures that style of speaking in the first sentence of her story:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Imagine if this dialogue had been written in the usual way:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said.

“What the fuck? Where will I eat?” I said.

“I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me.”

“What a fucking misery,” I said.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Well, we weren’t under a microscope then.”

“You worry too much,” she said.

That was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

It doesn’t work—at all. In fact, some of the best lines from the original sentence become some of the weakest in the new version. For instance, “What a fucking misery” becomes plodding because it’s just another comeback. And, “You worry too much,” is stripped of all tension, as is the last line. Some things, like punk rocks and tit-for-tats, require speed to operate. Slow them down, and even if all the notes are the same, they fall apart.

The great advantage to chunking this dialogue into one paragraph is that it captures the narrator’s voice. Banter can tell you a lot about both characters and real people:

  • What tone does each person take?
  • What language does each person use?
  • How do they respond to negative (or positive) comments?
  • Who gets the last word?

While these questions can be answered by traditionally-structured dialogue, the compression of Warren-Pederson’s first sentence shoves the characters into a tight space, where they bump into each other. Any time you push characters into each other—in a room, on a street, in a sentence—the tension rises, and you’re bound to learn something about them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s speed up dialogue by chunking part of a conversation into a single sentence or paragraph. We’ll use the first sentence of Liz Warren-Pederson’s “Paper Tiger” as a model. You can write new dialogue or rewrite dialogue that you’ve already written for a story-in-progress.

  1. Choose a speaker. Even though the dialogue will be between two people, it will be filtered through the perspective of a speaker, the person telling the story of what was said and done.
  2. Choose an argument. We almost always tell a story about a conversation because there was tension present, and an argument is the easiest way to find that tension. The argument can be about something simple: to go out or stay in, what to eat, where to sit, how to spend money, or how to spend the holidays (as in this story). It can be about an ongoing dispute: I always take out the trash, you never load the dishwasher, it’s always up to me to get the car fixed.
  3. Let the speaker relate what was said. Think about the knee-jerk ways that we tend to respond when we feel attacked, slighted, or insulted. It’s those sort of comebacks that make for quick conversation. The characters don’t think, just speak. The result will look something like this: “”She said___, then I said___, then she said___, and that was ___, so I said___, and then ____.” As you come to the end of the sentence, think about how the argument ends. Who ends it? Does it end with a white flag or with a devastating assault?

This is Thanksgiving Week, and you may find that you have plenty of inspiration for this exercise after Thursday’s family dinner. If you find yourself telling any stories about who said what, write them down. You can always find a story for the dialogue later.

Good luck!

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.

An Interview with Mary Miller

17 Oct
Mary Miller's debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture. A recent Publisher's Weekly review said that Miller has created a "narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers."

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture.

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, is finally out, and it’s already getting rave reviews. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote, “Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”

Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her collection of stories, Big World, was published in 2009 by Short Flight/Long Drive Books. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, she will return to Mississippi in the fall of 2014 to serve as the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. At this cool website, she discusses the stories she’s read lately.

In this interview, Miller discusses misunderstanding and subtext in dialogue and the challenge of transitioning from story writer to novelist.

(To read Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” and an exercise based on the story’s dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue in your story “I Won’t Get Lost.” The narrator has to explain gentrification to a man who’s never heard the term before. The basic premise of the conversation is weird–who hasn’t heard of gentrification. But instead of closing the distance between the two people (the man saying, “Oh, so that’s what gentrification is. Thanks for telling me”), the dialogue actually pushes them farther apart. By the end of this early portion, the man stops talking and takes out his phone to verify what he’s just been told. I’m curious how you approached this piece of dialogue. Our natural tendency is to make dialogue function as it does in the real world, which is toward understanding. Did you have to consciously make this dialogue work against that tendency, or did it move that way on its own?

Mary Miller

Thanks, Michael. This is a pretty much a conversation I had on the bus one day. I guess I thought it was odd, as well, because the gentrification discussion inspired me to write this story. And then it became more about the narrator, and how talking to this stranger made her feel exposed and self-conscious.

My natural tendency in writing is toward misunderstanding and confusion. When people speak to each other, particularly those who know each other well, there is typically a lot of subtext. I’m at home right now visiting my family, and when we talk I notice all of the things we aren’t saying, or how we’re saying one thing and meaning something completely different. In life, this kind of sucks, but it’s great for dialogue.

Michael Noll

The story’s title is “I Won’t Get Lost,” which is appropriate because every piece of dialogue, every internal thought, and every observation in the story is about dislocation and disconnection. Did you start with this theme in mind, or did it surface through various drafts of the story?

Mary Miller

I don’t think about theme when I write. I feel when something is coming together and creating a larger story, or when it’s not, but it’s not something I think about. I don’t ever want my writing to feel heavy-handed, for the reader to see me guiding him or her to some conclusion.

Michael Noll

Your first novel, The Last Days of California, will be published in January. It’s about a 15-year-old girl whose evangelical father takes her on a road trip across California to save as many souls as possible before the rapture. On one hand, a novel is always a big jump for a story writer, especially when the stories are often quite short, as yours sometimes are. On the other hand, a road trip novel has a unique structure: many short, sometimes disconnected scenes. Did you choose this structure on purpose? Was it a more manageable way to approach a novel for the first time? If so, that would seem like an awfully smart decision.

Mary Miller

Yes, yes, yes! I really don’t feel like I could have written a novel, at least not at the time, without this rigid structure. I had to keep moving the characters from Point A to Point B, which created a certain amount of tension. They’re behind schedule! They must keep going! They need to eat and use the bathroom and look at all of these odd things and people they’re coming into contact with… Each night, there’s a new motel, a new environment for them to explore. The structure certainly provided me a frame within which to work. It made it easier and more fun to write.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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