Tag Archives: Erin Pringle-Toungate

An Interview with Erin Pringle-Toungate

3 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle’s first collection The Floating Order was called “poetic, lush, gripping” and “rather disturbing.” She recently finished her new collection, How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Tuongate’s first collection of stories, The Floating Order,  has been called “dense, experimental, thick with dread and the dead.” The stories are full of inventive language and powerfully weird images.  They’re also gripping reads, similar to the work of cross-genre horror writers like Brian Evenson and John Burnside.

Pringle-Toungate currently lives and teaches in Washington, where she was awarded an Artist Trust fellowship. One of her stories was a finalist in the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award (2012). Her work has been twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship. She recently completed her second story collection, How the Sun Burns.

In this interview, Pringle-Toungate discusses the challenge of moving through time in fiction, the structural requirements of writing in present tense, and the difference between the sentences “A man walks into a bar” and “A man walks into Hooters.”

(To read Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” and an exercise based on the story’s movement between the main character’s past and present, click here.)

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” switches between the past and present, a structure that can pose difficult questions: How often do you switch? How long do you stay in one time period? Your answer is to switch as often as every sentence. The result is that you sort of avoid those questions about block structure. Because past and present are so closely intertwined you can decide to stick with one thread for as long or briefly as you want. Did you experiment with different ways of mixing past and present, or did you know how you’d handle it even in early drafts?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

It took me about two years to get to this draft of the story. I wrote multiple versions, and many of those were attempts to deal with time and to avoid the problems caused by a previous version, such as staying in the past for so long that the present conflict seemed to lack energy, or staying so long in the present that the past began to belong to one character instead of all of them. The midwife’s age changed several times before I realized she needed to be expert now—the younger she was, the more the delivery became about sex and all sorts of junk that got in the way of the story I wanted to tell. Maybe as soon as a character has a history that is important to the present, time becomes an issue to be dealt with.

Michael Noll

I’ve read quite a few stories lately that explain the entire premise in the first paragraph(s) and then explore the consequences of the premise. But “The Midwife” withholds a basic piece of information about the premise until the end. It makes for an effective story–I wanted to know the secret. I wonder if you always structure stories this way (it’s not unlike the structure of a detective novel, except we’re the detectives). How do you know what to withhold and what to disclose?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

My stories are typically structured like this, or something like this—in which a key bit of information that is guiding the story is withheld. For example, in “The Only Child,” the main character is with her imaginary friend in a morgue, but I let these two facts remain unstated and what drive the suspense aspect of the story. This sort of structure is mainly due to my tendency to write in present tense. Because of that, it would seem contrived to begin with a recounting of a story that hasn’t occurred yet—and suspense can’t work quite in the same way. So, withholding is how I attempt to create suspense.

What I withhold is based on what is most obvious and familiar to the character because what is most obvious and familiar to the character is what he or she wouldn’t think to say to anyone. In “The Floating Order,” a woman has drowned her children, but she uses the terminology of floating her children and thinks she has saved them so that’s the language she uses, so it takes a while for readers to realize what she has done. This gives me time to make them learn about her. I think to make readers allow themselves to think about difficult issues, the writer has to figure out how to strip those issues of any familiarity so that they can be thought about. In my story “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” a girl is struggling to understand why anyone could let her sister disappear and die, but never does she say that or talk about it—until the end, when she’s begging a carnival worker to pretend to have seen the sister disappear. In “The Midwife,” she knows where she is going, so I let her walk—just like you know why you’re going to the grocery so you don’t bother to tell anyone why. But if someone saw you walking down the street at night, they may think they you’re going to do something else entirely. Whatever is most on the character’s mind, I delay revealing. It may help that I’m not sure what leads to the man’s death myself—it’s not only the woman, it’s not only the illness, it’s not only the whole decaying town, it’s not only. . . and so this also helps me, as there’s never any one thing in any story that has caused, or led from, any one event.

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” is quite long, about 8500 words. You’ve also written some stories (like this one) that fit within a paragraph. This ability, to write both long and short stories, is unusual. Many writers have a particular length that they’re comfortable with. What’s your mindset when you first begin a story? Have you written it already in your head? Or is there some process of discovery that happens on the page that tells you how long the story will be?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

The stories in The Floating Order are short mainly because I was teaching myself how to write. I was teaching myself how to use language—what its limits were, what its possibilities were, besides that the perspectives and ideas allowed a shorter form where the language had to work much harder than it has to work in long form. So the stories were somewhat like unbuilding houses in order to build the smallest, habitable house possible in order to understand what a house didn’t need in order to stand—and to understand whether or not a house had to stand in order to work.

All the stories in my next collection, How the Sun Burns, are longer stories. My characters are older and so the causes of their behaviors, or the background of their lives, or their thoughts, are more complicated. I think children’s lives are equally complicated, but typically most adults wouldn’t agree with me, so my characters are somewhat older (at least in this story) so as to avoid issues of verisimilitude. And I have to explain the complications so as to avoid readers assuming they know why the characters do what they do. The recent cultural tradition of leaving comments on newspaper articles has terrified me about what readers can think, and so the stories are longer in some ways probably so as to avoid myself imagining the comments readers might leave. I hope that tradition ends soon.

Michael Noll

Erin Pringle-Toungate's debut collection The Floating Order has been called.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s debut collection The Floating Order tells stories that resemble the nightmares of children.

The Short Review called your first collection, The Floating Order, “a contemporary Brothers Grimm for adults.” Like fairy tales, many of your stories are set in a kind of everyworld. This seems true of the “The Midwife” even though it mentions strip malls, the 1980s, and a “heavy-hipped Midwestern woman in beige pants and a striped pastel shirt.” Maybe it’s because it’s about a barber performing deliveries, an activity that seems from another time. I’m curious how you think about place in your writing. Are you, in fact, writing fairy tales?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

I’ve found that if you don’t use names and don’t use advertising, every story sounds like a folktale. It’s a sort of sad situation that one of the ways our time is marked is by having characters sit at Starbucks instead of at a coffee shop. What’s the difference? Well, the focus, for one. Readers will probably always feel, these days, that they understand something more if they recognize a brand; this is not to say that readers are stupid but that all of us have been trained to feel that we understand someone more if he or she shops at the same store that we do—it’s knee-jerk. But if I’m writing a story, I don’t want readers to feel like they understand something about my characters just because they’re at Starbucks. Plenty of books demonstrate the depravity of living in a world of brand names. I don’t have anything to say about it, I’m not interested in it, so I’m not going to bring up details that make the conversation change its focus. A man walks into a bar. Good. A man walks into Hooters. What a stupid difference it makes. Now the man is no longer the focus. His life, his movement, his death—gone, erased. Now it’s all glaring orange and white T-shirts and opposing arguments about breasts and chicken wings and coupons and kitsch problems. Bring up that detail, and a writer has to work five times as hard to convince the reader that the man isn’t a chauvinist, that the man is—well, whatever he actually is.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Move Between Past and Present

1 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle-Toungate’s next collection How the Sun Burns.

In some stories, the events of the present gain meaning when viewed alongside the character’s past. The writer of a story like that, however, quickly discovers a problem that must be solved: How do you switch between the time periods? Do you block the periods into paragraphs or sections? Or is there a way to make the switch more fluid?

One writer who succeeds in finding a fluid movement through past and present is Erin Pringle-Toungate in her story, “The Midwife.” The story was published at Glint Literary Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The trouble with blocking the past and present into separate chunks, set off by space breaks, is that the structure can begin to feel unwieldy. To avoid that problem, Pringle-Toungate does two things:

  1. Switches between past and present on a sentence-by-sentence level
  2. Does not announce that the switches are occurring.

To illustrate how this works, look at the story’s opening:

“Along the block of mostly abandoned storefronts, the barber turns the sign to Sorry we’re CLOSED Please come back tomorrow, and moves the red plastic arrow to 7 AM. No customers came in today, yesterday, or the day before. But no matter, you keep the same hours every day, said her father when, after her mother’s hysterectomy, he began officially training her for her inheritance.”

The first two sentences are set in the story’s present. They’re also written in present tense, which will serve as a reliable indicator of time. The switch comes with the third sentence, when the story adds the father’s voice, spoken from the past. Notice how we don’t learn that the words, “But no matter, you keep the same hours every day,” are 1) her father’s and 2) from the past until the attribution (“said her father”). In effect, we’ve slid from present to past without knowing it. In a way, this switch is the same used by our minds, which move back and forth in time—between present observation and memory—constantly, often blurring the two.

By introducing this switching strategy immediately, Pringle-Toungate makes it possible for the story to dip into the past at any moment, for as long or briefly as it wants—an unimaginable freedom to someone who has played with a block structure of time. For instance, Pringle-Toungate actually marks the next switch between past and present with a paragraph break, but because of how she introduces time in the first paragraph, this more formal switch seems just as natural:

“She sweeps the floor, cleans the mirror, wipes the counter, changes the disinfectant, ties up the laundry bag of towels, and lets down the blinds. She didn’t have a customer all morning, but she didn’t really expect to.

Work ethic, her father said. Dependability, he insisted. Same hours every day. Reliability is trustworthiness. Trustworthiness earns respect. Respect runs a business and fills our stomachs.”

If this seems impossible to pull off, you can take comfort in the fact that Pringle-Toungate didn’t arrive at this structure immediately, as you’ll learn in her Q&A on Thursday.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s switch between past and present using the first paragraph of “The Midwife” as a model. First, you’ll need to create the two time periods:

  1. Create a character engaged in an ongoing action. In “The Midwife” that action is the deliveries. The action could be anything that is an everyday routine: going to work, picking up kids from school, sitting in church or class, or pulling weeds in the garden. Or, the routine could be something more sinister. Keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil.” Even awful things can be become routine if you do them enough.
  2. Give the character a voice to listen to. The voice should be from someone in the past. In “The Midwife” the voice belongs to the character’s father. George Saunders uses a similar strategy in “Tenth of December”:

“He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.

Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.”

Saunders introduces the voice, and soon after the story goes into the character’s past. In other words, the voice creates the doorway to that past.

Now, let’s put your character and the voice into conversation, which is essentially the way that Pringle-Toungate and Saunders both move back and forth in time.

  1. Begin with your character in the midst of the everyday routine. Don’t explain the routine, just describe the actions that the character performs with the thoughtless confidence that comes with having done a thing countless times. This robotic movement sets up the next step.
  2. Let the character think about the voice from his/her past. Don’t use a filter (She thought about So-and-so, who used to say…). Instead, drop the dialogue or voice into the sentence without introduction. The idea is that you’re letting the reader listen to the character’s thoughts as he/she performs the routine.
  3. Now, move back and forth between these two time periods whenever seems most natural. Play with it. Try staying in each period for longer and shorter amounts of sentences. While you’re using the voice as a portal to the past, you can move beyond the voice into more detailed memories

Good luck and have fun.

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