Tag Archives: Esme-Michelle Watkins

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov
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Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov
Boston-Review-logo


“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

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. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

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

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

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)

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

14 Feb
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Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review and the inspiration for this writing exercise.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Word Riot, BLACKBERRY: A Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and elsewhere. Her work was recently featured at Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. Her story, “Xochimilco,” tells the story of two Los Angeles children who wake up one morning and discover that every item in their living room has been taken. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the masterful description of the empty room—can be found here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses her approach to “Xochimilco.”

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be mulatto—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Put Setting to Work

12 Feb
Boston-Review-logo


“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of tale. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

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. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

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

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain? 

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

Check back in on Thursday to read an interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins.

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