Tag Archives: fairy tales

An Interview with Christopher DeWan

6 Oct
Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender said contains "funny, sharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader."

Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender called “funny, hooterharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader.”

Christopher DeWan is a writer and teacher living on Los Angeles. He’s the author of the flash fiction collection Hoopty Time Machines and has published over fifty stories in in journals including Hobart, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. He has had TV projects with the Chernin Group and Indomitable Entertainment and has collaborated on transmedia properties for Bad Robot, Paramount, Universal, and the Walt Disney Company. His screenwriting has been recognized by CineStory, Final Draft, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance, and he is recipient of a fellowship from the International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA). He is currently chair of creative writing at the California State Summer School for the Arts.

To read an exercise on using emotion to make readers care about a story’s big-conceit elements, inspired by DeWan’s story “Voodoo,” click here.

In this interview, DeWan discusses the ways that second-person POV and first-person video games are similar, the pleasure of unknowing in flash fiction, and the emotional punch in works by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier.

Michael Noll

“Voodoo” is written in second person, which is one of those things that often happens without thinking at the beginning of a draft. But at a certain point, you must decide whether to stick with it or use reliable old third or first person. For this story, what made second person the right POV?

Christopher DeWan

I have a theory about second-person—wholly untested—that it works best for stories that are inherently about identity. There’s an effect that happens when I read a second-person story that reminds me a little of playing a first-person videogame, a sort of amnesiac effect where, in the game, I’m supposed to *be* this person but I also know almost nothing about this person: I stumble cluelessly through “my” home trying to collect information to understand who I am. Second-person fiction reads like that to me: the story is a series of puzzle pieces for readers as we actively participate in assembling the identity of the narrator.

In this story, “Voodoo,” the narrator feels alienated and confused by his daughter and, at some level, his whole life: he’s assembled all the trappings of a normal adult, but he doesn’t feel like one. His daughter and her room and his house and his wife should all feel very familiar to him, but they don’t—and I like the way second-person helps convey this alienation. Second-person blindfolds the reader, spins them around, and makes them feel a little lost.

Michael Noll

The story’s opening suggests, broadly speaking, a couple of possibilities: the daughter has made voodoo dolls and is using them to harm her parents or it’s all in her father’s head. The story never chooses one over the other. It also doesn’t escalate the premise into a plot that would require a much longer story, something that seems like it would destroy the great uncertainty that you’ve created. Were you ever tempted to enlarge this story, or did you always know it would hang in this particular moment?

Christopher DeWan

You’ve given away the secret of the entire book: a collection of forty-five short stories so short that I never have to decide anything!

This is one of things I love about flash fiction: the form allows me to write a story about the moment before a story, take it right up to the point that something catastrophic will have to happen—and then the story’s over. The reader is just left there in that moment, teetering on the cliff’s edge, imagining all the things that might happen next. For me, that not-knowing is a more interesting place than the knowing.

But there are many stories in this collection I could imagine enlarging. The book is basically forty-five inciting incidents for forty-five future novels. Now I’m just waiting for a forty-five book deal.

Michael Noll

Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection of flash fiction, Hoopty Time Machines.

The book, Hoopty Time Machines is subtitled, “Fairy Tales for Grownups,” which gets at one of the weird things about fairy tales. The originals from Northern Europe were quite scary and told by adults–maybe to kids, often to each other. The death and other horrors in them reflected the very real dangers that people feared. Then, of course, they got sanitized. In this book, there isn’t much death, but there are a lot of unsettling situations: a changeling child, parents who seem to have been replaced by trolls. What is it about fairy tales that seems to convey the feelings we get from real life?

Christopher DeWan

There are a lot of people who study fairy tales as a genre and I should say I’m not one of those people: I’m no fairy tale scholar. But I am a big fan, and particularly a fan of a fairy tale’s ability to evoke deep, resonant, inexplicable horror: “Why did he grab himself by the foot and tear himself in half?!?” etc.

What I’m hoping to do with this book is explore some of the lingering cobwebby corners of adult psychology that still resonate within those murky kid fears. There are plenty of things in our lives that don’t make sense, exactly, but we push them out of focus so we can function as adults in the world. They’re still in there, lurking, making a mess of our minds in ways we don’t fully understand.

Michael Noll

Your book is blurbed by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier, in whose footsteps it obviously walks, as do so many books. They, along with a few other people, basically created the genre of American fabulism and fairy-tale-inspired fiction. And, of course, they were drawing upon the work of writers like Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme. Was there a particular story that made you think, “Yes, this is the kind of writing I want to do?”

Christopher DeWan

Well, first, I can’t overstate how much I admire both of them—actually, all four of those writers you mention. I first read Aimee Bender around the time her first book came out, and I consumed that book in a single sitting, and I remember being dazzled and awestruck and most of all I remember feeling a great sense of liberation, like, “It’s okay to do that?!” I was always into fabulism—I mean, we all are when we’re kids, but I just never outgrew it. So Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme and then Aimee Bender helped me form a very permissive view of what literature can be, helped reinforce in me this idea that I think I held intrinsically: that strange, magical stories have value to adults, too.

But honestly, the thing I admire most about Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier has very little to do with fabulism and has much more to do with the enormous compassion and empathy they bring to the characters in their stories. Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia is one of the most beautiful books I know, and I think the only reason it tips into fabulism is because the events in the book are too horrible for a person to reckon without inventing some fables to help mediate the horribleness.

I love these two writers. What gigantic, wonderful, fair hearts they both have. I learn so much from how both of them see the world—and yes, absolutely, that’s the kind of writing I want to do, too.

October 2016

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

An Interview with Dina Guidubaldi

18 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s first book, the story collection How Gone We Got, has drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, the Santa Monica Review, Cup of Fiction, SPIN, the Austin American-Statesman, and Other Voices; she has been an editor for Callaloo and American Short Fiction. A graduate of Texas State’s MFA program, she currently lives in Austin.

To read an exercise on making high-concept stories unpredictable and Guidubaldi’s story “What I Wouldn’t Do,” click here. In this interview, Guidubaldi discusses how to create realistic characters and following your instinct as a writer.

Michael Noll

How did “What I Wouldn’t Do” begin its life? Did you sit down and think, I’m going to write about a guy who builds an actual city for the woman he loves and see how far I can take the idea? Or, were you writing about a relationship when the idea of building a city occurred to you?

Dina Guidubaldi

This was one of those actually “fun” stories to write. I think it started with the idea of the narrator as this kind of obsessive, impractical nut. It also started with me thinking about the concept of “true” love, how there’s something selfish about it. My dad bought me a book when I was little, called The Reward Worth Having, about these brothers (?) who travel a long distance to vie for the hand of this ailing princess. The one who woos her in the end is of course the underdog, who just brings her a bird and a song and no money or promises. The idea was supposed to be “Aw, be yourself and people will see your value,” but I guess what I took out of it was “He doesn’t even know that princess! She could be awful! Why bother? He just wants to be the One who gets her, the One who gets written about.” And so that fuzzy memory sitting somewhere in my head got the ball rolling.

Michael Noll

I love how the story takes phrases that would normally seem sweet (“you were my hours and my half-pasts”) and makes them oppressive and creepy. This is part of what made the story seem strangely realistic to me. It’s a kind of fable or allegory (or something), and the risk with such stories is that they’re too clever for their own good. But this story seems like a real portrait of a relationship that many people have had; in fact, the fantastic-ish elements seem to create the opportunity for the moments that seem most authentic. How did you achieve this balance? In other words, how did you keep the metaphor trained on real emotion?

Dina Guidubaldi

Hm. Right, I think if it does achieve that realness, it’s because this is an honest problem people have—obsession is just selfishness. This guy’s trying his best to make things work, but for what? I also think the female character helps balance things out. She figures things out way before he does, that it’s not about her at all. And again, that fable bit—because it is loosely based on the premise of the knight aiming for the princess, you can get all crazy with the details. Also, he’s rich, and rich people come up with fantastic ways to spend their money, in real life. Or so I like to think.

Michael Noll

I laughed out loud at this line: 

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world. 

It makes me curious about the story’s tone. It’s told in first person, but a line like that seems to reveal a certain amount of self-awareness in the narrator. Was that tone/awareness easy to find, or did you have to write your way into it?

Dina Guidubaldi

Not to sound like a writer jerk, but that’s just the way the character talks, to me. He’s so blustering and headstrong that he almost grasps it—in fact, he does grasp it, I’d say—but he’s heedless, he doesn’t care. He has this little war brewing inside him—Should I keep doing this? Heck, I’ll keep doing it!—and I love that he just quashes any self-doubt before it can get big enough to rise up before him, before his many, many failures catch up to him.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the story’s ending? I can imagine other tempting ways to end it: when the woman leaves or with the narrator’s realization that “I’d been building us your city for me.” But you keep going and end with the great, creepy moment with the microscope. How did you know you’d found the right image or line to end on?

Dina Guidubaldi

I think I kinda like this guy, and I didn’t want him to be sad. I didn’t want him to realize anything much, or to change for very long. I wanted him to keep living blindly and blithely in his world, and the idea of a child—or, for him, a brand new generation of something to love and obsess over—seemed a good way of extending his quest. I also like that he doesn’t care if it’s his child—any one will do. Which kinda circles around the true love idea: is he truly loving or is he truly selfish? And I guess I (inadvertently) revisit this whole idea in a later story in the collection—the “Press Repeat” clone one.

June 2015

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

How to Build a Story around a Fairy Tale

13 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta‘s New Voices series.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May and published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

The challenge facing Melnik is how to craft a modern story around this well-known character. This doesn’t mean simply rewriting the fairy tale. Angela Carter once put the problem this way: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

In short, the writer must create a world that feels modern (which often means realistic, though not always) and somehow adapt the fairy tale to this world. To that end, Melnik follows her description of Baba Yaga with details from the trip deep into the woods:

The car smelled of gasoline, and a cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day.”

These details are entirely realistic and contemporary: gasoline, migraines, medical diary, and they also nod to the fairy tale with words like cauldronbrewing, and cursed. But if the story only nodded to the fairy tale in that simple way, we might feel cheated. And so Melnik further commits to the fairy tale in the next lines:

Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And, after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, an invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes on the sides of my skull, dig painful tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather get eaten by Baba Yaga.

This description is contemporary since it describes the way a migraine feels (and also because it references UFOs). But it also introduces a surreal element that will continue through the story. As the narrator’s migraine sets in, the world around her begins to resemble something more at-home in a fairy tale than a story of modern-day Russia.

So, when the narrator arrives at the witch’s house, her mother appears as a rabbit, her grandmother becomes a bear, and the witch is transformed into a fox. These transformations have an utterly realistic cause, but they also fit the fairy tale at the story’s foundation. To some extent the way the story resolves this tension between realism and fairy tale sensibility determines the outcome of the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s begin to write a story based on a fairy tale, using “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik as a model:

  1. Choose the fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter what story you choose. You can even move beyond the realm of fairy tales: folk tales, religious stories, Greek myths, etc. Steven Millhauser has a great story—”A Voice in the Night”—that is based on the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and was selected for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
  2. Choose a modern setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary or realistic. Instead, it simply means the story is written as if its readers are familiar with the literature and stories that have been created since your fairy tale was first told or written down. It’s not enough to simply rewrite the tale.
  3. Establish the language of the fairy tale. This is what Melnik does by telling us about Baba Yaga and her fence of bones and flying mortar. You’re telling the reader, in the original version of this tale, here are the language and images that were used.
  4. Establish the language of the modern setting. This is what Melnik does with the descriptions of gasoline odor. If your story is set in some historical time, give us details that put us in that time. If it’s set in some science fiction/fantasy world, create the nitty-gritty of the world so that we’re there. The important thing is to create a world that exists independently of the fairy tale.
  5. Connect the fairy tale and modern setting with plot. Melnik’s story is about a young girl going to see a witch in hopes of a migraine cure. The plot is drawn from the fairy tale (seeking a cure from a witch) but is also set firmly in the modern world (the problem is a migraine and the witch is a local healer). In most cases, fairy tale plots are relatively simple. In “Hansel and Gretel,” two kids are lost in the woods. The plot of “Sleeping Beauty” is not so different from the plot of “Rip Van Winkle.” Someone falls asleep or leaves, and when they awake/return, everything is weirdly the same or different. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil character dresses up like someone familiar to the main character. When you think about plot, think about it in these simplified terms, not in all the nuances and trappings of the original tale.

Good luck and have fun.

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.

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