Tag Archives: first lines

An Interview with William Jensen

7 Sep

William Jensen is the author of the novel Cities of Men, which has been called “deeply moving and complex.”

William Jensen has been a landscaper, a construction worker, a dishwasher, a groundskeeper, and a teacher.  His short fiction has appeared in various literary journals.  He has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.  Mr. Jensen is currently the editor of Southwestern American Literatureand Texas Books in Review.

To read an exercise about bridging between scenes in a novel, inspired by Jensen’s Cities of Menclick here.

In this interview, Jensen discusses invisible first lines, the inspiration of Richard Stark and Thomas Harris, and pushing characters into situations where they must act in ways that contradict their tendencies.

Michael Noll

There are moments in the novel when you flash forward into the narrator’s present tense–moments when he’s reflecting back on the events of the novel and in the time between its end and when he tells the story. What was your strategy for these? When did you know when to include them?

William Jensen

There really wasn’t any “strategy.” At least not in the first draft. I relied a lot on instinct to know when to have the narrator reflect. I tend to write a lot in the first person, and when I do this I mentally slip on that character’s skin and think about why this person is even telling the story—why these events are important, what he hopes to express to his audience. I tend to think of everything I write as having an invisible first line that goes, “This is what changed everything.” So I keep that in mind. I’m trying to explore how these incidents, this story, changed the course of life for a particular character or characters. After a while you can really hear your characters, and I listened my protagonist’s voice as he guided me along. There are times to zig and times to zag, times to stay in the scene and times to get deep into a character’s thoughts, so during revision I asked myself if I needed more or less reflection to earn an emotional impact. It’s important for me to have my characters move on after I’ve set the pencil down.

Michael Noll

You and I both attended the MFA program at Texas State and took classes with Tom Grimes, who likes to talk about how stories and novels need a ticking clock. Your book introduces that clock at the end of the first chapter, which ends with the words “my mother disappeared.” Did you always know what the clock (and, therefore, the frame) of the novel would be? How long did it take you to figure it out?

William Jensen

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember. Novels take years to write, and I tend to get a little lost along the way and go down rabbit holes and come across subplots that work or have to be entirely cut. I think the clock for me was more in the opening line, “I saw my father get into only two fights.” Since the beginning chapter is about the first fight, the rest of the book is a countdown to the second (and final) rumble. I’m not sure how I actually even came up with that now, I think I just heard the line in my head and wrote it down. By the time I had the first chapter drafted, I knew I had a clock and Tom would be proud. I wonder if he’s read it.

Michael Noll

The search for the mother defines the book, but it’s not a police procedural or really any sort of detective novel. It has some moments where clues lead to investigations, but they happen quickly. I wonder what this novel looked like in its early stages, when you figuring out what direction the story would go and which characters it would focus on. Were you ever tempted to lean more heavily on the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre?

William Jensen

No, I was never that interested in those conventions. Obviously, my characters have a clear and distinct conflict, which is a missing person. And this could have become a thriller if the characters were a little different—a bit harder, darker—or if I was just a different type of writer. I did have some scenes in the first draft that were slightly inspired by Richard Stark’s stuff, but these felt out of place and didn’t ring true—however I admit I love writing those types of scenes. I enjoy mysteries and thrillers. I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is excellent. There’s a reason why David Foster Wallace used to teach it. I like the Jesse Stone novels by Robert B. Parker a lot. Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is a total masterpiece. Some of those books are incredibly tight. Though I tend to have crime and violence in my fiction, my first and main concern is writing about devastating moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Michael Noll

There are a few big fights in the novel, and what’s interesting is that those scenes keep going even after the fight ends. The focus becomes less on what the fight was about or who won and more about what happens afterward. I suppose that’s really what the entire novel is about. Did you always intend to write those fight scenes in this way, or was it a case of discovering what you had as you were writing it?

William Jensen

I’d have to say it was a combination of both. Like a lot of guys, I got into my share of scrapes as a boy, luckily nothing serious, but regardless of how it ended—in tears or friendship—it was never like the fights I saw on television or the movies. It was always messier, more chaotic…and a lot more sad. Pain hurts. And pain is scary. I knew from the start that the father figure would get into some fights yet he wasn’t a violent guy, and I wanted to explore that. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories where characters are pushed into situations where they’re forced to act in a contradictory way. The more I wrote about the father, the son, the more I was able to meditate on them and their own views of violence, too. So I knew where things were going, I just didn’t know how it would get there. But that’s writing. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

September 2017

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

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An Interview with Katie Chase

20 Apr
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

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

An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu

7 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the Japanese folktale and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, Bat City Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

To read Nagamatsu’s story “Placentophagy” and an exercise on defamiliarizing the familiar, click here. In this interview, Nagamatsu discusses first lines, his process for outlining stories, and why realism sometimes falls short.

Michael Noll

The story starts with a solid impact: “My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.” I’m curious about the genesis of that line. For some writers, first lines simply appear and the challenge is finding the story that follows, but I know others who start with a scene or an idea and then need to find a line to kick it all off. Was this first line always present in the story?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

For me, I like to do a lot of “writing” in my head long before I actually put any words down. I knew I wanted to write a story about Placentophagy but it took another week or so of thinking about the idea to attach a grieving couple to the practice vs. the story focusing on folk medicine and celebrity mothers who have eaten their placenta (i.e. Alicia Silverstone). Once I had the grieving couple tied to pieces of folklore, I knew I had the necessary emotional tension plus the fun facts that interested me to begin writing.

I believe first lines (and first paragraphs) are crucial to pretty much any story (but especially so for flash pieces where you need to draw the reader in, provide some kind of map of what the story will be about (even if only via tone), and establish character and world building in short order. As an editor, I want a story to provide the central characters, introduce a central tension, and do something unexpected and interesting within the first few lines. Don’t reveal all your cards certainly, but I don’t believe in messing with readers too much. Give them a map of an unfamiliar town. Give the reader something they can navigate as more information is revealed.

As a writer, I don’t continue with a story until I’m satisfied with at least the first few sentences. For this story, the first lines came pretty quickly (with other stories, it can be more of a slog . . . and sometimes I’ll think I have a first line I’m happy with until I finish the story and realize my first line is actually buried somewhere else b/c, as a writer, I was navigating to a destination just askew from where I thought I was going when I started).

This question has made me revisit many of my first lines. A few from my forthcoming collection:

Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of––no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love.

Our daughter, Kaede, has returned to us five years after the police fished her out of the community pool, her body sodden and distended like the carcass of a baby seal when I identified her in the morgue.

On our wedding day, you weighed 115 lbs. When you died, you weighed 97. You are now 8.7 cups of ash, and I figure I can make enough 1:25 scale figurines of you from what you’ve left behind, so we can see the world.

Michael Noll

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is "an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original," according to Pinckney Benedict.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is “an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original,” according to Pinckney Benedict.

Backstory is crucial to the present action in this story, but it’s handled in a quick, compact line: “Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.” Again, I’m curious how much revision was required to achieve such efficiency. Many of your other stories are quite long, which would seem to require a different process than a piece of flash fiction like this.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

When I conceive of a story or a character or a place that I think could contain some kind of world, I start with sketches and summaries. For a longer short story, this might take the form of a rough synopsis. For the novel I’m working on, these sketches might take the form of bulleted points which represent important scenes within an act. I knew from the get go that Placentophagy would most likely be a flash piece, so instead of thinking about my initial sketches as guidelines to be fleshed out later, I made more of a concerted effort to make my notes resemble lines that could potentially be included in the story. The line in question was born from knowing that I needed to capture the loss of a child. Instead of noting “enter scene of miscarriage,” I immediately played around with a couple of variations that captured the essence of this plot point. In other words, when I’m writing smaller and shorter, I inhabit the atoms that make up the molecules of a larger story’s architecture. I need to capture what’s going on at that level.

Michael Noll

I love the essay-ish section about the practice of eating placentas, but I can also imagine workshop readers advocating for it to be cut—because that’s the sort of thing that workshops do. How did you approach that section so that it moved the story forward?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Whenever I become fascinated with something and consider treating the topic in a story, I tend to be cautious because there’s a real danger that I might dilute forward motion and character with unnecessary minutiae. With that said, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with tracts of reportage and “essay-ish” writing in fiction so long as 1) the conventions of the story have been firmly established to allow for such asides (esp. if they are lengthy and a bit more detached from character) and/ or  2) the momentum for characters and the overall story are not completely lost or forgotten. For this section, considering the length of the piece, I knew I would have to pick and choose a couple of interesting facts, tie them to the emotional tension of my narrator, and quickly move on. The facts in this story, while certainly stepping outside of my main character, illuminate her research, as well as her relationship to her children and to her body, so if I chose, I probably could have added a line or two more without much lost momentum.

Michael Noll

When I first read this story, it seemed like a piece of horror fiction. Then, I read some of your other work, which involves science fiction situations and characters, and it all seemed to cohere as a single vision. Horror and sci-fi are obviously different genres, but both depend, to some extent, on defamiliarizing the familiar. Is that what attracts you to these types of stories?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Defamiliarizing the familiar is something present in pretty much all fiction. But to the degree of horror and fantasy and sci-fi (and its genre-bending cousins by various names: magical realism, slipstream, fabulism), the defamiliarizing is often illuminating aspects of reality whether that be racism or rampant consumerism via what many might consider obviously unrealistic, surreal, or fantastic.

I’ve long been a fan of literature and film that forces me to suspend my disbelief, that takes me to other worlds. I love these kinds of stories because I find them entertaining and imaginative. I love these stories because the primal part of me wants to be afraid, wants to use that fear. I love these kinds of stories because they force me to consider the gadgets around me and how they factor into who I am and who I’ll be 10, 20, 50 or more years from now. To quote the title of a Chan-Wook Park film (of Oldboy notoriety): I’m a cyborg, but that’s okay.

These kinds of stories are important and increasingly necessary because we live in complex times and sometimes “realism” falls far short of what we need to comprehend how fast we are evolving, how we process information, and how we define personal, cultural, and geographic borders and spaces. What we consider fantastical fiction used to simply fall in the realm of story or religion. Our stone age ancestors needed a way to understand and process the world around them. For countries who have had to deal with colonial and post-war transitions, the fantastical has become a vehicle where the distant native past and the unhinged identities of the present intermingle. Today we’re compounding these past relationships born from colonialism and warfare with globalization and technology.

Many of my stories are set in Japan. And for me, Japan is a unique case b/c it is a country that has had to reinvent itself multiple times over a short amount of time (notably in the 1800s when there was a push to westernize and again after WWII when the country shifted from military empire to technological and commercial super power). These shifts occurred so rapidly that Japanese culture & identity couldn’t keep pace, and you’ll note that creatures of Japanese folklore often share the stage with technology or modern society gone awry in anime, showcasing the tenuous relationship between the past and present. Akira was released nearly thirty years ago but has never been more relevant for Japan and the rest of the world.

In short, I’m drawn to and write in the realm of the fantastic because, for me, they are the stories that help me navigate the many spheres constituting who we are.

First published July 2015

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

How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange

5 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's story, "Placentophagy," was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy,” was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” What this means, in short, is that those stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. Think about the film The Shining. It transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. Of course, all writing can do this, not just genre fiction.

A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” It was published as part of Tin House‘s blog series “Flash Fridays,” where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

For some readers, the story’s title, Placentophagy, will give away the plot. But, I suspect most readers won’t immediately recognize or know the term, and so the moment of surprise happens a few seconds later, after reading the first sentence:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

In that single sentence, Nagamatsu manages to defamiliarize the familiar. The familiar: a body part (and, thus, something as familiar as can be). The unfamiliar: preparing the body part in order to eat it. It’s as simple as that: apply an unfamiliar context or action to something familiar. If you’re like me, there’s no way you won’t read the next sentence and the one after it. We’re hooked.

But now what? The story has made us pay attention to something we’d normally give no thought to: a placenta. How does it advance the premise?

First, it suggests ways to prepare the placenta:

Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko.

Then, the story adds a moment of doubt: will the characters eat it? The husband introduces the doubt:

“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”

That doubt gets extended into the preparation:

I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian.

The story now has different directions it can go: eat it or not. Prepare it this way or that way. But that’s not enough. It’s not until the next section that the story really advances the premise into something beyond shock value.

First, Nagamatsu introduces the medical rationale for eating a placenta:

Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone.

So, he’s made the unfamiliar into something as familiar as the medical text at the end of commercials for medication. He then takes this rationale and the fact that eating a placenta is something that does, in fact, happen, and makes it unfamiliar again:

The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree.

The story has advanced. It’s not simply a matter of will the character eat the placenta and, if so, how it will be prepared. Now it’s a question of will she eat the placenta and, if so, what will that action mean?

That final question of meaning makes the story so much more satisfying. It’s not simply trying to shock us but, rather, grappling with the eternal issue of how to be in the world, which is the question behind all great fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the familiar seem strange using “Placentophagy” by Sequoia Nagamatsu as a model:

  1. Pair something familiar with an unfamiliar context or action. You can do with this with absolutely anything. Here are some examples you’ve seen before: intelligent car (Herbie), flying car (The Absent-Minded Professor), killer car (Christine), and talking car (Knight Rider). In all of these, something familiar as a car is made unfamiliar with an adjective. The film Men in Black did this with Tommy Lee Jones’ car. It suddenly began driving on the roof of a tunnel, and Jones’ character put on a song by Elvis. The song, then, became defamiliarized. So, try this: pair a noun with either an adjective or a verb (eat) that wouldn’t normally be paired with that mount.
  2. Play with the possibilities of the premise. Nagamatsu does this by listing the ways the placenta could be prepared. If you’re using “flying car,” think of all the things a flying car could do. Yes, it can fly, but once it’s flying, then what? Where can it fly? What do the characters do while flying it? Utterly normal things like listening to music or looking out the window suddenly become strange.
  3. Re-familiarize the unfamiliar. Just as Nagamatsu uses medical terminology to make eating a placenta not so strange, you can make your premise less strange and more familiar. After all, if you fly a car enough, you get used to it. It’s not a big deal anymore. So, what would make your premise mundane again? Frequency? Social acceptability?
  4. Make it strange again. Nagamatsu adds the element of folklore: the idea that a placenta might be a spirit double. So, we’ve gotten used to one way of viewing the eating of a placenta. Then he introduces a new way of viewing it. So, what are other ways to view your premise. A flying car is awesome, for instance, until the atmosphere above one hundred feet becomes toxic. Or, a flying car gains new meaning if the ocean level rises and covers all of the land. Notice how this works: you’re shifting the background of the premise—the context. Nagamatsu shifts the context to Uganda, and suddenly the premise doesn’t look the same anymore. How can you shift the context of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Katie Chase

12 May
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

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

An Interview with Caille Millner

29 Oct
Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification and an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.

To read her story “The Surrogate” and an exercise on subtext, click here.

In this interview, Millner discusses first lines, writing about class, and moments of attempted—and failed—communication.

Michael Noll

Something I’ve found myself stressing lately in writing classes is the need for directness, rather than subtlety, when it comes to plot and situation. So, I was immediately drawn to the opening lines of this story:

“Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.”

Did the story always begin with this line, with this directness, or was it something that you discovered through revision?

Caille Millner

It wasn’t part of the first draft, but it came fairly early on. I knew from the beginning that the action of the story would be driven by a simple question—will she choose to have her own baby?—and that all of the tension would arise out of the complexity of her family dynamics and the stark limitations of her opportunities. But since it takes time and detail to create the tension, there’s nothing lost by stating the plot upfront. It’s a way to keep the reader interested enough to stay with me while I unwind the rest of the skein.

Michael Noll

Of course, there’s a great deal of subtlety in the story. For example, huge class distinctions lie in plain sight but are never directly remarked upon. For example, Rebecca can take maternity leave while Cecily’s job is maternity, and Rebecca can afford doctors that Cecily can’t. Did you ever comment directly on these disparities in earlier drafts? Or did you always know that the reader would intuitively see and understand them?

Caille Millner

No, I never made direct comment on these things, for two reasons. The first was that I built tension by building details. This is an unspoken experience in public life, so the emotional toll takes on weight as you, the reader, learn what goes into it.

The second reason I never commented directly was that it felt more realistic to me. In situations where the class aspect underlies the very existence of the transaction, it makes the participants very uncomfortable to talk about it and to think about it.

Rebecca doesn’t want to think about all of the dominoes that had to fall for this moment to be possible for her – she just wants her baby. Cecily’s day to day existence is fraught enough—she just wants her money. Why would either of them rock the boat? The reader is the one who’s granted the right to consideration, to judgment, as the outside observer.

Caille Millner's story,

Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is the conversation between Cecily and Rebecca about what it means to know you’re ready for a baby. The characters are talking to each other, but they’re not really talking about the same thing. The subtext for each character is different. Is a scene like this the magical result of writing into a situation? Or was it a scene that you knew, from the beginning, that you would eventually write?

Caille Millner

How interesting that this scene is your favorite moment. It came from the situation. Two women, thrown into intimacy with each other, but an intimacy with strained circumstances and painful limits. They know nothing about each others’ lives. They’re having an idle, tedious moment. It seemed like a chance for one of them to risk an intrusive question.

And of course those moments of trying and failing to communicate with someone, to try and fail to find common ground—those moments are so frequent and frustrating and human.

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Matthew Salesses, and we talked about something he’s written about: how, in his words, “We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages.” I thought of this need as I read “The Surrogate.” We don’t learn that Franco is from Mexico or that Cecily’s mom had returned to Mexico until deep into the story. And, both characters have names that don’t carry regional or ethnic assumptions with them, unlike the name of Franco’s daughter, Marisol. Did you begin the story like this on purpose—focusing on the story (surrogate’s husband wants a baby of their own) first and on the characters’ backgrounds second?

Caille Millner

Franco’s name would’ve been a tip-off to me, but I understand your point. Again, I was conscious of lived experience. Their backgrounds are secondary to the action because they aren’t thinking about their race or their experience as immigrants all the time. On the other hand, it certainly has played a role in their current situation.

October 2015

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

An Interview with Sarah Layden

23 Jul
Sarah Layden's novel Trip the Wires has been called "compulsively readable" and "a welcome antidote to despair."

Sarah Layden’s novel Trip Through Your Wires has been called “compulsively readable” and “a welcome antidote to despair.”

Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires and the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an AWP Intro Award. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, The Evansville Review, Booth, PANK, and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, NUVO, and The Humanist. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana Writers Center.

To read Layden’s story “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” and an exercise on withholding plot information, click here.

In this interview, Layden discusses crime fiction and Gone Girl, lyric versus story impulses, and plot twists that cause readers to make Scooby Doo noises.

Michael Noll

The story begins with “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal,” but we don’t learn what he was accused of until much later, almost at the end. When that information arrives, it’s stunning. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about the retrial–the opening paragraph moves on from the trial so quickly. I think I may have made a Scooby Doo noise when I realized what I’d just read. So, I’m fascinated by this strategy of delaying the info. Did you always do that in the story? How did you approach the structure?

Sarah Layden

I know exactly the Scooby Doo noise you mean, and couldn’t be happier that the story elicited it from you. The structure of this piece was always in short vignettes, I think starting with three or four. Initially I’d numbered them, though the numbering was discarded later. Each vignette initially had some sort of tie to Genghis Khan, even if it was a distant link. It took several drafts before I started seeing what some of the connections were between the different parts. That first sentence about the retrial and acquittal was built into the last revision I did: I finally had a sense of the characters and what had –or had not—happened, and I realized that because the narrator had that information prominently in mind, that it should be prominent in the beginning, too.

Michael Noll

The story is doing something really interesting with Genghis Khan. At times, past and present blur together, as they do here: “We don huge fur hats and pound our utensils on the table. Bring us all that we desire, we growl, even if we don’t know what it is. We stab our meat with sharpened knives I pull from my purse.” I’ll admit that when I first read these lines, I was confused. But it was a good confusion. It was such an odd shift that I wanted to keep reading to figure out what was going on. But it’s a strategy with risks. How do you know when a passage is confusing in the good way as opposed to the bad way?

Sarah Layden

Having good readers is crucial to me for this very thing. When I began writing this, I was experimenting: I didn’t know what it would become. My friend Bryan Furuness, also a writer and editor, gave me early feedback that helped me see places where it was confusing rather than mysterious. Part of our conversation was about the lyric impulse versus the story impulse, and how they can work together. Early on, I was probably writing more toward the lyrical. As I revised, it turned more narrative. It’s funny that you mention past and present and the blurring of boundaries, because that does seem to be something that crops up in my work. My novel, Trip Through Your Wires, alternates between past and present, and concerns itself with memory. That interests me in fiction: a character wondering, in the Talking Heads song sense of the line, “How did I get here?” (By the way, one of my all-time favorite songs, “This Must Be the Place,” just came on. Talking Heads asks, Talking Heads answers.)

Michael Noll

In general, there are some amazing shifts of tone in the story. At one point, a paragraph moves from “flecks of charred flesh between his teeth” to “Genghis didn’t give a fuck about floss” to “Jengis was a guy who conquered and then didn’t call because he was high and playing Xbox and just, like, forgot.” I love this. Is it simply the stuff your creative mind is spitting out? Or is there a method to the madness? If not, how do you put yourself in the right mind frame to write prose that seems, at first glance, to move in idiosyncratic rather than linear ways?

Sarah Layden

Thank you. It’s definitely associative. The title, in fact, does come from a line I overhead in a café: “It was bad enough with Genghis Khan.” From there, I started thinking up links and connections and was writing in sections. Those sections took on their own voices, and at first I wondered if I was writing different characters. Instead, the story pointed to a narrator across different moments in her life. At times she’s mimicking the person she describes, as if trying to take on his perspective, to be the conqueror rather than the conquest.

I’ve always been a little bit of a mimic, and as demonstrated, a big eavesdropper. I love trying to recreate different voices and train my ear. I used to be a reporter and I strove to quote people accurately. What’s fun about fiction is stretching accuracy into a shape that fits a story. Or making it weirder, more complicated, and multi-layered than the thing that was actually said, such as an offhand remark about Genghis Khan.

Michael Noll

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend's death.

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend’s death.

You’ve published a novel, Trip Through Your Wires, that involves a murder and some uncertainty about a character’s culpability. Now, you have a story about an unsolved murder/disappearance. You’re working over material that is the heart and soul of the thriller genre. Do you ever consider going “full thriller?” Or, what’s the difference between your stories and those?

Sarah Layden

Unexpectedly, this does seem to be the material I’ve been returning to. I’ve read a little in the thriller genre, and it’s so intricately plotted and painstakingly resolved. I hesitate putting my work in with that type of craft, because I’m definitely a novice there. Someone described my novel as a “literary thriller” or “literary mystery.” I like that a lot, maybe because it gives me some wiggle room to focus on place, character, and scenes that drive the story forward, but not necessarily at a breakneck pace. Moments of being or reflection or ambiguity are definitely more characteristic of literary fiction than something shelved under Mystery, and I’ve been learning that mystery readers definitely want closure. And may be a little upset if you don’t give it to them.

Michael Noll

Out of curiosity, what’s your verdict of Gone Girl? At a writer’s conference last weekend, I heard two very different opinions about the book from people I respect. Care to weigh in?

Sarah Layden

I thought it was a terrifically entertaining read. The writing was fun, lively, and engaging. My sister passed it on to me when we were on vacation a few years back and kept asking me where I was in the story. I’d tell her what I thought was about to happen and usually was right or at least close. There’s a little reading thrill in confirming your predictions.

There’s been lots of criticism about the book and how it portrays women, and I’d like to reread it with that in mind. You certainly don’t want to reaffirm stereotypes of women as fakers and man-trappers (I’m trying not to spoil it for the three people who haven’t read it yet.) But as I remember it, both the male and female leads behaved with equal awfulness, thus leveling the playing field.

July 2015

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

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