Tag Archives: ghost stories

How to Build a Story with Logistics

21 Aug
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The new school year is starting, which means students will sit down to write their first stories of the semester (and perhaps ever) for their creative writing classes. When they do, they’ll encounter a problem that comes up in every workshop in America: ideas are not stories. Ideas can become stories, but there’s some essential work required to make that happen.

A good way to learn the steps involved in turning an idea into story (or for teaching students to do so) is to dig into the logistics of the idea. To that end, here’s an exercise based on a ghost story that appeared a few years ago in the Hugo-winning science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld.

In “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley),” Rahul Kanakia takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It’s also written in the form of a Craigslist ad! You can read the entire story online.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, a character who is emotionally-open and empathetic would struggle to catch and store the ghosts of dead babies (and of gay men who’d died of AIDS, which also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

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How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense

25 Oct
A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “Her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Anton Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, then it needs to go off in the third act. This is good advice, of course, but it’s also pretty bare-bones. So much remains unaccounted for: Who gets shot? Who does the shooting, and why? Is the shooting on purpose or accident? Is it done out of rage, necessity, pity? Does the reader root for the shooting or against it? That final question can be one of the most powerful to answer. Writers sometimes talk about giving readers what they want, but it can be just as effective to give readers something they absolutely do not want.

This is what Natashia Deón does in her novel Grace. You can read an excerpt from the novel at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel tells the story of an escaped slave, Naomi, who finds refuge in a brothel in Georgia, taken under the protective wing of its madam, Cynthia. At least that’s part of the novel. There’s more, but the scene I want to focus on takes place in the brothel. It’s not a nice place, of course, but Cynthia is a strong, complex character who realizes that Naomi is still a virgin. That virginity becomes a kind of amulet in Cynthia’s eyes, freighted with meaning and importance and luck, which is good news for Naomi since it frees her from the obligations of the other women in the brothel.

Into this scene walks Jeremy, a likable gambler who flirts with Naomi (despite the fact that he’s white and she’s black) and whom she falls in love with. Are we more savvy than Naomi? Do we see where this affair is headed? Of course, we do. But Jeremy is also sweet and sincere, and so, if we can’t hope for the best, we’re lulled into dropping our guard, the same as Naomi. And then…

In this scene, Jeremy has lost every penny to his name and is begging Naomi to offer herself to the house dealer in exchange for money—which he will use to win back his losses. She reluctantly agrees to do it:

I stand on the wrong side of this door with my belly quivering, waiting for Mr. Shepard to greet me. He’s counting his money, slipping bills through his pinchers. He folds a wad of dollars and slides it through a silver clasp and into his pocket.

I shift in the doorway, hope he see me move.

He don’t.

He lops a deck of cards in his bag, his dice, then fastens it closed. I clear my throat. “Uh-hum,” I say softly. Louder, “Uh-hum?”

“Didn’t know y’all served breakfast,” he say, and stacks his chips in piles on his table, then sits down. “You here for my order?

No one wants this moment to take place. Naomi doesn’t want to have sex with the dealer, and he recognizes the situation for what it is. As readers, we definitely don’t want the scene to happen, yet the characters begin to go through with it anyway. First, Mr. Shepard says, “Twenty years and I’ve seen hundreds of gals like you.” When she doesn’t leave, he becomes more aggressive:

He puts his hand gently behind my head. I shiver as he kisses my cheek softly. Only Jeremy’s kissed me there. That way.

He slaps it. Grabs my face around my cheeks, squeezing too hard.

It gets worse before he finally calls out the situation for what it is: “Your boyfriend want a chance that bad?” he asks and then:

He clutches my ass, presses his face on the side of mine. I flatten to the door as he breathes in my ear, telling me things I don’t want to hear. Telling me about me. About Jeremy. Nasty things I won’t tell nobody.

He unlocks it, pushes me out the door, tells me to go.

The scene ends the way we hope: she doesn’t have sex with him. But it’s hardly a moment that makes us feel good. Instead, we feel like Naomi: “Withered away” and “nasty.” The novel has met our hopes as readers: Naomi has been spared. But it also brought us to face-to-face with the thing we hoped wouldn’t happen, so close that the very nearness of it affects us. This is an important strategy to remember for creating suspense (will the horrible thing happen?), but it’s also a good example of using Chekhov’s gun. This is a novel where a lot of guns, literally and figuratively, go off. If they always go off, they become less effective as narrative devices. If the worst thing always happens, we become immune to it. We reflexively deaden ourselves to it. But if we’re given evidence that perhaps the worst thing can be avoided, then the impact of the fired bullet is that much greater, even if we knew it was coming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a gun on the wall and make readers dread its use, using Grace by Natashia Deón as a model:

  1. Choose your weapon. In Grace, the weapon is prostitution. Naomi lives in a brothel, and so the risk of being forced to have sex for money is ever-present. The fact that it’s sex and not a gun is a good reminder that Chekhov’s gun can be anything. It could be peanuts—if a character has a peanut allergy. Anything is dangerous if placed in the right circumstances. So, what are the circumstances of your story? What is dangerous or feared?
  2. Pave a path past the weapon. Deón does this twice. First, she creates Cynthia, the madam with the heart of gold (sort of, not exactly), who tries to protect Naomi from participating in her trade. (Incidentally, for a similar character who does the complete opposite, read Alexander Chee’s excellent novel The Queen of the Night.) Second, she creates Jeremy, the suitor who will take her away from the place where the weapon hangs on the wall. Note that Deón offers two characters to guide Naomi down the safe path. Who are those characters in your story? You don’t necessarily need two, but you probably need one.
  3. Make readers buy into the path to safety. This can be a fine line to tread. If you show the path but readers don’t think it’s a plausible direction for the story, they’ll feel like the writer is trying to trick them. But convince readers to go down the path with the characters, and you’ll devastate them when they find themselves facing the gun again. So, take your time. Develop the characters you created in the previous step. Make them likable. (Hint: great characters mix likability with failure, for various reasons, to do the right thing at the right time.)
  4. Stick the character and the readers into a situation they hope to avoid.  Find a place or situation where the weapon you chose is impossible to avoid. To return to Chekhov’s gun metaphor, take your character to the shooting range. This could mean a place where the weapon naturally resides or where it’s use is provoked by a character (as Naomi tries to provoke Mr. Shepard into having sex with her). The trick, of course, is to find the entry to such a place and situation. Deón does this by having one character push the protagonist into doing something she doesn’t want (a version of the age-old “If you really loved me”). So, find a character who, for nefarious or practical reasons, pushes the main character into the dangerous situation.
  5. Sell the readers on the danger. Just as readers feel cheated by safe paths that don’t feel plausible, they also get angry at dangers that don’t feel real. In a successful scene of this type, the reader needs to feel that the gun might really go off, that, in fact, there is a better-than-50-percent-chance that it will.

The goal is to create tension and suspense by thinking beyond the gun on the wall to what the viewer hopes will happen (or not) with the gun.

Good luck.

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

11 Dec
Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this cool, weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia’s young adult novel, Enter Title Here (its actual title, not a typo) will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2015. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA, working a freelance writer and content creation consultant.

To read “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” and an exercise on playing with the logistics of genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses early reactions to his story in a MFA workshop, the source of some of the imagery in the story, and what (if any) connection this supernatural story has on his forthcoming Young Adult novel.

Michael Noll

I love how this story flips some famous tropes from ghost stories. For instance, one of the most darkest sentences is this one: “You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators?” Capturing ghosts was so funny and great in Ghostbusters, but here it’s horribly sad and a sign of something wrong emotionally with the person who does it. Did you set out to subvert this image, or did you simply happen upon it in writing the story?

Rahul Kanakia

Interesting that you bring this up. I actually only thought of the movie Ghostbusters after the story was completed, but it’s obvious that it had some subconscious influence on the imagery of the story. For instance, the vacuum device that I’ve imagined in this story is definitely reminiscent of the apparatus they used in the movie. Regarding this particular image, I can’t say what I was doing. In its first draft, the story was entitled “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and each section was about one thing that annoyed other people but didn’t annoy the narrator. In this case, I think the idea was that the narrator wasn’t bothered by the sound of crying babies (which is said to be one of the most distressing sounds that a human being can hear). The idea with the story was, I think, that the narrator came off as emotionally disturbed because he didn’t have these basic human responses, but, after a lifetime of grappling with these problems, the narrator had started to rationalize these deficiencies as being a sign of a greater and more inclusive heart (i.e. other people are disturbed by babies, so they refuse to have anything to do with them, whereas, in his eyes, he is so great-hearted that he’s willing to go out and extract them from the incubators so that the hospital’s operations can continue).

Michael Noll

Those babies are also part of the real horror of this horror story. For instance, there is a ghost of a baby whose intestines developed on the outside of its body—and what’s horrifying is that this is something that actually happens. But unless it happens to us—to our baby—we rarely give such possibilities any thought. You do something similar with the ghosts of the men who died of AIDS. Is that one of the goals of horror stories? To remind readers of the very real horror that exists in the world?

Rahul Kanakia

I don’t know. This is probably one of the only horror stories I’ve ever read. In the case of the baby w/ the intestines, that’s a result of a documentary on harlequin babies that I once saw late at night. Horrifying images. The men with AIDS was something I tossed in at the last minute. I realized that a 60+ year old gay man will have some experience with the epidemic, and I wanted to be true to that. The imagery of the AIDS patients was drawn from the descriptions in Randy Shilt’s history of the early years of the epidemic: And The Band Played On.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The title is great—as soon as I saw it, I wanted to read the story. Did you start with this title, which really only begins to introduce the direction the story will go, or did you write the story first and then choose the title?

Rahul Kanakia

As I mentioned above, the original title of the story was “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and it was originally told as a list of seven things. The basic underlying story (a ghostbuster’s roommate has moved out and he’s filled with angst about it) was the same, but the format was very different. However, when I ran it through my MFA workshop, they said the format felt too scattershot, so I decided to tell it as a series of Craigslist house posts. The title is, I think, based on an actual post I saw while looking for housing once. Although, in that case, I believe, the landlord wanted a roommate who wouldn’t drink alcohol.

Michael Noll

You have a young adult novel being published in the next year, so I’m curious how you see this story fitting in with the rest of your writing. Would you give this story to fans of your YA novel? Or are that novel and this story products of separate writing lives that you inhabit?

Rahul Kanakia

My YA novel is very different. Firstly, it doesn’t have any fantastic or science fictional elements. It’s about a high school senior—the valedictorian of her school—who’s very angry with those who she sees as having gotten more recognition than her and who embarks upon all kinds of schemes in order to bring down her enemies. But I do see both this story and that novel as sharing lots of themes. They’re both about people who feel like they’re damaged and outside the mainstream; people who are secretly worried that no one will ever, or could ever, love them. I think the horrifying thing about this story is that in this case, the protagonist is right. He is unloveable. For whatever reason, he’s rendered himself unloveable. My book, though, is not quite as bleak.

December 2014

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

How to Build a Story with Logistics

9 Dec
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Some university creative writing teachers don’t allow their students to write genre fiction: no ghosts, aliens, spaceships, vampires, or zombies unless they’re handled in a literary fashion (whatever that means). This isn’t my policy, but I understand it. Bad genre stories tend to skim the surface of an idea (stun guns, cosmic annihilation) in a cursory way that can be tedious and dull. And yet I’ve found that good genre stories are as much fun to read as any purely literary creation. So what makes a good genre story?

The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

This is precisely what Rahul Kanakia does in his story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley).” He takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It was published at Clarkesworld, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, an emotionally-open and empathetic character would struggle capture and store the ghosts of dead babies (and also of gay men who’d died of AIDS, as also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

An Interview with Daniel José Older

19 Dec
Daniel

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories that Publisher’s Weekly called a “delicate mix of horror and humor” that secures Older “a place among the rising stars of the genre.”

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press and The Subversion Anthology, among others. He’s been a featured reader in Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and at The New York Review Of Science Fiction.

In this interview, Older discusses ghosts and stories and why we love to combine the two.

(To read Older’s story “Victory Music” and an exercise on introducing genre elements into literary fiction, click here.)

Michael Noll

This is a ghost story, and it begins appropriately, with the narrator telling a dead person that “you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.” But I was still surprised when the ghost actually arrived, not only because it’s not the ghost we expect but because I’d gotten so engaged in the scene with the narrator’s parents that I’d forgotten that there was supposed to be a ghost at all. I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” To explain how suspense is created, he uses the scene from Hamlet when Hamlet is waiting for his father’s ghost but then gets distracted by this uncle’s drunken entourage. Hamlet, and the audience, get so wrapped up in his uncle that we forget all about the ghost and so are surprised when it arrives. I wonder if you had this basic idea in mind when you wrote the story: promise something and then delay its arrival.

Daniel José Older

Great question. I’ve always been fascinated by the letters we write and never send, or write in our heads but never put on paper. I think this is one way we interact with the dead without meaning to or realizing it sometimes, that internal dialogue. The idea of the things we never had a change to say to someone is so heartbreaking and so real. So on the process tip, that was my starting point. In this case, I wasn’t thinking of Krys as a foreshadow so much as an emotional center that Wes anchors to for support even after Krys is dead. Memories are powerful, more powerful than ghosts maybe, and the subtext to this story, in my head, is that Krys—who does show up as a ghost in my book Salsa Nocturna—is never actually present in this story; Wes uses the memory of Krys to access a sense of their own power and sense of self.

Michael Noll

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Your first book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories. On one hand, when I read the description of the book, I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun to focus every story on ghosts.” But then I realized that you’d have to make each ghost and the approach to each ghost different. To that end, the ghost in this story isn’t really a ghost. He’s someone who can vanish at will–but, he still seems like a ghost. So, to some extent, it seems like you’re expanding the definition of ghost and ghost story. Is that simply out of necessity–there are only so many ghosts?

Daniel José Older

Ha! I really hadn’t thought of it that way. Once the underworld, or parallel world really, of ghosts became clear in my mind, the stories all came very smoothly. In some sense there’s truth in what you say though, as artists we always need to be pushing at the borders of our genre and comfort zones, and with “Victory Music” I was interested in how we are haunted sometimes more by the living than the dead. It’s a concept I’ve played with before, though never quite in these terms, and as I said, the healing power of memory plays a major role here. Niles just showed up in my imagination as is—he was born from the necessity of having an eerie, emotionally resonant conflict for Wes. And the act of disappearing is so rich, so layered when complicated by power and privilege…it’s a natural fit for the story.

Michael Noll

In this interview at the New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, "The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare."

In this interview at The New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.”

The writer Victor LaValle said in a New York Times interview, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.” The ghost in your story seems to fit this description. The narrator is concerned with identity–her Sikh-ness, her gender–and then, appropriately enough, here comes a guy who can empty out his identity until he literally vanishes. Do you think about the meaning of your ghosts, the particular anxieties that are manifested in them?

Daniel José Older

Surely—the ghost is a crossroads. Past and present, life and death, healing and destruction all have the potential of meeting in the figure of the ghost. When we spend so much time focusing on the simple concept of ghost as evil spirit, it’s just a profound missed opportunity. Writing Salsa Nocturna really taught me that ghost stories are really about life, not death.

Michael Noll

I know a horror writer, Scott Johnson, who, in his free time, investigates ghosts and has encountered them many, many times. Those encounters have ranged from terrifying to quirky to sweet. I love hearing his stories—and other true ghost stories. Though I’m not sure I “believe” them in the factual sense, I find them utterly compelling. So, while I’m curious whether you believe in ghosts, I’m more interested in your take on ghost stories: Why do we tell them so often? What is the appeal of ghost stories?

Daniel José Older

How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Meghan McCarron

21 Mar
Meghan McCarron's story "Swift, Brutal Retaliation" won a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron’s story “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award. It was published at Tor.com.

Meghan McCarron is a writer based in Austin, TX. She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Los Angeles, rural New Hampshire, and Brooklyn. A former Hollywood assistant, boarding school English teacher, and independent bookseller, she is one of the fiction editors at Interfictions and an assistant editor at Unstuck. She and her girlfriend live in the same neighborhood as the flying burger monster.

In this interview with Michael Noll, McCarron discusses her approach to “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” which asks the surprising question, “Can you contact a dead person on Facebook?” A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the way the supernatural premise is combined with a realistic world—can be found here.

Michael Noll

My favorite part of the story is when Sinead decides to send her ghost brother a message on Facebook. The sheer impossibility of it made my day—not just that it’s impossible for a ghost to log on to Facebook, but the fact that Sinead would even think to try. For me, it was the moment when the story left the stomping grounds of the traditional ghost story and became something fresh and new, something I’d never read before. What led you to write that scene?

Meghan McCarron

I have always been fascinated by the internet presence of the dead. Blogs that have gone dark and silent facebook walls seem to serve as a space where people leave messages that they hope will reach beyond the grave. It makes sense – on the internet we post words in the ether and miraculously, sometimes capriciously, they are received! As a result, these frozen internet spaces feel haunted to me, more so than, say, a room where someone died.

The internet shows up a lot in my fiction in general, especially when my protagonists are kids or teenagers. I spent a few years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire, and I was fascinated by how my students structured their lives between in-person and online interactions. I’ve had a social life split between the internet and IRL since I was twelve, but I was a dorky outlier. It was fascinating to see “popular” kids using social media as obsessively as everyone else.

Ian created a life outside of his home that he far preferred, and the internet was an essential part of it. Sinead’s instinct to contact him over Facebook seemed natural – he was never reachable in their home, but perhaps he could be reached online. I’m saying all of this as if I had it figured it out at the time. Really, picture me huddled in my old apartment in Brooklyn thinking, “Hmmm what now?”, my feet pressed against the space heater.

Michael Noll

Your story does such a wonderful job of giving the ghost objects to play with—the mirror, obviously, but also the lasagna and the Nair. The story pivots very cleanly from the mirror, which we’ve seen before and expect (the mirror almost allows us to settle in, to say, “Okay, I know this story, and I like it”) to details we’ve likely never seen in a ghost story. The details work—and become spooky—because they fit the living characters so well. The world makes perfect sense. It seems real. How did you create this world? Did you start with the characters and populate the house with objects they’d likely use? Or did you have a particular scene in mind and build the world around it?

Meghan McCarron

You know, I have no idea how I started this story. I knew I wanted to write a ghost story – I’d never written one before. I’d been reading a great deal of classic ghost stories, hence the mirror. I also really admire the way the writer Kelly Link makes mundane physical objects creepy and strange. Her story “The Hortlak” features pajamas of lovecraftian horror, and in “Stone Animals,” familiar objects become “haunted” and no one wants to touch them anymore. So perhaps I was thinking a little about that.

My mother had a dusty bottle of Nair hidden in a medicine cabinet, and once someone told me about the prank of putting it in someone’s shampoo. From that moment on, I was terrified of that bottle of Nair. It seemed like a gun on the mantlepiece of my life: sooner or later, someone was going to sneak it into MY shampoo and my hair would fall out. I have no idea why I was obsessed with this – something something fear of puberty?

The lasanga – well, lasanga is disgusting, and delicious because it is so disgusting. It just seemed obvious.

Michael Noll

I love ghost stories. I’ve been hearing them—actual encounters with actual ghosts—ever since I was a kid. As a literary genre, it’s one of the world’s oldest. Even Shakespeare uses ghosts (and witches), and not infrequently. Ghosts—and the supernatural in general—seems to be innately interesting to most of us, even though we’ll likely never encounter an actual ghost–and likely do not (if pressed) believe they exist. Why do you think we are we so attracted to the idea of ghosts?

Meghan McCarron

I recently finished John Crowley’s Little, Big, which has a big section devoted to the magic of memory palaces. Basically, there’s an ancient system of memorizing that involves “putting” pieces of information in various rooms of a remembered house. The memory palace is a perfect metaphor for how our imagination mirrors the physical world. Our memories are always haunted, aren’t they? Ghosts seem like a useful way of externalizing that haunted feeling, of expressing the obsession of grief. If we’ve all got houses in our minds full of wandering people, dead and alive, but only the living ones wander around in the physical world – well, wouldn’t the dead ones be there, too?

March 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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