Tag Archives: Gone Girl

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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How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

8 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster Gone Girl.

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages.

The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book.

An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must imbed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

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