Tag Archives: Grace

An Interview with Natashia Deón

27 Oct
Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of the novel Grace. She’s the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Feminist Wire, and You: An Anthology of Second Person Essays, among others. She has taught creative writing for Gettysburg College, PEN Center USA, and 826LA. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School.

To read an exercise on creating tension by playing against reader expectation based on Grace, click here. (If you’re in the Austin area, you can see Deón at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday at 2:00 on a panel with Yaa Gyasi.)

In this interview, Deón discusses writing in dialect, writing within genre perceptions and writing violence.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Nervous Breakdown, you quoted Walt Whitman: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” How did you find that close-to-the-ground entry to the language of the characters in your book? To my reading ear, it sounded fresh and almost contemporary, not stilted the way that some historical fiction dialogue can. What was your approach to these characters’ language?

Natashia Deón

In every writing class I had ever taken before finishing Grace, I had been taught that one of the golden rules of writing was to never write in dialect. And even though “the rules,” which otherwise seemed sound, also said that it was acceptable to deviate from these “rules,” every writing instructor, writer, speaker, who discussed language and voice always seemed to come back to that same advice: Don’t write in dialect. Or, if you do, do so sparingly. I struggled with that advice. I struggled because the voice I wanted to create for the main character, the narrator of Grace, was in dialect. For a long time, it kept me from writing at all.

Eventually, I gave myself permission. Not because someone told me yes but because I told myself yes. Every day, writers have to tell themselves yes. You are good enough. What you have to say is good enough. You matter.

Maybe it seems obvious to other writers. It wasn’t for me. And coming to that realization was a moment of freedom. But permission was only the beginning. New questions arose about dialect. For instance, I didn’t want readers to assume that my narrator’s dialect was a reflection of her intellect as people often—wrongly—assume about a southern accent. But, rather, that her language was an expression of her exposure and physical limitations. As a writer, this was one of my biggest challenges. How would she express herself if she didn’t know a word like “compete” or “busking?” If it wasn’t in her vocabulary, how would she say those words without using the word? Then I’d have her describe the word in three words or less. And here she was about to narrate the entire novel. In something like poetry.

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?”

Maya Angelou once said, “English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.” In writing Grace, I had to decide what I wanted the language to do. In the early drafts, the dialect was much more rugged. I thought accuracy was the primary point of dialect. So the language in Grace was phonetically accurate to the time and place. And it didn’t sit well with me. As I revised, I began to understand that I was creating a language pattern, somewhere in between the past and our present use of English in the U.S. And in this new understanding, I had to make a decision about how hard I wanted readers to work, and about other craft issues like what I wanted the dialect to do. Do in the sense that everything in a scene, every word, serves the scene. If I read that there’s a fire burning in the fireplace, it needs to serve—ambiance, some future purpose, frame a moment, a thought. Usually, it does more than one thing. In the same way, my narrator’s language had to serve and not just exist on the page…accurately.

So, her language evolves in the novel as she goes on her journey, and it reaches us here in the future, blending the past and present together, which is one of the  themes in Grace. For this reason, her language softens. She learns new words, speaks differently as she’s exposed to new people, new experiences. The same way you or I would. And in this way, her language is close to the ground. It is alive. And my goal was for readers, after the first chapter or so, to read it effortlessly.

Michael Noll

In a recent New Yorker review of the film Birth of a Nation, Vinson Cunningham writes, “The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted, over and over, for the screen…This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.” He goes on to write, “Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story,” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of your book, which, of course, is a ghost story. Your novel also doesn’t strike me as “upper-middlebrow art.” And, because of Naomi’s journey out of slavery, it feels like a different approach to the “slavery genre.” How much did you try to write toward or away from the ways this type of story has been told in the past?

Natashia Deón

When I first began to write Grace, as strange as this may sound, I never set out to write a slave narrative. All of the main characters are not slaves. I saw them first as people, not defined by their station, though their station was of serious consequence.

For me, Grace is and was always a story about women. Women who are survivors, who fight valiantly, and learned to keep their dignity and humanity despite their circumstances. Women who created families of their choosing when family was withheld from them—families that were more than blood but a powerful kind of kinship. And the black people in this story, some of whom are slaves, were not only brutalized bodies or victims of a dehumanizing system, but resilient lovers, dreamers, mothers, daughters, thinkers, heroes, and more. This was always Grace. And Grace is also a slave narrative.

There is diversity even within genres, within any life, real or imagined. Freedom in Grace isn’t a place to get to. It’s not north. It’s a question that all of the characters—Black, White, Latina, and other, have to ask themselves. It’s what we all have to ask ourselves today. Is what we have right now freedom?

I am honored that Grace is included with other great books about slavery—BelovedThe Known World, and others. And because America hasn’t been out of slavery for as long as we were in it, I imagine that there are books coming in the future that will continue to give fresh eyes to this period of time. And those books, like books about baseball, won’t care how many brothers or sisters it has.

Michael Noll

The book contains some scenes that are really difficult to read: graphically-rendered murder and sexual violence. The scenes aren’t gratuitous at all. Each one is necessary and well-written, but I also wonder if you worried about losing readers. To paragraph a character from the novel, not all women have the same sort of strong, and not all readers have the same capability for reading scenes and stories like these. Did you think at all about how to keep readers turning the page in the midst or after such scenes?

Natashia Deón

Yes, I worried about losing readers. But not when I was writing it. I wanted to stay true to the story, to the things that have haunted me in dealing with violence in real life. Our country, our world, is a violent place. We live in a society where even death and the dead are removed from our sight at once. And most of us are blessed to be removed from those realities and the realities of violence, except for occasional episodes in our lives, or what we see on our computer, phone or television screens. I say this because almost all of the descriptions of violence in Grace are details of real life cases I haven’t been in a position to look away from as an attorney, a friend, family member, etc. The violence in Grace was my response to the quintessential command: Write what you know. The violence rings true because it is true. Of course, fictionalized. But I didn’t want to hold back in creating. I was asking readers to trust me to get them through it. I wanted to be trustworthy, for my narrator to be trustworthy. It was a gamble. A choice. And in the end, I wrote the book that I wanted to read, that I felt compelled to write, that I felt readers were ready and mature enough to hear. One that was honest in every way that it could be.

October 2016

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

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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.

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