Tag Archives: how to write a novel

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

15 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which has been called “auspicious,” “complex,” and “caustically funny.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Greenidge discusses describing characters, acknowledging the role of power in race, and finding an agent who appreciated her novel.

Michael Noll

I love the way you introduce Charlie. A character says that “it’s best we all meet Charlie now,” but the introduction isn’t given to the reader in a direct way. First, we see the place where Charlie lives. Then, we’re told that he’s sitting beside a fern and that a man kneels beside him—and then we’re introduced to the man. Only after this do we get to see Charlie. I love this approach because it takes the weight off his character. It’s as if the novel is saying that Charlie is important, yes, but he’s less important the everything around him. Was this introduction to Charlie simply how it arrived on the page? Or did you write it with a particular goal in mind?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I didn’t want this novel to be about chimpanzees. That isn’t, to me, what this novel is about or what it is concerned with. So, it was important to let the reader know this from the beginning. Part of it was just keeping the reader’s interest in that first chapter. Part of it was also me, as a writer, not being ready to engage with the character of Charlie yet. All of those things went into that first introduction to the character.

Michael Noll

I also love the description of Dr. Paulson, in particular this:

When she parted her lips to grin, behind her white, white teeth, I caught a glimpse of her tongue. It was the yellowest, craggiest, driest tongue I had ever seen. It surely did not belong in that mouth, in her, and I shot a look at my mother, who widened her eyes, who gave one quick shake of her head that told me to ignore it.

It’s a monstrous trait, that tongue. In an interview with Lambda Literary, you said that you love the grotesque and the mechanics of horror stories, and the tongue certainly seems to fit. It’s also a detail that turns Dr. Paulson into a kind of monster. In that same interview, you talked about writing fully-developed characters, and so I’m curious how a detail like this works in terms of character development. Did you worry that giving characters monstrous characteristics would make them more difficult to develop? Or is the monstrosity part of that complexity? It’s certainly part of what makes the book so compelling.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

That was more a private joke with myself, while I was writing. I had a teacher in school when I was a kid who used to eat chalk. He carried a stick of it in his back pocket and during class, he would bring it out and lick it. His tongue was pebbled and yellow. And, no one ever mentioned it! It was like, is no one else seeing this, how disgusting it is? So, when I was writing, I just wanted to include that detail as a reminder and a joke with some younger part of myself.

I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about.  I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.

Michael Noll

The characters are put into situations that highlight their blackness and make them objects of fascination and study. For example, Laurel likes to say of her childhood in Maine that she was the only black person in a one-hundred mile radius. The town of the novel is segregated, and the school that the girls attend is mostly white. At the Toneybee Institute, the family is made a literal object of study, and several reviewers have pointed out connections to the Tuskegee Institute. There’s a sense, then, that the Freemans’ weird situation isn’t, actually, so weird. When you began to sketch out the plot of the novel, did you have ideas or themes in mind? Did you, in other words, have something you wanted to say? Or did you invent the premise and plot first and discover what it had to say about the world?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

I wanted to write about race in post-Civil Rights America. Which is a very big and wide topic. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which we don’t really have a way to describe living race right now, because we are so averse in America to talking about power.

I just read an editorial on Al Jazeera, about how “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term. It’s an old argument, one that anyone familiar with that debate can recognize. Basically, culture is universal, all cultures borrow from each other, it was 19th century racists who popularized the idea of distinct, cultural productions in the first place so why do we cling to that idea?

All those historical facts are true, but they are missing that question of power. What does it mean that I probably won’t be hired at many places because my hair is in dreadlocks but an upper-middle class white man could wear the same hairstyle to work and be considered a wonderful iconoclast? That is a question of power, that those who go on and on about how it’s all the same never really have an answer for that.

I grew up in the 90s, when so much talk about race was about “diversity”, how everyone everywhere came from a different culture so let’s all flatten it out. The Irish potato famine is the same pain as the Holocaust is the same pain as American slavery so let’s just not talk about any of it. That is ludicrous, of course, and not how memory or history or culture or politics works. But it’s a convenient idea to cling to in order to avoid really talking about all the ways our wounds are different, and how they are serving, or not serving, us well.

It’s similar to that self-serving, smug, and ultimately meaningless phrase “Everyone is racist.” Usually, the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “so don’t worry about it/don’t try to talk about it.” We have to get to a point where we have another way to talk about racism and white supremacy beyond just calling people out. Calling people and institutions out is a powerful tool, but we also have to get to a point where we can have conversations past naming someone or a practice or an institution as racist. What does it mean to work to change an institution? Knowing that we are all imperfect, that we will never live in a utopia, that there will always be bias, that over 500 years of racist thinking and oppression cannot simply be erased over night? How do we get to a point where we get real gains, and keep them for another generation to build on? One of the heartbreaking things about studying race post-the Civil Rights era is how many things have been lost, even in the last 8 years, how much we’ve lost. It’s terrifying. So how do we begin to keep what we’ve got and what’s working?

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Daniel Jose Older about his essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” He said that he loves books that multitask and that demand multiple things of the reader. So, for example, he’s written Half-Resurrection Blues, an urban fantasy novel about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal detectives, but it’s also a novel that has a lot to say about issues of race. Kiese Laymon’s Long Division does something similar: it contains time travel and an absurdist vocabulary contest, and it’s very much a book about race. In his case, he struggled to find an appreciative editor and publisher for that book. Your book also seems like it’s multi-tasking. Did you ever think, Uh oh, I’m taking on too much? Was it ever suggested to you that the novel contained too many different elements—or elements that seem too different to some readers?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Never by my agent or my editor. When I sent it out to some agents, that was definitely a response. But Carrie read it and got it immediately. My editor Andra read it and got it as well. That was most important to me: that the people I worked with on it understood that it is a book that is “multi-tasking”, as you put it. That is a natural place for me to read from. My older sister was in college in the early to mid nineties, just in time to be hit with the full bloom of post-modern theory. She brought some of that stuff home to me and tried to talk to me about it. Like, I remember, she rented The Celluloid Closet and Paris is Burning for me when I was in elementary and middle school and we’d watch them together while she babysat me. And so, I grew up reading things for multiple meanings at a really early age—not because I was some genius, but because I was lucky enough to have an older sibling to say, “Hey, you can read things this way.” It was great: like discovering a secret code. It also meant that I could indulge in reading “low” culture books and avoid the classics, because I could always look for (and invent in my imagination) that subtext. I like books that do that and I always wanted to write one.

First published in April 2016

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

How to Set Up and Break a Routine

24 Jan
In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib's first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib’s first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim, written in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

If you have writer’s block and can’t break out, there’s one trick that is almost guaranteed to help. You probably know what it is: set up a routine for a character and then break it. Story will inevitably follow. Watch: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… Or Every day he ate dinner alone at the corner restaurant where no one else ever ate, but then one day it was closed, so he… As writers, first we must learn the basics of how the strategy works: the set up and the twist. Once we’ve developed that piece of our craft, then we can begin to play with it, adding variations. It’s partly true, as one of my high school English teachers used to say, that writers have been telling the same stories over and over since Shakespeare. There are only so many types of stories. The art is in how we make them our own.

Rajia Hassib does exactly that with the strategy for establishing and breaking routines in her novel In the Language of Miracles. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt, establishes a medical practice and home and family, and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. After a prologue, the novel begins by establishing a new routine following the murder:

For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.

The routine in this passage is clear. Both families do everything they can to avoid encountering each other. We see this avoidance three times: through Samir, Nagla, and Cynthia. Each character’s avoidance is tethered to a specific detail, which is where their routines come from. The reason that the families don’t want to talk or see each other isn’t stated, but we know why.

Then, the routine changes:

Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.

The change is so simple. They avoid each other, and now one of them is seeking out the others, a change so unexpected that Khaled is shocked and doesn’t know what to do. As readers, we have to keep reading to find out what will happen. The story has kicked into gear, which is the beauty of setting up and breaking a routine.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and break a routine, using In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib as a model:

  1. Give your characters a compelling reason to behave a certain way. It’s easy to set up any old routine. At the beginning of this post, I wrote this one: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… This is fine and serviceable. It will get the job done. But a better routine is driven by necessity and desire. Hassib’s characters really don’t want to run into their neighbors, for good reason. So they behave accordingly. In your story, what is foremost on your characters’ minds at any given point of the day. Try out different times of day. Find a moment when something seems so large that they feel compelled to behave in a certain way. If it’s a recurring moment, the behavior will probably get repeated, turning it into a routine.
  2. Attach the routine to specific objects. Hassib does this with three different characters. Samir parks his car, Nagla moves her ashtray, and Cynthia abandons her garden. It will be tempting to use certain objects (newspaper, coffee cup, alarm clock), but try to think beyond these items. What else is essential to your character’s day? What objects are present in the moment you wrote about in the first step? Pick one and focus on it. Put it at the center of the routine. Describe the object with specific details, as Hassib does with the cluttered garage, wicker armchair, and dill and cilantro.
  3. Break the routine. Who will do it? Which character will behave contrary to expectation? What single act will signal the break in the routine? Hassib uses Nancy: Instead of avoiding the Al-Menshawys, she knocks on their door.
  4. Figure out why that character has broken the routine. In this case, Nancy wants to tell her neighbors about a memorial that will be held in a few days. In other words, an event has broken the routine (as events tend to do). You can also cause characters to change their behaviors by adding external elements: someone new shows up, or something unexpected is discovered (fortune, disease). The bigger the reason for the routine in the first place, the bigger the reason for break it probably needs to be.   

The goal is to creating story and narrative momentum by establishing and breaking routine. You might not do it in the order listed above. Often, writers know what characters will do but not why. Sometimes they know what drives characters to act but not what they’ll do. Either one is a good place to begin.

Good luck.

10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach in this exercise.

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue


Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others


Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

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.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

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.

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

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

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

An Interview with Garth Greenwell

22 Sep
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You, a novel of "originality and power" according to the New Yorker's James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, a novel of “originality and power” according to The New Yorker‘s James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, long listed for the National Book Award, and Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space.

To read an exercise on describing a character’s sense of consciousness, inspired by What Belongs to You, click here.

In this interview, Greenwell discusses feeling his way into the novel sentence by sentence, the traffic between the physical world and the abstract realm of consciousness, and why he doesn’t care for the annual award for bad sex writing.

Michael Noll

The book is written in a distinctive style: long paragraphs with nuanced descriptions of glances and other physical details of interactions between characters—and little dialogue. It reminds me, in a way, of Henry James’ novel The Beast in the Jungle, that is if James had been willing or able to use the word cock. It also reminds me a bit of Ben Lerner’s novels, which contain much more dialogue but are similarly interested in the experience of human interactions. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking this: As you wrote the novel, did you feel that you were writing in a style that you were seeing in books that you were reading, or did you feel that you were doing something different—in either a small or significant way?

Garth Greenwell

I think the truest answer is that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The first section of the novel was the first fiction I had ever written–before that I had only ever written poetry. That said, James has been a hero of mine since I read The Turn of the Screw in high school. And he has a pretty central place in a tradition of novel writing I’ve always loved, a line that includes Proust and Mann and Woolf and, more recently, Bernhard and Sebald and Marías. I admire Ben Lerner’s work a lot, and I think he’s following some of those same currents in his fiction.

So: none of those writers served as a model, really, but they were all in my head, knocking around with other things. As I wrote I was really feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, working without much idea of the shape it might take. The book begins and ends with place, I think, and I wanted to be true both to my experience of Bulgaria (where I wrote the novel) and to the relationship between the characters. I don’t think I was concerned at all about how what I was doing stylistically or formally might fit into any kind of tradition or field of practice

Michael Noll

One of my favorite sentences in the novel is this one:

“For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.”

It follows a line stating that the conversation between these characters lasted only a few minutes, and yet this sentence makes clear why the conversation occupies so much space in the novel. What I find interesting about the sentence is how much it operates without specific detail. Mitko is well-described, of course, but phrases like “some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease” are more about impressions than specific traits. What makes a sentence like this work? Does it depend on details that have come before? Or does the reader simply understand and fill in the spaces around words like beautiful, forbidding, and sureness?

Garth Greenwell

I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator. He tries throughout the book to understand and track his own feeling as carefully as he can, which leads him into rabbit holes of ambivalence and doubt and second-guessing–precisely the sort of thing Mitko’s physical demeanor seems to deny. This sentence does come after a good bit of physical description of the setting and of Mitko, which I hope grounds this more abstract bit of thinking.

Michael Noll

Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

The opening of the novel contains several sex scenes, and it seems at first that you tend toward the literal and specific in describing them. But then the novel offers this image: “clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.” That’s a bold image—effective and terrific, of course—but also noteworthy because it’s figurative. Every year, an award is given for bad sex writing, and some of the worst tends to involve metaphor and simile: a body part like ____. Were you nervous at all about writing the sex scenes, about creating images that readers might be inclined to read more closely and critically than a description of, say, eating a hamburger?

Garth Greenwell

For the narrator, sex is endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating because it’s constantly gesturing toward metaphysics. I’ve always been interested in sex as a writer, in both poetry and prose. I think sex is almost uniquely useful for a novelist because of the opportunity it gives a character to be intensely focused on the experience of another while also thrown back onto his or her own sensations. I’m also interested in the social implications of sex, the ways communities form around it and are disrupted by it—communities like those in the cruising bathroom the novel begins in.

I’m not a huge fan of the bad sex writing award. I think it’s a myth that sex is harder to write well than most other things, and I think it’s a shame to give so much attention to less successful writing when there’s so much extraordinary writing of the sexual body being done right now. Just in the last couple of years, books by Alissa Nutting, Merritt Tierce, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Colm Toibin (in The Empty Family)—just to name a few—have used sex in ways that are revelatory to me for their dramatic and psychological force. I want to talk about and learn from those writers. It seems ungenerous to ridicule a few bad sentences or clumsy metaphors, often in books that are otherwise very fine.

Michael Noll

I believe that this book started out as a novella, and so I’m curious about your process in developing it into a much longer story. Was it a matter of adding complications to the set of characters you had already established? Or did you add characters and broaden the world that you were writing about?

Garth Greenwell

The novel did start out as a novella. When I finished the first section, I didn’t have any idea that it was part of a larger project: I thought the story was done. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through the second section, “A Grave,” that I realized how it was exploring the narrator’s childhood as a way of trying to understand some peculiarities of his character, especially the way he seems both to long for intimacy and hold it at arm’s length. It wasn’t until I was finished with that section that I realized that the narrative of the first section—the relationship between the narrator and Mitko—would continue. And it wasn’t until I finished the whole manuscript and could see certain thematic and structural echoes across sections that I began to trust my feeling that there was a kind of gravity holding the book together. I moved through the whole book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, without looking very far ahead. I tricked myself into writing a novel, I guess, without ever really realizing what I was doing.

Originally published in February 2016

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

An Interview with Hannah Pittard

8 Sep
Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice.”

Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels, including Listen to Me and the forthcoming Atlanta, 1962. Her second novel, Reunion, was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping. Her debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was an Oprah Magazine selection, an Indie Next pick, a Powell’s Indiespendible Book Club Pick, and a “best of” selection by The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Details Magazine, The Kansas City Star, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Hudson Booksellers. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.

To read an exercise on creating an emotional backdrop for characters based on Listen to Me, click here.

In this interview, Pittard discusses finding the timeframe for a novel, zigzagging structure, and a difference between long and short novels.

Michael Noll

The novel takes place over the course of roughly 24 hours, yet two of the most important events, one for each of the characters (I’m referring to the mugging/murder and student-flirtation but won’t give it away in the Q&A), happens before the novel begins. Did you always know that the novel would have this timeframe, or did you begin with those events and discover the timeframe later?

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

From the beginning I was interested in writing a novel that took place over the course of a single day and concentrated on a single action. I’m fascinated with the treatment of time in fiction and I have a lot conversations with myself while I’m writing about the constraints and advantages of short stretches of time vs. long stretches of time. My first novel spans approximately four decades. Deciding what to include as scene (vs. summary) was such an intense process. In many ways, the chapters of that novel (The Fates Will Find Their Way) became for me like sentences in a short story. Every chapter needed to be as tight and deliberate and relevant as possible. Nothing was included that wasn’t essential, which is how I write my short stories (or try to…) I knew in crafting a novel that took place over the course 24 hours, I’d be relying more than usual on summary, backstory, and flashbacks. In general, I’m a writer who likes to stay away from all those things, concentrating instead on juxtapositions between observation and scene and the implications of the quiet ellipses that exist off the page. It was only during later drafts that I realized I would need to fill out those two major events you’re referring to. I put up a fight at first but I’m so glad that I eventually gave in. I think those moments away from the “present tense” of the narrative provide such a necessary reprieve from the current action.

Michael Noll

The novel opens with scenes that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will recognize: disagreements over mundane issues like walking the dog, packing the car, and taking out the garbage. What I found so refreshing about the novel is how the tension from those disagreements really forms the basis of the plot. Many of the early scenes are simply Mark and Maggie together in the car, feeling each other out. As a reader, I found these scenes really engaging and suspenseful. How did you approach suspense and tension in those scenes?

Hannah Pittard

I have never considered myself a suspenseful writer, but I came up with a method for the alternating chapters of this novel and I think somehow it (the suspense) just fell into place. In moving from chapter to chapter, I gave myself the rule of always moving forward in time and place (allowing for occasional flashbacks within each chapter). Next I tried always to pick up close to where Maggie or Mark might have left off but never exactly where the other had ended. Instead of a straight line, I imagined instead a zigzagging thunderbolt that moved right to left, upward and away. I also tried never to allow Mark and Maggie to consider the same moment (with a few key exceptions, including the cowboy and the sex). Somehow, this uneven and off-kilter back and forth provided the perfect balance for whatever suspense does exist.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs on the back of the book, several writers remark on how they read the novel in one sitting, which is easy to do as it’s less than 200 pages long. As a writer, I would imagine that this length would make the novel easier to hold in your head, more like a story. Was that the case? How did the process of writing this novel compare to your others, which are about 100 pages longer?

Hannah Pittard

Man… This novel took me longer than any book or story I’ve ever written. It’s short, you’re right, but there was nothing easy for me in its creation. As with the stories I write, every word in this book mattered to me. And given the aspect of suspense and the moodiness of the Maggie’s fear and Mark’s frustration, it was essential to me that it be as terse and swift as possible.

September 2016

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

An Interview with Amy Gentry

4 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel, Good as Gone is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel, the thriller Good as Gone, is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Amy Gentry lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two cats. After graduating in 2011 with a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, she began a freelance writing career, writing book reviews, cultural criticism, and, for one strange and wonderful year, a fashion column. She frequently reviews fiction for the Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal, and her writing has appeared in Salon.com, xoJane, The Rumpus, the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Observer, LA Review of Books, Gastronomica, and the Best Food Writing of 2014. Good as Gone, her first novel, is set in her hometown of Houston, Texas.

To read an exercise on turning information into scene based on Good as Gone, click here.

In this interview, Gentry discusses the importance of POV choices, writing toward what is missing from a story, and layering big ideas within a plot.

Michael Noll

When I started the prologue of the novel, I didn’t know if I’d be able to read it. Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent, but I find stories about bad things happening to children difficult to read. And yet the horror of the opening chapter was both sharp and muted at the same time. Bad things happen, but what we actually see is the prelude to the bad things rather than the bad things themselves. It’s not unlike the novel Room in that way. When we see the worst things in the novel, it’s through a crack in a closet door. Did you experiment with other points of view? Were you consciously trying to balance drawing in the reader with conveying the horror of what was happening in the scene?

Amy Gentry

That Room comparison is so flattering, thank you! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think the muting or distancing effect you’re talking about comes not only from the closet-door perspective, but–as in Room–from the child’s perspective. In theory, it’s terrifying to imagine seeing this as a child, so you get the horror on a conceptual level. But on a more literal level, there’s an alienation effect, because nobody reading this novel is actually ten years old (I hope).

The closet scene was among the first I imagined, but I wrote it last, because the point of view presented a huge challenge for me. Jane was not supposed to be a POV character in the novel at all; for a long time, I had Anna describing Jane’s role in witnessing the abduction (“I picture Julie as Jane must have seen her, drifting down the hallway. . .”). But the sense of urgency was completely missing. No matter how beautiful or tragic someone’s thoughts are, they’re still just thoughts, and they are never going to feel as important to a reader as action. Julie’s kidnapping was the central trauma in the book, and it had to feel like a tear in the fabric of this family’s reality. It was too important for exposition. But Jane was literally the only one who could tell the story.

In the end I justified the POV shift by making it a prologue. What I like about that scene now is that Witness Jane is only just past the age where fact and fiction blur; her night terrors have only recently started to fade. She’s a little on the old side for nightmares, but I thought, well, the family has moved recently, they probably started up again when she got her own bedroom. That dreamlike quality helped me reconcile the POV shift, and hopefully adds an element of uncertainty to what Jane really saw.

Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting structure. It’s divided into, basically, two points of view: the mother and the daughter, Julie. The mother’s POV moves chronologically and Julie’s moves in reverse, so that it moves backward in time from the first chapter. This is an interesting way to think about tension, about the desire to know what happens next, because in the daughter’s chapters, next is almost always the revelation of some piece of information. How did you approach Julie’s chapters?

Amy Gentry

When I started writing this novel I felt pretty hopeless about plot. I’d never tried to write something that required this much tension and required so many reveals. Plus I had this character Julie, or better yet “Julie”, whose identity was in question. I knew her POV had to be in the book, but I couldn’t give away her identity. How do you write from her POV without saying who she is? I knew her lies were going to start showing up, one by one, in the present-tense plot. So I got the idea to alternate those little revelations with chapters that peeled back the layers of her identity one by one, starting with the most recent. It bought me time, logistically speaking; plus it rang true with the ideas about trauma and identity formation that were already in the book. Trauma kind of forces everything else in your life to exist in relation to it. It rewrites the whole narrative of your life, even what came before. Trauma does not obey chronology.

When I was actually writing “Julie”, though, I had to do it chronologically. At first I thought I could write those parts in the order they appear, but I quickly found that she was such a liar, I couldn’t really get to the bottom of who she was and what happened to her that way. I didn’t know who she was in the present until I went through all that stuff with her in the order it happened. I approached each episode of her life trying to use what had most recently happened to her as a guide for what she’d do next. Which was tricky, because when you’re reading it in the book, you sometimes don’t understand why she starts a chapter the way she does until you get to the end of the next episode, and by then you may have forgotten. I’m totally fine with that, because her identity is meant to be unsettlingly fractured. But the connections are there.

Michael Noll

Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel GOOD AS GONE “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

One of my favorite moments in the book is the scene between Julia and a housekeeper at a hotel. (I won’t say more to avoid giving anything away.) It’s a moment when our perception of Julie changes pretty drastically. Did you always know that scene would be in the novel, or did you find yourself writing it and thinking, “Oh, this is interesting?”

Amy Gentry

That was a scene I had to write because I was reworking the chapters in a late draft and needed one more episode. When I asked myself what was missing, I realized immediately that I had put Maybe-Julie in a lot of very extreme situations–not unrealistic for someone with her story, but I wanted to show her doing something more mundane and boring to survive, just the good old back-breaking labor of cleaning. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t like it. Most people don’t. I also wanted to add another chance for her to make what most people would call a “good” choice, and have her reject it for reasons of her own. Whether the reader sympathizes with that or not, I hope by that point in the book s/he’s starting to get the idea that Julie’s priorities are survival first, survival second, survival third, fourth, fifth and so on; “good” behavior might be in there somewhere, but it’s pretty close to the bottom. I think that’s a realistic way that agency plays out under conditions of duress, with someone who’s had a lot of trauma. So the more opportunities I had to put that in, and the more I was able to identify with those so-called “bad” choices, the more her character spoke to me.

Michael Noll

One of the characters in the novel is a preacher at a mega-church that meets in the Astrodome, which just so happens to be similar to an actual place with an actual church run by a quite-famous preacher. That said, your preacher looks quite different from the real guy, different enough that it’s clear that they’re not the same person. And yet I wonder if you received any pushback on this.

Amy Gentry

At a certain point in the book, religion started coming out as a theme, and I just heaved a big sigh and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” Thinking about Houston, it made so much sense to have a mega-church play a big role. When I was growing up in Houston, First Baptist was what we meant by a mega-church. These days the non-denominational mega-church Lakewood is almost twice the size of First Baptist and meets in the former Compaq Center. Because the dates worked out, I got to fantasize about an even bigger mega-church meeting in the former Astrodome, a gargantuan Houston landmark now utterly abandoned.

I was also careful to differentiate my fictional pastor from Lakewood’s real pastor via appearance, mannerisms, and of course motive—I’m not out to impugn Joel Osteen. However, his theology—that I have no problem impugning, especially from the point of view of Anna, who finds it morally repugnant. Anna is not big on religion of any kind. Her religion is the life of the mind, and she believes, rightly or wrongly, that it gives her everything she needs to understand the world. My fictional preacher’s theology, which is only slightly amped up from Osteen’s “prosperity gospel”, really upsets her, because it’s so focused on erasing or denying the bad things that have happened to you and are still happening. There’s no sin, there’s no suffering, and ultimately, there’s no memory—optimism is the only virtue.

In grad school I got interested in the American religious tradition called New Thought, which I think is pretty clearly a part of prosperity gospel, and which started up around the turn of the 20th century. The most recognizable form it takes today is something like The Secret. That stuff is always big in America because we love the individualism of it, the idea that you have control over your destiny. But there’s a dark side to it, because it gives you far too much agency. It puts the blame for bad stuff happening to you on you, because you must have attracted it somehow. And in a book that’s so much about rape culture, that was a message I was very interested in fighting.

The fun part is that I went to the Compaq Center and took notes as if I were Anna, who is even more cynical than I am. As Amy, I could instantly see why that type of church is so popular. It is a gigantic music and laser-light show, totally free, with child care and wall-to-wall programming for every demographic, even financial planning classes. In the absence of a social safety net, these churches offer a ready-made, big-tent community. As Anna, though, I could just revel in how tacky and appalling it all was. She sees Nuremberg, and I don’t entirely disagree with that either.

August 2016

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

An Interview with Natalia Sylvester

21 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage -in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester was born in Lima, Peru, and came to the U.S. at age four. As a child, she spent time in south Florida, central Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas before her family set roots once again in Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Carries Their Own Water, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.

In this interview, Sylvester discusses restarting a novel after setting it aside for six years, the things that pull a marriage apart, and what happens when you pitch to American editors a novel set in Peru with an all-Peruvian cast of characters.

To read an exercise on moving the plot forward in a novel and an excerpt from Chasing the Sun, click here.

Michael Noll

I know the novel is based in part on the kidnapping of your grandfather in Lima in the 1990s. I’m sure that’s a story that you’ve been thinking about for a long time, not just what happened to your grandfather but the larger political situation in Peru at the time. What finally allowed you to turn that story into a novel? Was it a question of finding the right backstory for the kidnapping?

Natalia Sylvester

I think more than anything, it was time that allowed me to tell this story. I started writing it as part of my undergrad Creative Writing thesis back in 2005/2006, and back then (like I’d been most of my life) I was hesitant to talk to my family about my grandfather’s kidnapping. It’s something I’d known about and wondered about, but since we rarely spoke about it in much depth, I didn’t ask. I let all my questions pile up and even when I wrote the first drafts of Chasing the Sun, I wrote it quietly, keeping all my questions between me and the page.

Not surprisingly, the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. (Also, I was 21, newly engaged, and trying to write a story about a troubled marriage. I don’t really buy into the “write what you know” belief, but when I write I do need to find an access point into a story, and for me it can be almost anything, as long as it feels true.)

I set the book aside for nearly six years. I had no plans to ever revisit it, but my husband had read parts of it and would constantly insist, based on one scene he loved, that there was something there. This time I approached it with a heavy emphasis on research—not just on Peru and its political situation and the years of terrorism it experienced, but also the main thing I’d been avoiding all along, which was talking to my family about the kidnapping. Though none of the characters are based on my family, having their insights (and now I realize, their support) was so necessary because I wanted to restart this story from a place of truth and honesty.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the backstory, I loved the relationship between Andres and Marabela—it’s so complex. Even after Marabela is kidnapped, I found myself wondering not whether she’d survive but what would happen after she returned. This seems like a real accomplishment—to create a story that can rival kidnapping for suspense. How did you come up with it?

Natalia Sylvester

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, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

Thank you, I’m really touched by that. Their relationship took me by surprise from the very first draft. I’d originally written my thesis as a set of linked short stories, all told from different POVs, about Marabela’s kidnapping. I started with Cynthia’s POV, then Consuelo, then Ignacio, and then finally, Andres. When I got to his story, it was like they’d been keeping their troubled marriage secret from me all this time. And I thought that was pretty fascinating, because life never happens in a vacuum, even (or maybe especially) the kinds of things we most fear. I wondered if Andres would be able to compartmentalize, and not let his feelings about his failing marriage affect the decisions he makes as he tries to save Marabela. Their relationship became almost like an additional character I wanted to explore and dissect and understand.

Also, in the six years that I’d set the story aside, I’d gotten (happily!) married but seen a lot of marriages around me fall apart. So I became kind of obsessed with how that happens. How does something as huge as two lives, lived side by side for decades, fall apart to practically nothing? I thought it’d have to be something equally big and traumatizing, like a kidnapping, when really it’s the little things, the everyday, mundane gestures and regrets that can build up and pull us apart.

Michael Noll

I love the way the beginning of the novel sets up Andres’ value system (hard work pays, be assertive in business, honor your promises) and also the holes in that system (he doesn’t really pay attention or express concern for his family’s domestic employees). How important was it to establish those values early in the novel?

Natalia Sylvester

It’s interesting that you mention it because a huge chunk of that early scene, I didn’t end up writing until after the book had sold and I was working on my first round of revisions for my editor. Looking back, I feel very lucky the book sold like that, because I think it’s crucial to establish who a character is, what they stand for, and what world they’re living in, before you disrupt it all with something as earth-shattering as a kidnapping. What good is the “after” picture without the “before”? In fiction we’re often told, “Start with the inciting incident” but the false sense of security in the calm before the storm is equally rich in possibility.

Michael Noll

It’s not unusual to set novels in “exotic” locations, but it’s less common for American novels set in one of those places (in this case, Peru) to follow a cast of characters that doesn’t feature any Americans. I wonder if you encountered any resistance to the fact that it’s truly a Peruvian novel, about Peruvian characters. Did anyone, a reader or agent or editor, ever say, “Gee, couldn’t you make Andres an American?”

Natalia Sylvester

Not in exactly those words, but yes, several publishers that rejected the story expressed concern that it wasn’t tied at all to the U.S. Some wished there could be an American character, or maybe at some point, they go to the U.S. And you know, if there’s one thing I wish I could unlearn about publishing, or that I could make other aspiring authors unlearn, it’s this. Because I was blissfully unaware as I wrote Chasing the Sun that it being so Peruvian was unusual. I just thought, I’m writing a story, and of course I’m going to set it here, and these are the people who live in that world. It never occurred to me that they’d be seen as “difficult to relate to” because I’ve always believed we’re more alike than we are different, and that universal stories are just that—they can belong to any of us.

I’m very lucky that my publisher understood this; they actually loved that the book was so Peruvian. But my heart breaks when I realize what a struggle it was, and what a struggle it still is, for us to get our stories heard because they’re not perceived as part of the mainstream world.

First published in July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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