Tag Archives: Inappropriate Behavior

An Interview with Murray Farish

12 Jun
Murray Farish

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley, Jr.

Murray Farish’s debut story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken. Farish’s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Epoch, Roanoke Review, FiveChapters, and Black Warrior Review, among other publications. His work has been awarded the William Peden Prize, the Phoebe Fiction Prize, and the Donald Barthelme Memorial Fellowship Prize. Farish lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University.

In this interview, Farish discusses the accretion of American pain, the despair of not finding the right ending, and writing stories in a world in which CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers.

To read the collection’s title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” and exercises on breaking narrative rules, click here.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, George and Miranda are discussing their son’s behavior and the problems he’s causing at school, and George says, “I just thank God that he’s healthy.” The conversation that followed really struck me for a couple of reasons. One, I have kids, and I think that I’ve probably said something similar to this. Two, the conversation seems to announce that this story is going to run counter to some basic ideas about propriety. Generally, thanking God for a child’s health wouldn’t be considered morally bankrupt, but that’s exactly what Miranda suggests, and both the reader and George come to realize that she’s right. Did the story always begin this way, or did you write the dialogue to perform a particular function within the story?

Murray Farish

The first thing I wrote that made the cut in the final draft of “Inappropriate Behavior” was a version of a much later scene where Archie is lying on the couch trying to figure out which of his toys he’s taking to heaven when he dies. I have to write a lot of pages and take a lot of false paths before I figure out what a story is about and what I want to do with it. Once I figure that out, I try to orchestrate everything—scene, setting, dialogue, situation, character—around that realization. That orchestration became even more important in this story, which I think of as nearly plotless and almost totally free of character development.

Michael Noll

In several places, you create catalogues of George’s thoughts and snippets of news that he hears. I’ve seen stories make similar moves before but never to the extent that you make them. The catalogues are very long–and so there’s the inevitable risk of losing the narrative thread. But that’s not what happens. The juxtapositions in the catalogues are savage, and the paragraphs contain some of the most gut wrenching lines in the story. This is generally true of the story as a whole. There’s another section about paying bills that isn’t a catalogue but works in a similar way. I can imagine a lot of writers drafting a couple of lines about bills and then moving forward into the story, but you stay with the bills for ten paragraphs. I kept expecting the narrative to stall, but it never did. How did you keep the momentum moving?

Murray Farish

Especially in a story that is plotless and free of character development? I worried about it a lot, until I decided to trust in the orchestration—or if that’s too grand a term to keep repeating—to trust the design of the story. Once I figured out that the story I wanted to write was about the Great Recession and how it was the natural result of four decades of political, legislative, and cultural malpractice and neglect of the commonwealth—of the failure to live up to ideals that we the people are obligated, by ink and by blood, to try to live up to . . . well, you can see the problem, for a fiction writer. But if that’s the story you’ve got to write, that’s the story you’ve got to write, so you’ve got to figure out how to write it. I decided to create this little family and inflict upon them a steady accretion of American pain, and hope to build narrative momentum out of that accretion.

Michael Noll

I have to admit that I felt a thrill at the story’s description of St. Louis: “It feels like exactly what it is: a static, lifeless, dead-water burg, a place that lacked enough imagination to remake itself when people stopped using beaver pelts as currency, and that runs, after a fashion, on the inertia of old money.” And that’s just one sentence in a long paragraph that ends with a line of bitter sarcasm: “Here’s something people say about St. Louis: It’s a great place to raise kids.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a brutal takedown of a place. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to write something like that. Given that you live in St. Louis, do you worry that someone you know will read this story and get upset?

Murray Farish

Well, of course that’s George’s description of St. Louis, and St. Louis is a place he feels victimized by, in a way. All this bad stuff is happening to him and there’s no one around to try to help him out. But however St. Louisans would feel about the description, to the extent that they would find it accurate, we also have to realize how places like St. Louis have themselves been victimized by that same neglect I talked about before. One of the most troubling things I’ve seen in my forty-some years as an American is precisely that lack of imagination, a fearful inability to conceive of how things might be different, might be better. That lack of common vision hits places like St. Louis particularly hard. To the extent that a St. Louisan might find the description inaccurate or unfair, I guess I’d have to plead artistic license.

Michael Noll

By the story’s end, you’ve put the characters in such an intensely difficult situation that it’s natural as a reader to want to look away, to avert our eyes from what we suspect will happen. And that’s exactly what you do–you shift the point of view in a way that’s bound to bother some readers who will expect a neat conclusion. But I actually loved the ending. In a way, it reminded me of what Richard Ford does in Independence Day: His narrator, Frank Bascombe, fails repeatedly to connect and successfully parent his son, and when it seems as if nothing good can happen, Ford knocks the kid out of the novel–literally. The kid gets hit in the head with a baseball and is knocked unconscious. I found that particular move frustrating—a cheat on Ford’s part—because then everything starts going Bascombe’s way again. But in your story, the shift in POV (the looking away) doesn’t change the characters’ fortunes. But it makes them easier to read—not less disturbing or emotional but readable, as if there’s only so much misery readers can take before they walk away. Your ending kept me with the story. That’s a lot of words to ask, how did you approach the ending?

Murray Farish

Finding the ending was as close to real despair as I’ve ever had as a writer. I had worked for months to winnow hundreds of pages down to the final version, up to the scene where George goes for the last meeting at Archie’s school. I knew I loved this story, but the steady accretion of pain had left the Putnams, and me, in a corner where there was no way to write a narratively satisfying and honest ending that would change their fortunes in any way. Do some sort of Horatio Alger bit? Launch an alien invasion or some other cataclysm that renders the economy irrelevant? Have George blow his brains out? I wrote versions of all of these, and many others, including one ending replete with learned footnotes and pie-charts and bar-graphs, which I think you’ll agree with everyone else who read that version that it was a bad idea. Somewhere in the midst of that despair I looked at the school principal’s statement at the end of the last “realistic” scene: “I’m sure you have questions.” So I put the story away and just started making this long list of questions—some from George, some from Miranda, some from American lit and American history, recent and ancient. My notion was not that this catalog of questions would become the ending, but I hoped that some question in there would trigger an ending. Then I saw that those questions could be orchestrated in a way that felt to me very honest and risky and perhaps even resonant, and if I couldn’t do narratively satisfying, I could at least do those things. Jumping out of the third-person, realistic mode also allowed me to return to the Putnams in the voice of Archie and the style of the fairy tale. Archie may be in a lot of trouble, anchored to this sinking family of his, but at least he still has imagination, and he’s not afraid. That’s about the only note of hope I could stand to build into this story, the notion that the future might be better if we don’t lose our courage and our imaginations. But realistically, Archie’s probably screwed.

Michael Noll

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn't like the way the film Away We Go portrayed red America. You can read his review here.

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn’t like the way the film Away We Go portrayed “regular” Americans. You can read his review here.

Many stories create unlikable side characters and then reveal some redeeming part of them. But not this story. George thinks this: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior: what demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Because I think we’re supposed to empathize with George and his point of view, this is a pretty damning indictment of a great swath of the population of St. Louis. It reminds me of the Dave Eggers film, Away We Go, about a couple on the verge of parenthood who travel America trying to find a good place to raise their kids. But everywhere they go, they find people they don’t like. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott angrily criticized the film’s “smug self-regard” and its portrayal of “red state grotesques” and said, “This movie does not like you.” Do you feel any obligation to find the good in every character? Or, to put it in the negative, do you think fiction suffers when it’s too nice and open-minded?

Murray Farish

The quoted question about good behavior is from American lit, one that Thoreau asks in Walden, but of course it applies to George as well, as well as to the overall point that this section and this story is trying to make—what is “inappropriate behavior?” Is it the stuff this goofy kid does to get in trouble at school, or is it unnecessary wars and drone strikes and cutting off people’s unemployment benefits? Is it one little kid hugging some other little kid or is it the Trail of Tears? Is it hyperactivity or the abjuration of our responsibilities to one another? If the fact that CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers isn’t at the very least inappropriate, I don’t know what is. I think the only obligations fiction writers have are to write the best story they possibly can, and to give the reader something they can’t get from anyone else.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Break the Contract with Your Reader

11 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

In stories and novels, we occasionally write ourselves into corners of inevitability. The story dictates that a particular thing must come next, but we can’t or don’t want to write that ending. Often this is because the ending is going to be unpleasant for everyone involved: characters, readers, and writer. So what do we do? We can scrap or rewrite the story, or we can find a way to write the inevitable ending in a way that honors the narrative momentum that has been built but also changes the way we think about that narrative. Sometimes, this means breaking the contract with the reader—a big no-no in workshop but sometimes a necessary risk to take.

In his story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” Murray Farish writes an ending that radically shifts point of view and tone. You can read it now at FiveChapters. Tomorrow, Farish will talk about the risks of writing this kind of ending.

How the Story Works

Every story makes a contract with the reader—or, as various quotable writers have said, works of fiction teach their readers how to read them. This means that the first paragraph of stories and novels teaches the reader how the narrative will proceed in terms of point of view, style, and tone. Here is the first paragraph of “Inappropriate Behavior”:

George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do. There’s a part of him that’s glad to have another grievance to nurse deep into the night. For Miranda, in this economy, this is all a real inconvenience.

The terms of the contract have been set. The story will be told in third person, switching between George and Miranda’s points of view, closer to George’s than Miranda’s. The tone is pretty straightforward—some version of realism. Of course, there is room to move within these terms, but if, for instance, the story shifts into extended first-person narration or if Godzilla rumbles onto the page, the reader might drop the story and walk away. Broken contracts don’t normally bode well for a work of fictions’ relationship with its readers.

Now watch how Farish begins the final section of this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill. Commensurate to his capacity for wonder. The last, best hope of Earth. Then when the man reached what should have been his happiest and safest and most productive years, everything went wrong.

Farish has switched from close third person to a much more distant point of view. George is now “a man.” This change is straining against the bounds of the contract, but nothing has been broken yet. Then, Farish switches the focus of the point of view, from George to his son, Archie:

Their son watched all of this, and he was a smart boy. Everyone thought he was stupid, but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand why everyone thought he was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew he wasn’t. The boy watched his parents. He knew they were scared. But the boy was not scared.

Again, this change is pushing against everything the reader has accepted and known thus far, but it’s a discomfort the reader will likely adapt to. It’s not like Godzilla has appeared on the page:

As soon as the father got in his car, a monster picked up his car and threw it all the way to where the boy couldn’t see. The boy got his sword and Mr. Carrots got his laser, and the boy said the spell to go through the door so they could rescue the apartment complex. Then they killed the monster.

Okay, now the contract is broken. How does Farish pull it off? Some readers will say that he doesn’t. Any narrative risk that a writer takes is bound to alienate some readers, and it’s not because those readers lack sophistication. At a certain point, liking a book isn’t about the book’s quality but about the readers’ taste. Some readers will give a story more leeway to break against expectations. That said, this story tries to set up the reader for the extreme change it has in store. First, as I wrote yesterday, the story continually breaks the frame of its own narration, which makes the reader comfortable with a story that will reach beyond its immediate setting. Second, the story eases into the ending, first tweaking the distance in the third-person POV and then changing the person that the POV follows. When the POV shifts from George to Archie, the tone necessarily changes as well, and it’s not unexpected. We’ve gotten to know Archie pretty well over the course of the story. So, Farish has set up the ending as much as possible.

But why make these changes at all? Why not stick with the terms of the contract? (Spoiler Alert) The story begins with Archie causing trouble at school, George out of work, and the stress taking a toll on George’s relationship with his wife Miranda. By the end, Archie has been removed from the school and placed in an alternative school for children with behavioral problems. George is still unemployed, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, and they’ve lost their home. They’ve living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. Things are bad. Here is the scene that ends the story: George gets a call for an immediate job interview, but he has nowhere to go with Archie, who is at home. So George puts on Mario and tells the boy not to open the door; then he leaves for the interview. In this scene, nothing good can happen. Given the Job-like string of misfortune that has befallen the family, only a misfortune of the very worst kind can happen now. The way that the story must end is clear. And yet, as a reader, I don’t think I could bear it; it’s possible I might not finish the story. I’m not sure Farish, as the writer, could stand the ending, either.

So what is to be done with the story? Farish’s solution is to keep the scene but tell it from a POV that permits the reader to finish the story. It gives the reader enough emotional distance to keep going. In a way, by breaking the contract with the reader, the story works in partnership with the reader to create the ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an ending that breaks the contract with the reader, using the ending from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Choose a story that you can’t finish. Every writer has unfinished stories stashed in a folder. Read through the story again and ask yourself this question: Given what has occurred in the story, what must happen at the end? Now, ask yourself a second question: Do you want to write that ending? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and write it. Sometimes you just need to look at the ending logically. But if the answer is no, then you need to figure out why. Does the ending feel wrong? In other words, does it not fit your sense of the characters and place and tone? If so, you’ll need to adjust the way you’ve handled the characters, place, and tone (and what happens to them) so that you can get to the ending that is right for the story. You likely took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll need to go back and find it. But perhaps the ending is right, and the problem is you don’t want to do that to your characters. In that case, you need to find a way to do what needs to be done.
  2. Try out different ways to break the contract with the reader. The most likely way to break the contract is to change the POV. Can you change the amount of distance in the point of view (close to distant third person)? You probably can’t switch from third to first. You might be able to switch from first to third. You can also switch the character at the focus of the POV. If you do this, you will also likely change the tone of the story since the character will have a different sense of the world. Another way to break the contract is to jump forward in time. Or go back in time. This type of break is more common but carries the same level of risk. Whatever type of break you choose, you should choose it intentionally. You can’t sneak a change past the reader.
  3. Ease into the break. What smaller changes can you make to prepare the reader for the big change? Farish first changes the distance of the point of view. Then he changes the focus (man to boy). Finally, he drastically changes the tone. Think about the break that you’ve chosen. What are small ways that you can begin to push against the limits of the contract before finally breaking it? Doing so can prepare the reader for what you’ve got in store.

One final thing to keep in mind. Farish breaks the contract at the very end of a long story. If he had broken it halfway through, all readers probably would have quit. Keep in mind the readers’ psychology. If they see that there is only paragraph or so left in the story, they’re likely to keep reading. Every workshop teacher in the world will preach not breaking contracts with readers, but if you must do so (and sometimes you must), then try to do it in a way that makes it easier on the reader.

Good luck!

How to Break the Narrative Frame

10 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

As writers, we often find ourselves frustrated at the difference between the story in our heads and what appears on the page. As we often imagine it, the story and its many parts exist all at once, smashed together in our minds. Connections between ideas are immediate. But on the page, these parts are broken into discrete paragraphs that put space and distance between the ideas and images. The best writers are able to eliminate that distance. We recognize such writing when we see it, but how can we create such prose ourselves?

Murray Farish’s story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” contains entire worlds in single paragraphs. The story is the part of the new collection, Inappropriate Behavior, from Milkweed Editions. Read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

Great narration often breaks the frame that is has set for itself. A paragraph that begins in a particular room, in a particular moment of time, will slide out of that room and moment of time. In this paragraph from “Inappropriate Behavior,” watch how Farish breaks out of the frame that he sets in the first sentence:

Once they finally get Archie to sleep, Miranda goes to bed because she has to work in the morning, and she’s liable to be up with Archie’s nightmares in an hour or two. George checks the ads on Monster, even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says no one ever gets a job off of Monster. The only way to get a job in this economy is to meet people, LaShonda says. Network, network, network. George looks at Monster. He looks at hockey scores. He jerks off to porn. He e-mails résumés. The Internet costs $24.99 a month. He nurses his grievances. He reads the news. In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown. The deal includes another six months of unemployment benefits. Six more months? He can’t imagine what will happen if it’s six more months. Don’t let feelings of worthlessness ever enter your mind, LaShonda says. You are not worthless because you’ve been laid off. There is no stigma attached to losing a job in this economy.

The paragraph begins in George and Miranda’s house in St. Louis, in the moment after their son has fallen asleep. Yet very quickly it starts quoting someone, LaShonda, who is not present. It also reports political news from Washington D.C. When reading this paragraph, it’s possible that you don’t notice these shifts out of the initial frame. They seem like a natural part of the narrative voice. But almost every writer has experienced the frustration of feeling trapped in place and time, as their story’s narration is yoked to whatever is happening immediately in front of its gaze. So, how does Farish move away from the present moment?

He connects the present moment with another moment. Perhaps the most important phrase in the paragraph is “even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says.” The phrase creates a bridge from the present moment to something that happened earlier and in another place. The next two sentences take place on the other side of that bridge, in the outplacement agency. This bridge is essential to the shifts that take place in the rest of the paragraph. Because the readers have been shown one bridge, they won’t be surprised when others are built—and built more quickly. For instance, the next bridge out of the initial frame contains no transition such as “even though.” Instead, the paragraph leaps from “He reads the news” to “In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown.” The shift happens much faster than the first one.

He shifts between moments again and again. A bridge is no good unless you use it. So, Farish stays in the political news for another sentence and then shifts back into George’s head in the present moment and then immediately into LaShonda’s advice from the outplacement agency.

Once the bridge out of the narrative frame has been built, you can jump out of the frame again and again, as many times as you want. It’s this kind of dynamic sense of place and time that makes great narration so wonderful to read. As readers, we’re constantly surprised (pleasantly) by where the prose takes us, by what unexpected bridges have been built.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s shift out of the narrative frame of a paragraph, using the passage from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Create a frame. Take any paragraph you’ve already written. Or write a new one. It can be about anything. The important thing is to give yourself a defined place and time: your characters are in this place at this moment. Farish’s paragraph is about what two parents do after their son falls asleep. The place is a house, and the time, we know from an earlier paragraph, is about eleven at night.
  2. Create a bridge out of the frame. The easiest way to do this is to connect something about the present place and time with something that is not within that frame. Farish uses a simple transitional phrase: “even though.” It works like this: Character does _____, even though So-and-So says not to. So, to create a bridge, you can make a character do something and then explain what someone else says about that particular behavior. That said, the bridge doesn’t require an action. You can do the same thing with an object: Character picks up a coffee cup, which So-and-So always hated/loved.
  3. Cross the bridge. Once you’ve got the bridge, go over it. Farish leaves George’s house at 11 p.m. and shifts into a placement agency on some previous day. Readers are savvy enough that if you directly mention someone or someone in a paragraph (and I’ve that something or someone an attitude or weight of being), then if you, in the next sentence, write from a POV that is close to that person or thing, the readers will figure out what’s going on. That said, the weight of being is important. It’s more difficult to build a bridge out of a weightless reference. Here’s an example: She listens to Bon Jovi and wonders what she’s going to do about Carl. If the writer suddenly crossed a bridge into Bon Jovi world, the reader would likely figure it out but might also wonder why Bon Jovi matters. The reference is weightless. So, give your reference weight by providing it with an attitude about what is happening or by letting it reflect, like a mirror, the attitudes of others (she always hated the coffee cup).
  4. Cross back to the other side. Very little transitional work is required. If you clearly set up the two sides of the bridge, the reader will understand what side they’re on.

Once you’ve built one bridge and crossed over it and crossed back, you can easily build more bridges. In his short paragraph, Farish creates and crosses over two. The story as a whole has dozens of bridges. As a result, it has set up the reader to perhaps accept an even greater break at the end, which I’ll look at tomorrow.

Good luck!

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