Tag Archives: Joyland Magazine

An Interview with Caille Millner

29 Oct
Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification and an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.

To read her story “The Surrogate” and an exercise on subtext, click here.

In this interview, Millner discusses first lines, writing about class, and moments of attempted—and failed—communication.

Michael Noll

Something I’ve found myself stressing lately in writing classes is the need for directness, rather than subtlety, when it comes to plot and situation. So, I was immediately drawn to the opening lines of this story:

“Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.”

Did the story always begin with this line, with this directness, or was it something that you discovered through revision?

Caille Millner

It wasn’t part of the first draft, but it came fairly early on. I knew from the beginning that the action of the story would be driven by a simple question—will she choose to have her own baby?—and that all of the tension would arise out of the complexity of her family dynamics and the stark limitations of her opportunities. But since it takes time and detail to create the tension, there’s nothing lost by stating the plot upfront. It’s a way to keep the reader interested enough to stay with me while I unwind the rest of the skein.

Michael Noll

Of course, there’s a great deal of subtlety in the story. For example, huge class distinctions lie in plain sight but are never directly remarked upon. For example, Rebecca can take maternity leave while Cecily’s job is maternity, and Rebecca can afford doctors that Cecily can’t. Did you ever comment directly on these disparities in earlier drafts? Or did you always know that the reader would intuitively see and understand them?

Caille Millner

No, I never made direct comment on these things, for two reasons. The first was that I built tension by building details. This is an unspoken experience in public life, so the emotional toll takes on weight as you, the reader, learn what goes into it.

The second reason I never commented directly was that it felt more realistic to me. In situations where the class aspect underlies the very existence of the transaction, it makes the participants very uncomfortable to talk about it and to think about it.

Rebecca doesn’t want to think about all of the dominoes that had to fall for this moment to be possible for her – she just wants her baby. Cecily’s day to day existence is fraught enough—she just wants her money. Why would either of them rock the boat? The reader is the one who’s granted the right to consideration, to judgment, as the outside observer.

Caille Millner's story,

Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is the conversation between Cecily and Rebecca about what it means to know you’re ready for a baby. The characters are talking to each other, but they’re not really talking about the same thing. The subtext for each character is different. Is a scene like this the magical result of writing into a situation? Or was it a scene that you knew, from the beginning, that you would eventually write?

Caille Millner

How interesting that this scene is your favorite moment. It came from the situation. Two women, thrown into intimacy with each other, but an intimacy with strained circumstances and painful limits. They know nothing about each others’ lives. They’re having an idle, tedious moment. It seemed like a chance for one of them to risk an intrusive question.

And of course those moments of trying and failing to communicate with someone, to try and fail to find common ground—those moments are so frequent and frustrating and human.

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Matthew Salesses, and we talked about something he’s written about: how, in his words, “We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages.” I thought of this need as I read “The Surrogate.” We don’t learn that Franco is from Mexico or that Cecily’s mom had returned to Mexico until deep into the story. And, both characters have names that don’t carry regional or ethnic assumptions with them, unlike the name of Franco’s daughter, Marisol. Did you begin the story like this on purpose—focusing on the story (surrogate’s husband wants a baby of their own) first and on the characters’ backgrounds second?

Caille Millner

Franco’s name would’ve been a tip-off to me, but I understand your point. Again, I was conscious of lived experience. Their backgrounds are secondary to the action because they aren’t thinking about their race or their experience as immigrants all the time. On the other hand, it certainly has played a role in their current situation.

October 2015

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

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How to Create Moments of Clashing Subtext

27 Oct
Caille Millner's story,

Since Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine, it has been the subject of several admiring essays, including in The Rumpus.

In high school English classes, students are sometimes introduced to the terms round character and flat character. These same terms occasionally pop up during writing workshops, often accompanied by the statement, “I want to know more about So-and-so.” But as a piece of advice, “I want to know more about…” isn’t very helpful. Let’s assume the writer does as suggested and brainstorms pages and pages of backstory and character description—then what? Knowing more about a character doesn’t automatically result in a better story or even in a rounder character. The more needs something to do. It needs a purpose.

One possibility is to use this information as subtext for a scene. A great example of how this works can be found in Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate.” It was published in Joyland Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The premise of “The Surrogate” is pretty neatly summed up by its title and opening paragraph:

Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.

The first thing we’re introduced to is Cecily and her husband’s home:

They live on the dusty edge of a desert city. The neighborhood is small, bleached-out, and quiet. Their house is a bright one-story with a chain-link fence in front and a little patch of yard out back. An arm’s length of space separates the houses on either side.

We’re also introduced to the woman whose baby Cecily is carrying:

Cecily is carrying this baby for Rebecca, a woman who has the most incredible smell. Whenever she sees her, Cecily closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to guess what’s in her perfume — is it cedar?

It must be cedar. Franco sometimes smells of it when he comes home after work. On Franco it’s mixed with the smells of sweat and tar, and on Rebecca it’s mixed with smells that are too nice for her to recognize, but she knows cedar when she sniffs it.

The difference in class between Rebecca and Cecily is clear—and the difference matters. Rebekah can take maternity leave from her job, but for Cecily surrogacy is a necessary source of income. Her husband often experiences year-long stretches of unemployment. This class difference is the context for the story—what is happening in the background.

It becomes subtext when it is put into action. This occurs throughout the story, but here is one particularly clear example:

“How’d you know you were ready for a baby?” Cecily blurts out. She’s surprised as soon as the words appear, and stares ahead at them, as if they were cigarette smoke.

Cecily senses Rebecca’s back straightening in the chair beside her.

“That’s a good question, Cecily,” she says, and it sounds to Cecily like she’s never thought about it before.

On the surface, Cecily’s question is pretty simple. If the story was stripped of its context and this bit of dialogue was all that we saw, the scene wouldn’t be very compelling. It’s interesting because of what lies behind the question—what Cecily is thinking about as she asks it. In Rebecca’s response, it’s clear that although she understands at least a little of Cecily’s life and context, she’s thinking about them in a different way—and she’s also thinking about other things, her own context. In the dialogue that follows, you can see the moments where the subtexts collide:

“I guess…it was always something I wanted?” Rebecca says. “Something Derek always wanted? We’d better want it, with everything we’re going through.” She chuckles.

They sit there for a moment.

“But I guess you’re always sort of ready, right?” Rebecca says. “Once you have your life together.”

“Hmm,” Cecily says.

Cecily is thinking about the obstacles that she’ll face to getting pregnant: giving up the income of surrogacy, providing for a child, the effect on her body, and the emotional consequences of a child. Rebecca is thinking about the fact that she’s using a surrogate and her own obstacles that have led her to this moment.

In some ways, the subtexts for each character overlap, and the characters are aware of this. But there isn’t so much overlap (they aren’t thinking about the same thing in the same way) that the tension dies. Conflict often arises out of moments in which character interact with different subtexts (different intentions or thoughts). These characters’ awareness of this difference in subtext–and inability to completely smooth over the resulting awkwardness, despite trying—is partly what makes the scene so compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an opportunity for a collision of subtext, using “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner as a model:

  1. Identify the different contexts for each character. Choose a scene to create between two or more characters. What is going on in the background for each of them? Think about context like a green screen in a film. What is going on behind the actors affects how they act and how we understand what their actions. So, what is going on in your characters’ lives? What is their situation and backstory?
  2. Turn that context into action. As anyone who’s gone through workshop knows, backstory isn’t the same thing as drama. It needs to be put to work. In “The Surrogate,” Cecily needs money, and so she turns to surrogacy. Rebecca has money but can’t have a child, so she turns to surrogacy. Think about the context you’ve created for the characters. How do they act on it? What does it force them to do?
  3. Create complications from that action. What are the limitations that the action places on a character. For example, Cecily can’t have a child of her own when she’s carrying someone else’s baby. Or, what are the mental effects of the action. For example, Rebecca must accept a weird sort of enlargement of the self: it’s her baby, and so the womb it resides within is, from a particular point of view, also her womb. It’s a potentially uncomfortable relationship dynamic.
  4. Bring the different contexts together. Context becomes subtext when it informs how the character behaves and how we, the readers, understand that behavior. When two characters with different context experience the same moment, the way that subtext informs their reactions will often lead to different responses. So, two characters might see a child carrying a balloon and respond quite differently. Or, if two characters are talking about something, their different subtexts for the conversation can cause them to, essentially, be having two very different experiences. The key is to put two characters with different contexts together.
  5. Give the characters some awareness of what has happened. When the characters interact, and when their different subtexts are revealed, it can be useful to have at least one of the characters aware of this revelation that their contexts/subtexts are quite different. This is what “The Surrogate” does with both Rebecca and Cecily. There’s a sense that each is aware (if only vaguely) of why the other responds the way she does, and it makes the conversation awkward. They try to smooth it over, but the effort is not entirely successful. What happens when one of your characters tries to smooth over the awkwardness from realizing that she has a different context/subtext than the person she’s talking to?

The goal is to create suspense and drama from an encounter between two characters with different subtexts for the moment.

Good luck.

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