Tag Archives: Judy Chicurel

An Interview with Judy Chicurel

20 Nov
Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman coming of age in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel’s writing has appeared The New York Times, Newsday and Granta, and her plays have been performed in NYC theaters and at festivals, including the NYC International Fringe Festival, New Perspectives Theatre, and Metropolitan Playhouse. She is a member of the New York Writers Coalition and was a 2011 Fellow in the CUNY Graduate Center Writers Institute Fiction Writing Program. She recently published her first novel, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.

To read an excerpt from If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go and an exercise on creating a narrative clock, click here.

In the following interview, Chicurel discusses endings that aren’t neat, staying true to a character’s voice, and the writer as outsider.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in your conception of the book as a collection of linked stories. On one hand, the book doesn’t quite build and develop its story lines the way a novel would. On the other hand, many of the stories do seem like chapters, with narrative arcs of their own and endings that seem incomplete, like the prelude to another story or chapter. Also, some of the chapters are almost character sketches, which is probably insufficient to drive a stand-alone story, but which, in the context of the book as a whole, are really probing and thoughtful. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

Judy Chicurel

The content and structure of If I Knew… almost had a life of its own. I wrote the last story first and knew it was going to be the last story, but really had no idea what would come before. I just started writing the stories pretty much out of sequence and I would send them to my agent as they were completed; I was simultaneously working on another novel at the same time, and at one point she said about If I Knew…, “I think this is your book.” I still didn’t know if it was going to be a novel or a story collection until the manuscript was finished, and then the linked stories made the most sense, particularly within the contextual setting of Elephant Beach. I liked the idea of stories about these connected lives that didn’t necessarily have neat, tied-in-a-bow conclusions and might haunt readers a little after they finished reading. This seems to have been accomplished, according to some of the reviews.

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone talk about the drug experimentation of the Beats. They’d expected to create a cultural revolution, he said, but, in the end, many of the changes wrought by drug use were bad, both in the effects of addiction and the conservative societal and governmental response that followed. This book seems set after the glow has worn off. There’s not a lot of sense of promise and positive excitement to the drug use. For instance, the narrator talks about “boys I’d gone to school with, known forever, groping, sniffing, sliding around me, everyone high on acid or THC, thinking I was just as stoned as they were and it would be easy.” The drug use seems more predatory than hopefully experimental here. Is this a depiction you were aiming for?

Judy Chicurel

No. The sniffing and sliding around were more a result of hormones, not drug use, which, like alcohol, has been known to lower inhibitions when it comes to sexual activity. And don’t forget the sexual revolution was in full swing, which heightened expectations. But there’s a scene in the same chapter that you’re referring to where Katie considers having sex with one of her friends on a lifeguard chair, but it never happens because he passes out from too many Quaaludes, so I don’t think you can really call that predatory behavior.

I think we tend to delude ourselves with the notion that excessive behavior is always excusable if you’re some kind of artist because then drugs or alcohol have a creative purpose, when in reality people at all ends of the spectrum fare just as badly from resulting addictions. Whether we’re talking about the Beats or working class kids in the 1970s or young people today, a lot of experimentation with heavier drugs promised mind-expanding possibilities that yielded mind-diminishing consequences. Keep in mind not all the Beats enjoyed William Burroughs’ productivity and longevity.

Michael Noll

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

The Guardian called If I Knew...”a beautifully evocative portrait of one tight-knit working-class community on Long Island during the summer of 1972.”

You occasionally let your characters talk for long, uninterrupted stretches—especially Mitch. He has one piece of dialogue where he’s talking about the flowers in Vietnam, and he talks for at least a page. I don’t often read dialogue—or monologues—that last that long? Is that the effect of your experience as a playwright? How did you know when to let a character keep talking and when to shut him down?

Judy Chicurel

I think whether writing dialogue for plays or narrative fiction, you have to pay attention to your characters, more so than to the rules of whatever medium in which you’re writing. Mitch loves to drink and the drunker he gets, the more he likes to talk; in that particularly monologue, he’s finally found someone in Luke who can empathize with his experiences in Viet Nam and he’s sharing what for him was a critical memory. Luke, the other Viet Nam vet, is more taciturn; his war experiences have made him more of a brooder. I like to picture my characters and imagine their speech patterns, the sound of their voices, conversations they might have; sometimes I’ll write snippets of dialogue and think, “That’s a nice couple of lines, but would this character really say that?” So for me it’s more about respecting the characters, trying to stay true to their voices.

Michael Noll

At one point Katie is walking through her neighborhood, watching kids play and their parents hanging out on the stoops, and the description of the place is chaotic and messy, and Katie’s heart begins to beat faster and she thinks to herself, “These are my people.” That sense of belonging is really strong in the book, and I’m curious about how much you felt—and still feel—the same way. This stretch of Long Island is not a place you’d expect to find a published writer living. How has your sense of belonging to that community changed as you’ve grown as a person and an artist?

Judy Chicurel

I think I’ve almost always felt like something of an outsider no matter how much I appear to belong to a particular group. I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve experienced this kind of psychic detachment, where externally you’re part of the scene, but internally you might as well be on an island, alone, and on some level, you’re always observing. It’s an interesting paradox because most of the time, unless you tell them, nobody else knows how you’re really feeling.

I no longer live on Long Island and haven’t for over twenty years, though I still have friends who live there. But I’m often struck by the expectations of where published writers live and don’t live, and the typecasting of people who live on Long Island by folks both familiar and unfamiliar with the geographical terrain. When I did live there, I was a journalist who contributed to The New York Times and Newsday, as well as national magazines, and I knew many other writers doing the same thing who still enjoy living there or have moved there because they want to live five minutes from the beach. So I do think these types of assumptions tend to put limitations on people that probably shouldn’t be there. Readers might also keep in mind that If I Knew…takes place over forty years ago and that the demographics of Long Island, like practically every place else in America, have changed quite a bit.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Narrative Clock

18 Nov
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, the new collection of linked stories by Judy Chicurel, tells the coming-of-age-story of a young woman on Long Island in 1972 in the midst of drugs and Vietnam.

If you had to boil my MFA experience down to one lesson about craft, it would be this: give every story a clock. That piece of advice came from the program’s director, Tom Grimes, who had been a close friend of the infamous director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy, and so the advice had the feeling of something inescapably essential and true. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it. As a result, like many writers, I struggled to know when to end a story. So, it’s useful to pay attention to writers who know how to set the timer for their own work.

A great clock can be found in Judy Chicurel’s collection of linked stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You GoYou can read a sample chapter from the book here.

How the Novel Works

In this interview with Tom Grimes’ in The Austin Chronicle, he explains how the clock works: “it starts ticking when dramatic action happens” and the clock stops “when the dramatic action ends, regardless of what it is. The clock’s out of time, so you can’t add overtime.” So, the clock is connected to dramatic action, which seems obvious and easy until you try it.

Sometimes, what is needed is an artificial clock, one that you consciously set at the beginning of a story or chapter. Judy Chicurel does this at the very beginning of her chapter, “My Country Right or Wrong,” in the description of Mitch:

I had to talk quickly, though, because once Mitch reached a certain point in his drinking it would be useless to try and get his opinion on anything. The good thing was, the drunker he got, he wouldn’t remember most of what we’d talked about so he wouldn’t be able to repeat it to anyone else we knew. The trick was to get his wisdom on the subject before he reached “the click,” “that place between the last drink you should have had and the last drink you actually drank. You know, the one you’re still tasting the next morning, while your head’s exploding and you’re sitting around waiting for the room to blow up,” he once explained to me.

This is the type of clock that George Saunders has said he uses: “there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up.” In this case, Chicurel’s narrator must finish her yapping—say what she needs to say—before Mitch becomes too drunk. The clock has started ticking.

We know the clock will stop ticking when Mitch is too drunk to talk or remember anything. The question is how do we get there? If Mitch simply sits and drinks until he becomes incoherent and then the narrator leaves, we’re likely to feel disappointed in the way that we’re often disappointed when expected things play out in expected ways.

So, it’s interesting to see how Chicurel interrupts an expected chain of events. About halfway through the chapter, her narrator is watching Mitch carefully: “He raised his glass and drained it. I stared into Mitch’s face. His eyes still looked okay.” Then Mitch “licked the dregs of his glass and signaled to Len for another.” He’s getting drunker and talking about awful things that happened to Vietnam vets, and that’s when Chicurel introduces something unexpected: a bunch of construction workers who tell Mitch they don’t appreciate the way he’s running down America. An argument ensues, which Mitch wins, but winning it involves getting off his bar stool in order to fight and rolling up his pant leg to reveal his wooden leg. The scene ends with the bartender settling everyone down and pouring a round of drinks:

When he began making Mitch’s boilermaker, Mitch put up his hand and shook his head, “no.” He threw some bills on the bar and picked up his jacket with the bottle of Gordon’s in the pocket and began walking toward the door that led to the rooms in the hotel.

The clock has stopped ticking. Mitch is about to drink himself beyond “the click,” as promised at the beginning of the chapter. What is unexpected is how he got to that point: leaving the bar after an argument and finishing his drinking alone, rather than yapping it up at the bar.

In short, Chicurel has not only set a clock, but she found a way to make it stop ticking in a surprising way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a ticking clock using If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel as a model:

  1. Identify the ongoing action. A clock often involves something anticipated by the characters. This could be someone who walks in the door (or doesn’t, as in Waiting for Godot). It can also be a significant event (which is how every sporting event in the world works, with the audience waiting for the last great play). In both cases, the ongoing action is what happens in the meantime, what the characters are doing while waiting for the anticipated thing. This ongoing action could be purposeful and active, like someone trying to defuse a bomb before the timer runs out. The ongoing action can also be less purposeful and less active, like characters sitting around, talking.
  2. Set the clock. The clock is whatever will put an end to the ongoing action: someone arrives, an event occurs, a timer runs out. Inexperienced writers often use the timer that is most readily available: the course of a day. Their chapters and stories begin in the morning and end when the character goes to bed. The key is to find some other way of ending the action. Chicurel uses the effects of alcohol. In other words, the ongoing action ends when her character has had enough (or more than enough). How can you use that criteria for a clock: when will your character have had enough of whatever is happening?
  3. Notice the clock ticking. Chicurel does this by showing Mitch finishing his drink and ordering a new one. In a sporting event, we check the game clock to see how much time is left. If we’re waiting for someone, we watch the door. Make your characters aware that the clock is ticking, and give them an opportunity to check the time in whatever way is appropriate for your ongoing action.
  4. Introduce something unexpected. If your characters are watching the clock, find a way to make them forget it. We’ve all had the real-life experience of saying, “Oh, look at the time!” (and not in an ironic way). The key is to use the elements available to you given your ongoing action. Chicurel’s characters are drinking in a bar, and so she uses other patrons of the bar as interrupters. How can you identify some element of the ongoing action, some detail that exists in the background, and bring it to the foreground? When this happens, you may be able to distract your characters from the ticking clock.
  5. Stop the clock. No matter the distraction, the clock should still stop ticking. The alarm should ring. This moment becomes especially interesting when it interrupts something: the ongoing action or the unexpected interrupter of that action. Just because the characters have forgotten the clock doesn’t mean you, the writer, have. Experiment with ways to bring the clock back into the story.

Good luck!

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