Tag Archives: Justin Carroll

An Interview with Justin Carroll

16 Jan
Justin Carroll's story, "Darryl Strawberry," appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California but often writes about Montana, where he spent his formative years. His Montana story, “Darryl Strawberry,” appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California, raised in Montana, and now lives in Texas. He has an MFA from Texas State University and is an assistant editor for the Austin-based literary journal Unstuck. His work has been previously published in Juked, Saltgrass, and Brink.

In this interview, Carroll talks about the necessity of palpable detail, the greatness of Andre Dubus, and revising toward what feels organic.

To read an excerpt from “Darryl Strawberry” and an exercise on descriptive passages, click here.

Michael Noll

This is a story about waiting—and as such, it means that much of the story is dominated by characters thinking and talking (or not talking) about the thing they are waiting for. One risk that seems inherent in this kind of story is that there won’t be enough action or forward movement to keep the reader interested. The note that Kidd Fenner finds under his windshield wiper (“I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?”) seems to solve that problem by giving the reader something specific to anticipate. Was this note always part of the draft?

Justin Carroll

This story, like most, has seen its fair share of revisions. The first one did have a note, but it was given in passing, as back story. I was given the idea of putting the note into a scene in a workshop with Debra Monroe at Texas State University. It was in that workshop that I realized readers need a break from interior matters. They need something palpable to grip onto, something that breathes new life into the narrative. In Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” after a few pages of the narrator summarizing his views on faith, Dubus introduces the reader to his narrator’s daughter, who has just left the narrator’s horse ranch after a visit and who, later, become the catalyst for the story’s climax. We need this; without this introduction, the narrator’s views on faith (which, for the record, are wise, interesting, and entertaining) would begin to seem too one-note. Dubus introduces this different aspect of the story at just the right time. Without this break, stories begin to drag. In the beginning, “Darryl Strawberry” was frustratingly slow; the note was able to enliven this story’s step.

Andre Dubus' short story, "A Father's Story," was reprinted in Narrative Magazine, where you can read it bowl

Andre Dubus’ short story, “A Father’s Story,” was reprinted in Narrative Magazine. If you’re not familiar Dubus, you should set aside half an hour and read this.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a scene that isn’t directly related to the conflict between Kidd Fenner and his son, but by the end of the first paragraph, the conflict insinuates itself into the scene (“Wasn’t as good as Henry, but no one in Hamilton was. This, of course, was before the trouble.”) I can imagine writing a story like this and beginning by discussing the conflict directly, laying out its terms for the reader (The kid’s in trouble again, and his parents aren’t sure what to do this time.) Did you ever try such a direct opening?

Justin Carroll

In the first few drafts, Henry’s issues were revealed too clumsily: “This, of course, was before the meth fiasco,” or something equally cringe-worthy. That was too transparent, obviously. Then I erased any obvious hints of the Henry’s problems until Nora goes to the support group meeting. I think I settled with the line after I discovered that “the trouble” was in Fenner’s own language—this is the only way he’d be able to describe Henry’s status (in the beginning of the story, at least). I still got conflicting views on this matter from some of my colleagues, but in the end “the trouble” felt organic.

 Michael Noll

One of my favorite paragraphs is this one:

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line.

It tells the reader that Fenner is at the baseball field without ever saying, “He’s at the baseball field.” Was this intentional? It certainly made me pay closer attention to the language. If you’d identified the field right away, I probably would have skimmed over the details: bleachers, dugout, cyclone fence.

Justin Carroll

Yes, this emphasis on language was intentional. Fenner needed to experience the baseball field in the emptiness of winter. To see the field in direct contrast to the way he’d seen it when Henry had been in tip-top shape seemed important to me.

Michael Noll

This story is full of details that situate it pretty firmly in a particular place, not just details about snow and landscape but also specific proper nouns: Sapphire Mountains, Daly Mansion, Whitman’s Towing, Ravalli County, Chinook Winds, Chapter One Bookstore, Safeway, Town Pump. The effect is that story feels like it occurs in a real place–but, ironically, those specific details also make it relatable. So, even though I’m from rural Kansas, I found myself recognizing aspects of my own hometown in Hamilton, Montana. I’ve heard other writers say that they try to make the places in their story vague so that it seems as though the story could be anywhere. But that’s not what you do. What’s your philosophy toward specific place details like these?

Justin Carroll

Thanks for the compliment! I think specificity of detail is crucial for this story—for all stories, really. I want to be able to walk down the streets of a story, much like I want to feel a beer bottle in a character’s hand. If I can’t access the place of a story, then I probably won’t remember it fifteen minutes after I read the story. My favorite stories build towns and landscapes I can revisit long after experiencing them for the first time; specificity of detail is responsible for this effect.

January 2014

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

How to Describe a Thing Without Naming It

14 Jan
Justin Carroll's story "Darryl Strawberry" was published in Gulf Coast 26.1. The story is about neither the Mets nor Darryl Strawberry.

Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” was published in Gulf Coast 26.1.

The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.

A perfect example of the effect of viewpoint on prose style is Justin Carroll’s story, “Darryl Strawberry.” It was published in Gulf Coast, and you can read the first pages here.

How the Story Works

Every story contains a moment of necessary description: of a room, a table, a character. The way we often begin the passage is by identifying the thing being described: kitchen, table, the person’s name. This direct approach has two potential problems, though. First, it can be boring. Second, it aligns with our preconceived ideas of a kitchen, table, or what we already know about the character. Because it’s predictable, the passage can have a tendency to hew to and repeat predictable words. So, to write lively, unexpected prose, we need to find a less direct approach.

The following passage from Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” illustrates this less direct approach. This passage comes after the main character, Kidd Fenner, has found a note from his son that says, “I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?” Fenner then gets in the car, and this is the scene that follows: (Notice the important, even necessary, words that Carroll avoids.)

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.

The words that he avoids, of course, are baseball and field. In short, Carroll has avoided naming the thing that he is describing. The result of this, at least in my reading, is that I was momentarily disoriented. (Since when does a Safeway parking lot have bleachers? But the details quickly oriented me. Dugout is pretty place-specific.) Because of that initial confusion, I paid closer attention. If Carroll had written baseball field in the first sentence, I would’ve scanned the rest, thinking, “Of course a baseball field has bleachers and a dugout.” An editor might have encouraged Carroll to cut those details and skip right to the line about encouraging fist pumps. If that had happened, what would be lost? Perhaps a sense of intimacy. The details draw us into a small but important moment. If the prose had just barreled onto the field, we might not appreciate or even notice that moment because we wouldn’t be paying attention.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing a description that makes the reader pay attention, using “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll as a model:

  1. Choose the place. It can anywhere: indoors or outdoors, a room in a house or the house itself, a public place such as a store or a particular part of that place such as an aisle or the parking lot.
  2. Write a sentence that names the place. Be direct and simple: “The parking lot was full,” or “The kitchen was warm and full of inviting smells.”
  3. Ban yourself from using any of the words (minus articles and linking verbs) in that sentence. You’ve established the most predictable words that can be used to describe your place. Now, you can find better words.
  4. Decide where your narrator or observer will stand and write a sentence that states this. Even if your novel is in third person, even if it doesn’t privilege the point of view of one character, you can still position the point of origin of the description. If the observer is in the middle of your place, the description will read differently than if the observer is standing at the side or edge or watching from a distance. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer, Kidd Fenner, is “parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot.”
  5. List, with brief descriptions, the most outstanding elements of the place. By outstanding, I mean, literally, the elements that stand out. Choosing those elements will depend on the limits placed on your observer. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer is limited by lack of light. But not all limits must be physical. They could also be emotional or mental: in other words, give your observer a pair of rose or other-colored glasses. Don’t dwell too long on any particular element of the description. Keep listing and describing new elements until you feel the urge to comment upon one.
  6. Comment on a description. In “Darryl Strawberry,” after the observer notices the mound, base paths, and fence, he remembers giving his son fist pumps before he pitched. Then, he thinks, “Christ…how long since then?” It’s memories and comments like those that are the description’s entire reason for being. They advance both the story and our understanding of the characters and their conflicts. That advancement can only happen, though, if the prose forces the reader to pay attention.

This same process can be used for describing a person—or anything, in fact. The goal is the same: avoiding predictable sentences in order to write unexpected ones. You may find that you’ve written at least one sentence that surprises you. If it surprises you, it will likely surprise the reader as well.

Good luck!

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