Tag Archives: Kevin Grauke

An Interview with Kevin Grauke

20 Jun
Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke’s new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been compared to the stories of John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, Andre Debus, Richard Ford, William Trevor, and Richard Yates.

Texas occupies a iconic place in American literature. The state has given us Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and—to some extent—the later works of Cormac McCarthy. Its politicians tend to channel the persona of John Wayne. And yet a truer depiction of modern Texas culture might be the band Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs. A writer whose work reflects this changing nature of Texas is Kevin Grauke, whose new collection of stories, Shadows of Men, recently won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Kevin Grauke is a native Texan who now lives with his wife and two children in the Historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is Associate Professor of English at La Salle University, where he teaches creative writing and American literature.

In this interview, Grauke discusses what it means to write about Texas and how to write a fight scene. (For an exercise based on the fight scene in his story “Bullies,” click here.)

Michael Noll

At the end of Part Four of “Bullies,” two men get in a fight. You describe their fight in close detail, moving back and forth between physical action and one of the fighters’ thoughts. Many writers find such passages difficult to pull off without sounding like a choreographer: hit here, kick there, etc. But this story doesn’t have that problem at all. I’m curious how you approached this scene.

Kevin Grauke

I think brevity is the key; the scene is only about half a page long, and most of it concerns Dennis’s thoughts, rather than a cataloguing of punches and feints and such. Keeping such a scene as short as possible is important for a couple of reasons: for one thing, “action” sequences such as this tend to start dragging very quickly, to my mind, and for another, most fights that actually take place are nothing like the ones we see in the movies. They don’t involve a lengthy exchange of haymakers; instead, they’re usually quick and clumsy, and I wanted to convey that this fight was definitely of the quick and clumsy variety.

Michael Noll

The fight also occupies an interesting position in the story. It’s the climax, releasing the tension that has built up, and yet the scene that follows has little to do with the circumstances of the fight. As a result, the emotional consequences are felt far away from the scene of the action. Was this intentional–did you plan it early in the drafting process–or was it a happy accident?

Kevin Grauke

I think I knew that the story would play out in this way once I realized that Dennis was going to bully the father of Karl’s bully. Like Dennis, I think we tend to want intensely dramatic moments, in both what we read and in our own lives, to “mean” more than they often do, so I tend to want to problematize the significance of such moments just as soon as they happen in my stories. For instance, Dennis hopes that this action will boost his ex-wife’s opinion of him, and this (probably misguided) hope of his becomes what’s most important, not the fight itself.

Michael Noll

The story appears in a journal, FiveChapters, that has an unusual format. Every story is published serially, over the course of five days. Did you write “Bullies” with a five-part shape in mind? Or did you adapt the structure for FiveChapters?

Kevin Grauke

I didn’t write it with that shape in mind, nor did I adapt it for that structure, as a matter of fact. I have Five Chapter’s great editor, David Daley, to thank for finding the best places to break the story into five “chapters.”

Michael Noll

Many of the stories in Shadows of Men are set in Texas, but it’s a Texas that is suburban rather than dusty and western in nature. This view of Texas seems to becoming increasingly common. The writer Scott Blackwood writes about a similar landscape, and even the band Arcade Fire named its last album (inspired by The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston) The Suburbs. Yet most Texas literature classes taught in Texas focus on cowboys and oilmen. Do you think the literature of the suburb will ever be embraced by the Texas literary establishment?

Kevin Grauke

Kevin Grauke's collection Shadows of Men won the XX prize from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read a review of the book here at the Dallas Morning News.

Kevin Grauke’s collection Shadows of Men was published by Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent publisher in Plano, Texas.  According to a Dallas Morning News review, “Grauke details the fecklessness of the American 21st-century urban male with humor and insight.”

Well, if the Texas literary establishment is the Texas Institute of Letters, I would say that it already has to a certain degree, since Scott’s outstanding novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, won TIL’s Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction in 2009, and my collection, Shadows of Men, won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction this year. Whether we like it or not, large portions of Texas are just as urbanized and suburbanized as the rest of the country, so more and more Texas writers will undoubtedly write about such homogenized landscapes. However, cowboys and oilmen live on as myths, and these myths will continue to exert a certain degree of influence in Texas, even if it’s a Texas of malls and subdivisions.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.


How to Write an Action Sequence

18 Jun
Five Chapters is an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

“Bullies” by Kevin Grauke first appeared FiveChapters, an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

One of the hardest things to write is a fight scene. The blow-by-blow description often ends up sounding like a choreographer’s notes: hit here, kick there. The most commonly proposed solution to this problem is to condense the action into a line or two (He hit me, and I kicked him, and then we fell to the ground, fighting.)

But a terse summary is not the only way to write an action sequence. An example of the alternative can be found in the excellent fight scene in Kevin Grauke‘s story, “Bullies.” You can read it at FiveChapters. (The fight is at the end of Part Four.)

How the Story Works

The key to this passage is that it never becomes a list of actions. Lists are almost always boring. They’re too much like recipes, and so readers tend to skim them. Grauke solves this problem in two ways. First, he offers an interpretation of the action:

“He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now—a period, not an exclamation point—but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him.”

Notice how the commentary (“He meant this only to be a sign…but he pulled harder than he’d meant to”) sets up the action that follows (“stumbled forward”). Imagine if the commentary were left out. The action would be stripped of cause and effect, and thus of story and meaning.

Second, Grauke repeatedly moves from a particular action to the character’s thoughts. Here’s the first half of a sentence that illustrates this move nicely:

“When their bodies came to a stop in the darkness beyond the glow of the porch light, Mr. Shelley was on top of him, and thinking of everything that he’d ever talked himself out of, all the stands he hadn’t taken, Dennis threw the first punch of his life…”

Again, imagine if the character’s thoughts were left out. The action would suddenly exist in a void. Why does a college professor throw a punch? Why does he throw that punch now, in this moment? We wouldn’t know.

But the phrase containing the thought doesn’t only cue the reader into motivation. It also breaks up the rhythm of the sentence. The twin phrases, set off by commas (and thinking of…; all the stands…) slows the reader down and suggests the ways that time itself seems to slow to the character whose head we’re inside.

The Writing Exercise

This is a simple exercise. We’re going to make two characters fight. Here’s how:

  1. Pick the two characters. You can choose two that you’ve been working with. Or you can make them up. Either way, it will be tempting to make them complete opposites. But the best fights are between characters who share something in common. In “Bullies,” the fighters are both fathers of young children. In Rocky IV (as a magnificent montage makes clear) both Rocky and the Russian, Ivan Drago, are willing to push their bodies against human limits. The difference between the men is less in their personalities than in their motivation.
  2. Pick the ring. Give the characters a place to fight: the flagpole in front of school, a parking lot, a house, a swimming pool. Think about how the place would affect the fight. For instance, water in a pool would reduce the fighters’ mobility but also raise the stakes (drowning).
  3. Write the fight. List the actions that will occur. What would an objective camera capture if filming the scene?
  4. Go back and insert commentary. Grauke uses a version of this: He meant to do X, but Y happened instead.
  5. Insert the character’s thoughts. Use Grauke’s sentence as a guide: X happened, and he thought Y, and so he Z. Give some thought to the character’s motivation. A fight demands that the participants make choices: to fight or not to fight, how hard to fight, how bad to hurt the other fighter, and when to stop. Keep in mind the great line from David Sedaris’ essay “Can’t Kill the Rooster.” Sedaris’ brother gets beat up in the parking lot of a bar, and someone asks when the other quy stopped hitting him. The brother says, “When he was fucking finished.” A good fight scene allows you to write a line like that.

Good luck.

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