Tag Archives: Manuel Gonzales

4 Strategies for Creating Compelling Characters

23 Jan

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” Buy the book here.

Last week, Austin experienced two days of real winter, which meant my 6 and 8-year-olds had no school. Because it was cold and icy, playing outside wasn’t any fun, so we did what anyone would do: watched movies and built medieval siege equipment out of pencils. They both really wanted to watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of the sex jokes, so instead I introduced them to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, and so I was surprised at how corny it is. It wasn’t just the special effects (skeletons that look like Halloween decorations); the plot is pretty silly as well. But that didn’t matter. The movie holds up, and my kids loved it, because Harrison Ford creates a captivating character. We would have watched him in any movie—and throughout the 80s and 90s, American audiences did.

The movie was a reminder that if you can create a great character, the rest of the story often falls into place. Or, at the very least, the story gets easier to tell.

You can find four exercises designed to create captivating characters in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They exercises are inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: the novels The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales and Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and the stories “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus and “Proving Up” by Karen Russell.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Create Characters with a Single, Definitive Trait, inspired by The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A DEFINING TRAIT. It can be something physical like size, hair color, or an odd body part; in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops, as everyone remembers, has one eye. You can make the trait behavioral: a tic or disorder (as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a pattern of behavior (laughing at the worst moments), or a temperament (rage, kindness). You can also use a piece of clothing or accessory; everyone knows that the Monopoly man has a cane and top hat.

 

Make Your Characters Into Something New, inspired by Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

  1. IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF CHARACTER. It’s no secret that characters fall into types: heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, detectives/ criminals, butt-kickers/butt-kickees, and lovers/love interests. Think about the role your character plays. Is she the one going on a trip? The stranger coming to town? For just a moment, think about your story in terms of those outlines we’re all familiar with. Which one are you writing?

 

Define Your Character’s Emotional Response to Conflict, inspired by “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus

  1. SKETCH THE OUTLINES OF THE CHARACTER’S CONFLICT. Marcus’s story uses the genre of apocalypse. People on earth are dying in seemingly large numbers. Not much else is revealed—and we don’t need much else. People are dying, and the living are searching for ways to survive. That’s the conflict. So, begin by stating your story’s own conflict in a sentence or two: _____ is happening, and this causes ____ to happen. This structure works for intimate conflicts as well as apocalyptic ones:

X had an affair, so Y ____.
X got sick, so Y ____.
X owed me money, so I ____.
X fell in love with Y, and Y _____.
X did ___, and so her best friend Y ____.

 

Generate Tension by Giving Characters Unequal Access to an Object of Desire, inspired by “Proving Up” by Karen Russell

  1. IDENTIFY THE OBJECT OF DESIRE. The object is often named in the title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lord of the Rings, The Goldfinch. Or the object is implied by the genre: love, vengeance, the solution of a mystery. In most cases, the object is set before a character as a prize, but it’s only over time that the object gains personal importance to the character. This is especially true in mysteries: someone gives the detective a job, and at some point, that job becomes personal. (Sometimes there’s even a line: “Now it’s personal!”). So, even if the object seems a bit dry at the start, you’re at least giving yourself something to work with, a direction to point your character in.

 

Put these strategies to use, and you may have the next Indiana Jones at your fingertips.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

14 Apr
Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called “rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places” and also “thoughtful and well considered.”

Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.

To read an exercise on building character within action scenes based on Gonzales’ new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, click here.

In this interview, Gonzales discusses moving from stories to a novel, writing novel sections out of order, and moving through time within a narrative.

Michael Noll

This novel contains so much of what you did in The Miniature Wife. There’s the wry, corporate in-house documentary tone that was in “Farewell, Africa,” the genre sensibility of stories like “All of Me” and “Wolf,” and the sense of tense waiting that was in “Pilot, Copilot, Writer.” This is one of the concerns that story writers have–how will my voice and style translate to the length and form of the novel? How did you approach that jump? Did you always know the sort of novel that you wanted to write? Or were there abandoned projects and starts before settling on The Regional Office Is Under Attack!?

Manuel Gonzales

I didn’t always know the kind of novel I wanted to write next. The stories—they came out over ten or eleven years, and for a long stretch the stories, as a book, had been abandoned and I was working on two different novels, neither of which came to light, for good reason. And to be honest, the in-house documentary tone didn’t arrive in this novel till the very end of rewriting it. What happened was I had an image in my head of a man trying to grab a woman out of a detention center—La Femme Nikita-style—to turn her into a trained assassin of sorts, and she stomps his foot and makes a break for it—but when I wrote that, I didn’t know what was going to happen, where this was headed. For a long time, the early drafts contained long-ish, self-contained sections that, in hindsight, read very much like their own short stories, and I think that’s what got me through early drafts—I wrote it as if it were nothing more than longish short stories that followed the same action but contained their own mini-arcs.

Michael Noll

The novel starts with the weirdness of the place and world—a description of the Regional Office. Then, we briefly meet Rose as she is preparing to attack the Office. And then we’re given some backstory about her, and that backstory seems to have a different voice than the previous two chapters: it’s still funny and sharp, but it also wouldn’t be out of place in a completely realistic novel. Is this simply the voice that arrived on the page when you wrote her character? Or were you consciously trying to ground the novel’s fantastic world with a recognizable voice?

Manuel Gonzales

That backstory might have a slightly different feel, especially early on, because it was written early in the process and part of the writing was exploration—who is Rose, what does she sound like, how does she move—and the moment of her waiting to start the attack was written at the end, after I decided the whole book needed an overhaul, a new kind of beginning. And by that time I had a clearer idea of Rose, of her sense of humor, of her bravado propped up by her foul mouth and disaffected youth. What’s nice, too, though, is that in that section of attack, she’s older and has a different sense of her self, even. She’s been through the recruitment and training and has more bravado because of it—even if most of it’s false bravado—and by happy accident, I feel the narrative tones match the different kinds of Rose in those different points in her life.

Michael Noll

In all of your work, I’ve admired how you’re able to create space within moments of action for—I don’t even know what to call it, not action, maybe, instead, moments for the character to talk about something else. You have one of those moments near the beginning of the novel. Rose is repelling down a ventilation shaft, and she’s not wearing gloves, which makes her think about the man who tells her to wear gloves, which makes her think about her job and the mission in general, and then she’s wondering about things and only barely paying attention to the task at hand—or, we’re barely paying attention to it as readers. Passages like this make me wonder if you ever find yourself writing, “This happened and this and this and this” and unable to break out of the immediate present and let a character think? Or is this simply some of the magic you’ve got as a writer?

Manuel Gonzales

I don’t know that I would call it some of the magic I’ve got as a writer—or that I have magic as a writer—but more that this is how I see action happening. I find myself easily distracted ALL THE TIME doing any number of simple or complicated tasks, and it drives my family totally bonkers because in getting distracted I forget the task I’m in and move to something else. In fact, I’ve been answering this question for the past twenty minutes, not these questions, this ONE question—and so it seems only natural to me, right?, that you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to be laser-focused but not everyone is good at laser-focus, and your mind wanders to the things it worries or cares about—a guy, a girl, that really pretty cardinal on the fence outside your kitchen window, whatever. And you have to bring yourself back to the task at hand, or the external world itself brings you back against your will.

Michael Noll

You’re able to get a lot of pages out of a relatively short period of time. So, for example, you’re able to get 50 pages or so out of the initial attack on the Regional Office. Another writer might have covered much more ground and time in that number of pages. What was your approach to the timeframe of the novel?

Manuel Gonzales

My original thought was to focus mostly just on the day of the attack, just that one day, and toy with the peripheral characters—though of course by default the ones I singled out as peripheral became central—but I wanted to slow down the time of the action mainly because that’s how time works, in my mind, anyway. Things happen really fast and then not at all, and then really fast again, but also I wanted to offer full storylines of characters. I wanted to play around with cutting away from the action to give the reader something different, to delay the gratification but also to create a rounder world, richer characters. But then inevitably, too, cutting away from one moment of action usually meant cutting away to another moment of action. And then I realized I couldn’t tell the whole story of what I wanted to tell—what happened to these people after the attack—unless I also jumped forward in time, and jumping forward meant I could also jump backward, and then time went all topsy-turvy, jingly-jangly, and I decided the topsy-turvy jingly-jangly approach was the best approach for me.

April 2016

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

How to Build Character within Action Scenes

12 Apr
Manuel Gonzales' novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

Manuel Gonzales’ novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that something builds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!. You can read first pages of the book here

How the Novel Works

Action scenes can be some of the most difficult moments to write because the action draws the eye. Once someone is fighting or running or whatever, it’s hard to look away. But that is exactly what action sequences need. They must offer more than choreographed motion. Watch how Gonzales avoid that trap in this early scene from the novel. In it, the leader of one group has just given the sign to begin an attack on the headquarters of another group:

Finally she gave that signal and the fucking mercs were off, pouring out of their vans like mechanized roaches, and then they were gone, and Colleen, jog-walking right behind the mercs as they charged into the offices of the Morrison World Travel Concern, patted Rose on her ass and gave her a peck on the cheek and told her, “Nice work, kid,” and then waved casually over her shoulder and called out, “See you on the other side,” as she ran to catch up with the grunts, leaving Rose standing on the sidewalk feeling like she felt that one summer she agreed to help out with the pre-K kids at church camp, how relieved she’d felt every fucking day when it was recess and all those little shits had run screaming and hitting and shoving out of the multipurpose room and into the play yard and all she’d wanted to do was sit down and revel in the peace and quiet for one goddamn minute.

The passage begins with a series of actions but ends with the memory of a pre-K kids church camp. It’s a significant jump. What makes it work? The less-polished version of this jump, which most of us have written, is this: action action action, which made her think about that time… It’s the same thing that Gonzales has written, with one big exception: it includes the phrase “which made her think.” Other versions of this include “which reminded her” and “which transported her” and “which made her feel.”  The difference between these and what Gonzales writes is that his version is faster (“feeling like she felt that one summer…”) and doesn’t necessarily imply that the character herself is stopping in the middle of a battle to think, “Oh, this is just like that one time at church camp.”

We tend to value realism, but in action scenes, verisimilitude can get in the way. If a writer tries too hard to recreate action as it’s experienced by a character, the result isn’t automatically good prose. Would this character think about church camp in this moment? Maybe not. But she has a feeling, and the writer is pausing to tell us, the readers, what that feeling is—a feeling that the character perhaps understands without thinking about it.

Gonzales steps out of the immediate action with another strategy as well. This passage comes shortly after the first one:

Rose dropped twenty or thirty feet and then caught hold of the rope, threw her feet against the aluminum of the vent shaft, leaving deep boot marks in it, almost breaking the shaft off its column. She should have been wearing gloves. She hated wearing gloves, though, hated the way they constricted her hands, the way she couldn’t grip things as well as she liked…

Again, the passage starts with action and then moves out of it into a short meditation on gloves. Is the character actually thinking about gloves in this moment? Sort of, as you’ll see when you continue reading the scene. But she’s not thinking, “I hate gloves, the way they constrict my hands.” Why would she? She understands this hatred and doesn’t need to state it explicitly, even to herself. The moment is meant for the readers alone, an attempt to reveal something about the character based on what she’s doing at that moment: hanging on a rope without gloves.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create space to build character within an action sequence, using The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales as a model:

  1. Choose an action sequence. It can be anything from attacking a building to preparing dinner. Your characters are doing something.
  2. Write the basic action as a list. Gonzales actually puts his action in the first example into a single sentence. Try doing the same thing. You can always add more detail later. Get the essential parts of the movement: where it takes place, who is involved, and which objects are used.
  3. Step away from the action (Method 1). Make a comparison. Gonzales does it with the word feeling. The way his character feels in the midst of this action is like the way she felt in this other, very different moment. To do this, you can drop the word feeling into almost any point in the list of actions, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread, feeling like she felt that one…. Or, don’t use feeling at all. The action itself, not the way it feels but the actual movement, can be similar to something else, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread the way masons apply mortar to bricks. 
  4. Move into the comparison. Gonzales moves his character out of the attack and into church camp. In my examples, the character could move into whatever spreading peanut butter feels like or into her past as a bricklayer. You’ve opened the door into someplace other than the present moment; now walk through it.
  5. Step away from the action (Method 2). Select one of the objects you mentioned in the list of actions. Comment on it. Gonzales does this through absence: no gloves. Then he tells the reader something about the character’s relationship to that object (or its absence). Try doing the same thing. Make a statement about your character’s relationship to an object in the scene. Then, as with the previous method, step through the door you’ve opened. What else is connected to that object or the character’s experience of it?
  6. Return to the action. Once you’ve shown or told us what you wanted to show or tell, walk back through the door and into the present moment. The action resumes.

The goal is to create simultaneity in action scenes by adding other moments, times, and experiences to the present moment of action.

Good luck.

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

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

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

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. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

kelly luce

Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

21 Feb
Manuel Gonzalez's story "Farewell, Africa," was published in Guernica and the inspiration for this writing exercise. His new collection of stories, The Miniature Wife, is being mentioned in the same breath as George Saunders and A.M. Holmes.

Manuel Gonzales’s story “Farewell, Africa,” was published in Guernica and is included in The Miniature Wife, a new collection of stories that has been compared to the work of George Saunders and Aimee Bender.

Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection of stories, The Miniature Wife & Other Stories, has been called “extraordinary” by the LA Times. A review in The New York Times reveled in the stories’ “delightful freakishness.” His writing can also be found weekly on the 1000 Words project, where he writes and posts a weekly story inspired by an image created by the photographer Emily Raw. Gonzales serves as the Executive Director of Austin Bat Cave, a writing & tutoring center for kids located in Austin, Texas.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Gonzales discusses his approach to “Farewell, Africa,” which tells the unexpected story of a pool malfunction set against the backdrop of the destruction of the entire continent of Africa. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the immediate suspense created in the first line—can be found here.

Michael Noll

In the first sentence of the story, you introduce a problem (the pool didn’t work), but you don’t reveal what happens until several paragraphs later. Was this an intentional move on your part to create suspense in the reader, or did the opening paragraphs come about gradually, over the course of revision?

Manuel Gonzales

When I write these stories that have a sense of non-fiction to them, I always approach them with this idea in my head that the audience already knows the larger points of the story. So with this, I assumed that the imagined reading audience for this piece would already know that the African continent has sunk into the sea. So the world I created that would contain this essay had to be larger than the essay itself, because otherwise the essay wouldn’t work, and that world included an audience for the essay. And since everyone who was going to read this essay would already know about Africa, the starting point had to be something small and specific, this based on the kind of New Yorker article made popular by Talk of the Town contributors and Malcolm Gladwell that I had in mind as my model. So really, how I started the piece was determined as much by the structure of it as anything else, and the fact that this also developed a sense of tension in the real reading audience was a side-effect—a good one—of the early decisions I made about what kind of story I wanted to write.

Michael Noll

I’ve heard some writers claim that funny stories are impossible to write. But this obviously isn’t true for you. One of the best parts of this story is the weirdly detached tone the characters have toward the sinking of Africa. For instance, the first thing Owen Mitchell says about his famous speech “Farewell, Africa” is that it was fifteen minutes too long. But even the name of the speech itself seems oblivious to any sense of real tragedy. The disconnect works so well. Was it part of the story from the beginning, or did you have to figure out the right tone? Comedy (even black comedy) and the loss of civilizations wouldn’t seem like an obvious starting point for a story.

Manuel Gonzales

The comedy is generally there at the beginning all of my stories. I had this title in my head long before I wrote the story. I’d misread a NY Times headline (Farewell, Africa) as us saying goodbye to the African continent, as if it had gone away, and that made me think of the idea that we would have written a speech to work against the tragedy of the African continent sinking into the sea—because we turn to speeches in almost all times of crisis—and that struck me as sad and absurd and really funny because of the absurdity and futility of it. I think that comedy has to be paired with tragedy in order for both of them to achieve the effects you want them to achieve.

Michael Noll

At your book launch in Austin, you mentioned your love of stories that sound like nonfiction. This story seems to fit that description–journalistic in tone and approach. It’s almost possible to imagine this story appearing as a magazine profile. What draws you to the voice or style of the essay?

Manuel Gonzales

I really like reading essays, the New Yorker profile or a good GQ essay by Wells Tower or Rolling Stone piece by Mark Binelli or the old profiles and essays about New York written by Joseph Mitchell, and I liked the idea of using the techniques of a nonfiction piece in fiction. For one, you can get away with a lot of different things—exposition, for instance. You can load a nonfiction piece with exposition (telling instead of showing) without a lot of consequence, and then you also can use the tone and form to sidestep a number of obstacles that otherwise might gum you up when writing a piece of fiction. The tone gives you a certain kind of pre-set credibility, in fact, in the same way that medical language or legal language or scientific language can. Because when we read something in this tone and style, our expectations become set to ‘nonfiction’ almost subconsciously.

For this story specifically, I tried a few times to write about the guy who wrote the Farewell, Africa speech as a straightforward short story but found every time that the focus would become him and his small and narrow personal investments, and the story never achieved the tone or the largeness I wanted it to, never became the thing I wanted to read. So, after a few false starts, I decided to try writing a Talk of the Town piece about that guy, and that led me to the idea that what I would write about would be a fundraiser party for a museum dedicated to these continents that had sunk into the sea, and from there, everything else fell into place.

The other thing about using this kind of form is that you can break out of it and by breaking out of the form, for just a moment, in the middle of the piece, you create a space that’s a little surprising and potentially more emotional because of how and when it arrives.

Michael Noll

Here’s sort of a weird question: Lots of writers/people apparently send Bill Watterson their work, simply because they loved his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. They don’t expect a response from him. They’re just happy knowing that he might see their work. If you could send your story or your collection to any writer, living or dead, just in the hope that he or she would read it, who would you send it to?

Manuel Gonzales

Joss Whedon. I could go on and on about his work and how he creates story and how he moves in and out of genres, uses various compelling and fascinating forms, and how he works from a very emotional and very relatable starting point with all of this, which is what makes the stories work the way they do. As a writer, he’s been one of my bigger influences. He was one of the first in television to create season-long story arcs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (not a Joss Whedon show but the two overlap a little) you could say led to, ultimately, shows like The Sopranos, Alias, The Wire, and Lost—full of complicated storylines, deeply felt and inhabited characters. He also traffics in a mix of genres. He’s worked in horror and in space westerns and in sci-fi thrillers, but what makes them successful, when they are their most successful, is his investment in character-driven stories. He and his writing staff are great at plotting but the plots serve the characters and their growth, helps complicate our understanding of these people and the worlds they inhabit, which has always struck me as a literary approach to storytelling.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Make the Reader Want to Know

19 Feb
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“Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales was published in Guernica. You can read the story online here. Or, you can check out the story collection The Miniature Wife.

The writer Ron Carlson once began a story workshop by listing the things that we, as writers, would love to be told—but would never hear—in a workshop. Number one was, “If you stop writing, I’ll die.” The truth is that we’ll never receive the praise we truly want. No one’s life hinges on our work. Our readers won’t die if we hang up our writing shoes.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them curious—maybe even make them sweat.

Manuel Gonzales’s new story, “Farewell, Africa,” rivals any potboiler for its ability to create suspense. By the end of the first sentence, we want to know something very badly, and we’ll read until we find it out. “Farewell, Africa” is included in the new story collection The Miniature Wife and was also recently published by Guernica. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

Kenneth Burke, in his essay “Psychology and Form,” explains the relationship between writer and audience. To create suspense in the reader’s mind, Burke claims, requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.”

Let’s look at how “Farewell, Africa” creates and then delays the satisfaction of an appetite.

The story begins this way: “No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked.” Immediately the reader wonders what went wrong. Or even, more basically, how can a pool not work? The statement is so unexpected and odd that we naturally want to know more.

But the story withholds the answer for several paragraphs. It shifts gears, explaining the pool’s size and architect and the fact that it “had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost.” Now we’re really intrigued. What continents were lost? What is this world we’ve entered? In effect, the story has pulled a bit of sleight of hand, replacing the initial prize that we wanted with something else that we also want. We want to know why the pool didn’t work, but we’re distracted with the sheer strangeness of a world with disappearing continents. When, at the end of Part I, the story finally returns to the pool, it’s with a savage, understated rush that catches us by surprise: “’The damn thing’s not working.’ Then he took a sip of champagne and said, ‘Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.'”

As readers, once we’re hooked so firmly, we’ll follow the story wherever it goes.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Begin a scene by selecting a place (i.e. kitchen) and at least two characters (man, woman).
  2. In the first sentence of the paragraph, tell the reader what will happen in the scene (man will propose, woman will reveal she’s pregnant). There are many different ways to approach this first sentence, but, for now, simply tell the reader the information, either in third person (The man practiced his marriage proposal as he walked into the kitchen) or in first person (I didn’t want to tell him I was pregnant right away, so when he came into the kitchen, I asked if he’d picked up take-out).
  3. In the second sentence, introduce a diversion—or, as Burke calls it, a frustration. The diversion can be anything (take-out or the lack of). The idea is to get the reader interested and distracted by this new piece of information.
  4. Follow the diversion for as long as you can (argument about take-out).
  5. Then, surprise the reader by coming back to the info promised by the first sentence (Oh, by the way, Honey, we’re having a baby).

In short, promise the reader something, delay delivering on the promise for as long as possible, and then deliver. That’s one way to create suspense.

To learn more, look for an interview with Manuel Gonzales on Thursday.

Happy writing.

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