Tag Archives: Marc Watkins

An Interview with Marc Watkins

25 Jul
Marc Watkins

Marc Watkins’ story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won Boulevard’s 2008 “Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers” and was included in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

If you liked Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone or the movie based on the book, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Marc Watkins. He was born and raised in Missouri and writes about the down and out of the Ozarks. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the writer Emily Howorth. His stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small PressesBoulevardThird CoastTexas ReviewStoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. Recently, he served as a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology. In his spare time he edits a website,The Rankings.

In this interview, Watkins discusses the challenge of creating hopeful characters in a hopeless place, the influence of Biblical language, and what it means to be a highly literate high school dropout.

(For an exercise based on his story “Two Midnights in a Jug” click here.)

Michael Noll

The story has an interesting line early on: “Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.” There’s a lot of fatalism and futility wrapped up in a line like that. It suggests that the people who reside in that place will not change. How do you create suspense in a story when the setting is resistant to the ingredient necessary for suspense: the possibility of change? I’m curious how you approached setting a story in such a place.

Marc Watkins

Even though the structure of the story is punctuated by fatalism, it is hope, even in its slightest form, which drives the story. Stories that are essentially static in surface action have to rely on the sublet conflicts to develop tension and create suspense. Each character in the story latches onto a sort of absurd personal fantasy as a means of escape: Margret Jean thinks that a pill will save her broken marriage; Cordell believes that keeping the family together on the land that he lost is key to getting it back, even when a fire rains down ash and kills all the crops; and then there’s Abe, who believes his key to escaping his family is going to work for the very company that caused the fire to destroy the land.

I finished the story before I added the first graph. I like framing stories, especially those that use place as a major part of their structure, and trying to explain the environment by describing its rituals and cultures.

Michael Noll

The story’s point of view borders on omniscient, which is rare for any contemporary American work, let alone a short story. What led you to use that POV?

Marc Watkins

“Two Midnights in a Jug” was inspired by the biblical story of Job, and it was also the first time I’d ever written a third-person omniscient type of story. The voice basically fit the narrative, so I went with it as one of those crazy experiments that you’re supposed to engage in when tackling something wholly alien and new. The voice may have its roots in a church pew. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school for several years. They’d send us to two or three masses each week, and I guess that voice from the pulpit, that sort of weird Bible voice stuck in my brain, even when all other aspects of my faith faded.

Michael Noll

The source of the title "Two Midnights in a Jar"

A saying from the Dust Bowl inspired the title “Two Midnights in a Jug.” You can read about an editor who hated the title at Marc Watkins’ website.

On your blog, you wrote about a journal editor who disliked the title because it didn’t make literal sense. In your blog post, you revealed that the phrase “Two midnights in a jug” comes from a Dust-Bowl era description of the blackness of the sky during a storm. There is no mention of this in the story. Do you think it’s necessary for writers to cue readers into the meanings behind the allusions in a work? In other words, are you okay with readers wondering what the title means?

Marc Watkins

The story’s title was actually the last phrase in the final sentence of the story, but it changed because one good piece of advice I picked up from Debra Monroe was to never repeat a title within the confines of a story. The title should encapsulate the world of the story, and when it’s told more than once it risks falling flat like a joke with a punch line told twice. I’m fine with readers left wondering what the title means. I think we all read for challenges and for curiosity, grand or small.

Michael Noll

This story is set in a real place—Eminence, Missouri. Frankly, when I googled the town, I was surprised to find that it was real. Your portrayal of it in the story is so bleak that I assumed that you’d made it up. Obviously the characters in this story don’t seem like the type who might encounter a story in a literary journal, but what about Eminence’s more educated residents? The internet has made the world a small place. Do you worry about what people might think of the way they’ve been portrayed?

Marc Watkins

I’m a walking contradiction; I have a Master’s degree and a G.E.D. In its own private way “Two Midnights in a Jug” manages to convey a level of honesty about how I felt after dropping out of high school. I never grew up in a trailer, but the moment I told people that I was from Missouri and had dropped out, someone asked if I’d been raised in one, and I felt ostracized by the stereotype, so I decided to follow that stereotype down a rabbit hole in the story. The narrative’s bleakness also had to do with my father. He had entered into the final stage of a disease that would claim his life in less than a year.

Even though Eminence, Missouri, is a real town, with real people, “Two Midnights in a Jug” is fiction. As writers we live in conjured spaces that are just as “real” to us emotionally as any physical event or place, and this emotional truth, or as Tim O’Brien calls it “story truth,” matters most. It’s the magic we seek.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

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