Tag Archives: Michael B Yang

An Interview with Michael Yang

16 Oct
Michael Yang's story, "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless," tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless,” tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael B. Yang’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Seattle Review. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is currently working on a novel.

To read his story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” and an exercise on using setting and backdrop to heighten the tension in small, intimate dramas, click here.

Michael Noll

Ron Carlson has said that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. I usually read that to mean that there’s the dramatic thing that happens and the more mundane context that lends the drama meaning. But you seem to have reversed the roles in this story. The story about the child actress and her struggling mother is, in some ways, more mundane than the background world of a serial killer on the loose. Did you ever play around with making the serial killer more physically present in the story? I’m curious how the story found its eventual form.

Michael Yang

Okay, here’s my confession. I just checked and the first draft of the story was written in 2007. That’s seven years since I began writing it until it got published. Seven years. I don’t know how many drafts there have been in the interim.

Strangely, in all those drafts I don’t think that the serial killer was ever present in the story. This was for a number of reasons. First of all, and this might seem odd, but I thought it would be more realistic. Even if you’re in the same time and place where there is a mass murderer, I think it would be pretty unlikely that you’ll be their victim. It’s more likely that you will run into them by chance and nothing happens. Afterwards, you might say that they were nice people who quiet and kept to themselves (of course), but it’s more likely that you would survive the encounter. Second, I wanted to create a feeling of unease and fear in living in the same city as a serial killer. I imagine the sense of danger would color every interaction, and that was the backdrop I wanted in the story.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Los Angeles, which has been used as a setting countless times and, as a result, brings its own fictional weight to a story. I mean, it’s possible to talk about L.A. stories in a way that you can’t talk about Kansas City stories or El Paso stories. Yet, I really felt that I was seeing the world for the first time. In part, the freshness is likely from the niche that you portray: acting tryouts for children appearing in commercials. The characters also spend time in an apartment, which is something that you, as the writer, can create from scratch, rather than relying on tropes that already exist. Still, was it difficult to set a story in a place that has been written about so many times?

Michael Yang

Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

I know, you’re right. The location is very familiar and there was some pressure in writing about a known place. On top of that, it has auditions and struggling actors, not exactly the freshest take on an L.A. story. I do think that in the very first drafts the story might have taken place in another city, but Sara was too ambitious to remain there and I thought it would heighten the stakes if her dreams were in reach, with the reality of failure more palpable.

I’ve always been fascinated by the entire, difficult process of creating movies, but it seemed interesting to write about it from the perspective of someone experiencing the day-to-day grind. And really, the constant failure and rejection of the actors seemed familiar. It reminded me of being a writer. There’s also a grotesque element in the process of child acting and the pursuit of fame, but I wanted to flip it slightly on its head by making the child the propulsive force instead of the stage mother. When I sent out the story, I had a few comments that Sara seemed to act too old for her age, but I think it fit her character. A very ambitious child can seem older and more business-savvy than someone else her age. I hoped it worked out.

Sara is a product of Hollywood, a place where her ambitions have taken her, so the topic defined the location which helped define the characters.

Michael Noll

The story is remarkably tight given how much exists just off the page. For instance, we know that the narrator has left her husband and her home in Texas to take her daughter to Los Angeles, but the husband appears only in the briefest of scenes, and even then, the focus is on the daughter, not him. Texas is referenced in passing. Did those parts of the story ever push themselves onto the page more fully? Did you have to revise them out, or were they always just in the background?

Michael Yang

This is also strange, but in all those drafts I don’t think that I ever wrote the scenes with both parents. I knew what the relationship was like between the mother and the father and why they broke up, but I wanted the story to take place as close to the ending as possible and I really wanted the fun of writing the commercials. By the way, if you have the chance to write a scene with a made-up advertisements for a fictional product, I highly recommend it.

I first drafted the story when I was examining my own writing process. It was around this time that I decided to think and plot less in the first draft. Even though I might have a general idea of the story’s direction, I wanted to follow where my subconscious took me, hoping that the turns would be surprising and make sense as I was typing. There’s a danger to this – where the wheels of the story might fall into familiar ruts, whether into cliches or into my own habits and proclivities – but the flashes of discovery, when they come, can be exciting.

Michael Noll

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

The story is playing around with the genre of tabloid sensationalism—the title is “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” As a result, I found it interesting how you develop the tension in the novel. When Frank appears, and when the narrator tells him off and then when he shows up at her apartment, I (and probably all readers) thought, “Uh oh.” We expected something awful to happen. And it may eventually happen, but not yet, not within the frame of this story. That must have been a difficult temptation to resist—to not fulfill the bloody expectations of the title, even though the way the story does end is a lot more unsettling than murder. How many drafts it took you to find that ending?

Michael Yang

I’m not certain how many drafts it took for me before I came up with the ending, but I’m pretty happy with it. For me, the appearance of the chicken man seems strange and unexpected, and right.

I was inspired by the essay “Narrative Spandrels” by the writer Robert Boswell in his craft book The Half-Known World. In the essay, he talks about how as we write, there can be an unintended image that recur throughout the story. It’s not planned and may seem inessential, a byproduct of our writing the primary scenes, but if we pay attention, it can shape the story, supply a sub-text, or gesture to the heart of our meaning.

As I worked on the many drafts of my story, at some point I noticed how many times chickens made an appearance, from the mother’s distaste of how live chickens look and act (my niece told me a story about how her pet chickens nearly pecked another, injured chicken to death), how they feed her child, how the old jingle from Chicken Tonight was a bonding experience during better days with her daughter. I also realized that the general feeling in the story was the same as touching raw chicken skin, which is a little disgusting and is also the same creeping sensation the mother feels towards L.A.

By the way, my fantastic editors asked me if the chicken man was entirely necessary, and I said, yes, yes he is.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

14 Oct
Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

For an example of how domestic dramas can be made exciting, check out Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” The lurid sensationalism of the title draws you in, but the drama that holds you is smaller and more intimate than a tabloid headline. The story was published as part of Amazon’s “Day One” literary series, and you can read the first pages and buy the story for $1 at Amazon.

How the Story Works

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog the Ron Carlson quote about a story having two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Usually, this means that a dramatic plot (ninja fights dragon in cage match) is given depth and resonance by the nuances of the story’s world (ninja can’t pass final ninja qualifying test, can’t get the girl, can’t make his parents happy, can’t get along with his more successful brother and sister). The world, then, gives the story texture.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if small, intimate plots can benefit from exciting worlds? What difference would the world make to a story about two characters working in a restaurant and trying to pay bills—one story is set in Kansas City, and the other is set in Pompeii just before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Context matters—and that is exactly the truth that Yang uses in his story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.”

The story is about a woman who has moved to Los Angeles so that her 9-year-old can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. It might seem odd to view a Hollywood story as mundane, but Yang sets the story in the grind-it-out world of television commercials: standing in line to audition, dealing with directors and other parents, and eating (and not eating) in order to look the part. Plus, the story isn’t concerned with a make-or-break moment for the girl, Sara. Something happens, of course, and it may or may not determine Sara’s future, but the immediate impact is felt most acutely by her mother. In other words, it’s a domestic story with small, intimate stakes.

So, look what Yang inserts into the story’s world: On the first page, the mother buys a grocery story tabloid magazine with the headline, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” After she feeds her daughter dinner, she reads the article:

I open the glossy pages. The first body was discovered off a Sacramento highway a decade ago, a homeless man. There was hardly any press, only a small article in the back pages, but two years later the second body, a well-known former prostitute for celebrities, lapped up on the shore of the Los Angeles River, wrists and ankles bound. The only connection between the two crimes was the headless nature of their bodies. For a while, the Hollywood Lopper had been an LA secret, because of how infrequently he struck, but the killings ramped up as he began garnering news. The latest murder was a month ago: a ubiquitous character actor who always played the weaselly, cocksure best friend— the one who tries to steal the hero’s girl, only to get humiliated in the end.

After we learn the dramatic, Vesuvius-erupts part of the world, we learn about its personal ramifications:

On TV the news anchors prattle on about a besieged Los Angeles, with celebrities blinking under bright lights, stars turned into martyrs now that the Hollywood Lopper has moved up the entertainment food chain, while we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.

In short, Yang has taken a small, intimate story and set it against a backdrop of 1) murder and 2) celebrities versus ordinary people. There  is a serial killer on the loose, but no one will care unless he kills someone notable. His murders have ascended the Hollywood social ladder, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t kill an unknown person next, like a certain nine-year-old trying out for commercials—or her mother. What makes the story beautiful is that it keeps the serial killer in the background (as part of the world) and foregrounds the story about a mostly oblivious girl chafing at the limits placed on her by her concerned mother.

That is how you can use a dramatic world to make an intimate story more exciting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a small, intimate story more exciting by giving it a dramatic world, using “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang as a model:

  1. Choose a mundane story. Perhaps it’s one you’ve already written. Or, you could choose one of the many usual domestic plot lines: marriage drama, relationship drama, parent/child drama, money drama, extended-family drama. Regardless, you’re looking for a story that makes you worry that it’s not exciting/dramatic/sexy enough. Setting aside issues of fiction written by men vs women (and the tendency to dismiss domestic stories), this is a worry that most writers have: is our story interesting enough. Why should anyone read our story?
  2. Choose a dramatic backdrop. If you’re writing a short story, this might mean choosing something to exist in the background: noise that’s buzzing in the characters’ heads. It could be something unusual and threatening like a serial killer on the loose. It could be a significant election or a historical moment like the first moon landing. If you’re writing a novel, you might use the larger arc of the story (throw the ring into Mt. Doom, return the painting The Goldfinch) as a backdrop for an intimate moment or minor arc. Even though the action may be small, it’s cast against a much larger story that gives it weight.
  3. Watch for a moment to unite the story and backdrop. Michael Yang does this when he writes that “we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.” Give your characters a chance to notice the backdrop, just as the mother in Yang’s story reads about celebrities in the tabloid newspaper. That moment can have many emotional angles. In a story set in Pompeii, one character could look out her window while eating dinner with her children and think, “Oh no.” Another character could glance away from her cheating husband, see the smoke, and think, “Thank god.” This moment will likely be brief. It may happen more than once, just as the mother in Yang’s story thinks about the serial killer more than once, but when she does, it’s to refocus our attention on the importance of the intimate drama in front of her.

Good luck!

%d bloggers like this: