Tag Archives: Milkweed

An Interview with Joni Tevis

14 May
Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis' essay collection, The World Is On Fire, "fiercely, startlingly bright."

Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis’ essay collection, The World Is On Fire, “fiercely, startlingly bright.”

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection, and, most recently, The World Is On Fire. She has worked as a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, and her nonfiction has been published in Oxford American, Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

To read an exercise on writing with Keats’ negative capability Tevis’ essay, “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” click here.

For this interview, Tevis wrote about the inspiration behind her essay in what is perhaps the most detailed recollection of a writer’s zigzagging mental process that you’ll ever read.

Michael Noll

This is such a wide-ranging essay: Fairyland Caverns, the nuclear test in New Mexico, Rip Van Winkle, the preacher from your childhood, and a Civil War battle. The connections made complete sense as I read the essay, but I was also aware that these were connections that you made. They weren’t simply lying around, ready to be reported on. So, I’m curious about the origin of the essay. How did you begin making associations between these very different stories and events and places? How did you keep so many balls in the air without letting them drop? Was it difficult to keep the connections straight in your head as you worked?

Joni Tevis

I like to start research for an essay by going somewhere that intrigues me and just seeing what I can see. This essay began that way; I remembered Rock City from my childhood and went back for a visit as an adult, with the idea of writing about it. For me, this impulse isn’t primarily rational. I might not know why a place or idea or image appeals to me, but I try not to question that, at least initially. I’ll just go and see what’s there.

So I tried to approach the visit with a very porous mind and took notes on everything I noticed there, from the stuff in the gift shop, to the painted barns and handmade signs along the road up the mountain, to the recorded music and running water within Fairyland Caverns. And I’ll add that even though I like to start essays via this travel experience process, sometimes that impulse doesn’t lead anywhere—I have plenty of dead-end trip notes languishing in my notebooks. But you just never know what you might find.

The big surprise on that trip was the black light in the Caverns. I hadn’t remembered that at all, and I found it unsettling—the juxtaposition of childhood scenes with this very trippy light, light that we associate with drug culture. How to make sense of it? When I discovered that the sculptor who created those scenes did much of her work in the late 1940s, I made the connection to early atomic history, a period that had long fascinated me.

The Day The Sun Rose Twice has been called "definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left."

The Day the Sun Rose Twice has been called “definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left.”

And this is where the traditional research component came in. I was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time and had access to the terrific libraries there. One day I was browsing the stacks when I saw The Day The Sun Rose Twice, a great book about the Manhattan Project and the Trinity explosion. The book pulled me—in a not-fully-rational way, the same way that the impulse to revisit Rock City had been. I couldn’t put the book down. It hit me that when I had been a child, worrying about the end-times sermons on Sundays, I was also worrying about the reports I heard on the evening news, about nuclear tensions with the Soviets. So that led me to more research about the Trinity test—which led, in turn, to a visit to the Atomic History Museum, out in Albuquerque—and then to archival research about the woman who created the scenes at Fairyland Caverns.

I traced some of the other stories from the Caverns back—that’s where the Rip Van Winkle research came in, and by moving back in historical time, I read more about the Civil War battle that had taken place on Lookout Mountain sixty years before Rock City was created. Research about the material culture of the place led me to the See Rock City barns that had helped to advertise it. And what had many of those those barns held? Tobacco leaves, which were fascinating to research as well.

Someone painted the barns. Someone planned the scenes in the caverns, poured the plaster. Someone even now changes the black lightbulbs. Just like someone built the bomb. I’m satisfied with the essay now in part because it draws attention to the things we make, and the meaning we make with those things. And I think it evokes this sense of “living in a haunted world” with which the rest of the book also grapples—the reality that we’re not the first to step onto this patch of ground or handle this clay or stone, and that by examining the relics and words that our forebears left us, we can live in a more deep, enriched way.

May 2015

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

How to Write with Negative Capability

12 May
Joni Tevis' nonfiction collection The World Is on Fire is a collection for a future culture, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

Joni Tevis’ nonfiction collection The World Is On Fire is a collection meant for some future race, with references to atomic bombs, Buddy Holly, the Alaskan wilderness, Liberace, and that old time religion.

One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.

A recent essay that uses negative capability in a dramatic way is Joni Tevis’ “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City).” It is included in her new collection The World Is On Fire and was originally published in Orion, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

Probably no term has been more analyzed than negative capability, so let’s just start from the beginning, with Keats’ own words:

“it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”

Here’s an even shorter version, as restated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So, the short answer to the question, “What is negative capability?” is that it’s the ability to give equal consideration to (or even believe) two contradictory ideas. So, what’s this have to do with writing great prose? Take a look at this passage from “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)”:

I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much.

Tevis has set up contradictory ideas, a contradiction that is set up in the first sentence: 1) the world is beautiful and amazing, and 2) all of that beauty can be taken away. In other words, as the next sentence states, we’re all going to die. This might not seem contradictory. After all, both things are true. The world can be pretty great (though it’s not always), and everyone now living will die. Put that way, most of us will likely say, “Sure. Of course.” But what the paragraph does is make us feel the contradiction. It’s the same feeling that we often get at funerals or after hearing about some tragedy or horrible act in the world. We’re going to die, and it might be really terrible. That’s the message the preacher has, and when Tevis walks out of the church, she blinks at the light and delivers a line that I absolutely adore: “How could we go out for fried chicken after that?”

We know the passage has worked because there’s no good answer to the question. Her parents say, “Try not to worry about it too much,” which is no kind of answer. Or, it’s almost exactly the definition of negative capability, a term that is often considered a goal for good writing. In “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” Tevis suggests that believing in contradictory things is an inevitable and natural part of the human experience and that drama, the stuff of good writing, comes from a character’s inability to tie together those contradictory elements. The goal shouldn’t be, as Keats puts it, to avoid “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Instead, it should be to reach for that fact and reason and find it missing. As with all writing, you want the reader to ask, in some form, the question, “Now what?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension with negative capability, using “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis as a model:

  1. Set up the conflicting ideas. Tevis uses “life is beautiful” and “we’re all going to die.” This isn’t so different from what Stuart Dybek does in his famous story, “We Didn’t.” He pairs sex and death. If you wish, you can stick to religion: “Jesus loves me” and “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” Or, you can move toward a personal conflict with others: “I’m a good person” and “everyone hates me” or “I’m horrible” and “everyone loves me.” Or, you can create an internal conflict: “I want to do good” and “I love doing bad” or “I love my children” and “I want to be free.” The goal is to put two incompatible ideas or beliefs in the same place, at the same time. It doesn’t really matter how small or large, personal or cosmic those ideas are. The important thing is that they should resist being held together.
  2. Make the reader believe one of those ideas. Tevis does this beautifully with the sentences about deadly accidents and the quotes from the preacher. The deadly accidents give us visceral proof of the idea. How can we argue that we all die when it’s happening in front of us? The preacher creates a philosophical framework around that proof; he’s telling his congregation how to think about the proof that they witness. This two-part structure is important. If anything that happens to a character/person/narrator is worthwhile, then that person has given it significant thought and has formulated a story to tell about it or mental approach to it. How we think about something is just as important as the reason we believe it.
  3. Introduce, quickly, the other idea. This is what happens when Tevis brings us out of the church, into the beautiful world and asks how we can bear to eat fried chicken. She’s juxtaposing the beliefs. She sets beauty (sunlight and crepe myrtles) against the preacher’s version of the world, with its real proof (untimely accidents). If the juxtaposition is sharp or harsh enough, the reader will understand, on a visceral level, the impossibility of both things being true. We will question (or understand the characters when they question) how both can be true at the same time.
  4. Answer the question with negative capability. Have someone say, as Tevis’ parents did, “Try not to worry about it too much.” If you have any experience with Christianity, you may be attaching a word to this dilemma: faith. We accept, on faith, things that we cannot understand or that seem not to be possible. But faith cannot exist without a crisis of faith (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a matter of faith; it’d just be obvious). What you’re setting up is a moment where the narrator or character understands that two ideas cannot be held together, but there they are, together, and they must deal with the mental trauma of trying to make congruous this incongruous pairing. In other words, someone must say, “Don’t think about it too much,” and that mental avoidance must come to seem impossible or undesirable. When that happens, the reader will automatically want to know, “Then what?”

Good luck.

An Interview with Amy Leach

11 Sep
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that Yiyun Li compared to "a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson."

Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that the writer Yiyun Li compared to “a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson.”

Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are, is a collection of essays that are equal parts nature writing in the tradition of Mary Austin and language play like that of Lewis Carroll. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She plays bluegrass, teaches English, and lives in Montana.

In this interview, Leach discusses using rare words, beavers as a proof of God’s existence, and why nature has captured her imagination.

To read Leach’s essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” and an exercise on writing surprising descriptions, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the most striking things about your writing is your use of diction. In this essay alone, there are words that I knew but had to stare at for a moment before I recognized them in their new form (chatterboxy, sagitaries, heptangularly), words I’ve probably encountered before but couldn’t define with any certainty (glogg, yawing, gobbets, saltarellos),and words that I thought you’d invented until I looked them up (truckle, mouldywarp, bladderwort, mudpuppy), and words that I simply had never seen before (frumentary). I was reminded of the writer Alexander Theroux, who actively searches for forgotten words and has said that he believes it’s the duty of writers to keep such words alive. This keeping-alive philosophy extends to his work, which includes a book, Primary Colors, with three sections about everything that is red, green, or blue. I wonder if you feel this same way, especially given the last chapter of the book, “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena”. Are you trying to save wonderful things (and with words, the effort and thought and experience that went into creating them) from oblivion?

Amy Leach

I like the idea of rescuing words from extinction, of books being arks for drowning words; but I don’t know if my impulse is responsible enough for me to call what I’m doing a duty.  I just enjoy words so long out of use they are almost nonsense again, as they were before they were used.  English can be as fun as Jabberwocky.

Michael Noll

As I reread the essay, I was struck by how much of it is purely informational: here is what beavers do, here is what salmon do. It’s not until the final section, really, that you put that information to work in a kind of argument. This runs counter to the usual structure of essays, which almost always contain some rhetorical turn after the first paragraph or so, a move to transform an interesting detail or anecdote into a thesis. But you don’t do this. The first four pages contain more and more descriptions of beavers. The next three are about salmon and their parallels with beavers. And then, in the last two pages, you apply these parallels to human experience, where the essay’s meaning—if we want to use that word—becomes clear. Have you ever gotten pushback from editors or your first readers, anyone asking you to use a more traditional structure?

Amy Leach

 I did want for the beavers to be beavers, for salmon to mean salmon, rather than being proof of a point. I remember, in doing research on this essay, watching a little video of beavers in the wild. Down below, in the comments section, there was an excited dispute over whether beavers proved the existence of God or proved the nonexistence of God. Nobody was excited about the beavers–just about their own opinions, which beavers happened to support. The beavers could have been wolverines or worms: the conversation below would have been the same. This seems to illustrate the philosophical peril of starting out with a thesis (opinion) and using the rest of the essay (the world) to prove it. This is how I often think–in a thesis-driven way–but it’s not how I want to think, and I love how in writing you can work out the way you want to think.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the essay is this one: “The beavers’ reaction to the papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness.” It’s so unexpected—even though the language is fresh and the opening situation (beavers being classified as fish) is almost fanciful, the descriptions of the beavers themselves are rooted in fact and observation. As a result, when I read the word qualities, I expected something about their physiology or behavior—anything but affability. It’s a word that seems to illustrate what you write at the end of the essay: that there is a kind of experience that “spills you into a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” Do you make choices (diction, sentence structure, details, metaphors) in your writing that aim for nonsense-making, or is this just an effect of your natural style?

Amy Leach

I suppose it is natural, my affinity for nonsense. If you’re naturally a sensible person and you try by conscious effort and choice to be nonsensical, it may just come off as quirky, effortfully quirky. It seems best to stay true to your own nature, whether that nature is sensible or not.

Michael Noll

Some of the essays in the book, like “Stairs,” are less about nature than human experience of nature and the world and experience itself. It makes me wonder if you can imagine a transition in which you begin to focus less on animals and plants and on something else (airplanes, societal structures). Or, do you think you’ll always focus on the natural world? After all, you live in Montana, where presence of the natural world is every bit the equal of the human presence.

Amy Leach

I wrote most of the book while I was living in Chicago, brimming with airplanes and societal structures–so these were the last things in the world I wanted to spend time thinking about. Where one’s real life is not swamped with airplanes and society, one could possibly afford to devote more imagination to them. Though I expect it will always be the green things and the creatures who have my heart, for they are real.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Surprising Descriptions

9 Sep
One reviewer said of the essays in Amy Leach's Things That Are, "If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this."

One reviewer said this about the essays in Amy Leach’s Things That Are: “If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this.”

At some point in your story or novel or essay, you’ll need to write a memorable description, something better than red or big or happy. So, you start free writing and brainstorming to find the right words, but they’re all variations on the usual and expected. You want to find something new and startling, but how?

For essayist Amy Leach, writing eye-opening descriptions seems almost as natural as breathing. Her essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” is, in a way, one long description that develops and moves in surprising ways. It was published in The Iowa Review and included in her collection, Things That Are. You can read it here as a sample of the book or here at JSTOR.

How the Essay Works

As we grow older, we fall into patterns of seeing. We perceive not the thing itself but our expectation (built on years of seeing) of what the thing should look like and what it is. A good description, then, wipes away those years of seeing and allows us to see the world the way we saw it as babies and children: for the first time. Watch how Leach strips away the usual ways of perceiving in the first paragraph of “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters”:

In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision, but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish. They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water. If Prince Maximilian, traveling up the Missouri River, had taken it in mind to categorize them as Druids or flamingos, beavers would have become toothy Druids, or portly brown industrious flamingos.

The last phrase of the paragraph (“portly brown industrious flamingos”) would have been an inconceivable string of words without the rest of the paragraph. But, by introducing the idea that beavers might not actually be beavers, Leach removes the usual way of viewing the animal and gives herself the opportunity to see them as something totally new. The same thing is true of the description that ends this next two sentences:

The beavers’ reaction to their papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness. They affably yield not. If they are deemed fishes, they respond by becoming lumberjack fishes.

How amazing is that phrase: lumberjack fishes? And how impossible it would be to pair those words in a passage that looks at beavers in the usual way.

Despite the inventiveness of the descriptions, Leach actually arrives at them in methodical ways:

  1. First, she introduces a wrong way of viewing something: the Pope says beavers are fish.
  2. Then, rather than correcting the wrong idea, she accepts it as a fact: okay, if beavers are fish, then these are the kind of fish they are.
  3. Finally, she introduces more wrong ways of viewing the beavers (if they’re already fish, why not make them flamingos?).
  4. This last, previously inconceivable way of viewing beavers creates the opportunity to describe them in new ways.

It might be tempting to think that these descriptions (lumberjack fishes, portly brown industrious flamingos) are simply cute, but Leach uses them to set up alternate ways to view not just beavers but nature as a whole and our place within it. In fact, the collection of essays as a whole repeatedly offers new ways of thinking about basic human experience—and these new ways are almost always tied to descriptions that scramble the usual order of things.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write surprising descriptions using “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters” by Amy Leach as a model:

  1. Introduce a wrong way of viewing something. This happens in real life on a daily basis. Two people witness the same event and describe it in different ways. The resulting miscommunication can turn tragic or comic. But there are simpler ways to introduce an odd perspective. Take any common human interaction (lovers meeting or fighting, workers conferring, cashier checking out a customer) and label it as something that it clearly isn’t. In other words, write a scene in which two people kiss and then suggest that it’s a fight. Or, show two people shaking hands or passing money and suggest that they’re in love. This mashup challenges the ideas of loving and fighting and the typical way that we view these common scenes. You can actually do this with any interaction that you’ve already written in a story. Simply label it as something that it isn’t.
  2. Accept the error and write as if it applies. What if the people kissing really are fighting? What if the people shaking hands are in love? What would that mean? Are they pretending? Acting a certain way in public, for show? Fulfilling an obligation? Or, does love mean something different than we think it means? For instance, there are office wives and husbands—think about how odd that pairing and description is. Try to explain how the scene you’ve chosen can look one way but be called something that it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be.
  3. Introduce more wrong ways of viewing the same thing. If we can have office wives or husbands, what other kinds of wives and husbands can we have? Bar spouses? Church spouses? Internet spouses? Or, if a coworker can be an office wife, what else can they be? An office sister? An office mother? An office lieutenant? An office gravedigger? If you’re going to break the bond between words and bind them to new, unusual words, don’t stop. Keep going to see how far you can push the idea.
  4. Describe the encounter or person or thing. What is a handshake between lovers? A pillow handshake? A spooning handshake? What is a kiss between people who are fighting? A blistering peck? A wolfish smooch? You can do better than these example. Play around. Try to surprise yourself. The immediate goal is to find an interesting description, but doing so may require creating an entirely new way to view an essential part of the story. 

Have fun!

An Interview with Murray Farish

12 Jun
Murray Farish

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley, Jr.

Murray Farish’s debut story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken. Farish’s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Epoch, Roanoke Review, FiveChapters, and Black Warrior Review, among other publications. His work has been awarded the William Peden Prize, the Phoebe Fiction Prize, and the Donald Barthelme Memorial Fellowship Prize. Farish lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University.

In this interview, Farish discusses the accretion of American pain, the despair of not finding the right ending, and writing stories in a world in which CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers.

To read the collection’s title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” and exercises on breaking narrative rules, click here.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, George and Miranda are discussing their son’s behavior and the problems he’s causing at school, and George says, “I just thank God that he’s healthy.” The conversation that followed really struck me for a couple of reasons. One, I have kids, and I think that I’ve probably said something similar to this. Two, the conversation seems to announce that this story is going to run counter to some basic ideas about propriety. Generally, thanking God for a child’s health wouldn’t be considered morally bankrupt, but that’s exactly what Miranda suggests, and both the reader and George come to realize that she’s right. Did the story always begin this way, or did you write the dialogue to perform a particular function within the story?

Murray Farish

The first thing I wrote that made the cut in the final draft of “Inappropriate Behavior” was a version of a much later scene where Archie is lying on the couch trying to figure out which of his toys he’s taking to heaven when he dies. I have to write a lot of pages and take a lot of false paths before I figure out what a story is about and what I want to do with it. Once I figure that out, I try to orchestrate everything—scene, setting, dialogue, situation, character—around that realization. That orchestration became even more important in this story, which I think of as nearly plotless and almost totally free of character development.

Michael Noll

In several places, you create catalogues of George’s thoughts and snippets of news that he hears. I’ve seen stories make similar moves before but never to the extent that you make them. The catalogues are very long–and so there’s the inevitable risk of losing the narrative thread. But that’s not what happens. The juxtapositions in the catalogues are savage, and the paragraphs contain some of the most gut wrenching lines in the story. This is generally true of the story as a whole. There’s another section about paying bills that isn’t a catalogue but works in a similar way. I can imagine a lot of writers drafting a couple of lines about bills and then moving forward into the story, but you stay with the bills for ten paragraphs. I kept expecting the narrative to stall, but it never did. How did you keep the momentum moving?

Murray Farish

Especially in a story that is plotless and free of character development? I worried about it a lot, until I decided to trust in the orchestration—or if that’s too grand a term to keep repeating—to trust the design of the story. Once I figured out that the story I wanted to write was about the Great Recession and how it was the natural result of four decades of political, legislative, and cultural malpractice and neglect of the commonwealth—of the failure to live up to ideals that we the people are obligated, by ink and by blood, to try to live up to . . . well, you can see the problem, for a fiction writer. But if that’s the story you’ve got to write, that’s the story you’ve got to write, so you’ve got to figure out how to write it. I decided to create this little family and inflict upon them a steady accretion of American pain, and hope to build narrative momentum out of that accretion.

Michael Noll

I have to admit that I felt a thrill at the story’s description of St. Louis: “It feels like exactly what it is: a static, lifeless, dead-water burg, a place that lacked enough imagination to remake itself when people stopped using beaver pelts as currency, and that runs, after a fashion, on the inertia of old money.” And that’s just one sentence in a long paragraph that ends with a line of bitter sarcasm: “Here’s something people say about St. Louis: It’s a great place to raise kids.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a brutal takedown of a place. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to write something like that. Given that you live in St. Louis, do you worry that someone you know will read this story and get upset?

Murray Farish

Well, of course that’s George’s description of St. Louis, and St. Louis is a place he feels victimized by, in a way. All this bad stuff is happening to him and there’s no one around to try to help him out. But however St. Louisans would feel about the description, to the extent that they would find it accurate, we also have to realize how places like St. Louis have themselves been victimized by that same neglect I talked about before. One of the most troubling things I’ve seen in my forty-some years as an American is precisely that lack of imagination, a fearful inability to conceive of how things might be different, might be better. That lack of common vision hits places like St. Louis particularly hard. To the extent that a St. Louisan might find the description inaccurate or unfair, I guess I’d have to plead artistic license.

Michael Noll

By the story’s end, you’ve put the characters in such an intensely difficult situation that it’s natural as a reader to want to look away, to avert our eyes from what we suspect will happen. And that’s exactly what you do–you shift the point of view in a way that’s bound to bother some readers who will expect a neat conclusion. But I actually loved the ending. In a way, it reminded me of what Richard Ford does in Independence Day: His narrator, Frank Bascombe, fails repeatedly to connect and successfully parent his son, and when it seems as if nothing good can happen, Ford knocks the kid out of the novel–literally. The kid gets hit in the head with a baseball and is knocked unconscious. I found that particular move frustrating—a cheat on Ford’s part—because then everything starts going Bascombe’s way again. But in your story, the shift in POV (the looking away) doesn’t change the characters’ fortunes. But it makes them easier to read—not less disturbing or emotional but readable, as if there’s only so much misery readers can take before they walk away. Your ending kept me with the story. That’s a lot of words to ask, how did you approach the ending?

Murray Farish

Finding the ending was as close to real despair as I’ve ever had as a writer. I had worked for months to winnow hundreds of pages down to the final version, up to the scene where George goes for the last meeting at Archie’s school. I knew I loved this story, but the steady accretion of pain had left the Putnams, and me, in a corner where there was no way to write a narratively satisfying and honest ending that would change their fortunes in any way. Do some sort of Horatio Alger bit? Launch an alien invasion or some other cataclysm that renders the economy irrelevant? Have George blow his brains out? I wrote versions of all of these, and many others, including one ending replete with learned footnotes and pie-charts and bar-graphs, which I think you’ll agree with everyone else who read that version that it was a bad idea. Somewhere in the midst of that despair I looked at the school principal’s statement at the end of the last “realistic” scene: “I’m sure you have questions.” So I put the story away and just started making this long list of questions—some from George, some from Miranda, some from American lit and American history, recent and ancient. My notion was not that this catalog of questions would become the ending, but I hoped that some question in there would trigger an ending. Then I saw that those questions could be orchestrated in a way that felt to me very honest and risky and perhaps even resonant, and if I couldn’t do narratively satisfying, I could at least do those things. Jumping out of the third-person, realistic mode also allowed me to return to the Putnams in the voice of Archie and the style of the fairy tale. Archie may be in a lot of trouble, anchored to this sinking family of his, but at least he still has imagination, and he’s not afraid. That’s about the only note of hope I could stand to build into this story, the notion that the future might be better if we don’t lose our courage and our imaginations. But realistically, Archie’s probably screwed.

Michael Noll

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn't like the way the film Away We Go portrayed red America. You can read his review here.

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn’t like the way the film Away We Go portrayed “regular” Americans. You can read his review here.

Many stories create unlikable side characters and then reveal some redeeming part of them. But not this story. George thinks this: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior: what demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Because I think we’re supposed to empathize with George and his point of view, this is a pretty damning indictment of a great swath of the population of St. Louis. It reminds me of the Dave Eggers film, Away We Go, about a couple on the verge of parenthood who travel America trying to find a good place to raise their kids. But everywhere they go, they find people they don’t like. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott angrily criticized the film’s “smug self-regard” and its portrayal of “red state grotesques” and said, “This movie does not like you.” Do you feel any obligation to find the good in every character? Or, to put it in the negative, do you think fiction suffers when it’s too nice and open-minded?

Murray Farish

The quoted question about good behavior is from American lit, one that Thoreau asks in Walden, but of course it applies to George as well, as well as to the overall point that this section and this story is trying to make—what is “inappropriate behavior?” Is it the stuff this goofy kid does to get in trouble at school, or is it unnecessary wars and drone strikes and cutting off people’s unemployment benefits? Is it one little kid hugging some other little kid or is it the Trail of Tears? Is it hyperactivity or the abjuration of our responsibilities to one another? If the fact that CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers isn’t at the very least inappropriate, I don’t know what is. I think the only obligations fiction writers have are to write the best story they possibly can, and to give the reader something they can’t get from anyone else.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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