Tag Archives: Misadventure

An Interview with Nicholas Grider

13 Feb
Nicholas Grider's debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called "vital" by Publisher's Weekly.

Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called “vital” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Nicholas Grider is a writer and artist living in Milwaukee. He received an interschool MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His photography has been exhibited internationally, and his writing has appeared in Caketrain, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Hobart, among others. His first book, the story collection Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange Object.

In this interview, Grider discusses OuLiPo writing rules, the delight of breaking rules, and his attempt at writing at story without making editorial judgement.

To read “Millions of Americans are Strange” and an exercise on point of view, click here.

To start our conversation, here is how Grider explains the writing process behind “Millions of Americans Are Strange”:

Nicholas Grider

“Millions” is the newest story in the collection and is indicative of where my writing, at least in short fiction, is headed for the next batch of stories. As I was finishing up the manuscript I started getting really interested in the OuLiPo, and still am, with books by Perec and Mathews on my desk as I write this. I made up a simple rule to begin the story, then: Sentence one must be related to sentence two, and sentence two should be related to sentence three, but sentences one and three should be unrelated. That got me off to a start but I realized that I kept inadvertently breaking the rule, so I introduced the stock phrase “Millions of Americans do X or Y” as a bridge, but then decided that wasn’t working well either so I slowly increased their volume until every sentence was a “Millions” sentence and I approached the end of the story more like a prose poem than a narrative.

Michael Noll

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec's novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User's Manual.

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec’s novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User’s Manual.

My favorite moment from any OuLiPo work is from Georges Perec’s La Dispiration. As you know, the text contains no letter e’s. There’s a scene where a character orders a drink at a bar, and the lack of e’s becomes crucial. This is what Harry Mathews said about the scene: 

“Perec took this absurdly confining idea and made of it a way of creating incident, situation, and plot. Eggs (oeufs) are declared to be taboo because they sound like e. And so a barman drops dead when asked to concoct a porto flip, a cocktail requiring port wine and eggs.” 

As you’ve experimented with OuLiPo-type limitations, have you found that the limits “create incident, situation, and plot?”

Nicholas Grider

This has a bit to do with being reserved and shy person, but in my art and writing I often start with the questions: what boundaries can I push and what can I get away with? Meaning, how many rules can I break, what can I talk my way into, etc. And breaking all the usual rules means making up my own, which applies not just to this story but to most of my art and writing. I’ll make up a set of rules, then follow them or break them as I see fit. The rules in “Millions” were an attempt to write a story that does not move forward in any way—it slides laterally through dozens of characters too briefly for anything to develop and ends up piling into an anaphora of generalities at the end. When it came to writing the story, though, making a good aesthetic choice always outweighed (and outweighs) following my rule or someone else’s. For me, the rules are less about developing content and more a way to do an end-run around a well-told “beginning, middle, end, character develops” kind of story. I’m currently writing a new collection and there are even more self-made rules, and more complex ones, but rule-making is part of the enjoyment of writing for me.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, we studied a few OuLiPo writers—plus, Italo Calvino was pretty popular in the U.S. at the time—and I remember that the few experiments people tried with the methods often failed because the limitations ended up being too inflexible. I’m curious how you handled this problem. I know that you adjusted or added to your rules once you began. Did you ever break your rules in order to let the story do what it needed to do?

Nicholas Grider

I got ahead of myself and explained this already, but yes: I delight in breaking other peoples’ rules and will break my own as I see fit. A compelling story is always more important than strict adherence to any rules.

Michael Noll

The story never settles into a single plot line or character’s point of view. If anything, the character of the story is those millions of Americans in the title.  Were you temped to follow Gary or George and Allen or Hannah and make the story about them? Was it difficult to maintain a forward momentum without an individual to use as the focus of tension and suspense?

Nicholas Grider

There are snippets in the story that I think would make for interesting stories, and some of those incidents are real things that people have told me about being involved in, but I was more invested in trying to keep the story moving laterally very quickly to want to linger over any individual character. What I can say, though, is that a lot of the obsessions, indecision, illness and weirdness in “Millions” had been explored earlier in a different form in the other stories that comprise Misadventure, so if anything, the incidents in the story serve as a very weird kind of precis for what later happens with other characters in other situations.

Michael Noll

The story’s tone at times seems to mimic the language of certain kinds of news sources, or even Wikipedia. Here’s one example:

“Millions of Americans are suffering due to the current economic climate. Sometimes persons without jobs receive unemployment insurance while they look for new jobs. Jason receives unemployment insurance because he was laid off when the plant closed.”

In this passage, especially the first two sentences, there’s an intentional vagueness that seems common to cable news segments (those 15 second headline readings that anchors do). Generally, as writers, we try to avoid that kind of language, but you really embrace it, and throughout the story, the language develops a sharp edge. How did you approach the tone and language? Did it appear through luck and experiment, or did you have something in mind when you began the story?

Nicholas Grider

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

The generality and bluntness of the style was something I had in mind at the start, for two reasons: first, I wanted the story to seem to have a veneer of scientific or academic detachment, where the story is simply a collection of facts presented in a particular order—an effort to try to decrease narratorial presence, and second because so much of what gets referenced is so bizarre or extreme that I wanted to deliberately underplay people having themselves kidnapped or firing shotguns in malls—trying to avoid sensationalizing anything in an effort to let the incidents do the sensationalizing themselves, so to speak. In other words, I didn’t want to make it seem as if I had any editorial opinion over what I was recounting, but emphasize instead that one character firing a shotgun in a mall and another character being described as three years old bear an equivalent amount of narrative weight.

February 2014

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

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How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

11 Feb
Nicholas Grider's story, "Millions of Americans are Strange," was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure.

Nicholas Grider’s story, “Millions of Americans are Strange,” was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure, now available from A Strange Object.

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.

(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)

How the Story Works

If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.

A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.

The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:

Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.

The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:

Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.

The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

  1. Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
  2. Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
  3. Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

  1. Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
  2. Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
  3. Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.

Good luck!

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