Tag Archives: multiple points of view

An Interview with Julie Wernersbach

1 Sep
Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swi

Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swimming Holes of Texas.

Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Before moving to Austin in 2011, Julie served as publicist and events coordinator for Book Revue, a large independent bookstore on Long Island. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and Swimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.

To read an exercise on creating conflict in multiple point of view narratives based on Wernersbach’s story “Happiness,” click here.

In this interview, Wernersbach discusses finding the beginning of characters’ story arcs, moving back and forth between those arcs, and the tension that’s created in each moment of the story.

Michael Noll

The story follows three characters over the course of one day. Their storylines eventually intersect, of course, and that’s part of what we’re reading for. That said, one of the challenges of such a story is figuring out where to begin. Not all of the characters’ arcs can begin with a bang. How did you figure out where to begin each characters’ story?

Julie Wernersbach

The story began inside Leslie’s head. I saw a manicured house from the perspective of a woman preparing to leave for an appointment. I knew she wasn’t having a great day and that she was overall anxious and unhappy. Once I had her unhappiness pinned to two other people, I wanted to know what they were doing at that same exact moment. I can’t remember if I specify the day of the week in this story, but it definitely feels like a Tuesday. I figure, for the most part, Tuesday afternoons don’t typically have a whole lot of bang to them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re generally miserable or obsessed about something, the misery and obsession are going to be humming along without a whole lot of deep distraction on a Tuesday afternoon. So I just sort of jumped into where her husband and sister might be in those cases on an average afternoon and went from there.

Michael Noll

The story moves quickly from character to character, never staying with one for more than a few paragraphs. Did you write the story with that structure, or did you write longer sections and then break them into smaller pieces?

Julie Wernersbach

Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Once I understood that the entire story wasn’t going to be told from Leslie’s perspective, I did write it with that structure. In the end, I actually went back and expanded sections. As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote. I could write a little bit, move on and have that character in the back of mind, developing as I wrote the next bit of someone else’s storyline, and then come back to him or her and do more.

Michael Noll

One of the cool things about the story is that, from a wide-lens view, not a great deal happens, yet in each section something occurs: slight but important moments concerning a package, a diet, a visit to the doctor. What was your approach to plot and action in the story?

Julie Wernersbach

It’s funny that Arcadia paired this story on their site with an image of potato chips, because I thought about the structure a bit that way. I wanted to make sure the reader couldn’t eat just one paragraph. I wanted a small hook in each section, a little something to keep each character intriguing and propel the reader forward. To me, the hook was (and probably always is) the small moments that string together a life. Those slight moments of discomfort and dissatisfaction add up to a lot, building pressure and tension little by little. I felt the action had to be incremental for Leslie to blow up in a believable way. Death by a thousand paper cuts! So to speak.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent your career around books and writers. You’re the Literary Director at the Texas Book Festival, and previously you were the marketing director at BookPeople. Great writing can inspire people to write, but it can also discourage them—make them think, “I’ll never write something that good.” How does your reading inform your writing?

Julie Wernersbach

There were definitely many years of believing that what I did was outside of the books I read and the authors I hosted; that those works and writers were legitimate and my work and identity as a writer never would be. But the thing about being exposed to so many books is that you’re exposed to so many books, good and bad, memorable and forgettable. It’s been reassuring to comprehend the volume of what’s published any given week and to acknowledge the multi-faceted reasons behind a publisher’s decision to put a work in print.

It’s also been heartening and reassuring to stand on the sidelines of hundreds (more than one thousand? probably more than one thousand) audience Q&As with authors. There’s always a process question and some version of a “what’s it like to be a writer” question. In addition to picking up a ton of great writing advice, I’ve also learned that virtually every author struggles to feel valid and successful, and that the authors who do have a strong sense of security in their work have one thing in common: they write their asses off. If I’ve felt inferior in the presence of phenomenal books and authors, it’s only stoked the fire to write my ass off. (And to read more really, really good books.)

September 2016

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

How to Write from Multiple Points of View

9 Jun
Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small "compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder," according to a New York Times review.

Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small “compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder,” according to a New York Times review.

Anyone writing a novel with multiple points of view probably finds it easy to identify the characters to follow—you simply follow the plot lines and see who’s involved. The tricky part is figuring out how to signal the POV shifts. In his beautiful novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf made the shift at the beginning of each chapter and titled the chapters with a character’s name. The voice or tone of the chapters was basically the same, despite following different characters. This is one way to handle different POVs, but it’s not the only way.

You may want your POV sections to sound different, but it can difficult to create a different voice for each character—let’s face it, it’s hard enough to create one distinctive voice, let alone three or four. Therefore, we need to play with more than voice if we’re going to create distinctive sounding POVs.

No recent novel does as much with POV (or includes as many different perspectives) as Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

See How Small follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others. (To understand the scene, you need to know that the novel is about the brutal killing of three girls):

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

The chapter also contains this sentence: “It grew hot, dark, and wet like first things.”

Notice how the details are shape and focused when it comes to the characters’ memories, but the writing becomes fuzzy and impressionistic (even purposefully vague) when describing violence.

The next chapter uses a more traditional third person POV, from the perspective of a girl’s mother. Even though the writing probably feels more familiar, it does play with style:

Then, for some reason, most likely because Kate Ulrich is embellishing, revising even as she imagines it, the parking lot goes dark. Days are shorter now, Kate thinks.

The narration doesn’t rely on strict chronology but is impressionistic, like the first chapter but with a different sensibility since the character is different.

The third chapter follows Jack Dewey and lists his thoughts before a pivotal moment. The chapter is structured as a literal list, with each item focused narrowly on a particular detail:

1. Of his nylon search rope, which is five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter and two hundred feet long and attached to a snap hook on his belt.

The list advances his thoughts on the rope, which gives the chapter a much more narrow focus than the others.

The fourth chapter follows a man, Hollis, who notices something important but is distracted by something else. He’s so engrossed in that thing (a boy prying loose a shell that was glued to Hollis’ car) that he’s not even aware of himself: “Around him, at the other tables, heads swivel. He suspects he’s yelled an obscenity, maybe even a threat.”

Finally, the fifth chapter follows one of the perpetrators of the crime, 17-year-old Michael. As such, he’s inherently unlikable, yet he’s described sympathetically:

“He’d asked if Michael was working on his GED and Michael lied. The older man, whose hair was thinning, laughed ruefully and said, Sure, that’s you. Overachiever.

The contradiction in how we expect to feel about a character versus how he’s describes creates tension and mystery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s writing from multiple points of view using See How Small by Scott Blackwood as a model:

  1. Write from an impressionistic POV. It’s a cliché that any public moment or interaction will be seen and remembered differently by the different people who are present. But it may be more useful to think about what characters want or don’t want to notice—or what a character can’t help but see or not see, remember or not remember. In other words, much of what people notice is affected by their emotional states, both vague (in a good mood) and specific (mad at someone for a particular reason). Consider what emotional state your character has during the scene and how that state will affect what he or she notices or remembers.
  2. Write from a pointillist POV. Our tendency is to rely on a usual kind of camera view, taking in an entire scene at once. Try zooming the camera in. Focus on a small, particular part of a scene or on a particular thing that a character notices or thinks about. Put blinders on the narration so that it can only see one thing. What is that thing?
  3. Write from a distracted POV. In Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the splash of Icarus into the sea is only a small part of the painting. Many of the characters, like the farmer in the foreground, are looking elsewhere. You can do this with your characters (and their POV) as well. If you’ve created a significant event or interaction, the reader will expect to see it. So, defy that expectation and give your character something else to think about. If the significant event or interaction is important enough, it will butt its head into the scene eventually. Until then, what can distract the character? This is a good way to create suspense in the reader and also to develop a character.
  4. Write a sympathetic POV about an unlikable character. Again, this is about defying the reader’s expectations. If a character plays an unlikable or negative role in the novel, how can you show us the character in a sympathetic light? You might think about how the character would defend him or herself. What are some mitigating factors behind the character’s decisions? What would a character witness for your character say in a trial? Try building a chapter around those details. The opposite of this, of course, is to write an unsympathetic POV about a likable character.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Ted Thompson

18 Sep
Ted Thompson's novel In the Land of Steady Habits was called XXX.

Ted Thompson’s novel In the Land of Steady Habits was described as a “elegiac yet bighearted take on adult disillusionment” by The Wall Street Journal.

Ted Thompson is the author of The Land of Steady Habits, a novel that has been called “the first great novel about post-crash American disillusionment, the flip side of The Wolf of Wall Street” by Salon editor David Daley. The novel has been optioned by director Nicole Holofcener. Thompson’s stories have appeared in Tin HouseAmerican Short Fiction, and Best New American Voices, and he was a Truman Capote fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife.

In this interview, Thompson discusses how to structure multiple points of view, creating tension, and writing in the shadow of Yates, Cheever, and Updike.

To read the first chapter of In the Land of Steady Habits and an exercise on making characters uncomfortable, click here.

Michael Noll

I’ve read a lot of novels written from multiple points of view lately, and most develop a sequence for the different POVs—for example, every other chapter follows a different character. But you don’t do that in this novel. Part 1 is told entirely from Anders’ point of view, but then the chapters in Part 2 are told from not only Anders’ POV but also his wife Helene’s and his son Preston’s. The last section mixes the POV’s within a single chapter. When I first encountered the POV shift, some small part of me thought, “Hey, that’s not supposed to happen.” But then it worked. And the other shifts worked. I came to appreciate the way you handled them. Rather than latching onto a pattern, you shift POV only when necessary—at least that’s how it seemed to me. What went into your decisions about when to shift?

Ted Thompson

I’m so happy that you noticed that. It was something I came to rather late in the process of writing the novel. Originally it had been told entirely from Anders’ point of view, and draft after draft I was always chafing against that. It was too restrictive to tell the entire story through his consciousness, especially because he’s a character who often reacts before he understands his feelings, who doesn’t have the most awareness, and that made him a somewhat trying person to spend a lot of time with. But I had always believed that if you were going to change points of view in a novel you had to teach the reader that you were going to do that early on. As you say, it had to be established in the opening pages. But I didn’t want to do that, because to me the story begins with Anders and his crisis but then opens up from there to show how it affects the people and community around him. To me it was a little like a stone thrown in a pond. The opening is the splash and after that we can follow each of the waves that come off that impact.

So I looked at the novels I thought of as structurally perfect, or at least those that had influenced me, and discovered that not all of them had formal, logical ways of handling POV. Revolutionary Road in particular wanders all over the place. At first it seems like it’s going to be Frank’s story, but then we get his wife April, and then we jump to Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent, then their neighbor Shep Campbell. We even wander into Mrs. Givings’s deaf husband’s point of view at the very end. And it was then that I realized that so long as there is a narrative question (meaning a question that is in the reader’s mind) that’s being addressed, most of the time the reader will make the POV leap with you without too much resistance. Changes in point of view are always jarring, but they’re less so if it feels as though we’re following the narrative thrust of the story, if we’re where the action is.

So what I told myself was that I would go to the character who held the most interest to me in that moment, and figured (hoped) the reader would also share my curiosity. What I found was that these shifts could be fluid so long as the scene or moment or information we were getting deepened our understanding of what we’d already seen. The moment a POV shift dies is when the character reason for joining a character isn’t immediately clear. Then, for the reader, the move feels lateral rather than forward.

Michael Noll

On a similar note, I was also interested in the way you move around in time. Some chapters are in the present, some take place in various points in the past, and some move unexpectedly between the two. One of my favorite parts of the novel comes in the last paragraph of Chapter Two, when the past and present are collapsed together in a moment of regret. I can only imagine what this novel looked like in draft form—the many scenes spanning decades, waiting to be fitted into a single narrative. How did you go about finding the novel’s organization?

Ted Thompson

For me the simplest organizing principle for this novel was always the present events. Essentially once we know where we are in time, in the present story, and what matters there (once there’s conflict) then it opens all sorts of space to play. I say “play,” but really what I mean is an opportunity for contextual information, for a wider lens through which to understand the events. So since my novel has a character who has left a forty-year marriage and a long career, part of what that second chapter had to do was provide the context of that huge sweep of time, to help us place him more clearly in the present, and thus deepen the novel’s conflict. I’ve come to see conflict less and less as an aspect of present confrontation in fiction and more as an expression of character. In deepening the conflict, a literary novel is also deepening our understanding of character. They’re the same thing. So the present line of tension, for this book, was always the organizing principle, but once it was tacked down, I could go wherever I needed in time to make the most sense of the moment for myself and for the reader.

The writer Richard Bausch once told a workshop I was in that “drama in fiction is created by what is known, not by what is unknown,” and I agree with that wholeheartedly. For me with this book it was just a matter of finding the present events, then stepping away from them when it was necessary to give the reader enough context to understand precisely why they mattered.

Michael Noll

Someone described the novel’s main character, Anders Hill, as a one-percenter—it may have been a reviewer, or it may have been another character in the book. I can’t remember. But one of the interesting things about the novel is that Anders never feels like a one-percenter. His life has become such a mess that even though he spent much of his life riding the sweet spot of the economic wave (and also crashing, like many others), he doesn’t feel wealthy. Did you ever struggle to find the right tone for the wealth surrounding Anders and his community?

Ted Thompson

Ted Thompson's novel, The Land of Steady Habits, has been shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

Ted Thompson’s novel, The Land of Steady Habits, has been shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

I knew the tone of this book before I knew anything else. That was the one thing that I had from the first sentence—the sound of it—and it’s what I would come back to when I was lost. Sentence by sentence, I knew when it sounded right, when the angle of vision was correctly honed, and that more than anything else is what I was able to trust. I’m not sure where it came from, but I knew the book needed levity, I knew it needed a clear element of comedy to carry it, and all of that could be managed through the tone. The great thing about levity, for me, is that it creates space for genuine sentiment, for unexpected moments of regret or longing or generosity to come through.

As for the term “one-percenter” it was used by a reviewer (or more likely his headline editor). I didn’t actually know the term when I was writing the book since much of the public dialogue about income inequality that spawned it hadn’t yet begun. But I agree “one-percenter” isn’t quite right for Anders, even though he probably technically would qualify as one. And I think that’s because one of the things that I was interested in when I was writing it was the nature of work, in particular the way that it always seems to be at odds with personal freedom, even when we might believe it’s in the service of it. So it was important that Anders was a commuter, a guy who had to get up at five and get on the train to head into the office, a guy who was ham-strung by a huge mortgage and astronomical property taxes and tuition bills for his grown kids. A one-percenter, at least in the popular imagination, is someone who lives in a kind of frictionless world where he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want. And that’s not this character. So for me, the novel has less to do with wealth than it does with responsibility, which is another way of looking at what’s expected of him, or more precisely what he feels is expected of him.

Michael Noll

Reviewers have compared you to Updike, Cheever, and Yates, and those comparisons seem inevitable given the novel’s subject matter. Still, what intimidating comparisons! They’re among the titans of 20th Century American fiction. Was working in their style was ever difficult, either because of their influence on your writing or because of their influence on the agents, editors, and other readers who might have been offering advice to you?

Ted Thompson

Yes and no. Mostly I took great comfort in their work. Particularly Yates. I think when you’re working on a novel, especially a first novel, you’re constantly worried if anyone could possibly care about the story you’re telling. This at least was a fear of mine, one of the greatest hits of my many doubts. So knowing that there was this huge swath of American fiction that had come before me, this grand beloved tradition, helped a lot. When it came to the writing, I didn’t worry much about imitating them, since the voice of the book always felt like my own and the world of the book was certainly my own, comprised of all the sense memories and settings of my childhood. Not to mention the fact that, you know, those writers are all masters (and, I would argue, very different). But I did use their work to help me find a form. And that was hugely important. It gave me permission to tell this story.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Smith Henderson

3 Jul
Smith Henderson's novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel, Fourth of July Creek, made news before it was even released, in part due to the bidding war it inspired among publishers. So far, the novel has been called “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by the book editor of The Washington Post and “a hell of a great book” by Esquire. The novel is set in Montana and follows a social worker whose life becomes entwined with the delusional and grandiose actions of a would-be prophet and revolutionary, Jeremiah Pearl.

Henderson was the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction. He was a 2011 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University, a 2011 Pushcart Prize winner, and a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He currently works at the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency, where he wrote the Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

In this interview, Henderson discusses the challenge of dramatizing a character who spends much of his time off the page and his method for capturing the voice of a man who believes the Antichrist is alive and well.

To read an exercise on using summary in dialogue and an excerpt from Fourth of July Creek, click here.

Michael Noll

I love the way that you make Jeremiah Pearl present in the novel, even when he’s not actually on the page. The biggest way you do this is with the coins that have had holes somehow cut into them. Pete finds one of the coins in his change, and then he runs across individuals who’ve encountered the coins and are collecting them, which leads him to someone who’s had a face-to-face encounter with Pearl. I’m curious if the coins were always present in the novel or if you introduced them to solve some issue you were having, perhaps the difficult of writing about a guy who would necessarily spend much of his time in hiding.

Smith Henderson

I’m sure the coins were a solution, as you suggest, but it was also just one of those things that felt right, and may have been something I was going to have him do all along. You have a character in mind and you start to think of things he or she does and what those things could mean for the plot.

But as you say, Pearl is in hiding quite a bit, so it began to be important that he do enough things that he wasn’t hiding from nobody. People—not just the protagonist, Pete—needed to want to find him. And so then you just start to look at things that a guy like that would do that would draw attention. The coins were definitely part of that.

If there’s a craft takeaway from all this, it’s probably that a character’s actions should both move the plot and be expressive of that character’s core identity.

Michael Noll

While Pearl makes his first appearance early on in the novel, he isn’t seen a second time until about halfway through. In that span of pages, you’ve created a tremendous amount of suspense about his activities and who, exactly, he is. Did you worry about how you’d satisfy the intrigue you’d built up? In other words, how did you approach the scene that you must have known that your readers would be dying for—Pete’s second encounter with Pearl?

Smith Henderson

I honestly don’t recall approaching that scene. I remember being more concerned with making Pearl off-stage as compelling as scenes with him in them. A scene with characters in the same time and place is technically easier to do than having a character relate a story to another character.

But of course, there was pressure to make Pearl-in-the-flesh as vibrant, interesting, and troubling as possible. To have earned that intrigue. But then, the intrigue itself gives the character a certain degree of power. Playing against the created image of the man was a large part of the fun in writing those scenes.

Michael Noll

Smith Henderson's highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called "the best book I've ready so far this year" by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Smith Henderson’s highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called “the best book I’ve ready so far this year” by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

One last question about Pearl (he’s tremendously fascinating). How much research was required to write his rants? Did you try to research the kinds of things he would have read about? Or did you research people like him to see what they talked about?

Smith Henderson

Well I’ve been to churches where people spoke in tongues and where the religious intensity was hotter than say, at a Unitarian church or something. I was privy to conversations about who exactly was the antichrist. So a lot of Pearl’s basic worldview was familiar to me, as it is to millions of Americans.

Also, people in Montana are generally suspicious of “outside” authority…so I was steeped in that kind of thinking before I ever conceived of Pearl. But as it came time to bring him to life, I did research into separatist movements and militias and the different flash points of the past 30 years. The Unabomber’s capture, the Ruby Ridge standoff, the hunt for Eric Rudolph. But Pearl’s voice was drawn from more older sources. I read a lot of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Nietzsche to get his pronouncements to sound properly grand. He’s as much a product of the Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the temple as he is Timothy McVeigh.

Michael Noll

The novel is written from a few different points of view, and in the sections about Pete’s daughter Rachel, you use a Q&A format. Was this a way to break up the pace of the novel? Her story takes place pretty far from Pearl’s story, and so I’m wondering if you felt the need to give her sections some extra velocity, some snap, to keep the reader’s mind from wandering back to Pearl and Pete.

Smith Henderson

The Q&A format is basically a way for me to generate material. I will often write that way to figure out a character or write my way out of a problem. With the Rachel sections, I just found that I liked them in the Q&A style. For a couple reasons. First, the identities of the Q&A aren’t really identified and work like a Greek chorus, sort of commenting on the action as they disclose it. But also, there is an inherent anxiety to the questions, which I felt really gave the reader Pete’s perspective on his daughter’s fate, his worry, his fear, his imagination running away with the possibilities…it’s as if every question is some version of “Is she okay is she okay is she okay is she okay…?” I found that much more satisfying experience as a reader.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Jennifer Ziegler

5 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

In Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, three flowers girls set out to ruin their sister’s wedding.

Jennifer Ziegler’s latest middle-grade novel is Revenge of the Flower Girls. She’s also the author of How Not to Be Popular and Sass & Serendipity. She teaches writing workshops, edits other writers’ work, and creates writing programs for The Writer’s League of Texas. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the writer Chris Barton, and their four children.

In this interview, Ziegler discusses inventing characters, the importance of villains, and her method for keeping the plot straight in her head.

To read an excerpt from Revenge of the Flower Girls and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you invent characters. Some of the characters in the book, especially Mrs. Caldwell, exude a kind of essential Texan-ness. Her last name is even a famous Texas name. But other characters are much more idiosyncratic. For instance, you describe Aunt Jane this way: “She’s tall and strong. She played professional basketball for a while and then taught PE classes here in Blanco County. Now she lives in Boston, where she runs a bar.” What do you draw on to create your characters?

Jennifer Ziegler

The way I invent characters is a mystery even to me. I often feel that characters gestate in my mind for a long time until the right story concept comes along. How they get planted there, I don’t really know. I suspect that they are amalgams of people I know or used to know or observed from afar. They are never close replications of individuals from my life. Even when I’ve tried to put friends or family in my novels the characters based on them morph into their own distinct beings. At times I’m aware that I’m borrowing elements from real people (their mannerisms or looks or habits of speech), but more often I have no idea. There have been instances when I’ve flipped through a published book of mine and suddenly realized who a character was partly based on – subconsciously. That’s always a strange revelation. But I suppose all novelists can at least be partly psychoanalyzed through their fiction.

Michael Noll

There are several instances in the book where the triplets create a plan of action and describe it in detail—and then, of course, the plan goes off the rails. I know that you’re a thorough outliner of plot, and I’m curious how these sorts of plans factor into your outlining. From a reader’s perspective, they’re great at creating suspense. But are they useful to you as a writer as well?

Jennifer Ziegler

Yes very. The triplets’ schemes are integral to the book’s plot. I had to make sure I got everything straight before I started writing because logistics aren’t my strong suit. I like to disappear into the story as I go along and whenever I get yanked out of that world in order to work out the cause and effects, it slows down my momentum. I knew who the triplets were and what they wanted, so it was just a case of figuring out how they would approach this problem and what would be the outcome of each of their plans.

Knowing who they were told me what they would do. Because the girls are big history buffs, it made sense that they would brainstorm complicated operations – that they would be action oriented rather than just mope. But, of course, they are only 11, so their lack of worldly experience translated into somewhat unrealistic schemes. The plans show just how far the girls will go to help their sister, what they’re good at, how they assume the world works, and how they work together – so they also help reveal character.

Michael Noll

The novel features three narrators who are triplets. Each of them takes turns telling the story, which must have presented an enormous challenge to you as the writer: how to distinguish between them. One thing I noticed is that you give the triplets, and all of the characters, tags. For instance, the triplets are history buffs, and so they judge each other and everyone else based on their choice of favorite president of the United States. For instance, Darby mentions that their big sister’s ex-boyfriend liked Thomas Jefferson, and says, “We all respect that.” But the big sister’s fiancé likes Franklin Pierce, and she says that “we all agree that Pierce was not one of the best.” This reminds me of the way George Lucas used motifs in Star Wars: a particular musical phrase that corresponds with each character. Is this technique essential for the kind of story you’re telling, or is it something you use regardless of the story?

Jennifer Ziegler

I use it regardless of the story. It’s showing rather than telling. You, as storyteller, know so much more about the characters with regard to who they are and where they came from. The problem is, you can’t put it all in the book, and you don’t want to interrupt the action with big information dumps. So instead you impart key aspects of character through dialogue, action, description, and these nuggets of revealing information – or tags. The fact that Burton names Franklin Pierce as his favorite president tells the triplets (and the reader) that he either A) doesn’t know his presidential history or care about it or B) is judging by very different, perhaps very superficial, standards. Both possibilities are alarming to the triplets.

Michael Noll

The novel has a very clear villain. At every opportunity, Mrs. Caldwell does something unlikable. For instance, when the wedding menu is being planned, she refuses to include meat-free options for the bride, who is a vegetarian. She says, “Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment.” And, “Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.” Her lack of empathy or sense of compromise is pretty astonishing. How important is it to create a character like this—and to create moments where she can be bad?

Jennifer Ziegler

In this story it was critical that there be a clear antagonist. For one thing, the title sort of promises it, and for another, the mayhem created by the girls would be excessive and mean-spirited if there wasn’t a clear reason for it. The readers have to believe in their mission, too.

At the earliest concept stages, there was no mother-in-law character and I intended to make the groom the antagonist. But that didn’t work. It didn’t make sense that Lily – even if she was on the rebound – would fall for someone villainous. Burton isn’t a bad guy, he just isn’t the right guy. It’s clear to the sisters, and hopefully to readers, that Lily is about to make an awful mistake. But for them to go to such extremes and be thwarted meant there had to be some equal opposing force. Thus, the pushy Mrs. Caldwell was created. Her son is basically her whole life and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants for him. Plus, she is the type of woman who is used to getting her way. It is gradually revealed that she is meddling in her own fashion as much as the triplets are. The difference is that she’s trying to manipulate her vision of her son’s future regardless of what’s right for everyone involved. The girls, on the other hand, just want to make sure their sister is happy. I liked this juxtaposition.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston

15 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's story collection, Corpus Christi, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. He has just published his first novel, Remember Me Like This.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s first book, Corpus Christi: Stories, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. His new novel, Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a boy who disappears in Corpus Christi and then mysteriously turns up.

Bret Anthony Johnston new novel Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a Corpus Christi family whose young son disappeared for years and then mysteriously reappeared. A review in the Washington Post says that the book asks, “But what happens after the cable news hysteria fades away, and the mayor issues a proclamation and the tearful grandparents fly back home? Are these rare families like lottery winners who celebrate in public and then, in the months that follow, squander their good fortune?”

Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In this interview, Johnston discusses suspenseful imagery, the challenge of finding the right tone, and his approach to place in fiction.

To read an excerpt from Remember Me Like This and an exercise on setting the mood in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a body facedown in the water. This image doesn’t return until almost the end of the novel. In fact, it’s almost possible to forget about it since it’s not long before the drama of the novel takes over. What went into your decision to open the novel with that image? Did you worry that the reader would become impatient with wanting to return to it?

Bret Anthony Johnston

My hope was that the image would embed itself in the reader’s subconscious memory, that it would be something of a shadow that followed them through the story. I wanted them to wonder about the body; I wanted it to keep them from getting too comfortable in the story, to preclude them from taking survival for granted. That is, I wanted them to share the experience that the family endures. Starting the book that way seemed to invite a necessary kind of empathy. Of course you’re right, though, in that it’s almost possible to forget about the image. That’s the gamble I had to take so that when the body returns, the reader is jolted and yanked back toward a kind of raw vulnerability. I hope it works. If it didn’t, don’t tell me.

Michael Noll

The scene where Justin appears for the first time is really well done and uses a deft trick of misdirection. I can imagine that scene was difficult to write. The readers been waiting for it intently, and so there’s a need to both meet and confound their expectations. How did you approach that scene?

Bret Anthony Johnston

Your reading of the scene, the craft behind it, is incredibly accurate and I really appreciate such close reading, Michael. Thank you. What you’re pointing out, though, actually came with relative ease—meaning, it was stunningly difficult and time-consuming, but still not as difficult or time-consuming as other scenes—because it was the result of empathizing with the characters. I only had to understand what the characters would be feeling in that moment, and because I knew them well by that point in the book, their reactions were readily available. Once I understood that she would fixate on her memory him being afraid of snakes, I felt really at home in her reaction.

What took an enormous amount of time was striking the right balance in what might be called tone. I revised and revised and revised to get the scene to move evenly toward the revelation. I struggled with the pace for many drafts. I struggled with the cop’s reaction and the district attorney’s entrance. As you say, it was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.

Michael Noll

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

The novel returns to certain places (the empty pool at the “half-razed TeePee Motel” and the Marine Lab). The places begin just as places where the characters go, but over the course of the novel, several of the most important events occur there. Did you have certain dramatic scenes in mind when you first introduced those places into the novel? Or, did you explore the places and return to them until the drama presented itself?

Bret Anthony Johnston

The latter. When I start writing anything, I have no intentions of any kind, and the novel was no different. I approach every piece of fiction the same way, which is to pay attention to the details, images, and artifacts of the story and take nothing for granted. My impulse is to reach backwards in a story rather to stretch forward, so I’m always asking myself what’s already in play that I can use again, that I can recycle in a manner that will reward the reader’s attention. It’s a mechanism of repetition and evolution. In this case, I returned to various places until those places evolved to mean something other than what they had. I think a lot of new writers are excited by the prospect of constantly bringing in new material, new imagery or settings or objects, but I think the more satisfying move is often to juggle what you already have so that the reader sees something familiar in a new, more revelatory light.

Michael Noll

It’s been ten years since Corpus Christi: Stories was published. Since then you’ve continued to write stories, and you’ve also published a book of creative writing exercises and written a film documentary about skateboarder Danny Way. Plus, you direct the writing program at Harvard. In other words, you’ve been pretty busy. And yet, I can imagine there was pressure to produce a novel, especially since your first book was so well received. How were you able to resist that pressure, to discover the novel you wanted to write and then write it at a pace that would allow it to become the book you had in mind?

Bret Anthony Johnston

You’re absolutely right about the pressure, but I regard any kind of pressure as a privilege. I’m incredibly fortunate to have editors and readers who want to read my work, and I refuse to take that as a given. Honestly, it still surprises me. It really does. It surprises me to the degree that I don’t fully believe anyone when they ask to read something I’ve written; I think they’re just being nice.

And yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m a slow writer and there will be years between the books that I’m lucky enough to publish. Meaning, I don’t want to publish something until I think it’s ready, until I’ve written the book I want to read, because it will be a long, long time before I have the opportunity to redeem myself. What this means is that I’ve missed many deadlines. I know I missed at least three for the novel, though maybe I missed more. The book just wasn’t ready, and publishing it would have seemed a kind of malpractice. I always gave the publisher the opportunity to cancel my contract, and I apologized profusely, but I also wouldn’t show them the book until it was ready. I worked with an amazing editor named Kendra Harpster, and she was beyond supportive. Not only would the book not have been published without her, the published book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without her guidance. It’s another way that I got lucky. I’ve been lucky my whole career. Lucky and slow, that’s my life as a writer. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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