Tag Archives: My Life as an Animal

An Interview with Laurie Stone

20 Oct
Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press. October 2016), the novel Starting with Serge (Doubleday), and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, “has an intelligence rare in contemporary American fiction,” according to Jeffrey Renard Allen.

Laurie Stone is the author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, the novel Starting with Serge, and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark. She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

To read an exercise on using backstory to create drama in the present based on My Life as an Animal, click here.

In this interview, Stone discusses her approach to truth and fiction in “stories,” jump cuts, and why talk of therapeutic writing sends her to the bar.

Michael Noll

My Life as an Animal is subtitled stories, and I’m curious about that. The narrator has your name, and Richard and Andre Glaz (two of the most important characters in these stories) both appear in “Tangled,” an essay you published in Joyland, (I found that essay because, in the book, you tell the reader to google André Glaz, and so I did!) So, I’m assuming that the book, which is fiction, is based in large part on your own life. I’m not interested so much in what is true and what has been invented. Instead, I’m curious about the decision to fictionalize. It’s one that I think a lot of essayists and memoirists face. What made you decide to write these as stories instead of essays? What was your approach?

Laurie Stone

I am delighted you read the piece in Joyland. First, I’d like to speak about the way I view literary genres in relationship to my work. Pretty much everything I write these days is a story. The pieces in this book and elsewhere are dramatic narratives. I would say this of much of my criticism as well, such as a long appreciation I wrote about Spalding Gray published in American Theatre. The piece is a monologue about Gray, a story. It’s not about me, and yet it reflects the elements in Gray’s work and life that quickened my thoughts. That is what I am interested in communicating. What I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary or ordinarily strange. My work incorporates elements of fiction (scenes, dialogue, the build-up of dramatic revelations, etc.), memoir (some of the stuff described happened in some form or other), criticism (my narrators enjoy thinking about art and politics), and nonfiction (some of the reporting is journalistically verifiable).

I do not consciously “fictionalize” events. In literature, I am not especially interested in things that happened because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find dramatic. It might be the relationship I had with André Glaz, a psychoanalyst I saw in treatment who, during my teenage years, took me into his bed. Or it might be driving in Scottsdale’s soul-crushing heat to buy a $5 Ikea rug from a woman about to return to Kolkata. The term “essay” does not apply to my work generally. I don’t seek to convey meaning or understandings. I hope I am staging little provocations for the reader to react to anyway the reader wishes.

I do not believe circumstances are intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Narrators create interest by their passionate investment in the story they are telling. They do this by layering in two time frames. Something happens, the narrator reports a response at the time it happened, and the narrator also looks back and weighs in on the incident now—at the time of the telling—whether the look back is five minutes later or 20 years later. The reader attaches to a story the reader can enter as if the story is about the reader. The less the narrator asks for something from the reader, i.e. feel my feelings, share my understandings, love my friends, hate my enemies, sentence my parents or siblings or lover to death, etc., the more room readers have to feel their own emotions.

The stories are constructed through language, not memory. I write at the level of the sentence. I sit there, looking at the doors and windows a sentence has opened for the sentence that can follow, and so on. I do not write with a plan. I do not know where a story is going ahead of time. There is no prewriting. It all happens in the moment of looking at the words. To get back to your interest in André, I return to him over and over because he stirs contradictions that can’t be resolved. Those are the stories I want to read and write.

Michael Noll

You play with chronology quite a bit. The first story takes place after many of the stories that follow it. In “Leaving Gardner,” the chronology is continually scrambled, with the narrator describing Gardner’s death and them jumping to a time before it and then after it. What was your sense for when to use straight chronology and when some other element made it less important?

Laurie Stone

I start with a dramatic moment and look at it from as many perspectives as I can. I do not know of a story worth its salt that proceeds chronologically. We think associatively. If I am listening to a person tell a story, and they start with getting up and listing what they had for breakfast before getting on the bus where they found themselves next to a lost child who could not speak, I move away for a drink long before learning there was a diamond clasped in the child’s grimy paw.

Michael Noll

Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

On a similar note, one of the things I love about your stories is your ability to jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic with incredible speed and while maintaining a clear sense of direction. I was particularly struck by a passage in “Toby Dead” that jumped from Nebraska City to Gertrude Stein and William James and then to the narrator’s family. How many of these asides and jumps were trimmed or cut from the manuscript? What’s your measure for how far you can stray or jump from the main thread of a story?

Laurie Stone

I am glad you commented on the jump cuts in the texts. I use a number of techniques shared with film and visual art, among them montage, fades, collage, bricollage, etc. The sections you refer to are not “asides.” For there to be “asides,” there would need to be a central intention. Nothing was cut or edited out because it was extraneous. I cut when a sentence is repetitious, obvious, or clichéd. If you feel there is a dramatic build-up in the stories, and I hope you do, it comes from adding complexity or switching from direction A (melancholy in separateness) to direction B (ecstasy in solitude). I hope connections for the reader will jump across the border between one thing placed beside another thing . . . the way we understand what is happening from montage in film . . . a shot of a cat in an open door, the next shot of a mouse behind the leg of a chair. I wonder what you felt reading the example you gave. Having put those bits together experimentally, I can offer this reading now: the narrator of “Toby Dead,” who is caring for a mother she does not actively love, expresses her ease with abjection in two anecdotes of disappointment and entrapment. The juxtapositions are also funny, I hope. As often as possible, I am looking to find comedy in weird, cruel, and sad moments.

Michael Noll

The story “André” is about a difficult, awful subject: the narrator’s sexual assault by the psychoanalyst André Glaz. The trauma is clear in how the piece is written. For example, the narrator tries to describe the way that Glaz has stayed with her for years and says, “He formed me. Not really.” Then she tries out a few other descriptions that don’t quite seem to capture what she feels. And yet I was also struck by how sympathetic your portrayal of Glaz was. For example, you write that the narrator read two articles Glaz had written and was “surprised by their sensitivity.” What was your approach to the character of Glaz? It would be easy and justified in portraying him as a monster, but he comes off as something more complex. Was that difficult to achieve?

Laurie Stone

There would be no story unless André was complex, and I think readers would lose interest in a one-dimensional character. He must have had something compelling in his personality to seduce so many people, albeit naïve and striving ones. It is not emotionally difficult for me to write complexity into a character. If trauma gives you a subject over and over, let’s raise a glass to trauma. When people speak of writing as cathartic or therapeutic, I am off to the bar for another drink. Mel Brooks says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and I’ll go with that. When I’m working, I think, “Okay, if there are no heroes and no victims . . . what does that leave?” I have to be on guard against flashing and showing off—asking the reader to look at me and like me. For me the hard thing to re-experience over and over is Gardner’s death. That section is clinical and listy, and yet for me the most wrenching. The rest of this book, honestly, is a bunch of sentences.

October 2016

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

How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

18 Oct
Laurie Stone's new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, and the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.

A great example of this type of internal conflict can be found in Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, new from Northwestern University Press. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Story Works

The book is a collection of stories, the term that Stone uses to describe her fictions that often use material from her life. (Read about that definition in the interview on Thursday.)  One of the stories in the book, André, revolves around the sexual assault that the main character suffered, when she was 14, at the hands of her psychoanalyst, a man named André. Her reaction to the traumatic event was a kind of dissociation:

Have you ever left your body? People talk about this happening during trauma. Maybe it is a throwback to our chimpy past, when the endangered primate searched for a tree to climb into at the sound of pounding hooves. I looked down at a girl in a blue cardigan with her arms by her sides.

Many years later, she tells the story of this assault at a dinner party, and a man at the party has this reaction:

The man had been quiet until André was mentioned. He had intense eyes and an enigmatic smile. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his work as a landscape gardener. We were drinking margaritas and eating chips. Sailboats raced outside the windows, and I looked around my friend’s peaceful loft with its large, abstract paintings, couches by a window, a coffee table made from an old, green door. I was on a stool and once or twice rubbed my shoulder. The man said, “Can I give you a massage? I have studied massage.” I said, “Okay.” My mother used to say, “Nothing is free.” I did not want her to be right. The man stood too close as he worked on my neck. Softly, he said, “Does it feel good?” I said, “Yes.” He kept working. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like him. His hands were soothing. He was silent for a while and then he said, “Can I kiss your shoulder. These shoulders don’t know they are loved.” I did not want the kiss. I thought he was ugly. I said, “Okay,” and I felt his lips, cool and quick, on my skin.

That night in bed Richard said, “Why did you let him kiss you?” I said, “It felt easier than saying no.’

There is a lot to be learned here about men’s behavior and consent, of course, but the scene also reveals something important about craft: A character’s behavior becomes a lot more interesting and suspenseful if must choose between competing desires. In this case, she wants to be left alone but also wants to avoid a confrontation. The result is that the scene becomes less predictable. There are several different ways it could have gone. The narrator could have slapped the man or told him to get his hands off of her, and it would have made sense. She could have begun crying or stormed out of the room. In short, the narrator’s actions depend on which desire she chooses to act on (to be left alone or to avoid confrontation).

Because the choice between those desires is so difficult, the story becomes about the choice itself (and the stress involved in making it) rather than the action that follows. The narrator alludes to that stress shortly after this scene ends when she says, in one of the best lines of the book, “Suffering does not ennoble people. Suffering mostly crushes people.” The description that leads up to this statement is alone worth the price of the book. And, it’s possible because of the way Stone creates the narrator’s internal conflict.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create competing desires within a character, using “André” from My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone as a model:

  1. Give your character a critical event. In My Life as an Animal, Stone uses the abuse by the psychoanalyst. It’s an event that hangs over the narrator for the rest of her life, coloring the way she understands herself and others. Because the narrator is so complex and well drawn, this critical event doesn’t entirely explain her character, and that is important. Characters who can be distilled to a single event too completely risk becoming flat and unrealistic. So, the event shouldn’t define your character, but it should be an inextricable part of your character. For your own character, consider what memory he or she returns to, loves, or dreads. What past event keeps the character up at night or gets told to others again and again?
  2. Jump forward in time to a similar situation. The situation can be exactly the same or vaguely similar; in My Life as an Animal, the narrator is receiving unwanted attention from a man, and the kind of attention is similar but of a different degree. But the situation can also be similar only from the character’s perspective. In real life, we tend to use our own critical events as yardsticks for much of what happens around us. So, the critical event and present situation may seem totally different to one character but similar to another. The point is that the present situation makes your character feel the same—or in a similar way—as she did in the critical event.
  3. Give the character a desire related to that situation. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s desire is pretty simple: to be left alone, not harassed. The desire can also be small. For example, some people avoid certain foods (oranges, chives, etc) because they once had a negative experience with them (getting sick). As a result, they live their lives with the ongoing desire to avoid those foods. The desire can also be a positive one. If someone had a good experience in the past, he or she might actively seek out similar experiences.
  4. Give the character an expected way to act on that desire. You’re simply following the logic of the desire. If a character wants to avoid oranges, she’ll behave in predictable ways: avoiding certain aisles in the grocery store or never eating breakfast in a restaurant. How does your character usually act on his or her desire?
  5. Create another desire that, if acted upon, has the opposite effect of the previous action. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator also wants to avoid confrontation with the man who is bothering her. She’s at a party and doesn’t want to make a scene. As a result, she allows the man to give her a massage and kiss her even though it runs contrary to her deep desire to be left alone. To a certain degree, she’s also bombarded with mixed feelings about the man. He’s ugly and creepy, but her shoulders do hurt and his “hands were soothing.” So, place your character in a particular place and time with particular people. What else is going on in that moment? What else does the character want (to avoid making a scene, to relax her shoulders)? These desires don’t need to be inherently contrary to the first desire you created, but the actions that result from them should work against that first desire.
  6. Let the character choose. Generally speaking, drama requires release. A scene builds and builds, and readers wonder what will happen. So, what will your character choose?

The goal is to create a scene by exploring the ways that a past event creates desires that can or cannot be acted upon in the present.

Good luck.

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