Tag Archives: Myfanwy Collins

An Interview with Myfanwy Collins

5 Dec
Myfanwy Collins work has been called "stark and stirring." Her forthcoming novel, The Book of Laney, will be released next year.

Myfanwy Collins work has been called “stark and stirring.” Her forthcoming novel, The Book of Laney, will be released next year.

Myfanwy Collins is the author of the novel Echolocation, the story collection I Am Holding Your Hand, and a very long list of stories, several of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize or Best of the Web awards. Next year, she will publish The Book of Laney, a Young Adult novel.

In this interview, Collins discusses the impetus behind first drafts, the difference between writing fiction for adults and for young adults, and palate cleansers for novelists.

(To read Collins’ story “Poinsettias” and an exercise on story endings, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your process for writing this story. The story contains the term non sequitur, which seems to be the way the entire story operates. The jump from fresh breath to poinsettias isn’t logical. And while poinsettias and the rotting turkey are both Christmas-related, the introduction of the turkey still confounds our expectations (she goes to the store not to buy a turkey but to return a rotten one). The same thing happens with the jump from rotten turkey to dead mother. There’s clearly a connection, but it’s a sideways jump rather than a jump forward. I can’t imagine writing something like this with any sense of destination (of knowing how to get from peppermints to dead mother). How did this story take shape?

Myfanwy Collins

Great question. Your response to the story has really got me thinking. As with most short fiction I write, I wrote it as it came to me. The connections are as they came to me. The jumps, in my mind, have logic to them, but not everyone is in my mind and so I love that you have found this sense in them. I could not ask for more.

The impetus for the story were a couple of things on my mind the day I wrote the first draft.

The mundane things:

  • I have an altoids obsession and the tins are everywhere and I think this must really annoy my husband.
  • My husband insists on keeping poinsettias alive after the holiday. This drives me bananas.

The not so mundane things:

  • A few days before Christmas one year, there was a horrible smell in my fridge. We threw out everything we thought it might be. It still stank! Then I started googling the smell and realized it was the goddamned turkey that I was supposed to be cooking in a few days. I returned it to the store and they gave me a new one. They told me they would dispose of the old one for me. For some reason, this made me deeply sad. This bird had given its life for nothing.
  • The deep sadness I felt, made me think of my mother. Her last breath. The way we sent her off to the funeral home with her fuzzy blanket.

And now I’m crying.

Michael Noll

The ending reminded me of the ending to Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth,” when she jumps, without any immediate logic, to a story about a Cameronian minister, who “in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world.” Even as I type those words, I get chills. There’s something thrilling about an ending that seems to come out of nowhere, as the ending to “Poinsettias” does. Was there a story that you had in mind as you wrote this? Or, if not, what’s your favorite non sequitur/out-of-nowhere ending?

Myfanwy Collins

Oh, this is so cool. I love it. Thank you.

No, there was no story I had in mind. I write from my own gut and experience. I write from the source of my pain or emotion. I write to release myself from something.

Michael Noll

Your forthcoming novel The Book of Laney is a young adult novel. On the surface, this is a bit startling given that your previous book, the story collection I Am Holding Your Hand, included a story that, according to the jacket description, is about “a woman has sex with her dead mother’s husband,” not exactly YA content. What made you want to write for a YA audience? What effect did this have on your approach to the novel?

Myfanwy Collins

Myfanwy Collins first YA novel, The Book of Laney, will be published by X in 2014.

Myfanwy Collins’ first YA novel, The Book of Laney, will be published by Lacewing Books in 2014.

The books of my youth (many of them written for young adults, but some were adult books) remain some of my favorite books. I think of authors like Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. They helped shape me. As did Salinger (I read the Catcher in the Rye when I was 12).

Then there are authors like Carson McCullers who write books that both young adults and adults are moved by. For example, The Member of the Wedding. In that book, McCullers was able to capture a sense of longing that is so pure and ferocious that one falls so easily into the longing with her.

When I was an undergraduate, I had a double major in Secondary Education/English and English Literature/Writing. For a very brief period of time before I started graduate school, I taught High School English. I did so because I enjoyed the age-group very much. Their insights, their emotions. I listened to them.

All this is to say, I have always felt a kinship to this age group. Often, I’ve written from the point-of-view of a young child or a young woman, so in terms of POV, it was not foreign to me.

As for my approach, I would say that the first drafts suffered the most from me trying to fit into some model I thought Young Adult books would be (even though I knew it wasn’t true). I was trying to reign myself in and not allow my character to be sexual or too adult or this or that. I thought I had to follow some rule about toning things down. Then after some time away, I realized that I was not being true to my writing self and the story was suffering as a result.

Then I had a wonderful editor (Andrew Scott at Lacewing Books) request to read the manuscript. I warned him that I wasn’t fully happy with it and that I wanted to make changes, but he bit the bullet and read it anyway.

Turns out he liked it and saw potential in it. He gave me some notes and I got back to work. But before I did, I ask him if there was anything I shouldn’t write in a YA book. He told me that pretty much everything was on the table except for bestiality and necrophilia.

I am extremely proud of the draft I turned in to him in October. I know there is still work to be done, but I feel the story is stronger for me unleashing myself a bit. I love my character Laney and I was honored to go on her journey with her. I hope the readers will feel the same way.

Michael Noll

Your list of publishing credits is astoundingly long, especially for someone who writes novels. Do you tend to work on multiple pieces at once? I’ve heard people say that novels are like black holes–they swallow up everything else that you’re working on. Everything gets incorporated into the novel. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with you. Do you take breaks from novel writing to work on shorter pieces?

Myfanwy Collins

In all things, there is nothing better than a good palate cleanser. So, yes, I do write lots of other stuff. I’ve even written some screenplays. They both suck but it was an incredibly good lesson in writing dialogue and action. I recommend it.

I love flash fiction and short stories, as a reader and a writer. I feel like short fiction takes up a different part of my brain than does a longer form, like a novel. With short fiction, I feel less attached to plot and more attached to an emotional response. Whereas with a novel, I absolutely insist that I give plot the respect it deserves.

I just (yesterday as a matter of fact) finished the first draft I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. I didn’t have time to focus on it until recently and it feels like such a relief to have the clay now that I can mold.

But now that I have that draft, I’m going to let it sit for a little while and write some shorter fiction. Most likely, I will go back to a project I’ve been posting on my web site. I call it vellum.

Basically, what I’ve been doing is writing these small pieces and posting them. If anyone reads them, great. If not, that’s okay, too. the reason I started doing it was to rediscover the joy of writing. Writing for no reason other than to hope a reader finds it and sees in it what I do.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Write an Ending that Swerves

3 Dec
"Poinsettias" by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

“Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?

Myfanwy Collins gives a lesson in excellent endings in her story “Poinsettias.” It was published in PANK, where you can read it now. (Seriously, it’s short and wonderful, and you can read it in three minutes.)

How the Story Works

This kind of last-second-swerve might seem like the famous epiphanies from early Modernist writers. But, it’s actually quite different. To demonstrate, here are two of the most famous epiphany endings:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”

—from “Araby” by James Joyce.

“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

In both of those stories, the shocking thing is how quickly and suddenly the story states the character’s reaction to events—that is, if you find those lines shocking. To some extent, we’ve read so many epiphany endings that we’re immune to them.

So, now, check out the ending to “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins. Keep in mind that, until this point, the story has been about the weird emotional state that often follows Christmas Day, the question of how long the season should last and when the final vestiges of it, like poinsettias, should be discarded.

“At the supermarket, they told her they would put the rotting turkey carcass in the renderer. They would take care of it, they told her. She felt some responsibility that the flesh of the bird be taken care of, that it be brought gently back to earth, to replenish, to renew. She remembered that when her mother died, hospice had said it was okay to send a personal item with her in the ambulance on the way to the crematory. She chose a fleece, duck-covered blanket that her mother had always snuggled under. That blanket was soft. It was so soft. When she thought of the flames, it was not her mother’s body she saw, but that blanket pushing toward the heat.”

This is an example of an ending that swerves away from predictability. Until this point, the mother has not been mentioned. And yet, we realize now, the entire story has been about her. So, how does the story pull off this ending?

In retrospect, we can see how every significant noun in the story is related to the idea of death.

  • The character, Mandy, constantly sucks on peppermint Altoids because she “didn’t want her mouth to taste like shit. All of these people were walking around with shit-tasting mouths, but not her.”
  • Mandy is upset with her partner about the poinsettias because “Nic would not let the poinsettias die. That was the problem.”
  • The turkey that Mandy bought to cook turns out to be rotten; she “drove the carcass to the market in the way back of her car with the windows cracked, but even now, weeks later, the smell lingered, sulfur twisting up her nostrils.”

So, even though the mother’s death is not introduced until the last paragraph, the story has prepared the reader to learn about it. The ending swerves not because it comes totally out of the blue but because it gives the reader an unexpected way of viewing everything that has come before it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s prepare to write an ending that swerves, using Myfanwy Collins’ “Poinsettias” as a model:

  1. Choose a topic. You might consider a subject that has been bothering you or scratching at the inside of your head for a while—something you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t figured out how to approach yet.
  2. Free write about ideas, images, people, places, or events that are connected to the topic. Stray as far from the topic as you wish. You’re exploring the mental, emotional, and physical terrain of the story. If you’ve failed to write about the topic from one angle, find another. Myfanwy Collins’ story is about the death of the character’s mother, but it begins with the terrain that exists around that death: Christmas, Altoids, Poinsettias, and a turkey.
  3. Begin a story that has seemingly nothing to do with your topic. Sometimes our stories about topics that we really want to write about begin too directly. We rush up to the topic instead of taking our time, creeping up on it. So, choose one of the things you discovered through free writing and begin the story there.
  4. Switch topics after a few paragraphs or sentences. Myfanwy Collins writes two paragraphs about Altoids and then switches to Poinsettias. If you’re not sure how to make the switch, use the same sentence that Collins uses: “The real problem was that_____.”
  5. Feel for the right moment to introduce the “real” topic. You may need to switch topics again or introduce new elements. But, keep writing. Keep putting your character into moments of tension—in other words, write the story, and if it’s truly about the topic that has been bothering you, that topic will push its head onto the page. Trust your subconscious to put the pieces together.

Good luck!

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