Tag Archives: narrative voice

An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll


Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

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

How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

19 Aug
Janet Stickmon's book, Midnight Peaches, Two O'Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

Janet Stickmon’s book, Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.

How the Essay Works

In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”

That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.

This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.

She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:

Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”

The second is a form of English:

Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.

With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:

My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.

The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).

The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:

I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.

Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:

  1. Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
  2. Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
  3. Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
  4. Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.

This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.

Good luck!

The Read to Write Craft Seminar

8 Sep
Michael Noll

Join Michael Noll for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: Sept. 21, 2-6 p.m. at The Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. To register, click here.

Do these writing problems sound familiar?

  • You start a story but quit after three pages. Or quit a novel after 70 pages.
  • Your characters never seem to find themselves in a conflict. They seem flat, no matter how much you write about them.
  • Your dialogue goes nowhere. Your characters all sound the same and agree agree with each other too much.
  • Your stories or chapters all begin in the morning, with the character waking up. Your narratives are chained to the minute-by-minute progression of time.

Even great writers work at these challenges every day–the difference is that have learned strategies to deal with them. In this class, you can find out how they do it. We’ll look at excerpts from stories and novels from four different writers, with an eye toward discovering how they solve these problems.

The class is on Saturday, September 21, from 2-6 pm at the idyllic Writing Barn in South Austin.

To read a recap of a previous class, click here.

I hope you can join us for this practical, fun class.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: September 21, 2-6 p.m. at the Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

What We’ll Cover in The Read Well, Write Better Workshop

25 May
Michael Noll

Join Michael Noll for the Read Well, Write Better Workshop: June 1, 2-6 p.m. at The Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. To register, click here.

Here are 5 topics we’ll cover in the Read Well, Write Better Workshop on June 1:

How to Create a Unique Narrative Voice

How to Write Dialogue as a Duel

How to Write Dialogue as the Voice of a Community

Two Ways to Create Suspense with Setting

Three Ways to Move Through Time within a Scene

And here are 9 writers we’ll be learning from:

Aravind Adiga

Ron Carlson

Raymond Chandler

Don Delillo

Anne Enright

Dagoberto Gilb

Yiyun Li

Alice Munro

Francine Prose

Plus, everyone who registers for the class will bring a one-page excerpt from a story or novel that they love. As a class, we’ll create an exercise based on the excerpt.

An Interview with Marcus Pactor

25 Apr
Marcus Pactor's debut collection of stories is vs. Death Noises.

Marcus Pactor‘s debut collection of stories, vs. Death Noises, has been called “nothing short of dazzling.”

If some writers would kill for a blurb from a literary icon, then maybe we should keep an eye on Padgett Powell. Here’s how the old Southern master recently answered a question about his pick for the most exciting author writing today: “There is a young twisted fellow from Jacksonville Florida named Marcus Pactor. It’s the best I’ve seen in some time.”

Marcus Pactor‘s debut story collection, vs. Death Noises, won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. One review claimed that the book “cuts to the bone like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.” Pactor received his MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches at the University of North Florida.

In this interview, Pactor discusses the development of narrative voice and the gap between our technologically-burdened world and the fiction that represents it.

Michael Noll

In some ways, the story resembles a TV detective drama like CSI. It’s about a search for truth that leads to the haunting last sentence: “Somewhere in this archive he said what he needed me to know.” But this isn’t the only way the story could have been written. Because it involves a dead body, the story could have directly traced the events that led to the death. Why did you choose to focus on the search?

Marcus Pactor

Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Marcus Pactor’s debut collection of stories, vs. Death Noises, won the Subito Press Prize for Fiction.

I never thought of writing more about the events leading up to Steve’s death. I’m never thinking about the big picture of my approach, really, except upon reflection. I’m thinking about the next word, the next sentence. But now you’ve got me thinking about the CSI formula. Henry James insulted a writer by saying that he had treated his subject in a most straightforward manner. I don’t much care for James’ fiction, but I think the idea is solid. Besides, Steve is dead. The current approach works (and we’re stipulating that it does work) because it focuses less on what happened to Steve and more on what is happening to the narrator.

Michael Noll

The narrator is searching through the items left in Steve’s apartment, beginning with personal property but then moving to the ideas explored in his writing. As this shift occurs, the narrator’s voice begins to appear more clearly, even going so far as to address the reader: “You’ve read it before.” Did this shift appear naturally as you wrote the story, or did you discover it in revision?

Marcus Pactor

Naturally. Most people think about voice first—if they don’t have that fully formed voice from the get-go, then they’re sunk. Writers hear this voice that makes them go. The comparison of writer to psychic medium is pretty common. I understand. In general, I agree with it. But in this piece the voice seems to emerge more and more clearly over time. In a way, it seems as though I began to find the voice as I wrote, and the story is almost like a record of that voice’s discovery. That’s one way to read it. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

But I think it’s also true that the emergence of the voice supplements the more clearly emerging relationship between Steve and the narrator. Even the verb “supplements” is inadequate. I think that’s especially true if you like the theory of discovery. In that case, the voice and its development are inseparable from that content.

“Emergence” may also be the wrong term. Another way to read it is that the narrator has been detached from this sibling relationship in all kinds of ways for a lengthy period of time. The voice mirrors that detachment. As the piece builds toward the climax, he feels more and more strongly his regret. In that case, too, the inseparability argument still holds.

Now, this is my third crack at this question. Until you asked, I hadn’t thought about how the voice in particular works in this piece. This means that I might be wrong about all the organic nature of the voice. But I think it’s true of any valuable story: the manner in which it is told is as important as what is told.

Michael Noll

Most writers will, at some point, feel enslaved to the need to move characters through time and space. It’s why Virginia Woolf (I think) once complained that it took her all day to walk a character through a door. But you avoid this problem by focusing on what a character has left behind rather than the actual character. Did this choice of focus feel freeing? Did it open avenues for the narration that would be more challenging within a typical chronological focus?

Marcus Pactor

I’m not entirely sure it was a choice. This is the way the story came out of me. If anything, it was a constraint, a good kind of constraint, the kind of constraint that forced me to create a character in a way that wasn’t comfortable. I couldn’t describe Steve physically. Instead, Steve generally had to be described in a doubly or even triply mediated fashion. The papers and property make up the first mediation. The narrator’s reading of that stuff make up the second mediation. The language is the third mediation.

 Michael Noll

The narrator writes that “we suffer from a surplus of trivial choices. This new suffering cannot be compared to the old. It cannot be expressed by time-honored methods, either.” Do you think this is true? Will each culture’s differences require differently shaped stories—not just different kinds of characters and events but different ways of telling?

Marcus Pactor

The short answer is “yes.” I have been fool enough to mention Henry James. Now I invoke Saul Bellow. The suffering of the average member of modern civilization is different in kind and quality to the suffering anyone has suffered before. I’m not talking about rape and murder suffering here. I’m talking about the suffering imposed upon us by magic phones that do everything but wipe our noses. App upon app, channel upon channel of TV, etc. We have so many ways of wasting time. It is impossible to live the way people lived in the past. I’m okay with that. I certainly don’t want asbestos buildings child labor, segregation, and the rest. But they suffered from asbestos, child labor, segregation, etc. The average person had plenty more to cry about. Crying was an appropriate response to these impositions upon their health and freedom. It expressed a desire for better options. We have those options now. They are hard to deal with, and must be dealt with differently.

But how? The circumstances of our lives are changing must faster than we can change ourselves. Intellectually, I think it is easy to recognize that if the suffering is qualitatively different, then our responses to the suffering must also be qualitatively different. The problem is that we haven’t yet developed those responses. Who knows how long it will take to do so?

Padget Powell, a Southern literary master whose strange, brilliant stories rarely enter the pages of the Best American Short Stories, has called Marcus Pactor the most exciting writer working today.

Padgett Powell, a Southern literary master whose strange, brilliant stories rarely enter the pages of the Best American collections, has called Marcus Pactor the most exciting writer working today.

If you accept all that, it is easy to see that our literature must also be qualitatively different. It’s happening somewhat with the college and other independent presses, but not yet at the mass level I think it needs to happen. Consider that twenty years ago few houses had the internet, satellite TV, or cell phones. Our social relations have changed immensely since then, yet people write stories that hardly reflect the depth and scope of that change. Instead, Obama is named president rather than the first Bush. Characters text one another rather than call. This is just the Mad Libs approach to writing literature. It is, of course, popular, because most people really are conservative. In the midst of change, they hold on to what is comfortable. That explains, in part, the popularity of Best American Short Stories.

There is a significant percentage of people who seem to recognize that those stories, and the methods by which those stories are told, do not reveal anything new about the lives they are living, or maybe that the stories in that anthology can only capture a limited range of feeling and experience, and that range has not been tested or questioned in years. These people are searching around for a new thing. We could say that these people crave “experimental” literature but I hate that term. And, of course, a large amount of what is called experimental is also dreck.

Michael Noll

The ritual of Bar Mitzvah plays a crucial role in the story. On one hand, it’s an ancient introduction of a boy into social and spiritual manhood. On the other hand, it’s a modern celebration of consumerism, with families (in America, at least) battling to have the most ostentatious party and gifts. If the shape of our stories reveals aspects of our culture, do you think this shift in the Bar Mitzvah reveals a change in the way modern (American?) Jews define and encounter God?

Marcus Pactor

It might have occurred with the Jewish parents who came of age during or after World War II. My guess is that those parents found that a big celebration of achievement, replete with gifts, would help make their kids feel both American and secure. It might have been a statement about their own need for security and Americanness. It perhaps divided them from the old worship of God, though I’m guessing it was more a symptom of that division rather than an active element. A need to assimilate was definitely at work, but to me it seems the Bar Mitzvah is just a particular version of everybody’s general need for stuff, and our suffering of it.

Now, at the end, I can reveal my hypocrisy. My Bar Mitzvah was in 1988, and it was a present-fest. I got checks and savings bonds and fifty dollar bills. I received the now-traditional monogrammed pen. Three umbrellas! I can’t say I loved the actual stuff, but I loved to get it.

April 2013

Michael Noll, editor of Read to Write

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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