Tag Archives: novel structure

An Interview with Hannah Pittard

8 Sep
Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice.”

Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels, including Listen to Me and the forthcoming Atlanta, 1962. Her second novel, Reunion, was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping. Her debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was an Oprah Magazine selection, an Indie Next pick, a Powell’s Indiespendible Book Club Pick, and a “best of” selection by The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Details Magazine, The Kansas City Star, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Hudson Booksellers. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.

To read an exercise on creating an emotional backdrop for characters based on Listen to Me, click here.

In this interview, Pittard discusses finding the timeframe for a novel, zigzagging structure, and a difference between long and short novels.

Michael Noll

The novel takes place over the course of roughly 24 hours, yet two of the most important events, one for each of the characters (I’m referring to the mugging/murder and student-flirtation but won’t give it away in the Q&A), happens before the novel begins. Did you always know that the novel would have this timeframe, or did you begin with those events and discover the timeframe later?

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

From the beginning I was interested in writing a novel that took place over the course of a single day and concentrated on a single action. I’m fascinated with the treatment of time in fiction and I have a lot conversations with myself while I’m writing about the constraints and advantages of short stretches of time vs. long stretches of time. My first novel spans approximately four decades. Deciding what to include as scene (vs. summary) was such an intense process. In many ways, the chapters of that novel (The Fates Will Find Their Way) became for me like sentences in a short story. Every chapter needed to be as tight and deliberate and relevant as possible. Nothing was included that wasn’t essential, which is how I write my short stories (or try to…) I knew in crafting a novel that took place over the course 24 hours, I’d be relying more than usual on summary, backstory, and flashbacks. In general, I’m a writer who likes to stay away from all those things, concentrating instead on juxtapositions between observation and scene and the implications of the quiet ellipses that exist off the page. It was only during later drafts that I realized I would need to fill out those two major events you’re referring to. I put up a fight at first but I’m so glad that I eventually gave in. I think those moments away from the “present tense” of the narrative provide such a necessary reprieve from the current action.

Michael Noll

The novel opens with scenes that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will recognize: disagreements over mundane issues like walking the dog, packing the car, and taking out the garbage. What I found so refreshing about the novel is how the tension from those disagreements really forms the basis of the plot. Many of the early scenes are simply Mark and Maggie together in the car, feeling each other out. As a reader, I found these scenes really engaging and suspenseful. How did you approach suspense and tension in those scenes?

Hannah Pittard

I have never considered myself a suspenseful writer, but I came up with a method for the alternating chapters of this novel and I think somehow it (the suspense) just fell into place. In moving from chapter to chapter, I gave myself the rule of always moving forward in time and place (allowing for occasional flashbacks within each chapter). Next I tried always to pick up close to where Maggie or Mark might have left off but never exactly where the other had ended. Instead of a straight line, I imagined instead a zigzagging thunderbolt that moved right to left, upward and away. I also tried never to allow Mark and Maggie to consider the same moment (with a few key exceptions, including the cowboy and the sex). Somehow, this uneven and off-kilter back and forth provided the perfect balance for whatever suspense does exist.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs on the back of the book, several writers remark on how they read the novel in one sitting, which is easy to do as it’s less than 200 pages long. As a writer, I would imagine that this length would make the novel easier to hold in your head, more like a story. Was that the case? How did the process of writing this novel compare to your others, which are about 100 pages longer?

Hannah Pittard

Man… This novel took me longer than any book or story I’ve ever written. It’s short, you’re right, but there was nothing easy for me in its creation. As with the stories I write, every word in this book mattered to me. And given the aspect of suspense and the moodiness of the Maggie’s fear and Mark’s frustration, it was essential to me that it be as terse and swift as possible.

September 2016

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

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An Interview with Chinelo Okparanta

17 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water.

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others, and she was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing. She won the 2014 O. Henry Award and the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by Bread Loaf, the Jentel Foundation, the Hermitage Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Hedgebrook. She was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

To read an exercise on manipulating chronology in order to create character, click here.

In this interview, Okparanta discusses finding the emotional heart of a story, writing within an omnipresent past, and whether a writer’s present location affects her writing.

Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sentence in its first chapter: “So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968.” It comes after a quick overview of the war and is accompanied by this sentence: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off.” And this: “If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.”

It seems that you’re directly addressing a problem that a lot of writers have with novel drafts: where to begin the story? Were these sentences the result of your own process of finding the story, or were they designed for readers, to help guide them from war in general to a particular story about particular individuals?

Chinelo Okparanta

I already knew where the story would begin, and those sentences were simply a natural aspect of the storytelling. Back in the day when my mother used to tell us folktales, sometimes she grounded the folktales in this sort of language, just a natural set up to the story, and perhaps also a signal for us children to know what we should be listening for (i.e. the emotional heart of the story). In the case of Under the Udala Trees, these sentences do signal to the readers where the emotional heart of the story lies.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your sense of the novel’s audience and how it affects the story you tell. Obviously, the book was published in the United States, where you live, and in English. Some Igbo words and phrases appear, but they’re often translated, either directly, like this (Chineke bi n’eli! God in Heaven! How can this be?) or through context. How aware are you of audience, that it’s primarily American/Western? Can the novel be separated from this audience? In other words, how different would it be if you were writing for a Nigerian or Igbo audience?

Chinelo Okparanta

While writing the novel, I kept in mind various possible audiences, but my main audience was not American/Western. My main audience was my fellow Nigerians. In some ways it was just incidental that it got published in the West first. The truth is that current physical location is oftentimes irrelevant to the story that a writer tells. I have written about Nigeria from Nigeria. But I have also written about Nigeria from Greece, the Philippines, the USA, France, Italy, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. When I write many of my stories, regardless of where I am, my mind very often is back home in Nigeria.

Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Which is all just to say that the book is exactly what it is—and exactly what it should be—for having been written primarily for a Nigerian audience. We Nigerians speak in a natural mélange/interspersing of our traditional languages and English. This is exactly what the book does. It’s important to keep in mind that Nigeria is a country in which hundreds of languages are spoken. The purpose of the book is to open conversation amongst all ethnic groups within the country, so it would have made no sense for me to write the entire thing in Igbo, with no context clues at all, thereby alienating quite a large segment of the nation’s population. There are also Hausa words in the book, and of course, there is Pidgin. But English is Nigeria’s lingua Franca. As such, it also the novel’s lingua Franca, and the language that best serves the purpose of the book: unity, rather than division.

By extension, because the purpose of the book is to be accessible to all of Nigeria, it also winds up being accessible to Western audiences, and hopefully to audiences all over the world. Sure, I wanted to write a book that invited Nigerians to have this LGBTQ conversation amongst themselves. But of course, it’s a good thing that the book is accessible to non-Nigerians. It’s always a good thing when literature speaks to universal human experiences, but it is an even better thing when the language of the literature facilitates a reader’s engagement with those human experiences.

Michael Noll

The chapters in the novel are fairly short, often a few pages long. It seems that some revolve around particular scenes, but there are many that move through time or move beyond scenes in various ways. What was your approach to chapter structure?

Chinelo Okparanta

I was going through a phase where I enjoyed reading books with shorter and more straightforward chapters. I decided to write the kind of book I enjoyed reading. Maybe for my next project I’ll be enjoying a different kind of book–the kinds with long, sprawling chapters, or those with no chapters at all. If that winds up being the case, I might also write that sort of book.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the Biafran War, which ended 45 years ago, but now there are new protests in the region, to the point that, at least in the news outlets that I read and listen to, there’s some concern that they might lead to another civil war. Is this something that you thought about as you wrote the novel? Does the past of the novel seem truly past to you? Or were you trying to capture tensions that remain?

Chinelo Okparanta

Look at the United States and its history of slavery. That history haunts all Americans even today–at least, it haunts any socially aware American with an active conscience. Recently in the US, racial tensions have triggered worries of civil unrest. The past always leaves its stamp and oftentimes the stamp is waterproof. Maybe it fades a bit, but it is still there. So, yes, our past is the past, but it is also the present, and it will likely affect the decisions we make for the future. Which is why I’m always thinking about the nation and ways in which to flip our history of colonialism, and ways in which to better deal with the division caused by the British geo-political division of the country. We don’t have to be beholden to the past. We don’t forget—and perhaps we should not forget—but we certainly owe it to ourselves to rise above it. It seems to me that all of us have the power to flip unfortunate aspects of our pasts and use them positively, constructively, to make ourselves stronger. It’s just a matter of how. A united body people who are sincerely in it for the common good. Good leadership. A well thought out and thoroughly outlined plan. Expert organizational skills. These are some of what all healthy nations need.

March 2016

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

An Interview with Mario Alberto Zambrano

31 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano was a contemporary ballet dancer before writing fiction. He has lived in Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and has danced for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He graduated from The New School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel Lotería was named to many lists of the best books of 2014, and this month, Zambrano received a prestigious NEA fellowship to work on his new novel.

To read an exercise on creating structure with images and an excerpt from Lotería, click here.

In this interview, Zambrano discusses how he began writing based on Lotería cards, the You that his narrator Luz speaks to, and how the Pedro Infante film Nosotros Los Pobres influenced the novel.

Michael Noll

The most distinctive aspect of the novel, and it’s no surprise given it’s title, is the way you use Lotería cards to organize the chapters and the novel as a whole. You’ve discussed in other interviews how and why you chose lotería, but what I’m really curious about is how it impacted your process for writing the novel. A lot of novel drafts get stuck at various points, often about 70 pages in, because the novel expands or changes in those moments. Was Lotería helpful to you in the middle of the book, in terms of maintaining and advancing the story?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Honestly, the way I started writing the book was mostly a game for myself, to create vignettes of a young girl’s life. Though I knew the story in my head from the beginning, I used the cards as a vehicle to explore other parts of her life that I didn’t yet know anything about. I would shuffle the deck and flip over a card as a way to prompt me into a scene that might reveal something about her and the story she was trying to tell. The obstacle wasn’t so much how to propel the narrative forward, as sometimes is the case, but rather, how to arrange the cards in a sequence that could feel organic yet carry a narrative thru-line from beginning to end. Near the end of the editing process, I would lay out the cards on my table and rearrange them. With 53 cards, the options were endless. It did teach me however, that even when you’re working on a novel that doesn’t deal with cards, but rather with scenes, chapters, acts, what have you, the sequence in which the story is being told can disrupt or heighten the dramatic tension that fiction relies on.

Michael Noll

The novel is addressed to You, to God. Was this always part of your sense of the novel, that Luz would be writing/talking to a particular person/entity and not just in general?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Because Luz suffers from a traumatic event at the start of the book and is suffering from selective mutism because of said event, I felt it was important for her to address the narrative to someone she was comfortable with, someone who might help her find solace in the devastating aftermath of what happened in her family. The act of prayer is a means to achieve grace, especially in the face of loss. But even though the You in the book is addressed to a divine other, in some way it’s also addressed to herself, so that in having a dialog with God she’s having a dialog with herself too, in the way prayer can be a form of mediation.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a passage about what kind of story this isn’t. A counselor visits Luz and brings Fama magazines because she thinks they are “going to open me up like some stupid jack-in-the-box.” She also tends to stare at Luz in a kind of incomprehension, which prompts Luz to think this: “¿Y? It’s not like I’m a piece of news in the Chronicle she can pick up and read.” Luz goes on to explain how her story is more like a telenovela or the film Nosotros Los Pobres. Was it important to you, or did it seem necessary, to tell readers in advance, look, here’s the kind of story this is? Was there a genre or form of storytelling that you wanted to avoid or distance the novel from?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Part of the cultural background to the story comes with the popularity of telenovelas, this melodramatic genre invigorated by the music that propels it. So, in a way, I wanted to reference it.

Personally, when I read a novel I always get a sense of what kind of music is playing in the background, whether it’s alluded to in the text or not. Voice and tone, along with style, is usually what creates this kind of sound for me. In Lotería, I wanted a kind of ranchera-soundtrack, a resonant yet sweet pitch that is similar to the voices of Lola Flores or Rocio Durcal, or even Selena. It’s this kind of music that runs in Luz’s mind, and I wanted it to be on the page as a form of reflection, whether spoken or not.

Michael Noll

In this 1948 film, A poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

In the 1948 film Nosotros Los Pobres, a poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

That early passage about the film and the kind of story this is stands out to me because the novel returns to it. For example, in the El camarón chapter, Luz watches her father punch a wall, and she understands this action by thinking about Nosotros Los Pobres, in which a character does something similar. Did you have that film in mind as you wrote, or did you discover that it had resonance for the novel at some point as you were thinking and writing about Luz and figuring out that she would be thinking about the film?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Nosotros Los Pobres is a film with Pedro Infante, the very actor that Pancho Silva is a double for. In Luz’s youth, she grows up with this figure on the screen. To her, it’s a symbol similar to the greatness of God. By way of attention, the family adores and glorifies the altar almost as much as what’s on screen, and so these two figures, the divine and commercial, make up a kind of confused representation of what her family and community turn their attention to. As a young girl, she almost overlaps them so that they each represent a similar importance. The film is also a story about a father and daughter living without a mother. In the scene of the movie you mentioned, when Pedro Infante punches the wall, he slaps his daughter, then feels guilty, and therefore slams his hand against the wall due to his profound guilt. What I love about that scene, and why it’s in the book, is that it represents the complexity of action and consequence. Yearning for redemption even though guilt is an insufferable truth. It’s something Luz is aware of, and in many way, how she exonerates her father even after all of his abusive tantrums.

December 2015

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

How to Create Structure with Images

30 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano's novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl's family and its demise.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl’s family and its demise.

When working on a novel, writers often reach a point where the thrill is gone. Whatever impulse that kicked off the project has vanished, and all that is left is plot: who did what, what they will do next. The novel begins to resemble an outline. One way to solve this problem is to create a structure that doesn’t hinge on the next plot point. This is why you often see flashbacks and backstory at the beginning of chapters: that information provides an emotional context for the present action that follows. Another strategy to provide that same context is to use images.

There is probably no novel that demonstrates this approach more clearly than Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano. You can read an excerpt here and see a preview with images here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is structured around images from the game lotería. It’s a Mexican game, played like bingo but with illustrations called out (through the recitation of riddles) rather than numbers. In the novel, each chapter begins with one of these lotería images, for instance La araña (the spider) and La sirena (the mermaid). The result is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever see and a strategy that offers the writer as many possibilities for structuring chapters as there are cards.

The novel begins with La araña and this opening:

This room has spiders.

¿Y? It’s not like You don’t see them. The way they move their legs and carry their backs and creep in the dark when you’re not looking. You see us, ¿verdad? You see what we see? It’s not like You don’t know what we’re thinking when we lie down at night and look up at the ceiling, or when we crawl in our heads the way these spiders crawl over furniture. It’s never made sense why people think You’re only there at church and nowhere else. Not at home or in the yard or the police station. Or under a bed.

The card is used to create setting (the room with spiders) but also a metaphor for the character’s mind. Because the narrator is talking to a specific entity (the You in the passage is God), the introduction of spiders colors that conversation. If God can see spiders, then He can also see everything (like what goes on in police stations, a place the novel will quickly move to).

Sometimes the image doesn’t enter the chapter until the end. For example, in El cantarito (the water pitcher) the chapter is about the narrator interacting with social worker, and the imagine arrives in the last paragraph:

Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling. The nurses didn’t even look at me anymore.

At times, the image informs the novel in the lightest way. In El alacrán (the scorpion), the image is never referenced directly. But the word sting appears.

Some images inform characters or their actions, as does El borracho (the drunk).

And, of course, the cards can inform plot. The El pino chapter (the pine tree) begins like this:

“The truck is a piece of shit,” Papi said. He’d bought it from someone he worked with. I liked it because it had a handle for the window to go up and down instead of a button. So the window was going up and down, up and down, and Rocío Dúrcal was on the radio, a cassette we listened to all the time of a live performance in Acapulco. It was Sunday, early morning, and while most people were headed to mass we were going to buy a tree. Just the two of us. It was going to be the first Christmas without Mom. It had been awhile since she’d disappeared and it seemed okay to talk about her.

The cards give the novel a way to resist or slow down plot, which gives it room to develop place, character, and voice.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use image to structure passages, using Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano as a model:

  1. Choose a series of images. Zambrano has used the images from a game, but your images don’t need to have an official connection. They could be connected by theme or place or geography or culture or job. Think of the way that children’s vocabulary books (or chapters of a foreign language textbook) introduce words: restaurant, home, workplace, shopping, animals, things in the sky. Give yourself a filter so that you can quickly choose an image rather than starting from scratch each time you need one.
  2. Use the image to inform setting. Zambrano does this with the spider. Because the room has spiders in it, he’s able to assume other things about this place: not just the room but the world around it and the characters within it. Every place has spiders, of course, but focusing on them in the first sentence creates a very different passage than if the first image was a bottle of champagne. So, insert the image directly into your prose and create a passage around it.
  3. Use the image to inform emotion. At the end of the water pitcher chapter, the narrator explains how she feels like a jug of water. You don’t need to wait until the end of a passage. Choose an image and force yourself to connect it to emotion or sensation—what things feel like. You may end up writing a sentence that begins like this: It was like a _____ (image)…
  4. Use the image to inform diction. The only presence of the scorpion in Lotería is the word sting. Yet that’s a powerful word. Try word-association. Choose a few that seem loaded in some way (charged, not neutral) and give yourself the goal of working them into the passage.
  5. Use the image to inform character. If your image is a drunk, the possibilities are clear. We do this all the time: pig, dog, even the word animal. What does it mean for a character to be ____ (image)?
  6. Use the image to inform plot. Obviously, if your image is a gun, then the plot possibilities are clear. But it might be more useful to choose an image that doesn’t seem directly connected to dramatic action. Zambrano uses the pine tree and turns it into a trip to buy a Christmas tree. This trip provides his characters an opportunity to interact away from others. In a way, the image inserts a kind of detour into the plot, which is often where the most interesting moments of a story appear.

The goal is to use image as a structuring devices and create space for play and imagination within plot.

Good luck.

An Interview with Nina McConigley

14 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, from Five Chapter Books.

The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.

McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”

Michael Noll

Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?

Nina McConigley

Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.

I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.

Michael Noll

Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?

Nina McConigley

A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.

I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…

Michael Noll

I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?

Nina McConigley

I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.

Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.

By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.

Michael Noll

You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?

Nina McConigley

Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.

It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.

March 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.

To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.

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