Tag Archives: Our Secret Life in the Movies

An Interview with Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

6 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree are the authors of Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories written through the lens of the films from the Criterion Collection.

McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. He is also the author of Dismantling the Hills, a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire.

Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review and is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute.

To read their story, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” and an exercise on writing sentences that push past expected endings, click here.

Michael Noll

The version of “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” in Our Secret Life in the Movies is slightly different than the version published in Tin House. The girl becomes a kid, who we learn, through pronouns, is a boy. A line of dialogue is cut (“I’m seventeen and a half,” she said. “My dad’s a cop down in the hills. He didn’t like my boyfriend. I guess that sums it up.”), as is a line in the last paragraph (I ripped the pom-pom off my ski hat and used it to clean up her face.) I’m curious about your thoughts behind the revisions. To some extent, the scene can be read quite differently depending on the kid’s gender and how we view that act of the characters sharing a sleeping bag in an abandoned mansion. The final version is more fraternal, less potentially creepy. Was that purposeful?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

As readers, we tend to assume that a story is done because it has been published. As writers, we know better, because we stay awake at night worrying about all the ways we got it wrong. The important point to keep in mind is that publication is only one part of the creative process. In this case, the ending seemed better when the genders were reversed because that way you could never rule out the possibility that this character was actually alone the entire time, or that he had run into his doppelganger. Something along those lines. There are at least four kinds of stories – the kind you never get around to writing, the kind you write and abandon, the kind that come out right the first time, and the kind that come at great cost after a struggle and too many drafts to mention. This story was one of the last kind.

Michael Noll

In the book’s introduction, you write that the book began as sketches written while you watched films from the Criterion Collection. At a certain point, you figured out that these sketches were part of a narrative. How did you turn those early sketches into a coherent book? The process of free writing for fun and the process of revising for narrative coherence would seem to be very different. Was there a point at which you created a timeline or outline to follow? Did you discuss in advance of watching certain films or writing certain pieces what direction you might go with them?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

We never had an outline or a timeline. I think we were both surprised as the book gained momentum, almost of its own accord, to look less like a smaller “cycle” of sketches and more like a book. A pile of sketches began to look like it had a trajectory, showing the parallel lives of characters growing up during the last days of the Cold War. It was honestly more a matter of subtraction, of removing material from the book so that the linkages of the stories made more sense and a sense of continuity could be inferred or imagined. The book wound up as something more like a fragmented novel, or a mosaic with some of its pieces missing. The painful thing about working the way we did is that a lot of good material got left on the cutting room floor. Like any film! As with so much writing, paring things down often makes things clearer.

Michael Noll

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan's GZA's album Liquid Swords. GZA discusses the album here.

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA’s album Liquid Swords. GZA discussed the album at WaxPoetics.

It’s exciting to me that this book wears its inspirations so clearly on its sleeves. Many writers work out of homage to or inspiration from another artist, but that influence is not often made explicit in fiction. It’s much more common (it seems to me, anyway) in poetry, music, and, to some extent, film. Do you think the fact that one of you is a poet and the other is a film critic (in addition to being a fiction writer) allowed you the freedom to create this particular narrative structure?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

It’s funny, but we never thought of not mentioning the movies. We could have left them out but we did want to expose the mechanism a little bit, as well as to relate the parts to the whole. We wanted the stories to be accessible to any reader, whether they had seen the movies or not. But we wanted to lead interested parties deeper into the maze with us. One of the influences on the book’s overall structure was the hip-hop album Liquid Swords. How certain snippets of dialogue from the Kung-Fu movies on that album – “I see you are using an old style” or “special technique of shadowboxing” – got repurposed and suddenly made a new kind of sense. We wanted to emulate the way sampling works in music.

Michael Noll

Many of the stories reference Ronald Reagan and the economic disillusionment that much of the country was feeling at the time. For instance, the early piece, “Boxcars,” pairs these two passages:

  • “Bodies without work permits, addicts, drunk high-school kids come down from the valley to slum through the rhythms of the rural American night. Dead bodies, dumped bodies, bodies alive with fear, bodies of elation, bodies that should have known better. A one-day notice in the Bay River Gazette, then the ten-mile stretch of industrial waterfront was closed.”
  • “In the paper, on AM talk radio, at the State Capitol, the regulators blamed the deregulators, the state the country, the county the wood beams collapsing in the rail tunnels, the loggers the environmentalists, and the end-of-days folks blamed our perpetual slipping from grace.”

There’s a pretty clear moral vision at work here, not laying blame, exactly, but clearly articulating a situation that we’ve tended to gloss over with some happy political speech. Did this image of an America in decline arise naturally in the course of viewing the films and writing, or was it something that you discussed and wanted to write about?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

What we’ve both found is that a lot of writing is just luck. You stumble around in the dark, rely on your instincts, and try to stick to your impulses, no matter how strange those impulses might be (in one of our stories the speaker’s child is an invisible boy, in another the speaker’s father marries an egg). All the leitmotifs and connections and echoes in Our Secret Life in the Movies are there because we both wrote stories rooted in our own experiences, which happened to parallel each other in unexpected ways. This isn’t a work of autobiography by any stretch, but it does reflect some facets of the experiences of working-class life for folks in our generation. In one sense, we got lucky that there was so much overlap in the book. But, as writers, it was our job to craft a book and tell good stories, not just rely on luck. We highlighted many of these overlaps and themes in the revision process, and we had some great help from trusted readers, friends, and our editors at A Strange Object. I think the important point here is that we didn’t set out to move from A to B and specifically hit on themes X,Y, and Z. Instead, we had faith that the interesting and worthwhile would surface in our writing if we kept exploring our shared love for the movies and our desire to be connected to them.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Write Sentences That Surprise the Reader

4 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies, by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree, is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

The novelist Hanif Kureishi recently made news when he complained to the British newspaper The Guardian that his writing students lacked the necessary focus to become writers: “They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” It’s undoubtedly true that sentences don’t make much sense without a story to hang them on, but it’s also true that stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them.

You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a new collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. The writers (a poet and a fiction writer/film scholar) attempted to watch the entire Criterion Collection of films while writing short fictions inspired by the films. The collaboration eventually took shape as one of the most beautiful and idiosyncratic books you’ll ever read. One of the stories, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space,” written after Vagabond by Agnès Varda, was published at Tin House, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A staple of film is the twist ending or sudden reversal. Some films like Memento feed the audience a steady diet of these reversals so that every time we think we’ve found solid ground, the bottom is snatched out from under us again. Classic films use reversals as well (just watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). One way that reversals and unexpected twists work is by pushing a scene past the point where we’d normally expect it to stop. The same is true of novels and stories—and it’s also true of sentences. You can see this at work in the first sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space”:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.

The sentence could have ended with “threw them at me” or “one after the other.” Instead, it adds that last clause about where the shoe lands. Even then, the sentence keeps pushing past the expected ending, past “back of my head,” where it could have stopped for comic effect. When all is said and done, the sentence has moved past three potential endings to finish with “unwashed dishes.”

So, why does this matter? It’s not as if we’re stunned by the realization that someone who hides morphine under the sink also does not wash his plates. There are two answers, I think: 1) The additions fill out a scene that might feel sensational without them. It’s easy to turn fictional addicts into something that borders on caricature. The dishes ground the scene in detail. 2) The additions set up the structure for subsequent sentences in the story, which continue to push past expected endings.

For instance, here is the next sentence:

She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie.

Again, the sentence could have ended with “on the counter.” The addition of the comparison adds humor and a manic energy. Again, these aren’t shocking reversals of the information that came before, but they color and deepen the reader’s perception of the scene. The next two sentences keep with the trend:

Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten.

The first sentence did not need to add “while screaming, ‘Happy Birthday,'” in order to make sense, and the second didn’t need “kill a kitten” to complete the image. The sentences could function without those phrases, but their presence helps set the tone and even change it suddenly. (I’m willing to bet no reader expected the “Happy Birthday” song in that moment.) After all, it’s not initially clear how we ought to view these events: an addict getting kicked out of the house by his girlfriend, licking up some leftover morphine after she burns the bottle, and spending the night in an abandoned mansion. Are the events tragic? Comic? Both? Should we feel sorry for the character? Angry at him? The additions to the sentences actual prevent us from settling onto a simplistic reading of the scene—and it’s this uncertainty that is key to the story.

For contrast, here’s a sentence from a novel that runs away from uncertainty and toward absolute certainty: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This sentence is on the second page and describes Howard Roark’s face:

“It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.”

This sentence, too, could have ended earlier than it does—with “hollow cheeks” or even with “cheekbones.” Instead, it keeps adding descriptors, finishing with two options for how to understand the face: “executioner or saint.” Unlike the sentences from Our Secret Life in the Movies, however, this sentence does not deepen our understanding of the character. Instead, it points us in a firm direction. Executioner and saint are more or less complete opposites of each other. As a result, the character is limited to two black-and-white options. If you’re at all familiar with Rand’s work, you’ll recognize how this sentence sets up the novel’s didactic message: you’re either an individual or a collectivist.

But literary fiction like Our Secret Life in the Movies isn’t interested in a message, at least not one that can be easily distilled into a political motto. Instead, the prose tends to open possibilities, rather than limit them. Because McGriff and Tyree’s sentences continually add details that complicate the initial details, the story gains richness and texture and keeps the readers on their toes. The final lines are beautiful but not easily categorized within the moral dimensions that we’re often tempted to read into stories of drugs and addiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move past expected endings using “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree as a model:

  1. Choose a scene. Stylish, complex sentences can be written in any scene. What is necessary is a knowledge of who and what is involved. So, fix the scene in your mind. What’s going on? Where is it set? Who is present?
  2. Write a two-part sentence. This happened, and then this happened. McGriff and Tyree write that a woman finds a morphine bottle and then throws her shoe. Scenes often begin this way: something happens that causes a character to act. That happening and its resulting action are the reason for the scene’s existence. Focus on the logical sequence: this happened, and so this other thing happened.
  3. Add to the first part of the sentence. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds a description of the bottle of morphine mentioned at the beginning of the sentence: “the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away.” This addition is actually quite crucial to the understanding of everything else that takes place in the story. The fact that it’s given as an aside suggests a kind of shrugging reaction by the narrator, who could have led with the fact that he’d hid a serious narcotic under the sink. Instead, he mentions this fact casually, which tells us something important about him. So, try adding an essential description of the first part of the sentence in an aside that is set off by m-dashes. Doing so can give your character or narrator layers: a layer that understands the immediate events of the scene and a layer that has unspoken opinions about what is happening.
  4. Add to the second part of the sentence. This doesn’t mean adding a third part: this happened, and then this and this. Rather, you’re adding to the reader’s understanding of the second part. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds to our understanding of the thrown shoe with “the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.” So, stay with the image or detail that is introduced in the second part of the sentence. What does it do? How does it look? How do the characters react to it? Or, if you’ve already stated these things, what else does it do? How else does it look? How else do the characters react to it?

Remember you’re moving beyond the first and most obvious details in order to discover what else is present in the moment. It’s this exploration that will reveal the scene’s complexity, and it’s this complexity that we tend to pass by when writing sentences that end at the first opportunity.

Good luck and have fun!

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