Tag Archives: Owen Egerton

An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

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

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How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

23 Dec
Owen Egerton's essay about his parents' odd Christmas tradition appeared in Salon last Christmas.

Owen Egerton’s essay, “Jesus never gave Christmas porn,” about his parents’ odd Christmas tradition is heartfelt and excellent.

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines.

After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents. I can’t recommend the essay highly enough, especially its ending, which manages to draw the tension to a close without resolving it. “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” was published at Salon, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay sets up two clear belief systems. The first belongs to Egerton’s parents, especially his father:

My father grew up as the son of a minister in rural England. He never embraced his own father’s faith. Instead he became a practical man of medicine who viewed sex as a pleasant and necessary part of the human life cycle. Sex was never a taboo subject in our house. Sex was something to talk about, laugh about and responsibly explore. Sure, buying your kids pornography might seem at tad unorthodox, but at the heart of the gift was my parents’ desire to instill a healthy view of sex in their children.

This humanistic view of sex was paired with Egerton’s parents’ attitude toward Christianity:

There was another reason my parents felt compelled to give flesh mags. Pornography was a way to simultaneously celebrate the holiday and keep its more religious themes at bay. Christ got no preferential treatment in our house.

The result was stockings filled with Christmas-themed pornography magazines. Like most children, Egerton went along with his parents’ beliefs when young. But as he reached his teens, he began to explore ideas outside of those accepted at home:

The summer of my 16th year, I spent a week at a Christian summer camp and came back home a born-again Christian. The very night I returned, before my bags were unpacked or my new Adventure New Testament was cracked, I opened my bottom desk drawer, removed three years of well-used Christmas pornography and dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even take a final peek.

With one swift act, I replaced my father’s humanistic view of lust for a moralistic, evangelical view. Lust, I now understood, was in itself a sin.

Like any teen with a new idea, Egerton tried to convince his parents of its worth:

I put my parents through laborious conversations and countless clumsy metaphors, trying to get them to see what I saw so clearly. They were patient, nodding at my testimonials and refilling their wine glasses, but they were not to be moved.

This is where the essay reveals its greatness. As readers, we want endings to resolve tension. But how can this tension be resolved? Egerton’s parents weren’t going to change his minds, and he wasn’t going to change his (at least not for several years). He could have ended by fast forwarding to that subsequent conversion, but what would it accomplish? Many people change their minds about things—even about beliefs that, like religious tenants, are often central to our identity. And, of course, most of us make ridiculous claims and arguments when we’re teenagers. So, an ending that resolves the religious conflict avoids, in a way, the basic tension of the essay: when you love someone but don’t agree with them, how do you live together?

As a teen, Egerton handled the conflict by giving his father a rolled-up scroll with a hand-written Bible verse. In the essay, he handles the ending like this:

We sat in our living room on that Christmas morning, he with the scroll of verses and me with an unopened Penthouse, both feeling his gift had not been appreciated, both sure the other just didn’t get it, both believing the other was drifting down a path that led to something like damnation and wanting more than anything to rescue them. I was trying to save my dad and he was trying to save me. And neither of us knew how.

In the end, Egerton doesn’t try to resolve the conflict. Instead, he can only acknowledge the impossibility of resolving it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s conclude a moment of tension without resolving the underlying conflict, using “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Identify the conflicting beliefs or desires. This likely seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprisingly easy to write an entire essay or story without clearly defining this conflict. Or, we’ll define one but fail to put that belief or desire into direct conflict with a competing belief or desire. (A story about someone in love who never makes the feeling known is a story without a conflict.) So, try this exercise with the major characters in your story or essay: Have them say, “I really want_____” or “I really believe_____.” Force them to make explicitly what might presently only be tacitly understood.
  2. Put the beliefs or desire into conflict. Perhaps you have a major conflict in mind (a clear destination for the story), and, if so, that’s great. But you may want to introduce the conflict in a smaller way before the big blowup arrives. In Egerton’s essay, we know that he’ll get porn in his stocking even though he’s become a born-again Christian. But Christmas morning is not the first appearance of the conflict. Instead, he shows public scenes of dinner-table debate and private signs of belief (dumping the old magazines in the trash). These scenes end politely but with the conflict clearly unresolved. How can you introduce the conflict so that everyone behaves well? How can you create the anticipation in the reader of a bigger blow-up to come?
  3. Consider the possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. An ending that resolves the conflict neatly—so that all tension that was created in the beginning is now gone—can be disappointing. To avoid this let down, consider this what-if question: If the conflict cannot be resolved, and the characters cannot permanently separate themselves, what then? This is the conflict that causes so much stress during the holidays. People move away from their families (often a source of conflict) but then are forced to sit at the same table and stay in the same house as them for a few days. Every year, you’ll hear people asking, “How do I get through the holiday?” Let your characters ask this same question. What does it mean to remain close to someone with whom you have an essential conflict? The answer may be your ending.

Good luck and happy holidays!

An Interview with Owen Egerton

28 Dec
Owen Egerton's novel The Book of Harold has been called...

Owen Egerton’s novel Everyone Says That at the End of the World prompted the novelist Charles Yu to write, “People at the coffee shop were actually staring at me—I don’t think they fully believed that a book could make a person laugh that hard.”

Owen Egerton is the author of Everyone Says That at the End of the WorldThe Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and the forthcoming story collection How to Avoid Dying, which was recently named by The New York Times as having one of the best book covers of 2013.

In this interview, Egerton talks about theme and variation in fiction, how to write a scene as well-known as a Christmas pageant, and the role of Christianity in literature.

To read the first chapter of The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God and an exercise on the expectations of sequence, click here.

Michael Noll

The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?

Owen Egerton

I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.

Michael Noll

Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant—and perhaps appeared in them—and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.

Owen Egerton

Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.

You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.

It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.

I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 Michael Noll

In his New York Times essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to "a dead language or a hangover."

In his New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to “a dead language or a hangover.” Owen Egerton disagrees.

In a New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?

Owen Egerton

I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.

What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.

And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.

The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.

I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.

Michael Noll

In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?

Owen Egerton

Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.

First published in February 2013

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme and Variation in a Story—Christmas Edition

24 Dec
images-2

“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

The success of a story is often determined by how well it goes off the tracks. In order for that to happen, though, the story must first lay those tracks. A great example of derailing a story can be found in the opening chapter of Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. You can read that chapter, titled “Nativity,” on Amazon here. (Look inside and read the first pages.)

How the Chapter Works

One of the oldest ways to create suspense in a story is to create a repeating sequence of events. So, in “The Three Little Pigs,” we watch the wolf blow down two houses before going to the third—where his plan goes awry. In a more contemporary example, the film Oceans Eleven, plus every heist movie ever made, first shows the thieves planning the heist and then practicing the heist, and when they finally put their plan into action, something goes wrong. Both of those stories—the fairy tale and the blockbuster film—spend time establishing how events should go so that they can go wrong.

With that strategy in mind, count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant in “Nativity”:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist. 

In addition to repeating the pageant, the passage contains words that clearly cue the reader into where things will go wrong. For instance, Egerton writes, “We practiced for two weeks. My part was simple enough.” The word simple is similar to Chekhov’s proverbial “gun on the wall.” If you show a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third. If you use the word simple in the beginning of a story, the story had better complicate that simplicity.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a sequence of events that will repeat itself, using Owen Egerton’s “Nativity” chapter as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters. For instance, a wedding or party will have guests. A door-to-door salesman will visit homeowners.
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out. Be detailed. First, X will happen. Then X. Then X. Finally, X. The more detailed steps you provide, the more opportunities you have to make things go wrong.
  4. Show the scene once or twice. In each of the tellings, something should go slightly wrong but not so wrong that the characters can’t deal with it.
  5. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding big, unexpected challenges. Ideally, you’ll let the challenges build on one another. So, something goes wrong in the first step of the sequence, and that problem creates a slightly larger problem in the next step, and so on, until the final step, when the sequence has devolved into chaos.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

28 Feb
Owen Egerton's novel The Book of Harold has been called...

Owen Egerton’s novel The Book of Harold walks “the fine line between hilarity and heart” according to one reviewer.

Now that Lance Armstrong is disgraced, the title of Most Interesting Person in Austin may belong to Owen Egerton. Here are a few reasons why: His short film, Follow, is debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, he’s a regular performer in one of the most popular comedy tickets in town, and his book launches are standing-room only. It’s no wonder the Austin Chronicle routinely names him the city’s favorite local writer. With his most recent novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and his soon-to-be-released Everyone Says That at the End of the World, the rest of the world is discovering what Austin has known for a long time.

Pick up any of Egerton’s books, and you’ll find the rare combination of humor and spirituality. As a result, The Book of Harold has been called beautifully-crafted, wise, and poignant, but it’s also very funny. The promotional video for the novel even caught the interest of late-night host Jimmy Fallon, who linked to it on his website.

Egerton was kind enough to answer a few questions about this comic-religious novel.

Michael Noll

The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?

Owen Egerton

I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.

Michael Noll

Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant–and perhaps appeared in them–and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.

Owen Egerton

Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.

You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.

It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.

I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 Michael Noll

In his New York Times essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to "a dead language or a hangover."

In his New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to “a dead language or a hangover.” Owen Egerton disagrees.

In a recent New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?

Owen Egerton

I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.

What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.

And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.

The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.

I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.

Michael Noll

In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?

Owen Egerton

Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.

February 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories. A writing exercise based on the first chapter of The Book of Harold is available here.

Show It Once, Show It Again

26 Feb
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“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

Maybe you’ve heard this one: A doctor, a corpse, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The doctor says, “Give me a stiff one.” The corpse says…

Or this one: Three little pigs each built a house. A big, bad wolf knocked on the first pig’s door and said…

Or possibly this one: A man named Ocean gets 11 thieves to break into a casino. First, they plan the heist, then they practice it, and then they do it for real, except…

These three stories share one of the world’s oldest storytelling strategies: put characters in a situation that will be repeated, but each repetition is slightly different—different enough to keep the reader’s attention but also essentially the same. The storyteller allows the reader to develop an expectation for how a situation will play out. But of course, there is a twist in the final repetition; the sequence goes awry. The success of a story is often determined by how well its sequence goes off the tracks.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. The paperback edition of the book was published by Soft Skull Press, and you can read the first chapter, “Nativity,” on Amazon here.

How the Chapter Works

Count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Because the story repeats the pageant five times, the reader develops an expectation for what will occur—and also that something will go wrong. Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters (wedding/party guests, salesman/homeowners).
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out, and then show the scene once or twice.
  4. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding unexpected challenges.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Happy writing.

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