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An Interview with Laura Benedict

7 Aug
Laura Benedict's most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, "When I Make Love to the Bug Man," was featured in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” was featured in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author of Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazinePANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.

In this interview, Benedict discusses writing fiction that disrupts the social constructs we take for granted, not knowing her endings as she writes, and imagining everyday encounters as criminal acts.

To read Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and an exercise on writing seemingly illogical characters, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is amazingly creepy, even when it’s about very real things. For instance, this is my favorite passage in the story:

Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory.

I love this passage because it shocks me into seeing something familiar for the first time. Or, to quote the essayist Amy Leach, the passage creates “a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” It takes a special eye to notice such details and transform them into lines of fiction. Many people look at spiders and are creeped out, but you’ve created an entirely new creepiness. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or have you trained your eye and imagination to see other dimensions of common things?

Laura Benedict

What a lovely thought. I’m so glad you like that passage. I find that fact about wolf spiders strangely—I don’t know—metaphorical. The passage may contain a lot of energy because I discovered a bizarre kind of empathy for female wolf spiders, even though I fear them with my whole being. What practical and efficient parents they are, yes? How odd it is to feel a connection with an arachnid. Of course I’m anthropomorphizing like mad.

A creepy story about spiders feels almost like cheating to me because I’m able to count heavily on the reader’s own sense of dread. From a craft standpoint, I liked the idea of having the woman recount facts in a straightforward manner, almost as if she’s educating both herself and the reader with useful details about her new world and interests.

Skill or training? That’s always a good question. Once I found my material I realized that I had to be able to immerse the reader in whatever world I wanted them to experience down to the last detail. That did take a lot of practice. Every sentence has to move the story forward in some way, or at least be integral to the scene. And if you break the mood, break the scene with something that doesn’t fit, you risk losing the reader for the rest of the story. I reached this place in my work by giving myself permission to not accept what I saw around me at face value, to pretend, to suppose—to stretch those confines beyond the point that was generally acceptable. It’s good to be a little off. You have to be willing to cross that line. Transgress. You have to walk on the other side just enough to be able to confidently tell your reader what another reality might be like.

Michael Noll

On a craft level, you actually tell the reader the irrational act that will occur in advance of it actually happening on the page. Early on, the narrator says, 

“I fled my cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man. Fit, grinning children with summer tans, good teeth, and stunning green eyes the color of new grass. Relentlessly healthy children. Blonde, enviable children. They greet each day with terrifying vigor: water guns and war games, barefoot races and soccer tournaments.  Robert and I have raised them in the light. They attack the world, ready to rule it.”

On one hand, I can imagine someone arguing that you’ve given away the story. On the other hand, the passage raises as many questions as it answers: Why does she give up her family? Who is the Bug Man? Why does she describe nice things in such an ugly way? I’m curious how you approach a paragraph like this. How do you know when such a paragraph is necessary and when it actually will give away the story?

Laura Benedict

A horror story can be, but is not necessarily, a mystery story. To me, the most interesting part of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is not that she ends up leaving her family for a creepy exterminator. It’s how she gets there, the way she changes along the way, what she’s willing to accept and lose. If I hadn’t put that paragraph in the beginning, it would’ve felt too much like an “aha!” story. And I hope my fiction is more interesting than that. I want the stakes to be higher for the reader, and the journey to the end to be worth his time. If I’ve already told the reader that she leaves her family for the exterminator, then he should expect something even stranger by the end.

I confess that I didn’t know until I was writing the last few pages that the story was going to end the way it did. I had no idea what was in the box or what would show up to feed on its contents until she was in the Bug Man’s bedroom. It was a surprise I very much liked, and I hope the reader likes it, too.

Does the description of her family sound ugly? I have the sense that she sees her family and her daily life in bright, hyperchromatic colors. She’s passionate, but overwhelmed with the reality of it all. Life with the Bug Man is strange, but laconic and muted. It’s like an opposite universe. In his world, she’s fecund but passive. By engaging in the very bold action of abandoning her family, she sinks—finally, fatally—into a kind of inaction.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that you’re paranoid and tend to imagine every possible crime that might happen to you or others. Given that, I’m curious about the genesis of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” Yes, it’s sort of a Rosemary’s Baby tale about a woman sleeping with a monster. But it’s also a story about a woman who, for no good reason, gives up a happy marriage and family in order to have an affair with an unattractive stranger. I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction. Given your paranoia, I’m curious if you are re-imagining all of your everyday encounters, not just the potentially criminal ones.

Laura Benedict

“I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction.” What an interesting quote. Now that I think about it, it does ring rather true for me.

This story did grow out of an encounter with a real exterminator—a man I found a little smarmy and not at all attractive. Our house is surrounded by woods, and when we bought it eight years ago it was badly infested with both spiders and mice (we caught 24 mice in the first 6 weeks!). The battle may never be won with the spiders, but we’re down to a couple of mice per year. When the exterminator came out to give us a price on bombing the house for spiders, he terrified me with his horror stories about other houses. I already knew about the way wolf spiders carry their young on their backs, but he shared that he has a female wolf spider in his house that lives in a closet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it, but he said that the spider is allowed to stay because it has lived there longer then she has. That’s an un-inventable detail. Honestly, I couldn’t make that up.

I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.

Michael Noll

One of the traits of horror/gothic fiction and weird tales is that characters often act on impulses that are monstrous—i.e. they cannot be explained rationally. This goes pretty far back, at least to Poe and Lovecraft. Why, after all, does Poe’s Montresor really bury Fortunato alive? And Lovecraft’s Chthulhu stories are almost entirely about normal people suddenly going insane. This is true of your story as well. There isn’t a rational reason for the narrator to sleep with the Bug Man. It’s an act that can have only bad consequences, yet she does it anyway. I’m curious what draws you to this kind of story. Is there something about irrational acts that particularly draws your imagination–and also is particularly suited to horror fiction?

Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict's most recent novel, Bliss House, is "a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama," according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbot.

Laura Benedict’s most recent novel, Bliss House, is “a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama,” according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbott.

We all live inside a fairly narrow social construct with many, many rules. And those rules don’t have a lot of room for obsessions or strange desires. Our contemporary culture has broken down a lot of the rules/walls, and the notions about what is strange or alien or unacceptable have changed quite a bit. But the constraints are still only a little bit wider and rely heavily on convention. With the exception of the clinically insane, we all crowd around a stable, identifiable center.

So we exist in a constant state of tension. The majority of people are able to handle the tension between their desires and their tribes’ demands for conformity with relative ease: Their desires are either easily satisfied, they’re too busy fulfilling their basic survival needs, or they have found some trade-off that makes the relative sublimation of those desires acceptable. But sometimes the tension is too great and they either suffocate or feel compelled—often quite suddenly it seems to them—to give themselves over fully to their desires, and damn the consequences.

Yes, there is a line that characters in horror and surreal fiction transgress that leads them into places that seem insane to other people. The woman in the story cannot help but sleep with the Bug Man and become his concubine. She no longer recognizes the validity of the choice in front of her: stay with her loving, charming family, or follow her desire for the bug man (no matter how bizarre it seems to us—or even to her) to its unknown consequence. She only understands that this is what she must do. Does she understand why? No, not really. There is, no doubt, something in her psyche that has led her to this place, but is it my responsibility as a writer to lay out the reasons behind her actions for the reader? I don’t think so. If I’ve done my job, the reader has enough information come to her own satisfactory conclusion about why the woman has acted as she has—but she’ll also realize that the reasons are completely irrelevant.  That’s part of the horror of the story.

As to my attraction to irrational acts—honestly, I’m rarely satisfied with reality as it’s presented to me every day. Perhaps that sounds strange or greedy or ungrateful. But irrationality and speculation make things a hell of a lot more interesting.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Set Up Illogical Character Choices

5 Aug
Laura Benedict's story "When I Make Love to the Bug Man" was published in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s story “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Almost every writer will have this experience: you’re sitting in workshop, listening to comments about your story, and someone says, “That part where ____? I just don’t get it. Why’d she do that? It makes no sense.” Maybe the workshopper will add, “I don’t know a single person who would do that.” Everyone will nod, some grudgingly. The worst part is that they’re right. Your character’s choice makes no sense. And yet that doesn’t you should revise that choice out of the story. Many great works of fiction are about characters doing things that are totally illogical—but they make sense in the story.

So how do you make an illogical choice make sense or at least keep the reader from thinking it doesn’t make sense? An almost-textbook example of this problem can be found in Laura Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”  The story is creepy and unsettling and great—and it also features a character doing something that doesn’t make sense. Certainly, nobody you know would make the same choice. How does she pull it off? The story was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman who has an affair—but not just any affair. She sleeps with the home exterminator, a man described this way:

You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom-mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt.

But, of course, marital affairs are often the result of unhappiness in the marriage. In those situations, who knows who you’ll sleep with, right? But this narrator isn’t unhappy. Instead, she fled her “cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man.” Her children are beautiful, and her husband is a good father and good in bed (“Even our sex was aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event”). In other words, there is absolutely no reason for her to sleep with the Bug Man. Yet she does. It’s illogical. So why don’t we stop reading?

The reason that readers identify acts or choices as illogical is because they’re applying an agreed-upon logic. For instance, most of us would agree with this statement: Attractive, happy women with attractive children and an attractive, good husband do not sleep with unattractive random strangers. This logic may be problematic (judging people on appearances usually is), but it’s one that we believe on some level. As a result, in order to make the reader accept the illogical act, the story must introduce a new logic.

The most obvious way to introduce this logic would be to use a psychological disorder—if the narrator is a sex addict, for instance, then we change our expectations of her behavior. Another common way to change a story’s logic is to introduce an impactful event from the past. (This is what Aimee Bender did in her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own: after the character’s father becomes ill, she begins quitting things and compulsively knocking on wood.) But Benedict uses neither of these strategies in “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”

Instead, she introduces an obsession. It begins logically. In fact, it’s not really an obsession at first, only a fact:

It didn’t seem fair that there should be so many spiders in one house. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders (sure they’re a kind of cricket, but just take a look at one and tell me you don’t think, that’s the ugliest spider I’ve ever seen), orb spiders, brown recluse spiders. If I turned a lamp on in a dark room, I didn’t have to wait long to notice one fleeing for the threshold, or crouching motionless in the light, playing dead.

Any rationale person could become unnerved by a spider infestation (in Texas, we have cockroaches, and when they scuttle across the wall at night and drop onto your pillow, it’s hard to go back to sleep). Any rationale person might become a bit obsessed:

Oh, yes, I saw them. I heard them, too, as I lay in bed at night beside my husband, Robert. Robert pretended not to hear, but I’m not ashamed to say I heard them knocking softly, messaging each other.

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I am here.”

And when you become obsessed with something that deserves your undivided attention (like spiders), it’s perfectly logical to start focusing on it to an unhealthy degree:

Fact: you are never any farther than three feet from a spider. Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory. Fact: You’ll rarely see a female brown recluse unless you rip into walls and crevices. They hide like reluctant royalty, hatching their young away from the light. Fact: Those are males crawling out of the guest bedroom pillow or the electric socket. There’s something about cardboard boxes that attracts them too, like perfect camouflage, their compact, angular bodies and bent legs gliding across the boxes’ bone-dry walls as though the walls were made of ice. Fact: Spiders have no capacity for vocal sound. Thus, the knocking. Not many spiders can communicate this way, but some do.

Look at what Benedict has done. She’s introduced a house with a common problem (spider infestation) and changed the logic of the story so that it makes sense to learn minutia about spiders. Once that new logic has been set, it makes sense (or at least seems less illogical) to make a statement like this:

I know these are Facts because the Bug Man whispers them to me when I’m in his embrace.

And this:

I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.

It’s a purely illogical statement that the reader has been given freedom to believe. It’s not a case of temporarily setting aside logic (the fictive dream) so much as introducing a new kind of logic. If you read the story, you’ll find out that an even crazier, creepier twist lies in store.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up an illogical character choice using “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict as a model:

  1. Identify the illogical character choice. Odds are, you already know what this is. It’s probably the reason the story has screeched to a halt. Either someone read the draft and said, “Nope. Don’t believe it,” or you read your own story and could not figure out how to make it work. So, make sure you know what illogical thing is happening in your draft.
  2. Explain why it’s illogical. If you do want to make it work (rather than changing the choice the character makes), you need to not only write down the choice but also the reasons why it doesn’t make sense. In Benedict’s case, the narrator’s choice to sleep with an unattractive stranger doesn’t make sense because the narrator has it all: looks, youth, an attractive husband who is a good father, and beautiful kids. It’s possible that in the story you’ll need to come out and state these things outright. Benedict does this after she’s dropped the bomb about loving the Bug Man. The next four paragraphs describe the reasons her choice is crazy, which means that she’s not crazy, or at least it gives the reader permission to keep reading. The old saw about crazy people not knowing they’re crazy basically holds true for fictional characters as well.
  3. Find a way to introduce the choice. You can hint at the illogical choice from the beginning (as Benedict does, as Nabokov did in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”). But, to make it believable, you need to also introduce an alternative way of thinking that leads to the choice. Nabokov did this with the line, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” and the story of early love that follows. Benedict does this by introducing the spiders and the very rationale freaking out and obsessing that results. So, find something real and practical to hang your odd thoughts on: spiders, a lover, something that exists in every world. Then, give the character a reason to think about this thing a lot (infestation, love).
  4. Introduce an obsession. After you’ve got a character thinking about something a lot, it’s not hard to put those thoughts into full-blown obsession. You don’t really even need to explain the shift. It can just happen, as it does in Benedict’s story. The narrator moves from hearing spiders to listing a litany of facts about them. So, give your character a chance to demonstrate some specialized knowledge in the subject. We do this with love stories (and real-life love) all of the time; we know every last detail about the object of our affection or the object of our character’s affections. Love, of course, is not unlike obsession. So, treat the object at the center of your character’s obsession as if he/she loves it. Go into loving detail.
  5. Return to, or introduce, the illogical choice. People who are obsessed do not behave rationally. If you can convince the readers of the obsession, it’s only another short step to convince them of the choice. Or, to be more accurate, the choice will flash by them and they won’t notice; it will fit in with the obsession.

You may find that you need to arrange and rearrange these elements of introducing an illogical choice. The thing to remember is that you’re setting up the choice by creating a mindset—and the sneakiest way to create a mindset is to make it initially focused on something logical. Once it becomes obsession, then you push it into the bounds of what is normally illogical.

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Daniel José Older

19 Dec
Daniel

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories that Publisher’s Weekly called a “delicate mix of horror and humor” that secures Older “a place among the rising stars of the genre.”

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press and The Subversion Anthology, among others. He’s been a featured reader in Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and at The New York Review Of Science Fiction.

In this interview, Older discusses ghosts and stories and why we love to combine the two.

(To read Older’s story “Victory Music” and an exercise on introducing genre elements into literary fiction, click here.)

Michael Noll

This is a ghost story, and it begins appropriately, with the narrator telling a dead person that “you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.” But I was still surprised when the ghost actually arrived, not only because it’s not the ghost we expect but because I’d gotten so engaged in the scene with the narrator’s parents that I’d forgotten that there was supposed to be a ghost at all. I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” To explain how suspense is created, he uses the scene from Hamlet when Hamlet is waiting for his father’s ghost but then gets distracted by this uncle’s drunken entourage. Hamlet, and the audience, get so wrapped up in his uncle that we forget all about the ghost and so are surprised when it arrives. I wonder if you had this basic idea in mind when you wrote the story: promise something and then delay its arrival.

Daniel José Older

Great question. I’ve always been fascinated by the letters we write and never send, or write in our heads but never put on paper. I think this is one way we interact with the dead without meaning to or realizing it sometimes, that internal dialogue. The idea of the things we never had a change to say to someone is so heartbreaking and so real. So on the process tip, that was my starting point. In this case, I wasn’t thinking of Krys as a foreshadow so much as an emotional center that Wes anchors to for support even after Krys is dead. Memories are powerful, more powerful than ghosts maybe, and the subtext to this story, in my head, is that Krys—who does show up as a ghost in my book Salsa Nocturna—is never actually present in this story; Wes uses the memory of Krys to access a sense of their own power and sense of self.

Michael Noll

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Your first book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories. On one hand, when I read the description of the book, I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun to focus every story on ghosts.” But then I realized that you’d have to make each ghost and the approach to each ghost different. To that end, the ghost in this story isn’t really a ghost. He’s someone who can vanish at will–but, he still seems like a ghost. So, to some extent, it seems like you’re expanding the definition of ghost and ghost story. Is that simply out of necessity–there are only so many ghosts?

Daniel José Older

Ha! I really hadn’t thought of it that way. Once the underworld, or parallel world really, of ghosts became clear in my mind, the stories all came very smoothly. In some sense there’s truth in what you say though, as artists we always need to be pushing at the borders of our genre and comfort zones, and with “Victory Music” I was interested in how we are haunted sometimes more by the living than the dead. It’s a concept I’ve played with before, though never quite in these terms, and as I said, the healing power of memory plays a major role here. Niles just showed up in my imagination as is—he was born from the necessity of having an eerie, emotionally resonant conflict for Wes. And the act of disappearing is so rich, so layered when complicated by power and privilege…it’s a natural fit for the story.

Michael Noll

In this interview at the New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, "The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare."

In this interview at The New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.”

The writer Victor LaValle said in a New York Times interview, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.” The ghost in your story seems to fit this description. The narrator is concerned with identity–her Sikh-ness, her gender–and then, appropriately enough, here comes a guy who can empty out his identity until he literally vanishes. Do you think about the meaning of your ghosts, the particular anxieties that are manifested in them?

Daniel José Older

Surely—the ghost is a crossroads. Past and present, life and death, healing and destruction all have the potential of meeting in the figure of the ghost. When we spend so much time focusing on the simple concept of ghost as evil spirit, it’s just a profound missed opportunity. Writing Salsa Nocturna really taught me that ghost stories are really about life, not death.

Michael Noll

I know a horror writer, Scott Johnson, who, in his free time, investigates ghosts and has encountered them many, many times. Those encounters have ranged from terrifying to quirky to sweet. I love hearing his stories—and other true ghost stories. Though I’m not sure I “believe” them in the factual sense, I find them utterly compelling. So, while I’m curious whether you believe in ghosts, I’m more interested in your take on ghost stories: Why do we tell them so often? What is the appeal of ghost stories?

Daniel José Older

How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Myfanwy Collins

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Myfanwy Collins

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

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

The mundane things:

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

The not so mundane things:

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

And now I’m crying.

Michael Noll

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

Myfanwy Collins

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Myfanwy Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Myfanwy Collins

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

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

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

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

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

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write an Ending that Swerves

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

—from “Araby” by James Joyce.

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

—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck!

An Interview with Roxane Gay

27 Jun
Roxane Gay is the author of X and the editor of X. She teaches at X.

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, an editor at both The Rumpus and PANK, and a regular contributor at Salon, where this excellent piece about the Paula Deen controversy recently appeared..

When Roxane Gay claims in the bio on her website, that “I write things,” she’s not being vague, only inclusive. Her long list of publications includes the story collection Ayiti and appearances in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus. On top of all of that, she teaches writing as an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.

In this interview, Gay discusses what it means to write a story in the guise of a restaurant menu, the virtues of exposition, and her response to people who claim that there are not that many good writers of color.

(For an exercise based on her menu-themed story “Contrapasso” click here.)

Michael Noll

The first thing every reader will notice about “Contrapasso” is its structure–which is amazing. I’ve never seen a story like it. How did using the conceit of a menu affect how you wrote the story? Did you write the story first and apply it to the structure, or did you take the menu structure and write a story that would make sense within it?

Roxane Gay

This story went through a few drafts. It’s been a while since I wrote this story but even though it has been through a few drafts, the menu structure was always a part of the story. Originally, it was just a few dishes and I was focused more on seven deadly sins and there wasn’t much story there. The editor of Artifice sent me some editorial suggestions and I really took them to heart, and expanded the story into a full blown narrative and the menu structure still worked really well, particularly because I fully committed to it in the revision.

Michael Noll

Just the other day, I heard someone advocating for “show, don’t tell,” but this story seems to show by telling. In part because of the structure, it rarely descends into a scene for longer than a few sentences. There is almost no extended dialogue. Several stories are told that begin and end within a single paragraph (about the cheesemonger, about cooking lobster.) As a result, I’m curious what your attitude is toward that that old advice of “show don’t tell”?

Roxane Gay

We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.

Michael Noll

The “Writing” page on your website is kind of astounding. You’ve published more than 100 stories and many essays. How do you produce so much material? What does your writing process look like?

Roxane Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia quite often and I also write fast because I’m always thinking through story and essay ideas in my head. My writing process involves a lot of procrastination and then sitting down and just writing and writing and writing until I can’t write anymore.

Michael Noll

Roxane Gay's essay "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere" in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It's long and wonderful, especially if you're a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Roxane Gay’s essay “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It’s long and wonderful, especially if you’re a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Last summer, you wrote a piece for The Rumpus (We Are Many. We Are Everywhere) about the idea within the publishing world that the reason writers of color have little visibility is that there simply are not very many of them. So you put together a list. You also said this: “This is not a token list of writers to go to when you need someone to write about race—these writers write about a wide range of subjects.” What reaction did this statement get? What do you think needs to happen so that a statement like that is no longer necessary?

Roxane Gay

Great question. That whole project was really successful. A great list of writers was compiled. I don’t know that the statement you highlighted got a specific reaction but I included it because all too often, people tend to think that writers from a certain group should only write about issues specific to that group. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t compiling a list of race-related subject matter experts. I was compiling a list of writers who happen to be of different races and ethnicities. For a statement like that to no longer be necessary, a list like the one I compiled no longer needs to be necessary. We’re a long way from there.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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