Tag Archives: plot and character

An Interview with Sam Allingham

22 Dec
Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, Epoch, n+1, The Millions, and Full Stop, among other publications. He currently lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University.

To read an exercise on not over-explaining characters’ behavior based on Allingham’s story “Stockholm Syndrome,” click here.

In this interview, Allingham discusses his story “Stockholm Syndrome” and openings that don’t focus on main characters, explaining only what is necessary, and writing characters with desire in cold worlds.

Michael Noll

There is so much misdirection in this story, though it doesn’t feel that way at the time. For example, the story begins with the blind man and his wife, but they’re not really central characters. They exist in large extent as something for other characters to comment on. There’s also Valerie’s old boyfriend, a character who is entirely off page but who plays a significant role in how we understand the action and world of the story. Because (I think) of both of these sets of characters, I was absolutely bowled over by the ending—stunned. I did not see it coming. Did you? How early into the draft did you know where the story as headed?

Sam Allingham

The opening scene, like so many of my openings, was written as a set piece: I had no idea who the characters were, or whether any of them were going to be central to the story. I don’t subscribe to the concept that an opening ought to focus entirely on the principal characters; to me, it’s more about establishing mood and perspective—in this case, Valerie’s tentative, somewhat apologetic attitude toward the world. She wants to know people intimately, and yet her past experiences have made this difficult. In a sense, every character within the story—whether metadiegetic, like the characters from Valerie’s research, or biographical, like Thomas—are ultimately about trying to understand Valerie’s relationship to trauma. The opening was about me learning about her: what will her observation of this couple come to represent for her?

By the time of her initial dinner with Thomas, I knew Valerie pretty well—I knew that if Thomas invited her to visit, she would come. And I’d already decided that Thomas was a master manipulator, so the ending didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Really, Valerie already knows, too—she’s already seen the way that Thomas’ charm is actually about hiding his true face from the world. But by this point she’s too emotionally invested in him to let herself see.

What did come as a surprise was the use of the Fritzl case, which was coming out more or less as I wrote the piece. So, being a magpie, I slotted it in.

Michael Noll

This is a story that begs explanation: What’s going on with Leigh Anne? What does she think is going on? Why does Thomas act the way he does? What do all those women at the end think? By the end of the story, I’m able to answer these questions part way—but not completely. How did you know how much to reveal or suggest and how much you could get away with keeping inaccessible and mysterious?

Sam Allingham

My basic rule is that you only have to explain the things that aren’t a mystery to your ordering perspective: in this case, Valerie. She doesn’t know Leigh Anne, and so Leigh Anne remains unexplained. Ditto Thomas: the reader is forced to judge him through Valerie’s (admittedly) unreliable eyes. I guess I trust my readers to fill in the blanks. As I said before, the story is really about Valerie: the way her perspective tricks her into mis-seeing the world, by overlaying her own trauma onto Thomas.

Michael Noll

When was “Stockholm Syndrome” written relative to the other stories in the collection? It feels of a piece in terms of the characters and their preoccupations, but it’s formally quite different from, say, “Rodgers and Hart” and “One Hundred Characters.” Were those stories (or “Stockholm Syndrome”) written to try out a different style, or did the style reveal itself as you wrote?

Sam Allingham

Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

Funnily enough, those three stories were more or less contemporaneous. I write in two modes: shorter, lighter, and more linguistically experimental stories, and longer, darker, more narrative pieces. The shorter ones are usually constrained, stylistic experiments. With a piece like “One Hundred Characters,” for example, I was primarily interested in seeing if it was possible to maintain a reader’s interest without offering any narrative beyond a list of one hundred characters; with “Rodgers and Hart” I was interested in seeing if a series of comparisons could be a story. With the longer stories, I’m generally interested in investigating one character’s psychology, or sometimes two: the monomaniacal builder in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” for example, and the narrator who serves as his recorder.

Michael Noll

The book is blurbed by Dan Chaon, a writer whose work exudes the Lovecraftian belief that the world cannot be understood except that it a) doesn’t care about you and b) might be actively hostile to you. So many of the stories in this book resist closure and conclusion. By the end of “Stockholm Syndrome,” I felt as though I were hurtling into the abyss. “Rodgers and Hart” is about a relationship that will never be fully realized. “One Hundred Characters” takes a very long-distance view of its world, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ash” has a character whose motivations remain utterly shrouded even at the end. For this, I love these stories, the same as I love Dan Chaon’s work. But these stories also have a kind of warmth, a promise of hope and connection, that I’m not sure always exists in Chaon’s work. In stories, the world is cold, but the characters are hot, filled with desire. I’m curious how you navigate your way through your work. Do you start with the characters and their desire and then frustrate it with the disregard (or hostility) of the world? Or do you start with the cold world and drop into it characters full of desire?

Sam Allingham

Dan was my advisor as an undergrad, and a wonderful teacher. It’s funny, his novels (and later stories) can be extremely Lovecraftian, but I tend to think there’s human connection in his world, too. His second collection, Among the Missing, was a big influence on me, because it contains so many stories of people who are actively enduring tragedy and suffering, even in the face of a nearly supernatural sense of doom. I mean, my general sense is that most people, at some point in their lives, press up against the limits of what life offers them, or have life press forcibly against them in some traumatic way. For the narrator in “Tiny Cities,” his friend’s construction of a model version of their town comes to stand in for the way his own family has become somewhat trapped in the real town of Elverton; for Cheryl, this comes when her mother takes her father’s place (and clothes) after his death. I suppose I always try to put people in conflict with the limits of their world – which is probably why I tend to write female characters as much (or more) than men; women, in my experience, tend to be much, much more aware of the ways in which the world is out to restrict their free thought and action.
This is all probably a long-winded way of saying that for me, desire is always delimited by the coldness of the world, and the way it restricts our actions. That’s what makes it desire!

December 2016

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

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An Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena

3 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine and a visiting professor at Susquehanna University. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Globe and MailWSQThe Kenyon ReviewGlimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative, and other magazines. Her work has been anthologized in The Best New American Voices and twice named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories (2011, 2012). Sirisena has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and, in 2008, received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award.

To read an exercise on figuring out what really drives a character to act, based on Sirisena’s story “Ismail,” click here.

In this interview, Sirisena discusses writing characters different who are different than yourself, compressing backstory, finding the end of a story, and what comes next for the Sri Lankan political environment that informs her work.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite passages in the story is this one: 

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For me anyway, it’s the emotional heart of the story and the key to everything that happens in it. Was it in the draft from the beginning? In other words, was this desire what drew you into the story? Or was it something you discovered as you wrote?

Hasanthika Sirisena

It came to me as I wrote. Some readers tell me that they think Ismail is a jerk. And there are aspects of his character that are insensitive. But I also see him as someone who has undergone a terrible trauma and, understandably, has chosen as his coping mechanism a front of humor and bravado. In some sense, I see him as brave. He has to keep going for his father and his brother. But he also allows himself some awareness.

I’m not particularly interested in characters who look like or talk like me. I try to invent people I want to know and understand better. To do that, I try to find a point of empathy—something that we both might share. Though Ismail and I have had different life experiences, I know what it feels like to live without, and I realized as I wrote him that he did to. And I also try to pretend in my life that I’m very tough to hide a profound vulnerability and fear, as he does. Ismail c’est moi!

Michael Noll

The story covers a lot of time, and a lot of that time is compressed into short passages, like the one about how Abdul begins to blow off the narrator. When you’re in the midst of a story, how do you know which information to dramatize and which information to summarize?

Hasanthika Sirisena

For this story I constructed a traditional narrative arc. Ismail has a fairly simple desire: to get back at his friend. But that desire is wrapped in his own fear of losing his brother and of not really fitting into American society. I chose to dramatize those scenes that were key to that relationship and the conflict between the two brothers. Ismail constantly tries to test his brother and make him prove his loyalty. Other parts of the story: the past in Sri Lanka, the burgeoning relationship between the little brother and his girlfriend weren’t part of that central drama so I compressed and summarized that.

Michael Noll

Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, was called “unforgettable” and “lucid and wise” by Claire Messud.

The end of the story is great. I can’t imagine it ending any other way, but I know from experience that even inevitable endings are anything but when a story is being written. Did you always know where the story was going?

Hasanthika Sirisena

The end of this story was hard! It took me three years to write this story—to get it right—and that was mostly because of the ending. I’ve learned in my career you have to get the ending absolutely pitch perfect. The emotional impact is usually as subtle as the correct beat. The right beat and the reader goes ‘wow.’ The wrong beat and you have one angry reader because she’s been with you the entire way only to be let down. It’s daunting. (As an aside, I’m surprised at how many stories we end up saying no to at West Branch simply because the ending isn’t quite right.)

Ismail is so invested in his toughness that any type of epiphany ending—where he realizes something significant about himself—would feel contrived and unearned. To me that sort of ending also ran the risk of being extraordinarily condescending to the character. But I did want to find a way to show that he really is a very good man. It finally came to me one morning, as I was waking up, that I needed to end on an image—Ismail with his hands in the air surrendering. And then the rest, of him watching his brother get away and being thrilled, just came to me. Of course, he’d surrender to save his brother. It fits his essential bravado and it also fit the depth of his love.

Michael Noll

The event that informs so many of the stories in The Other One is the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended recently. Now that the country is more stable and has gone through a contentious election mostly without violence, does that change your sense for the kind of stories you want to tell? Does the war continue to be part of your narrative imagination?

Hasanthika Sirisena

As someone who writes about Sri Lankans and who most likely always will, the war is impossible to ignore. I do though recognize that the war touches Sri Lankans in degrees and honor the impulse within the community that the war is not all there is to being a Sri Lankan.

That said, I also think that while the military conflict has ended and the LTTE have been defeated the social and cultural conflicts that led to the war on the first place haven’t been corrected. There have been advances: the return of some of the land taken from Tamil families in the North, for example. But, the Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a strong presence in the North. Recently, the police shot and killed two Tamil students at a checkpoint in Jaffna. Last week, I was on a panel about contemporary Sri Lankan writing. During the Q&A, a Tamil writer’s stories of disenfranchisement were dismissed wholesale by an audience member as fantasy and nostalgia. There was no attempt at understanding. There needs to exist thoughtful, careful, and diverse writing that insists on establishing and respecting all the narratives. I think there is a moral and ethical imperative to work toward that end not just through my own work but by supporting the writing of Sri Lankan nationals and writers of the diaspora.

November 2016

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

An Interview with Natashia Deón

27 Oct
Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of Grace, a novel that has earn rave reviews and comparisons to the work of Toni Morrison.

Natashia Deón is the author of the novel Grace. She’s the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Feminist Wire, and You: An Anthology of Second Person Essays, among others. She has taught creative writing for Gettysburg College, PEN Center USA, and 826LA. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School.

To read an exercise on creating tension by playing against reader expectation based on Grace, click here. (If you’re in the Austin area, you can see Deón at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday at 2:00 on a panel with Yaa Gyasi.)

In this interview, Deón discusses writing in dialect, writing within genre perceptions and writing violence.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Nervous Breakdown, you quoted Walt Whitman: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” How did you find that close-to-the-ground entry to the language of the characters in your book? To my reading ear, it sounded fresh and almost contemporary, not stilted the way that some historical fiction dialogue can. What was your approach to these characters’ language?

Natashia Deón

In every writing class I had ever taken before finishing Grace, I had been taught that one of the golden rules of writing was to never write in dialect. And even though “the rules,” which otherwise seemed sound, also said that it was acceptable to deviate from these “rules,” every writing instructor, writer, speaker, who discussed language and voice always seemed to come back to that same advice: Don’t write in dialect. Or, if you do, do so sparingly. I struggled with that advice. I struggled because the voice I wanted to create for the main character, the narrator of Grace, was in dialect. For a long time, it kept me from writing at all.

Eventually, I gave myself permission. Not because someone told me yes but because I told myself yes. Every day, writers have to tell themselves yes. You are good enough. What you have to say is good enough. You matter.

Maybe it seems obvious to other writers. It wasn’t for me. And coming to that realization was a moment of freedom. But permission was only the beginning. New questions arose about dialect. For instance, I didn’t want readers to assume that my narrator’s dialect was a reflection of her intellect as people often—wrongly—assume about a southern accent. But, rather, that her language was an expression of her exposure and physical limitations. As a writer, this was one of my biggest challenges. How would she express herself if she didn’t know a word like “compete” or “busking?” If it wasn’t in her vocabulary, how would she say those words without using the word? Then I’d have her describe the word in three words or less. And here she was about to narrate the entire novel. In something like poetry.

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón's debut novel Grace, "her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?"

A New York Times review said of Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace, “her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it?”

Maya Angelou once said, “English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.” In writing Grace, I had to decide what I wanted the language to do. In the early drafts, the dialect was much more rugged. I thought accuracy was the primary point of dialect. So the language in Grace was phonetically accurate to the time and place. And it didn’t sit well with me. As I revised, I began to understand that I was creating a language pattern, somewhere in between the past and our present use of English in the U.S. And in this new understanding, I had to make a decision about how hard I wanted readers to work, and about other craft issues like what I wanted the dialect to do. Do in the sense that everything in a scene, every word, serves the scene. If I read that there’s a fire burning in the fireplace, it needs to serve—ambiance, some future purpose, frame a moment, a thought. Usually, it does more than one thing. In the same way, my narrator’s language had to serve and not just exist on the page…accurately.

So, her language evolves in the novel as she goes on her journey, and it reaches us here in the future, blending the past and present together, which is one of the  themes in Grace. For this reason, her language softens. She learns new words, speaks differently as she’s exposed to new people, new experiences. The same way you or I would. And in this way, her language is close to the ground. It is alive. And my goal was for readers, after the first chapter or so, to read it effortlessly.

Michael Noll

In a recent New Yorker review of the film Birth of a Nation, Vinson Cunningham writes, “The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted, over and over, for the screen…This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.” He goes on to write, “Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story,” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of your book, which, of course, is a ghost story. Your novel also doesn’t strike me as “upper-middlebrow art.” And, because of Naomi’s journey out of slavery, it feels like a different approach to the “slavery genre.” How much did you try to write toward or away from the ways this type of story has been told in the past?

Natashia Deón

When I first began to write Grace, as strange as this may sound, I never set out to write a slave narrative. All of the main characters are not slaves. I saw them first as people, not defined by their station, though their station was of serious consequence.

For me, Grace is and was always a story about women. Women who are survivors, who fight valiantly, and learned to keep their dignity and humanity despite their circumstances. Women who created families of their choosing when family was withheld from them—families that were more than blood but a powerful kind of kinship. And the black people in this story, some of whom are slaves, were not only brutalized bodies or victims of a dehumanizing system, but resilient lovers, dreamers, mothers, daughters, thinkers, heroes, and more. This was always Grace. And Grace is also a slave narrative.

There is diversity even within genres, within any life, real or imagined. Freedom in Grace isn’t a place to get to. It’s not north. It’s a question that all of the characters—Black, White, Latina, and other, have to ask themselves. It’s what we all have to ask ourselves today. Is what we have right now freedom?

I am honored that Grace is included with other great books about slavery—BelovedThe Known World, and others. And because America hasn’t been out of slavery for as long as we were in it, I imagine that there are books coming in the future that will continue to give fresh eyes to this period of time. And those books, like books about baseball, won’t care how many brothers or sisters it has.

Michael Noll

The book contains some scenes that are really difficult to read: graphically-rendered murder and sexual violence. The scenes aren’t gratuitous at all. Each one is necessary and well-written, but I also wonder if you worried about losing readers. To paragraph a character from the novel, not all women have the same sort of strong, and not all readers have the same capability for reading scenes and stories like these. Did you think at all about how to keep readers turning the page in the midst or after such scenes?

Natashia Deón

Yes, I worried about losing readers. But not when I was writing it. I wanted to stay true to the story, to the things that have haunted me in dealing with violence in real life. Our country, our world, is a violent place. We live in a society where even death and the dead are removed from our sight at once. And most of us are blessed to be removed from those realities and the realities of violence, except for occasional episodes in our lives, or what we see on our computer, phone or television screens. I say this because almost all of the descriptions of violence in Grace are details of real life cases I haven’t been in a position to look away from as an attorney, a friend, family member, etc. The violence in Grace was my response to the quintessential command: Write what you know. The violence rings true because it is true. Of course, fictionalized. But I didn’t want to hold back in creating. I was asking readers to trust me to get them through it. I wanted to be trustworthy, for my narrator to be trustworthy. It was a gamble. A choice. And in the end, I wrote the book that I wanted to read, that I felt compelled to write, that I felt readers were ready and mature enough to hear. One that was honest in every way that it could be.

October 2016

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

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

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

An Interview with Leona Theis

13 Oct
Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis is the author of two books and the winner of the American Short Fiction contest, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.

Leona Theis lives and writes in the musically-named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her collection of interlocking stories, Sightlines, is set in small-town Saskatchewan. Her novel The Art of Salvage is a story about messing up and finding hope. She is working on two other novels and a collection of essays. She is the winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award, and her personal essays appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. Recently, one of her short stories appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology. Her story, “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” won the American Short Fiction contest judged by Elizabeth McCracken and appears in the most recent issue of American Short Fiction.

To read an exercise on making characters represent a place or group based on Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” click here.

In this interview, Theis discusses writing about internal conflict in the midst of external drama.

Michael Noll

A lot of the action in the story happens off the page. The scenes seem to focus instead on the interactions and moments that happen in the wake of that off-page drama. I was particularly struck at how the story avoided certain storylines. For example, the drama that’s built on Lisa and Dave’s relationship is an important part of the story, but it remains secondary to what’s going on with Sylvie. Another writer might have made it a much bigger part of the story: what will Lisa do? What will Sylvie do? Those questions are present, but they’re kept to a lower register. In the same way, there is a developing romance with Will that gets folded into all of the other stuff going on in the story. As a result, one could call this a love story, but that wouldn’t feel quite right, I don’t think. When you were working on this story, what was your sense of what kind of story it was? Was there a tag that you placed on it in your mind? Like, “this is my love story” or “this is my yoga story”?

Leona Theis

I never did think of this as “a yoga story” or a “love story”. My process in developing a story or an essay is almost always exploratory for the first few drafts, and that was the case with this one even more than usual. It began with memories of a time and a place that I wanted to explore for meanings. I had quite a lot of it drafted before I figured out that its true subject was the drama going on inside Sylvie, a drama she’s only partly aware of. Once I’d decided what the story was about, I rewrote it several (in fact, many) times, hoping to make all the parts of it work together to make that drama felt.

I wrote this story to stand on its own, but I couldn’t leave Sylvie alone, and eventually it became the second chapter in a novel-in-stories called “If Sylvie Had Nine Lives.” (I’m just about to query agents about it now.) The story of Sylvie and Jack, which is, as you say, “off the page” here, plays out in the story that precedes this one. (That story, “High Beams”, appeared a couple of years ago in The Journey Prize Stories 26, in Canada.)

Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

The tension between Lisa and Dave is apparent in “How Sylvie Failed…,” as is Sylvie’s response to it, but I didn’t put much of the actual, physical goings-on between those two on the page, as this is a story about Sylvie. The drama I was most interested in delving into was happening inside her. She’s trying on different versions of herself and hasn’t yet come to realize that life is serious business. She’s reaching for some idea of cool, and, naively, she half thinks she’s already achieved it. But she’s yet to take a deep look at anything in life, which is one reason the yoga experience baffles her so. She’s terribly self-absorbed, a person tasting things to see how she likes them, to see what will satisfy her. Even her relationship with Will is less a love story and more another angle on Sylvie trying to sort out who she is and what she wants. I love her and I forgive her faults, because she’s young, and a slow learner.

Michael Noll

How did you approach pacing the steps that lead to Sylvie and Will’s increasing closeness?

Leona Theis

I don’t remember much about how I arrived at the pacing of the increasing closeness between Sylvie and Will. I suspect that that part of the process was intuitive, and when the pacing to do with that continued to feel right draft after draft, I knew not to mess with it.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the story is the description of one of Lisa’s friends when Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

I love this line because it clearly describes the guy and also the time and place. Did this line just appear on the page one day, or did you have to revise your way toward it?

Leona Theis

I’m happy that you liked the line about the guy in the quilted vest saying, “Far out.” That line was one of those gifts that comes out fully formed when a writer manages to transport herself to a time and place she remembers well, when she can hear the characters’ voices without straining.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the editors at American Short Fiction, Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits for their fine editing. Also, Elizabeth McCracken for selecting my story for the prize.

October 2016

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

An Interview with Hannah Pittard

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Hannah Pittard

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Hannah Pittard

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

Michael Noll

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

Hannah Pittard

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

September 2016

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

An Interview with Julie Wernersbach

1 Sep
Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swi

Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swimming Holes of Texas.

Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Before moving to Austin in 2011, Julie served as publicist and events coordinator for Book Revue, a large independent bookstore on Long Island. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and Swimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.

To read an exercise on creating conflict in multiple point of view narratives based on Wernersbach’s story “Happiness,” click here.

In this interview, Wernersbach discusses finding the beginning of characters’ story arcs, moving back and forth between those arcs, and the tension that’s created in each moment of the story.

Michael Noll

The story follows three characters over the course of one day. Their storylines eventually intersect, of course, and that’s part of what we’re reading for. That said, one of the challenges of such a story is figuring out where to begin. Not all of the characters’ arcs can begin with a bang. How did you figure out where to begin each characters’ story?

Julie Wernersbach

The story began inside Leslie’s head. I saw a manicured house from the perspective of a woman preparing to leave for an appointment. I knew she wasn’t having a great day and that she was overall anxious and unhappy. Once I had her unhappiness pinned to two other people, I wanted to know what they were doing at that same exact moment. I can’t remember if I specify the day of the week in this story, but it definitely feels like a Tuesday. I figure, for the most part, Tuesday afternoons don’t typically have a whole lot of bang to them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re generally miserable or obsessed about something, the misery and obsession are going to be humming along without a whole lot of deep distraction on a Tuesday afternoon. So I just sort of jumped into where her husband and sister might be in those cases on an average afternoon and went from there.

Michael Noll

The story moves quickly from character to character, never staying with one for more than a few paragraphs. Did you write the story with that structure, or did you write longer sections and then break them into smaller pieces?

Julie Wernersbach

Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Once I understood that the entire story wasn’t going to be told from Leslie’s perspective, I did write it with that structure. In the end, I actually went back and expanded sections. As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote. I could write a little bit, move on and have that character in the back of mind, developing as I wrote the next bit of someone else’s storyline, and then come back to him or her and do more.

Michael Noll

One of the cool things about the story is that, from a wide-lens view, not a great deal happens, yet in each section something occurs: slight but important moments concerning a package, a diet, a visit to the doctor. What was your approach to plot and action in the story?

Julie Wernersbach

It’s funny that Arcadia paired this story on their site with an image of potato chips, because I thought about the structure a bit that way. I wanted to make sure the reader couldn’t eat just one paragraph. I wanted a small hook in each section, a little something to keep each character intriguing and propel the reader forward. To me, the hook was (and probably always is) the small moments that string together a life. Those slight moments of discomfort and dissatisfaction add up to a lot, building pressure and tension little by little. I felt the action had to be incremental for Leslie to blow up in a believable way. Death by a thousand paper cuts! So to speak.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent your career around books and writers. You’re the Literary Director at the Texas Book Festival, and previously you were the marketing director at BookPeople. Great writing can inspire people to write, but it can also discourage them—make them think, “I’ll never write something that good.” How does your reading inform your writing?

Julie Wernersbach

There were definitely many years of believing that what I did was outside of the books I read and the authors I hosted; that those works and writers were legitimate and my work and identity as a writer never would be. But the thing about being exposed to so many books is that you’re exposed to so many books, good and bad, memorable and forgettable. It’s been reassuring to comprehend the volume of what’s published any given week and to acknowledge the multi-faceted reasons behind a publisher’s decision to put a work in print.

It’s also been heartening and reassuring to stand on the sidelines of hundreds (more than one thousand? probably more than one thousand) audience Q&As with authors. There’s always a process question and some version of a “what’s it like to be a writer” question. In addition to picking up a ton of great writing advice, I’ve also learned that virtually every author struggles to feel valid and successful, and that the authors who do have a strong sense of security in their work have one thing in common: they write their asses off. If I’ve felt inferior in the presence of phenomenal books and authors, it’s only stoked the fire to write my ass off. (And to read more really, really good books.)

September 2016

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

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