Tag Archives: Repetition

An Interview with Tim Horvath

10 Nov
A reviewer for NPR's Morning Edition called Tim Horvath's story collection, Understories, "My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory."

A reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition called Tim Horvath’s story collection, Understories, “My favorite collection of short stories in recent memory.”

Tim Horvath is the author of Understories and Circulation. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Fiction, The Normal School, and elsewhere. His story “The Understory” was selected by Bill Henderson, founder and president of the Pushcart Press, as the winner of the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. He teaches creative writing in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and has previously worked as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with adolescents and children and young adults with autism. He received his MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where he won the Thomas Williams Prize. He is the recipient of a Yaddo Fellowship, occasionally blogs for BIG OTHER, and is an assistant prose editor for Camera Obscura.

To read Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” and an exercise on moving a story forward, click here.

In this interview, Horvath discusses how characters engage with time, treating language and sentences as a game, and providing emotional cover for a protagonist.

Michael Noll

This story moves through time so easily that it’s easy to overlook how impressive this is. The beginning of the story, for instance, starts in the present and by the third sentence, has moved firmly into the past—but it doesn’t get stuck in the moments of baby food and crayons. Is this something you do naturally, or do you find yourself making conscious decisions about moving through time in a story?

Tim Horvath

I think you’ve asked the right question here, one of the most bullseyeish you could’ve posed, because the question of time is key to everything I write—how does the past bear on the present, how are these characters engaging with time, etc.? Every story/work imposes its own time scheme and challenges. With the novel, for instance, I’m trying to balance the weight of entire lives with the events of a particular summer which serves as the story’s present moment. And also balance musical time with storytelling time. I’m kind of on this many-sided warped-wood see-saw, running back and forth and trying to get it to work with some semblance of gracefulness.

In the case of this story, the narrator is tracing back a sort of timeline of “how did I get to this moment?” and doing so demands that he go back to his daughter’s childhood, but there’s a Big Bang quality to the shape of the narrative where it is compressing all of those moments into a single moment. The “life flashing across one’s eyes” phenomenon is dubious to me, but, like most dubious things, it can work under the right conditions in fiction, with its preternatural ability to pummel and pinch time into the shapes it needs—see Calvino’s “All at One Point” or Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata or the magnificent end of “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried where Tim O’Brien sits on a rowboat deciding what to do with his life, roiling with anguish as he teeters between whether or not to try to dodge the draft, which is really to say choosing between two possible futures for himself. Even though we already know what he’s chooses because of the rest of the book, O’Brien slows time to a brutal crawl.

It’s a kind of diving board moment, the suspension in midair, that a story can linger in and even unfold in. I would say that the use of the word “How” here to propel the narrative forward became a way to ensure I didn’t get caught in any particular rut of time, didn’t get mired in the quicksand of memory or “what if.” It’s as if that word becomes an engine propelling the story forward, a device that the narrator will use to catalogue his life and his daughter’s life, their high and low moments, tracing them with the intensity of a forensic scientist. But it also means that in the background of the story there is a steady beat, this echo of “How. How How.” It’s important that the word is “How” and not “Why?” “Why” is too overt, too in-your-face. We all want to know why—the narrator wants to know “why,” but will ask “How” instead, partly because unlike “Why,” which seems to pose a question by its very nature, “How” can seem to be providing answers, as in “How-to Guides” and the like. “How” can be a word of marveling at what is, rather than attempting to unravel the causes of what is. And so while seeking to unravel “why,” the narrator hides behind the mask of “how.”

Michael Noll

The story uses repetition, starting many sentences with “How…” It’s probably natural to use repetition to drill into a moment, to explore all of the angles of a single point in time, but that’s not what you do. Instead, you keep pushing the story forward even as you repeat the same syntax. At what point in the drafting process did you realize, okay, I’m going to stick with this sentence structure?

Tim Horvath

Tim Horvath's collection, Understories, "revels in wordplay and inventiveness."

Tim Horvath’s collection, Understories, “revels in wordplay and inventiveness.”

At first it was a kind of a game, a generative one. I always had the first word of the next sentence—phew! It actually became important to me to break with that at various points—to throw in a couple of sentences without “How” in order to make sure it was not formulaic. I always wanted the possibility of something else, so the reader couldn’t get too comfortable. It was important that they be fragments, too—there’s something liberating in them. Quickly, I found that the scaffolding allowed me to focus more on the character and his emotional/psychological condition than a more conventional story. Having that middle square in Bingo where I was “given” the first word in the next sentence meant that I could pay more attention to him, his relationship with his daughter, and the language in the rest of the sentence, which had to push toward something unexpected in each case to offset the (mostly) predictable openings.

Michael Noll

The he of the story goes through a pretty rough time. The exact nature of it isn’t entirely clear, but we learn enough to know that it’s bad. Were you ever tempted to explain his situation clearly—or did knowing or conveying that information not matter to you as you wrote?

Tim Horvath

I suppose another purpose of the “Hows” is that they provide a bit of a smokescreen, emotional cover for the protagonist. Don’t mind me and my wounds and scars, they seem to say. Focus on this mantra instead. Focus on moving forward, one sentence fragment at a time. Focus on the “Refresh, Refresh,” to quote Ben Percy’s great story, of language itself, with its reassurance and promise, with each new sentence, of reinscribing and thus reinventing the universe, of getting things right, of undoing the damage, shaking the Etch-a-Sketch back to mint condition. Each sentence dawns in the East of its opening. Meanwhile, you’re absolutely right that there’s pain bubbling and churning down there, between those fresh starts. But as for the particulars of his situation, well, to me that is less material. I was more interested in a character taking stock of his life as a whole, and to him, frankly, the particulars are less important than the prospect of salvaging some kind of relationship with his daughter. He is painting with a broad brush, in a sense, getting the general shapes and contours of his life on the canvas. If he can get those, maybe he can stand back and behold himself. I don’t think he’s conscious of this exactly—maybe in a weird way he’s actually emulating his daughter’s art.

Michael Noll

This story is not an outlier in terms of style. While you don’t always use repetition in quite this way, this story is certainly of a piece with your other work. I know you’re working on a novel now. What has it been like to adapt this style to that longer structure. Were there writers that you looked to for models?

Tim Horvath

The novel has presented all kinds of challenges. One of the greatest has been writing about music in a way that does justice to the subject and doesn’t make me look too far out of my depth. I’ve long been obsessed with music, but my response has been very intuitive, and now I’m writing about imagined classical composers, who of course also have an intuitive sense but are steeped in actual technical knowledge. In researching, I’ve spent countless hours with composers, musicians, and musicologists, sitting in on rehearsals and theory classes, going to bars after concerts, and that world is so rich and intricate and various that I’m continually floored, which is a great thing—may it never get old!  The main character, whose third person perspective we’re in, is the more experimental of the composers, hence the narration also has to have a somewhat thorny quality, yet I want the prose itself to have a musical quality, since that’s one of the main things I’m drawn to in prose in general. I’d like to think that Understories cuts a pretty wide stylistic swath in general, with some stories blatantly playing with language while others are more obsessed with character and relationship, and some are fixated on landscape and some are staking out some territory of ideas, and in the end I’d hope that many are doing several at once. There’s a story that Lisa Cooper Vest told at a recent conference I attended on “Musicology and the Present” which might be apocryphal but I suppose could be real, of the great Polish composer Penderecki writing out two scores with different hands so that he could enter both of them in the same competition and not have them be traceable to the same person. Now, according to the story, Penderecki won first, second, and third in the competition, which leads to the natural question—what or where was the third hand? In some ways, it feels as though I’ve tried to write my stories three-handedly, and I think that I’m trying to coordinate the work of these hands a bit more in the novel, figure out their rhythms and choreography, but it remains to be seen what that will look like in the end.

November 2016

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

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An Interview with Callie Collins

16 Jun
Callie Collins is the co-editor of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is the codirector of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here.

In this interview, Collins discusses two pieces of flash fiction and linearity, titles, and listening to the sound of your sentences.

Michael Noll

When I read these stories, the thing that immediately caught my eye is the nonlinear jumps in the narration. Sometimes they’re on the content level, like when the gar arrive in the story or when we see the girl at the bar practicing her vowels. But they also happen on the sentence level, as with the line “They approximate well” in this passage: 

Hold the grip like you’re shaking a man’s hand, Billy instructs the boys, but who among them has really shaken a man’s hand, he thinks. They approximate well. He doesn’t have children. 

That line seems to arrive out of nowhere. It’s not a logical extension of “They approximate well.” Is this just the logic of your imagination, or do you have a kind of internal rule or approach that you follow for these sort of jumps?

Callie Collins

It’s strange; when I first read this question, I was surprised you pulled that line, cause it strikes me as a super linear extension of that thought, which now I realize it is not at all and I must be crazy. So yes, the logic of my imagination is maybe a bit more leapy than usual. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm and geometry when I write. In this particular case my logic worked a little like this.

“He doesn’t have children” seemed necessary for a couple reasons. The six syllables of “They approximate well” didn’t feel like enough rhythmically to stop the forward momentum of the multi-clausal sentence before it—I wanted a stronger wall. “He doesn’t have children” is really satisfying to me because of the internal symmetry of consonants and emphasis: (he) DOES-N’T (have) CHIL-DREN. Those two lines together sounded closed and tight because they’re syllabically equal. Also, “They approximate well” shifts the paragraph’s focus to the boys, so I wanted to extend a line back to Billy to balance the scale. I tried to jump back and forth from the boys to Billy almost sentence-by-sentence in order to both alienate them from each other and tie them together in this room while the storm rages outside. I also wanted to go one step further down into Billy, to reveal some new, personal knowledge of his character, before the last sentence of the paragraph zooms back out to an overhead view of the scene.

Yeah… it seems kind of nuts. Thankfully there’s another, parallel answer to this question, and that’s because this story comes out of a bigger project. Billy is the youngest of five siblings in a generation of a family, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have kids. It was a piece of information I wanted to fit in there somehow, and to my ear that was the right place to put it.

Michael Noll

Your titles are wonderful. They remind me of the chapter headings that you see in certain novels from the 1700s and 1800s. What’s your approach to titling stories? It’s something that most writers I know find so difficult.

Callie Collins

Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” was published along with one other at Conflict of Interest.

Oh, thank you! I feel lucky when I land on serviceable, or at the very least somewhere near I-can-see-she’s-trying-to-move-me-and-am-not-entirely-repulsed.

I cheat a little. I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth. My hope is that each title alone will function pretty straightforwardly, but that using the structure repeatedly will help the stories accrete and flow differently—as variations on a theme. I can, of course, take this way too far. Currently I’m using the same exact title for at least five different stories and for the manuscript they all come out of—man, stop me—which has become inconvenient and messy.

But I like this sort of repetition. It’s how my brain works most naturally. There are pieces of language and slices of syntax that lodge in my mind, and I return to them compulsively but hopefully from new angles and alignments. And it’s one of the really big pros to writing page-long stories. It wouldn’t work if I had fewer pieces to title.

Michael Noll

Both of these stories have a kind of thematic structure. You could, if you wanted, distill them to their major images (for example, cocoons/butterflies, gar, the O shape the girl makes), and then it seems as if the purpose of the story is to connect these images in a way that makes sense. This makes me wonder: Do you start with the images and try to connect them or start with one image and write your way into the story, discovering new images as you go?

Callie Collins

Mostly I start with one image and write my way into the story. I think a lot about thematic structure and particularly the idea of thematic return, movement back toward the home of an original moment or sound. I used to study some music theory and composition a long time ago and was really pretty awful at it, but I found some comfort in the fact that our brains are kind of wired to find closure and satisfaction in music that returns to the tonic—the piece’s tonal center. There are certainly many ways to come home to the tonic, or to approach coming home and not make it all the way, or to refuse that closure entirely, and I think the same is true in fiction. I love endings for that reason; I’m attracted to the urgency of the choice whether or not to return.

I’ve written stories that come all the way goddamn home, middle C, climb back in the bed they were born in—there’s a horse story I read at readings sometimes that does this—but the gar story doesn’t. I tried to end it with a stand on the dominant: an anticipatory feeling, a settling in the front yard of the tonic and pointing at the door.

The tonic is usually an image. Here, the gar. I set the tonic and then work my way into other images that orbit it. I wanted the last note, the couple at the bar, to recall the gar in certain ways—to approach the ideas of foreignness, animal transformation, and alienation from a new perspective. What I really hope, though, is that none of my crazy scaffolding is visible—that the story reads cleanly and easily. Thinking about structure in these minute ways is, it turns out, the only way I know how to get anything done at all.

Michael Noll

These stories are quite polished. You’re also co-editor of the independent press A Strange Object. A lot of people would look at both of those statements and think, “She’s doing pretty well.” Yet this fall you’ll enter the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you hope to learn there? Obviously you want to work on your writing and craft, but you’re entering from a different position than a lot of writers, with more experience and success in the publishing world–more than many people who graduate from writing programs. Is it simply the desire to grow and improve that’s at work, or is there something in particular that you wish to gain?

Callie Collins

I hope to learn many things. Where to buy a good coat, for one—anyone know? I’m hoping someone’ll teach me how to do that weird Michigan vowel shift, too.

But really, what a kind question to ask! I didn’t take creative writing courses in college and have very little experience with the formal workshop setting, so even though I’ve spent some time on the publishing side, I’m much more of a newbie in certain ways than most folks entering programs. Mostly I’m just excited and feeling very lucky to have the time and funding to work on the novel-thing, and to get to do that with amazing faculty whose work I deeply admire.

My work’s pretty invested in central Texas, and I think leaving will help me write about the place with more nuance. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the mythology of Texas while I’m in it, and I hope being away will give me new perspective and energy. I’m very sad, but it seems like time to go. Just keep everything exactly the same while I’m gone, thanks! Or at least cool it with the condos.

June 2016

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

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