Tag Archives: sex scenes

An Interview with Megan Kruse

28 Nov
Megan Kruse is the author of Call Me Home, which Elizabeth Gilbert called "a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks."

Megan Kruse is the author of Call Me Home, which Elizabeth Gilbert called “a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks.”

Megan Kruse grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Seattle. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and her debut novel, Call Me Home, was released from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She teaches fiction at Eastern Oregon University’s Low-Residency MFA program, Hugo House, and Gotham Writers Workshop. She was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for 2015.

To read an exercise about creating internal dialogue, click here.

In this interview, Kruse discusses the larger whole of multiple perspective novels, queer sex scenes, and the importance of rural queer narratives.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, and I recently heard an agent say that readers tend to struggle to connect emotionally with characters in multi-perspective novels. I guess this makes sense in a way: just when things get tense for a character, the novel often cuts away to a different character. Was this something you thought about as you worked on the novel?

Megan Kruse

One of the things that I love about multiple perspectives is that the result seems greater than the sum of the parts; the reader gets to connect with the individual characters, and in addition, the reader comes to understand the bigger picture. I’ve always written family stories, and I think often about how in any family or group, there is no one on the inside who can fully see the whole story. So many family sorrows—our slights and misunderstandings and our greater rifts and losses—come back to our inability to see outside ourselves, to take into account all of the different narratives and histories that coexist in a family universe. I wanted to write a novel where the reader has the privilege of knowing the family’s story more fully than any of the individual characters. I understand what you’re saying about the potential for the reader to feel less connected to a single character, but I also think that the task of a successful novelist is to keep those threads feeling alive, to keep the reader tracking all of the characters even as the perspective shifts. My hope for my own fictional family was that their emotional ties to each other, the way that they’re searching and echoing off each other, would keep them present even when they weren’t on the page.

Michael Noll

You write a pretty explicit sex scene between Jackson and Don. In general, sex scenes give writers fits. There’s even an award given out annually for the worst sex writing, and very good writers often end up on the list. What was your approach to that scene?

Megan Kruse

I really loved writing those sex scenes! I wanted to write a queer story, to write characters that are so rarely visible in contemporary fiction. Jackson is coming of age, falling in love for the first time, and I don’t think you can separate that experience from the physicality of it. To be young and queer in a place where you don’t have other queer people to talk to, where you don’t have any models for how to live, means that your experience of sexuality is isolated, speculative, and lonely. The double whammy of emotional and physical connections makes that first love so wrenching and impacting when you finally experience it. Don is also Jackson’s boss, which adds another level of power and fear to the exchange. I loved writing into that murk—to put these two characters in a room together and consider how Jackson might feel, with all of these different elements trembling on the line.

Michael Noll

Megan Kruse's novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon "astonished by her talent."

Megan Kruse’s novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon “astonished by her talent.”

I love the dialogue in the novel, especially a scene between Jackson and Honey, when Honey is driving Jackson to see the crew boss. In it, Honey resists understanding. He says, “Bet yer scared, huh?” but when Jackson says, “I’m scared,” Honey answers, “Don’t worry. They’re just probably needing more help on this side.”

“You asked if I was scared.”

“Nah,” Honey said.

It makes no sense that Honey says this, or at least not immediate sense. Was this a lucky accident, the sort of thing that pops up as you write. Or did you have a sense of this character and set out to write dialogue that would reveal that sense?

Megan Kruse

I don’t remember exactly how I put that scene together, but I wanted to show through that exchange how adrift Jackson is in the fictional town of Silver, where he’s working on a construction crew. He’s trying to get his feet in a world where action speaks, where the currency is work and productivity, and so I wanted his interactions to mirror his confusion. He feels like he doesn’t know how to speak “man,” in other words, and so when he tries, he flounders. There’s another scene where he is at a bar in town with the men on his crew and he over-speaks, revealing too much about himself. He doesn’t know the rules of the world he’s in, and I wanted to capture how he is working to navigate that uncertain terrain.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Rumpus, you talked about the importance of writing queer, rural narratives and how it’s not enough to portray non-urban places as only dangerous. Why do you think that particular narrative has taken hold? It’s true, of course, that some very bad things have happened to gay people in rural places, but I wonder if there isn’t a certain urban bias at work. I think of the scene in the film Milk when a kid calls from Minnesota or somewhere, wanting to come to San Francisco, saying that he’s scared of his father, but then the camera pans out and we see that he’s in a wheelchair. And, the new film Stonewall is about a gay Midwestern boy who moves to New York and finds himself. This is a common storyline in novels, too—that the city is safer and better, not just for queer people but for everyone. Is it inevitable that the rural, queer narrative will become more commonplace now that marriage equality is national law? Or do you think this narrative lags behind reality?

Megan Kruse

The narratives we hear about queerness are so often about departure—about leaving rural places for the city, for urban places with queer communities (San Francisco in Milk, as you mention—that’s a place where there is finally a critical mass, and you can imagine the joy of that). I don’t think that departure is about safety so much as it is about community—which then becomes safety. My experience has been that to find other people who share your experience, other people who want to live and love like you, is what feels most important, beyond physical safety. It feels safer because you have your people. But things are changing, rapidly, and the world feels different now that it did when I was younger. We’re at a moment in time when our narratives of queerness are being heard more than ever, and we need narratives now of queers everywhere, of those who’ve gone to the city and those who have made communities where previously there were none, of queers thriving and creating the worlds they want to live in. There are so many people who haven’t had a chance to tell their stories, or to read stories that speak to them of their experiences. And those are the stories that light the path for the people coming behind us.

November 2015

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

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An Interview with David James Poissant

28 May
David James Poissant's debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, has a

David James Poissant’s debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, has a “rogue touch,” according to Rebecca Lee in a New York Times a review.

David James Poissant’s debut story collection The Heaven of Animals received a rave review in The New York Times. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.

To read an exercise on developing a rapport with readers and Poissant’s story “Stealing Orlando,” click here.

In this interview, Poissant discusses why there is no such thing as a timeless story and why directly addressing there reader is a natural convention in stories.

Michael Noll

The story does a couple of things that might get called “risky” in workshop. The first is that it directly references pop culture. Plus, it’s a very specific reference—Orlando Bloom in the film Elizabethtown. I’m curious what your thinking was about this reference. I guess you could have written, “My wife wanted to have sex with a famous movie star, so I stole a promotional cutout with his picture on it.” What impact does the specificity of the Orlando Bloom reference have on the story?

David James Poissant

In workshop, we often hear about concrete details, about specificity, about “no ideas but in things.” Then, when it comes to pop culture, we often hear the dictum about avoiding concrete or specific brand names and pop culture references. I think the theory here is that you can better give your fiction a “timeless” quality if you don’t pinpoint an era too specifically with the name of a TV show or song or actor, or whatever. Or else, some people feel that, acknowledging the American entertainment industry, you pollute your literary story with low culture stuff. I think that both of these are bogus reasons to avoid cultural references and time-specific touchstones. Even if you leave those things out, a story will never feel timeless. Let me repeat that: No matter how vague you are, you have no shot at creating a sense of timelessness.

Already, stories are marked by pre- and post-cell phone usage. Having cellular phones easily available to most residents of the Western world has dramatically changed how living writers shape plot and plausibility in contemporary narratives. If you have a character hurt in a car accident and have another character run for help instead of pulling out a phone, your reader won’t think, Oh, this is timeless! She’ll think, Oh, this must be set before 2000 but after 1920. Then, the reader will waste time and energy focusing on minor details and trying to ferret out clues that reveal the story’s time period more specifically. Point is, your story is always marked by time. And, besides, what makes historical fiction more “literary” than contemporary fiction set in the current time period? Also, look at the classics. The Great Gatsby is full of its time period’s pop culture. Great fiction doesn’t have to look away from reality. Instead, great fiction can grapple with reality, even if that reality is Hollywood (Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust) or pop music (Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine).

Michael Noll

The other potentially risky move is that the story directly addresses the reader: 

“I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no?
But I’m not going to tell you, not yet, because where’s the fun in that?
And also because read, you lazy motherfucker, read.”

I love that it sets out the stakes (will the marriage make it?), and I’m not sure if that could have been done so quickly without this passage. Was this passage always in the story? Or was it added in the course of revision? 

David James Poissant

One Story editor Hannah Tinti called The Heaven of Animals

One Story editor Hannah Tinti called The Heaven of Animals “Wild as two men wrestling an alligator, tender as a father stretching out on the floor next to his sleeping son.”

I love to address the reader directly. Think of Jane Eyre‘s “Reader, I married him.” I don’t know why this convention has been discouraged by some in contemporary fiction. Maybe because it sounds old-fashioned? I don’t know. But, in a sense, all stories are told, so all stories have an implied listener or listeners. Denis Johnson makes great use of this convention, addressing that “you” in both Jesus’ Son and The Name of the World, two of my favorite books.

As for foregrounding what’s at stake in a narrative, I think that some stories do better to set up the bowling pins on the first page, while some stories make great use of what screenwriters call a “slow reveal.” For this story, because it’s so weird and meandering at times, I wanted to put some heat on it and let the reader know pretty quickly what she’s reading for. I believe that those lines, or something close to them, emerged in the early drafts of “Stealing Orlando.”

Michael Noll

I’ve previously asked David Gordon and Melissa Falcon Field about writing sex scenes. Gordon uses a lot of specific details. Falcon Field focuses on what the scene means to the characters. You do something a little different. There are a lot of details, but they’re told in summary (“edible panties, sex toys, food, porn, food-porn, once the lubed length of a Harry Potter wand”). There’s a lot of lead up to the sex, but the sex isn’t actually shown. Was that always the case? Or did you write the actual sex and then think, in revision, “Hmm, maybe not?”

David James Poissant

I think that a lot can be implied when writing sex. I wanted to get the point across that there was an imbalance in these characters’ sexual appetites. I wanted to convey an energy and carnality that makes the narrator uncomfortable. But, I rarely want to make my reader unnecessarily uncomfortable. So, here, I decided that I could name some objects and ideas, then leave the sexual acts themselves to the readers’ imagination, rather than having to describe the sex acts themselves along with the implementation of those objects, etc. Additionally, trying to stay in character (when writing in first person) means saying what this guy would say and skipping over the parts he’d skip over. He probably wouldn’t go into too much detail if he was already kind of shy about what they’d been doing in the bedroom.

Michael Noll

I love the story’s ending, the way it jumps forward in time and then flashes back again. What made you save that final piece of dialogue between the characters for the end? Why not end it with “Some things, they end just this way”? To my ears, it’s not as nice an ending, but it could work. How did you know where to end it?

David James Poissant

First, thanks for the kind words. That ending, it was the hardest part of this particular story to get right. I played around with the end a lot and moved things around in the story’s chronology many times. The airport scene is the last scene that I actually wrote. I realized very late in the process that these two ought to have one more scene together. But, in the end, there was something more fulfilling about ending with the two committing to one another, even though we know that the commitment is doomed to fail. So, jumping around in time provides that tonal shift, or whatever you want to call it. The trick, then, was to avoid playing the moment for irony’s sake. I wanted to end on a note closer to melancholy sweetness than irony or cynicism. If I’ve hit that note with this ending, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

May 2015

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

An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field

7 May
Melissa Falcon Field's debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator's sudden isolation after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field’s debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator’s choices after finding herself suddenly isolated after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field is the author of the novel, What Burns Away. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter and a Bread Loaf fellow, worked as an inner-city teacher with Teach for America and AmeriCorps, and helped develop and pioneer the YEAR UP writing curriculum used nationally. Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines and journals, including Hip Momma: The Parenting Zine, Kaliope Literary Journal, The Portland Phoenix, Across Curriculums, The Austin American Statesmen, The Ballantine Books Reader’s Circle, The Hartford Courant, and The Maine Scholar. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her young son, her husband, and four chickens.

To read an exercise on creating tension in a story and an excerpt from Falcon Field’s novel, What Burns Awayclick here.

In this interview, Falcon Field discusses her approach to space breaks, love triangles, and sex scenes.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in your use of space breaks, something that a lot of beginning writers struggle with. For instance, early in the novel, you begin a passage with the sound of the narrator’s son waking her and then move into a flashback about the narrator’s childhood. When the flashback ends and the scene returns to the present scene with the son, the move is punctuated with a space break. The next section uses a similar structure: son as window to something else—in this case, the narrator’s husband. What is your approach to space breaks? Is it about thematic structure? Is it to help the reader avoid confusion?  

Melissa Falcon Field

In the novel, I use space breaks for a variety of reasons, first and foremost, as a way of showing readers a normal break in the narrative, but here, in the sections you reference, because so much of this early part of the novel toggles between back story and the present timeline, space breaks work to clarify those shifts, and they also serve to re-direct the reader in and out of Claire’s reflections, helping to avoid reader confusion with those time shifts. At other times, later in the novel, space breaks serve as a breather from the continual present time narrative, and allow Claire’s reflection and internal world to stand alone, giving them weight, and a wink a their importance, when punctuated by the space break.

Michael Noll

One of the so-called rules promoted by writing workshop is to eschew adjectives. However, your use of the adjective “steadfast” in describing the narrator’s husband (“the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft”) is pretty sharp, in part because it comes from a first-person narrator. The description of the husband is pretty spare. Besides this line, there is only one other descriptive phrase early on: “a new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist.” How did you approach this all-important description? Were you aiming for a particular attitude toward the husband?

Melissa Falcon Field

Great question, Michael. I would say that, in general, the eschewing of adjectives in a novel is to foster finer writing and to encourage streamlining of sentences, avoiding language that reads as clunky, or feels heavy. But when a confessional is being written, as it is here in What Burns Away, Claire is zooming in on her husband, observing him, and so those adjectives work to establish her voice and are the adjectives that she, as the narrator has chosen, thus giving the reader access to her perception of her husband, Miles, guiding the reader to view him within the portrait of their marriage. So, although I prefer to keep the use of adjectives relatively limited in my fiction, I do find them necessary in some places to invoke decisive descriptions in sections where the pacing needs to be slowed down, with intention, as it is in the sections you have pointed to here.

Michael Noll

The novel pretty quickly sets up the triangle between the narrator and her husband and her former boyfriend. Was it difficult to get both of those men into the novel quickly—to basically juxtapose them on the page? I’m curious how much revision was required to make that juxtaposition happen.

Melissa Falcon Field

That triangle was there in my earlier conception of the novel when I knew I wanted to write from the vantage point of a new mother, who feels like everything desirable about her has moved past. So it was my hope that by incorporating Dean, a former lover, juxtaposed with Miles, Claire’s absentee husband, I could better capture that moment in a woman’s life when she feels desperate to reclaim her girlhood-self, just as she realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, which in this case, forces Claire to decide what and who she must let go of, and what and whom she must hold close. Because the story is ultimately about the ways characters redefine themselves, I sketched out that triangle for the first draft very loosely. That said, it was Dean who I focused on first, as I worked to establish the backstory of the novel.  Later, in second, third and fourth drafts, I worked more specifically to redefine Claire inside her family dynamic and within her marriage, in relation to her husband Miles. And because the two male characters work in polar opposition, I was able to play-out Claire’s surrender, which is both brutal and transformative, and why I felt compelled to capture that tension of a love triangle in What Burns Away.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how writers handle sex scenes, and so I was interested in the flashback about the narrator’s first time with Dean, her high-school boyfriend. Other than a reference to rough palms, there’s almost no physical description. Instead, the passage focuses on what the sex and intimacy meant to the narrator. Did you play around with other ways of writing this scene? Did you always keep the physical description spare? 

Melissa Falcon Field

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

Sex that is any good is characteristically over the top, so I have always been more interested in redirecting readers beyond the obvious, toward the more unique secrets of the act, focusing on the minutia of rough palms, a freckle at the curve of a lover’s hip, or the tiniest bead of sweat on the tip of a nose. I did experiment with how to write those scenes, and at first it all read a bit more like pornography, which don’t get me wrong, has its place, but it wasn’t in that moment. So, I stepped back and thought more about the importance of that scene, which for Claire is a memory about desire and intimacy, and what being wanted felt like, so I focused on that, which is, after all what she has been missing and yearning for and what, in the end, gets her into big trouble, leading to later sex scenes with a more physical quality to them—cast into another kind of heat.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent years working as a teacher and writing coach. How does this work inform your writing? Writers often complain that the time demands that teaching places on them takes away from their writing, but given how much teaching you’ve done, I’m curious if you feel differently.

Melissa Falcon Field

Teaching, if you do it well, requires a huge amount of creative energy. But I love it. And, I do believe that for the most part, excluding midterms and final papers, it feeds my writing life. Over the years, teaching the craft and working along with my students, writing and revising and remembering how it is to first read, or conceive of a character, plot, or setting has been a source of great joy, and has always driven me to better hone my work and my ability to talk about narrative. Selfishly, I gain as much from the fresh perspectives of my students, as I give them back. It’s a wonderful kind of relationship, and one of the most important roles I play. And, I should also say that I would never have written a word without those who taught me, and the idea of being that person for someone else motivates me to read and write harder for my students, and to continue to learn more to be the best version of reader, writer and teacher for my students, as we all do the hard work together.

May 2015

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

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