Tag Archives: short story

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.

An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu

7 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the Japanese folktale and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, Bat City Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

To read Nagamatsu’s story “Placentophagy” and an exercise on defamiliarizing the familiar, click here. In this interview, Nagamatsu discusses first lines, his process for outlining stories, and why realism sometimes falls short.

Michael Noll

The story starts with a solid impact: “My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.” I’m curious about the genesis of that line. For some writers, first lines simply appear and the challenge is finding the story that follows, but I know others who start with a scene or an idea and then need to find a line to kick it all off. Was this first line always present in the story?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

For me, I like to do a lot of “writing” in my head long before I actually put any words down. I knew I wanted to write a story about Placentophagy but it took another week or so of thinking about the idea to attach a grieving couple to the practice vs. the story focusing on folk medicine and celebrity mothers who have eaten their placenta (i.e. Alicia Silverstone). Once I had the grieving couple tied to pieces of folklore, I knew I had the necessary emotional tension plus the fun facts that interested me to begin writing.

I believe first lines (and first paragraphs) are crucial to pretty much any story (but especially so for flash pieces where you need to draw the reader in, provide some kind of map of what the story will be about (even if only via tone), and establish character and world building in short order. As an editor, I want a story to provide the central characters, introduce a central tension, and do something unexpected and interesting within the first few lines. Don’t reveal all your cards certainly, but I don’t believe in messing with readers too much. Give them a map of an unfamiliar town. Give the reader something they can navigate as more information is revealed.

As a writer, I don’t continue with a story until I’m satisfied with at least the first few sentences. For this story, the first lines came pretty quickly (with other stories, it can be more of a slog . . . and sometimes I’ll think I have a first line I’m happy with until I finish the story and realize my first line is actually buried somewhere else b/c, as a writer, I was navigating to a destination just askew from where I thought I was going when I started).

This question has made me revisit many of my first lines. A few from my forthcoming collection:

Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of––no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love.

Our daughter, Kaede, has returned to us five years after the police fished her out of the community pool, her body sodden and distended like the carcass of a baby seal when I identified her in the morgue.

On our wedding day, you weighed 115 lbs. When you died, you weighed 97. You are now 8.7 cups of ash, and I figure I can make enough 1:25 scale figurines of you from what you’ve left behind, so we can see the world.

Michael Noll

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is "an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original," according to Pinckney Benedict.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is “an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original,” according to Pinckney Benedict.

Backstory is crucial to the present action in this story, but it’s handled in a quick, compact line: “Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.” Again, I’m curious how much revision was required to achieve such efficiency. Many of your other stories are quite long, which would seem to require a different process than a piece of flash fiction like this.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

When I conceive of a story or a character or a place that I think could contain some kind of world, I start with sketches and summaries. For a longer short story, this might take the form of a rough synopsis. For the novel I’m working on, these sketches might take the form of bulleted points which represent important scenes within an act. I knew from the get go that Placentophagy would most likely be a flash piece, so instead of thinking about my initial sketches as guidelines to be fleshed out later, I made more of a concerted effort to make my notes resemble lines that could potentially be included in the story. The line in question was born from knowing that I needed to capture the loss of a child. Instead of noting “enter scene of miscarriage,” I immediately played around with a couple of variations that captured the essence of this plot point. In other words, when I’m writing smaller and shorter, I inhabit the atoms that make up the molecules of a larger story’s architecture. I need to capture what’s going on at that level.

Michael Noll

I love the essay-ish section about the practice of eating placentas, but I can also imagine workshop readers advocating for it to be cut—because that’s the sort of thing that workshops do. How did you approach that section so that it moved the story forward?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Whenever I become fascinated with something and consider treating the topic in a story, I tend to be cautious because there’s a real danger that I might dilute forward motion and character with unnecessary minutiae. With that said, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with tracts of reportage and “essay-ish” writing in fiction so long as 1) the conventions of the story have been firmly established to allow for such asides (esp. if they are lengthy and a bit more detached from character) and/ or  2) the momentum for characters and the overall story are not completely lost or forgotten. For this section, considering the length of the piece, I knew I would have to pick and choose a couple of interesting facts, tie them to the emotional tension of my narrator, and quickly move on. The facts in this story, while certainly stepping outside of my main character, illuminate her research, as well as her relationship to her children and to her body, so if I chose, I probably could have added a line or two more without much lost momentum.

Michael Noll

When I first read this story, it seemed like a piece of horror fiction. Then, I read some of your other work, which involves science fiction situations and characters, and it all seemed to cohere as a single vision. Horror and sci-fi are obviously different genres, but both depend, to some extent, on defamiliarizing the familiar. Is that what attracts you to these types of stories?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Defamiliarizing the familiar is something present in pretty much all fiction. But to the degree of horror and fantasy and sci-fi (and its genre-bending cousins by various names: magical realism, slipstream, fabulism), the defamiliarizing is often illuminating aspects of reality whether that be racism or rampant consumerism via what many might consider obviously unrealistic, surreal, or fantastic.

I’ve long been a fan of literature and film that forces me to suspend my disbelief, that takes me to other worlds. I love these kinds of stories because I find them entertaining and imaginative. I love these stories because the primal part of me wants to be afraid, wants to use that fear. I love these kinds of stories because they force me to consider the gadgets around me and how they factor into who I am and who I’ll be 10, 20, 50 or more years from now. To quote the title of a Chan-Wook Park film (of Oldboy notoriety): I’m a cyborg, but that’s okay.

These kinds of stories are important and increasingly necessary because we live in complex times and sometimes “realism” falls far short of what we need to comprehend how fast we are evolving, how we process information, and how we define personal, cultural, and geographic borders and spaces. What we consider fantastical fiction used to simply fall in the realm of story or religion. Our stone age ancestors needed a way to understand and process the world around them. For countries who have had to deal with colonial and post-war transitions, the fantastical has become a vehicle where the distant native past and the unhinged identities of the present intermingle. Today we’re compounding these past relationships born from colonialism and warfare with globalization and technology.

Many of my stories are set in Japan. And for me, Japan is a unique case b/c it is a country that has had to reinvent itself multiple times over a short amount of time (notably in the 1800s when there was a push to westernize and again after WWII when the country shifted from military empire to technological and commercial super power). These shifts occurred so rapidly that Japanese culture & identity couldn’t keep pace, and you’ll note that creatures of Japanese folklore often share the stage with technology or modern society gone awry in anime, showcasing the tenuous relationship between the past and present. Akira was released nearly thirty years ago but has never been more relevant for Japan and the rest of the world.

In short, I’m drawn to and write in the realm of the fantastic because, for me, they are the stories that help me navigate the many spheres constituting who we are.

First published July 2015

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

How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange

5 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's story, "Placentophagy," was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy,” was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” What this means, in short, is that those stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. Think about the film The Shining. It transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. Of course, all writing can do this, not just genre fiction.

A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” It was published as part of Tin House‘s blog series “Flash Fridays,” where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

For some readers, the story’s title, Placentophagy, will give away the plot. But, I suspect most readers won’t immediately recognize or know the term, and so the moment of surprise happens a few seconds later, after reading the first sentence:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

In that single sentence, Nagamatsu manages to defamiliarize the familiar. The familiar: a body part (and, thus, something as familiar as can be). The unfamiliar: preparing the body part in order to eat it. It’s as simple as that: apply an unfamiliar context or action to something familiar. If you’re like me, there’s no way you won’t read the next sentence and the one after it. We’re hooked.

But now what? The story has made us pay attention to something we’d normally give no thought to: a placenta. How does it advance the premise?

First, it suggests ways to prepare the placenta:

Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko.

Then, the story adds a moment of doubt: will the characters eat it? The husband introduces the doubt:

“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”

That doubt gets extended into the preparation:

I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian.

The story now has different directions it can go: eat it or not. Prepare it this way or that way. But that’s not enough. It’s not until the next section that the story really advances the premise into something beyond shock value.

First, Nagamatsu introduces the medical rationale for eating a placenta:

Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone.

So, he’s made the unfamiliar into something as familiar as the medical text at the end of commercials for medication. He then takes this rationale and the fact that eating a placenta is something that does, in fact, happen, and makes it unfamiliar again:

The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree.

The story has advanced. It’s not simply a matter of will the character eat the placenta and, if so, how it will be prepared. Now it’s a question of will she eat the placenta and, if so, what will that action mean?

That final question of meaning makes the story so much more satisfying. It’s not simply trying to shock us but, rather, grappling with the eternal issue of how to be in the world, which is the question behind all great fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the familiar seem strange using “Placentophagy” by Sequoia Nagamatsu as a model:

  1. Pair something familiar with an unfamiliar context or action. You can do with this with absolutely anything. Here are some examples you’ve seen before: intelligent car (Herbie), flying car (The Absent-Minded Professor), killer car (Christine), and talking car (Knight Rider). In all of these, something familiar as a car is made unfamiliar with an adjective. The film Men in Black did this with Tommy Lee Jones’ car. It suddenly began driving on the roof of a tunnel, and Jones’ character put on a song by Elvis. The song, then, became defamiliarized. So, try this: pair a noun with either an adjective or a verb (eat) that wouldn’t normally be paired with that mount.
  2. Play with the possibilities of the premise. Nagamatsu does this by listing the ways the placenta could be prepared. If you’re using “flying car,” think of all the things a flying car could do. Yes, it can fly, but once it’s flying, then what? Where can it fly? What do the characters do while flying it? Utterly normal things like listening to music or looking out the window suddenly become strange.
  3. Re-familiarize the unfamiliar. Just as Nagamatsu uses medical terminology to make eating a placenta not so strange, you can make your premise less strange and more familiar. After all, if you fly a car enough, you get used to it. It’s not a big deal anymore. So, what would make your premise mundane again? Frequency? Social acceptability?
  4. Make it strange again. Nagamatsu adds the element of folklore: the idea that a placenta might be a spirit double. So, we’ve gotten used to one way of viewing the eating of a placenta. Then he introduces a new way of viewing it. So, what are other ways to view your premise. A flying car is awesome, for instance, until the atmosphere above one hundred feet becomes toxic. Or, a flying car gains new meaning if the ocean level rises and covers all of the land. Notice how this works: you’re shifting the background of the premise—the context. Nagamatsu shifts the context to Uganda, and suddenly the premise doesn’t look the same anymore. How can you shift the context of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Sarah Layden

23 Jul
Sarah Layden's novel Trip the Wires has been called "compulsively readable" and "a welcome antidote to despair."

Sarah Layden’s novel Trip Through Your Wires has been called “compulsively readable” and “a welcome antidote to despair.”

Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires and the winner of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an AWP Intro Award. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, The Evansville Review, Booth, PANK, and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth. A two-time Society of Professional Journalists award winner, her recent essays, interviews and articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, NUVO, and The Humanist. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana Writers Center.

To read Layden’s story “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” and an exercise on withholding plot information, click here.

In this interview, Layden discusses crime fiction and Gone Girl, lyric versus story impulses, and plot twists that cause readers to make Scooby Doo noises.

Michael Noll

The story begins with “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal,” but we don’t learn what he was accused of until much later, almost at the end. When that information arrives, it’s stunning. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about the retrial–the opening paragraph moves on from the trial so quickly. I think I may have made a Scooby Doo noise when I realized what I’d just read. So, I’m fascinated by this strategy of delaying the info. Did you always do that in the story? How did you approach the structure?

Sarah Layden

I know exactly the Scooby Doo noise you mean, and couldn’t be happier that the story elicited it from you. The structure of this piece was always in short vignettes, I think starting with three or four. Initially I’d numbered them, though the numbering was discarded later. Each vignette initially had some sort of tie to Genghis Khan, even if it was a distant link. It took several drafts before I started seeing what some of the connections were between the different parts. That first sentence about the retrial and acquittal was built into the last revision I did: I finally had a sense of the characters and what had –or had not—happened, and I realized that because the narrator had that information prominently in mind, that it should be prominent in the beginning, too.

Michael Noll

The story is doing something really interesting with Genghis Khan. At times, past and present blur together, as they do here: “We don huge fur hats and pound our utensils on the table. Bring us all that we desire, we growl, even if we don’t know what it is. We stab our meat with sharpened knives I pull from my purse.” I’ll admit that when I first read these lines, I was confused. But it was a good confusion. It was such an odd shift that I wanted to keep reading to figure out what was going on. But it’s a strategy with risks. How do you know when a passage is confusing in the good way as opposed to the bad way?

Sarah Layden

Having good readers is crucial to me for this very thing. When I began writing this, I was experimenting: I didn’t know what it would become. My friend Bryan Furuness, also a writer and editor, gave me early feedback that helped me see places where it was confusing rather than mysterious. Part of our conversation was about the lyric impulse versus the story impulse, and how they can work together. Early on, I was probably writing more toward the lyrical. As I revised, it turned more narrative. It’s funny that you mention past and present and the blurring of boundaries, because that does seem to be something that crops up in my work. My novel, Trip Through Your Wires, alternates between past and present, and concerns itself with memory. That interests me in fiction: a character wondering, in the Talking Heads song sense of the line, “How did I get here?” (By the way, one of my all-time favorite songs, “This Must Be the Place,” just came on. Talking Heads asks, Talking Heads answers.)

Michael Noll

In general, there are some amazing shifts of tone in the story. At one point, a paragraph moves from “flecks of charred flesh between his teeth” to “Genghis didn’t give a fuck about floss” to “Jengis was a guy who conquered and then didn’t call because he was high and playing Xbox and just, like, forgot.” I love this. Is it simply the stuff your creative mind is spitting out? Or is there a method to the madness? If not, how do you put yourself in the right mind frame to write prose that seems, at first glance, to move in idiosyncratic rather than linear ways?

Sarah Layden

Thank you. It’s definitely associative. The title, in fact, does come from a line I overhead in a café: “It was bad enough with Genghis Khan.” From there, I started thinking up links and connections and was writing in sections. Those sections took on their own voices, and at first I wondered if I was writing different characters. Instead, the story pointed to a narrator across different moments in her life. At times she’s mimicking the person she describes, as if trying to take on his perspective, to be the conqueror rather than the conquest.

I’ve always been a little bit of a mimic, and as demonstrated, a big eavesdropper. I love trying to recreate different voices and train my ear. I used to be a reporter and I strove to quote people accurately. What’s fun about fiction is stretching accuracy into a shape that fits a story. Or making it weirder, more complicated, and multi-layered than the thing that was actually said, such as an offhand remark about Genghis Khan.

Michael Noll

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend's death.

In Trip Through Your Wires, a new clue causes a woman to retrace the mystery of her boyfriend’s death.

You’ve published a novel, Trip Through Your Wires, that involves a murder and some uncertainty about a character’s culpability. Now, you have a story about an unsolved murder/disappearance. You’re working over material that is the heart and soul of the thriller genre. Do you ever consider going “full thriller?” Or, what’s the difference between your stories and those?

Sarah Layden

Unexpectedly, this does seem to be the material I’ve been returning to. I’ve read a little in the thriller genre, and it’s so intricately plotted and painstakingly resolved. I hesitate putting my work in with that type of craft, because I’m definitely a novice there. Someone described my novel as a “literary thriller” or “literary mystery.” I like that a lot, maybe because it gives me some wiggle room to focus on place, character, and scenes that drive the story forward, but not necessarily at a breakneck pace. Moments of being or reflection or ambiguity are definitely more characteristic of literary fiction than something shelved under Mystery, and I’ve been learning that mystery readers definitely want closure. And may be a little upset if you don’t give it to them.

Michael Noll

Out of curiosity, what’s your verdict of Gone Girl? At a writer’s conference last weekend, I heard two very different opinions about the book from people I respect. Care to weigh in?

Sarah Layden

I thought it was a terrifically entertaining read. The writing was fun, lively, and engaging. My sister passed it on to me when we were on vacation a few years back and kept asking me where I was in the story. I’d tell her what I thought was about to happen and usually was right or at least close. There’s a little reading thrill in confirming your predictions.

There’s been lots of criticism about the book and how it portrays women, and I’d like to reread it with that in mind. You certainly don’t want to reaffirm stereotypes of women as fakers and man-trappers (I’m trying not to spoil it for the three people who haven’t read it yet.) But as I remember it, both the male and female leads behaved with equal awfulness, thus leveling the playing field.

July 2015

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

How to Withhold Crucial Plot Information

21 Jul
Sarah Layden's story, "Bad Enough With Genghis Khan," appeared in Boston Review.

Sarah Layden’s story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” appeared in Boston Review.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, sleuthing along with Hercule Poirot, determined to solve the mystery before he did. I figured out pretty quickly that Christie was holding out on me, not showing me everything I needed to put the pieces together. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be a little bit shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information in order to create a surprise ending, but it’s not easy to do. Many times, the readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. The best shock is the one that seems to come out of nowhere, and this is exactly what Sarah Layden pulls off in her story, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” which you can read now at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The ending is suggested, though we don’t know it yet, in the story’s first sentence:

The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal, we went to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant for a celebration dinner with another couple.

Notice how smoothly that sentence operates. It begins with a trial and verdict and ends with Mongolian barbecue and a celebration. The rest of the paragraph is ostensibly about the meal and what happens to the other couple in the future (they get divorced). There is an emotional undercurrent present—the narrator gets drunk and starts to cry—but it’s not clear why she’s upset. (Remember, the trial only received half a sentence and hasn’t been mentioned again.) The next paragraph, which is its own section, moves onto a different situation. The trial is behind us.

The middle of the story uses different scenes and situations to develop a connection between sexual encounters and Genghis Khan, the infamous conqueror who raped and pillaged his way through Asia. Each of these scenes is compelling, but the relationship between them isn’t clear. We’re not sure where we’re headed, but lines like these have us intrigued:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Then, in the second to last second, we encounter this (spoiler alert):

When a young woman has lived an unharmed life, she is not so much naïve as incredulous at the threat of harm. No way will she wind up like the kidnapped and presumed-murdered girl who was about to inform on drug dealers; or the girlfriend knocked down the stairs in a fight and then dismembered, her limbs, head, and torso hidden in the walls; or the very young girl secreted to the hills above her family’s home, enduring daily rape by a man old enough to be her grandfather; or the teen runaway kept as a sex slave in the secret compartment of one man’s basement. I sat beside the judge’s bench and typed these words, transcribed these testimonies, remembering meeting my husband in the same courtroom: his arm in a sling over his police officer’s uniform, the gold wedding band on his finger both remnant and reminder, his eyes hooded. His missing wife’s body never turned up.

The passage seals the connection between sex and violence and then, in the middle of a sentence, finally returns to the trial we saw briefly at the beginning of the story. We finally learn what the narrator might have discovered in her husband’s Internet browsing history. It’s an effective move. When I first read the story, I actually gasped when I finished the line and realized what it meant. What else could a story possibly hope to achieve?

What makes the story great, though, is that it doesn’t stop there. In the final section, our discovery is given emotional resonance. The narrator is talking to a friend who says, “Never get divorced…it’s cold out here.”

The distance between that piece of advice and what we’ve learned about the narrator’s marriage is what gives the story the evil chill of great crime fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s withhold crucial information using “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan” by Sarah Layden as a model:

  1. Figure out the effect you want the story to have. In the case of “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” the effect is the shock of realizing that a woman has married a man who may have murdered his wife. The obvious way to approach this revelation would be to put the reader in the room with the narrator when she first learns that her lover’s wife has disappeared—or when she discovers clues to his misdeeds on his computer. But if the point is to shock the reader (and not the narrator), then the revelation doesn’t need to occur in the moment that it happens for the narrator. In fact, because it happens in a passage about something else, it becomes that much more shocking. So, what will your readers find shocking or funny or heartwarming or poignant in your story? That’s the moment we’re going to surprise them with.
  2. Write a sentence that clearly states the shocking/funny/poignant moment. For example, Layden could have written this: “The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal for murdering his wife, we went to a Mongolian barbecue.” Notice how the sentence doesn’t end with the shocking thing but uses it as the catalyst for something else: This, then this. You can use this structure for any situation, for instance this one: “The week after I farted loudly during my own wedding, people cheered and high-fived me when they saw me around town.” Try it. Write a sentence that states the shocking/funny/poignant thing and then moves on to whatever comes next.
  3. Edit out the best part of the sentence. In Layden’s case, this is the fact that the guy was on trial for murdering his wife. In my example, I’d cut the fart and leave this: “The week after my wedding, people cheered…” The sentence operates just fine without the excised information. We’re being shown the same scene, just without one detail.
  4. Find a moment to slip the detail back into the story. Because you’ve already shown the readers the scene, you’re relieved of the obligation to convey the detail in scene. Instead, it can show up anywhere. This is what Layden does so masterfully. She writes a passage about other instances of sexual violence and then adds another to the list—which just happens to be connected to her. I could do the same thing with my example: write a passage about other farts or other embarrassing moments and then add in this particular moment. So, give it a try. Write a passage that lists moments (not necessarily experienced by the same people, just connected in some way) and then add in the detail that you’ve been withholding.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu

16 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s forthcoming debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture.

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming Japanese folktale and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, Bat City Review, Fairy Tale Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and a visiting assistant professor at The College of Idaho.

To read Nagamatsu’s story “Placentophagy” and an exercise on defamiliarizing the familiar, click here. In this interview, Nagamatsu discusses first lines, his process for outlining stories, and why realism sometimes falls short.

Michael Noll

The story starts with a solid impact: “My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.” I’m curious about the genesis of that line. For some writers, first lines simply appear and the challenge is finding the story that follows, but I know others who start with a scene or an idea and then need to find a line to kick it all off. Was this first line always present in the story?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

For me, I like to do a lot of “writing” in my head long before I actually put any words down. I knew I wanted to write a story about Placentophagy but it took another week or so of thinking about the idea to attach a grieving couple to the practice vs. the story focusing on folk medicine and celebrity mothers who have eaten their placenta (i.e. Alicia Silverstone). Once I had the grieving couple tied to pieces of folklore, I knew I had the necessary emotional tension plus the fun facts that interested me to begin writing.

I believe first lines (and first paragraphs) are crucial to pretty much any story (but especially so for flash pieces where you need to draw the reader in, provide some kind of map of what the story will be about (even if only via tone), and establish character and world building in short order. As an editor, I want a story to provide the central characters, introduce a central tension, and do something unexpected and interesting within the first few lines. Don’t reveal all your cards certainly, but I don’t believe in messing with readers too much. Give them a map of an unfamiliar town. Give the reader something they can navigate as more information is revealed.

As a writer, I don’t continue with a story until I’m satisfied with at least the first few sentences. For this story, the first lines came pretty quickly (with other stories, it can be more of a slog . . . and sometimes I’ll think I have a first line I’m happy with until I finish the story and realize my first line is actually buried somewhere else b/c, as a writer, I was navigating to a destination just askew from where I thought I was going when I started).

This question has made me revisit many of my first lines. A few from my forthcoming collection:

Mayu called me from the train car that Godzilla had grabbed hold of––no screaming or sobbing, no confessions of great regrets, no final professions of love.

Our daughter, Kaede, has returned to us five years after the police fished her out of the community pool, her body sodden and distended like the carcass of a baby seal when I identified her in the morgue.

On our wedding day, you weighed 115 lbs. When you died, you weighed 97. You are now 8.7 cups of ash, and I figure I can make enough 1:25 scale figurines of you from what you’ve left behind, so we can see the world.

Michael Noll

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is "an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original," according to Pinckney Benedict.

Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is “an exhilarating debut that serves up every guilty-pleasure pop-culture satisfaction one could hope for while simultaneously reframing and refashioning those familiar low-art joys into something singular, unanticipated, and entirely original,” according to Pinckney Benedict.

Backstory is crucial to the present action in this story, but it’s handled in a quick, compact line: “Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.” Again, I’m curious how much revision was required to achieve such efficiency. Many of your other stories are quite long, which would seem to require a different process than a piece of flash fiction like this.

Sequoia Nagamatsu

When I conceive of a story or a character or a place that I think could contain some kind of world, I start with sketches and summaries. For a longer short story, this might take the form of a rough synopsis. For the novel I’m working on, these sketches might take the form of bulleted points which represent important scenes within an act. I knew from the get go that Placentophagy would most likely be a flash piece, so instead of thinking about my initial sketches as guidelines to be fleshed out later, I made more of a concerted effort to make my notes resemble lines that could potentially be included in the story. The line in question was born from knowing that I needed to capture the loss of a child. Instead of noting “enter scene of miscarriage,” I immediately played around with a couple of variations that captured the essence of this plot point. In other words, when I’m writing smaller and shorter, I inhabit the atoms that make up the molecules of a larger story’s architecture. I need to capture what’s going on at that level.

Michael Noll

I love the essay-ish section about the practice of eating placentas, but I can also imagine workshop readers advocating for it to be cut—because that’s the sort of thing that workshops do. How did you approach that section so that it moved the story forward?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Whenever I become fascinated with something and consider treating the topic in a story, I tend to be cautious b/c there’s a real danger that I might dilute forward motion and character with unnecessary minutiae. With that said, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with tracts of reportage and “essay-ish” writing in fiction so long as 1) the conventions of the story have been firmly established to allow for such asides (esp. if they are lengthy and a bit more detached from character) and/ or  2) the momentum for characters and the overall story are not completely lost or forgotten. For this section, considering the length of the piece, I knew I would have to pick and choose a couple of interesting facts, tie them to the emotional tension of my narrator, and quickly move on. The facts in this story, while certainly stepping outside of my main character, illuminate her research, as well as her relationship to her children and to her body, so if I chose, I probably could have added a line or two more without much lost momentum.

Michael Noll

When I first read this story, it seemed like a piece of horror fiction. Then, I read some of your other work, which involves science fiction situations and characters, and it all seemed to cohere as a single vision. Horror and sci-fi are obviously different genres, but both depend, to some extent, on defamiliarizing the familiar. Is that what attracts you to these types of stories?

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Defamiliarizing the familiar is something present in pretty much all fiction. But to the degree of horror and fantasy and sci-fi (and its genre-bending cousins by various names: magical realism, slipstream, fabulism), the defamiliarizing is often illuminating aspects of reality whether that be racism or rampant consumerism via what many might consider obviously unrealistic, surreal, or fantastic.

I’ve long been a fan of literature and film that forces me to suspend my disbelief, that takes me to other worlds. I love these kinds of stories because I find them entertaining and imaginative. I love these stories because the primal part of me wants to be afraid, wants to use that fear. I love these kinds of stories because they force me to consider the gadgets around me and how they factor into who I am and who I’ll be 10, 20, 50 or more years from now. To quote the title of a Chan-Wook Park film (of Oldboy notoriety): I’m a cyborg, but that’s okay.

These kinds of stories are important and increasingly necessary because we live in complex times and sometimes “realism” falls far short of what we need to comprehend how fast we are evolving, how we process information, and how we define personal, cultural, and geographic borders and spaces. What we consider fantastical fiction used to simply fall in the realm of story or religion. Our stone age ancestors needed a way to understand and process the world around them. For countries who have had to deal with colonial and post-war transitions, the fantastical has become a vehicle where the distant native past and the unhinged identities of the present intermingle. Today we’re compounding these past relationships born from colonialism and warfare with globalization and technology.

Many of my stories are set in Japan. And for me, Japan is a unique case b/c it is a country that has had to reinvent itself multiple times over a short amount of time (notably in the 1800s when there was a push to westernize and again after WWII when the country shifted from military empire to technological and commercial super power). These shifts occurred so rapidly that Japanese culture & identity couldn’t keep pace, and you’ll note that creatures of Japanese folklore often share the stage with technology or modern society gone awry in anime, showcasing the tenuous relationship between the past and present. Akira was released nearly thirty years ago but has never been more relevant for Japan and the rest of the world.

In short, I’m drawn to and write in the realm of the fantastic because, for me, they are the stories that help me navigate the many spheres constituting who we are.

July 2015

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

How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange

14 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's story, "Placentophagy," was published at Tin House and will be included in his forthcoming collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy,” was published at Tin House and will be included in his forthcoming collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” What this means, in short, is that those stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. Think about the film The Shining. It transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. Of course, all writing can do this, not just genre fiction.

A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” It was published as part of Tin House‘s blog series “Flash Fridays,” where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

For some readers, the story’s title, Placentophagy, will give away the plot. But, I suspect most readers won’t immediately recognize or know the term, and so the moment of surprise happens a few seconds later, after reading the first sentence:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

In that single sentence, Nagamatsu manages to defamiliarize the familiar. The familiar: a body part (and, thus, something as familiar as can be). The unfamiliar: preparing the body part in order to eat it. It’s as simple as that: apply an unfamiliar context or action to something familiar. If you’re like me, there’s no way you won’t read the next sentence and the one after it. We’re hooked.

But now what? The story has made us pay attention to something we’d normally give no thought to: a placenta. How does it advance the premise?

First, it suggests ways to prepare the placenta:

Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko.

Then, the story adds a moment of doubt: will the characters eat it? The husband introduces the doubt:

“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”

That doubt gets extended into the preparation:

I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian.

The story now has different directions it can go: eat it or not. Prepare it this way or that way. But that’s not enough. It’s not until the next section that the story really advances the premise into something beyond shock value.

First, Nagamatsu introduces the medical rationale for eating a placenta:

Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone.

So, he’s made the unfamiliar into something as familiar as the medical text at the end of commercials for medication. He then takes this rationale and the fact that eating placentas is something that does, in fact, happen, and makes it unfamiliar again:

The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree.

The story has advanced. It’s not simply a matter of will the character eat the placenta and, if so, how it will be prepared. Now it’s a question of will she eat the placenta and, if so, what will that action mean?

That final question of meaning makes the story so much more satisfying. It’s not simply trying to shock us but, rather, grappling with the eternal issue of how to be in the world, which is the question behind all great fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the familiar seem strange using “Placentophagy” by Sequoia Nagamatsu as a model:

  1. Pair something familiar with an unfamiliar context or action. You can do with this with absolutely anything. Here are some examples you’ve seen before: intelligent car (Herbie), flying car (The Absent-Minded Professor), killer car (Christine), and talking car (Knight Rider). In all of these, something familiar as a car is made unfamiliar with an adjective. The film Men in Black did this with Tommy Lee Jones’ car. It suddenly began driving on the roof of a tunnel, and Jones’ character put on a song by Elvis. The song, then, became defamiliarized. So, try this: pair a noun with either an adjective or a verb (eat) that wouldn’t normally be paired with that mount.
  2. Play with the possibilities of the premise. Nagamatsu does this by listing the ways the placenta could be prepared. If you’re using “flying car,” think of all the things a flying car could do. Yes, it can fly, but once it’s flying, then what? Where can it fly? What do the characters do while flying it? Utterly normal things like listening to music or looking out the window suddenly become strange.
  3. Re-familiarize the unfamiliar. Just as Nagamatsu uses medical terminology to make eating a placenta not so strange, you can make your premise less strange and more familiar. After all, if you fly a car enough, you get used to it. It’s not a big deal anymore. So, what would make your premise mundane again? Frequency? Social acceptability?
  4. Make it strange again. Nagamatsu adds the element of folklore: the idea that a placenta might be a spirit double. So, we’ve gotten used to one way of viewing the eating of a placenta. Then he introduces a new way of viewing it. So, what are other ways to view your premise. A flying car is awesome, for instance, until the atmosphere above one hundred feet becomes toxic. Or, a flying car gains new meaning if the ocean level rises and covers all of the land. Notice how this works: you’re shifting the background of the premise—the context. Nagamatsu shifts the context to Uganda, and suddenly the premise doesn’t look the same anymore. How can you shift the context of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

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