Tag Archives: short story

An Interview with Liz Warren-Pederson

30 Nov
Liz Warren-Pederson's work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson, where she teaches writing and works in marketing at the University of Arizona.

In this interview, Warren-Pederson discusses dialogue, unlikable characters, and the moment when a narrator’s voice pops into your head.

(To read Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” and an exercise on speeding up dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

Dialogue is normally structured with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. But that’s not what this story does. Instead, chunks of quick, back-and-forth dialogue are included in the same paragraph. I’m curious about why you chose this structure. It seems to have a few effect: 1) It makes each piece of the dialogue less important than the banter itself, 2) It makes the dialogue read faster than if it was broken into separate paragraphs and 3) It makes the dialogue (both speakers) part of the narrator’s voice. In other words, it’s not so much dialogue as a story being told by the narrator. Did you play around with different ways of writing this dialogue?

Liz Warren-Pederson

I actually didn’t play around with the structure of the dialogue; it just came out that way. This story emerged over a couple of weeks nearly fully formed – I had a sense of done-ness about it without my usual agonizing rounds of revision. The choice to not use hard returns in the dialogue was deliberate but also instinctive, if that makes sense. I’d been admiring run-together dialogue in other writers’ stories for exactly the effects you mention. I think a lot about how to influence the way the writing sounds to others when they read it, by which I mean, I want them to “hear” it how I am hearing it. I use AP style for my work writing, and have a strong allegiance to stylistic convention, so dialogue like this is about as close as I get to experimentation as a fiction writer, at least structurally. But then, paradoxically, I’m an intuitive grammarian, so I’m more interested in using commas to, say, control speed of reading than correctly manage the joining of dependent clauses or whatever. Gah, it was all I could do to even mention dependent clauses. I try to think of them as little as possible.

Michael Noll

I love this sentence: “Then she went out to the garden in her Holly Hobbie hat and spent five minutes getting down into a kneeling position on this geriatric-looking green foam “gardening aid” I found in a Lillian Vernon catalog one night when I was looking for something, anything to read while I took a dump.” The sentence covers so much ground: hat, gardening aid, catalogue, taking a dump. In terms of structure, it’s not unlike the chunks of dialogue in that it compresses a lot of information into a small, dense package. Does this voice and style come naturally to you, or is it something you achieve through revision?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

This voice and style came naturally to me for this story in particular. Sometimes I have heard or read writers talking about how their characters “won’t shut up” or practically write the stories themselves, and this has always sounded and seemed like hokum to me. The Paris Review interview with Nabokov had a question about characters taking over, to which he responded that his characters are galley slaves—I love this. …but does it sound like I’m protesting too much? Because truly, one day I was driving home from work and the first line of the story popped into my head and then another line, and I had to kind of chant them to myself until I could get to a place where I could write them down. I think a great deal of writing happens in the subconscious, and when it’s ready to emerge, it will. Sometimes it does all at once, other times in dribs and drabs.

Michael Noll

Some seemingly-crucial information is left out of the story: the characters’ ages, the exact nature of their relationship, the exact nature of Cynthia’s health problems. We can guess some of this–but not all of it. Why did you choose to not make this kind of information explicit?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Those things were not what the story was about to me. I think that someone probably mentioned the omissions to me in workshop, but I was listening for whether my fellow writers got from the story what I intended, and by and large they did. I remember cleaning up a couple points of confusion in a revision, but the particulars you mentioned didn’t matter to me. I mean, it’s not a story about the pathology of a particular disease, you know? In workshop situations, especially when we’re trying to be good and thorough readers, we reflexively point to this type of omission, and pointing it out seems tantamount to calling it a problem. Lack of detail is kind of an impressionistic technique, and if the right impression is conveying, then I don’t think everything needs to be spelled out. I hasten to point out here that I’m probably the worst judge of what can and should be spelled out in my own work; I left those things out of this story because the direction of my workshop validated that decision. If they spent the whole workshop talking about how old the characters were, I’d figure something was seriously amiss.

Michael Noll

This story is about a broke middle-aged man in a relationship with an older, ill woman. In other words, it’s about a character who could be pretty unlikable–but he’s not. But neither is he “likable,” whatever that means. He’s interesting. But as I read, I thought of Claire Messud’s recent comments in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. The interviewer commented that she wouldn’t want to be friends with one of Messud’s characters, and Messud answered this way:

“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

How did you approach Gerald’s character? It seems like it’d be easy to make him purposefully unlikable and throw that in the reader’s face. Or, you could fill the story with trite, sentimental messages about growing old, dying, living, etc. Did you ever think, “Gee, I’m not sure how to write about this guy?”

Liz Warren-Pederson

Claire Messud’s gotten a lot of crap for having written an angry woman narrator, which I think is weird and limiting. In the same interview you mention, she said: “…it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” I’ve never had a problem accessing rage as a writer, but that I’ve channeled that rage into the first person narration of a man is telling. What it tells, I’ll let you decide. I really love Gerald. He’s such an asshole. But he kind of has to be, generationally and socially and culturally: he’s boxed into a specific worldview. His defense mechanisms are airtight; he doesn’t even turn off the bravado in his own internal monologue. To turn it off would be to admit how deeply he loves Cynthia and open himself to the pain of not only losing her, but also bearing witness as she wastes away. One of the things I intuited about Gerald from the very beginning, when those first couple lines came out of nowhere when I was driving, was his genuine love for Cynthia and his awareness of how skeptical people would be of it. Knowing that made him an easy character to write.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Ali Simpson

14 Nov
Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and works for X.

Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and is at work on a collection of speculative fiction.

Ali Simpson received her MFA in creative writing and literature from SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. In addition to The Southampton Review, her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.

In this interview, Simpson discusses maintaining the sense of enchantment, the heart in the story machine, and why a monster story can be more truthful than realistic fiction.

(To read Simpson’s story “The Monster” and an exercise about how to create that monster, click here.)

Michael Noll

In the story’s first line, you state that there’s a monster in the closet. In the next line, you write, “He shouldn’t have been there—she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job.” The rest of the paragraph lists all the reasons why the monster shouldn’t exist, and then the next paragraph begins, “So the monster came at the right time in her life.” It’s a really masterful piece of writing. You’ve let the readers off the hook, telling them, essentially, that, no, monsters can’t exist, but there’s one in this story, and that’s okay. How long did it take you to get that opening paragraph right?

Ali Simpson

I had to look at the paragraph from my first draft and the final version in order to be able to honestly say this: Up until the last line, the paragraph stayed exactly the same. The last line was the only part that is different—mostly a matter of cutting and smoothing out that first draft clunkiness that makes you write things like “she turned her head at a 90 degree angle in puzzlement…” rather than “Confused, she…”

The beginning was easy. It felt like a perfectly natural thing to write. There are all sorts of things out there that shouldn’t exist—but they do all the same. People accept a loved one has cancer, they accept mass shootings, they accept freak accidents, they accept random acts of cruelty. Telling someone, “This shouldn’t happen, but today, it is happening,” is life-stuff (and the beginning of a lot of great stories).The idea of a monster in the closet isn’t so outlandish.

What took a couple of months to get right was the middle and the end. Those were brutal. Maintaining the sense of enchantment even when the reader knows how the trick works is incredibly difficult, I can only think of a few people who have mastered it (Marquez, Atwood).

Michael Noll

In that same paragraph, the story suggests that the monster is, in part, a manifestation of certain monstrous qualities possessed by the character: “She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.” I’m curious if this parallel between the character’s personal issues and the real existence of the monster was always present. In other words, did you begin the story with the monster and discover the character’s issues, or did you have a sense of the character from the start and then discover the monster? As readers, we only get to see the final draft, in which all details seem serendipitously inevitable. But, of course, that’s not how a story begins. What was your process for developing the story?

Ali Simpson

By the way, the line in the question was the one that changed. It was originally this mess of three lines: “Those stories were just the ones outside of herself. Lauren told herself awful stories every night, some sad, some angry, some fretful and some far more humiliating than they should have been. The stories were her past and what she thought her future might be.” Awful, right?

As for the actual questions—I started with wanting to write about a monster in the closet. I like monsters, robots, mutants, apocalypses, utopias, and outer space. These things are fun, and they offer a candy store full of possibility. Unfortunately, the fun is a lie. You can’t get far writing about a monster in the closet without asking questions. Why is it there? Why isn’t the main character afraid of it? Why is she taking it in and caring for it? What sort of person is attracted to repellent things? Monsters, machines, extreme conditions—these are all vehicles for exploring what makes human beings tick. Inevitably, the ride turns scary. I developed the story through reflecting on the above sorts of questions. The monster showed up in this particular woman’s closet for a reason. In hashing out the first draft, I worked to discover that reason. Whenever Laura did something, the monster would have to react and vice versa—until the monster and Laura at last become “inseparable.”

Michael Noll

Your former writing teacher, Susan Merrell, recommended this story at Electric Literature. In explaining why, she wrote that, in this story, you figured out that “a story has to have a reason for being. And if a story’s why is understood by its author, then its how—the means, the mode, the POV, the structure, the characters—will fall into place.” What, would you say, is this story’s reason for being? How did you find out what its reason for being was?

Ali Simpson

Susie was very kind to me in that introduction. She is also a genius.

This story’s reason for being started out as something personal. Someone was very cruel to me a long time ago, and I felt as if I couldn’t do anything about it because, despite everything I had been told, I was a depressed ghost of a person. As I wrote, I understood that the events in the story did not happen to me, but to a woman named Laura, and, in reality, to millions of other people. The story is for other people who feel the same way I felt. Part of growing up and being human is recognizing that your feelings are not necessarily unique to you. Everyone has their monsters. And we all feed our gremlins after midnight.

I like to think of a story’s reason for being as “the heart in the machine.” The machine is all of the cold, moveable, sometimes interchangeable parts. The POV, the structure, the characters. The heart is whatever compelled you to sit down and stare at the blank page, to craft imaginary people who live in made up worlds, to construct emotion, desire, and conflict out of a few scraps of black and white.

You have to have a reason to attempt to do something so stupid. Generally, the reason is love.

Michael Noll

This story falls into a genre of story that is sometimes called “fabulist.” Its practitioners include writers like Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, and Kelly Luce. When I featured Kelly’s story “Rooey” on this site, I asked her why this type of story–one in which certain conventions of genre fiction are integrated into the worlds and language of realism–has become not only popular but esteemed. After all, Karen Russell just won a MacArthur, and she nearly won the Pulitzer. Here is what Kelly Luce said: “We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so.” (The entire interview can be found here.) How would you explain the prominence of these kinds of stories? What inspired you to write about a literal monster and not a figurative one?

Ali Simpson

I don’t agree with what Luce said above (although I find her complete answer to the question quite interesting!) The whole concept of extended adolescence always seemed a bit silly. I’ve been in the adult world long enough to know that most people are still scared, confused, jealous and a little bit petty. Also, no one buys that “be yourself” crap. Even little kids know that being yourself earns immediate approbation from the group. I don’t think people write fantastical stories based on whimsy or because they enjoy being weird.

If I had to offer a guess, I would say the prominence of these stories dates to the post-modern movement that began in the 60s. Along with the subversion of traditional narratives, writers also worked at reclaiming folklore and fairytale for the purposes of new kinds of storytelling. For the past few decades, I think many writers have felt that that fantasy and fairytales are true because these stories “know” that they are stories, whereas mediocre realism can feel like an illusion that is denying it is an illusion.

For me, writing about fantastical things such as monsters helps me get at the truth of what I’m trying to say. I’ve never been able to manage writing realistic fiction because I find myself slipping into the dishonesty of everyday life. For me, I have to look a monster—something not of this world—in the face in order to understand the world I’m living in.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Alex Perez

31 Oct
Alex Perez

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” appeared in Subtropics, the literary magazine of the University of Florida.

Alex Perez is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in SubtropicsGuernica, and Esquire. He lives in Miami, where he recently completed a novel.

In this interview, Perez discusses writing about class and race, listening to characters, puzzling out how to integrate backstory, and his pick for the next Nobel Prize.

(To read Perez’s story “Eggs” and an exercise creating the world of the story, click here.)

Michael Noll

In student stories, dialogue tends to be focused on plot (what is going to happen, who is going to do what). As a result, the characters can sometimes seem lifeless, like props being shuffled around as the story dictates. What I immediately noticed about “Eggs” is that the boys have something to talk about. Even when they’re a few blocks away from the house that they’re about to vandalize, they’re not talking exclusively about their plan. Instead they’re talking about basketball goals with glass backboards and thinking about how the houses look like castles. The narrator thinks that he’ll never live in a house with such big staircases. Even at the story’s climax, he’s thinking about class differences–which is fascinating and tells us so much about him and his world. Was the story always about class in this way? Or did you have to write a few drafts and let the boys have some random conversations and observations before you figured out what their concerns were?

Alex Perez

The story was always about class, but it took me a couple of drafts to figure out what it was really about: the realization that class exists. The concern, of course, was that a socioeconomic “theme” would be too on the nose, or too writerly, which is why it was important that the two main characters be teenagers. They were never going to have a nuanced chat about economic theory or politics. It was simple: “Look, a glass blackboard. I want a glass blackboard. I can’t have a glass blackboard.” They were awed and angered—like most young men—so the dialogue, as well as the rest of the story, is dictated by that point of view. Basically, remove yourself as much as possible. Become your characters.

Michael Noll

The opening of the story makes clear that race/ethnicity will play a big role. The first section ends this way:

“So get ready to egg the hell out of him.”

“And the white lady?”

“The white lady too.”

But, for the most part, whiteness and Cuban-ness don’t really get talked about. Instead, they get wrapped up in discussions of class. By the end, it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Near the end, just before the boys start throwing eggs, the narrator thinks about his father this way:

He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife.

This is a pretty powerful thought. It’s all about class and the narrator’s sense of his own worth and what he’s willing to do for money. It’s also, indirectly, about race/ethnicity. I’m curious how you developed this idea in the drafts. Was it a challenge to find the right way to approach tensions of race/ethnicity?

Alex Perez

Initially, race was going to play a big factor. Surely, I was thinking about writing a story that connects class and race and makes some grand statement. Thankfully, once the boys enter the neighborhood and notice the backboards and everything else, the story really hones in on what it wants to be. Once again, this is about point of view. The writer wanted to hammer together themes of race and class—searching for the proper balance or ratio—but the narrator was focused on glass backboards. I was smart enough to go along and allow the story to move in the direction it wanted to move in. I’ve learned the hard way that too much thinking—especially while writing—can destroy a story. Don’t question the choices a character makes. They know better. If it was up to me, I would’ve probably shoehorned more “race” into the story, but the characters were obsessed with “stuff” they didn’t have, which says everything that needs to be said about race and class and America, etc. They knew the proper ratio all along.

Michael Noll

The story takes place over a short period of time (the amount of time required to drive to a house and egg it). But the story does flash back to other moments in the boys’ lives (discovering their father’s affair, the day their father leaves home). Did the story always have that narrow frame? Or did earlier drafts try to span more time within the plot? In other words, did the story always begin with the boys in the car, on their way to the house, or did it begin earlier?

Alex Perez

I read a lot of stories that sputter along and take a few scenes to get going, so I always try to start a story with as much immediacy as possible. In “Eggs,” it seemed logical then to open with the boys in the car, the plan already in motion. We’re right there with them, listening in, wondering why they want to egg their father and this mysterious white lady. I also wanted the reader to feel like an accomplice, so trapping everyone in a car was the only way to go. The problem, as always, was what to do about the backstory. You can have chunks of backstory in a novel—such is the form—but short stories are all about forward progression. It was even trickier in “Eggs,” because the boys are in a car—literally moving forward—and I didn’t want the momentum deadened by the backstory. So the question was: to backstory or not to backstory? In the end, I realized that some history was indeed needed, so I had to write a couple of “background” scenes and somehow intersperse them into the narrative. Always a bastard, that backstory.

Michael Noll

In the spirit of the recent Novel Prize announcement, if you were able to give out an award for lifetime achievement in literature, who would you give it to? Which writer has most shaped both your conception of yourself as a writer and also your sense of what a good story/novel looks like?

Alex Perez

Philip Roth. Nobody does the combination of comedy and pathos better than Roth. I read Goodbye, Columbus, and that was it for me. His stories are fearless. He’s like Dylan in that they’re going to do whatever they want, and you either come along, or you don’t. That seems like the way to do it.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create the World of the Story

29 Oct
Alex Perez's story "Eggs" was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

The writer Ron Carlson says that every story has two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Another way of saying this is that the characters involved have concerns and obsessions that existed before the story came into their lives.

Alex Perez has created this fictional world beautifully in his story “Eggs.” It was published in Subtropics, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place. Perez does this by giving his narrator an attitude about certain aspects of his world: poverty and ethnicity.

Notice how the narrator immediately compares his mom to the woman his father is sleeping with:

“My mother, always working in the kitchen, never wore anything that called attention to her. This woman, this white lady, must have dipped her entire wardrobe in glaze or something.”

This class difference gets picked up in every section of the story. Even when the the narrator’s father moves out and the narrator and his brother drive to his new house to egg it, they’re thinking not just about their plan but the class distinctions that inform it:

It’s a testament to the craziness of a city like Miami, how all the hoods, rich and poor, are connected by the highway, but people only get off where they’re supposed to. But here we were, on the side of town all the immigrants wanted to get to. Ten minutes from our place, and this was the first time Ricky had seen driveways littered with the finest in German engineering.

“All the backboards are made of glass. Like the NBA,” he said.

“You haven’t played basketball until you bounce it off the glass,” I said.

One problem that many beginning writers have is a tendency to write only about plot. In their stories, once the plot gets rolling, nothing else appears on the page. But good stories move in and out of plot. They advance it for a while and then step out for a few moments to talk about something else. Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to absorb what is happening. Giving the characters in a story something to talk about besides the immediate plot also allows the story to gain meaning. It allows the story to have a paragraph like this one in which the narrator peers through the windows of his father’s mistress’ house and sees him rubbing her feet:

He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife. Maybe all those other women had been preparation for this moment, for the day that he’d finally make it to a house that justified his exodus all those years ago. I didn’t know, probably would never know, but I had to tell myself a story.

That passage that isn’t possible if the story doesn’t create its world and its characters’ attitude toward that world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a world and a character’s attitude toward that world, using “Eggs” as a model:

  • Describe two characters from the viewpoint of a third character. When Perez compares his mother to his father’s mistress, he notices the difference in their clothes, and it bothers him. You’re looking for those kind of distinctions that bother the third character. So, you may want to describe characters who are not equally close to the third character: a family member and a stranger, a close friend and an acquaintance, a spouse and a co-worker. We tend to associate ourselves with people from “our world” and who have similar attitudes toward that world—and we often judge harshly the people from other worlds. Here are some ideas for distinctions you can make: class, ethnicity, geography, education, intelligence, athletic ability, attractiveness, sexuality, or even just likability.
  • Put your third character into the world that isn’t his/her own. When Perez’s characters egg their father’s mistress’s house, they leave one neighborhood and enter another. Because class distinctions weigh so heavily on them, everything they see is seen through that prism: the basketball backboards, the bases on the baseball fields. What details does your third character notice as he/she enters the world that isn’t his own? The key is to find a plot mechanism that will force your character into a world to which he/she doesn’t belong.
  • Filter everything through the difference between the worlds. We judge others most harshly—or become most conscious of distinctions between us and others—when we’re upset. So, as you write the story and approach the dramatic high points, find ways to return to the distinctions you’ve created. In Perez’s story, the narrator looks into his father’s new house, aware of how much bigger and fancier it is than his own. But his feelings toward those differences have changed. Very often, the reversal in plot or the epiphany will be accompanied by a similar reversal or change in the way a character views the world you’ve created.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie

24 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest, she lives in Oakland, California.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story, “What We Left Behind” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest.

Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.

In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.

(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)

Michael Noll

This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?

Mũthoni Kiarie

When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?

Mũthoni Kiarie

I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Mary Miller

17 Oct
Mary Miller's debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture. A recent Publisher's Weekly review said that Miller has created a "narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers."

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture.

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, is finally out, and it’s already getting rave reviews. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote, “Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”

Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her collection of stories, Big World, was published in 2009 by Short Flight/Long Drive Books. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, she will return to Mississippi in the fall of 2014 to serve as the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. At this cool website, she discusses the stories she’s read lately.

In this interview, Miller discusses misunderstanding and subtext in dialogue and the challenge of transitioning from story writer to novelist.

(To read Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” and an exercise based on the story’s dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue in your story “I Won’t Get Lost.” The narrator has to explain gentrification to a man who’s never heard the term before. The basic premise of the conversation is weird–who hasn’t heard of gentrification. But instead of closing the distance between the two people (the man saying, “Oh, so that’s what gentrification is. Thanks for telling me”), the dialogue actually pushes them farther apart. By the end of this early portion, the man stops talking and takes out his phone to verify what he’s just been told. I’m curious how you approached this piece of dialogue. Our natural tendency is to make dialogue function as it does in the real world, which is toward understanding. Did you have to consciously make this dialogue work against that tendency, or did it move that way on its own?

Mary Miller

Thanks, Michael. This is a pretty much a conversation I had on the bus one day. I guess I thought it was odd, as well, because the gentrification discussion inspired me to write this story. And then it became more about the narrator, and how talking to this stranger made her feel exposed and self-conscious.

My natural tendency in writing is toward misunderstanding and confusion. When people speak to each other, particularly those who know each other well, there is typically a lot of subtext. I’m at home right now visiting my family, and when we talk I notice all of the things we aren’t saying, or how we’re saying one thing and meaning something completely different. In life, this kind of sucks, but it’s great for dialogue.

Michael Noll

The story’s title is “I Won’t Get Lost,” which is appropriate because every piece of dialogue, every internal thought, and every observation in the story is about dislocation and disconnection. Did you start with this theme in mind, or did it surface through various drafts of the story?

Mary Miller

I don’t think about theme when I write. I feel when something is coming together and creating a larger story, or when it’s not, but it’s not something I think about. I don’t ever want my writing to feel heavy-handed, for the reader to see me guiding him or her to some conclusion.

Michael Noll

Your first novel, The Last Days of California, will be published in January. It’s about a 15-year-old girl whose evangelical father takes her on a road trip across California to save as many souls as possible before the rapture. On one hand, a novel is always a big jump for a story writer, especially when the stories are often quite short, as yours sometimes are. On the other hand, a road trip novel has a unique structure: many short, sometimes disconnected scenes. Did you choose this structure on purpose? Was it a more manageable way to approach a novel for the first time? If so, that would seem like an awfully smart decision.

Mary Miller

Yes, yes, yes! I really don’t feel like I could have written a novel, at least not at the time, without this rigid structure. I had to keep moving the characters from Point A to Point B, which created a certain amount of tension. They’re behind schedule! They must keep going! They need to eat and use the bathroom and look at all of these odd things and people they’re coming into contact with… Each night, there’s a new motel, a new environment for them to explore. The structure certainly provided me a frame within which to work. It made it easier and more fun to write.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

15 Oct
Mary Miller's story "I Won't Get Lost" appeared at New World Writing, an online journal founded by former Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme.

Mary Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” appeared at New World Writing. Her novel, The Last Days of California, is out now from Liveright.

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

Mary Miller demonstrates how to write dialogue that moves away from understanding in her story, “I Won’t Get Lost.” You can read it now at New World Writing.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman riding a bus. A man asks her about the neighborhoods in the city, whether one of them is dangerous, and she says no, the area has been gentrified. Here is the conversation that follows, beginning with the man’s response:

What’s that?

Gentrified?

I’ve never heard of it, he says.

It’s when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and buy up all the houses and make them nicer. And then the property values go up and the poor people can’t pay their taxes and have to move out. He’s looking at me like I might be brilliant. It’s controversial, I add.

I’ve never heard of it, he says. Is that a real thing?

Yep, I say, gentrification.

I’m going to look it up, he says, and takes out his phone.

The dialogue begins with a simple question, which receives a simple answer. Normally, the natural, logical next step would be consensus. The man would say, “Ah, now I understand.” But that’s not what happens. First, he expresses disbelief. Then he steps out of the conversation in order to verify the answer on his phone. He is resisting the basic human impulse to agree. As a result, tension is created. In the next paragraph, the woman worries about her appearance. She’s disconcerted, and though the story doesn’t draw a direct line between the unresolved distance between the two speakers in the conversation, the discomfort is clear—and discomfort is one way to push a story forward, to create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that veers away from understanding using “I Won’t Get Lost” as an example. The dialogue in Mary Miller’s story is between a person of authority and one with questions. The woman has the authority of knowledge (she knows the local landscape and the definition of gentrification). The man doesn’t have this knowledge but wants it. Let’s do something similar in the exercise:

  1. Choose two characters, one with authority and one who is requesting something of that authority. You could choose someone with an authority of knowledge, like the woman on the bus in Miller’s story, or you could choose a literal authority (teacher, police officer, administrator, parent, preacher, politician, or someone with the authority that comes with a particular expertise such as a scientific researcher, engineer, or car mechanic).
  2. Choose a place for the dialogue to occur. Keep in mind the way that place can enhance or diminish authority. So, if the dialogue takes place in the person of authority’s office or workplace, that person’s authority is enhanced. But if the dialogue happens in public or in some version of the private sphere, the authority might be diminished. In other words, on whose turf is the dialogue taking place?
  3. Begin with a question or request. Miller’s story begins with a request for information: Where should the man go that isn’t dangerous? It’s a simple question that assumes the other person’s authority—the man asks the woman because she’s from the city in question and, therefore, knows where to go. So, in your story, consider what question might be posed to the person of authority. The question might be posed out of necessity or out of curiosity. You might try posing a couple of different questions until you find one that you like.
  4. Supply an answer. Let the person of authority respond to the question.
  5. Ask for clarification. Let the questioner ask about part of the answer. In Miller’s story, the man asks about gentrification, which was part of the answer to where he should go. In your story, you might let the questioner ask about a term used by the authority or the rationale behind part of the answer.
  6. Supply clarification. This one’s easy. Let the authority answer again.
  7. Ignore or deny the answer. This is where the dialogue swerves off track. The normal expectation is that if a question is posed and an answer is given, then some level of understanding has been achieved. But we’re actually aiming to avoid understanding. So, let the questioner refuse to accept the answer by denying it’s accuracy or rationale or by acting as if no answer has been given at all. (If you have kids, then you’re familiar with ignored questions and requests and the tension that creates.) In Miller’s story, the man essentially ignores the woman’s answer and seeks out the same answer on his phone.

Your goal in this dialogue is to break the societal expectations for a certain kind of exchange. We expect to be listened to, to have our expertise respected, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s as if civilization itself has, in some small way, failed. The best dialogue is not an argument but rather a conversation in which one of the sides denies the other side’s authority or right to speak.

Good luck and have fun.

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