Tag Archives: Southern Fiction

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.

An Interview with Joe Lansdale

5 Sep
Joe Landale is the author of many novels and stories, including the Hap and Leonard mystery novels and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep. His latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10.

Joe Landale latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10. If you’re in Austin, you can see Lansdale in person at BookPeople on September 12.

Joe Lansdale is one of the most versatile and peculiar writers in American literature. He’s written a popular mystery series (Hap and Leonard) whose detectives are a white East Texas rose picker who spent time in prison as a conscientious objector and his best friend, a gay, black veteran. Lansdale has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association eight times. He’s also written for comic books, television, and movies, and his work has been turned into the films Bubba Ho-Tep (which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch tonight) and, coming soon, Cold in July. His latest novel is The Thicket, a suspense novel set in The Big Thicket in East Texas. If you live in Austin, you can see him read from the book in person on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at BookPeople.

In this interview, Lansdale discusses voice, writing “historical” fiction, and what it means to write about East Texas.

(To read an excerpt from Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket and an exercise on voice and first sentences, click here.)

Michael Noll

The first sentence of the novel lists all the things that will happen in the story. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers try something similar, and the sentences rarely work because they feel manipulative, like the language is trying too hard to get my attention. But this sentence is wonderful. It’s such an absurd list of events, and they’re related so matter-of-factly. How did you approach this sentence?

Joe Lansdale

I’m not overly conscious of it and mostly just try to write something from the subconcious where the story is hidden. But the subconscious mind knows, and I let it be my guide.

Michael Noll

I’m from rural Kansas, where people, especially old farmers, tend to have a colorful way of talking. My siblings and I actually play a game, trying to think of all the crazy lines we’ve heard our dad or grandfather say. So, that’s why I love this line from your novel: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” That’s maybe the funniest thing I’ve read in a novel in a long time. I’m curious if you made that line up, or if it’s something you’ve heard. In general, you’re so good at writing that rural voice. How much work does it take to maintain it for an entire novel?

Joe Lansdale

It’s a saying I heard growing up. People here, especially generations previous, spoke that way naturally. I’m very comparison-oriented as a writer and speaker. I pay attention even when I don’t know I am. I absorb more than I collect.

Michael Noll

The novel is set one hundred years ago–which seems like a risky move as a writer. So many books set in the past are stifling to read. The characters don’t seem like fresh creations, or the writers try to mimic an old-fashioned way of talking. How did you avoid those problems? At one point, I forgot the time period and thought I was reading something set in the present.

Joe Lansdale

I tried to capture the period without it capturing me. I did allow an old style of speaking to seep in, but I never let it own the story. Shorty has a very stylized way of speaking, and even his contemporaries find it odd.

Michael Noll

You’re a Texas writer–born in Texas, live there, and set many of your books there. As a literary setting, Texas often gets used as a platform for big, sweeping sagas about America. Your work doesn’t really do that, though. It’s funny, where often those books aren’t, and the characters are intensely idiosyncratic, rather than symbols for some larger idea–even though, as in the case of The Thicket, the story is set at a time of significant change. Is this because you write about East Texas, which lacks some of the mythic quality of the Old West and West Texas? Or does it have to do with your conception of how to tell a story? What do you think?

Joe Lansdale

I think East Texas is mythic, but more in an Old South way, mixed with some Western, and cajun, black, and more recently, Hispanic culture. I write out of the mythic and tall tale tradition, actually. Love it. Greek myths are a big part of my background.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Barry Hannah Reads “Water Liars”

5 Jul
Barry Hannah's story "Water Liars" is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun. Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

Barry Hannah’s story “Water Liars” is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun. You can listen to Hannah read the story here at Wired for Books.
Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

Barry Hannah was one of the funniest writers of the last half century, but if you’re new to his work, you might not catch the humor. Thanks to a heads up from the writer Marc Watkins, I’ve found an audio clip of Hannah reading his story “Water Liars.” You can also listen to Don Swaim interview the master of Southern Lit, courtesy of Wired for Books. (If you’re using a Mac, you’ll need to download RealPlayer for Mac.)

(For an exercise based on “Water Liars” and a, perhaps, surprising perspective on the story via Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” click here.)

How to Write a Story About Storytelling

2 Jul
Barry Hannah's story "Water Liars" is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun. Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

Barry Hannah’s story “Water Liars” is from his collection Airships and was republished recently at Garden and Gun.
Photo credit Maude Schuyler Clay

At one point or another, most of us will try to turn one of our grandparents’ tall tales into a novel or a short story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude as an attempt to capture his grandmother’s way of telling a story. But unless we’re Marquez, the task is almost always more difficult than we expect. We often discover that what captivated us was the voice of the storyteller, and so after we’ve written a few sentences or pages, we come to a dead end because there’s no plot, no story to tell. So what do we do?

No writer has better answered that problem than Barry Hannah. His stories are dominated by his idiosyncratic voice. The plots are thin, sometimes nonexistent, and yet they draw us in anyway. For a perfect example of his storytelling gifts—and an example of a story about people telling stories—take a look at “Water Liars.” It’s from his collection Airships, and you can read it here at Garden and Gun.

How the Story Works

The story begins with the unpredictable bursts of a troubled mind that typify a story by Barry Hannah. If you try charting out the early paragraphs, you might feel as though there’s no structure or sense to them. But keep reading, and the story becomes quite simple: a man goes on vacation to a lake where old men tell tall tales, and one of those stories bothers him a lot. That’s the entire story. Nothing else happens. So how does Hannah make it work?

The answer can be found in two sentences: “I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it” and “I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.”

The narrator has discovered that his wife slept with other men before him, and not only does the news bother him, he’s also bothered by the fact that he’s bothered by it. As a result, the story becomes less about his wife and more about the narrator trying to understand his reaction to his discovery about her. That is the mental state that he brings to the dock where the old men tell their stories. When they begin to talk about the teenagers who come down to the lake to have intercourse, the narrator thinks about his wife and realizes that his way of thinking about her isn’t acceptable there, beside the lake, with that group of men. He realizes that he’s not like them.

The story is about self-discovery. It’s not so different from this line from Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”:

“As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”

The narrator of “Water Liars” has discovered the house of difference between him and the other men. The fact that one can quote a black, lesbian, feminist poet to explain “Water Liars” is, itself,  an explanation of the greatness of Barry Hannah.

The Writing Exercise

Here’s a simple exercise to help create a story about self-discovery:

  1. Create a character who has recently experienced trauma. The trauma could be an experience, or it could be, as in “Water Liars,” a discovery.
  2. Let the character struggle to recover from the trauma.
  3. Put the character into a scene with people who are talking and telling stories. Let them tell stories that are indirectly related to the trauma. For example, in “Water Liars,” the old men start out telling ghost stories, and those stories take a sexual turn.
  4. Let the character realize that his/her own experience doesn’t fit with the tone of these stories. Or, as Audre Lorde puts it, the character will begin to understand the “house of difference” between him/her and the others.

Remember, you don’t need to resolve the character’s struggle to cope with the trauma. The narrator of “Water Liars” find little comfort by the story’s end. But he does come to a realization, and that realization, or epiphany, is what the story has been building to.

Good luck.

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