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An Interview with Nicole Haroutunian

2 Apr
Nicole Haroutunian's debut collection, Speed Dreaming, has been called

The Paris Review blog compared Nicole Haroutunian’s debut collection, Speed Dreaming, to the HBO hit Girls: “Her protagonists, all women, admit to melodrama, but they go one step further than the characters in Girls in that they question what’s behind their woe-is-me antics.

Nicole Haroutunian’s short fiction has appeared in the LiterarianTin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 BrooklynTwo Serious Ladies, and other publications. Her short story “Youse” was the winner of the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Short Story Contest. She is coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York, works as a museum educator, and lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. Her first story collection, Speed Dreaming, was recently published by Little A.

To read an exercise on showing dramatic elements twice and her story, “Youse,” click here.

In this interview, Haroutunian discusses the inspiration for her story, “Youse,” the process of revising a published story for inclusion in a collection, and one possible difference between literary and young adult fiction.

Michael Noll

“Youse” is a story that could have gone in a very different direction. We could have seen Margaret the way other people see her, as an object of pity, but the story doesn’t allow that view. Was it difficult to avoid sliding into that perspective, or did the story always see the world so firmly through Margaret’s eyes that pity wasn’t a possibility?

Nicole Haroutunian

As is often the case, I had to trick myself into starting this story with a self-devised writing exercise. I work as a museum educator at, among other places, the American Folk Art Museum. One of my favorite branches of the collection is schoolgirl art—amazing samplers, embroideries and watercolors done by 18th-19th century schoolgirls. Some of this work takes the shape of mourning drawings—ritualized drawings made to commemorate a death. I chose a selection of schoolgirl art, wrote descriptions of each work, and then tried to weave a contemporary story around those descriptions, with each new scene sparked by another artwork. One of the first paragraphs I wrote was about a mourning drawing created for the artist’s father, hence Margaret’s father’s death. Eventually, Margaret’s story took shape and the framework could be excised; there’s no explicit trace of the art in the story now. My residual positive associations with schoolgirl art still come through, though; these girls exhibited such strength, personal vision and insightfulness—I transferred those feelings onto, or into, Margaret. Of course it’s possible to feel pity for the schoolgirl artists—they dealt with a lot of death and had to live within the parameters of a pretty circumscribed life—but they also had a lot of privilege. The same is true of Margaret. At least half of the adversity she faces is of her own making and comes from a place of privilege, so although I have empathy for her, it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of heavy material: a dead father, catcalling from some pretty sketchy guys, and a trade of sexual favors for exam answers. How did you manage to keep all those balls in the air, so to speak? Did you ever wonder if you’d included too much for a single story?

Nicole Haroutunian

I see this story as being about the relationships between a pair of teen girls and their mothers. All the material you mention is there to serve the tension in and development of these relationships. So it didn’t feel like too much to me because the central concerns of the story seemed fairly straightforward in the midst of all the drama.

Michael Noll

The ending is lovely, a very small and intimate moment. Did you always have it in mind? Or did it occur to you as the story came together?

Nicole Haroutunian

Following from my last answer, it took me many, many drafts to decide which relationship was truly at the center of the story—Margaret and Joanna or Margaret and her mother. When I finally decided it was Margaret and her mother, I knew I wanted the last moment of the story to be between the two of them. When the story was originally published in the Literarian, a few things were different—the major one is that it was set in the 2010s rather than the 1990s (I knocked it back fifteen years so that it was plausible, in the context of my collection, that Margaret could grow up to become Meg, the protagonist of a few other stories). The last few lines, though, are in a slightly different order. It’s really subtle, but I think it does change the ending for the better.

Michael Noll

Since the story is about teenagers, I’m curious about how you would categorize your fiction. I’ve heard of writers who write a book that they imagine is literary fiction and then an agent says, no, this should sell as a young adult novel. (This happened with Margo Rabb’s forthcoming Kissing in America.) Do you think about these distinctions at all? Do you think there’s a difference?

Nicole Haroutunian

Before last summer, when I worked as a teaching artist for a book club summer camp for 9-13 year olds, I hadn’t read much, if any, young adult literature since I was a teenager. I’ve still read very little, so I don’t say this with a lot of confidence, but what I thought I noticed is that often the reader has to do less work when reading young adult literature and more work when reading literary fiction. YA books are forthcoming in a way that my stories aren’t. There’s more overt emotion, plot and resolution; there’s less ambiguity. In literary fiction, there’s often a lot of room for readers to make their own meaning. To me, it’s not about how old the characters in the story are, but how the fiction is written. I don’t think this is true in every case, of course, and it’s also not a value judgment. Some of my literary touchstones for this story were Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, both of which I think are sometimes categorized as YA, but don’t read that way for me despite being about teenagers. I think a young reader would probably find “Youse” a little, or a lot, boring. It ends with the implication that someone is about to take a sip from a glass; a teenager would probably expect a little more in the way of payoff.

April 2015

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

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Why a Story Should Show Its Dramatic Elements Twice

31 Mar
Nicole Haroutunian's story, "Youse," was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse,” was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming, and was published at The Literarian, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Showing moments twice in a story gives you the opportunity to create parallels. In life, we tend to see something and then react when we see it again because the first experience has stayed with us. In fiction, letting this happen gives characters a chance to reveal more complex sides of themselves. It also provides a sense of depth of vision. The statue of liberty, for instance, might look small if shown by itself, but when a tourist is standing in front of it, you perceive its actual size. The same can be true for stories.

Haroutunian’s story contains two scenes with the same bronze SUV. The first time it appears, the main character, Rae, is walking home from school with her friend, Joanna:

The man inside yells, “How about youse sit on my dick?”

That’s the end of it. The man drives off. What’s more important is the girls’ reactions:

“Did he say ‘youse’?” Rae asks, shuddering.

Joanna rubs her arms as if she’s showering. “Dirty,” she says. “Bad grammar makes me feel dirty.”

“I bet he’s married,” Rae says. “My dad never believes me when I say that men do that. He can’t conceive of it.”

The scene ends with this bit of foreshadowing:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the dude to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). It begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

The scene diverges from the first one in how the girls react:

Rae does not want to hear the rest of his sentence. “How about we fucking kill you?” she yells, kicking her foot in the direction of the car.

“I’m going to scream,” Joanna murmurs. “Let’s scream.”

“No,” Rae says, walking faster. “We’ll get in trouble if someone comes. He just wants attention—he’s full of shit.”

This reaction prompts a response from the man in the SUV:

“What are you going to do?” the guy asks, keeping pace with them. His voice is deep and mean; he’s also dropped the “youse.”

And this is how the scene ends:

Joanna grabs for Rae’s wrist and starts off toward someone’s yard. Rae leans back in opposition. Their tug of war paralyzes them in place. It’s not that she’s being stubborn by not changing course—the yard is full of shrubs, shrubs she can picture lying dead in.

He rolls down the window a little farther. No one is moving.

“I can see you,” Rae says, although she can’t. “We know what you look like.”

He says, “Oh yeah?” in this threatening way, like there’s more he has to say, but before he does, he pops open the passenger door. It swings so close it almost hits them.

Then they’re running.

It’s pretty clear how much this scene appearance of the SUV adds to the story. The first time it rolls up, the girls react the way anyone would: with surprise. It’d be unbelievable if they had the wherewithal to respond to the man in any meaningful way; few people have that kind of presence of mind. So, by reintroducing the SUV later, it gives the girls a chance to respond in almost premeditated way—in a way that reflects some essential thing about their characters. Because those essential things aren’t necessarily compatible with most people’s deeply embedded desire to avoid confrontation, their responses increase the dramatic tension.

On their own, these scenes don’t carry a ton of weight—though they’re certainly compelling. It’s when they’re put into the larger context of the story that they become truly interesting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene twice using “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian as a model:

  1. Write a short scene that interrupts the thread of the story. Fiction is often structured around routine; drama comes from the interruption of that routine. The routine can along the lines of “Everyday Joe read the paper at his favorite coffee shop until one day.” Or it can be the sort of routine that Haroutunian uses. The story begins with two high school girls talking and quick, awkward sexual encounter—pretty common high school behavior. Then the SUV rolls up. So, think about a story that you’re already writing or that you’ve written but which seems incomplete. Find a way to interrupt whatever routine the story has established. Here’s the catch: the interruption doesn’t need to seem significant at first. In “Youse,” the SUV drives away as quickly as it appeared. It’s only when it returns that it really impacts the story. So, don’t make too much of your interruption; just be sure it’s something that can be repeated in some way.
  2. End the scene with foreshadowing. This doesn’t need to be subtle. In “Youse,” the character says, “Next time that dude drives by…” The difference between that phrase and “Wow! Wasn’t that weird?” is the difference between the scene ending with no impact and ending with a bit of resonance that carries forward into the story.
  3. Write the scene again. This time, let your characters respond in a more thoughtful way. This is similar to those moments we all experience, when something happens and we think of the right thing to say only after the moment has ended. In your story, you’re basically giving your characters the chance to react the way that they wished they’d reacted the first time. The nature of this reaction will depend on the kind of story you’re writing and the context for the scene.
  4. Don’t put too much pressure on the scene. It’s no accident that “Youse” doesn’t end with the second appearance of the SUV. Instead, the story continues on, with the emotional impact of the scene carrying forward into what the story is really about—Rae’s relationship with her mom, in the aftermath of her father’s untimely death. So, don’t make your entire story about the scene. Simply use it as a way to provide depth of vision for the part of the story that is foregrounded.

Good luck.

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