Tag Archives: story beginnings

An Interview with Erika T. Wurth

28 Sep

Erika T. Wurth is the author of four books, most recently the story collection Buckskin Cocaine.

Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and One Thousand Horses Out to Sea and a collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing and South Dakota Review. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.

To read the story “Mark Wishewas” from Buckskin Cocaine and an exercise on helping readers connect with characters, click here.

In this interview, Wurth discusses narrative arcs in collections of interlinked stories, effective climaxes, and the shape of stories.

Michael Noll

This is a collection of linked stories, and often when I read linked collections, there’s a kind of novelistic sensibility, a sense of growing bigger and broader. But in this collection, I found myself feeling the opposite, almost claustrophobic. This seemed intentional. The characters often seem to feel this way, too, repeatedly referencing the same places and institutions and people with an increasingly intense mixture of frustration and love. How did you think about narrative arc between stories? Was there a particular journey you wanted to take readers on?

Erika T. Wurth

Although I have become increasingly interested in interlinked stories, I feel like there should be a reason why something is a collection of short stories and not a novel. I think that that’s the fault of what agents and big presses think the public wants, which they always think the public wants a novel. That said, I’m really super bored by collections that are ubiquitous in terms of characterization, where the only commonality is in terms of theme and tone (and man, those collections sound the same to me). I ultimately wanted the stories in Buckskin to stand alone –  but still work very well together. All of the personalities are dark –  though sympathetic to a degree, and the journey I wanted people to go on was starting with the darkest personality and the least sympathetic and ending with the most sympathetic (with the novella), resulting in a cumulative feeling of what it is like from the inside in the native film world (though the analogies to the writing world are there). The native film world is so brutal and it’s not talked about. I thought it would be interesting for non-natives to see a dark and sometimes satiric – but more natural version of native life. And for natives to look at that darkness and have something to process it with.

Michael Noll

In several of these stories, the narrators quickly establish traits that make them fairly difficult to be around. Mark Wishewas, for instance, says things like this about his girlfriend: “And I know I keep having sex with her, but it’s just because I’m so used to her by now.” But the reader’s relationship (at least mine) to the characters changes as the stories go along. The characters don’t necessarily change, but we/I find ourselves feeling more warmly toward them. This seems like a different way of thinking about plot and conflict, making it as much about the reader’s relationship to the work as it is about the character’s growth or transformation. Is this something you were aiming for?

Erika T. Wurth

I personally think an effective climax is not one that comes from above. Too many people mistake action for drama, and they have a story that has a series of actions that leads to a revelation that doesn’t seem earned. Personally, I think the most interesting fiction is driven by character. If it’s driven by character, then the decisions they make will be organic and there will eventually be an internal climax, which to me is authentic – and one where the main character has changed. And the main characters in this collection often change by just knowing that they can’t, like in Mark Wishewas. He tells himself that he knows his career is set but he’s smart enough to know that it isn’t – and that he’s fooling himself, and that he will continue to do so.

Michael Noll

The stories in this collection use a lot of different forms. Some are pretty straightforward, but others use repetition, as in the paragraph/stand-alone sentence form of “Gary Hollywood.” Others use a space breaks frequently, and some don’t. At what point in a draft do you begin to sense what shape a story will take?

Erika T. Wurth

I guess I decide on the form in a kind of organic way once I’ve felt the character really rise up. It’s not like I start writing something and then it becomes something, though I’m very led by voice and I don’t like plotting something out deeply beforehand. Ultimately, with this collection I knew that since I hadn’t written a poem in a long time, that part of me was probably gone and so I thought what I’d like to do is take some poetic technique like repetition and the vignette and see what I could do with it in prose. A lot of that was born out of thinking about how people talk about traditional versus experimental/postmodern and how sometimes people use those terms without any concrete definitions – and they seem to use them in order to beat each other up, and I find that really uninteresting. I’ve always thought that form should mirror the content. For example, the first story is written from the POV of somebody who is truly shattered and so that’s why it’s in a series of vignettes, many of them standing for different parts of himself that have nearly split themselves off from the other parts and are holding those other parts hostage.

Michael Noll

Almost all of these stories begin with direct references to Indians or Natives, the narrators placing themselves within that identity. In an interview in The Rumpus, you talked about publishing and said, “It stinks that we have to go outside of our community to be published. But even the Native presses like University of Arizona, University of New Mexico—those are the ones that are left—they kind of repeat the same narrative. Very few Natives are in charge of that.” Were you intentionally pushing against that usual narrative with these stories—or did the characters you created just naturally start pushing against it?

Erika T. Wurth

The characters are native because that’s my world. I think that most people reflect in an imaginative and poetic way, the world that they come from and the world that they’re in. 80% of what I write is still completely made up. What kills me is when white people write racist and two-dimensional characters that’s seen as a really admirable artistic stretch, when most of us do best by writing again, imaginatively and poetically around what we know, even if it’s not autobiographical at all. And I do think that I’ve done some thinking, a lot of thinking over the years about not being a writer who talks overtly about issues and racism, even though obviously those things are in there. I want to write about my world and I feel like I have the same right to do that, that white folks do. Why should my job constantly be educating white people when white people are not sitting around with that same job. I want to write about my tribe in the same way Salinger did about his. Or Richard Wright about his. I want my work to be, and I’m using these words a lot but, an organic and imaginative expression of what I’m interested in and the world that I know. So I think that it seems resistant only because so many native writers are celebrated for centering whiteness by either doing a version of Indian that’s very palatable (defined by their sadness because of whatever experiences they have with racism) or by constantly talking about racism in an overt way, which just centers white people again—it doesn’t allow me the artistic space to write what I want to write about.

September 2017

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

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An Interview with Matthew Salesses

24 Sep
Matthew Salesses is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Houston and, already, the author of three books, most recently the novel The Hundred Year Flood.

Matthew Salesses is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Houston and, already, the author of three books, most recently the novel The Hundred Year Flood.

Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. His other books include the essay collection Different Racisms and the novel I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. He was adopted from Korea and has written for NPR Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode, Salon, The Good Men Project, The Toast, The Millions, Glimmer Train, PEN/Guernica, and has received awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, PANK, HTMLGIANT, Emerson College, Inprint, and the University of Houston.

To read an excerpt from The Hundred-Year Flood and an exercise on finding a story’s beginning, click here.

In this interview, Salesses discusses chapter beginnings, the inspiration of The English Patient, and how the critical rhetoric around a book matters.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of Chapter II is dazzling in how much information it handles in such a compact, tight narrative passage.
 How long did it take to get it into its current form? 

Matthew Salesses

It was actually shorter before. I added Tee’s response and the container (as a way to show Tee’s version of passivity and activeness) very late in my edits. Tee’s girlfriend’s words in Boston act like a kind of prophecy. She says things that can guide him either by following them or resisting them, but they break up before the plot starts. Her words echo.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the pacing of this novel. There’s a kind of dreamlike quality to it. It switches back and forth between characters (Katka and Ynez, for instance) in a way that they begin to blend together. And in the switch, the narrator will do things like pick up a book and read a line like this: “The presence of want awakens in him nostalgia for wholeness.” It’s such an ethereal, meaning-packed line. What models did you have for this sort of narration?

Matthew Salesses

I thought a lot about Ondaatje’s The English Patient, even as far as the books he uses in it as a guide. The line from Anne Carson [“The presence of want awakens in him nostalgia for wholeness”] was, for a long time, a line from Henry Miller: “the guardians of secret crimes” or something.

Michael Noll

Matthew Saleses' novel The Hundred-Year Flood has been called "epic and devastating and full of natural majesty." It follows a young man to Prague as he struggles to understand his identity and how it fits into the world.

Matthew Salesses’ novel The Hundred-Year Flood has been called “epic and devastating and full of natural majesty.” It follows a young man to Prague as he struggles to understand his identity and how it fits into the world.

The novel is very much about art and questions of how the artist and subject are revealed (or not) in a piece of artwork. So, the characters discuss poetry, we see various paintings and their creation, and the narrator spends a lot of time thinking about big questions about identity, memory, and art. This seems to be where the heart of the novel lies, which makes me curious about plot. How did you find or develop a plot mechanism that would give you the space needed for the characters to address these questions?

Matthew Salesses

Interesting! It makes me happy that different readers can bring to the book different interpretations. I didn’t think about the art/subject question in terms of plot. The plot is basically a love story. Though it’s a love story that begins with Tee as an artist’s model, as an object, of sorts.

Michael Noll

You’ve written in various places about how people of color are treated in American literature. It’s not, you’ve said, simply that most books are about white characters but that when people of color do appear in novels and stories, they’re portrayed in a handful of predictable ways. There aren’t many novels in which, as in this case, a Korean-American travels abroad. The Innocent Abroad and The Ugly American are almost always white. Do issues like these inform your writing? In other words, do you see a lack or absence in the books around you and think, “I’m going to fill that absence?” Or are you simply writing the stories that occur to you and then realizing that there is very little else like them?

Matthew Salesses

I was actually thinking of books about other Americans abroad as “like mine.” Most people don’t seem to see the book as part of that tradition. It’s kind of fascinating. We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages. But on the other hand, the fact that my book is seen as filling an absence creates the situation where we don’t get more of those books. It’s like we’re expected to plug holes.

September 2015

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

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