Tag Archives: story endings

An Interview with Hasanthika Sirisena

3 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena is the author of the story collection, The Other One, which won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction. She is associate fiction editor for West Branch literary magazine and a visiting professor at Susquehanna University. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Globe and MailWSQThe Kenyon ReviewGlimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative, and other magazines. Her work has been anthologized in The Best New American Voices and twice named a distinguished story by Best American Short Stories (2011, 2012). Sirisena has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and, in 2008, received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award.

To read an exercise on figuring out what really drives a character to act, based on Sirisena’s story “Ismail,” click here.

In this interview, Sirisena discusses writing characters different who are different than yourself, compressing backstory, finding the end of a story, and what comes next for the Sri Lankan political environment that informs her work.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite passages in the story is this one: 

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For me anyway, it’s the emotional heart of the story and the key to everything that happens in it. Was it in the draft from the beginning? In other words, was this desire what drew you into the story? Or was it something you discovered as you wrote?

Hasanthika Sirisena

It came to me as I wrote. Some readers tell me that they think Ismail is a jerk. And there are aspects of his character that are insensitive. But I also see him as someone who has undergone a terrible trauma and, understandably, has chosen as his coping mechanism a front of humor and bravado. In some sense, I see him as brave. He has to keep going for his father and his brother. But he also allows himself some awareness.

I’m not particularly interested in characters who look like or talk like me. I try to invent people I want to know and understand better. To do that, I try to find a point of empathy—something that we both might share. Though Ismail and I have had different life experiences, I know what it feels like to live without, and I realized as I wrote him that he did to. And I also try to pretend in my life that I’m very tough to hide a profound vulnerability and fear, as he does. Ismail c’est moi!

Michael Noll

The story covers a lot of time, and a lot of that time is compressed into short passages, like the one about how Abdul begins to blow off the narrator. When you’re in the midst of a story, how do you know which information to dramatize and which information to summarize?

Hasanthika Sirisena

For this story I constructed a traditional narrative arc. Ismail has a fairly simple desire: to get back at his friend. But that desire is wrapped in his own fear of losing his brother and of not really fitting into American society. I chose to dramatize those scenes that were key to that relationship and the conflict between the two brothers. Ismail constantly tries to test his brother and make him prove his loyalty. Other parts of the story: the past in Sri Lanka, the burgeoning relationship between the little brother and his girlfriend weren’t part of that central drama so I compressed and summarized that.

Michael Noll

Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, was called “unforgettable” and “lucid and wise” by Claire Messud.

The end of the story is great. I can’t imagine it ending any other way, but I know from experience that even inevitable endings are anything but when a story is being written. Did you always know where the story was going?

Hasanthika Sirisena

The end of this story was hard! It took me three years to write this story—to get it right—and that was mostly because of the ending. I’ve learned in my career you have to get the ending absolutely pitch perfect. The emotional impact is usually as subtle as the correct beat. The right beat and the reader goes ‘wow.’ The wrong beat and you have one angry reader because she’s been with you the entire way only to be let down. It’s daunting. (As an aside, I’m surprised at how many stories we end up saying no to at West Branch simply because the ending isn’t quite right.)

Ismail is so invested in his toughness that any type of epiphany ending—where he realizes something significant about himself—would feel contrived and unearned. To me that sort of ending also ran the risk of being extraordinarily condescending to the character. But I did want to find a way to show that he really is a very good man. It finally came to me one morning, as I was waking up, that I needed to end on an image—Ismail with his hands in the air surrendering. And then the rest, of him watching his brother get away and being thrilled, just came to me. Of course, he’d surrender to save his brother. It fits his essential bravado and it also fit the depth of his love.

Michael Noll

The event that informs so many of the stories in The Other One is the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended recently. Now that the country is more stable and has gone through a contentious election mostly without violence, does that change your sense for the kind of stories you want to tell? Does the war continue to be part of your narrative imagination?

Hasanthika Sirisena

As someone who writes about Sri Lankans and who most likely always will, the war is impossible to ignore. I do though recognize that the war touches Sri Lankans in degrees and honor the impulse within the community that the war is not all there is to being a Sri Lankan.

That said, I also think that while the military conflict has ended and the LTTE have been defeated the social and cultural conflicts that led to the war on the first place haven’t been corrected. There have been advances: the return of some of the land taken from Tamil families in the North, for example. But, the Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a strong presence in the North. Recently, the police shot and killed two Tamil students at a checkpoint in Jaffna. Last week, I was on a panel about contemporary Sri Lankan writing. During the Q&A, a Tamil writer’s stories of disenfranchisement were dismissed wholesale by an audience member as fantasy and nostalgia. There was no attempt at understanding. There needs to exist thoughtful, careful, and diverse writing that insists on establishing and respecting all the narratives. I think there is a moral and ethical imperative to work toward that end not just through my own work but by supporting the writing of Sri Lankan nationals and writers of the diaspora.

November 2016

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

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An Interview with Kelli Jo Ford

28 Apr
Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford has held the prestigious Dobie Paisano fellowship and recently won an Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford’s fiction has appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New Delta ReviewDrunken Boat, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A Dobie Paisano Fellow and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient, she holds an MFA from George Mason University. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation. She currently lives in Virginia and putting the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories about a mixed-blood Cherokee mother and daughter who move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country to North Texas to start life anew amidst the oil bust of the 1980s.

To read an exercise on describing characters without relying on mirrors and Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” click here.

In this interview, Ford discusses the revision advice of Alan Cheuse, the challenge of portraying characters both as they are and as they’re viewed by others, and resolving (or not) plot threads in a story.

Michael Noll

Your character descriptions are so good. I love this passage: 

I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.
“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.

I love how the passage has multiple things happening at once: the narrator telling his son what to do, the boy ignoring him, the action (throwing the food, drinking the Dr. Pepper), physical description (baldness), and emotion (the narrator’s various reasons for feeling proud). Do all these things land on the page as you write, or do you start with one or two and build the rest in gradually?

Kelli Jo Ford

Thank you, Michael! Sometimes a passage will come in a glorious chunk that sticks around in its God-given form. Usually though, it’s a matter of writing and rewriting. I retype my drafts a lot, something I think I picked up from Alan Cheuse back at George Mason, who felt rewriting (or retyping) a draft allows you let go of what’s there and truly revise instead of tweak. It’s slow work, especially for a plodder like me, but I find it so helpful. I’m constantly adding new stuff, layers or descriptions, which lately has created the problem of what to cull.

I couldn’t remember how that bit came to be until I found an old draft of the story. It looks like most of the descriptions were there but sort of spread out in the narrator’s rambling, which I condensed a good bit. In addition to Paul Reyes’s keen eye at VQR, I’m sure the final product came about with great help from my husband, Scott Weaver, who’s a poet and really helps me 1) see what a story is trying to be about (for lack of a better word) and 2) tighten my language and descriptions.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the son’s wife—the Indian, as the narrator calls her. I don’t think we ever learn her actual name. She’s just, “the Indian” or “that Indian daughter-in-law.” What was your approach to this character—and to the narrator’s view of her?

Kelli Jo Ford

Kelli Jo Ford's story, "You Will Miss Me When I Burn," was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Justine is actually one of the main characters in the collection I’m working on. She and Ferrell have a sort of lovingly contentious relationship, though it doesn’t come through in this stand-alone piece. She’s a truth-teller and doesn’t let him get away with much. During the time period when this story takes place, they are going through a pretty contentious time, but of course, there’s more to it than that.

As we went through final edits, I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the narrator’s portrayal of Justine, to be honest. Justine’s the hero of the collection! In the end, I was comfortable enough, I guess, with what Ferrell’s portrayal of Justine says about him. “Lovingly contentious” is where I started, but doesn’t cover enough ground. Ferrell’s story grounds us in the culture Justine and Reney, the “little girl already in tow,” confront in North Texas. Through Ferrell we see the casual racism they face. The story is told from his perspective, so there’s no filter. I could go on more here, but that would probably be more relevant to the collection than this particular story.

At the same time, there is love and respect between the two. From Ferrell’s perspective, calling Justine “the Indian” is probably no different from the banter (or what he might call “good-natured ribbing”) that takes place at the D.Q., but that doesn’t make it any less racist or potentially hurtful. I’m out of my depth, but I’m thinking about micro-aggressions and the way that something Ferrell perceives as banter could quickly become straight-up aggressive, hurtful, and racist.

As for how his use of “the Indian” functions in the story, I think it allows readers to see Ferrell better than he sees himself. I hope readers pick up on some of Ferrell’s self-delusion and see that probably everything Justine tells him is spot-on—and that despite his hoo-hawing, he has heard every word.

In earlier drafts, the only female characters he called by name were Liza Blue and Elsie from the DQ, so the most important women in his life—his wife, the girl from Wyoming, and the Indian—didn’t get names. In the end, it got a little tedious and confusing to refer to his wife as “my wife” over and over. So having him name her was a technical decision that may make his usage of “the Indian” stand out a little more.

Michael Noll

In seems that a crucial question in this story is how we feel about the narrator’s actions with the Wyoming girl. But, frankly, I have no idea how I feel about it. What happens is, on one hand, part of the great tradition of “loving someone you’re not married to” stories. But it also cuts against the usual storyline in such unexpected ways that I’m don’t know wha to feel. When you finished the story, did you have a particular way you wanted the reader to react and feel?

Kelli Jo Ford

Good question! I don’t think I was going for a particular reaction or feeling. I think I only hoped to put readers right there with him and to, perhaps, help them see him better than he sees himself.

In some ways, the story for me started with that scene. Well, that scene and the magic horse. So the trick, if there was one, was to somehow get readers to want to keep reading and caring about the story, despite the character’s pretty despicable actions.

Michael Noll

The story starts with the threat of fire, and while we get the fire of passion, the actual fire never arrives. Was this always the case? It’s an interesting structure. You go back and forth between past and present, and I expected the present to be resolved one way or another. When it wasn’t, I felt relieved. If the fire had come through and burned everything–a kind of thematic burning–it would have felt cheap, I think. Were you ever tempted to do that?

Kelli Jo Ford

I don’t think I was ever tempted to resolve the question of whether the fire arrives, not in this story, at least. In “Bonita,” a companion piece of sorts, we learn that the fire does destroy Ferrell’s house, but that didn’t seem important to Ferrell’s story, somehow. Though he has some misgivings at the end, the house is the least important thing to him that day. Later, he may realize he was wrong to toss aside a life’s worth of memories, as well as a family that clearly cares for him. But as far as the confines of this story, (he thinks) he’s all forward motion

Maybe the past and present structure reflects how much the past is present for him. If he slowed down to think about it much, he might make a different decision.

April 2016

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

An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

12 Feb
Jacob Appel's latest story collection, Einstein's Beach House, features characters who aren't always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel’s latest story collection, Einstein’s Beach House, features characters who aren’t always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories, many of which have been anthologized, and has won numerous prizes. His nonfiction has appeared in many newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

To read an excerpt from his story “Einstein’s Beach House” and an exercise on writing backstory, click here.

In this interview, Appel discusses living stories in his mind, the inherent subjectivity of narrative, and jumping forward in time at a story’s end.

Michael Noll

This story’s plot has a strong pulse. If you read the end of each section, you can see how each ends with a complication: the father deciding to sell fake tours, the arrival of Einstein’s aunt, the threat of losing the house. How did you create such a tension-building structure? Is it something you do naturally or through a particular kind of revision? 

Jacob M. Appel

I think much of this comes out of the writing process itself. I like to end my day’s writing at the conclusion of a scene; in fact, most of my stories are written roughly on a scene-a-day basis….so if you count the number of scenes in a story, you can often surmise how long I took to write a first draft of that particular piece. (I prefer to “live” the story in my mind as I write—sort of like method acting, only without leaving my chair.) I also prefer to stop writing at a point of particular tension, so I have a crisis to resolve when I return to the story at the next session.  Fortuitously, these two preferences combine to create a synchronicity between the scene breaks and the most dramatic moments in the story. At least, the two elements come together like this when things are going well—when they go badly, my writing reads more like a daytime soap opera.

Michael Noll

The story raises the possibility that the house really was Einstein’s beach house, something that becomes the basis of legal claims, and yet the story doesn’t ever really settle the issue—or perhaps it does. When I returned to the story’s opening to figure out who was right, I realized that you established definite possession of the house in the first paragraph without—and I looked at this paragraph several times—any kind of definite proof, just the narrator’s say-so. It’s such a delicate trick to pull off, and I’m curious how difficult it was to arrive at.

Jacob M. Appel

Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

All narrative is inherently subjective. That’s the only valuable lesson I think I learned in law school. Readers often have a difficult time accepting this. For instance, a few deeply-misguided readers of my first short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, concluded that I was a bigot because I used several racial stereotypes; these readers seemed unable to distinguish between my personal views, as the author, and the disturbing prejudices of the limited third person narrators. In Einstein, the narrator tells the story from a great distance, but carefully withholds information from us along the way. We never know for certain whose house it is. As in many of my stories, characters “lie their way toward reality”—spinning tales that may turn out to be true.

Michael Noll

The end of the story jumps forward in time briefly to the narrator’s adult life before returning to the moment of the story. This is something that, as a writer, I often feel compelled to do at the end of a story, and it’s certainly a technique something that a number of writers use (Alice Munro and Richard Ford for example). But it’s also a move that feels like it might have the potential to become artificial, a crutch to lean on when we can’t quite figure out how to end a story. Your ending works quite well, but I wonder if this was this something you were wary of? 

Jacob M. Appel

I’ll take any comparison to Alice Munro or Richard Ford with both a broad smile and several billion grains of salt, but thank you! The reason I jump forward in time—and I imagine the reason that other, more established authors do as well—is that one wants to garner the maximum of meaning from each narrative. Readers want to know: Why is this story important? Does it matter? But often the importance of a narrative is not clear for years or even generations. I’m reminded of the poetry of the brilliant Philip Larkin (eg. “MCMXIV”), in which the power derives not only from what he describes, but from what we know, unspoken, comes afterwards. Yes, it’s risky. But writing is a risky business. If you’re too risk-averse for a flash-forward, you might try a career in accounting.

Michael Noll

You have one of the most dizzying bios I’ve ever read. By my count, you hold ten degrees, you’re certified to practice law in two states, you’ve published fiction in more than 200 journals (a number so astounding that I can’t quite wrap my head around, especially since your stories are not short), and you’ve published pretty extensively in journals dedicated to bioethics. How have you managed all of this? Do you ever sleep? Are there cloned Jacob Appels—as in the film Multiplicity—doing your work for you?

Jacob M. Appel

It turns out there actually is another writer named Jacob Appel, an economist who co-wrote a book called More Than Good Intentions. I am NOT him. That does not stop well-wishers and detractors from mistaking us on many occasions…..I cannot speak for the other Jacob Appel, but for myself, I keep writing because I like doing it. The day I stop enjoying my time conjuring up imaginary worlds, is the day I’m ready for them to put a pillowcase over my head. (That’s the bioethicist in me speaking, possibly with his tongue in his cheek.)

February 2015

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

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Write an Ending that Swerves

3 Dec
"Poinsettias" by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

“Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?

Myfanwy Collins gives a lesson in excellent endings in her story “Poinsettias.” It was published in PANK, where you can read it now. (Seriously, it’s short and wonderful, and you can read it in three minutes.)

How the Story Works

This kind of last-second-swerve might seem like the famous epiphanies from early Modernist writers. But, it’s actually quite different. To demonstrate, here are two of the most famous epiphany endings:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”

—from “Araby” by James Joyce.

“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

In both of those stories, the shocking thing is how quickly and suddenly the story states the character’s reaction to events—that is, if you find those lines shocking. To some extent, we’ve read so many epiphany endings that we’re immune to them.

So, now, check out the ending to “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins. Keep in mind that, until this point, the story has been about the weird emotional state that often follows Christmas Day, the question of how long the season should last and when the final vestiges of it, like poinsettias, should be discarded.

“At the supermarket, they told her they would put the rotting turkey carcass in the renderer. They would take care of it, they told her. She felt some responsibility that the flesh of the bird be taken care of, that it be brought gently back to earth, to replenish, to renew. She remembered that when her mother died, hospice had said it was okay to send a personal item with her in the ambulance on the way to the crematory. She chose a fleece, duck-covered blanket that her mother had always snuggled under. That blanket was soft. It was so soft. When she thought of the flames, it was not her mother’s body she saw, but that blanket pushing toward the heat.”

This is an example of an ending that swerves away from predictability. Until this point, the mother has not been mentioned. And yet, we realize now, the entire story has been about her. So, how does the story pull off this ending?

In retrospect, we can see how every significant noun in the story is related to the idea of death.

  • The character, Mandy, constantly sucks on peppermint Altoids because she “didn’t want her mouth to taste like shit. All of these people were walking around with shit-tasting mouths, but not her.”
  • Mandy is upset with her partner about the poinsettias because “Nic would not let the poinsettias die. That was the problem.”
  • The turkey that Mandy bought to cook turns out to be rotten; she “drove the carcass to the market in the way back of her car with the windows cracked, but even now, weeks later, the smell lingered, sulfur twisting up her nostrils.”

So, even though the mother’s death is not introduced until the last paragraph, the story has prepared the reader to learn about it. The ending swerves not because it comes totally out of the blue but because it gives the reader an unexpected way of viewing everything that has come before it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s prepare to write an ending that swerves, using Myfanwy Collins’ “Poinsettias” as a model:

  1. Choose a topic. You might consider a subject that has been bothering you or scratching at the inside of your head for a while—something you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t figured out how to approach yet.
  2. Free write about ideas, images, people, places, or events that are connected to the topic. Stray as far from the topic as you wish. You’re exploring the mental, emotional, and physical terrain of the story. If you’ve failed to write about the topic from one angle, find another. Myfanwy Collins’ story is about the death of the character’s mother, but it begins with the terrain that exists around that death: Christmas, Altoids, Poinsettias, and a turkey.
  3. Begin a story that has seemingly nothing to do with your topic. Sometimes our stories about topics that we really want to write about begin too directly. We rush up to the topic instead of taking our time, creeping up on it. So, choose one of the things you discovered through free writing and begin the story there.
  4. Switch topics after a few paragraphs or sentences. Myfanwy Collins writes two paragraphs about Altoids and then switches to Poinsettias. If you’re not sure how to make the switch, use the same sentence that Collins uses: “The real problem was that_____.”
  5. Feel for the right moment to introduce the “real” topic. You may need to switch topics again or introduce new elements. But, keep writing. Keep putting your character into moments of tension—in other words, write the story, and if it’s truly about the topic that has been bothering you, that topic will push its head onto the page. Trust your subconscious to put the pieces together.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jamie Quatro

19 Sep

Jamie Quatro’s collection I Want to Show You More was called the “most engaging literary treatment of Christianity since [Flannery] O’Connor,” by J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review

When you read Jamie Quatro‘s biography, it becomes clear that talent is not divvied up equally. She is the daughter of a physician father and classical pianist mother, and was herself trained as a classical pianist until the time that she left for college. She graduated from Pepperdine at age 20, knocked out a MA in English at William and Mary, and was then awarded a Presidential Fellowship from Princeton for doctoral studies in British Romantic Poetry.

She left Princeton when she found out that she and her husband were expecting the first of their four children. Since then, she has earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, published fiction in numerous journals, published the story collection I Want to Show You More to wide acclaim, and most recently had a story chosen for the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.

In this interview, Quatro discusses her revision process, her approach to writing backstory, and the moment in her story “The Anointing” that took her by surprise.

(To read “The Anointing” and an exercise based on its use of detail, click here.)

Michael Noll

One difficulty in writing about religious experience is translating the immediacy and intimacy of the experience to readers who do not share the character’s beliefs. You solve this problem in a single sentence. You write, “Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else.” In the story, Diane knows that the anointing is a long shot, and yet she’s desperate for a positive signs, any change for the good. It’s almost as if the story is saying to the reader, “Look, this anointing probably isn’t going to work, but it sure would be great it it did.” The religious element is understood through universal human feelings of hope, desire, love, and desperation. I’m curious if this sentence was always present in the story. Did you worry in early drafts that readers would not be sympathetic to Diane?

Jamie Quatro

Funny you should ask about that line — it was indeed a late addition to the piece. In fact, I rewrote the entire opening, right up to that line, almost five years after I finished the story. Originally I’d written “last-ditch efforts,” but when my editor and I began working together, she wondered if we might come up with a less cliche, more immediate phrase. “Eleventh-hour” felt like something Diane herself would think, as the term is used, of course, in the gospel of Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And no, I didn’t worry about readers being unsympathetic. I don’t think about readers, or publication in general, when I’m drafting. For personal reasons, this story stayed in the proverbial drawer for a long time. I didn’t think I’d ever publish it. It was the last piece accepted by a magazine before the book went to press. Cathy Chung — Guernica’s brilliant fiction editor — bought it.

Michael Noll

The first part of the story is spent with backstory—how a successful marriage and life got the point that a last-ditch effort was made to rescue it from ruin. The rest of the story is spent, essentially, in scene–in the moments prior to and following the anointing. One of the cliches of workshop is that writers should avoid clumps of backstory–always integrate it into the fabric of the scene, students are told. And yet you do precisely the opposite, and it works beautifully. The backstory held me to the page as much as the in-scene portions. What was your approach to the backstory?

Jamie Quatro

It’s difficult to talk about “approach” to backstory — as I mentioned, I don’t think about such things when I draft. I think each story comes to an artist with its own structure, its own cadence and music, and that the artist’s first responsibility is to listen. For me, drafting is very much like listening to a piece of music or watching a film. You simply let the work rush on and do what it wants to do, take the shape it wants to take. That might involve “clumps” of backstory, as you say; or it might involve interspersing the backstory throughout the piece; or it might involve using no backstory at all. To be honest, I’ve never heard the workshop rule you mention above. I’m always skeptical of rules. An upfront “tell” at the opening of a story — here’s what’s happened in the past to get us where we are — can be used to great effect. Look at some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners: “A Little Cloud” begins with “Eight years before he had seen his friend off at the North Wall and wished him godspeed.” Or “Araby,” which begins with the backstory of the priest’s death: “The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing room.” Even if you end up cutting the backstory, it can be a useful exercise, to spell out precisely what has happened in the past before entering the first scene.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the characters at the edge of a precipice–perhaps Mitch will kill himself, perhaps Diane no longer believes in God—and immediately offers a solution to both of these problems: the anointing. As a result, I expected a conclusion that resolved one or both of those problems. Mitch would be saved or become worse. Diane would be strengthened in her faith, or she’d give it up completely. But neither really happens. The situation remains mostly the same. The primary change is that Diane despairs, whereas at the beginning she was hopeful. I’ll admit that I was taken aback by the ending. But as I thought about it, the ending seemed truthful in a way that a neat ending wouldn’t have. In life, there are very few dramatic shifts. Was this ending always present? Did you consider ending the story differently?

Jamie Quatro

Yes, this has always been the story’s ending. In a way, that hand pressing on Diane’s head is an anointing of a very different kind, a more radical and truthful version of the oiled thumbprint on the woman’s forehead at the beginning of the piece. To me a it’s a redemptive moment: Diane has been deceiving Ellie about Mitch’s true condition, even as she’s been deceived by Ellie and Mitch. Neither of those deceptions will be possible from this point forward. The only path open to any of them will be one of honesty. What took me by surprise, as I drafted, wasn’t the ending, but the moment Diane discovers that her daughter has been hiding the pills in her little purse. That was a devastating realization. I didn’t want it to be true, but there it was.

Michael Noll

What are you working on now? Many short story writers are also working on a novel. Is that the case for you as well? Quite a few of the stories in your collection are very short, a few pages or so, and they’re so masterfully written that I wonder if a novel is even something you’re interested in.

Jamie Quatro

Ah, the novel question. You know, I love the story form, and I’m at work on a second collection right now, but I will say this: one of the pieces I thought was a short story is threatening to become something bigger. For now I’m pitching it to myself as a novella. Time will tell. I do write poetry and essays, and lately have been doing some longer book reviews. I also just wrote a film treatment. So who knows? Maybe a play is next.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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