Tag Archives: story pacing

An Interview with Justin Taylor

6 Aug
Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.

To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here.

In this interview, Taylor discusses the moral universes of stories, creating bombs and aftershocks in fiction, and his testing process for writing characters’ text messages.

Michael Noll

One of the writer-sayings from workshop is that a story should walk characters through danger doors–situations that put them at risk. This story does a terrific job of that. First, Charity is seated next to a pervy older man on a plane. Then, he gives her his number. Then he invites her to meet him. As empathetic humans, we don’t want Charity to go along with any of this, but as readers, of course, we want her to choose poorly since it makes a better story. Given all of this, I’m curious about how you approached the ending. She has the opportunity to meet Mark but talks herself out of it—with some help from his aggressive behavior. I love this ending, but I’m also curious if, in early drafts, Charity ever met Mark as he asks? How did you know when to put an end to the chain of bad events?

Justin Taylor

I’ve never heard that expression before—“danger doors.” It reminds me of old-school video games, specifically those colored bulbs in the original Metroid or the ante-chamber to the boss room that you’d find in any given Mega Man. Anyway, to answer your question, there are no drafts in which Charity meets up with Mark. To me, the story is about Charity’s inner life, her self-perception, particularly with regard to questions of age and maturity. To me, the major conflict of the story is between the part of her that still feels young—like a daughter, like a child—and the part of her that craves independence, wants to grow up faster. Mark’s intentions are predatory, but he’s not a very effective predator. Charity’s autonomy and safety are never truly put at risk. The public space of the airplane, and later the distance of the phone, conspire to place a concrete limit on the damage that Mark can do, and that’s because the story is far less interested in what he wants from her, than in what she thinks about it. In the moral universe of this story, questionable choices (and/or the mere fact of being an adolescent girl) are not understood as debts to be repaid through suffering. Mark’s impatience and his demands are somewhere between the ravings of a tyrant and the tantrum of a child. To hook up with someone like that would be to cede the very independence she’s been fighting for, and as soon as she sees that, she’s repulsed. That in mind, I wanted to end the story with Charity on her own, to reinforce that this is not a “him and her” story, but just hers—he was just this weird interlude in her life, like a bottle episode on a TV show, where it doesn’t quite connect back to the main arc of the season. That’s how I came back to the aquarium: she’s on her own, and doing exactly what she wants to do. It may be that the most dangerous thing you can do with a teenager is pay her the same respect that you would someone your own age. That, to me, is the main “danger door” the story walks through.

Michael Noll

Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

I’m interested in the pacing of the story. It begins with a long scene aboard the plane that occupies about 1/3 of the story, and in that long scene, we’re introduced to the character and the plot (will Charity call the guy?), but I can also imagine a workshop teacher suggesting that it all get condensed to a paragraph, which sounds right in theory but, of course, would have been terrible advice. How did you keep that scene going without losing tension?

Justin Taylor

You cannot condense those pages into a paragraph. They are, as you have said, 1/3 of the whole story, and therefore are doing 1/3 of the work. That scene establishes Charity’s psychology through her perceptions of the world around her, her relationship with her mother and various other establishing and background details. Maybe most important of all, it builds up mood. When Mark assaults her, that mood is (hopefully) shattered. I wanted his change in tone and behavior to feel like a bomb going off in the story, and then for the rest of the story to sort of reverberate with the aftershocks of that blast.

Michael Noll

The story contains some extended text conversations. Do you approach those any differently than you would spoken dialogue?

Justin Taylor

I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are. Charity, for example, is a more deliberate texter than Mark is. There are a couple places where he runs two sentences together in a hash of unpunctuated shorthand (“Cmon sumthing to look fwd to ur teasing me bad here”) whereas she bothers herself to put a comma in the middle of “Pajamas I guess, like a shirt”. She also prefers “you” to Mark’s “u,” though at the end of the conversation she adopts his style, possibly because she wants something from him—“Will u send one back?” Originally, I wanted Mark to be borderline incoherent, because I liked the idea that he was this rabid bro falling all over himself, but then I did some test-runs with my own phone’s autocorrect and saw that it tended to save him from the worst of himself. Overall the punctuation is pretty true to an iPhone 5, though I took a few liberties, such as the un-capitalized “I”, which reads like hasty texting but in real life could only be the result of extra effort, because the phone would always fix it for you unless you stopped it from doing so. Also, “Now were talking.” The phone has enough grammar to know that you meant “we’re” in that sentence. Or anyway mine does. But it’s also true that autocorrect learns from usage, so it’s at least plausible that Mark’s phone wouldn’t make that fix. Also—and I know I’m giving away the depth of my own insanity here—I originally had Mark using “2” for “to” but I eventually realized that while 2 is faster on a computer keyboard, on a phone screen it takes several extra touches to get over to the number screen and then to get back. So he wouldn’t do that.

Michael Noll

The story is about a 15-year-old girl’s sexual encounter with a 30-ish man. It’s a story in a similar vein as Lolita, and when that novel was published, a lot of early reviews claimed that the young girl had somehow entrapped or seduced Humbert Humbert. The reviewers were, it seems, reading Lolita as older than she was because of the way she was viewed by the narrator. In your story, did you worry that the reader would somehow forget that Charity, because she’s interacting semi-sexually with an older man, is only 15? Did you build in reminders of her age?

Justin Taylor

I don’t see how you could forget Charity’s age—the story is entirely defined by it. She’s only on this trip in the first place because her mother thought she was too young to stay home alone. Plus there’s her homework, her friends back home, the presence of her mother and grandmother, and Mark’s own word choice with regard to her. Lolita is 12 years old when the novel begins, and is literally kidnapped by a murderer. If she can be said to eventually “seduce” Humbert, it’s only in the sense that a captive figures out how to “seduce” her captor. I think Nabokov himself is very clear about this, even if the critics haven’t always been—most of the book doesn’t make any sense without this element, and the ending certainly doesn’t. Charity’s problems aren’t nearly as grave—she has a lot more power than Lolita, and she’s older. Not “older than her years” (which is what all abusers of children tell themselves—it’s a fantasy of permission) but old enough to understand the world, and the body, she inhabits. To the extent that, as I said before, the story places superlative value on Charity’s capacity for self-determination, it would have to respect her decision to hook up with him just as much as it does her decision not to. She doesn’t cut him off because she suddenly realizes he’s too old for her—that was the main thing that made him attractive in the first place. She cuts him off because he’s a creepy scumbag, which to me is a better reason. Adolescence comes and goes, but a well-tuned creep-detector is something you carry with you through life.

August 2015

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

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An Interview with Katherine Fawcett

25 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett’s debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett is a Canadian writer living in Pemberton, British Columbia. Her short fiction has been published in Wordworks, Event, Freefall, subTerrain, and Other Voices, and her plays have been performed by several community theatre groups. She teaches music at the Whistler Waldorf School, plays violin with the Sea to Sky Orchestra, and fiddle whenever possible. Her debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, includes stories about banshees, mermaids, and half-feral boys coming of age.

To read “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett and an exercise on increasing tension by shifting gears, click here. In this interview, Fawcett discusses writing fables, humor mixed with horror, and Stephen King’s Night Shift.

Michael Noll

When I read the story’s final line, I laughed and gasped at the same time. In a way, the story is structured like a well-told joke. The end is almost like a punchline. How did you find this structure? Did it simply occur to you as you wrote, or did you have the ending in mind when you began the story?

Katherine Fawcett

I’m delighted that the ending made you laugh and gasp. I do enjoy going for goosebumps. I think the horror of inevitability is really powerful. To be funny and devastating at the same time reflects the inescapable reality of being human.

The structure of this particular story did fall into place as I wrote it. I knew it was a fable, and that in telling it the loss of the girl would have to somehow come around again. But no, I didn’t plan the ending in advance. When I neared the ending, I had no choice in how to finish.

Michael Noll

I also love the quick pacing. This is something I’m seeing a lot of lately, in stories by Sheila Heiti, Amelia Gray, and Dina Guidubaldi, to name a few writers. The stories don’t really descend into scene and stay there. Instead, they zoom along over a series of events, as this story does, with the result being a story that feels a bit like a fable. Does this seem like a fair description of the story? What attracts you to this form?

Katherine Fawcett

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O'Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O’Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

I recently read Heather O’Neill’s collection Daydreams of Angels, another Canadian author whose short stories often trip quickly along with gorgeous images and snapshots of events. I like how this style can feel intense–almost dream-like. I think the short story lends itself to this form very well. I love a story that is organized in such a way that readers feel they are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine with every turn of the page.

Michael Noll

This story was originally published as part of a series titled “Thrilling Tales of Torment.” As such, I guess it’s a kind of horror story, which makes sense—after all, two children die. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror story in that it’s funny. (At least, I laughed at the end.) But it’s also a weird kind of humor since the thing that is funny is also horrible, and so as I was laughing, I was also feeling a lot of empathy for the characters, especially the boy. Was this story intended as horror? Is that a genre you’re drawn to?

Katherine Fawcett

To be honest, I didn’t write this as a “Thrilling Tales of Torment” story, but when I was asked to submit a Halloween story, it was the most suitable one I had at the time. It certainly isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but you’re right–a couple of dead kids is a pretty nasty and no one wants to laugh at that, so it’s kind of a blend of bad, distasteful humour and weird, funny horror.

I do like reading horror–although I sometimes find it too disturbing to read at night. The first short story collection I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have been 11 or so–I remember being terrified and thrilled, and sharing the stories around campfires to scare my friends.

Michael Noll

One review of the book uses the term “fabulist” and compares you to Kelly Link, the incomparable giant of the weird stories that seem to now officially fall under that label. What do you think of that term: fabulist? It’s relatively new, and so it seems that the definition of what belongs is a bit fuzzy. Does it seem like an appropriate category for your work?

Katherine Fawcett

I am honored to be spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link. I’d never defined myself as such before, but if the Link is a fabulist and NPR says I’m following in her tradition, then yup, you can call me a happy fabulist too. The word is appealing because it is like “fantastic” and “beautiful” and “marvelous” going out for drinks together.
But to properly answer your question, I looked it up and found out that fabulist has two meanings:

  1. Someone who recounts fables.
  2. A liar.

I suppose all fiction is lying by definition, but a fable is something that brings to light a truth. So yes, lying to find truth would be a great category for my work.

I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth. But if lumping me into a category will pique readers’ interest, lump away.

June 2015

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

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