Tag Archives: story titles

An Interview with Callie Collins

16 Jun
Callie Collins is the co-editor of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is the codirector of A Strange Object and, starting in the fall, a MFA student at the University of Michigan.

Callie Collins is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in places like the Rumpus, the Toast, Midnight Breakfast, the Collagist, PANK, and NANOFiction, among other venues. She is the codirector of A Strange Object, a small press; the fiction editor of Covered with Fur, an online magazine; and the cohost of the Five Things reading series.

To read an exercise on sparking the imagination based on Collins’ story “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015,” click here.

In this interview, Collins discusses two pieces of flash fiction and linearity, titles, and listening to the sound of your sentences.

Michael Noll

When I read these stories, the thing that immediately caught my eye is the nonlinear jumps in the narration. Sometimes they’re on the content level, like when the gar arrive in the story or when we see the girl at the bar practicing her vowels. But they also happen on the sentence level, as with the line “They approximate well” in this passage: 

Hold the grip like you’re shaking a man’s hand, Billy instructs the boys, but who among them has really shaken a man’s hand, he thinks. They approximate well. He doesn’t have children. 

That line seems to arrive out of nowhere. It’s not a logical extension of “They approximate well.” Is this just the logic of your imagination, or do you have a kind of internal rule or approach that you follow for these sort of jumps?

Callie Collins

It’s strange; when I first read this question, I was surprised you pulled that line, cause it strikes me as a super linear extension of that thought, which now I realize it is not at all and I must be crazy. So yes, the logic of my imagination is maybe a bit more leapy than usual. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm and geometry when I write. In this particular case my logic worked a little like this.

“He doesn’t have children” seemed necessary for a couple reasons. The six syllables of “They approximate well” didn’t feel like enough rhythmically to stop the forward momentum of the multi-clausal sentence before it—I wanted a stronger wall. “He doesn’t have children” is really satisfying to me because of the internal symmetry of consonants and emphasis: (he) DOES-N’T (have) CHIL-DREN. Those two lines together sounded closed and tight because they’re syllabically equal. Also, “They approximate well” shifts the paragraph’s focus to the boys, so I wanted to extend a line back to Billy to balance the scale. I tried to jump back and forth from the boys to Billy almost sentence-by-sentence in order to both alienate them from each other and tie them together in this room while the storm rages outside. I also wanted to go one step further down into Billy, to reveal some new, personal knowledge of his character, before the last sentence of the paragraph zooms back out to an overhead view of the scene.

Yeah… it seems kind of nuts. Thankfully there’s another, parallel answer to this question, and that’s because this story comes out of a bigger project. Billy is the youngest of five siblings in a generation of a family, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have kids. It was a piece of information I wanted to fit in there somehow, and to my ear that was the right place to put it.

Michael Noll

Your titles are wonderful. They remind me of the chapter headings that you see in certain novels from the 1700s and 1800s. What’s your approach to titling stories? It’s something that most writers I know find so difficult.

Callie Collins

Once you've got your butt in the chair, how do you get your head in the right place? An exercise on sparking the imagination from Callie Collins' story, "Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015."

Callie Collins’ story, “Tropical Storm Bill Washes Up Alligator Gar in Corpus Christi, 2015” was published along with one other at Conflict of Interest.

Oh, thank you! I feel lucky when I land on serviceable, or at the very least somewhere near I-can-see-she’s-trying-to-move-me-and-am-not-entirely-repulsed.

I cheat a little. I’ll find a particular structure I like and adapt it in subtle ways to fit many pieces. I like the “something unsettling happens to a body, date” scheme for its simplicity. There’s room to make the first part as strange or noisy as I want, but the year provides stability, normalizes, maybe brings it down to earth. My hope is that each title alone will function pretty straightforwardly, but that using the structure repeatedly will help the stories accrete and flow differently—as variations on a theme. I can, of course, take this way too far. Currently I’m using the same exact title for at least five different stories and for the manuscript they all come out of—man, stop me—which has become inconvenient and messy.

But I like this sort of repetition. It’s how my brain works most naturally. There are pieces of language and slices of syntax that lodge in my mind, and I return to them compulsively but hopefully from new angles and alignments. And it’s one of the really big pros to writing page-long stories. It wouldn’t work if I had fewer pieces to title.

Michael Noll

Both of these stories have a kind of thematic structure. You could, if you wanted, distill them to their major images (for example, cocoons/butterflies, gar, the O shape the girl makes), and then it seems as if the purpose of the story is to connect these images in a way that makes sense. This makes me wonder: Do you start with the images and try to connect them or start with one image and write your way into the story, discovering new images as you go?

Callie Collins

Mostly I start with one image and write my way into the story. I think a lot about thematic structure and particularly the idea of thematic return, movement back toward the home of an original moment or sound. I used to study some music theory and composition a long time ago and was really pretty awful at it, but I found some comfort in the fact that our brains are kind of wired to find closure and satisfaction in music that returns to the tonic—the piece’s tonal center. There are certainly many ways to come home to the tonic, or to approach coming home and not make it all the way, or to refuse that closure entirely, and I think the same is true in fiction. I love endings for that reason; I’m attracted to the urgency of the choice whether or not to return.

I’ve written stories that come all the way goddamn home, middle C, climb back in the bed they were born in—there’s a horse story I read at readings sometimes that does this—but the gar story doesn’t. I tried to end it with a stand on the dominant: an anticipatory feeling, a settling in the front yard of the tonic and pointing at the door.

The tonic is usually an image. Here, the gar. I set the tonic and then work my way into other images that orbit it. I wanted the last note, the couple at the bar, to recall the gar in certain ways—to approach the ideas of foreignness, animal transformation, and alienation from a new perspective. What I really hope, though, is that none of my crazy scaffolding is visible—that the story reads cleanly and easily. Thinking about structure in these minute ways is, it turns out, the only way I know how to get anything done at all.

Michael Noll

These stories are quite polished. You’re also co-editor of the independent press A Strange Object. A lot of people would look at both of those statements and think, “She’s doing pretty well.” Yet this fall you’ll enter the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you hope to learn there? Obviously you want to work on your writing and craft, but you’re entering from a different position than a lot of writers, with more experience and success in the publishing world–more than many people who graduate from writing programs. Is it simply the desire to grow and improve that’s at work, or is there something in particular that you wish to gain?

Callie Collins

I hope to learn many things. Where to buy a good coat, for one—anyone know? I’m hoping someone’ll teach me how to do that weird Michigan vowel shift, too.

But really, what a kind question to ask! I didn’t take creative writing courses in college and have very little experience with the formal workshop setting, so even though I’ve spent some time on the publishing side, I’m much more of a newbie in certain ways than most folks entering programs. Mostly I’m just excited and feeling very lucky to have the time and funding to work on the novel-thing, and to get to do that with amazing faculty whose work I deeply admire.

My work’s pretty invested in central Texas, and I think leaving will help me write about the place with more nuance. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the mythology of Texas while I’m in it, and I hope being away will give me new perspective and energy. I’m very sad, but it seems like time to go. Just keep everything exactly the same while I’m gone, thanks! Or at least cool it with the condos.

June 2016

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

An Interview with Marc Watkins

25 Jul
Marc Watkins

Marc Watkins’ story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won Boulevard’s 2008 “Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers” and was included in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

If you liked Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone or the movie based on the book, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Marc Watkins. He was born and raised in Missouri and writes about the down and out of the Ozarks. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the writer Emily Howorth. His stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small PressesBoulevardThird CoastTexas ReviewStoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. Recently, he served as a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology. In his spare time he edits a website,The Rankings.

In this interview, Watkins discusses the challenge of creating hopeful characters in a hopeless place, the influence of Biblical language, and what it means to be a highly literate high school dropout.

(For an exercise based on his story “Two Midnights in a Jug” click here.)

Michael Noll

The story has an interesting line early on: “Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.” There’s a lot of fatalism and futility wrapped up in a line like that. It suggests that the people who reside in that place will not change. How do you create suspense in a story when the setting is resistant to the ingredient necessary for suspense: the possibility of change? I’m curious how you approached setting a story in such a place.

Marc Watkins

Even though the structure of the story is punctuated by fatalism, it is hope, even in its slightest form, which drives the story. Stories that are essentially static in surface action have to rely on the sublet conflicts to develop tension and create suspense. Each character in the story latches onto a sort of absurd personal fantasy as a means of escape: Margret Jean thinks that a pill will save her broken marriage; Cordell believes that keeping the family together on the land that he lost is key to getting it back, even when a fire rains down ash and kills all the crops; and then there’s Abe, who believes his key to escaping his family is going to work for the very company that caused the fire to destroy the land.

I finished the story before I added the first graph. I like framing stories, especially those that use place as a major part of their structure, and trying to explain the environment by describing its rituals and cultures.

Michael Noll

The story’s point of view borders on omniscient, which is rare for any contemporary American work, let alone a short story. What led you to use that POV?

Marc Watkins

“Two Midnights in a Jug” was inspired by the biblical story of Job, and it was also the first time I’d ever written a third-person omniscient type of story. The voice basically fit the narrative, so I went with it as one of those crazy experiments that you’re supposed to engage in when tackling something wholly alien and new. The voice may have its roots in a church pew. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school for several years. They’d send us to two or three masses each week, and I guess that voice from the pulpit, that sort of weird Bible voice stuck in my brain, even when all other aspects of my faith faded.

Michael Noll

The source of the title "Two Midnights in a Jar"

A saying from the Dust Bowl inspired the title “Two Midnights in a Jug.” You can read about an editor who hated the title at Marc Watkins’ website.

On your blog, you wrote about a journal editor who disliked the title because it didn’t make literal sense. In your blog post, you revealed that the phrase “Two midnights in a jug” comes from a Dust-Bowl era description of the blackness of the sky during a storm. There is no mention of this in the story. Do you think it’s necessary for writers to cue readers into the meanings behind the allusions in a work? In other words, are you okay with readers wondering what the title means?

Marc Watkins

The story’s title was actually the last phrase in the final sentence of the story, but it changed because one good piece of advice I picked up from Debra Monroe was to never repeat a title within the confines of a story. The title should encapsulate the world of the story, and when it’s told more than once it risks falling flat like a joke with a punch line told twice. I’m fine with readers left wondering what the title means. I think we all read for challenges and for curiosity, grand or small.

Michael Noll

This story is set in a real place—Eminence, Missouri. Frankly, when I googled the town, I was surprised to find that it was real. Your portrayal of it in the story is so bleak that I assumed that you’d made it up. Obviously the characters in this story don’t seem like the type who might encounter a story in a literary journal, but what about Eminence’s more educated residents? The internet has made the world a small place. Do you worry about what people might think of the way they’ve been portrayed?

Marc Watkins

I’m a walking contradiction; I have a Master’s degree and a G.E.D. In its own private way “Two Midnights in a Jug” manages to convey a level of honesty about how I felt after dropping out of high school. I never grew up in a trailer, but the moment I told people that I was from Missouri and had dropped out, someone asked if I’d been raised in one, and I felt ostracized by the stereotype, so I decided to follow that stereotype down a rabbit hole in the story. The narrative’s bleakness also had to do with my father. He had entered into the final stage of a disease that would claim his life in less than a year.

Even though Eminence, Missouri, is a real town, with real people, “Two Midnights in a Jug” is fiction. As writers we live in conjured spaces that are just as “real” to us emotionally as any physical event or place, and this emotional truth, or as Tim O’Brien calls it “story truth,” matters most. It’s the magic we seek.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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