Tag Archives: Texas State University MFA

An Interview with the Editors of Huizache

19 Nov
Diana López

Diana López

Diana López is managing editor of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature and  the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

 

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.

To read an exercise about portraying relationships with a single, specific detail based on Michele Serros’ essay “A Bedtime Story” that appeared in Huizache, click here.

In this interview, López and Ortega discuss the mechanics of putting together an issue of a literary journal, why “Honda CRX” is better than “sports car,” and what it means to be publishing Latino literature.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges of running a literary journal is identifying good submissions from okay ones. Obviously, Michele Serros was a known writer, and this essay may have been solicited. That said, it’s easy to read the opening passage that introduces the situation and see how this essay could have leaped out of a slush pile. How soon into reading this essay did you know, yep, this one’s going in the journal?

Diana López

The first issue of Huizache was entirely solicited. We were a new magazine, so it was important to establish our character. In a way, it served as a thematic and stylistic template for the issues to come. Michele’s piece is in our second issue, the first open to unsolicited submissions, and we received some good stories through the slush pile. Dagoberto Gilb, our Executive Director, reached out to Michele to solicit her work for two reasons. One, we were feeling a little panicked because we hadn’t received enough submissions from women, and two, we want our magazine to feature both new and established voices. Including Michele in our sophomore issue helped establish a sense of balance.

She sent Dagoberto two stories, and both were great fits for Huizache. We really deliberated about which to include, but ultimately “A Bedtime Story” felt like a stronger complement to the other works. This was an angry year for readers and writers of Chicano literature because of the Tucson ISD book ban. In many ways the second issue of Huizache is a reaction to that event. It opens with a defiant grito from Lorna Dee Cervantes in “A Chicano Poem,” and it also includes a narrative by El Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, about the caravan that toured the Southwest to establish underground libraries of the banned books. Immediately preceding Michele’s story is a poem about a minuteman tracking immigrants the way a hunter tracks prey.  So you have this dark poem followed by something funny. That’s why Michele’s story is centrally located in the magazine, to provide an emotional counterpoint. One of Michele’s greatest gifts is that she reminds us that we need to laugh, too.

Michael Noll

Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all the same and unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but I’ve read enough essays and stories about unhappy marriages to know that the same sort of trouble dooms a lot of relationships. As a result, my eyes tend to glaze at the average divorce/affair story. What about this essay made it stand out from the unhappy crowd?

A.J. Ortega

The second issues of Huizache included Serros' essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

The second issues of Huizache included Michele Serros’ essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

Most stories when looked at from a birds-eye view can’t be entirely new or unique in terms of the general premise. But when you zero in, it is the minutia, the little details, that separates it from the pack. While on the surface, Michele’s piece is a breakup/divorce story, it stands out because of Serros’ voice and the specificity in the concrete details. Details like the narrator listening to Howard Stern or the chocolate donuts and goat’s milk at the end make this something more than another breakup story.

My favorite details are in the opening. We are introduced to two older couples: Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years. They aren’t named. They aren’t described. They are purposely unspecific and vague. But, do you see what is described on that first page? The car. The focus on the car, the Honda CRX, is what makes this story charming, funny, real. The whole punchline is about having sex at the beginning of a relationship, in a car. Readers know the “sex in the car” bit. In fact, it’s overdone. But, in this story, Michele makes sure to specify that she is referring to the front seat of the car. I think you lose something in the story if you say “sports car” or “two-seater” instead of Honda CRX. On top of this, being precise about the make and model places this story in the early 90s. Then you get to the mention of Howard Stern, who has been around forever but was never as polarizing as he was in the early 90s. All of the details, what we get to zoom in on, are deliberate and calculated in this piece.

Michele’s charm as a writer is that she is quite funny. This particular story doesn’t attack the issue of the breakup of a relationship in a sad or overly sentimental way. Instead, the break up is enveloped in humor. Just like readers are familiar with the idea, the act, the ritual of having sex in a car, we also know the ritual of the break up. It’s awful, it hurts, it’s sad, your cry, they cry, you love them, you hate them, they hate you, and on and on and on, and then time passes and it becomes a story, a chapter of your own life.

What’s great in “A Bedtime Story” is that we don’t see the nastiness of the couple at their worst nor do we see their subsequent sadness. What for? Most of us have lived it. In this piece, we don’t see a big blow up of an argument or fight, complete with the crying and snot and dry heaving. Instead we get the mattress-rotating scene. Even if the scene plays out like a comedy routine, I bought it, and I know other readers did too. They aren’t fighting about the mattress. They are fighting about everything else in their relationship, whatever that may be. We never see that on the page, but, the way the story is crafted, it’s there. Sometimes the “real” story is revealed in the ellipses or line breaks.

Michael Noll

Huizache bills itself as “The Magazine of Latino Literature,” and so I’m curious how you view that word, Latino. I live in Austin, and so my sense of the word is Texas-centric, but, of course, if you go to New Mexico or Arizona or California, it’s not really referring to the same group of people, or not exactly, anyway. (As an example, I just heard a story on NPR about the need for translators of indigenous Mexican languages in California because so many of the farm workers don’t speak English or Spanish.) When you focus on Latino literature, what do you mean? Is it a focus on culture? Language? Geography? Some combination of all three?

A.J. Ortega

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Way to ask the tough questions, Michael. Our magazine focuses on Latinos, those of us from Latin America, or with ancestors from Latin America. I will say, though, that language doesn’t always have to do with identifying as Latino. There are Latinos in the U.S. that speak little or no Spanish. And, as you pointed out, some speak indigenous dialects. You know, I read one of those Pew Research Center things recently that made claim that more Latinos are proficient in English than before. Obviously! At this point, most of us are from here, American. Most of us speak English, and proficiently. This is why a magazine like Huizache has to exist. A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t aware of these issues. I don’t know how many people are unaware, except that it’s a lot. Enough to warrant a magazine centered on giving Latinos a voice in the world of literature. Huizache aims to focus on Mexican American writing, mostly from the West and Southwest, as that subset makes up 60%-70% of the Latino population, but we are open to all Latinos, and everyone else.

As our country evolves, there are more and more Latinos all over the country. Our numbers are many but our voices, sadly, limited. Sometimes I think the obsession with labels used to describe different authors might be solely to figure out what shelf to put their books. But, it is all more complex than that. People need to understand that when navigating these labels, and how they apply to each individual, they will not be perfect at it. Even I’m confused. Labels are tough. Figuring out who you are is tough. That’s one thing a lot of Latinos have in common. Some of them grow out of one label and into another. Others are headstrong and stick to one. I, for example, don’t like the label Hispanic. The word refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. However, the label was adopted by the U.S. government, specifically the Nixon administration, in order to count the Spanish-speaking population in the Census. And, as you and I both pointed out, some Hispanics don’t actually speak Spanish. Going further, some people feel that Hispanic also has echoes of the Spanish conquest and colonization in it, since that is how we got to speaking Spanish in the first place. (It also has the word “panic” in it, which is a little irrational but makes me feel weird anyway…especially when you hear it on the news.) I use Latino mostly, but when I can be more specific I prefer to do that. I say I’m Mexican American. The only way I can resolve my own identity, and subsequent identity issues, is by including the two things that have me confused in the first place – having cultural roots from Mexico, with Mexican family, parents, but being born in Houston, growing up in Texas and appreciating that I’m American. But, I’ve also known people who, for some reason, recoil at the uttering of “Mexican” like it is a bad word, and use Hispanic instead because it sounds softer.

I do like the word Latino because it seems to have been sprung from the community itself, rather than imposed by the government like I explained above. As a population of people who have different cultures, with different versions of Spanish, from different places, we at least share some struggles. One of these is the lack of exposure of our brilliant writers. Huizache aims to fill that gap.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the meaning of Latino especially in terms of Michele Serros. The words Chicana and Chica appear in three of her book titles, and she grew up in California. But she also married a well-known rock musician, and her work inspired both at least three mega-famous bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine). This latter part isn’t the standard Latino biography that we see on TV—and not just with ignorant statements by people like Donald Trump. Latinos don’t seem to appear in the news unless it’s a story about migration. All of this is to ask this: How important was Michele Serros, not just in carving out space for Latino writers but also in broadening a national sense for who Latinos are?

A.J. Ortega

Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song "Somos Más Americanos" for a MTV Unplugged special.

Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song “Somos Más Americanos” for a MTV Unplugged special. The New Yorker wrote a long feature about the norteño band here.

True that the latter part is not part of image of Latinos that we see on TV…but Latinos know otherwise, especially when it comes to the rockstar part. Mexicans and Mexican Americans love Rage Against the Machine. Zach de la Rocha, the lead singer, is a Chicano and the band was/is a huge success in Mexico. If you check out their Battle of Mexico City concert, you’ll see what I mean. Zach de la Rocha even joined the Los Tigres Del Norte, a norteño group, during their MTV Unplugged rendition of “Somos Mas Americanos,” a song that addresses the complexities of immigration and Mexican heritage. This is exactly the point of a lot of the conversation we’re having.

So, that’s a good segue into discussing how Michele Serros has been a tremendous influence on her own community of Latinos, women, writers, and even rock stars like Zach de la Rocha, Billy Corgan and Flea. I think what we can take away from the impression she had on people like these superstars is that she was able to transcend the label. I heard in an interview that she was once called a “Chicana falsa,” that is, she wasn’t the stereotypical Chicana according to her peers during her adolescence. She made it clear that the label isn’t her entire identity, but only part of it. Her upbringing in SoCal, with the beaches and malls, was part of her identity, thus the skateboarding and surfing. She was a lot of things, not just one. I think that’s a normal pressure that Latino writers have on their shoulders, wondering how you will be viewed, how you will be labeled, and how you will represent your community. Once your work is out there, it’s out there and people will think what they want. Michele, by putting certain words in her titles, took a certain amount of control over that, and that is something to admire. She had agency of her own identity as a Chicana, and even plays with it, challenges it, flips it on its head.

She reminds us that Latinos are a diverse group of people. The more people who realize this the better. Some Latinos are women and they call themselves Latinas. Some Latinas prefer to be called Chicanas. Some Chicanas are skaters. Some Latinos are brown. We also have white Latinos and black Latinos. A lot of Latinos speak English. Some, like me, speak Spanish but with an American accent. Others can’t speak a lick of Spanish. Some Latinos are teachers and some are rockstars. Some Latinos drink at bars, others are bartenders, and some even own the bar. And still, some are writers.

As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole. Michele may be gone from this world, but her work and contribution to the literary arts keeps us moving forward.

Thanks for the questions, Michael. Wish you could have communicated with her directly. Your readers can get over to huizachemag.org and order Huizache, including issue two which includes Michele Serros’ work, for their collections. We have five issues now with a long list of award-winning authors, established and new, with attractive covers from Latino artists that’ll look great on their bookshelves. Read them, and enjoy them.

November 2015

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

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An Interview with Rene S. Perez II

1 Oct
Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II is the author the story collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction. His newest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns. Perez was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received an MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches high school in Austin.

To read an exercise about backstory inspired by Seeing Off the Johns, click here.

In this interview, Perez discusses why teens want realistic stories, even if those stories are sad; the formatting challenges of italics in POV shifts, and what happens when the novel you’re writing suddenly disappears from your computer.

Michael Noll

This book is ferociously sad—and not in a gratuitous way, I might add. There’s a kind of firm reality to it that I recognize from my own childhood and hometown, and so I was able to connect with these characters very easily. And yet—whew, that opening is a tear-jerker. Did this make it a difficult novel to pitch and sell? Young Adult novels aren’t strangers to sad topics (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars), but this feels somehow different, if only because it’s a more realistic novel than that one, less of a romantic comedy (even though it has a romance). I’m curious if anyone (publishers, readers, writers) pushed back against the opening.

Rene S. Perez II

I never considered that I was writing a YA book. I think the very fact that I stumbled upon one by virtue of the age of my protagonist while not trying to write one can be both a big help and potentially a detriment. When I finished the first draft of the novel, I thought that I could get at least considered/read by presses and agents. I queried four agents. Three replied back, likely due to the “success” of my first book. Each of those who responded all said the same thing: It’s too sad. They wanted me to highlight the romance, and one even asked, if it were possible, focus less on the deaths at the center of the story.

When I found my eventual publisher, they got what I was going for and were all in. What they did want to change, initially, is the ending. I was hesitant to do so and mentioned that in my first conversation with my editor. When she read through again, she saw why the novel has to end how it does. It’s basically stayed the same, story-wise.

So, in those regards, sure, there was some pushback. I do think, however, that since this is being marketed as a YA book, the fact that I never initially set out to write a YA book but to write a realistic novel about the weight of a tragedy on a town, it will resonate more clearly with young readers. I really do think young readers want to be taken seriously. They want to engage in discourse on the big questions. They appreciate knowing the kiddie gloves have been taken off.

Michael Noll

The POV shifts are fascinating. In the first, we have so much empathy for the Johns and their families. Then we’re introduced to Chon, and we begin to see the Johns, especially John Mejia, in a less empathetic way. We begin to dislike him, just as Chon does. But then this feeling gets complicated by more shifts. This seems like a difficult thing to pull off, to successfully get the reader to reconsider an attitude toward a character. How did you approach this challenge?

Rene S. Perez II

The shifts are from close third-person focus on Chon, our protagonist, to an omniscient third-person narration that zoom out wide to show the tragedy’s effect on the town. With that, we get to see how Chon’s initially low opinion of Mejia is counter to the town’s adulation of him. But as the novel goes on, we see the town shifting—forgetting or divesting from the promise Mejia, and both Johns, had. We see Chon recognize it, and the curve of his feelings toward the Johns, Mejia in particular, and the curve of the town’s feelings intersect. Shifting from Chon to the town, zooming in and out, helped to show Chon change, and it changes the reader too.

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Michael Noll

Still on the subject of POV, how much planning did you do? When you began the novel, did you have a sense for which characters would receive their own POV and where those chapters would appear in the novel? Or was this something you discovered while writing the book?

Rene S. Perez II

As far as planning goes, I knew from the first time I filled the blank page that I would move from the town to Chon and back out. In fact, the original manuscript of Seeing Off the Johns had the town sections in italic typeface. I decided before word one that there would be italic sections and regular sections. Having allowed myself that, within the italic sections, I was able to really stretch out and get comfortable within the omniscience. I am able to jump ahead and back in time. I am able to tell biographical details of people in town or histories of places. I really gave myself license to push that as far as I needed, because I knew that the visual cue of the italics would let the reader know toe expect those shifts.

When Lee Byrd, my editor at Cinco Puntos, gave me her first notes, she did away with the italics. Just like that. It was a lot to get used to for me after having written in so specific a way. But now that I read it without the italics, it makes for a more interesting read. It certainly makes it seem like I was being more daring formally than I really was.

Michael Noll

You’re a high school teacher, and an English teacher to boot, and so I know you’re putting in a lot of hours on planning and grading. Where do you find the time to write? What’s your strategy?

Rene S. Perez II

I wish I would tell you that I have some solid work ethic that I organize my life into being able to write every day. Hell, I can’t even motivate myself to write every day. What I do is make sure to always have access to notes. In various forms ranging from texting myself to notes on my phone to e-mailing myself to always having my notebooks handy, I am always ready to put down ideas for characters or stories or plot points of larger works. Then, as that becomes more fruitful, I pick times when I can sit and either transcribe paragraphs or sentences I’ve handwritten into a larger work or get started on a story.

That’s how I work. I always allow ideas to at least start. I always have a couple stories and, as has been the case for the last 5 years, a novel in progress. That way I can always turn from one project to another. I tell myself I work best on something when I’m stealing time from something else. If I always have something I’m itching to work on, when I am done with school work and the baby’s bathed and in bed, or on weekends when my wife is stepping up so I can sequester myself in one of my writing holes, quality writing happens.

Michael Noll

A few years ago, I heard you say that you’d just lost a novel through a computer failure. Was this novel? What happened? Did you rewrite the entire thing?

Rene S. Perez II

Ah, the lost novel! I started writing Seeing Off the Johns while waiting for the first book to happen. When I finished SotJ, the collection, Along These Highways, was out. I showed SotJ to an editor who gave very thoughtful feedback. She said something was missing. I could feel it too. Now, while waiting to hear back on SotJ, around 2011, I had started to write another novel. It was cool and noir-ish and rolling along quite well. I was almost done with a first draft when I lost it. At that point I knew I only had two options: I could either set about to rewrite the lost novel or I could fix SotJ. I chose to write a play instead. When I finished that, push came to shove. I tore SotJ apart. I felt like a mechanic in a hollowed out car needing to find a faulty plug and put the damn thing back together. I figured it out (in the first draft, I was satisfied with the novel being 3-dimensional because of the POV shifts, but I’d neglected to make Chon fully rounded) and fixed it, and now the Johns is almost out.

A postscript on the lost novel: I’m still chipping away at the rewriting in notes and on the manuscript, but I’ve also started a new novel. We’ll see which happens first.

September 2015

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

An Interview with Herpreet Singh

30 Jul
Herpreet Singh

Herpreet Singh work has appeared most recently in The Bitter Southerner and The Intentional.

Herpreet Singh writes fiction and personal essays, exploring the intersection between culture and geography, especially the Indo-American experience in the deep South. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner and The Intentional. She coaches clients who are trying to write their own true stories in the book form. She’s a mother and partner and is at work on a novel.

To read Singh’s essay “Choking Out the Natives” and an exercise on creating multifaceted characters, click here.

In this interview, Singh discusses beginning an essay, using subheadings, and the challenge of writing about family.

Michael Noll

The part from that essay that will stick with most people is your father-in-law’s line about dots. But what I really admire is how you set up that moment so that it has as much shock value as possible. It seems like you do this by treating him with humor and admiration at the beginning of the essay: the description of his commercials and the fact that he adopted your husband. Did the essay always begin this way?

Herpreet Singh

It did. But initially, the set-up was intended to bring readers into Christmas. My in-laws’ Christmas tradition is humorous. It’s generous. It’s problematic in some ways. But it is also something I look forward to. It’s unlike any family Christmas I’ve ever heard about. I’d wanted to write about it for sometime, though I wasn’t sure what I had to say about it, beyond, “here is this crazy, wild, fun time.”

When I sat to write, I felt I could not convey the grandiosity or special appeal of Christmas without giving readers a glimpse of my father-in-law. So much of who he is and what he does could easily seem ordinary; but actually, he is innately creative, and he finds outlets for his creativity in his business endeavors and with creating events and traditions like this for his family. I was surprised that the set up led to a less flattering trait, his bigotry.

As I wrote about my father-in-law, it opened a portal to explore my husband. I started wandering as I wrote, exploring aspects of my husband and in-laws and being a part of their family that I hadn’t intended to explore. I permitted myself to go with that wandering, revealing the larger question: how does one take root in a family, whether one is brought into it, born into it, or has married in, especially when that person does not fully ‘fit’? In particular, I explored my specific experience of this more universal experience, and thus came the line about dots. The essay is exploratory in the truest sense.

Michael Noll

You use subheadings in the essay: Mixed Babies; Red, White and Fused; Foreign Relations, and so on. Are these headings part of your drafting process? In other words, do you write the essay in sections? Or do you add them later as an organizational tool or as a guide to the reader?

Herpreet Singh

Have you ever watched someone braid hair? My dad is a natural storyteller, but his stories, delivered orally, unfold in a long, interlacing ramble. I have always admired the way he draws listeners in, and we feel like we are, at first, just taking in the scenery as we follow. Then we realize we are actually observing clustered strands being braided together.

In school, we are usually discouraged from taking this approach, and it’s too bad. A meandering writing style is most natural to me; I attribute it both to my dad’s storytelling and to the geography in which I grew up. South Louisiana has its own meandering way of being. You can go to New Orleans for a full day, and by the next morning, you can feel like you’ve done so much and nothing all at once. In writing, this works for some readers and turns others off.

But I did not draft in sections or with subheadings. Because the essay took so many turns, after it was written, I felt it was important to offer readers some directionality, road markers to indicate, “Hey. We’re taking another turn; just stick with me! There is a clear destination. We will arrive!”

Adding those organizational headings did help the revision process. It forced me to identify the core truth or message in each section, and from there, I was able to cut whatever was too divergent or simply irrelevant.

Michael Noll

Herpreet Singh's essay, "Choking Out the Natives," appeared in The Bitter Southerner and tells the story of a mixed marriage in Louisiana.

Herpreet Singh’s essay, “Choking Out the Natives,” appeared in The Bitter Southerner.

One of my favorite parts of the essay is Chris’s explanation of why he’s not racist. He tells a story and then, you write, “Not satisfied with his explanation, I remember he shrugged and said, “It just made an impression on me.” I don’t think Chris can make any more sense than I can out of who he is in relationship to his family.” I love this because it resists explanation and knowing. And yet essays, by their very nature, seem designed to explain things. Did you struggle at all with finding a balance between trying to convey some things with a degree of certainty (this is how it is) while leaving other things open ended or unexplained?

Herpreet Singh

I think an argumentative essay is meant to explain definitively, to offer a thesis and to prove it. An exploratory essay, particularly one that is also personal, ought to foster the use of language and observation and feelings and analytical skills to try to understand a subject, to simply think on the page. Of course, you go back, clean it up, see what part of the exploration yielded nothing or took you too far off path. But the writer should not go in knowing what he wants to prove. He should go in knowing he wants to better understand something, and that maybe that something is not entirely knowable.

I never intended to write about the night at the bar and what my sister-in-law shared. I don’t even think I knew how deeply it still bothered me, or how closely I associated that night with my in-laws’ Christmas. But there it landed on the page, and I gave space to it; I let it take up geography.

Then I wondered why it still mattered. Why was I holding tight a single painful memory when I loved this family and recognized the ways they loved me? After writing, I recognized the reason was my son. (And once I made sense of this, I revised to include his arrival earlier in the essay.)

So, no, I didn’t struggle to find a balance between certainty and uncertainty; I hold the worldview that some things, some people, some experiences, are not fully knowable, or that they possess many contradictory truths.

I did struggle to find a balance between attempting to understand what could be understood and accepting what I could not understand, and in presenting these in the essay, I aimed to not demonize my family. The more intentional balance struggle was whether I drew these people in with kindness while I also drew in some hard truths about them and my experience.

The most surprising revelation to me in the writing was to state of my father-in-law, “I don’t love him.” Those words landed on the page without conscious forethought. Five years after writing the essay, and seeing it published now, I struggle with that single line. I think I’ve made progress in my acceptance, because I do know that I love this family completely, and my father-in-law cannot be extracted from the unit. In fact, they are all who they are, to varying degrees, because of him.

Michael Noll

A lot of people who write personal essays struggle with knowing that their family or friends will read the work. How have you handled this issue? Will your family read this essay? Do you talk to them about it’s published?

Herpreet Singh

I am fairly new to publishing; my work has only begun to gain some traction. So with the publication of this essay I learned something: in nonfiction I intend to publish, I need to read it with this question in mind: Do the details and particulars included give life to the essay and its larger meaning that outweighs the real lives of the people the essay depicts? If the details only add color, like nice accessories, but could be hurtful to the people they depict, remove them. On the other hand, if the details contribute to the larger meaning and are delivered with fairness, leave them in.

There are several line edits I would make to this piece to remove purely “colorful” details (such as the Christmas “cocktail” I talk about my brother-in-law having), or else to ensure that particulars are balanced (such as referring to my nieces as “loud-mouthed and not-so-tactful” which both lumped several people together and did not explicitly relay their good intentions or traits). With these kinds of changes, the exploration and complexity in the essay would not have been diminished.

I’m not sure whether I will, in the future, talk to people ahead of time. That may be something I consider on a case-by-case basis.

My family did read the essay, though I had not intended them to. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing. It gives me space, not as a writer, but as a human being and family member, to live truthfully in a way I have not, to change the trajectory of these relationships and how I exist as a part of that family. And as a writer, I don’t regret writing or publishing personal work. I know there is a larger message that will reach an audience that is starving to have it; as an Indo-American who grew up in south Louisiana, I was thirsty to see myself and my experiences depicted. When I did identify my own experiences and truths in another’s writing, I felt the enormous relief of not being alone in the world. That is a largely why I write and why I share my writing.

July 2015

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

An Interview with Christine Grimes

2 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, "The Window," appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes is a Texas-born writer living in upstate New York. Her story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes teaches at SUNY Jefferson and has led writing workshops and craft seminars for Black River Writers and Fort Drum’s women’s conference. Grimes’ work has been included in From Where You Dream, a collection of craft lectures by Robert Olen Butler. She also hosts the North Country Writers Festival in Watertown, NY, annually, as well as the monthly reading and performance series, First Fridays, in Sackets Harbor, NY. Her stories have been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, Cutthroat, Passages North, and 2 Bridges Review. She is currently at work on a collection of stories and a supernatural thriller set in Sackets Harbor, NY.

To read “The Window” by Christine Grimes and an exercise on structuring a plot around a character’s lack of change, click here. In this interview, Grimes discusses the ten-year road to publication for “The Window,” the problem of where to begin a story, and the legal issues of using real-world references in a fictional story.

Michael Noll

I know that “The Window” has had a long life between first draft and publication (ten years?). How did it change in that time? Or, what revisions finally got it to the final draft?

Christine Grimes

I first drafted this story for a Texas State University MFA workshop in 2004 and it finally found a home when it was published in 2015 with 2 Bridges Review. Remarkably, the story’s structure and who the character was didn’t change drastically during those eleven years. A lot of my stories are rooted in working-class monotony that stretches into the weird and absurd. I wanted to portray a woman who truly believes she’s destined for greatness and is stuck in a dead-end job that moves from unpleasant and slides into a surreal nightmare without her quite realizing that it’s occurring until it does.

Like many MFA students, I revised shortly after workshop and sent it out into the world for rejection. I submitted a couple times a year and when I’d hear back from journals, sometimes there would be an encouraging note, but mainly it was those little scraps of paper (in the days before Duotrope) saying thanks, but no thanks. Every time it came back, I’d read it through again and cut some words, some lines, some paragraphs. I’d rework a passage or two. Then I’d send it out during the next 3-day weekend or block of vacation time I had. I landed a few other stories I’d written for Tim O’Brien’s workshop at journals during those years and that, coupled with the encouraging rejections, was enough to keep me still sending this one. 

When I wrote newer stories, I sent those instead, but something always drew me back to this one, so I kept tinkering. I removed filters, cut some more words, and sent again. When I compare the 2004 draft to the 2015 published version, many of the original lines are still included, but they are cleaner and the chaff has dropped away. I also have added lines to each key scene that either roots it in sensory description, calls back to something else in the story, and/or transitions between ideas. In the final paragraph for instance, the middle of the paragraph was added: “The cloudy smear shrinks as the impression from his hot breath fades until the window is clear.” Before that sentence was added, the paragraph moved too quickly and the beats didn’t effectively root the reader with the narrator in that final, isolated moment. When I look through the story, there are sentences like this throughout, but I doubt I ever would have gotten to those without the cuts that made the space and air for them to arrive.

Michael Noll

I really like the opening scene at the bar, where the narrator gets embarrassed by the guy she met. It’s an interesting scene to begin the story with because it’s set outside of the chip factory, where the entire story is basically set. It also happens outside the time frame of the day that the story is mostly set in. Did the story always begin with this scene? Or, did you add it to achieve a particular effect?

Christine Grimes

The story always included this scene, but it wasn’t until I revised the story several times over that I realized its importance to the narrative. Originally, I’d written it to set her in small town ambiance, show her life outside of work wasn’t much better, and make her late to work. While it did create that effect, I thought of cutting it and starting in the chip factory during revisions. Then I realized that it’s important that she has the man’s attention and hopes for romance until his friends mock him for his interest. It sets up a parallel for the final scene where she is on display and falls at the mercy of several guys together. Although she is able to convince herself the first event doesn’t matter, her willingness to hope for some connection with the final guy who exposes himself leaves her in an even more vulnerable position. Her inability to recognize the reality of a situation repeats throughout the story.

Michael Noll

I also love the daydream about becoming a food critic. I remember this part from all those years ago in workshop. Since this an internal moment for the narrator (as opposed to a present-tense scene), it probably has the ability to move about the story until it finds its right location and size. Was this the case? Or was this daydream always present in the story in basically this same place, in the same way?

Christine Grimes

Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Thanks. It was something I had a lot of fun with, particularly because her idea of becoming a food critic is vastly different from what many would imagine. She isn’t cooking up exciting dishes at home and no one is coming to her for restaurant recommendations. The daydream always appeared in this format and was one of the few things I decided not to tinker with in the story.

Surprisingly, one of the most difficult challenges with revision to this story was centered around food. I’d named the factory after a well-known corn chip company and used it throughout. Sometimes it was a benefit I suppose – a kind editor at Carve wrote to tell me the story had made it through the  early rounds for their contest but didn’t make it to the finals, then noted she was a sucker for those chips and any story that featured them. However, ultimately, when I worked with Rita Ciresi at 2 Bridges Review, she accepted the story noting that I’d have to take the name out for the sake of liability. I agreed and immediately brainstormed 15-20 names that conjured up the same type of oily corn chip sound with my favorites at the top.  When I began researching those, I found Mexican restaurants, East and West coast chips companies, vegan chips, and weight loss companies, until I finally landed on Gornitos. While I’d seen different writers debate whether or not to use companies for the sake of verisimilitude, I never expected to have to change it for liability purposes.

Michael Noll

I cringed at the fact that the narrator eats ten bags of chips a day. I mean, I love to eat and I can pretty easily eat way too much food, but that is a lot of chips. It’s an interesting thing for the narrator to know about herself—she seems aware of her own actions yet also unable to change them. That seems like it would be a difficult balance to find. How did you make her aware but not so aware that the reader wouldn’t believe that she was still stuck in a job she felt was beneath her?

Christine Grimes

Two for lunch, two for dinner, a few in the afternoon? Nope, you’re right. That is a ton of chips. One of things that fascinates me about people are the disconnects they are able to have in their own lives. That’s certainly one of the things I wanted to explore with this character. She’s overweight, unhappy, and stuck, but doesn’t see that eating all of these bags, and even logging more tastings than she’s supposed to, could be detrimental. And she’s proud of her work and her work ethic, even though she shows up late and sabotages her boss. So I tried to illustrate her goals and dreams, the reality of her life, and the disconnect between the two. That was something I really wanted to capture – the ways in which we are woefully short of the visions we keep of ourselves. Of course, it’s easier to see in others, particularly people who might seem so different from ourselves.

July 2015

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

How to Structure Plot around Lack of Change

1 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed.

But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.

A story that demonstrates how that structure might look is Christine Grimes’ “The Window.” It was published at 2 Bridges Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins in a bar, where the narrator is at a bar, celebrating a birthday:

I flirted with this beer drinking, pool playing, divorced guy, Eddie, who made eyes at me while I played darts. His shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes and when he laughed, his shoulders shook. I maneuvered over to the bar, where he asked my name, then said Gloria sounded pretty. By the end of my darts game, his buddies showed up. I went over to his table to buy him a beer and one of his friends snickered and elbowed him. Couldn’t appreciate the lovin’ a big woman can offer. Eddie just shook his head and said no thanks. I left the beer there anyway. I took a couple shots with Judy, slept on her scratchy old couch, and overslept. So this morning, I borrowed her largest pair of sweat pants and threw on my dirt shirt before driving like an idiot to get to work.

If this was a story about change, then something would happen at work to push the narrator onto a different storyline than she was previously on. And, in fact, this is what happens. Gloria works at a chip factory as a taste tester, assessing chip quality, and on this day her supervisor announces that the factory will begin hosting public tours and Gloria will be featured. In a story about change, this would be an opportunity for something new to happen. Instead, though, the story essentially repeats the structure of the opening scene over and over, with the same result: Gloria gets her hopes up or tries to make the best of a bad situation but eventually gets humiliated. This is how the story ends. So, why isn’t this boring? After all, it’s the same thing over and over. Why does it work?

The answer in how the story makes us buy into the narrator’s point of view. She keeps believing things will be different, and so do we, even at the story’s end. Three boys take the tour and watch Gloria eat chips. Two of the boys make fun of her weight and then walk away. The third boy, one with a crooked nose, doesn’t make fun of her, and we suspect that perhaps he’s different:

His face has a little smile. We make eye contact. He gets me. Maybe he’s interested, maybe impressed, maybe he likes Gornitos. I showboat a little and chew slowly, rubbing the grains against my palate and swallow. The chip’s a little stale, too oily. When I open my mouth for another taste, Crooked Nose unzips his pants and pulls out his limp dick, waving it at me. He sticks out his tongue and licks the glass before he walks out.

The story isn’t about change but, instead, about believing change can happen when it almost certainly will not. This is a key concept to remember. Plot is about confounding a reader’s expectations, not about change.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure a story around lack of change, using “The Window” by Christine Grimes as a model:

  1. Write a scene that sums up a character. You’re looking for a moment that makes a character (either the person involved or someone who knows him or her) say “That’s me/him/her in a nutshell.” To write the scene, try thinking about the character in terms of winner or loser. Does the character always succeed? Or not? What is a small moment when the character either gets what she wants or does not get it?
  2. Find new ways to repeat the scene. The key is to think about your character’s motivations. What does he or she want? Don’t worry about what they want most. Instead, just list all of the things they want. Either item on your list offers an opportunity for a scene in which the character will or will not get that desired thing.
  3. Create the expectation that this time is different. The character needs to believe this, of course, but so do the readers. We need to see evidence that something is about to change. Someone is going to give the character the benefit of the doubt or, conversely, not give him what he wants. If you make us believe this time is different, then we’ll be surprised when the scene goes exactly as every other scene has gone.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Dina Guidubaldi

18 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s first book, the story collection How Gone We Got, has drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, the Santa Monica Review, Cup of Fiction, SPIN, the Austin American-Statesman, and Other Voices; she has been an editor for Callaloo and American Short Fiction. A graduate of Texas State’s MFA program, she currently lives in Austin.

To read an exercise on making high-concept stories unpredictable and Guidubaldi’s story “What I Wouldn’t Do,” click here. In this interview, Guidubaldi discusses how to create realistic characters and following your instinct as a writer.

Michael Noll

How did “What I Wouldn’t Do” begin its life? Did you sit down and think, I’m going to write about a guy who builds an actual city for the woman he loves and see how far I can take the idea? Or, were you writing about a relationship when the idea of building a city occurred to you?

Dina Guidubaldi

This was one of those actually “fun” stories to write. I think it started with the idea of the narrator as this kind of obsessive, impractical nut. It also started with me thinking about the concept of “true” love, how there’s something selfish about it. My dad bought me a book when I was little, called The Reward Worth Having, about these brothers (?) who travel a long distance to vie for the hand of this ailing princess. The one who woos her in the end is of course the underdog, who just brings her a bird and a song and no money or promises. The idea was supposed to be “Aw, be yourself and people will see your value,” but I guess what I took out of it was “He doesn’t even know that princess! She could be awful! Why bother? He just wants to be the One who gets her, the One who gets written about.” And so that fuzzy memory sitting somewhere in my head got the ball rolling.

Michael Noll

I love how the story takes phrases that would normally seem sweet (“you were my hours and my half-pasts”) and makes them oppressive and creepy. This is part of what made the story seem strangely realistic to me. It’s a kind of fable or allegory (or something), and the risk with such stories is that they’re too clever for their own good. But this story seems like a real portrait of a relationship that many people have had; in fact, the fantastic-ish elements seem to create the opportunity for the moments that seem most authentic. How did you achieve this balance? In other words, how did you keep the metaphor trained on real emotion?

Dina Guidubaldi

Hm. Right, I think if it does achieve that realness, it’s because this is an honest problem people have—obsession is just selfishness. This guy’s trying his best to make things work, but for what? I also think the female character helps balance things out. She figures things out way before he does, that it’s not about her at all. And again, that fable bit—because it is loosely based on the premise of the knight aiming for the princess, you can get all crazy with the details. Also, he’s rich, and rich people come up with fantastic ways to spend their money, in real life. Or so I like to think.

Michael Noll

I laughed out loud at this line: 

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world. 

It makes me curious about the story’s tone. It’s told in first person, but a line like that seems to reveal a certain amount of self-awareness in the narrator. Was that tone/awareness easy to find, or did you have to write your way into it?

Dina Guidubaldi

Not to sound like a writer jerk, but that’s just the way the character talks, to me. He’s so blustering and headstrong that he almost grasps it—in fact, he does grasp it, I’d say—but he’s heedless, he doesn’t care. He has this little war brewing inside him—Should I keep doing this? Heck, I’ll keep doing it!—and I love that he just quashes any self-doubt before it can get big enough to rise up before him, before his many, many failures catch up to him.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the story’s ending? I can imagine other tempting ways to end it: when the woman leaves or with the narrator’s realization that “I’d been building us your city for me.” But you keep going and end with the great, creepy moment with the microscope. How did you know you’d found the right image or line to end on?

Dina Guidubaldi

I think I kinda like this guy, and I didn’t want him to be sad. I didn’t want him to realize anything much, or to change for very long. I wanted him to keep living blindly and blithely in his world, and the idea of a child—or, for him, a brand new generation of something to love and obsess over—seemed a good way of extending his quest. I also like that he doesn’t care if it’s his child—any one will do. Which kinda circles around the true love idea: is he truly loving or is he truly selfish? And I guess I (inadvertently) revisit this whole idea in a later story in the collection—the “Press Repeat” clone one.

June 2015

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

An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field

7 May
Melissa Falcon Field's debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator's sudden isolation after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field’s debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator’s choices after finding herself suddenly isolated after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field is the author of the novel, What Burns Away. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter and a Bread Loaf fellow, worked as an inner-city teacher with Teach for America and AmeriCorps, and helped develop and pioneer the YEAR UP writing curriculum used nationally. Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines and journals, including Hip Momma: The Parenting Zine, Kaliope Literary Journal, The Portland Phoenix, Across Curriculums, The Austin American Statesmen, The Ballantine Books Reader’s Circle, The Hartford Courant, and The Maine Scholar. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her young son, her husband, and four chickens.

To read an exercise on creating tension in a story and an excerpt from Falcon Field’s novel, What Burns Awayclick here.

In this interview, Falcon Field discusses her approach to space breaks, love triangles, and sex scenes.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in your use of space breaks, something that a lot of beginning writers struggle with. For instance, early in the novel, you begin a passage with the sound of the narrator’s son waking her and then move into a flashback about the narrator’s childhood. When the flashback ends and the scene returns to the present scene with the son, the move is punctuated with a space break. The next section uses a similar structure: son as window to something else—in this case, the narrator’s husband. What is your approach to space breaks? Is it about thematic structure? Is it to help the reader avoid confusion?  

Melissa Falcon Field

In the novel, I use space breaks for a variety of reasons, first and foremost, as a way of showing readers a normal break in the narrative, but here, in the sections you reference, because so much of this early part of the novel toggles between back story and the present timeline, space breaks work to clarify those shifts, and they also serve to re-direct the reader in and out of Claire’s reflections, helping to avoid reader confusion with those time shifts. At other times, later in the novel, space breaks serve as a breather from the continual present time narrative, and allow Claire’s reflection and internal world to stand alone, giving them weight, and a wink a their importance, when punctuated by the space break.

Michael Noll

One of the so-called rules promoted by writing workshop is to eschew adjectives. However, your use of the adjective “steadfast” in describing the narrator’s husband (“the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft”) is pretty sharp, in part because it comes from a first-person narrator. The description of the husband is pretty spare. Besides this line, there is only one other descriptive phrase early on: “a new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist.” How did you approach this all-important description? Were you aiming for a particular attitude toward the husband?

Melissa Falcon Field

Great question, Michael. I would say that, in general, the eschewing of adjectives in a novel is to foster finer writing and to encourage streamlining of sentences, avoiding language that reads as clunky, or feels heavy. But when a confessional is being written, as it is here in What Burns Away, Claire is zooming in on her husband, observing him, and so those adjectives work to establish her voice and are the adjectives that she, as the narrator has chosen, thus giving the reader access to her perception of her husband, Miles, guiding the reader to view him within the portrait of their marriage. So, although I prefer to keep the use of adjectives relatively limited in my fiction, I do find them necessary in some places to invoke decisive descriptions in sections where the pacing needs to be slowed down, with intention, as it is in the sections you have pointed to here.

Michael Noll

The novel pretty quickly sets up the triangle between the narrator and her husband and her former boyfriend. Was it difficult to get both of those men into the novel quickly—to basically juxtapose them on the page? I’m curious how much revision was required to make that juxtaposition happen.

Melissa Falcon Field

That triangle was there in my earlier conception of the novel when I knew I wanted to write from the vantage point of a new mother, who feels like everything desirable about her has moved past. So it was my hope that by incorporating Dean, a former lover, juxtaposed with Miles, Claire’s absentee husband, I could better capture that moment in a woman’s life when she feels desperate to reclaim her girlhood-self, just as she realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, which in this case, forces Claire to decide what and who she must let go of, and what and whom she must hold close. Because the story is ultimately about the ways characters redefine themselves, I sketched out that triangle for the first draft very loosely. That said, it was Dean who I focused on first, as I worked to establish the backstory of the novel.  Later, in second, third and fourth drafts, I worked more specifically to redefine Claire inside her family dynamic and within her marriage, in relation to her husband Miles. And because the two male characters work in polar opposition, I was able to play-out Claire’s surrender, which is both brutal and transformative, and why I felt compelled to capture that tension of a love triangle in What Burns Away.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how writers handle sex scenes, and so I was interested in the flashback about the narrator’s first time with Dean, her high-school boyfriend. Other than a reference to rough palms, there’s almost no physical description. Instead, the passage focuses on what the sex and intimacy meant to the narrator. Did you play around with other ways of writing this scene? Did you always keep the physical description spare? 

Melissa Falcon Field

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

Sex that is any good is characteristically over the top, so I have always been more interested in redirecting readers beyond the obvious, toward the more unique secrets of the act, focusing on the minutia of rough palms, a freckle at the curve of a lover’s hip, or the tiniest bead of sweat on the tip of a nose. I did experiment with how to write those scenes, and at first it all read a bit more like pornography, which don’t get me wrong, has its place, but it wasn’t in that moment. So, I stepped back and thought more about the importance of that scene, which for Claire is a memory about desire and intimacy, and what being wanted felt like, so I focused on that, which is, after all what she has been missing and yearning for and what, in the end, gets her into big trouble, leading to later sex scenes with a more physical quality to them—cast into another kind of heat.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent years working as a teacher and writing coach. How does this work inform your writing? Writers often complain that the time demands that teaching places on them takes away from their writing, but given how much teaching you’ve done, I’m curious if you feel differently.

Melissa Falcon Field

Teaching, if you do it well, requires a huge amount of creative energy. But I love it. And, I do believe that for the most part, excluding midterms and final papers, it feeds my writing life. Over the years, teaching the craft and working along with my students, writing and revising and remembering how it is to first read, or conceive of a character, plot, or setting has been a source of great joy, and has always driven me to better hone my work and my ability to talk about narrative. Selfishly, I gain as much from the fresh perspectives of my students, as I give them back. It’s a wonderful kind of relationship, and one of the most important roles I play. And, I should also say that I would never have written a word without those who taught me, and the idea of being that person for someone else motivates me to read and write harder for my students, and to continue to learn more to be the best version of reader, writer and teacher for my students, as we all do the hard work together.

May 2015

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

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