Tag Archives: Texas Writers

An Interview with Natalia Sylvester

21 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage -in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path. It tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

Natalia Sylvester was born in Lima, Peru, and came to the U.S. at age four. As a child, she spent time in south Florida, central Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas before her family set roots once again in Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. Her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Carries Their Own Water, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.

In this interview, Sylvester discusses restarting a novel after setting it aside for six years, the things that pull a marriage apart, and what happens when you pitch to American editors a novel set in Peru with an all-Peruvian cast of characters.

To read an exercise on moving the plot forward in a novel and an excerpt from Chasing the Sun, click here.

Michael Noll

I know the novel is based in part on the kidnapping of your grandfather in Lima in the 1990s. I’m sure that’s a story that you’ve been thinking about for a long time, not just what happened to your grandfather but the larger political situation in Peru at the time. What finally allowed you to turn that story into a novel? Was it a question of finding the right backstory for the kidnapping?

Natalia Sylvester

I think more than anything, it was time that allowed me to tell this story. I started writing it as part of my undergrad Creative Writing thesis back in 2005/2006, and back then (like I’d been most of my life) I was hesitant to talk to my family about my grandfather’s kidnapping. It’s something I’d known about and wondered about, but since we rarely spoke about it in much depth, I didn’t ask. I let all my questions pile up and even when I wrote the first drafts of Chasing the Sun, I wrote it quietly, keeping all my questions between me and the page.

Not surprisingly, the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. (Also, I was 21, newly engaged, and trying to write a story about a troubled marriage. I don’t really buy into the “write what you know” belief, but when I write I do need to find an access point into a story, and for me it can be almost anything, as long as it feels true.)

I set the book aside for nearly six years. I had no plans to ever revisit it, but my husband had read parts of it and would constantly insist, based on one scene he loved, that there was something there. This time I approached it with a heavy emphasis on research—not just on Peru and its political situation and the years of terrorism it experienced, but also the main thing I’d been avoiding all along, which was talking to my family about the kidnapping. Though none of the characters are based on my family, having their insights (and now I realize, their support) was so necessary because I wanted to restart this story from a place of truth and honesty.

Michael Noll

Speaking of the backstory, I loved the relationship between Andres and Marabela—it’s so complex. Even after Marabela is kidnapped, I found myself wondering not whether she’d survive but what would happen after she returned. This seems like a real accomplishment—to create a story that can rival kidnapping for suspense. How did you come up with it?

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

Thank you, I’m really touched by that. Their relationship took me by surprise from the very first draft. I’d originally written my thesis as a set of linked short stories, all told from different POVs, about Marabela’s kidnapping. I started with Cynthia’s POV, then Consuelo, then Ignacio, and then finally, Andres. When I got to his story, it was like they’d been keeping their troubled marriage secret from me all this time. And I thought that was pretty fascinating, because life never happens in a vacuum, even (or maybe especially) the kinds of things we most fear. I wondered if Andres would be able to compartmentalize, and not let his feelings about his failing marriage affect the decisions he makes as he tries to save Marabela. Their relationship became almost like an additional character I wanted to explore and dissect and understand.

Also, in the six years that I’d set the story aside, I’d gotten (happily!) married but seen a lot of marriages around me fall apart. So I became kind of obsessed with how that happens. How does something as huge as two lives, lived side by side for decades, fall apart to practically nothing? I thought it’d have to be something equally big and traumatizing, like a kidnapping, when really it’s the little things, the everyday, mundane gestures and regrets that can build up and pull us apart.

Michael Noll

I love the way the beginning of the novel sets up Andres’ value system (hard work pays, be assertive in business, honor your promises) and also the holes in that system (he doesn’t really pay attention or express concern for his family’s domestic employees). How important was it to establish those values early in the novel?

Natalia Sylvester

It’s interesting that you mention it because a huge chunk of that early scene, I didn’t end up writing until after the book had sold and I was working on my first round of revisions for my editor. Looking back, I feel very lucky the book sold like that, because I think it’s crucial to establish who a character is, what they stand for, and what world they’re living in, before you disrupt it all with something as earth-shattering as a kidnapping. What good is the “after” picture without the “before”? In fiction we’re often told, “Start with the inciting incident” but the false sense of security in the calm before the storm is equally rich in possibility.

Michael Noll

It’s not unusual to set novels in “exotic” locations, but it’s less common for American novels set in one of those places (in this case, Peru) to follow a cast of characters that doesn’t feature any Americans. I wonder if you encountered any resistance to the fact that it’s truly a Peruvian novel, about Peruvian characters. Did anyone, a reader or agent or editor, ever say, “Gee, couldn’t you make Andres an American?”

Natalia Sylvester

Not in exactly those words, but yes, several publishers that rejected the story expressed concern that it wasn’t tied at all to the U.S. Some wished there could be an American character, or maybe at some point, they go to the U.S. And you know, if there’s one thing I wish I could unlearn about publishing, or that I could make other aspiring authors unlearn, it’s this. Because I was blissfully unaware as I wrote Chasing the Sun that it being so Peruvian was unusual. I just thought, I’m writing a story, and of course I’m going to set it here, and these are the people who live in that world. It never occurred to me that they’d be seen as “difficult to relate to” because I’ve always believed we’re more alike than we are different, and that universal stories are just that—they can belong to any of us.

I’m very lucky that my publisher understood this; they actually loved that the book was so Peruvian. But my heart breaks when I realize what a struggle it was, and what a struggle it still is, for us to get our stories heard because they’re not perceived as part of the mainstream world.

First published in July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Karen Ranney

24 Mar
Karen Ranney is the bestselling author romance novels. Her most recent book is An American in Scotland.

Karen Ranney is the bestselling romance author whose most recent book, An American in Scotlandtakes place during the American Civil War.

Karen Ranney wanted to be a writer from the time she was five years old and filled her Big Chief tablet with stories. People in stories did amazing things and she was too shy to do anything amazing. Years spent in Japan, Paris, and Italy, however, not only fueled her imagination but proved she wasn’t that shy after all. Now a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, she lives in San Antonio, Texas.

To read an exercise on giving characters the opportunity to change and act dramatically and an excerpt from An American in Scotland, click here.

In this interview, Ranney discusses setting as character, the difference between love and sex scenes, and straddling the needs of historical narratives and contemporary readers.

Michael Noll

I want to say up front that Romance isn’t a genre I know very well, and so I was excited to read your novel because I wanted to learn how it works. To that end, I was surprised at how much the novel contained beyond what the cover might suggest: shirtless guy and beautiful woman. Or, to put it another way, the term romance is a lot bigger than I imagined. Setting is as important as love. For lack of a better word, there is something romantic about place, which I guess should make sense given that the title suggests more about place than anything else. What’s your approach to the setting and world of your novels? Are you trying to make readers fall in love with them as much as with the characters?

Karen Ranney

Place is very important to me. In some books it has a greater impact on me than on others. For example, A Scotsman in Love was set in a once deserted manor house that intrigued me. Another example is the MacIain trilogy that revolves around a house outside Edinburgh. In those books the setting was almost another character.

I enjoy placing my books in Victorian Scotland because, to me, it was the era of inventions and scientific achievement.

In An American in Scotland, I had to give readers a flavor of each locale, but I had three major settings, so I couldn’t linger too long in any one place. (Why make it easy on myself when I could visit Scotland, Nassau, and America all in one book?)

Michael Noll

The novel is quite chaste. The prelude to the kiss seems to be much more important than the kiss itself—and it takes up a great many pages. How do you maintain and gradually increase the tension between two characters who we know will eventually fall into each other’s arms?

Karen Ranney

I have always maintained that it’s easier to write a sex scene than it is a love scene. I always try to have the characters fall in love with each other before they actually consummate that love. It seems to me that emotions are more important than physical activity.

Also, putting sex in the context of 19th century mores, even kissing someone was a great moral leap. Each step toward the journey to bed is a form of commitment.

Michael Noll

Along those same lines, I admire the way that the novel draws out its sex scenes. For example, there’s a scene when Rose and Duncan bathe together, which leads toward what such baths tend to lead to, but then something interrupts them—Duncan sees something that distracts him. How do you know how much you can draw out such as scene before readers begin skimming to get to the stuff they know is coming and really want to read?

Karen Ranney

Again, it’s a love scene as opposed to a sex scene—or at least that’s how I hope the reader interprets it. Everything that goes on in that scene is both an act of revelation and one of commitment. The characters give of themselves not just physically but emotionally. Maybe even spiritually if I write it correctly. You can’t skip through the scene because it’s pivotal in the give and take between the characters. It shows why they’re falling in love and how.

Michael Noll

Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

The novel contains a fair bit of language about sin and virtue, and because it’s set in the mid-1800s, there are some time-appropriate ideas about gender. I bring this up because I heard a review the other day of the Downton Abbey finale, and the reviewer said that historical dramas are always more about the audience than the age and characters they’re portraying. Do you think this is true of your novel as well?

Karen Ranney

If I understand what you’re asking, let me answer this way: Robert Burns wrote poetry in the vernacular Scots. If I wrote a book like that today no one could understand it. Consequently, I interpret Scottish English with an ear/eye toward my readers. They’re 21st century women. Similarly, interpreting the mores of the 19th century means I have to straddle a line. I have to correctly depict the customs/manners/thinking of the day while interjecting some viewpoints that might be more acceptable to a 21st century reader.

For example, in An American in Scotland, Rose does a lot of things that would have horrified her neighbors in New York and scandalized her neighbors in South Carolina. She would probably have been ostracized in both communities for her abolitionist views. Yet we, being 21st century people, wish she went farther to oppose slavery.

A reviewer chided me for writing about mills in Scotland that were pro-slavery. No, they weren’t pro-slavery. It’s that American slavery was “just business”. They might have personally abhorred it, but they tolerated doing business with the American South because they needed their cotton. That review was a case of our 21st century values colliding with history.

March 2016

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

An Interview with Mario Alberto Zambrano

31 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano was a contemporary ballet dancer before writing fiction. He has lived in Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and has danced for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He graduated from The New School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel Lotería was named to many lists of the best books of 2014, and this month, Zambrano received a prestigious NEA fellowship to work on his new novel.

To read an exercise on creating structure with images and an excerpt from Lotería, click here.

In this interview, Zambrano discusses how he began writing based on Lotería cards, the You that his narrator Luz speaks to, and how the Pedro Infante film Nosotros Los Pobres influenced the novel.

Michael Noll

The most distinctive aspect of the novel, and it’s no surprise given it’s title, is the way you use Lotería cards to organize the chapters and the novel as a whole. You’ve discussed in other interviews how and why you chose lotería, but what I’m really curious about is how it impacted your process for writing the novel. A lot of novel drafts get stuck at various points, often about 70 pages in, because the novel expands or changes in those moments. Was Lotería helpful to you in the middle of the book, in terms of maintaining and advancing the story?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Honestly, the way I started writing the book was mostly a game for myself, to create vignettes of a young girl’s life. Though I knew the story in my head from the beginning, I used the cards as a vehicle to explore other parts of her life that I didn’t yet know anything about. I would shuffle the deck and flip over a card as a way to prompt me into a scene that might reveal something about her and the story she was trying to tell. The obstacle wasn’t so much how to propel the narrative forward, as sometimes is the case, but rather, how to arrange the cards in a sequence that could feel organic yet carry a narrative thru-line from beginning to end. Near the end of the editing process, I would lay out the cards on my table and rearrange them. With 53 cards, the options were endless. It did teach me however, that even when you’re working on a novel that doesn’t deal with cards, but rather with scenes, chapters, acts, what have you, the sequence in which the story is being told can disrupt or heighten the dramatic tension that fiction relies on.

Michael Noll

The novel is addressed to You, to God. Was this always part of your sense of the novel, that Luz would be writing/talking to a particular person/entity and not just in general?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Because Luz suffers from a traumatic event at the start of the book and is suffering from selective mutism because of said event, I felt it was important for her to address the narrative to someone she was comfortable with, someone who might help her find solace in the devastating aftermath of what happened in her family. The act of prayer is a means to achieve grace, especially in the face of loss. But even though the You in the book is addressed to a divine other, in some way it’s also addressed to herself, so that in having a dialog with God she’s having a dialog with herself too, in the way prayer can be a form of mediation.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a passage about what kind of story this isn’t. A counselor visits Luz and brings Fama magazines because she thinks they are “going to open me up like some stupid jack-in-the-box.” She also tends to stare at Luz in a kind of incomprehension, which prompts Luz to think this: “¿Y? It’s not like I’m a piece of news in the Chronicle she can pick up and read.” Luz goes on to explain how her story is more like a telenovela or the film Nosotros Los Pobres. Was it important to you, or did it seem necessary, to tell readers in advance, look, here’s the kind of story this is? Was there a genre or form of storytelling that you wanted to avoid or distance the novel from?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Part of the cultural background to the story comes with the popularity of telenovelas, this melodramatic genre invigorated by the music that propels it. So, in a way, I wanted to reference it.

Personally, when I read a novel I always get a sense of what kind of music is playing in the background, whether it’s alluded to in the text or not. Voice and tone, along with style, is usually what creates this kind of sound for me. In Lotería, I wanted a kind of ranchera-soundtrack, a resonant yet sweet pitch that is similar to the voices of Lola Flores or Rocio Durcal, or even Selena. It’s this kind of music that runs in Luz’s mind, and I wanted it to be on the page as a form of reflection, whether spoken or not.

Michael Noll

In this 1948 film, A poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

In the 1948 film Nosotros Los Pobres, a poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

That early passage about the film and the kind of story this is stands out to me because the novel returns to it. For example, in the El camarón chapter, Luz watches her father punch a wall, and she understands this action by thinking about Nosotros Los Pobres, in which a character does something similar. Did you have that film in mind as you wrote, or did you discover that it had resonance for the novel at some point as you were thinking and writing about Luz and figuring out that she would be thinking about the film?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Nosotros Los Pobres is a film with Pedro Infante, the very actor that Pancho Silva is a double for. In Luz’s youth, she grows up with this figure on the screen. To her, it’s a symbol similar to the greatness of God. By way of attention, the family adores and glorifies the altar almost as much as what’s on screen, and so these two figures, the divine and commercial, make up a kind of confused representation of what her family and community turn their attention to. As a young girl, she almost overlaps them so that they each represent a similar importance. The film is also a story about a father and daughter living without a mother. In the scene of the movie you mentioned, when Pedro Infante punches the wall, he slaps his daughter, then feels guilty, and therefore slams his hand against the wall due to his profound guilt. What I love about that scene, and why it’s in the book, is that it represents the complexity of action and consequence. Yearning for redemption even though guilt is an insufferable truth. It’s something Luz is aware of, and in many way, how she exonerates her father even after all of his abusive tantrums.

December 2015

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

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.

How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

14 Oct
Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

For an example of how domestic dramas can be made exciting, check out Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” The lurid sensationalism of the title draws you in, but the drama that holds you is smaller and more intimate than a tabloid headline. The story was published as part of Amazon’s “Day One” literary series, and you can read the first pages and buy the story for $1 at Amazon.

How the Story Works

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog the Ron Carlson quote about a story having two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Usually, this means that a dramatic plot (ninja fights dragon in cage match) is given depth and resonance by the nuances of the story’s world (ninja can’t pass final ninja qualifying test, can’t get the girl, can’t make his parents happy, can’t get along with his more successful brother and sister). The world, then, gives the story texture.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if small, intimate plots can benefit from exciting worlds? What difference would the world make to a story about two characters working in a restaurant and trying to pay bills—one story is set in Kansas City, and the other is set in Pompeii just before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Context matters—and that is exactly the truth that Yang uses in his story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.”

The story is about a woman who has moved to Los Angeles so that her 9-year-old can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. It might seem odd to view a Hollywood story as mundane, but Yang sets the story in the grind-it-out world of television commercials: standing in line to audition, dealing with directors and other parents, and eating (and not eating) in order to look the part. Plus, the story isn’t concerned with a make-or-break moment for the girl, Sara. Something happens, of course, and it may or may not determine Sara’s future, but the immediate impact is felt most acutely by her mother. In other words, it’s a domestic story with small, intimate stakes.

So, look what Yang inserts into the story’s world: On the first page, the mother buys a grocery story tabloid magazine with the headline, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” After she feeds her daughter dinner, she reads the article:

I open the glossy pages. The first body was discovered off a Sacramento highway a decade ago, a homeless man. There was hardly any press, only a small article in the back pages, but two years later the second body, a well-known former prostitute for celebrities, lapped up on the shore of the Los Angeles River, wrists and ankles bound. The only connection between the two crimes was the headless nature of their bodies. For a while, the Hollywood Lopper had been an LA secret, because of how infrequently he struck, but the killings ramped up as he began garnering news. The latest murder was a month ago: a ubiquitous character actor who always played the weaselly, cocksure best friend— the one who tries to steal the hero’s girl, only to get humiliated in the end.

After we learn the dramatic, Vesuvius-erupts part of the world, we learn about its personal ramifications:

On TV the news anchors prattle on about a besieged Los Angeles, with celebrities blinking under bright lights, stars turned into martyrs now that the Hollywood Lopper has moved up the entertainment food chain, while we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.

In short, Yang has taken a small, intimate story and set it against a backdrop of 1) murder and 2) celebrities versus ordinary people. There  is a serial killer on the loose, but no one will care unless he kills someone notable. His murders have ascended the Hollywood social ladder, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t kill an unknown person next, like a certain nine-year-old trying out for commercials—or her mother. What makes the story beautiful is that it keeps the serial killer in the background (as part of the world) and foregrounds the story about a mostly oblivious girl chafing at the limits placed on her by her concerned mother.

That is how you can use a dramatic world to make an intimate story more exciting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a small, intimate story more exciting by giving it a dramatic world, using “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang as a model:

  1. Choose a mundane story. Perhaps it’s one you’ve already written. Or, you could choose one of the many usual domestic plot lines: marriage drama, relationship drama, parent/child drama, money drama, extended-family drama. Regardless, you’re looking for a story that makes you worry that it’s not exciting/dramatic/sexy enough. Setting aside issues of fiction written by men vs women (and the tendency to dismiss domestic stories), this is a worry that most writers have: is our story interesting enough. Why should anyone read our story?
  2. Choose a dramatic backdrop. If you’re writing a short story, this might mean choosing something to exist in the background: noise that’s buzzing in the characters’ heads. It could be something unusual and threatening like a serial killer on the loose. It could be a significant election or a historical moment like the first moon landing. If you’re writing a novel, you might use the larger arc of the story (throw the ring into Mt. Doom, return the painting The Goldfinch) as a backdrop for an intimate moment or minor arc. Even though the action may be small, it’s cast against a much larger story that gives it weight.
  3. Watch for a moment to unite the story and backdrop. Michael Yang does this when he writes that “we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.” Give your characters a chance to notice the backdrop, just as the mother in Yang’s story reads about celebrities in the tabloid newspaper. That moment can have many emotional angles. In a story set in Pompeii, one character could look out her window while eating dinner with her children and think, “Oh no.” Another character could glance away from her cheating husband, see the smoke, and think, “Thank god.” This moment will likely be brief. It may happen more than once, just as the mother in Yang’s story thinks about the serial killer more than once, but when she does, it’s to refocus our attention on the importance of the intimate drama in front of her.

Good luck!

How to Reach Out to Hostile Readers

7 Oct
Jess Stoner thought being a postal carrier could be her dream job. It turned out to be a nightmare.

Jess Stoner thought being a postal carrier could be her dream job. It turned out to be a nightmare. She wrote about the experience in “Blues on Wheels.”

Everyone has a story to tell, but sometimes not everyone wants to hear it. What happens when this is your story? How do you get skeptical, or even hostile, readers to pay attention?

Jess Stoner faced this problem in her essay, “Blues On Wheels,” about her experience with illegal and abusive labor practices as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. The essay is one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces of writing that I’ve read in a long time. It was published at The Morning News, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Stoner writes about the systematic abuse that she and other carriers faced at the USPS. She was screamed at and threatened, forced to work off the clock, and required to work as many as 12 days in a row without a day off. When she was bitten by a dog (off-leash, unfenced), her supervisor told her she’d likely be fired—because getting bitten was her fault. All of these abuses are unethical, and some of them are illegal. It would seem reasonable to assume that Stoner could tell these things to anyone and find a sympathetic ear. But that isn’t the case.

Stoner was working in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, which means it has laws that reduce the power of labor unions. Unions, of course, are a politically charged topic, but they aren’t the primary reason that some readers may object to Stoner’s story. Instead, the problem for many readers would be that Stoner is telling the story at all. Americans’ resistance to unions is just the beginning of our reluctance to listen to stories about workplace problems. We tend to believe in working hard and not complaining, perhaps because of that old Protestant work ethic and almost certainly because of the recent economic recession. When many people don’t have any job at all, it’s natural to resent someone who complain about the job they do have, no matter how unfair or illegal its practices.

So, in writing this essay, Stoner needed to find a way to convince the reader from walking away. Given that need, watch how she begins the second section of the essay:

I wanted to be a letter carrier because I have always loved checking the mail. It has been one of the highlights of my day since I was a kid, when my favorite aunt, who lived more than 1,000 miles away, would send me letters and packages. I had also been underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months. I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind. I wanted a paycheck.

Everyone I knew was happy for me when I was hired; many said that delivering the mail was their secret dream job. They told me about the letter carriers they grew up with, whose names they knew.

Stoner makes clear that she wanted the job and understood the physical nature of it (“I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind.”) In other words, she removes the potential objection by readers who may have believed she wasn’t up to the demands of the job in the first place. Stoner also makes clear that she was struggling in the same difficult economy as everyone else (“underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months”)—an important distinction for readers who’ve been similarly beaten down and, as a result, are alert to the first whiffs of elitism or privilege.

Stoner continues with these attempts to reach out to the reader, making clear (again) that she’s not afraid of hard work:

I’m a Type-A person who grew up as a member of the lower middle class; I’ve always been driven to work hard, no matter where I was employed: the warehouses, convenience stores and restaurants before and during college, and after graduating, the nonprofits, the universities where I taught.

But Stoner is also careful to note that the job is not a matter of life or death—she won’t starve without it.

I constantly reminded myself: You have chosen to work for the USPS. You can quit…I had the privilege of walking away, something my husband begged me to do on a daily basis. We are a childless couple; we could survive a few months of my unemployment.

Of course, even with these caveats, it’s possible that some readers will dismiss Stoner’s very legitimate complaints as mere whining. You can’t convince those who aren’t willing to listen. But it’s likely that these caveats allow the essay to reach readers who might otherwise have ignored it, which is all that any writer can hope for.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reach out to hostile readers using “Blues on Wheels” by Jess Stoner as a model:

  1. Identify the hostile readers. In our partisan climate, it’s not difficult to anger some readers even with seemingly innocuous material. But if you’re writing about sex, dating, parenting, healthcare, dietary preferences, entertainment choices (TV, movies, video games, hiking, hunting, target practice), death and dying, cultural mores and idiosyncrasies, inequality, or work, you’re likely to run into objections. In other words, unless you’re writing about your favorite ice cream flavor, there’s likely a partisan perspective on your topic. But we often aren’t aware of these objections because we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. So, imagine yourself in a community that isn’t your own. If you were to begin telling your story, what would people say?
  2. Give those readers the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to demonize people who disagree with you. But it’s not a great rhetorical strategy, no matter how righteous your cause. (Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. began his letter, written from Birmingham Jail, to the white preachers who criticized his nonviolent actions: “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”) In other words, don’t be condescending—or at least hide your condescension the best that you can.
  3. Make your biases clear. We rarely come to an issue with no preconceived notions. Sometimes they’re positive, sometimes they’re negative, and other times they simply exist. Be careful not to reserve expressions of shock for when they’re most warranted. This is, perhaps, why Stoner makes it clear that she always wanted to be a postal carrier. She knew something about the job and valued its importance. In other words, show your familiarity with the subject you’re writing about.
  4. If possible, relate to the readers. If the hostility is a matter of class (real or perceived), try to narrow that distance. Politicians do this with varied success by holding guns and wearing Carhartt jackets. This is easier done if the connections are real. Stoner grew up working class and says so. She was struggling to find full employment and says so. So, ask yourself, “How am I like my hostile readers?”
  5. If necessary, admit your privilege. There are limits to how much you can relate to certain readers—overdo it, and you’ll appear to be insincere. So, be honest. If not everyone can make the choices you’ve made, say so. If your choices or beliefs are influenced by cultural factors that aren’t present everywhere, admit it. If there are many positions one can take on an issue, don’t write as if there are only two (yours and mine). If you once believed differently than you do now, say so and give your reader the chance to make the same philosophical journey as you.

Remember, the goal isn’t to dilute your point but to make it heard by as many people as possible.

Good luck!

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

30 Sep
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table.

In theory, this advice should be easy to follow, but I can remember my days as a MFA student when I would spin my wheels for days puzzling out which setting would be best and worrying that I was choosing the wrong one. Like most writing “rules,” the theory is easier than the application. So, how can we create setting without driving ourselves crazy?

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, was published in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “a sure bet.” The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up in a family that followed a traveling tent revival led by the preacher David Terrell. The sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear. You can read them here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliche that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliche.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

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