Tag Archives: The Paris Review

An Interview with Sarah Frisch

4 Sep
Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, "Housebreaking," which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, “Housebreaking,” which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Paris Review and The New England Review, and she has won a Pushcart Prize and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

In this interview, Frisch discusses the challenges of finding the right beginning, doing research on the tribal areas of Pakistan, and avoiding one-dimensional political speech.

To read Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” at The Paris Review and an exercise on making unlikely scenarios more plausible, click here.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the main character, Seamus, doing things that are unlike him. He’s not a drinker, but he drinks several beers. He’s depressed, but he strikes up a conversation with a complete stranger and eventually asks her to stay the night. On the flip side, his house is a mess (and he’s a stranger as well), but Charity agrees to stay with him. I can imagine a lot of versions of this opening that don’t work–but this opening absolutely works. I heard Richard Ford once say that stories make the impossible possible, and that seems to be the case here. How did you approach this beginning? Did you ever find yourself thinking it wasn’t believable and needing to revise?

Sarah Frisch

I drafted the first version of this story over a decade ago, at a time when I was inclined to write chance encounters of this sort that I could almost never pull off. Nothing survives from that original version except the setting, Seamus and Charity’s names, and the opening scene where the two of them meet and immediately start a relationship. I decided to keep the premise of their instant connection because it seemed right for Seamus to get taken in by an illusion of intimacy. I thought it was a good way to start a story which is about, in part, the difference between thinking you know something and really knowing it in a way you can’t shake. I did have a lot of trouble making this section feel believable, and I was still struggling to revise it even after the rest of the story was done. It wasn’t until a very good reader recommended that I cut my random and utterly goofy first three pages (at one point they played a game of jacks) and start further into the encounter that I felt like I finally might be able to pull off the opening.

Michael Noll

It’s a long story, about 12,000 words. The opening scene alone is 1700 words, and as a result, I think, the story feels paced differently than shorter stories. More time is spent with dialogue. It’s still snappy, like this bit:

“You work in PR?”

“It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.”

“That’s not what I expected,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I imagined you were a teacher or an artist.”

“You’re looking at Weekend Charity. Wait till you see me in a suit.”

But a shorter story might end the scene with that line. But this one keeps going:

“He asked why she’d chosen to work with her company, and she shrugged and said that she’d mostly taken the job to piss off Greg.” 

I’m curious at what point you knew that this was going to be a long story—and if you ever had second thoughts about it. Did you ever try to revise to make it shorter (and more submittable to most journals)? Or did you always know that it needed to be long?

Sarah Frisch

The story was probably 7,000 words—about average for my stories—until I committed to setting part of it in Pakistan. Then it ballooned to almost 25,000 words, and I decided I was writing a novella. By the time I had finished revising and cutting out all the extraneous stuff, I was back down to forty-some pages. I might have tried to keep it shorter, but I was focused on finishing a collection and not thinking much about publishing in journals at the time. I knew how lucky I was when the Paris Review accepted the story, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the Paris Review is one of only a few journals that publish stories this long.

Now that you mention it, I can see how the pacing is a bit more novelistic than in shorter stories. I think this is partially the result of having committed to a clock of an entire romantic relationship, from beginning to end. Also, at some point I scrapped the idea that I would summarize Seamus’s time in Pakistan using backstory and dialogue. That was when I really felt I had committed to telling two stories at once and showing how both the past and the present played out in full for Seamus. By then I had entirely lost sight of the pacing required for short stories and started taking my time.

Michael Noll

I love that the story takes on some sensitive political issues. Here are two characters talking about drone strikes:

Seamus made a point from one of the readings, that the civilian deaths and constant terror caused by hovering drones must be working against U. S. interests in the region.

“I hate that argument,” Melinda said. “People have a right to life outside our political agenda.”

What I love is that this moment has such clarity of moral vision, but that vision doesn’t take over the story, which is kind of a mess, morally speaking. The ending leaves us in a place of total uncertainty, not just in terms of what will happen but also how to feel about it all. How did you keep the politics from hijacking the story?

Sarah Frisch

You really hit on what I struggled with the most. When I started this version of the story, I had already been reading about the drone strikes for a couple of years in the New York Review of Books. This was back when there was barely any media coverage of drones, and I had just given birth to my youngest daughter. I couldn’t get over how the American government was killing families and kids and nobody was even talking about it. I was so angry about it, I felt as if it were my moral duty to write about it. This turns out to be a pretty difficult place to write fiction from. Throughout the drafting of this story, I felt as if I was fighting my own tendency toward one-dimensional political speech. I tried doling out my personal opinions to various characters, including the more problematic ones, and taking my beliefs to the extreme or mixing them up with opinions that I didn’t agree with. I also tried to have characters challenge each other’s opinions in scene.

A real turning point for me in drafting this story was when a friend put me in touch with a reporter and writer who had traveled in the tribal areas and was willing to read a draft of the section set in Pakistan. She was very generous and insightful and gave me notes on my scenes and access to the journals she wrote during her travels. She pointed out that things were actually a lot more complicated in the tribal areas than I was making them out to be and that it was difficult to know what was real and what was propaganda (and  who was a human rights worker and who was a fighter). She suggested that I play up the effects of not being able to tell right from wrong in the loss of Seamus’s faith. This change ended up working perfectly with the rest of the story and complicating everything in a way that helped keep a simplified moral vision from taking over.

The ending came to me all at once. I already knew that I wanted Seamus and Charity to break into a house together, but I was struggling with it until a sentence popped into my head while I was washing my hands. (I don’t mean to be romantic about it; this normally doesn’t happen to me.) The story had to “take a left turn through a window,” where it would hit up against some reality that Charity could not have communicated in her verbal account of herself. The arrival of the ending felt like magic at the time, but I think it actually grew out of a year’s worth of pushing against my own tendencies toward oversimplification and reductive political speech.

Michael Noll

What kind of research did you do for this story? I’m assuming you’ve never been to Islamabad (though I could be wrong, of course), and so you had the challenge of describing a place based entirely on research. To that end, I was struck by two things: the reference to the market, Jinnah Super, and the wound on Seamus’s foot. The first is specific and makes us believe that the story really does know the place, and the second seems to divert our attention so we’re not asking questions about the accuracy of the depiction of Islamabad. Was this intentional or just the work of your imagination?

Sarah Frisch

You’re right, I’ve never been to Islamabad. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. (Some guy drove around the city holding a video camera. There’s endless footage of avenues and intersections and cars.) I also read blogs and message boards where people discussed the city, and I asked a couple of people who had either grown up or lived in Islamabad to read over the Pakistan sections for accuracy. I ended up with a lot more information than I could use about Islamabad, but not nearly enough about the tribal areas, which I found very difficult to research. (Few news stories, no travel blogs, and only minimal video footage, some of which I would later learn was probably propaganda.)I lucked out when I was put in touch with the reporter. Her notes included a detailed account of the culture, customs, setting, and what it was like to travel as a woman in the tribal areas. She was incredibly generous about sharing her experience, making suggestions, and helping with the accuracy of those sections.

I hadn’t considered how the market and the athlete’s foot worked to make the Islamabad section more believable, but I can definitely see what you mean. I knew I wanted to set a scene in a market because markets are so different around the world, yet visiting them is a pretty common thing to do for travelers. I included the athletes foot because 1) There’s something disorienting about the way minor illnesses that would have been nothing back home take on weird ominous forms during travel. 2) I wanted Seamus to get sick in a way that he found difficult, uncomfortable, and slightly humiliating to share with Melinda. I think these are all emotions that in sickness women are made to feel more than men, and I got a rather sadistic pleasure out of having Seamus suffer an illness that he sensed made him appear unfit and ridiculous to Melinda. 3) Fungus cracks me up, at least in theory.

The information about the drone strikes was not that easy to find, and it took me a year to compile and confirm everything. I lucked out again when, a few weeks before the edits on the story were due, researchers from NYU and Stanford put out a report containing personal accounts of the devastation caused by drone strikes in northwest Pakistan. I was able to confirm a lot of my information and add details I didn’t know. The report is available online, and now there’s also a website with information and resources: http://www.livingunderdrones.org

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make the Impossible Possible in Stories

2 Sep
Sarah Frisch's story, "Housebreaking," appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review.

If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?

Sarah Frisch offers a kind of textbook model for how to put Ford’s maxim into practice in her story, “Housebreaking.” It was published in The Paris Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about two strangers who move in together after a chance encounter. It’s the sort of story that would cause a listener in real life to say, “Wait—you did what?” Most people don’t move in with perfect strangers for a lot of good reasons. As a result, any story in which this happens must overcome a great deal of skepticism on the reader’s part. Frisch begins to do this in the first paragraph:

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

Notice how Frisch skips over their initial encounter. By the time we meet the woman, Charity, the story has already begun. The next paragraph fills in some of the details about the encounter but also continues to skip over a great deal:

Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.

Both paragraphs use a similar technique, one that’s not unlike the famous yada-yada from Seinfeld: “His life was in disrepair” yada-yada “he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman.” “It was already rented” yada-yada “they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” In both cases, if the story had shown that first encounter in great detail, those details would have needed to explain the thought processes behind both characters’ decisions to continue the encounter. Imagine trying to write dialogue for such a scene. Even in real life, we tend to skip over such details; we sometimes don’t even know exactly how we get into situations. The being-there is more important than the how. Yet in fiction, in early drafts, we tend to write those scenes out, and then we get lost.

Even when Frisch uses dialogue, she works fast, making the scene happen quickly so that we don’t have time to object:

“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.

Something big happens in that moment, internally for Seamus, but we don’t get any details about it. The story doesn’t show us his thoughts, though the next passage does explain how he was unprepared for this moment: his kitchen is a mess, and he has no food ready except “package of ground beef rotting in the crisper.”

A few lines later, the story gives Charity a similar moment:

“I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.

“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.

“Everybody needs help.”

“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.

Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.

When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met.

Notice how matter-of-factly the story skips over the internal struggle: “Then he asked her to stay” and “When she accepted.” If the story had shown that struggle, it likely could have gotten bogged down, taking longer to get to the real story, which is what happens when these two people move in together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s overcome unlikely plot scenarios using “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch as a model:

Before you can use this exercise, you need to Identify the problematic plot point. It could be the scenario itself (two strangers move in together). It could also be a decision that a character makes deeper into the story. The point is to know which points you’re having trouble defending or explaining. Where is the explanation of a character’s thoughts or psychology bogging down the narrative? Once you’ve identified the sticking point, you can figure out how to yada-yada over the parts that don’t matter—in other words, you can skip to the good stuff.

  1. Skip over an unlikely initial encounter. Frisch begins the story by explaining Seamus’ situation and then saying, essentially, “but all that went out the window because now he was doing something totally unlike what was just described.” This can serve as a good model for any opening: Here’s a description of a character that suggests he/she is a particular way, but one day he/she found him/herself doing something totally out of character. This opening not only skips over difficult details but also creates tension: how did this unlikely thing happen?
  2. Use a transition to glide across time. Sometimes the right word or phrase can help the story leap over a few minutes to a more interesting moment in a scene. Look at the word soon in this sentence: ” It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” That word skips over the conversation about the rental unit, which is not only less interesting but also tricky to write since it involves a conversation about doing things the characters wouldn’t normally do. So, try introducing something that would normally end a scene (“It was already rented”) and then use the word soon to keep the scene going (“but soon they were on his deck.”
  3. State a character’s action or decision outright, with no explanation. There are statements that we consider making or actions that we consider doing for days (or for a few tortured seconds) before we actually make or do them. That mental state is hard to describe and often not particularly interesting. But if you’ve set up a character and the way he/she tends to act, it can be jarring (in a good say) to state that he/she did something totally out of character (“Then he asked her to stay for dinner”). So, if you’ve tried to describe that mental state and crisis, cut it completely and just state the result as quickly as possible. Once you’ve surprised the reader, you can give details (as Frisch does) for how the character is totally unprepared for this decision.
  4. Use a dependent clause to make a decision seem inevitable. Another mental state that we often try to describe is a moment of waiting: I just said this, and now I’m waiting to see how she’ll respond. It’s a really hard thing to describe, and often it’s better to just skip the response entirely and get to the result. You can do this with two basic pieces of grammar: a subjective conjunction (when, after, although) and a dependent clause (the string of words that usually accompanies these words). Like the word soon, these words skip over time (“When she accepted”). You can do something almost identical with many scenes. Skip over the conversation or waiting period and use when or after to get to the thing being discussed or waited for.

Good luck and have fun!

%d bloggers like this: