Tag Archives: Tim O’Brien

An Interview with Marc Watkins

25 Jul
Marc Watkins

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Marc Watkins

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Marc Watkins

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

Michael Noll

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

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

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

Marc Watkins

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

Michael Noll

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

Marc Watkins

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

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

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

A Craft Workshop with Personalized Writing Exercises

23 May
To discover a writing exercise based on one of my favorite passage from The Great Gatsby, check out my guest post at The Writing Barn's website.

To discover a writing exercise based on one of my favorite passage from The Great Gatsby, check out my guest post at The Writing Barn’s website.

It’s just nine days until The Read Well, Write Better Workshop. Here’s a sneak peak of one of the most popular exercises from past classes:

Bring one page from your favorite short story or novel—or from whatever story or novel you’re reading and loving right now. We’ll read the page together and find a craft strategy used by the author. Then, we’ll practice using the strategy in our own writing.

Because everyone brings a page from their favorite work, we’re able to generate an entire list of great new books/stories to read and a list of strategies to try out.

That’s a writing exercise personalized to your reading and writing and designed to get your excited to work.

Register for the class now by clicking here. For more information, send me an email at michaelnoll1@gmail.com. Or write me on Facebook.

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