Tag Archives: What Burns Away

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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How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

5 May
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.

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’t work together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

Melissa Falcon Field’s novel What Burns Away has this tension in spades. You can read the opening of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel opens with a scene that may feel familiar to parents of young children. It’s morning, the baby is awake and screaming, and one of the parents is getting ready for work. The other is staying home. So, the scene is set:

Jonah hollered again, his breathing gone fierce: “Mama! Come!

Such hollering tends to create a particular mood in a house, in a scene. Think about the last time you were around tired people while a child screamed. What was the mood? Frustrated? Frantic? Now, watch the book’s narrator (Jonah’s mother) look at her husband:

I eyed my husband through the open bathroom door, watching as he tapped his razor against the edge of the sink.

Already, you can see a distance open up between the sensibility of the scene (screaming child) and the response of the character “tapped his razor.” Imagine how else this description of the husband could have been written. He could have become as frantic as the child (parents often do). He could have snapped at his wife. He could have rushed out the door. Instead, he moves methodically. Now, watch how the sensibility of that tapping razor gets stretched along:

Miles kept his back to me. A new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist, and I studied his face in the mirror. His steady surgeon’s hand took a straight edge to the beveled cleft of his chin.

All desperation and hysterics, Jonah screamed. “Please, Mama!”

Every sentence contains a key detail: Instead of turning to his wife to see if she hears the baby, Miles keeps his back to her. He has gained weight, which has pooled (note the inertia implied in that word choice) at his waist. We learn that he’s a surgeon with a steady hand. In short, his refusal to get sucked in to the household drama is an essential part of his nature and evident in his actions, his physical appearance, and his career.

Now, watch what happens next:

Miles turned to face me as I stood, a dollop of shaving cream above his lip. “Claire, go get the baby.”

That’s a cold line. He’s asserting himself and his sensibility upon the drama around him. It’s a line that you can feel like a punch in the gut.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a gap between scene and character using What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field as a model:

  1. Set the tone of the scene. Often, this is done by introducing a particular force. In What Burns Away, it’s a screaming baby. In my earlier example, it was an uncle acting inappropriately at a wedding. Both are characters who can’t be tamed, at least not easily. This week’s episode of Mad Men had a great example of this. Don’s in a meeting with a table full of creative directors, listening to a pitch about beer. The company is impressively huge, and so everyone is listening intently. But not Don. In short, walk something into the scene that cannot be ignored, that must be dealt with.
  2. Create the character who will not play along. In What Burns Away, the husband refuses to quicken his morning routine for a screaming child. In Mad Men, Don refuses to listen. At the wedding, a character could egg the uncle on, rather than tamping down his behavior. If you know what the best or necessary behavior is, think about what it would mean for a character to A) do the opposite or B) disregard the thing that cannot be ignored.
  3. Be subtle. Miles eventually tells his wife to get the baby, which is highly dramatic, but before we get to that moment, we see him resisting or ignoring in a very small way: tapping his razor. In Mad Men, Don looks out the window before he walks out of the room. Don’t jump directly to the drama. Set it up by giving the character the smallest possible physical action that reveals or embodies his or her sensibility or behavior in general. Give the character a way to not play along that no one but the reader and maybe one other character will notice.

Good luck.

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