Tag Archives: writing exercises

An Interview with Paige Schilt

27 Feb

 

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Dr. Paige Schilt is a writer, mother, teacher, activist and band wife. Her stories have appeared on The Bilerico Project, Offbeat Families, Mutha Magazine and Brain, Child. She is a frequent speaker and facilitator at conferences, including Gender Odyssey, Contemporary Relationships, Creating Change and Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. Schist is married to Katy Koonce, frontman for the band Butch County. They live in Austin, Texas, with their son.

To read an excerpt from Queer Rock Love and an exercise on structuring a character’s internal conflict around action, click here.

Michael Noll

Queer Rock Love covers a lot of years, starting literally at the births of you and Katy and moving far beyond the falling-in-love and getting-married part of your story together. How did you approach the book’s structure? Or, to put it another way, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the book?

Paige Schilt

I wish I had a smart answer to this question. The truth is, many of the chapters in Queer Rock Love originated as blog posts for The Bilerico Project. In fact, the last few chapters were among the first stories that I wrote. As a result, I struggled for a long time to find the plot. I knew that I wanted to write against the typical transgender partner narrative, which tends to portray coming out as the crisis and surgery or transition as the resolution. That led me to begin with the moment I first saw my wife in a full beard and prosthetic man chest—not because it was love at first sight (which it was), but because there would be no secrets to reveal about her trans status.

I also knew that I wanted to write about the imbrication of life and death, and that Katy’s struggle with hepatitis C would unfold in the context of our son’s infancy. Writing about hepatitis C was a challenge, because chronic illness doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable crisis. It’s more like a miasma, which is what makes it so oppressive. I had to think a lot about how much sickness I thought my readers could handle. I ended up leaving out certain medical events, which continues to be a bone of contention in my marriage! That’s something you rarely hear memoirists talk about—the possibility that the people you wrote about will dwell on the details you didn’t tell.

Michael Noll

In her review of the book, Marion Winik points out that you don’t do “a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues.” On one hand, this seems like a natural choice since the story you’re telling isn’t exactly theoretical: it’s about love and marriage and the challenges that married people face all over the world. On the other hand, it’s a love story that is new to a lot of people—and you’re an academic who name drops Lacan, so the language of theory is one you’re intimately familiar and comfortable with. How difficult was it to find your voice in this memoir?

Paige Schilt

Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

I started writing these stories in 2008, and I didn’t finish the book until 2015, so I had a lot of time to transform my voice. I was teaching LGBT film studies for a large part of those years, and the book is informed by my readings of Jack Halberstam, Eve Sedgwick, José Munoz, and many others. At first, I was tempted to plunk down a quotation from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in my chapter on breast feeding. Now that I’ve read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I feel like I could have indulged that impulse a bit more. At the same time, the fellow writers in my writing workshop tended to feel like I was losing the thread of the story when I made theoretical asides. In the end, I think I found a kind of compromise position. I’m proud of the section in the prologue where I write about my aversion to gender essentialism through the story of my 1970s childhood dolls, the Sunshine family. I think the key is helping the reader feel what’s at stake, in a personal way, with theoretical ideas.

Michael Noll

Going along with the lack of theoretical heavy lifting, I love the way that you mix action with interiority. So, for example, you start a chapter with buying a duplex rather than thoughts about your relationship. Did these scenes and moments come together naturally in your writing, or did you have to realize, oh yeah, that happened and it’s a good opportunity to write about what I was thinking at the time?

Paige Schilt

I didn’t think specifically about mixing action with interiority, but I did think a lot about pacing and economy. And I do experience my inner life as a dynamic dialogue with ideas and people and things. For instance, the moment when I realize that Katy has thrush because I’ve read about the symptoms in AIDS memoirs—I literally did have that sense of recognition. Was I really rummaging through the linen closet when it came to me? I’m not sure—but I needed to place that realization in a context of collecting extra toiletries for Katrina survivors, because I wanted our personal tragedy to be contextualized by the epic tragedy in New Orleans.

Michael Noll

I was recently at the AWP conference, moderating a panel on writing about class, and I asked the panelists how they handle perceived or real exoticism in their work—details that seem shocking or weird to some readers but are just part of the fabric of life for the characters or narrator. As a writer, how do you use those details to maximum effect and hook the reader but also portray them as they seem to the people involved with them. I thought of this again with your book. In an interview in OutSmart, you write about pitching the book to editors and agents, who wanted a more “tragic, sensational story.” The title of the memoir seems to accomplish two things. It’s probably pretty eye-catching to some readers, but it’s also an accurate, unembellished description of the book. Was it difficult to pull off both at once?

Paige Schilt

I think this connects back to the question of plot. A lot of transgender partner or family narratives focus on surgery or physical modifications to the body. I wanted to write matter-of-factly and informatively about Katy’s chest surgery and other potentially sensational matters, including how we conceived our son. In those chapters, my imagined readers are other gender nonconforming families like ourselves, those who might need some roadmaps for this unorthodox journey. At the same time, I didn’t want our family life to be reduced to just that one thing, because I wanted to portray the complexity of our life. In the end, I think that’s what compels most readers. They find some other aspect of our lives that they identify with. A lot of readers write to me because they have also nursed someone through a long illness and they’re glad that I wrote about how hard it is to be a caregiver.

Some of my mentors cautioned me not to put the word “queer” in the title. For a long time, I thought Queer Rock Love was just my working title, but then it stuck. The phrase comes from the song “Dyke Hag” by the band Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, who also appear in the book. The song is a celebration of queer creative community and the non-nuclear-family ties that bind. When I was writing the book, the title was like a string around my finger, reminding me to always keep the big picture of queer community in mind, even as I was writing about marriage and parenting. In other words, this iteration of “queer” is less about the (possibly sensational) subject of who you have sex with. It’s about community.

February 2017

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

An Interview with Shannon Perri

2 Feb
Shannon Perri's story, "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland Magazine and the journals 2016 Publisher's Picks.

Shannon Perri’s story, “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland Magazine and the journals 2016 Publisher’s Picks.

Shannon Perri is an MFA candidate at Texas State University and holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas. Her stories have appeared in literary journals such as Buffalo Almanack, Fiddleblack, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She lives in Austin with her husband and menagerie of pets.

To read Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” and an exercise on setting up endings, click here.

In this interview, Perri discusses adding a POV to her story, foreshadowing without losing believability, and avoiding thematic commentary.

Michael Noll

The story is called “The Resurrection Act” and, appropriately enough, it’s structured around a single performance of a magician’s act. But there’s also a lot of backstory about Earl, and so it’s probably possible that the story could have expanded beyond the tight frame of the one performance. How did you decide on the story’s frame? Did it ever threaten to spill out of it?

Shannon Perri

I never considered allowing the present narrative to span more than a day. I wrote this story while on a Roald Dahl kick. In his short stories, I love how closely Dahl thrusts humor and horror against each other and was inspired to attempt a similar tonal feat. Beyond that vague impulse, I had nothing. I combed through the Internet for inspiration and stumbled upon an article about a real-life magician who died while performing a burial act. I was immediately drawn to his story and decided to use it as a skeleton for my own. The first draft of my story was told only from Earl’s point of view and did not feature the wife’s prominent role in his demise. This version fell flat. The tension grew from adding Cornella’s perspective. I do not always write this way—backwards—but I think starting from the end helped contain the story’s focus.

Michael Noll

The story begins with two sentences that focus on Earl’s keys, and the first time I read it, I thought this was strange—until, of course, I got to the end. Were those keys always present in the opening paragraph, or were they added after you’d written the ending?

Shannon Perri

The keys were not always present. In the first draft, the story opened with Earl alone in the motel room. I received feedback in a workshop that it would be valuable to see Earl and Cornella together before the performance, which made sense to me. When adding this scene, the key detail came out organically. I didn’t realize how well it connected thematically, at least not consciously, until I returned to it. My initial concern was to ensure that the writing was deeply rooted in Earl’s point-of-view. That said, part of the fun of crafting this story was considering how to foreshadow in ways that (hopefully) enhance the reader’s satisfaction, yet without sacrificing believability and surprise.

Michael Noll

The title lends itself to a lot of thematic readings, but the religion in the story is connected to character: Earl almost dies and begins to question his beliefs, and his wife is content with accepting the things she’s been taught. After the story’s climax, it moves to a church. A bad version of this story would beat the reader over the head with some message, but that doesn’t happen here. I don’t really know what the message would be. Were you ever tempted to give the story a clearer “message”?

Shannon Perri

I personally don’t think fiction’s job is to provide clear answers or “messages.” I’m much more interested in reading and writing about the nuances of the human experience, and if I ever feel an agenda lurking in my own work, I do everything I can to complicate it, though perhaps that in itself is an agenda. Yes, religion plays into this story, but I would hate for a reader to walk away thinking it either promotes or condemns Christianity. Not every small-town Christian would respond to Earl’s act the way Cornella does. I’m more interested in exploring why this particular religious woman feels as she does rather than making any sort of blanket commentary.

Michael Noll

Next week, I’ll be at AWP, moderating a panel on writing about class. I couldn’t help reading this story with that panel in mind. It’s a story that takes place in a small, rural town, a place where people say things like “That ain’t no way to go.” Other ways of being and seeing the world are hinted at when reporters from Houston show up. Did you think about class at all as you wrote this story—about class distinctions and the ways they color the characters’ actions and ideas?

Shannon Perri

I thought a lot about place. In 8th grade, my family moved from Austin to the small town of Burnet, Texas. Perhaps because I was an outsider as the new kid, the sharp contrasts of these two worlds leapt out at me, much more than their similarities, which looking back, I can see, too. If I grew up from birth in a rural place, who knows if I’d be as interested in exploring this setting, but when you’re a middle schooler in a new world order, you pay attention. I find that again and again small town life appears in my writing. All that said, when considering influences such as class, gender, religion, region, etc., I try to make sure their impacts derive from relational experiences. For this story, I tried to consider the various relationships and daily interactions that Cornella and Earl each have in their family life and community—both what readers learn about on the page and not. And of course class, gender, religion, and region inherently affect those relationships. My hope is that using relational experiences as a lens helps to capture character specifics and the intersection of so many of these “macro” influences.

February 2017

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

An Interview with Rajia Hassib

27 Jan

By Selin Gökcesu

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and moved to the U.S. at age twenty-three. She earned a degree in architecture from the University of Alexandria and a second bachelor’s and a master’s in English from Marshall University, where she went on to teach creative writing and postcolonial literature. She lives in Charleston, WV, with her husband and two children. In the Language of Miracles is her first novel.

Rajia Hassib was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and is the author of the novel In the Language of Miracles.

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib is the story of the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim family from Egypt. Nagla and Samir immigrate to New York in 1985, with their infant son Hosaaam, and Samir finds success as a physician in the suburbs of New Jersey, where the family has two more children, Khaled and Fatima. When Hosaam murders his girlfriend, Natalie, and takes his own life, the family members become outcasts in their community. In the Language of Miracles is a novel about individuals dealing with loss, grief, and shame in the aftermath of violence.

Selin Gökcesu

I read in previous interviews that you were moved by the events surrounding 9/11 in designing the plot and having the novel unfold around an act of violence. But, the act of violence in the book is very specific, and in some ways, very stereotypical: a young man kills his girlfriend and commits suicide. Can you tell us more about this choice, about its relationship to political violence at a larger scale, and its personal impact on the characters?

Rajia Hassib

While the aftermath of 9/11 was, indeed, the main reason I built the plot around an act of violence, I was never interested in a direct exploration of the political aspects of that particular terrorist attack. Instead, I wanted to explore how this one event shaped the lives of so many who were neither involved in it nor in any way responsible for it. As a Muslim living in the United States since before 9/11, I saw firsthand how this terrorist attack rattled the entire Muslim community in so many ways, and I wanted to investigate this on its most basic, human level.

To read the rest of this interview, visit Books Are Not a Luxury.

First published at Books Are Not a Luxury, January 2017

 

How to Set Up and Break a Routine

24 Jan
In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib's first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

In the Language of Miracles is Rajia Hassib’s first novel. You can read two great essays about being an American Muslim, written in response to the novel at Books Are Not a Luxury.

If you have writer’s block and can’t break out, there’s one trick that is almost guaranteed to help. You probably know what it is: set up a routine for a character and then break it. Story will inevitably follow. Watch: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… Or Every day he ate dinner alone at the corner restaurant where no one else ever ate, but then one day it was closed, so he… As writers, first we must learn the basics of how the strategy works: the set up and the twist. Once we’ve developed that piece of our craft, then we can begin to play with it, adding variations. It’s partly true, as one of my high school English teachers used to say, that writers have been telling the same stories over and over since Shakespeare. There are only so many types of stories. The art is in how we make them our own.

Rajia Hassib does exactly that with the strategy for establishing and breaking routines in her novel In the Language of Miracles. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt, establishes a medical practice and home and family, and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. After a prologue, the novel begins by establishing a new routine following the murder:

For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.

The routine in this passage is clear. Both families do everything they can to avoid encountering each other. We see this avoidance three times: through Samir, Nagla, and Cynthia. Each character’s avoidance is tethered to a specific detail, which is where their routines come from. The reason that the families don’t want to talk or see each other isn’t stated, but we know why.

Then, the routine changes:

Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.

The change is so simple. They avoid each other, and now one of them is seeking out the others, a change so unexpected that Khaled is shocked and doesn’t know what to do. As readers, we have to keep reading to find out what will happen. The story has kicked into gear, which is the beauty of setting up and breaking a routine.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and break a routine, using In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib as a model:

  1. Give your characters a compelling reason to behave a certain way. It’s easy to set up any old routine. At the beginning of this post, I wrote this one: Every day she went out alone to pick flowers, but then one day someone was waiting for her… This is fine and serviceable. It will get the job done. But a better routine is driven by necessity and desire. Hassib’s characters really don’t want to run into their neighbors, for good reason. So they behave accordingly. In your story, what is foremost on your characters’ minds at any given point of the day. Try out different times of day. Find a moment when something seems so large that they feel compelled to behave in a certain way. If it’s a recurring moment, the behavior will probably get repeated, turning it into a routine.
  2. Attach the routine to specific objects. Hassib does this with three different characters. Samir parks his car, Nagla moves her ashtray, and Cynthia abandons her garden. It will be tempting to use certain objects (newspaper, coffee cup, alarm clock), but try to think beyond these items. What else is essential to your character’s day? What objects are present in the moment you wrote about in the first step? Pick one and focus on it. Put it at the center of the routine. Describe the object with specific details, as Hassib does with the cluttered garage, wicker armchair, and dill and cilantro.
  3. Break the routine. Who will do it? Which character will behave contrary to expectation? What single act will signal the break in the routine? Hassib uses Nancy: Instead of avoiding the Al-Menshawys, she knocks on their door.
  4. Figure out why that character has broken the routine. In this case, Nancy wants to tell her neighbors about a memorial that will be held in a few days. In other words, an event has broken the routine (as events tend to do). You can also cause characters to change their behaviors by adding external elements: someone new shows up, or something unexpected is discovered (fortune, disease). The bigger the reason for the routine in the first place, the bigger the reason for break it probably needs to be.   

The goal is to creating story and narrative momentum by establishing and breaking routine. You might not do it in the order listed above. Often, writers know what characters will do but not why. Sometimes they know what drives characters to act but not what they’ll do. Either one is a good place to begin.

Good luck.

An Interview with Steph Post

19 Jan
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked. She is a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship for creative writing from Davidson College and the Vereen Bell writing award. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics and many other literary outlets. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for The Big Moose Prize. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

To read an excerpt from Post’s story Lightwood and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses how story cannot be separated from point of view, the moral center of her crime novel, and its villain based on a Pentecostal preacher Post knew as a child.

Michael Noll

This is a crime novel, and one of the genres that closely associated with crime is the detective novel, which tends to have a single point of view that follows the detective. This novel, however, is told from many points of view, and I wonder how you found that structure. When did you know that the novel wouldn’t have a character that provided the central gravity of the story?

Steph Post

Lightwood was a novel comprised of many points of view from the very beginning. I write straight through, from first word to last on a first draft and so I switched points of view as a I wrote. When I write, I imagine the novel cinematically as if it were a film or a television show and the multiple point of view structure comes naturally. For me anyway, point of view is everything in story. A scene written from Judah’s point of view is going to be very different from one written in Ramey’s, even if they are in the same room, trying to accomplish the same objective. Point of view gives you insight into a character’s thought process, but also provides a lens for which to view the different characters. Sister Tulah is a different character when viewed from Brother Felton’s eyes as opposed to Jack O’ Lantern’s. I think not having one central character who anchors the point of view in Lightwood is a risk, but I believe the style fleshes the story out in a necessary way.

Michael Noll

Almost everyone in this novel is breaking the law. The characters who push back against the criminals (like Felton) are doing so out of an immediate concern for particular people and not some moral code. As the writer of this world, where do you look to find the moral or ethical center that holds it together? 

Steph Post

Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

I think the moral center comes in the form of the personal responsibility each character feels and how they act on that sense of responsibility. Most of the characters are thrown into situations that immediately force them to make complicated and, yes, usually unlawful decisions. Some of the characters, like Sister Tulah and Sherwood Cannon, are acting out of deliberate malice and this makes them the obvious villains. Others, like Judah and Ramey, are making choices which come with various degrees of consequence. They are guided by an ethical code that extends to their families and those they care about, even if this hurts outsiders to some degree. And I’ve always felt that Ramey is the moral compass of the novel. While she may not always be following the law, she does have her head more on her shoulders than anyone else.

Michael Noll

You’ve written a great villain—Sister Tulah—a con artist and preacher, and what I found so interesting about her is that her sermons are clearly designed to manipulate her followers, but she also seems to believe them in a way, and we get long descriptions of them. What inspired this character? 

Steph Post

Sister Tulah is loosely based off of a real Pentecostal preacher I knew growing up. While I was not raised Pentecostal, my mother was and so I was aware of and fascinated by Pentacostalism. Most followers of charismatic religions believe in their faith to a degree that may be hard for outsiders to fathom. Sister Tulah, while obviously evil and clearly manipulative, believes in the force behind her religion. She is hypocritical, yes, but she also believes very much in the power she holds and that it comes as a divine right to her. Sister Tulah is so much fun to write because of her extremes and in the sequel—due out next year—I really explore where she comes from and what makes her tick.

Michael Noll

In Chapter 10, you change up your chapter structure and begin with a series of paragraphs that tells us what different characters see when they wake. Was this opening created out of a particular narrative need at that point in the novel? What inspired you to change the structure like that?

Steph Post

The opening of chapter 10 serves to give the reader a moment to breathe—Lightwood is a very fast novel—and also to take stock of where all of the characters are, both physical and mentally. I like the idea of all of the characters waking up on the same day, perhaps even at the same moment, but with very different experiences ahead of them. The characters of Lightwood are so tangled up in one another and I wanted to take a pause to see them all individually. Chapter 10 marks an important turning point in the plot that changes the outcome of the story for all the characters as well, and I wanted to make it clear, especially for Judah Cannon, that his life would no longer be the same after.

January 2017

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

An Interview with Sam Allingham

22 Dec
Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, Epoch, n+1, The Millions, and Full Stop, among other publications. He currently lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University.

To read an exercise on not over-explaining characters’ behavior based on Allingham’s story “Stockholm Syndrome,” click here.

In this interview, Allingham discusses his story “Stockholm Syndrome” and openings that don’t focus on main characters, explaining only what is necessary, and writing characters with desire in cold worlds.

Michael Noll

There is so much misdirection in this story, though it doesn’t feel that way at the time. For example, the story begins with the blind man and his wife, but they’re not really central characters. They exist in large extent as something for other characters to comment on. There’s also Valerie’s old boyfriend, a character who is entirely off page but who plays a significant role in how we understand the action and world of the story. Because (I think) of both of these sets of characters, I was absolutely bowled over by the ending—stunned. I did not see it coming. Did you? How early into the draft did you know where the story as headed?

Sam Allingham

The opening scene, like so many of my openings, was written as a set piece: I had no idea who the characters were, or whether any of them were going to be central to the story. I don’t subscribe to the concept that an opening ought to focus entirely on the principal characters; to me, it’s more about establishing mood and perspective—in this case, Valerie’s tentative, somewhat apologetic attitude toward the world. She wants to know people intimately, and yet her past experiences have made this difficult. In a sense, every character within the story—whether metadiegetic, like the characters from Valerie’s research, or biographical, like Thomas—are ultimately about trying to understand Valerie’s relationship to trauma. The opening was about me learning about her: what will her observation of this couple come to represent for her?
By the time of her initial dinner with Thomas, I knew Valerie pretty well—I knew that if Thomas invited her to visit, she would come. And I’d already decided that Thomas was a master manipulator, so the ending didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Really, Valerie already knows, too—she’s already seen the way that Thomas’ charm is actually about hiding his true face from the world. But by this point she’s too emotionally invested in him to let herself see.
What did come as a surprise was the use of the Fritzl case, which was coming out more or less as I wrote the piece. So, being a magpie, I slotted it in.

Michael Noll

This is a story that begs explanation: What’s going on with Leigh Anne? What does she think is going on? Why does Thomas act the way he does? What do all those women at the end think? By the end of the story, I’m able to answer these questions part way—but not completely. How did you know how much to reveal or suggest and how much you could get away with keeping inaccessible and mysterious?

Sam Allingham

My basic rule is that you only have to explain the things that aren’t a mystery to your ordering perspective: in this case, Valerie. She doesn’t know Leigh Anne, and so Leigh Anne remains unexplained. Ditto Thomas: the reader is forced to judge him through Valerie’s (admittedly) unreliable eyes. I guess I trust my readers to fill in the blanks. As I said before, the story is really about Valerie: the way her perspective tricks her into mis-seeing the world, by overlaying her own trauma onto Thomas.

Michael Noll

When was “Stockholm Syndrome” written relative to the other stories in the collection? It feels of a piece in terms of the characters and their preoccupations, but it’s formally quite different from, say, “Rodgers and Hart” and “One Hundred Characters.” Were those stories (or “Stockholm Syndrome”) written to try out a different style, or did the style reveal itself as you wrote?

Sam Allingham

Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

Funnily enough, those three stories were more or less contemporaneous. I write in two modes: shorter, lighter, and more linguistically experimental stories, and longer, darker, more narrative pieces. The shorter ones are usually constrained, stylistic experiments. With a piece like “One Hundred Characters,” for example, I was primarily interested in seeing if it was possible to maintain a reader’s interest without offering any narrative beyond a list of one hundred characters; with “Rodgers and Hart” I was interested in seeing if a series of comparisons could be a story. With the longer stories, I’m generally interested in investigating one character’s psychology, or sometimes two: the monomaniacal builder in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” for example, and the narrator who serves as his recorder.

Michael Noll

The book is blurbed by Dan Chaon, a writer whose work exudes the Lovecraftian belief that the world cannot be understood except that it a) doesn’t care about you and b) might be actively hostile to you. So many of the stories in this book resist closure and conclusion. By the end of “Stockholm Syndrome,” I felt as though I were hurtling into the abyss. “Rodgers and Hart” is about a relationship that will never be fully realized. “One Hundred Characters” takes a very long-distance view of its world, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ash” has a character whose motivations remain utterly shrouded even at the end. For this, I love these stories, the same as I love Dan Chaon’s work. But these stories also have a kind of warmth, a promise of hope and connection, that I’m not sure always exists in Chaon’s work. In stories, the world is cold, but the characters are hot, filled with desire. I’m curious how you navigate your way through your work. Do you start with the characters and their desire and then frustrate it with the disregard (or hostility) of the world? Or do you start with the cold world and drop into it characters full of desire?

Sam Allingham

Dan was my advisor as an undergrad, and a wonderful teacher. It’s funny, his novels (and later stories) can be extremely Lovecraftian, but I tend to think there’s human connection in his world, too. His second collection, Among the Missing, was a big influence on me, because it contains so many stories of people who are actively enduring tragedy and suffering, even in the face of a nearly supernatural sense of doom. I mean, my general sense is that most people, at some point in their lives, press up against the limits of what life offers them, or have life press forcibly against them in some traumatic way. For the narrator in “Tiny Cities,” his friend’s construction of a model version of their town comes to stand in for the way his own family has become somewhat trapped in the real town of Elverton; for Cheryl, this comes when her mother takes her father’s place (and clothes) after his death. I suppose I always try to put people in conflict with the limits of their world – which is probably why I tend to write female characters as much (or more) than men; women, in my experience, tend to be much, much more aware of the ways in which the world is out to restrict their free thought and action.
This is all probably a long-winded way of saying that for me, desire is always delimited by the coldness of the world, and the way it restricts our actions. That’s what makes it desire!

December 2016

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

An Interview with John Pipkin

15 Dec
John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer's Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the award-winning novel Woodsburner about Henry David Thoreau and the new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter.

John Pipkin is the author of the novels Woodsburner and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Pipkin attended Washington & Lee University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received his Ph.D. in British Literature from Rice University. He was an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Rhetoric at Boston University before moving to Austin, where he served as the Executive Director of the Writers’ League of Texas. Currently, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern University, where he teaches literature and creative writing, and he also teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.  Pipkin has received research and writing fellowships from the Harry Ransom Center,  the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program, and the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and son.

To read an excerpt from Pipkin’s novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter and an exercise on building suspense, click here.

In this interview, Pipkin discusses outlining to prepare for the moment that inspiration strikes, titles, and capturing a historical language and rhythm.

Michael Noll

I loved The Blind Astronomer’s Novel in large part for the same reason I love Andrea Barrett’s work, because it explores the hopes and fears that we attach to scientific discovery, reminding us of how essential these discoveries are to our sense of the world and ourselves. In some ways, the novel is held together by the theme/metaphor/idea of stars and heavenly bodies. In almost every chapter, they play a practical role (a physical element in the story) but also a larger one. All of the characters, in some fashion or another, imbue the stars and other heavenly bodies with meaning. There’s the expected stuff: People calling comets “evidence of a God whose works are as magnificent as they are mysterious” or worrying that they’re harbingers of doom. And there’s the more personal: the question of who gets to name comets, which is important in a novel in which lineage is muddled. And that’s just in one chapter. The characters also use the heavenly bodies to give meaning to the things on Earth, like Finn being described as “pale as the crescent moon.” I could go on and on. How much of the attachments that characters give to the stars did you anticipate, and how much was discovered in writing the characters?

John Pipkin

Thanks for referencing Andrea Barrett, whose work I greatly admire. Her short story, “The English Pupil,” (a truly amazing story) is an outstanding example of how historical fiction can use history as a means of accessing the deeper questions of what it means to be human and to pursue ambitions at the cost of all else, (and it raises the more existential questions of whether or not a life spent in pursuit of noble goals will result in meaningful satisfaction or regret.)

The short answer to your question is that it was always my intention to have astronomical and scientific imagery serve both a structural function and a thematic function (as relates to the characters’ pursuits) from the very first draft of the story. But of course I didn’t think of all of these connections at the beginning, and this is one of the reasons why I outline obsessively (and continue to re-outline as I write), so that I have a framework in place to be ready for the accidental discoveries of thematically connected imagery when it occurs in the writing process. Louis Pasteur is credited with saying that “chance only favors the well-prepared,” (there are several different versions of this) and I think that’s absolutely true when it comes to writing a novel-length narrative. You have to be prepared for spontaneity, or it will slip through your fingers. I think a lot of beginning writers tend to hear the word “outline” and shudder; they immediately think of something restrictive or limiting—something rigid that dictates what will happen at every point in the story—but I think that a good outline is an organic framework that is actually liberating and makes it possible for a writer to be able to take advantage of spontaneous discoveries when they occur. In a day of writing, a dozen different thematic connections might arise (if it’s a good day and I’m lucky), but only the accidental ideas that actually fit the narrative make it into the story. So having a thematic outline helps to keep the narrative focused by weeding out what doesn’t belong, and it also keeps me prepared for the accidental discoveries when they come along.

The same is true of the structural role that the interconnected imagery plays in holding the narrative together; novels are unwieldy things, and a writer needs to be able to find an architecture to support the narrative without suffocating the characters under over-zealous plotting. Here again, having a thematic outline helps identify the scenes and transitions where a thematic connection (when it arises in the writing process) can serve to help bind the scenes together. (Yes, I think of blank spaces in the outline as being just as important a part of the outline as the places that are filled in from the start.) So, when I say that all of the thematic and metaphorical connections throughout the novel were intentional from the start, that’s true, but I didn’t know what all of those connections would be when I started. In that way, writing really is like exploring a thematic continent that you’ve partially mapped in advance; you have a pretty good idea of where you are going and where you want to arrive, but you don’t yet know everything about the terrain you’re planning to traverse.

Michael Noll

Many writers dread coming up with titles, but you invent one for every chapter in the book. I can imagine this starting out easy and then becoming more challenging as you get into the middle of the book. Were the chapter titles difficult to create? Did you write them after the chapter itself was written or earlier in the process, using them as an organizing tool?

John Pipkin

The chapter titles did not appear until the last major revision of the manuscript, four years after I started. The titles were among some of the last things that I wrote, and, in fact, I had not even planned to give titles to the chapters at all. The decision to give the chapters titles has everything to do with what I was describing in the previous answer—that in writing a novel length narrative, you have to be open to make use of a variety of techniques to help tie the story together. There are several different stories, subplots, and interwoven themes in The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, and even though I am drawn to complexity as an aesthetic, complexity in and of itself doesn’t have half the merit as clarity. So after I completed the early first draft, I rewrote the novel, completely, at least four times, each time trying to greater clarity and focus to the story. When I began my final revision, I wanted to “foreground” the themes, but I didn’t want to over-explain any of the thematic moments in the story. So it just occurred to me that I could give each chapter a title that, in a way, identified what the main thematic focus was of each chapter. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that doing this also had the benefit of tying the whole narrative together, while also mimicking the style of 19th-century novels, many of which use chapter titles for an episodic effect. Coming up with titles was actually fairly easy, since all of the chapters where already fully written and I already knew what I wanted them to convey, so the titles were a way for me to flag what I saw as the central idea in each chapter. And if you look closely, each title is almost an exact quote from a sentence in the chapter itself.

Of course, the danger of using something like chapter titles early on is that if the chapters don’t already cohere on their own and flow one into the next based solely on their content, then having cute titles won’t help, and even worse, the device can seem like a structural gimmick if you’re relying on them too heavily. So, from the beginning, I try to focus only on the writing itself—just the writing—and any kind of structural devices—like chapter titles, illustrations, italics, inter-chapters, etc.—all of these extra-narrative devices come later.

Michael Noll

The diction and phrasing of the novel sounds, at least to my ear, like something written in the time of the novel. I’m curious whether that’s because it actually is how people wrote at the time or if it simply sounds like I imagine people wrote. I remember hearing Denis Johnson once say that when he was writing Train Dreams, he used a dictionary from the time of the novella and did not use a word that could not be found in it. Were you that scrupulous with your language as you wrote?

John Pipkin

John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

Well, yeah, I’m obsessively scrupulous when it comes to historical diction. I kept an 1828 edition of Webster’s nearby, but actually I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary much more frequently to make sure that the terms I was using actually existed at the time period about which I’m writing. I am not as concerned with making sure that I use a wide range of archaic vocabulary or idioms from the period—since too much of this sort of thing can make a novel feel more like a lesson in linguistics—but I’m absolutely conscientious about making sure that no modern anachronisms sneak into the story. And this is harder than you might think.

Many words that sound old-fashioned are often not that old. When I was writing Woodsburner, for example, I had planned to have a character call Henry David Thoreau a “layabout”—many people at the time were suspicious of him and thought him lazy and an idler. But when I checked, I found that “layabout,” even though it sounds old, is actually a Depression-era word and didn’t appear in the language until 1932. One of the big concerns I had in writing The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter is that many of our scientific terms did not yet exist. For example, the word “scientist” didn’t even exist yet during the period in which the novel is set. Science was such a new pursuit, there was no word to describe someone who did nothing but pursue scientific investigations full time. They called such people “sciencers” or “men of science.” The word “scientist” was not coined until 1834, after Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that there should be a word for people who do science, just as people who make art are called “artists.” (William Whewell is credited with coming up with the term.) So I checked and doubled-checked any word that I suspected might have originated later than the story.

And it wasn’t only dictionaries that helped establish the feel of the language. I read a large number of old letters and diaries from the period to get a feel for the language, not just in terms of vocabulary, but also for syntax, how people put nouns and adjectives together, and for how they used prepositions. Something as simple as inserting a prepositional phrase where we would ordinary elide the preposition—since it is implied and understood—goes a long way to making the language sound like it came from any period. But you really have to be careful. The goal, I think, is to make the language sound like the language of the time, without actually being so true to the diction and syntax that it becomes inaccessible or obfuscating to the modern reader. I could write a novel in a style that is absolutely true to the 18th-century, but that would be an unproductive exercise because I’ll never have a single 18th-century reader. So in this, as in all things, it’s important to keep your reader in mind. The narrative has to remain clear and accessible, while conveying a sense of the rhythm and feel of the language of the period.

Michael Noll

We talked about your novel at a NaNoWriMo panel at the Austin Public Library, and you mentioned (or you did in my recollection) that you’re drawn to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because it’s how you make sense of the present day, not necessarily in a one-to-one sense but more generally as a way to see precursors to the concerns we have now. I wonder if you could elaborate on this. Your last novel was set in the mid-1800s. This one is set about a hundred years earlier. What about these time periods draws your imagination?

John Pipkin

I’ve talked a lot so far about the structural and thematic structure of narrative, and the necessities of historical accuracy in language and detail, and all of these things are crucial, but really what is most important to me in writing a story are the characters and the potential of those characters to help us come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. So, first and foremost, I always want to make sure that I am writing about characters, and not about a historical period. It doesn’t matter how interesting or important a historical period is, there have to be characters (real or fictional) that I am drawn to writing about. That said, I’m drawn to those historical moments that can serve as a lens through which to view our own experience of the contemporary world and our own place in the sweep of time. In writing fiction, I am much more interested in conveying a sense of the human experience, the emotional and psychological dimension of inhabiting a specific time and place than with trying to convey a catalogue of facts about the period. When I’m researching, I’m not just looking for information but for blank spaces and gaps in the historical record; this is where fiction is able to explore the motivations and yearnings of characters. Writing about the past gives you the point of view of the outsider—even if you are writing about your own community—since the time elapsed creates the kind of distance that makes it possible to look at people and events with fresh eyes.

One of the reasons why I am drawn to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in particular is that the Romantic Period (and in America the Transcendentalist Movement) were pivotal in setting in motion the historical forces that shaped the modern world. Art, music, literature, politics, science, medicine, philosophy, psychology–all of these disciplines undergo radical transformations in this historical period, which saw a re-centering of the human subject, and we are the inheritors of this re-centering. Right now, I’m working on a new manuscript based in the 20th century, so I’m getting closer to the present, but still there is a temporal distance between my narratives and my subject matter. But regardless of the historical period or the narrative context, I think it’s crucial that the novel is always centered on the fundamental experiences of being human.

December 2016

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

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