Tag Archives: writing exercises

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

15 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which has been called “auspicious,” “complex,” and “caustically funny.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Greenidge discusses describing characters, acknowledging the role of power in race, and finding an agent who appreciated her novel.

Michael Noll

I love the way you introduce Charlie. A character says that “it’s best we all meet Charlie now,” but the introduction isn’t given to the reader in a direct way. First, we see the place where Charlie lives. Then, we’re told that he’s sitting beside a fern and that a man kneels beside him—and then we’re introduced to the man. Only after this do we get to see Charlie. I love this approach because it takes the weight off his character. It’s as if the novel is saying that Charlie is important, yes, but he’s less important the everything around him. Was this introduction to Charlie simply how it arrived on the page? Or did you write it with a particular goal in mind?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I didn’t want this novel to be about chimpanzees. That isn’t, to me, what this novel is about or what it is concerned with. So, it was important to let the reader know this from the beginning. Part of it was just keeping the reader’s interest in that first chapter. Part of it was also me, as a writer, not being ready to engage with the character of Charlie yet. All of those things went into that first introduction to the character.

Michael Noll

I also love the description of Dr. Paulson, in particular this:

When she parted her lips to grin, behind her white, white teeth, I caught a glimpse of her tongue. It was the yellowest, craggiest, driest tongue I had ever seen. It surely did not belong in that mouth, in her, and I shot a look at my mother, who widened her eyes, who gave one quick shake of her head that told me to ignore it.

It’s a monstrous trait, that tongue. In an interview with Lambda Literary, you said that you love the grotesque and the mechanics of horror stories, and the tongue certainly seems to fit. It’s also a detail that turns Dr. Paulson into a kind of monster. In that same interview, you talked about writing fully-developed characters, and so I’m curious how a detail like this works in terms of character development. Did you worry that giving characters monstrous characteristics would make them more difficult to develop? Or is the monstrosity part of that complexity? It’s certainly part of what makes the book so compelling.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

That was more a private joke with myself, while I was writing. I had a teacher in school when I was a kid who used to eat chalk. He carried a stick of it in his back pocket and during class, he would bring it out and lick it. His tongue was pebbled and yellow. And, no one ever mentioned it! It was like, is no one else seeing this, how disgusting it is? So, when I was writing, I just wanted to include that detail as a reminder and a joke with some younger part of myself.

I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about.  I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.

Michael Noll

The characters are put into situations that highlight their blackness and make them objects of fascination and study. For example, Laurel likes to say of her childhood in Maine that she was the only black person in a one-hundred mile radius. The town of the novel is segregated, and the school that the girls attend is mostly white. At the Toneybee Institute, the family is made a literal object of study, and several reviewers have pointed out connections to the Tuskegee Institute. There’s a sense, then, that the Freemans’ weird situation isn’t, actually, so weird. When you began to sketch out the plot of the novel, did you have ideas or themes in mind? Did you, in other words, have something you wanted to say? Or did you invent the premise and plot first and discover what it had to say about the world?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

I wanted to write about race in post-Civil Rights America. Which is a very big and wide topic. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which we don’t really have a way to describe living race right now, because we are so averse in America to talking about power.

I just read an editorial on Al Jazeera, about how “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term. It’s an old argument, one that anyone familiar with that debate can recognize. Basically, culture is universal, all cultures borrow from each other, it was 19th century racists who popularized the idea of distinct, cultural productions in the first place so why do we cling to that idea?

All those historical facts are true, but they are missing that question of power. What does it mean that I probably won’t be hired at many places because my hair is in dreadlocks but an upper-middle class white man could wear the same hairstyle to work and be considered a wonderful iconoclast? That is a question of power, that those who go on and on about how it’s all the same never really have an answer for that.

I grew up in the 90s, when so much talk about race was about “diversity”, how everyone everywhere came from a different culture so let’s all flatten it out. The Irish potato famine is the same pain as the Holocaust is the same pain as American slavery so let’s just not talk about any of it. That is ludicrous, of course, and not how memory or history or culture or politics works. But it’s a convenient idea to cling to in order to avoid really talking about all the ways our wounds are different, and how they are serving, or not serving, us well.

It’s similar to that self-serving, smug, and ultimately meaningless phrase “Everyone is racist.” Usually, the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “so don’t worry about it/don’t try to talk about it.” We have to get to a point where we have another way to talk about racism and white supremacy beyond just calling people out. Calling people and institutions out is a powerful tool, but we also have to get to a point where we can have conversations past naming someone or a practice or an institution as racist. What does it mean to work to change an institution? Knowing that we are all imperfect, that we will never live in a utopia, that there will always be bias, that over 500 years of racist thinking and oppression cannot simply be erased over night? How do we get to a point where we get real gains, and keep them for another generation to build on? One of the heartbreaking things about studying race post-the Civil Rights era is how many things have been lost, even in the last 8 years, how much we’ve lost. It’s terrifying. So how do we begin to keep what we’ve got and what’s working?

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Daniel Jose Older about his essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” He said that he loves books that multitask and that demand multiple things of the reader. So, for example, he’s written Half-Resurrection Blues, an urban fantasy novel about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal detectives, but it’s also a novel that has a lot to say about issues of race. Kiese Laymon’s Long Division does something similar: it contains time travel and an absurdist vocabulary contest, and it’s very much a book about race. In his case, he struggled to find an appreciative editor and publisher for that book. Your book also seems like it’s multi-tasking. Did you ever think, Uh oh, I’m taking on too much? Was it ever suggested to you that the novel contained too many different elements—or elements that seem too different to some readers?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Never by my agent or my editor. When I sent it out to some agents, that was definitely a response. But Carrie read it and got it immediately. My editor Andra read it and got it as well. That was most important to me: that the people I worked with on it understood that it is a book that is “multi-tasking”, as you put it. That is a natural place for me to read from. My older sister was in college in the early to mid nineties, just in time to be hit with the full bloom of post-modern theory. She brought some of that stuff home to me and tried to talk to me about it. Like, I remember, she rented The Celluloid Closet and Paris is Burning for me when I was in elementary and middle school and we’d watch them together while she babysat me. And so, I grew up reading things for multiple meanings at a really early age—not because I was some genius, but because I was lucky enough to have an older sibling to say, “Hey, you can read things this way.” It was great: like discovering a secret code. It also meant that I could indulge in reading “low” culture books and avoid the classics, because I could always look for (and invent in my imagination) that subtext. I like books that do that and I always wanted to write one.

First published in April 2016

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

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

An Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

25 May

A review in Vogue called Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir a “true crime masterpiece.”

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, BookRiot, and the Huffington Post as well as a must-read for May by Goodreads, Audible.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

To read an exercise on giving a character description context, inspired by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoirclick here.

Michael Noll

The book took ten years to write—and over that ten years, you inevitably grew and changed as a person. I often find when I read work that I wrote years ago that I want to totally rewrite it. Did you do any of that with this book? I’m thinking of a moment like the one where you write, “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape” but then go on to write, “But I think now that I write because of Lorilei.” Did you have to, at times, resist the temptation to rewrite older sections so that they fit the sense of things that existed at that moment in your mind?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Oh, I rewrote this book so many times! That’s just the way I work. It’s a quirk of the book that though the idea’s been ten years in the making, and I’m been flat-out working on this conception of it for the past seven years, about half the book was written in the last year before I turned it in to my publisher. The way I thought about shaping the book was that while there’s a consistent narrator, she’s not narrating from a place where she has figured it all out already. She knows approximately where she’s going—the work I did before this draft let me know that—but there’s still a lot to figure out. So she’s telling herself a story about the past—both her past and what she understands and imagines from the records about Ricky Langley’s past—to try to understand why she’s so drawn to this story. Joseph Epstein calls personal narrative “the genre of discovery,” and that’s always felt true to me. The narrator is telling herself and the reader the stories of the past to try to discover the hold they have over her—and the structure of the book is meant to dramatize or re-enact that discovery, to induce that experience in the reader.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the sections about Ricky and his family. I can imagine how even a small detail like “Alicide driving the whole way back like a dog with his tail between his legs” could prove problematic from a journalistic perspective, prompting questions like “Did someone say this about him? How did you know?” How much license did you take in fleshing out scenes that must have occurred.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The book is written from research conducted on some 30,000 pages of court records and other documents, and at first, when I started writing from that research, I tried to do so in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. But there were several problems with that. First, the records contradict themselves in many places. They have holes and ellipses. In many cases, the legal narratives elided the contradictions, gliding right over them into a pretense of certainty—yet in my telling, I wanted to actually highlight the ellipses, and highlight that the legal narrative was constructed. Second, when I read the records, I found them incredibly vivid. I couldn’t help but see the scenes unfold in front of me. I decided that I need a more active narrator who was explicitly telling herself this story and could highlight imagining and speculate and muse on discrepancies. For example, in the scene you’re referencing, Ricky Langley’s father, Alcide, is driving. I begin the scene this way, talking about the car: “I imagine the station wagon my parents had when I was a child, but that was the early 1980s, so subtract, now, the faux-wood paneling, the power steering.” It was very important to me that the reader understand that I was telling myself a story based on the records of the past. The book is a record of one mind—mine—trying to piece the past together into a story. So the imagining is only done in service of that aim, to try to put the pieces together. That means no invented events or dialogue, just taking what’s already in the records and trying to imagine them into color, the way we all do when we hear or read something that feels real to us. As it says in the source note that precedes the text: the book became a story not just about what happened in the past, but even more than that, about the stories we make from it. It’s a true crime book and a memoir, yes—but it’s also a story about how we tell ourselves stories.

Michael Noll

This is partly a coincidence of timing, but as I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the podcast S-Town, which starts with the narrow frame of a possible crime and then explodes to a much broader frame, with people and storylines that weren’t there in the beginning. Your book does something similar as it digs into the history of the people involved. How did you figure out the frame for each section of the book and what to include and what to leave out?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

The structure of this book was one of the things that took the longest. I thought about it in a couple of ways: first, I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a braid that alternated between my life and Ricky Langley’s life, if I were going to capture the way these stories had seemed linked in my subconscious. Two, those braids couldn’t strictly remain separate over the course of the book, or I wouldn’t capture the powerful sense of how entwined they sometimes became in my mind—I wouldn’t capture the sense of being haunted that so drove me. And finally, I knew that in a book that’s largely about the way we make stories out of the past, and which concerns two crimes—Jeremy Guillory’s murder and my grandfather’s abuse of me and y siblings—stories about which have already been told many different ways, I had to have a structure that would allow me to tell and re-tell and complicate the telling of the same events without losing forward my momentum. I thought about suspense as though it were a baton in a relay race—which strand of the book was carrying it at any given moment, and how could I hand it off between sections?

Michael Noll

You’re going on tour for this book, which makes me curious how you’ll read from it. It’s one thing, I suppose, to write about painful personal details from the safety of your home and desk, but it might be quite another to read from those sections in front of strangers. How do you handle the emotional aspect of reading from this book?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the good things about how long this book took me to write is that I had many years to get used to reading from it. And to my surprise, I found that I absolutely love giving readings. After so many years of working, as you say, alone at my desk, it’s such a gift to bring these stories to people and experience the emotional connection that happens when you share your story. Yes, there are parts of the book that can feel vulnerable to share. For those, reading the audiobook of The Fact of a Body let me practice. But I’m mindful that we all have private stories hidden away inside of us, and if I can offer mine forth to help create connection between people—well, isn’t that the role of the writer?

May 2017

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

An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

18 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “unlike anything else you’ve ever read” by Robert Boswell.

Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University.  His fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review OnlineGulf CoastPost RoadPANKUnsaid, and other literary magazines, and has been anthologized in Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Gigantic Books’ Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and &NOW’s The Best Innovative Writing. Joseph is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Bucknell University.  His lives in Lewisburg, PA, with his wife, daughter, and dog.

To read the story “One of the Days I Nearly Died” from Big Lonesome and an exercise on finding the right emotion for a story’s beginning, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is able to fit a tremendous amount of information into a small space. For example, there’s this bit from one sentence: 

“I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t at the time go to our family’s weekly Family Dinner Nights because he was way away in another state (Texas) with a woman we all liked (she liked him) and he for some reason didn’t…”

Another writer in a different story might have slowed down and given Texas its own sentence (Texas’ ego certainly believes it’s worth its own sentence!), but you blast past that piece of info—and then do the same thing again with “she liked him.” Did this sentence actually come out in a rush, or did you condense it from many sentences?

Joseph Scapellato

 

I happen to have one of the first drafts of this story!  Here’s that same passage, early on:

I didn’t think of my brother who didn’t go to weekly family dinner nights because at the time he was in Texas with a woman we all liked and he for some reason didn’t…

It looks like that part of the sentence definitely began in a rush.  But as you can see, it’s a blurry rush—it’s not doing much to tag its separate parts in a trackable manner.  There’s a greater risk of the reader missing things.  In later drafts, I tried to add more clarity while still preserving the crowdedness.  My goal was to enact the verbal spillage of a narrator telling a brush-with-death story, and at the same time, to suggest the “everything happening at once” experiential density of a car crash/near-car-crash.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of specific detail about place and people but leaves out at least one really important detail: what the narrator and his wife were arguing about when they said all those big ugly things. In this story, those left-out details don’t matter, but I’m curious about the process that led to this story. What’s your internal guide for what details to include and which to leave out?

Joseph Scapellato

This is such a great question.  It’s also a tough one to answer accurately, I think.  For me, I’m always trying to include details that firmly root the reader in the world of the work, so that the reader can see, feel, and smell where the character is at, coming from, and headed; however, I also want to include details (or half-details) that move the reader into the openness of the world of the work, an openness that is the same thing as mystery, the sort of mystery that permits the reader to understand the story on their own terms.

It’s almost as if there are two separate but complimentary ways for a reader to be immersed in a work: immersion through knowing, and immersion through mystery.

Practically speaking, this means that I read a draft over and over, imagining what it would be like to be a reader.  Would a reader be intrigued?  Would a reader be lost?

Michael Noll

You have published a lot of pieces, both fiction and nonfiction. When it was time to put this collection together, how did you figure out which stories would go into it and which would not?

Joseph Scapellato

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, has been called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Kevin McIlvoy, an amazingly gifted writer and teacher, once told me that he thought of story collections as being somewhere on a greatest hits album/concept album continuum.  On the “greatest hits album” side are the collections that are made up of the writer’s very best stories at that moment in the writer’s life.  There’s going to be thematic resonation between these stories—they’re going to speak to one another—but this isn’t necessarily the most important guiding principle when the writer is putting together the collection.

On the “concept album” side are the collections where thematic resonation is the most important guiding principle—the stories very consciously complement and complicate one another.  They seem to have sprung from each other, like songs in a concept album.

I tried to put Big Lonesome on the concept album side of the spectrum, to make it so that the stories, when considered together, go on a journey: they begin in a mythic west (a centaur cowboy, a cowboy who encounters a filthy monster-boy in a laundromat, a cowboy who can sing animals into easy dying), move to a contemporary west (a mother who buries her son’s gun in a desert, a hike that results in a snakebite), and migrate to the contemporary midwest (two troubled brothers in Chicago, an old man forced into a retirement home by his son).  Along the way, the stories shift from the non-realistic to the realistic and from the rural to the urban.  And certain ideas (American mythology, masculinity, lonesomeness) are returned to and riffed on in different ways.

At a certain point, I looked for thematic gaps (aspects of the American West that the stories weren’t investigating) and for possible pairings (ways to connect stories, directly or indirectly).  For example, the story “Cowgirl,” which is about a human girl born out of a cow, is a sister story to “Horseman Cowboy,” which is about a centaur cowboy who goes around smashing things and having sex.  Initially, I wrote “Cowgirl” to be in conversation with “Horseman Cowboy,” to explore the same brand of damaging hypermasculinity from a different point of view.  It very quickly became its own story—with its own set of intentions—but it grew out of the thematic center of “Horseman Cowboy.”

“One of the Days I Nearly Died” is in conversation with “It Meant There Would Be More,” the story that immediately precedes it, in an even more direct way: the narrators are brothers.  They refer to each other in their respective stories.  After finishing “It Meant There Would Be More,” which is one of the longest stories in the book, I thought it might be fun to follow it up with a very short one—to shade one story with the world of another story, and to play with “dynamics.”

May 2017

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

An Interview with Maria Pinto

4 May

Maria Pinto’s story, “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” was published in Flapperhouse.

Maria Pinto‘s work has appeared in Word Riot, Pinball, The Butter, Cleaver, Menacing Hedge, and Flapperhouse, among others. She was an Ivan Gold Fellow at The Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where she walks dogs, grows a veggie garden, and does Karaoke. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She’s working on the next.

To read Maria’s story “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” and an exercise on creating character desire, click here.

In this interview, Pinto discusses the light brush strokes of flash fiction, framing narratives, and how language connects novels and much shorter forms.

Michael Noll

The opening paragraph introduces the character’s desire—to sleep with her professor—but the description of the professor depicts him as, shall we say, having less than the classic male beauty. You admit this up front: “She did not interrogate why. She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of do, do, do.” I can imagine this piece in workshop, someone saying, “Yes, but why would she be attracted to him?” Or “What does she look like?” Were you ever tempted to answer those questions?

Maria Pinto

I’m rarely tempted to answer questions like that in shorter form pieces. One reason I love flash fiction is that its brevity allows for light brush-strokes. If this story works it’s because it reflects what life is really like–people are mysterious and their motivations are mysterious, so often even to themselves. I don’t think the protagonist’s feelings are wrapped up in any deep affection, and I’m not sure it truly matters whether she’s attractive, but I do think her willingness to see “past” her professor’s looks speaks to something we do all the time without necessarily being conscious of it, and that’s surrender to invisible forces. In this student’s case, that invisible force is chemistry. Or is it physics? Sometimes the big cartoon magnet in each of us just starts working towards another person’s magnet; attraction doesn’t only happen between supermodels, right? I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic ways lust works, and by how some people feel freer to engage with their lust even when it rears up in inconvenient or even ugly places. The fact that we have no idea whether this “chemistry” is one-sided is part of the fun.

Michael Noll

This story is almost entirely composed of the character’s thoughts. Her only interaction with the professor is incidental, entering a unisex bathroom as he steps out. Other interactions might be entirely in her head—imagining that he notices her. Did you ever try to write an actual interaction? Was this story always focused on her imagining thinking about him and what that interaction might look like?

Maria Pinto

I never did try to write an actual interaction, no. Things would have gotten a little too steamy! I think this student has been enjoying that space in between “what if” and “I’m actually doing this,” unlike Prufrock, who will go through a hundred indecisions and revisions before breakfast. For her, all that imagining amounts to a kind of foreplay, and for the reader, I hope, it reminds them of the last time they watched and wanted and it was good. At the end of this piece I hope people wonder whether the professor will be able to maintain his institutional standard of ethics in the face of his student’s brazenness, but I also hope they see her fantasy as a world in itself, complete and silly and hot and mildly funny.

Michael Noll

One of my professors in grad school talked often about a narrative clock, and this story has one. She sees her professor on the bus, and we know that eventually both of them will have to get off the bus. I find that rough drafts often suffer from one of two problems: they don’t have that natural timer ticking in the background, or they have the timer but nothing else going on. Which came first in this story? The bus or the lust?

Maria Pinto

They came at the same time! Public transportation is such an odd environment–if you haven’t pressed your nose against a device or a book for your ride’s duration, chances are good you’ll make eye contact with someone. And then your relationship with that person is cemented until one of you gets off. Either you’ll look at each other again or you won’t. When you look again (and lord help you, if you smile), no matter whether you’re attracted to that person, a frisson is born. I wanted to write something that took place in that interval of a bus ride with that frisson, and the not-quite-stranger dynamic of teacher and student was the frame that immediately presented itself to me.

Michael Noll

You’re working on a novel, which is about as far away from flash fiction as one can get. Is there anything that you’ve done in a piece like this that transfers to the novel form?

Maria Pinto

This is a really interesting question. I guess it depends on what you mean by “anything.” If you mean “is there a premise in one of your pieces that could have been a novel,” I’d say that I once wrote about a grieving widow living in the sort of future where she’s able to make a suit from her dead husband’s skin and experience the world through his literal eye sockets. That could maybe get the novel treatment. And if you’re asking another type of question, I’d say that even though novels and flash fiction are worlds apart, they’re both so much better when an author is surgical and economical and cares about the poetry of her word choice–if her love of all that can be done within a single sentence shines through on the page.

May 2017

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

An Interview with Katie Chase

20 Apr
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

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

How to Create a Narrative Arc

14 Mar

Susan Muaddi Darrel’s story, “The Journey Home,” is part of her Grace Paley Award-winning collection A Curious Land.

In my MFA program, I learned the term narrative arc and the idea of the narrative triangle, which says that a character must get from point A to point B through a third point. This makes perfect sense. I didn’t understand it at all. My stories suffered as a result. If you can’t create that third point, then you can’t create suspense, which is, at its most basic, the art of making readers anticipate point B and delaying their arrival there. Without a point B, there’s nothing standing in the way of a quick rush to point B and the end of the story.

This way of thinking about narrative arc applies not just to stories but to scenes as well. A great example of this can be found in Susan Muaddi Darraj’s story “The Journey Home,” which is included in her Grace Paley Prize-winning collection A Curious Land. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Lebanon in 1916, during World War I’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign and follows a group of families as they walk from village to village, looking for food and trying to stay ahead of the armies and the war. It’s also a love story, but for now, we’ll focus on a section of the story that centers on a village where the group decides to set up camp. The village is seemingly abandoned:

“Nothing moved—no sound emerged, as if a jinn had cast a spell and turned the people into stones. They’d come across places like this before, but here she felt frightened, as though someone may jump out from behind a door or a tree and snatch her away.”

Clearly, the stage is set for something bad to happen or for us and the characters to discover something awful. That’s point B. We know where we’re going. Darraj does a really great job of building our anticipation for that destination:

“As she filled the jar with water, she glanced up suspiciously at one house, the one directly opposite the well. Who had lived there? Its small windows looked like seashells, built by alternating dark and pale stones. The door was slightly ajar, and she knew it could swing open easily if she wanted to go inside. That made her feel worse—had the people walked out alive from their own front door, she reasoned, they would surely have bolted it behind them. People who had solid walls, who owned doors, would lock them. Their well was full, the water cold and crisp. She cupped her hand into her jar and sipped it, then used the last few drops to freshen her face.”

Now, we have a much clearer sense of point B: eventually we’re going to walk into one of the houses, through one of those doors left slightly ajar. But what will delay our entry?

The easy answer would be some obstacle or impediment, something that makes entering the houses difficult or undesired. But Darraj smartly does something else. An obstacle could feel contrived. So instead she introduces a diversion, something new to attract our attention away from those doors:

“Only when she looked up, using her scarf to wipe her eyes, only then did she finally see it, where it lay on the other side fo the well. It looked like a sack, and at first her hunger made her imagine that it was a hastily abandoned sack of rice or grain. But then, there is was—a dirty foot jutting out from under one side, and she recoiled, screaming for help.”

The main character, a young woman, thinks the body is dead, but then her father says, “No, he’s breathing.”

Darraj has introduced something concrete to attract our attention. It doesn’t feel like a diversion because it’s a legitimate thing to deal with (as dead or almost-dead bodies always are) and because the characters have such intense reactions to it. The story will eventually take us into one of those doors (and it will be unexpectedly awful), but the horror of it will be compounded by the fact that we’ve been paying attention to something else and have, for a moment, forgotten about the doors.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a narrative arc, using “The Journey Home” by Susan Muaddi Darraj as a model:

  1. Give your characters an inevitability to face. This works on a story or novel level as well as the level of a scene or chapter. Inevitably, Darraj’s characters will figure out where everyone in the village has gone. The word inevitable is key. Don’t try to surprise the readers yet. Let them know where the story is going. You can’t have a narrative arc if no one knows what’s going on or what to expect. In any given scene, ask yourself, “What will my readers anticipate is going to happen? Where do they think this is going?” Set up the scene so that it plays to those expectations.
  2. Make the inevitability specific. Darraj shows us the slightly ajar doors and writes that beautiful passage about what it means that the doors have been left that way. As readers, we know exactly where this part of the story is going: through one of those doors. How can you make your story or scene’s inevitability specific and concrete? How can you show the readers, “This is the place where the inevitable thing will happen?”
  3. Introduce the new thing. Children intuitively understand how this works. In their stories, ninjas storm a school and then they’re attacked by a dragon in a chicken suit. The problem with these stories, as anyone who’s ever taught creative writing to little kids, is that the new things are almost always random. The body in Darraj’s story is not random. We haven’t seen it yet, but we’ve understood that its presence was a distinct possibility. The characters are walking around in a war zone. They’ve entered an empty village. A body is part of the framework created by the setting and situation. What’s surprising is that the body isn’t actually dead. Now we’re paying attention. So, how can you introduce something that is an expected part of the framework of your setting and situation—and then tweak it so that it’s not quite what is expected?

The goal is to build anticipation (what will happen when the inevitable happens) and then introduce an expected element with an unexpected twist, drawing the readers’ attention away from what is inevitable to what is immediately curious and interesting.

Good luck.

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