Tag Archives: writing process

An Interview with Joni Tevis

14 May
Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis' essay collection, The World Is On Fire, "fiercely, startlingly bright."

Kirkus Reviews called Joni Tevis’ essay collection, The World Is On Fire, “fiercely, startlingly bright.”

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, The Wet Collection, and, most recently, The World Is On Fire. She has worked as a park ranger, factory worker, and seller of cemetery plots, and her nonfiction has been published in Oxford American, Bellingham Review, Shenandoah, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Orion. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, and lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

To read an exercise on writing with Keats’ negative capability Tevis’ essay, “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” click here.

For this interview, Tevis wrote about the inspiration behind her essay in what is perhaps the most detailed recollection of a writer’s zigzagging mental process that you’ll ever read.

Michael Noll

This is such a wide-ranging essay: Fairyland Caverns, the nuclear test in New Mexico, Rip Van Winkle, the preacher from your childhood, and a Civil War battle. The connections made complete sense as I read the essay, but I was also aware that these were connections that you made. They weren’t simply lying around, ready to be reported on. So, I’m curious about the origin of the essay. How did you begin making associations between these very different stories and events and places? How did you keep so many balls in the air without letting them drop? Was it difficult to keep the connections straight in your head as you worked?

Joni Tevis

I like to start research for an essay by going somewhere that intrigues me and just seeing what I can see. This essay began that way; I remembered Rock City from my childhood and went back for a visit as an adult, with the idea of writing about it. For me, this impulse isn’t primarily rational. I might not know why a place or idea or image appeals to me, but I try not to question that, at least initially. I’ll just go and see what’s there.

So I tried to approach the visit with a very porous mind and took notes on everything I noticed there, from the stuff in the gift shop, to the painted barns and handmade signs along the road up the mountain, to the recorded music and running water within Fairyland Caverns. And I’ll add that even though I like to start essays via this travel experience process, sometimes that impulse doesn’t lead anywhere—I have plenty of dead-end trip notes languishing in my notebooks. But you just never know what you might find.

The big surprise on that trip was the black light in the Caverns. I hadn’t remembered that at all, and I found it unsettling—the juxtaposition of childhood scenes with this very trippy light, light that we associate with drug culture. How to make sense of it? When I discovered that the sculptor who created those scenes did much of her work in the late 1940s, I made the connection to early atomic history, a period that had long fascinated me.

The Day The Sun Rose Twice has been called "definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left."

The Day the Sun Rose Twice has been called “definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the first nuclear explosion in history and the legacy it left.”

And this is where the traditional research component came in. I was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time and had access to the terrific libraries there. One day I was browsing the stacks when I saw The Day The Sun Rose Twice, a great book about the Manhattan Project and the Trinity explosion. The book pulled me—in a not-fully-rational way, the same way that the impulse to revisit Rock City had been. I couldn’t put the book down. It hit me that when I had been a child, worrying about the end-times sermons on Sundays, I was also worrying about the reports I heard on the evening news, about nuclear tensions with the Soviets. So that led me to more research about the Trinity test—which led, in turn, to a visit to the Atomic History Museum, out in Albuquerque—and then to archival research about the woman who created the scenes at Fairyland Caverns.

I traced some of the other stories from the Caverns back—that’s where the Rip Van Winkle research came in, and by moving back in historical time, I read more about the Civil War battle that had taken place on Lookout Mountain sixty years before Rock City was created. Research about the material culture of the place led me to the See Rock City barns that had helped to advertise it. And what had many of those those barns held? Tobacco leaves, which were fascinating to research as well.

Someone painted the barns. Someone planned the scenes in the caverns, poured the plaster. Someone even now changes the black lightbulbs. Just like someone built the bomb. I’m satisfied with the essay now in part because it draws attention to the things we make, and the meaning we make with those things. And I think it evokes this sense of “living in a haunted world” with which the rest of the book also grapples—the reality that we’re not the first to step onto this patch of ground or handle this clay or stone, and that by examining the relics and words that our forebears left us, we can live in a more deep, enriched way.

May 2015

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

An Interview with Jacob M. Appel

12 Feb
Jacob Appel's latest story collection, Einstein's Beach House, features characters who aren't always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel’s latest story collection, Einstein’s Beach House, features characters who aren’t always who they seem or claim to be.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories, many of which have been anthologized, and has won numerous prizes. His nonfiction has appeared in many newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

To read an excerpt from his story “Einstein’s Beach House” and an exercise on writing backstory, click here.

In this interview, Appel discusses living stories in his mind, the inherent subjectivity of narrative, and jumping forward in time at a story’s end.

Michael Noll

This story’s plot has a strong pulse. If you read the end of each section, you can see how each ends with a complication: the father deciding to sell fake tours, the arrival of Einstein’s aunt, the threat of losing the house. How did you create such a tension-building structure? Is it something you do naturally or through a particular kind of revision? 

Jacob M. Appel

I think much of this comes out of the writing process itself. I like to end my day’s writing at the conclusion of a scene; in fact, most of my stories are written roughly on a scene-a-day basis….so if you count the number of scenes in a story, you can often surmise how long I took to write a first draft of that particular piece. (I prefer to “live” the story in my mind as I write—sort of like method acting, only without leaving my chair.) I also prefer to stop writing at a point of particular tension, so I have a crisis to resolve when I return to the story at the next session.  Fortuitously, these two preferences combine to create a synchronicity between the scene breaks and the most dramatic moments in the story. At least, the two elements come together like this when things are going well—when they go badly, my writing reads more like a daytime soap opera.

Michael Noll

The story raises the possibility that the house really was Einstein’s beach house, something that becomes the basis of legal claims, and yet the story doesn’t ever really settle the issue—or perhaps it does. When I returned to the story’s opening to figure out who was right, I realized that you established definite possession of the house in the first paragraph without—and I looked at this paragraph several times—any kind of definite proof, just the narrator’s say-so. It’s such a delicate trick to pull off, and I’m curious how difficult it was to arrive at.

Jacob M. Appel

Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

All narrative is inherently subjective. That’s the only valuable lesson I think I learned in law school. Readers often have a difficult time accepting this. For instance, a few deeply-misguided readers of my first short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, concluded that I was a bigot because I used several racial stereotypes; these readers seemed unable to distinguish between my personal views, as the author, and the disturbing prejudices of the limited third person narrators. In Einstein, the narrator tells the story from a great distance, but carefully withholds information from us along the way. We never know for certain whose house it is. As in many of my stories, characters “lie their way toward reality”—spinning tales that may turn out to be true.

Michael Noll

The end of the story jumps forward in time briefly to the narrator’s adult life before returning to the moment of the story. This is something that, as a writer, I often feel compelled to do at the end of a story, and it’s certainly a technique something that a number of writers use (Alice Munro and Richard Ford for example). But it’s also a move that feels like it might have the potential to become artificial, a crutch to lean on when we can’t quite figure out how to end a story. Your ending works quite well, but I wonder if this was this something you were wary of? 

Jacob M. Appel

I’ll take any comparison to Alice Munro or Richard Ford with both a broad smile and several billion grains of salt, but thank you! The reason I jump forward in time—and I imagine the reason that other, more established authors do as well—is that one wants to garner the maximum of meaning from each narrative. Readers want to know: Why is this story important? Does it matter? But often the importance of a narrative is not clear for years or even generations. I’m reminded of the poetry of the brilliant Philip Larkin (eg. “MCMXIV”), in which the power derives not only from what he describes, but from what we know, unspoken, comes afterwards. Yes, it’s risky. But writing is a risky business. If you’re too risk-averse for a flash-forward, you might try a career in accounting.

Michael Noll

You have one of the most dizzying bios I’ve ever read. By my count, you hold ten degrees, you’re certified to practice law in two states, you’ve published fiction in more than 200 journals (a number so astounding that I can’t quite wrap my head around, especially since your stories are not short), and you’ve published pretty extensively in journals dedicated to bioethics. How have you managed all of this? Do you ever sleep? Are there cloned Jacob Appels—as in the film Multiplicity—doing your work for you?

Jacob M. Appel

It turns out there actually is another writer named Jacob Appel, an economist who co-wrote a book called More Than Good Intentions. I am NOT him. That does not stop well-wishers and detractors from mistaking us on many occasions…..I cannot speak for the other Jacob Appel, but for myself, I keep writing because I like doing it. The day I stop enjoying my time conjuring up imaginary worlds, is the day I’m ready for them to put a pillowcase over my head. (That’s the bioethicist in me speaking, possibly with his tongue in his cheek.)

February 2015

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

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