Tag Archives: short stories

On Themes, Characters, and Creative Spaces: An interview with Author, Danielle Evans

“Tell your mother she has never had any idea
how easy it is for something to be destroyed.”
— from “Snakes” in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

~

I’ll admit, I was first attracted to Danielle Evans’ collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, because of the title. But, it was the stories themselves, and the characters within, that held my attention.

Sana Krasikov (author of One More Year: Stories) calls Evans’ writing “quietly magnetic.” I love this description; it’s so true. Evans creates characters who are within my reach, even when their experiences differ from my own. I slid easily into their lives and found myself in the middle of deep loss, heartache, and threat. Yet, I didn’t want to look away. Instead, I was compelled to sit with the characters, even after the story ended, and then go back and read about them again.

After so many great reviews,from people like Lydia Peelle in the New York Times and Ron Charles at the Washington Post, I’m honored to host Ms. Evans here, where she answers a few questions about her collection and about writing.

For a chance to win a copy of her book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, drop your name in the comments section. I’ll choose the winner on Tuesday, February 1st.

~

CC: The opening story in your book, “Virgins,” first appeared in The Paris Review three years before this book was published. Did you discover an emerging theme in your writing early on that led you to publish a book of short stories? Or, did you consider a theme and then craft the stories?

photo by Nina Subin

DE: “Virgins” was actually one of the last stories in the book to be written. It was published in 2007, just about a month before I sold the collection to Riverhead. Typically there’s about a year between selling the book and publication, but various things can slow that process down—in this case, my editor’s maternity leave, and my first full time teaching job, which coincided with the start of the editing process and meant I had to learn to divide my writing and editing time from my teaching time. I didn’t write most of the stories with any end goal in mind. By the time that I wrote the first draft of Virgins, in 2006, I had a sense that most of the stories that I was happy with belonged together somehow. The only story I wrote with the collection in mind was “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” which I thought tied together the themes of various stories, but took them someplace new. In the editorial process, a lot of what I had to think about was how these stories, which I’d always thought of as somewhat separate, could become one thing. At points I’d find that, for example, a particular story could survive having an element cut and still work, but cutting that element would take something away from the collection as a whole. There was a story that went in after the collection was sold, because it seemed to add some balance after a few stories were cut from the original version of the manuscript, and another that almost went in, but that in the end I couldn’t make claim its own territory—it seemed too similar to work I’d already done. So, there was a lot of thought about the book as a book, and not just a series of stories, but mostly I was thinking about topic and form and organization. Questions of theme I think are generally best left to readers and reviewers—at least personally, I find they can crush my writing if I let them guide it.

CC: Each of your stories is written with such strength and emotion. I especially love, “Snakes,” where you tackle issues of race, family, and failed expectations head on through the lives of Tara, Allison, and their grandmother, crafting each character’s emotional depth or shallowness with great skill. How do you approach character development? Do you spend more time getting to know each one before you write? Or, do you write more organically, allowing the characters to reveal themselves throughout the first drafts?

DE: I generally try to write organically, at least at first pass. The good thing about working in shorter forms is that if it doesn’t work, you can just throw it out. There isn’t that sense of pressure that you have with a novel that you’ve been working on for two years, or that you realize will be a decade long commitment. So, if I have an idea for a story, or I feel drawn to a particular character, I just write it, and if it doesn’t come together, I can abandon it, or I can leave it alone indefinitely and return to it months or years later, because a story is short enough to easily drop back into if there’s anything redeemable in it. “Snakes” is an example of that. The first draft of the story was one of the earliest things I wrote—it was actually something I wrote in one of my first college creative writing courses. For years I’d revisit it and not quite know what was off. I knew Tara was withholding something—there was always a kind of secrecy and repression built into the story—but I had no idea what. Then my editor read it, and in her critique asked some smart questions about Tara, and suddenly I had an answer. Once I had that answer it was easy to go back into the story and tear out most of what was there so I could rewrite it with greater clarity.

CC: In the Acknowledgments, you say, “The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing is one of the best places a writer could ever call home.” I’d love to hear more about your experiences there and how they shaped you as a writer.

DE: I think if most early writers were to make a list of ideal gifts, those gifts would include time, money, and faith—not necessarily in that order. There are many institutions that are good at providing one or two of those things, but The Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing really provided all three. There was a teaching commitment that was enough to keep you grounded, but not so much pressure that it cut into your writing time, there was a stipend that was enough to live comfortably on in that part of the country, and there was a real sense of community, a sense that we were there to do our work because someone genuinely believed in it. There are a lot of writing spaces where people feel like admitting that they don’t know something or need help navigating something is akin to failure, and I think the creative writing faculty at UW-Madison really worked to create a space where that was not the case, where it was safe to ask questions and you could expect thoughtful answers. Once you are in a position where people think you know the answers to certain questions, procedural or existential, about writing, you realize how much time it takes to answers those questions, and exactly how generous the people who kept their doors open for you were. Madison is also, hands down, the prettiest place I have ever lived.

CC: What are you reading these days?

DE: Student journals, forever and ever. But, I am amassing a collection of books to read during the summer: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jane Brox’s Brilliant, a history of artificial light, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I am looking forward to Tayari Jones’ forthcoming book, Silver Sparrow, which I had the pleasure of hearing her read from last Fall. Last year I read and loved many books, but especially Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. And, I exaggerate a bit about the journals. In the context of teaching, I also get to reread some of my favorite books and poems and stories—among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. I’m teaching an independent study this semester where some of the books are chosen by the students, so I’m reading Blood Meridian for the first time, which I’m looking forward to.

CC: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for writers on the rise?

DE: My main advice is to do the work that you believe in, because that’s the only part of the process you can predict or control.

~

You can find Danielle Evans on her website, Facebook, and on Goodreads. You can purchase her book at Indiebound.org and on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy, then check back here on February 1st.

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You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

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A Baker’s Dozen of Links for Writers

It’s the season of sweets, gift giving, and toasting to a new year.

So, from me to you…

…A Baker’s Dozen of links to articles, interviews, and posts from this last year that have inspired me to write, reaffirmed my commitment to write, or changed my perspective when I write.

1-5. Stocking Stuffer posts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (at The Bookshelf Muse) on:

Each post offers five simple tips that will help you tighten up your writing and/or strengthen your story.

6. Lynn Capehart’s article in The Writer on inclusionary writing. I won’t ever look at character descriptions the same again.

7. Lydia Sharp’s post on the Difference between inciting incident and catalyst. This post, along with a great first chapter critique I won over at Becky Levine’s blog, helped me reshape the first chapter of my novel and set my story on track again.

8-11. Author interviews I’ve had the honor to conduct, in which authors share the story behind the story, offer insights into the challenges of historical fiction and research, or talk about the passion behind their characters:

I’m looking forward to several more author interviews this year from Cathryn Grant (whose debut novel, The Demise of the Soccer Moms, will be published as an e-book in January), from Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a wonderful collection of short stories), and from Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, due to be released April 12, 2011).

12. Kristen Lamb’s post on the Writer Reality Check. “Takes guts to be a writer,” Kristen says, and she lists some realistic expectations for those of us who want to make writing more than just a fun little hobby.

13. A call to action from Writer Unboxed for all Writers to Pay It Forward. “Paying it forward is something we can all do because no matter where we are in our writing careers, there’s always someone just one step behind, hungry to learn.” Much of the time, I’m the one a few steps behind. I could not grow without the encouragement, support, and wisdom from writers who are further along than me, and I can’t fully embrace those lessons until I pass them on to someone else.

There you are! Happy New Year, my friends!

May your days be full of writing and your muse be close at hand.

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Reflecting Life in Our Writing

I am never disappointed in The Writer magazine. True to form, when I paged through my December issue this month, I read another article that struck a chord at exactly the right moment.

I am finally – and seriously – back to work on my novel in progress, so much so that I named this draft “Signs of Life, for real this time.” It’s a story about a young woman named Gale, who’s mother is killed, and in losing family, Gale finds family – and forgiveness. I want to write this story with enough emotion but not too much, which has been one reason for procrastination: I’m afraid the story will read too dark and too heavy. I was relieved, then, to come upon David Harris Ebenbach’s essay in The Writer, “Writing Toward the Light.”

In his essay, Ebenbach focuses only on the short story, but many of his points can be applied to memoirs and novels as well. Ebenbach addresses his long-standing belief that, to be called “great,” a story must focus on “struggle and conflict” and pain. But, as he questions his own ideas and discovers several well-written and well-received stories that highlight a character’s “opportunities” instead of “struggles,” Ebenbach realizes that all writing must embody balance. He says:

“…[T]here’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness…darkness is a significant part of life. [But], light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us.”

While definitions of literary fiction (like the one on Writer’s Relief, Inc.) say that “[l]iterary fiction tackles ‘big’ issues that are…controversial, difficult, and complex,” I need to remember Ebenbach’s point, that “difficult” in fiction (or memoir, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean all dark, all the time.

As Ebenbach says, “[readers] want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature.” And, isn’t that the way life rolls: the serious and the silly taking our focus in turns?

I know about death, about losing a mother, about the heaviness that settles and then hovers for months after. But, I also know about moments that surface during those dark times, moments that propel a person into a fit of laughter when laughter doesn’t seem possible.

Like when an overweight and messy driver ushers a grieving family into the back of a limo and then cruises down the road, from the funeral home to the church, at a high rate of speed. It’s only when he slams on the brakes and tosses the family around like rag dolls that the tension breaks and laughter erupts.

Those kind of moments in life give us a breather from a harsh reality long enough to gather strength; they are the moments that have us rolling on the couch the next day when we’re hung over on emotion.

And, those kinds of moments can turn up for the characters in our stories, as they face struggles, as well.

Ebenbach’s stress on balance in our writing gives me a broader perspective as I tackle more of this new draft, as I rearrange scenes in the novel, add new details, and weave the dark and light of emotion throughout the pages. I can’t throw in a humorous scene for the sake of “a breather” — every scene must still drive the plot forward. Yet, I shouldn’t be afraid to see the lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain.

*****

Ebenbach, David Harris. “Writing Toward the Light.” The Writer. December 2010: 15-16. Print.

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