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Story arc is often defined as a journey or a transformation experienced by a character. How much of this sort of transformation should be concrete? How much should be abstract? Do you think a short story can only be complete if this transformation occurs?
I have heard writers call just about anything a “story,” whether it be a novella or merely a scene or anecdote. That said, my idea of story contains two major movements: the immediate action — how the plot turns– and the larger psychological action — how the character changes. The immediate action creates a problem that compels the character to act and reconsider his/her prospects. In a small or large way, the character must register some change of mind, mood, disposition, position, etc. For me, this is the most satisfying movement in a short story.
Several stories in A Bed of Nails, including “A Handful of Nails” and “Loaves and Fishes”, are set in the same wonderfully strange dystopian world. What steps went into creating this distinct setting? Did it unfold around the characters or did it require prior planning?
I have a lot of fun with alternate worlds. I’m kind of fascinated with garbage, so I created a country built on landfill just to see what it’d be like. Initially, writing something like that is a matter of jamming — extemporizing/improvising — to see what might happen. It started with a mother in an impossible situation: 14 children, a missing husband, a world falling in on her head. That’s pretty much my way of getting into stories: a character in a problematic situation. And then what? I ask myself.
In Kiss Me, Stranger, you expand this dystopia to fill a novel. What motivated your return to this world and characters? How did you shape the story differently to fit both forms?
I had enough stories (4) in this world to give it a longer treatment. Much had to change, though, in order to make it cohere. Stories are easy insofar as their time and action are highly constrained. Novels are hard for the opposite reason. So, more had to happen.
There’s an element of acting to writing, where writers inhabit the minds of the characters they create in order to render them believably. You populate A Bed of Nails with all sorts of people, of all walks and all ages. How much research goes into these characters, and how much personal experience? What kinds of detail did you include to ensure authenticity?
Yes, that’s it: acting. To inhabit a character successfully, you have to be on stage in that story. I’m horrible at research and best at making things up. All of the details about boats and garbage barges in “Garbage” are made-up, and nobody has complained. In other areas, I draw on my own experience. And then, when pressed, I’ll do research. Authenticity depends very much on details. For example, you should write, “Mary had five pencils on her desk” instead of “Mary had several pencils on her desk.” I’d go further: “May had five pencils on her desk. Two were without erasers — Mary was in the habit of chewing these off when pondering the drawing she was working on. A third was hardly longer than a nib of chalk because it had done such good work for her: she refused to throw it out.”
And so on. Readers love details because they make the fictional world seem real, especially when these details reveal character.
How important is titling a piece? At what stage do you do this? Do you have a method for determining the perfect title? What kind of titles will make you pick up a book?
Creating titles is the hardest thing for me. I’ve learned that making them simple is the best strategy. Titles are really important. If they’re over worked, they draw too much attention to themselves and reflect the writer’s worry, which undermines the reader’s confidence in the story. If they’d dead on, you’ve already won points with the reader.
Your memoir, From Animal House to Our House: a Love Story, chronicles the transformation of an old frat house into your beautiful Victorian home. You write in the style of fiction–in the moment, with dialogue. Was it easy to remember events as scenes? How much did you record at the time, and how much was remembered later? Did you think of the renovations as memoir material as they took place?
Nonfiction has been difficult for me to write because it demands veracity– you can’t make things up. No, it wasn’t easy to remember scenes. I had to refer to letters I had written: I had written a lot of letters about each year, so these constituted a kind of journal I could review. Dialogue is reconstructed to the best of my recollection. I resisted writing this memoir because I didn’t think it worth anybody’s time, but lots of friends encourage me to give it a try. I’m glad they did because it turned out to be a good book and really helped me pull things together as a writer of nonfiction.