Jun 022013

Robin Oliveria 

Herewith a cogent, revelatory, insightful essay on the inner complexities of novel construction, to be precise, the often ignored (unthought, unimagined) techniques of character gradation and grouping. Don’t scratch your heads and ask what character gradation is. It never fails to amaze me how few people who want to be writers have the vaguest idea of how a novel is put together. Plot and subplot, for example. How are they related, how is the subplot introduced through the text? Too many proto-novelists naively assume that a novel is just a 300-page story (um, without having thought much about what a story is either). Character gradation and grouping is related to subplotting; it’s a technique for deploying other characters (plots) as devices that reflect the concerns and themes of the main plot characters. It’s a form that helps the novelist invent content and also create a consistence and cohesive thematic whole. It is an old technique (though few readers actually notice it).

Robin Oliveira has thought long and hard about the structure of novels. She is a former student of mine, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine  Arts, who rocketed into the ranks of published novelists with her well-received Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter. Her second novel, based on the painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, is due out with Viking next year. She has contributed to Numéro Cinq from the outset. And it is always wonderful to have her back.



For the most part characterization in novels has not been discussed in terms of coherence, that is, in the scientific meaning of the word as the intermolecular attraction that holds molecules and masses together.  Coherence is important because a novelist must corral the differing, wayward elements of a novel into a whole, making associations and connections between characters and events.  An efficient way to do this is through character gradation and grouping.

Character gradation is a cousin of the tried and true literary device of comparing and contrasting characters, but it is more than that.  In his book The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover explains that parallel and contrasting characters do not just share traits, but that “traits are varied, diminished or intensified from one character to another, that is, they are graded.”[1] I like to think of gradation as a spectrum, with the full shade of a trait, from fully realized to fully opposed, deliberately manifested in the population of a novel.  This spectrum is crafted by the careful writer in order to flesh out the themes and story question presented.  Grading ensures that the novel’s central issues reappear again and again in a number of guises.  In essence, grading does the difficult work of achieving the coherence necessary to reinforce the meaning of the book.  In addition, groupings and cross-groupings have a kind of cascading effect that helps to build momentum.  As Glover explains, “The effect of character grouping and gradation is…to create a thematic and structural cohesiveness, a critical intensity of focus which prevents the long story (with all those extra characters) from sprawling and dissipating its energy.”[2] These gradations cause echoes, reminding the reader of how the characters are connected and also what they have at stake, what emotional issue is tantamount, and ultimately what the story is about.

Character gradation is the child of echoing and repetition, which E.K. Brown discusses in his book, Rhythm in the Novel.  In his first chapter, “Phrase, Character and Incident,” he comes to the conclusion that repetition, combined with variation of action or character trait or even phrasing, establishes the “rhythmic process, the combination of the repeated and the variable with the repeated as the ruling factor.”[3]In his discussion of James and Thackeray, he makes another point, which is that “flexibility” and the use of “antithesis” “irradiates the characters.”[4]   Therefore, variation of character traits combined with alternating groupings of characters achieves a sense of connectedness that is a powerful tool when devising a novel’s population.  This coherence not only solidifies theme, as Glover says, but these variations and repetitions graded on a spectrum amplify the story, which gives the novel vibrancy and the sense of a larger world.

With these principles in mind, I begin my discussion of gradation and cohesion as manifested in novels by Jane Austen, Anne Tyler and Mark Haddon with assertions fundamental to my thinking on characterization.  They are: that a novel is a story about people, and people act in such a way as to secure that which they desire.  They desire something because of who they are, where they have been, who they love, of what they have been deprived, what they perceive they need, and what they do not consciously understand about themselves (though the author does, or will come to, as the characters develop).  That a novel by design is a cohesive entity.  That nothing is inserted into a novel by accident.  That each element of the story serves the larger whole.  That a novel or story is built, brick by brick, rather than spilled onto the page, and each brick is the result of who the characters are and what they want; their desire dictates plot.

With these assertions in mind, I will argue that in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, character gradation is a fundamental and indispensable tool.

pride2In Pride and Prejudice, Austen populates her novel about the Bennet family daughters’ romantic fortunes with neighbors, family friends and extended family.  But it is how she characterizes them that gives the novel its cohesive feel of being about one thing.  The story revolves around the question that if one wishes to marry for love, as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, how does one choose a marriage partner when faced with class and financial obstacles?

The principal characters in this story are the two eldest daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane and Elizabeth, and the two men with whom they will fall in love, Mr. Bingley and his friend Mr. Darcy.  Again, if we think of gradation as a spectrum, diminished to heightened, or opposite to opposite, we see how Austen crafted her principal characters.  Notice how alike Jane and Bingley are, and how singular Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are; how opposite Jane and Elizabeth are, how dissimilar the two male friends are.  Elizabeth is lively, playful, witty and can easily see peoples’ base motivations, though she fails to perceive, at first, Mr. Wickham’s base character.  She is a more vibrant character than Jane, who is sweet, kind, never finds fault in anyone, and would never ascribe dishonorable reasons for anyone’s actions.  Mr. Bingley, who will eventually marry Jane, is described in terms similar to Jane: he is gentlemanlike with a pleasant countenance and excellent manners.  Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s opponent and future husband, is deemed by all to be proud, class-conscious and disdainful of those beneath him; different from Bingley, but like the vivacious, independent-thinking Elizabeth in that both share the trait of pride, causing them each to prejudge the other, resulting in dual, unfavorable impressions that are not easily unseated.

Austen uses these principal characters’ gradations to craft a spectrum of attitudes toward the story question.  She employs this method by setting off Bingley and Darcy as opposites, though they are also grouped as friends.  This opposition is interesting, since they are not opponents in this story.  They are parallels.  Bingley’s courtship of Jane runs a very close second plot to the Darcy/Elizabeth romance.  But from the beginning, Austen writes:  “Between him and Darcy was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character.”[5] They act out this opposition of character in a variety of ways:  Darcy refuses to dance at a party where Bingley dances every dance; Bingley falls in love with Jane immediately despite her poor family connections while Darcy must overcome his pride; Bingley yields to his friends’ and sisters’ opinions, while Darcy defies them.

Jane and Elizabeth are at odds as well, though they are grouped as sisters.  Jane quickly falls in love with Bingley, while Elizabeth initially despises Mr. Darcy before comprehending his true character and falling into love.  Jane pines away for Bingley in London, accepting her fate, while Elizabeth visits Darcy’s home, Pemberley, accepts dinner invitations from him, and fights his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even when Elizabeth has no evidence that Darcy is in love with her.  These articulate variations are a type of repetition.  Both the sisters are in love, they are in love with two friends, yet their personalities and actions are dissimilar.  Furthermore, Austen groups each pair of lovers.  Jane and Bingley are parallels.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “Your tempers are by no means unlike.  You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved upon; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.”[6] Elizabeth and Darcy, however, remain in opposition, and everyone is amazed when they are engaged—sisters, father, mother, friends, relations.  But the careful reader knows that they acted in the same way, just as Jane and Bingley did: they each disliked the other at first.  This variation of action and intention in groups has a wonderful, dynamic effect on the novel as the reader experiences all the permutations of love and desire.

How does this pair of lovers feel about marrying despite class and financial obstacles, the story question at hand?  Again, they are graded.  Jane and Bingley provide the calm backwater to the more tempestuous love affair between Darcy and Elizabeth. For Bingley and Jane there is no obstacle.  Jane wishes to marry for love, falls in love and remains true despite the class and financial obstacles in her path.  Bingley perceives neither class nor financial obstacles, and is only persuaded not to marry Jane because his sisters and Darcy, who are very conscious of the issue, persuade him that Jane is not in love with him.  Elizabeth and Darcy, however, confront the issue and each other.  When Darcy proposes the first time, and Elizabeth wisely but pridefully turns him down, Darcy verbalizes the class and financial differences between them, saying he is proposing in spite of them.

Reinforcing the central question of how to choose whom to marry, Austen presents a series of couples to echo the two main couples.  Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte Lucas, who eventually marries Mr. Collins—Elizabeth’s second cousin who proposes first to Elizabeth and then, when refused, applies to the acquiescent Charlotte—is drawn in opposition to Elizabeth by a differing perspective on marriage.  Charlotte believes that “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…It is better to know as little of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”  Elizabeth counters, “It is not sound.  You know it is not sound, and that you would never act this way yourself.”[7] But Elizabeth is wrong.  Charlotte will and does act exactly in this way, marrying Mr. Collins, a man invariably described as absurd, conceited and obsequious.  This direct opposition of Charlotte to Elizabeth, though they are friends, serves to dramatize the story conflict and further illuminates Elizabeth’s desire to marry for affection, not money or class associations.  Were Charlotte merely a friend who did not wish to marry, she would have no parallel plot, and Charlotte as a character would neither resonate nor reflect on the story question.  But she is constructed in such a way that she serves as an antithesis to Elizabeth’s desire to marry for love, then enters into a marriage that will serve as the antithesis to her marriage to Mr. Darcy, all the while being grouped with Elizabeth as a dear friend.

Furthermore, Austen inversely mirrors the Charlotte/Mr. Collins marriage to the coupling of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.  In the elder Bennet marriage, it is Mrs. Bennet who is universally considered absurd, and Mr. Bennet the man who chose poorly.  Mr. Bennet, however, upon learning that Collins and Charlotte were about to be married, thinks “Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife….”[8] But while Mr. Bennet believes himself to be sensible, he is as foolish as Charlotte, a sober person marrying for the wrong reasons.  Elizabeth contemplates her parents’ marriage thusly: “Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.  Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever.”[9] So, ultimately, Mr. Bennet was the foolish one, not his wife.  This question of who exactly is the foolish one again reinforces the story question of how to choose a desirable marriage partner.  This inverse mirror reinforces the theme and aspiration of both Jane and Elizabeth that choosing well in marriage will provide the only possibility of future happiness, and fattens the peoplescape, or population, of Austen’s novel.

Yet another iteration of a poor coupling is that of Lydia, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, with the officer George Wickham, a dissipated fortune hunter who preyed first on the young Miss Darcy, the very minor character Miss King, and finally Lydia, who was deluded and silly enough to behave without any deliberation, on the basis of flirtation alone.  Lydia’s actions serve as the brightest opposite to the more sober method of obtaining a husband adopted by both Jane and Elizabeth, and Wickham and Lydia as a couple are the stunning opposites of both Bingley and Jane and Darcy and Elizabeth.

The Gardiners, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, are yet another couple echoing the main couples, serving as an example of a fine partnership to which Elizabeth and Jane aspire.  They are also relatives.  Darcy has an aunt, too, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Note the symmetry here, another kind of grouping. But here is where the similarity ends. While the Gardiners are egalitarian and helpful, Lady Catherine is autocratic and obstructive.  Where the Gardiners hope for the union of Darcy and Elizabeth, Lady Catherine campaigns against it.  Where the Gardiners cooperate in helping Darcy mend the miserable connection of Wickham and Lydia, thereby tacitly agreeing to a union between the two families, Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to sunder the possibility of her marriage to Darcy and to decry the poor family connections that Darcy also once disdained.  At the close of the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are grouped with the Darcys as representative of the happiest of couples, as well as Jane and Bingley.

These couples populate the novel as echoes of the main characters, providing numerous contrasts to the way Jane and Elizabeth are going about their romantic affairs, showcasing imprudence and resignation (Charlotte) and foolishness (her mother and Lydia) in order to highlight Jane’s and Elizabeth’s more prudent approaches.  Their stories of course are subplots, but they are subplots because of how they mirror and magnify the main characters’ plots, and they mirror and magnify those plots because their desires and character traits are grades of the main characters and their conflict.  These multiplications not only populate the novel but also give it coherence, imparting that sense of a whole world with teeming inner connections.

Austen also groups individual characters.  Elizabeth’s three younger sisters are all shades of Mrs. Bennet.  Austen echoes Mrs. Bennet’s character in the headstrong, silly Lydia.  Lydia is a younger variation of Mrs. Bennet, who also once loved a redcoat: “I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and indeed so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls, I shall not say nay to him.”[10] When the regiment leaves Meryton and Lydia is pining for the loss of the officers’ society, Mrs. Bennet says, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar’s regiment went away.  I thought I should have broke my heart.”[11]

Kitty is first grouped with Lydia—considered by their father to be “two of the silliest girls in the country.”[12] —but toward the end of the novel, when she is “removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant and less insipid.”[13]

Mrs. Bennet has lesser echoes in her sister Mrs. Phillips, whose behavior is likewise “vulgar”[14], and in Lady Lucas, who echoes Mrs. Bennet in her singular desire that her daughter Charlotte be married, no matter what the cost.

The other sister, Mary, is a minor echo of Mr. Collins and, though it is never directly stated, is the obvious marriage partner choice for her double.  She sounds like Mr. Collins when she speaks: “ [Lydia’s elopement] is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of.  But we must stem the tide of malice…loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin….”[15] He stupidly ignores her, underpinning the theme that most people make foolish marriage choices.

I think it is important to note that the techniques of grouping need not be as obvious as those previously discussed.  Notice that Austen makes Mary seem the best choice for Mr. Collins only by inference.  Mary’s opinions are his opinions; when she speaks, she mimics his self-righteousness.  Never are the two described as being alike, yet every reader knows that Mr. Collins should have chosen Mary, an association achieved merely by this more subtle method of grouping.

Elizabeth’s suitors are also graded.  Mr. Collins appears at first to be primary on the least desirable.  However, Mr. Wickham, at first grouped with Bingley in appearing to be the best choice for Elizabeth, is revealed instead to be the worst when Darcy reveals Wickham’s attempted elopement with his younger, vulnerable sister.  And when Wickham instead succeeds in eloping with Lydia and extorting a fortune from Darcy, Mr. Bennet has this to say of him:  “He is as fine a fellow…as ever I saw.  He simpers, and smirks and makes love to us all.  I am prodigiously proud of him.  I defy even Sir William Lucas himself, to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”[16] This reevaluation regroups Mr. Wickham at Mr. Collins’ end of the spectrum.  A fainter echo is Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is presented and grouped with Mr. Bingley as a better alternative to the proud, disagreeable Darcy.  In Charlotte’s mind, Fitzwilliam was “beyond comparison the pleasantest man,”[17] but in the end, he remains nothing but a faint echo of Mr. Bingley and yet another contrast to the incomparable Darcy.

The lesser characters of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst serve as opposites to Elizabeth.  Miss Bingley wishes to marry Darcy and goes about it all the wrong way, using teasing and jealousy in an attempt to alter his emerging affection for Elizabeth.  Mrs. Hurst is an echo of her sister, and her marriage to the frequently drunken Mr. Hurst echoes the ill-advised marriages of other couples in the novel.

In summary, in Pride and Prejudice, grouping and regrouping of the characters magnifies the theme of the novel and coheres the whole.

dinnerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler,is the multi-generational story of the Tull family: Pearl, the matriarch, her husband Beck and their three children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny.  Like Austen, Tyler uses character gradation to enhance, emphasize and reinforce her novel’s essential question, which is: Can a family, divided by a history of pain, come together?  Like Pride and Prejudice, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is populated by family members, their spouses and friends.  But Tyler’s novel employs a more interior POV and hence the characterization is less firm.  The reader’s view of the characters in Dinner shifts as the characters regard themselves and each other at different points in their lives.  Memories are unreliable, conflicting; assessments change, not in the way that Elizabeth’s opinion of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy changes, but in a more complex, unstable way.  Therefore, the characters can be viewed only in their shifting relations to one another.  But this shifting characterization still provides its own kind of cohesiveness, because the shifting groupings further link each of the characters one to the other.  In effect, Tyler has taken this technique to its most articulate expression, further enhancing her story of this unstable, troubled family. It is important to note that Tyler tells the story in third person, shifting from one character’s view point to another as the novel progresses, a perfect approach in this instance since Dinner is the story of a broken family. Still, Tyler’s employment of character gradation works in much the same way that Austen’s does.  The foundational principle is the same: repetition and variation of character traits in order to group the characters to reinforce theme and story.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with Pearl’s story.  The matriarch is on her deathbed, having willed herself to die by deliberately catching pneumonia through self-induced immobility.  Intermittently conscious, she reviews her life: her relationship with the husband who deserted her, and her life with their three children, Ezra, Cody and Jenny.  We learn that Pearl experienced moments of explosive anger, that she was never very happily married, that she considered herself unreliable, at times, as a mother.  She wonders why her children did not find themselves a substitute mother: “You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say.”[18] Before she dies, she instructs Ezra to call everyone in her address book, knowing full well that the only one left alive is Beck, the absent husband.  It is this dual wish/act—dying and having Ezra call her estranged husband—that will ultimately unite this sundered family.

The characters in this novel shift associations as in a kaleidoscope of literary Venn diagrams, in which character traits and associations are grouped and regrouped again and again.  The shifting and regrouping, both of desire to reunite and the characters’ assessments of one another, are so fluid that they are difficult to outline.  As in Pride and Prejudice, the groupings in this novel are based on desire.  In this case, the groups shift on the basis of whether or not reunion is desirable.  In the first grouping, Pearl and Ezra want the same thing, for the family to be reunited.  Pearl wants the family to be together so much that she does not tell the children that their father has left, and pretends to them and the neighborhood that someday Beck will return.  Ezra spends the novel trying to unite the family over meals, adopting the traditional mother role and thereby becoming the substitute that Pearl insists her children need.  He is also grouped with her by both her and his siblings.  We’re told that “Ezra was her favorite, her pet…The entire family knew it. ”[19] And Pearl thinks Ezra will stay with her, “the two of them bumping down the driveway, loyal and responsible, together forever.”[20]

But the novel’s Venn diagrams constantly shift as the characters make associations with the other characters.  At various times, Ezra is grouped with Luke, (Cody’s son) and Ruth, the woman Cody will steal from Ezra.  However, as soon as Cody marries Ruth, his regard for her, and therefore the way he associates her, changes.  Where once he grouped her with Ezra, he now groups her with his mother, using the same description he used to describe Pearl.  Later, Cody reassociates Ruth with Ezra because she, too, tries to feed him.  But just after Cody steals Ruth from Ezra and marries her, he encounters an old girlfriend whom he had dropped because he thought she preferred Ezra instead of him.  As soon as she relates that she had always considered Ezra “a motherly man,” Cody develops an heretofore unheard-of affinity for Ezra because “she really hadn’t understood Ezra; she hadn’t appreciated what he was all about.”[21] You see the cascade effect here, the kaleidoscope.  One character is grouped to another, is grouped to another, then is regrouped again.  These subtle cascading impressions link Cody to Ezra, enhancing in the end the plausibility of this damaged family being able to reunite.  Gradation, therefore, serves to cohere and reinforce the story question.

Pearl is grouped with others beside Ezra and Ruth.  Pearl and her daughter Jenny are both characterized as tidy, though later Jenny will abandon that trait when she becomes a substitute mother to her third husband’s brood of children, whose mother abandoned them, an act which creates two more groupings: one of abandoned children and another of parents who abandoned their families.  To further reinforce the theme, Becky becomes a substitute mother to all of Joe’s children, a split off from Pearl thinking they all should have found a substitute.  Also, Jenny leaves her first husband Harley and never tells the family, just as her mother did when Beck left.  And Jenny loses her temper with her daughter just as Pearl did with her: “’No,’ said Becky, and Jenny hauled off and slapped her hand across the mouth, then shook her till her head lolled, then flung her aside and ran out of the apartment…All of her childhood returned to her: her mother’s blows and slaps and curses, her mother’s pointed fingernails digging into Jenny’s arm, her mother shrieking, ‘Guttersnipe!  Ugly little rodent!'”[22] In another cascade, Jenny’s daughter Becky later develops anorexia, as Jenny had as a child—Jenny was once referred to as looking as if she had come from Auschwitz.  And to further illustrate how complex the groupings are, in an even more convoluted reflection, Jenny thinks Cody perceives that everything she says “carries the echo of their mother.”[23]

The men, too, are linked in this cascading fashion.  Previously, we observed the cascade from Ezra to Luke and Ezra to Ruth.  Tyler groups Cody with Beck—the father he could never please—in that he takes a traveling job like his father and ends up living the life he lived as a child, unconnected to his neighborhood.  Unlike his father, however, Cody takes his family with him wherever he goes, echoing Ezra’s desire that the larger family be reunited.  Note here the subtle method of grouping by action.  While Darcy and Bingley acted in opposite ways, Cody and Beck act alike.  Yet Cody would never be able to consciously admit that he is anything like his father.  Indeed, he prides himself on being the exact opposite.  But he is the same.  While Ezra takes on motherly qualities, Cody takes on paternal characteristics.  It is a way for the reader to see the grouping without the character ever being aware of it; indeed, if Cody ever admitted to being like his father, I am not certain he could survive the psychological blow.  Toward the end, when Ezra has invited Beck to the restaurant for the funeral meal just as Pearl wanted and Beck, feeling out of place, leaves, it is Cody who ultimately finds his father and, more importantly perhaps, recognizes his son in his father: “There was Luke, as if conjured up, sitting for some reason on the stoop of a boarded-over building.  Cody started toward him, walking fast.  Luke heard his footsteps and raised his head as Cody arrived.  But it wasn’t Luke.  It was Beck.  His silver hair appeared yellow in the sunlight, and he had taken off his suit coat to expose his white shirt and his sharp, cocked shoulders so oddly like Luke’s.”[24] This grouping has, again, the effect of delineating the associations between characters and answering the story question of whether or not a family can reunite after pain.  And the answer is, Yes.  Cody, the one who feels most responsible for the breakup of the family, the one who develops the paternal qualities, the one who thinks, “Was it something I said?  Was it something I did?  Was it something I didn’t do, that made [Beck] go away?,”[25]and the one regarded by his mother as “Always cheating, tormenting, causing trouble…”[26] is the one who ultimately invites Beck back into the family circle.

Other characters’ situations reflect and comment on the Tull family situation.  Echoing the abandoned children plot are Joe’s children, most specifically embodied in Slevin: Slevin is Jenny’s stepson, whose mother walked out on them, an inversion of Jenny’s history.  Mrs. Scarlatti is portrayed as Ezra’s substitute mother because she is also husbandless and had a deceased son who was a soldier, as Ezra is about to become at one point.  She also acts as Ezra’s mother, calls him her dear boy, and upon her death leaves him her restaurant, supporting his dreams in a way that Pearl could not.  And Ezra attends Mrs. Scarlatti in the hospital (as he will later tend his mother on her deathbed).  Mrs. Payson is also presented as a surrogate: “[Ezra] has been like a son to me.”[27] In a further iteration of the substitute mother idea, Ezra replaces the waiters in the restaurant with “cheery, motherly waitresses.”[28]

These connections, Venn Diagrams, and shifting groupings have the effect of, again, “reinforcing theme,” as Glover saysThese groupings are wrapped up with desire: Ezra wants the family to stay together, as does Cody, as does Jenny, as does Pearl.  Tyler sets her characters to act as one whole as they stumble about trying to achieve this.  Again, it is character associations and gradation that accomplish the task of coherence most successfully.

curiousWe even find this device of character gradation in Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which would at first seem impossible, because this story is narrated by an autistic, savant teenager, whose disability is distinguished in part by an inability to discern character.  To illustrate how deep a challenge the use of gradation is in this instance, when Christopher, the narrator, describes his two teachers, he writes, “Siobhan has long blond hair and wears glasses which are made of green plastic.  And Mr. Jeavons smells of soap and wears brown shoes that have approximately 60 tiny circular holes in each of them.”[29] This characterization is not even characterization.  It is merely a description, telling us nothing of who these people are.  As Christopher tells us at the beginning of the narrative, he cannot read any other emotion than happy or sad, that all others are far too complex, lead to confusion and cause him to resort to screaming and groaning as coping methods, or to retreat by going outside at night to pretend that he is the only one in the world.  Therefore, it would seem impossible that character gradation could be used as a literary device to convey theme and enhance cohesion in this novel.  But character gradation is nonetheless a significant element in the book and Haddon uses it seamlessly, without ever unraveling the autistic cocoon.  Haddon employs this device to answer the story question in this novel, just as Austen and Tyler did.   The story question in this case at first appears to be Who killed Wellington?, the neighbor’s dog, but percolating underneath is the question of which even the narrator is unaware, though the reader is made aware of it immediately.  It is the question of whether or not Christopher is going to survive emotionally in a world in which he is handicapped.

Because Christopher’s disability prevents him from being able to speculate about the other characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, Haddon must resort to subtler ways of grading and grouping characters.  Though Christopher is unable to grade himself, he can, however, grade himself against someone who is not a fully developed, three-dimensional character.  Throughout the book, Christopher compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, a two-dimensional character in another story in which a dog gets killed, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

He says,

I also like the Hound of the Baskervilles because I like Sherlock Holmes and I think that if I were a proper detective he is the kind of detective I would be.  He is very intelligent and he solves mysteries and he says

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

But he notices them, like I do.  And it says in the book

Sherlock Holmes had, in a very remarkable degree, the power of detaching his mind at will.

And this is like me, too, because if I get really interested in something, like practicing maths, or reading a book about the Apollo missions or great white sharks, I don’t notice anything else.[30]

Christopher not only compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, he compares the act of writing his book to Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery:

Also Doctor Watson says about Sherlock Holmes

His mind…was busy in endeavouring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted.

And that is what I am trying to do by writing this book.[31]

He can also grade himself in relation to characters he himself imagines.  He fantasizes about the kind of people he wishes populated the world.  In his dream, “there is no one left in the world except people who don’t look at other people’s faces and don’t know what these pictures mean [in the text there is an illustration of complex facial patterns indicating shades of emotion] and these are all special people like me.  And they like being on their own and I hardly ever see them because they are like okapi in the jungle in the Congo, which are a kind of antelope and very shy and rare.”[32] Christopher is saying that he is special like these imagined people and that they are shy and rare.  It is an indirect way for Christopher to state that he is shy and rare.  It is the most intimate thing he will say about himself, but he expresses it in a dream.

When it comes to real people, not literary characters, Christopher ungroups himself.  He is never like anyone else.  For instance, he might be going to school at a Special Needs school, but he is unlike any of the other students.  “All the other children at my school are stupid.”[33] But while Christopher doesn’t grade or group characters, Haddon does, and he does this by making us aware of parallels and contrasts Christopher is not aware of.  For example, at another point in the book, Christopher says that he does do stupid things: “Stupid things are things like emptying a jar of peanut butter onto the table in the kitchen and making it level with a knife so it covers all the table right to the edges, or burning things on the gas stove to see what happened to them, like my shoes or silver foil or sugar.”[34] Here, Christopher is unaware of himself, but Haddon deftly uses this list to group Christopher with the classmates he scorns and to convey how Christopher is seen not only by society, but by his parents, too.  Christopher knows he is not stupid, because he plans to sit for “A Level maths” and pass them, yet society regards him as stupid.  He may not be willing to make the association himself, though he does without fully expressing it—he says, “I’m going to prove I’m not stupid”[35]—yet Haddon groups Christopher with his Special Needs classmates to make us reflect on the essential question of whether or not Christopher will survive in a society which regards him as incapable and odd.  Haddon also groups Christopher with other characters in the book.  Christopher says he is different from others because “the pictures in my head are all pictures of things which really happened.  But other people have pictures in their heads of things which are real and didn’t happen….”[36]

But as Christopher’s dream about the okapi-like people suggests, Haddon is grouping Christopher with those Christopher is ungrouping himself from.  This is most clear when Christopher reports, as an example of how “others” think, a fantasy very like his own: “And Siobhan once said that when she felt depressed or sad she would close her eyes and she would imagine that she was staying in a house on Cape Cod with her friend Elly, and they would take a trip on a boat from Provincetown and go out into the bay to watch the humpback whales and that made her feel calm and peaceful and happy….”[37]

Through these fantasies, both of which involve rarely seen animals, Haddon subtly groups Siobhan with Christopher.  This grouping reinforces the story question yet again, because one of the reasons Christopher begins to come out of his autism is that Siobhan encourages him to investigate the death of Wellington, an investigation that forces him at first only minimally out of his shell—talking to the neighbors—but ultimately leads him to the previously impossible solitary train trip to London to find his mother.  By encouraging him to investigate and write the book we are reading, Siobhan enables Christopher to believe in the end that he can move away to a university in another town.  She has helped him to survive.  They are a team.  Siobhan and Christopher act in the same way, dream the same things, work toward the similar goal of solving both the small mystery of the death of Wellington and the larger mystery of his survival.

All of these groupings are indirect—implied rather than stated—but there is one direct instance of grouping in the novel, that of Christopher and his father.  But Christopher does not make this connection, his father does.  When Christopher is unable to control other people, when they cross the bubble of his self-protection, he becomes angry and hits.  He hits a policeman, he hits his father, he hits a girl at school.  When his father is revealed as the murderer of Wellington, and the two get into a fight, his father says: “But, shit, Christopher, when that red mist comes down…Christ, you know how it is.  I mean, we’re not that different, me and you.”[38] Not only does this passage reveal that his father and Christopher are alike, it reinforces the subtler meaning that although Christopher is shy and rare, he is not as unlike others as he thinks he might be.

Through Christopher’s efforts to place himself in the world by comparing himself first to the two-dimensional Sherlock Holmes and then to okapi, the reader understands that Christopher will always be isolated; however, we also believe that Christopher will survive because in the end he is able to face the future and make plans and hope: “And then I will get a First Class honors degree and I will become a scientist.  And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”[39] There is a tension in the novel between what Christopher understands about himself—that he is different and always will be—and the possibility of being able to make his way in the world.  At the beginning, we fear he will be unable to.  But by the end, the possibility exists that he will have a bright future.  This change in Christopher and in our attitude toward his future is because of the shifting and grouping of characters.

Therefore, even in a novel narrated by an autistic savant, character gradation exists,not as densely, perhaps, as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Pride and Prejudice, but in all three of these novels, grouping and gradation serve to cohere the theme and answer the story question.

To what end, all this?  What does it matter if a character is grouped, graded or opposed?  Just this: in our daily lives we meet people randomly.  The important and the unimportant pop in and out, at important and unimportant times.  We begin our days with the letter carrier or the clerk at the grocery store, or our spouses after a quarrel or our teenagers sullen over some unrevealed irritation (as teenagers have).  Our daily lives have only the cohesion we assign it.  But whereas we have little or no control over the people in our lives, a novelist has all the control over all the lives in a novel, and this constitutes an obligation to the reader that the world in which she immerses herself will be one of cohesion and import; that the author will not introduce characters willy-nilly; that the author will have something to say, a story to tell, and that the fictional world will be contrived in such a way that it will make sense of the story dilemma presented.

Novelists promise the reader something that real life rarely yields: the illusion that a reader can make sense of her own life.  And an effective tool for accomplishing this magic trick is by constructing subtle associations and connections between characters that reinforce meaning and intent, that help solve the characters’ problems, that yields light on the confusion and tumult of everyday life and helps the reader understand what drives mankind to weep, love, adore, disdain, despair, abandon and sometimes yield to the hope that life matters in some shimmering way.  But a writer cannot achieve this mystical, ephemeral thing without precise craft.  I submit that character grouping and gradation, as daughters of echo and repetition, underpin our fiction with a sturdy backbone that will achieve the goal not only of illumination, but of coherence.

—Robin Oliveira


Robin Oliveira is the author of My Name is Mary Sutter, winner of the 2007 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 Honorable Mention from the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction. A Registered Nurse, she also holds a B.A. in Russian, and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, Drew, but longs to live in Paris where she recently traveled to do research for her historical novel on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, just published by VIKING.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Glover, Douglas, The Enamoured Knight (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 2004), 128.
  2. Ibid., 130.
  3. Brown, E.K.,  Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), 17.
  4. Ibid., 27.
  5. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice   Ed. Donald Gray. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 2000. 11-12.
  6. Ibid., 227.
  7. Ibid., 16.
  8. Ibid., 7.
  9. Ibid., 155.
  10. Ibid., 21.
  11. Ibid., 150.
  12. Ibid., 20.
  13. Ibid., 252.
  14. Ibid., 251.
  15. Ibid., 187-188.
  16. Ibid., 214.
  17. Ibid., 120.
  18. Tyler, Anne,  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant  (New York: Fawcett Books, 1996), 2.
  19. Ibid., 37.
  20. Ibid., 186.
  21. Ibid., 166.
  22. Ibid., 209.
  23. Ibid., 84.
  24. Ibid., 299.
  25. Ibid., 47.
  26. Ibid., 65.
  27. Ibid., 78.
  28. Ibid., 122.
  29. Haddon, Mark,  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
  30. Ibid., 73.
  31. Ibid., 73-74.
  32. Ibid., 198-199.
  33. Ibid., 43.
  34. Ibid., 47.
  35. Ibid., 44.
  36. Ibid., 78.
  37. Ibid., 79.
  38. Ibid., 121-122.
  39. Ibid., 221.
May 172013


Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here’s a practical look at the utility and felicities of  research from a former journalist and Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer, Russell Working. I met Russell years ago when he was staying the Yaddo, the art residency in Saratoga Springs. I wasn’t at Yaddo, but I live about six minutes away and am always going over there to visit (or rescue) friends. Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. Of his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize) I wrote: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.


Many years ago, I was working on a novel that involves a husband who is searching for his missing wife. In it my protagonist, Paul, goes into a morgue with a cop and a coroner to identify a body that might be hers. The question was, how to describe the morgue? No problem! I knew all about that. I had never been in a morgue, but I had seen them on TV and the movies. Good enough.

Plus, I am a fiction writer. That means I can just use my imagination, right? And unlike in journalism, nobody gets to demand a correction. So I wrote it just like on TV, the walls were lined with stainless steel drawers. The coroner pulls one open. And there’s the body, covered by a sheet.

But wait a minute. Dead bodies: it must smell bad. So I had my coroner light up a cigar to cover the odor. He offers cigars to the detective and poor Paul, who thinks he is about to see the corpse of his murdered wife.

“Smoke, gentlemen?” the coroner says.

“He smokes the good stuff,” the detective says. “Cuban seed.”


Needless to say, I never sold that novel. And as for that scene, it bogged down in the writing. It was lifeless. I was stuck. I fought my way through it, but the description never stopped smelling dead. The trouble was, I needed to report my story, in the way that a journalist might, to pick up the phone, make an appointment with a coroner, and head out to the morgue with a notebook in hand.

I needed to go to take in the sounds and smells. To interview a staff. To investigate. To research. Scribble notes. Record the interview. Look around the crypt where the bodies are kept. Did it have a high vaulted ceiling or a low one? Were there bare light bulbs or phosphorescent track lighting? Were the walls tile or plaster? Then take it all back to my computer, throw out the dross, and turn the key elements into fiction.

I was a newspaper reporter, yet I had never taken that basic step, at least for this particular scene.

Now, wait a minute, you may say. Why do we need to do this? If we’re fiction writers, don’t we get to make things up? And if the fiction is autobiographical, can’t we just rely on our own memories? We lived it, after all. What if we’re magical realists? What if my protagonist is a centaur or a flying squirrel who thinks he’s Batman? And as for creative nonfiction, aren’t many of us writing memoirs, which means the topic is subjective? Who needs research, to say nothing of shoe-leather reporting?

Well, when we write a scene, whether it is magical realism or a noir tale of murder, we strive to imagine a narrative world that is vivid and believable within the rules it agrees to play by. In one way or another, we seek to establish a sense of verisimilitude. Beyond that, we want our construction of events to seem plausible within the universe of writing. We wish to speak with authority. Reporting and hands-on research will inspire stories and suggest images and characters and the plotline itself.

When a reader takes up a book, he and the author are engaged in a joint act of creation, and he must reconstruct that world in his mind based on the details the author presents in words.

Think of the reader as Hellen Keller: she is blind and deaf and, for that matter, let us imagine that she doesn’t even have a sense of smell. All she relies on is touch: the touch of our words. We sign into her palm, telling her what is out there. She must trust us. We as authors are all she has to experience this created world. She clings to our arm, eager to know what we see and hear, forming pictures of her own within her mind. Thus she, too, participates in a joint creative act by envisioning the scenes and the characters that we sketch with words.

But when we hit a false note, Ms. Keller perceives the author behind the artifice of fiction, dressed in sweats, unshaven, unshowered, slouching in a chair with a cup of microwaved coffee, trying to think of some event to move the story along.

There are days when we all may feel we’re staring at a screen going nowhere. Perhaps these, most of all, are the days that could stand the help of reporting. The writer who thinks his job is confined to his desk at home is much more likely to trip up readers with phony descriptions or outlandish turns of plot. He yanks Ms. Keller out of the joint act of dreaming and thrusts her into the role of skeptic.

In 1989, Harpers Magazine published an essay by Tom Wolfe titled, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” a manifesto that was as bombastic and full of itself as its title. Wolfe quoted his own fiction approvingly and at length, and took it upon himself to denounce many of his contemporaries, who were angered and bewildered by his tone. The New Yorker described him as crashing a cocktail party and throwing writers around like a professional wrestler. A literary brawl ensued (always a fun thing), with some of America’s leading writers weighing in in the letters to the editor. But amid the uproar, Wolfe outlined some important lessons for writers, and I would argue that these apply both to fiction and creative non-fiction. He stated:

[The] task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

He goes on:

Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary. To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of … a corrupt evangelist … Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chatauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

Fine, you may say. That was Tom Wolfe, the guy in the white suits and high-collared shirts. The showman. Sure, he writes novels, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, but he cut his teeth on nonfiction like The Right Stuff. Of course he would recommend playing the reporter.

And as for me, I am a newspaper reporter by profession. Of course I am going to plug the skills of my dying medium, which is going the way of the town crier.

So how about a literary figure who is more in tune with the spirit of our times?

As it happens, not everyone agrees with Wolfe. Consider Jonathan Franzen, author, Freedom, which propelled him onto the cover of Time magazine. He argues that these days research doesn’t matter much—including, presumably, the reporting, notebook in hand, that I recommend.

In February he was asked to contribute a list of rules of writing to the Guardian. Number 5 was this: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Likewise, in an interview, he says, “I avoid [research] as much as possible. It gets in the way of invention.”

So is Wolfe wrong, or embarrassingly passé? Are we at our best when we discipline ourselves to remain at the desk and just pound the words out, unleashing the magical forces of our creativity?

In the age of Google, are we just wasting our time when we go out and scribble notes about the slaughtered lambs hanging in a halal butcher shop or the Chicago ex-cons selling jars of organic honey at a farmers market? If we are out jotting impressions in notebooks, aren’t guys like Franzen racing ahead by sitting at his desk and applying himself to the actual writing of books?

Time magazine hailed Franzen as “A Great American Novelist,” and nobody has called me up to sit for a cover portrait. No doubt his greatness contains such multitudes that he could write just as well from a padded cell. Perhaps only we hacks need to actually look at the things we are describing, the way minor artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci looked at live models when they drew the human form.

But I shall let you in on a secret: even Franzen doesn’t really believe what he is telling you. It strikes me as so unhelpful, I almost wonder if he is trying to winnow the competition by sending young writers up the wrong path.

Ha! They believed me, the suckers!

Here is why I know he isn’t being entirely straight with us. In the very next sentence of that interview I just cited, he admits that he traveled to West Virginia for four days to investigate coal mining communities for Freedom. He also said he had the help of others in researching Minneapolis neighborhoods, even though he himself is from Minnesota.

The research shows. He writes of the “matchstick Appalachian woods and the mining-ravaged districts.” He describes an hourglass-shaped vein of coal that lies under the mountains, at the center of which lives a clan headed by a man named Coyle Mathis, who is refusing to sell his ancestral home to a company that plans to remove the mountaintop, mine the coal, and create a nature reserve. When Mathis receives an offer to buy his property, Franzen writes, he “didn’t even wait to hear the details. He said, ‘No, N-O,’ and added that he intended to be buried in the family cemetery and no one was going to stop him.” When Mathis threatens to sick his dogs on the man making the offer, even shoot him, the scene has an authenticity that surely owes something to Franzen’s reporting in West Virginia.

So how do we use research and reporting to enhance, rather than obstruct, creativity? Here are some recommendations:


1. Get out.

As writers, we tend to feel that the only work that matters is that spent in front of the computer, pushing up the word count displayed at the bottom of the page. But simply getting up and getting out into the world can make the words flow afterwards, whether we’re heading to an A&P, like John Updike, or a scrap metal yard or a foreign country.

In Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, an alcoholic history professor with a wild streak, Patsy MacLemoore, wakes up in jail after blackout. Patsy’s story begins thus:

Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.

She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.

The little jail had no windows. Fluorescent tubes quivered night and day. A fan clattered, off-kilter. Each of the three connected cells contained a seatless stainless-steel toilet and a tiny, one-faucet sink.

Lurching to the undersized sink, she drank from it sideways, cheek anchored against the greasy spout. The dribble was tepid and tasted of mold. In the next cell over, June’s haughty face loomed. Did she fuckin live here? Every time Patsy’d been in, she was, too. June’s top lip was like two paisleys touching. What’d you do this time, Professor? said the lips.

Don’t know, Patsy said. …

Not what I heard, June said. And lookit your face.

Patsy’s fingers went to a ridge of scab crystallizing along her cheekbone. No wonder her head hurt.

Returning to the shelf, she noted the itchy rasp of the prison gown. Lead-blue, unrippable, it was made of 45 percent stainless-steel, according to the label. She was naked beneath, not even panties.

I hear you’re in deep shit, Professor, [June said].

It is not until Patsy is sitting opposite two cops and her own lawyer does she begin to comprehend what she has done. She is tossing out flippant remarks—“We have to stop meeting like this”—when she sees a file in front of the detective. On it is written, HOMICIDE.

She learns she has been accused of running over and killing a mother and daughter while driving drunk. Her whole life as she knew it is over and she is heading for prison.

In an email, I asked Huneven how she was able to portray so convincingly the events including Patsy’s time in jail and a prison firefighting camp. Her discussion of how she researches illustrates my point. Huneven interviewed widely. She talked to everyone she knew, male and female, who had been in prison or jail. She unearthed subplots and storylines in real life.

She wrote me, “One woman in particular—she’s essentially Gloria in the book—talked to me at length; she’d been sober forever, but was manic depressive. With twenty years sober, she got off her meds, stole a hundred thousand bucks from her boss and drove across country delivering it to poor people she met at McDonalds and the like. She was sentenced to 4 years, served two, part of it in fire camp. For the firefighting details I interviewed a young woman I know who recently spent two summers fighting fires in the Sierra.”

Equally important, she visited the scene. Lacking Franzen’s mystical abilities as a seer, she was forced to trudge on down to a courtroom in person and spend a day observing what went on.

She writes:

“I interviewed prosecutors, who in turn did research for me about how much time a drunk driving/ criminal negligence charge would get you in the early 1980’s. I was momentarily stumped when I found out that they couldn’t prosecute for drunk driving because the accident happened on [private] property, but that ended being up a rather interesting part of the narrative, I thought. I interviewed a probation officer, I actually made my husband, who is a lawyer, write the declaration that frees Patsy from responsibility in the end. He gave me SUCH a dull document my agent made me slice it back to the few salient sentences.”

In my own writing, getting out of the office has inspired some of my best-received stories. I used to live in the Russian Far East, and I made five reporting trips to China. On one trip I encountered a couple whose lives would inspire a short story in my collection, The Irish Martyr.

In China when a freelance reporter such as myself asks around in a hotel for an interpreter, an uncomfortably friendly middle-aged man with hair dyed shoe-polish-black will show up in a white sedan with a soldier at the wheel and red flags flapping from the bumpers. Because I usually did business reporting, this never was a problem.

But on one visit I wanted to write about a highly sensitive topic, North Korean refugees. I couldn’t rely on the official story. Through friends I found an interpreter, and by sheer luck he knew of a refugee.

She had escaped North Korean, her hair thinning from malnutrition, and was sold as a wife to a Chinese peasant. In my story, “Dear Leader,” I described the day she is taken to meet her new husband. Let me do a Tom Wolfe and approvingly quote my own fiction:

An ethnic Korean marriage broker named Bong-il drove her to her new home near Yanji, rasping dire warnings all the way in the back seat of his smoky Land Cruiser while his driver adjusted the music on the stereo. “If you run away, we will find you, understand? He is paying good money for you, and we are men of our word. We will return you, and you’ll discover what an angry husband can do to a girl. I know this one guy, he chained his wife to the bed and gouged her eyes out the third time she tried to run away. If we don’t find you, the police will, and you know what that means: back to North Korea. Stay put. Even if he beats you, you’ll be fed, unlike in Hongwan, right? You will live. Seems like a fair bargain.” He threw his cigarette butt out the window and asked, “Are you listening?” She was. “Good,” he said, “because I’m not trying to scare you, I hope you’re happy, I truly do, you are such a pretty girl, or you will be when you fatten up and your hair grows back. … Incidentally, it’s his prerogative to resell you if he wishes. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Think of it this way: if you don’t get along, maybe you’ll end up with someone more compatible.”

This monologue was inspired by the refugee’s description of the conditions under which she arrived. In fact her very predicament is drawn from my interviews with the real-life refugee woman and the husband who had bought her.

We mere scribblers cannot invent such situations. We go out and sift through the infinite range of stories the world offers us. And it amazes us.


2. Find a Guide.

Dante had Virgil to guide him in his pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. If you are overwhelmed in an unfamiliar area or topic, find a guide.

By way of example let us consider George Packer, a reporter for the New Yorker. In a 2007 nonfiction piece, Packer described meeting two young Iraqis in Baghdad. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.

Packer met them at the Palestine Hotel, where, two years earlier, a suicide bomber driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought down the hotel’s eighteen-story tower. He writes:

It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his sister’s house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman watched the home of his sister’s neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground. Shiite militiamen scrawled the words “Leave or else” on the doors of Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his sister’s husband—a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia militias—escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith’s grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.

These two men became his guides. Packer says in an interview with the Poynter Institute that this is his general practice. “I need someone who can provide me with the introduction to the place and give me sense of the landscape,” he says.

For a story on the U.S. Senate, Packer relied on the insights of beat reporters who knew the ins and outs of the institution, along with the staffers familiar with its obscure rules. When he decided to investigate the roots of the financial meltdown, he chose Tampa in part because a friend there could show him around. The two canvassed the Tampa Bay area, driving through subdivisions and taking to people randomly. What he learned in those interviews became the core of the story.

“Once I get there, I’m constantly saying, ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ‘Do you know anyone in this situation?’ ” Packer says. “And people tend to be quite generous with that information, and most people want to tell their story.”

Fiction writers also may find a guide helpful in unfamiliar territory. In interviews, Colum McCann has talked about how he lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels and traveled to Russia to research another novel. But the book I wish to discuss is Zoli, is about a Roma, or Gypsy, singer and poet born in Slovakia in the 1930s during the height of fascist power in Europe.

In it, the six-year-old Zoli, who will become an acclaimed singer and poet, learns from her grandfather that fascist militiamen have driven her clan and its wagons and horses out onto the winter ice and encircled the shore with fires. The ice collapses and the people drown. Zoli tells us, “My mother was gone, my father, my brothers, my sister and cousins, too.”

The book has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the life of Roma, a society that has long been persecuted and also closed to outsiders. Its descriptions struck me as deeply authentic. Consider this description of a visitor enters a Roma settlement:

Doorframes used as tables. Sackcloth for curtains. Empty çuçu bottles strung up as wind chimes. At his feet, bits of wood and porridge containers, lollipop sticks and shattered glass, the ground-down bones of some dead animal. He catches glimpses of babies hammocked from ceilings, flies buzzing around them as they sleep. He reaches for his camera but is pushed on in the swell of children. Open doorways are quickly closed. Bare bulbs switched off. He notices carpets on the walls, and pictures of Christ, and pictures of Lenin, and pictures of Mary Magdalene, and pictures of Saint Jude lit by small red candles high above empty shelves. From everywhere comes the swell of music, no accordions, no harps, no violins, but every shack with a TV or a radio on full volume, an endless thump. …

He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.

In an interview McCann discusses his research methods. He says his guides, Martin and Laco, introduced him to writers, musicians, ethnographers, sociologists and Roma activists. He went to the most notorious Slovakian settlements to see the conditions of life there: the mud and wattle huts, the poverty, the desolation. No electricity, he says. No running water. He sang old Irish songs, hung out and watched what they did. He was an outsider, dependent on others to show him around, but he showed empathy and tried not to intrude.

He adds:

[O]ne day I was in Svinia … [and] a big group of kids and I went down to the local soccer pitch to play football together. We were playing away happily, quietly. But then these “white” women started shouting at us from a distance. Before we knew it we were hounded out by the mayor and the local policemen who called us “fucking Gypsies.” Except they were a bit puzzled by me. They kept staring at me. As if to say, Who’s the white boy? … We got kicked out. They locked the gates behind us. I tried to protest in English and apparently they were calling me another bleeding heart, another European sentimentalist. We walked away, back to the settlement. A half-mile along this country road. Quietly. No fuss. No fights. There was lots of broken glass at the field near the settlement. That’s why we couldn’t play there and had to go to town.

But therein lies the dilemma. I could make this a story about being treated terribly by the local authorities. That’s true, but it’s also true that nobody smashed glass on that field other than the Roma themselves. The kids had ruined their own field. That’s the heartbreak. That’s the contradiction that fiction, too, has to find.

Moments like that are hard to create from an office chair in front of your laptop.


3. Talk to sources who have lived the life you’re writing about.

Interview taxi drivers, garbage men, street preachers, beauticians, aldermen, astrophysicists, the homeless Poles who sleep in dumpsters in Chicago—whomever you’re writing about.

In November 1959, two ex-cons entered a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, and murdered the owner, his wife, and their two children. It was a horrific, senseless, random crime of the sort that makes headlines nationwide and then vanishes into the criminal system. But Truman Capote saw behind the headlines a powerful story worthy of a great writer’s attention, and he decided to pursue it for his so-called “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. He and his assistant, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas. At the courthouse they tracked down the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents who were handling the case.

In 1997 George Plimpton wrote an oral history on the writing of the book for the New Yorker.  He recounts how Capote left a singular impression with the people he spoke to.

One agent tells Plimpton, “Al Dewey [a KBI agent], invited me to come up and meet this gentleman who’d come to town to write a book. So the four of us, KBI agents, went up to his room that evening after dinner. And here [Truman] is in kind of a new pink negligee, silk with lace, and he’s strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he’s going to write this book.”

My point is not that we all need to wear pink negligees when we’re interviewing cops. Rather, is that Capote, a gay New Yorker, was bold enough to go into an alien milieu, that of homicide detectives, and win their cooperation, despite some outrageous behavior. He obtained extensive interviews with nearly every major person in the book, including the murderers themselves.

KBI agent Alvin Dewey said, “He got information nobody else got, not even us.”

(Truman’s breach of ethics in achieving this scoop are a matter of discussion for another day.)


Last year I dug up that old novel of mine—the one with the cigar-smoking coroner—and I blushed when I read some of the scenes. But still, I thought it was worth another go, and after a revision, so did my agent.

When I first dove into the manuscript again, I decided to research every major element of the plot. I interviewed cops and day laborers and a guy who paints houses for a living. I found two University of Chicago surgeons who treat bullet wounds, and I  sat in on the class of an Aikido instructor.

A cult plays a central role in the novel so I interviewed a woman who had spent two decades in Tony Alamo Christian Ministries; its leader is now serving a 175-year sentence in federal penitentiary for taking girls as young as nine across state lines to have sex with them. I listened to sermons by the Rev. Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to their deaths. I interviewed the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to the rescue of big cats such as lions and tigers.

Since writing the original draft I had visited a morgue in Russia, but I still sought out an investigator at the coroner’s office in Los Angeles. That, after all, was where the book was set. She agreed to talk to me, but she said we could not under any circumstances, see the crypt—the area where they store the bodies—or the rooms where the autopsies are done. All we could do is meet in her office.

I was a little disappointed, but it was better than nothing.

We looked at all kinds of grisly photos. As I described the situation in my novel, she would show me pictures. She saw that I wasn’t going to throw up on her desk when we saw the grim images. When I asked about the layout of the crypt, she said, “Oh, hell. Let’s just go look at it.”

And suddenly we were trotting downstairs, donning surgeon’s masks—which kind of hindered our cigar-smoking—and marching in to see the room where several hundred bodies were stored.

Now, I’m not going to give away all my hard-earned research to other writers. Needless to say that in this particular morgue, at least, was nothing like what you see on TV.

There is no substitute for seeking out sources. If your character is a high school football coach, call one up and ask if you can drop by practice some afternoon. If she is a lawyer or a foot masseuse or a Ukrainian baker, go find one to talk to. If you want to write about a journalist, talk to one.

If you are writing a memoir, be willing to interview your family or friends or others who lived the experience you are writing about.

All right, but how do you reach the people you need to talk to? Admittedly, it is harder for a fiction writer than a newspaper reporter, but it is not impossible.

For the LA County Coroner’s Office, I dug up a story that quoted a woman extensively, and called her directly. I simply told her I am a writer working on a novel, and I wanted to get things right. She seemed pleased at my diligence. To talk to a cop, I called the LAPD public affairs office. The spokeswoman told me she doubted any detective would talk to me, but she said she would ask. It turned out the head of the department was intrigued by my project and was willing to help.

If the official sources say no, try a back door. Talk to friends and put out feelers to reach people.

Record your interviews. Interestingly, Capote didn’t do this, but he claimed to have had near perfect recall. He said that when he was a boy, he would memorize pages of the New York telephone book. Then he would have somebody quiz him: “On line so-and-so, what’s the name there and what’s the telephone number.” He didn’t even take notes; he and Lee would return to their rooms and write down their recollections of conversations afterwards.

For mere mortals, a good recorder is essential. In writing Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer and his collaborator Lawrence Schiller said they recorded hundreds of hours of interviews amounting to thousands of pages of transcripts. This is why the voice so closely parallels those of the characters whose lives it recounts. I have a little Sony digital recorder that you can plug it into your computer when you get home, so you can download the audio file and transcribe it later. As you do, this will help you accurately recall what they said. It gives you a sense of your source’s voice, character, thought patterns, and manerisms.

Once you have talked to your sources, something interesting happens. They become a Council of the Wise whom you can consult with further questions. Ask them for their email address. You need to use them judiciously, but they are great for checking out details. Don’t send lists of 20 questions or they won’t reply, but use them.

I did this with the coroner’s investigator. The missing persons detective had told me a rather amazing story about how a cadaver dog sniffed up a homicide victim. But I needed to know who would respond to a scene where a body is found in a backyard. I emailed my source in the coroner’s department, asking how many personnel would show up, and she sent me a long email in reply. Here is just a small part:

Shallow Grave in a backyard: Personnel present: Police Department Homicide Detectives & Photographer, Coroner Special Operations response team (Handling Investigator, Criminalist, Forensic Anthropolgist, Photographer and Cadaver Dog & Handler -remaining team members consisting of other Investigators, Forensic Attendants and Criminalists).


4. Do your homework.

Fine, but how do we know what sources to seek out? Of course, this is often plain from the work itself. But it also helps to do your homework. Before McCann traveled to Europe to research the Roma, he spent a year in the New York Public Library. Huneven had done a major investigative piece on the California Youth Authority years ago, and she drew off of the contacts she made them.

Doug Glover has a novel named Elle, about a lusty young French girl whose shipmates abandon her on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during an early expedition to colonize Canada. She is found by a native hunter, who becomes her lover and helps her survive, and she is drawn into what has been called “a bear-haunted dream world.” She even shape-shifts into a bear.

The novel makes heavy use of aboriginal mythology and magic. And yet what also interested me was the vivid realism in its portrayal of 16th century France and native life in its newly established colonies. It feels grounded in reality. The myths it describes are convincing. In his acknowledgments Doug, says he plundered many books to come up with a compelling vision of life that era. But he also tells me that in researching the novel, he talked to a librarian at a reservation who had archived tapes of interviews with old Indians.

Doug also hunts through bibliographies looking for papers published in journals, especially old ones. He would find a paper, and from its bibliography and get even more sources.

“The key to research is that you’re looking for the fact that is not commonly known,” he told me. “It infuses your writing with authenticity, if it’s real yet somewhat surprising.”

He also offers a hint for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of interviewing. Doug says he would never go up to an Indian and ask him about anything directly. But if you hang around, you start to get a feel for things such as way they name and nickname people and the kind of humor they have.

Thus he gives his characters names like Comes Winter, an Indian girl who was kidnapped and taken to France and is dying of consumption. One little boy is named Old Man, while an old man is named Gets Close to Caribou.

Gets Close to Caribou earned his name one winter when a panicky caribou spooked in the wrong direction and almost trampled him to death. Gets Close was unconscious for a week—he dreamed the caribou lifted him in its mouth and carried him to Caribou Mountain, north of the Land of Nothing. He stayed with the king of the caribou, a former hunter who had fallen in love with a caribou-woman. All present-day caribou are descended from this hunter and his caribou girlfriend.

In my own case, in reporting for my fiction, I have gone to the federal courthouse in Chicago and pulled records on an ongoing Russian mafia trial, including indictments and transcripts of FBI wiretaps. This gave me the chance to read about the father-son team of money launderers Lev and Boris Stratievsky. The father was nicknamed Dollar, the son Half-Dollar. Great names! I didn’t use those in my fiction, but they set my imagination running.

The two were laundering millions of dollars as a part of a broader criminal network of Eastern Europeans. They were shipping stolen cars and heavy machinery abroad, peddling drugs and guns to Chicago street gangs, committing mortgage fraud, and trafficking in young women. These reports provided a rich background that allowed me to think more expansively about the mobster at the center of my story. For one thing, I moved my mobster out of a Chicago two-flat into a mansion on Lake Michigan.

Think creatively. You can also request military records to find out if that veteran you are writing about is telling the truth about the Navy Cross he claims he won or whether he even was in Vietnam, let alone butchered all those women and children he butchered there.

You are all familiar with the Internet, but I will say two things.

1. It can be a marvelous research tool for original documents, even if you don’t have access to legal databases. For example, there is a web site that has extensive documentation, including original court records, on American jihadists who have been convicted on terror charges.

Elsewhere, you can find FBI transcripts of Jim Jones urging his followers to commit suicide in Guyana, and one woman arguing, futilely, that the children should be spared.

2. But the Internet can be a deadly trap. It keeps you at your desk, rather than getting you out into the world. It’s tempting to check out Google street view rather than drive to that neighborhood with a notebook in hand. It is also a distraction. Franzen warns about this with his usual hyperbole: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”


Let me conclude by returning to Tom Wolfe. His point is not merely that on-scene research and reporting create verisimilitude and make a novel gripping or absorbing, although these are important. Rather, he states, this kind of reporting is essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve. Wolf writes:

In 1884 Zola went down into the mines at Anzin to do the documentation for what was to become the novel Germinal. Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat … and carrying a notebook and pen. One day Zola and the miners who were serving as his guides were 150 feet below the ground when Zola noticed an enormous workhorse … pulling a sled piled with coal through a tunnel. Zola asked, “How do you get that animal in and out of the mine every day?” At first the miners thought he was joking. Then they realized he was serious, and one of them said, “Mr. Zola, don’t you understand? That horse comes down here once, when he’s a colt, barely more than a foal, and still able to fit into the buckets that bring us down here. That horse grows up down here. He grows blind down here after a year or two, from the lack of light. He hauls coal down here until he can’t haul it anymore, and then he dies down here, and his bones are buried down here.” When Zola transfers this revelation from the pages of his documentation notebook to the pages of Germinal, it makes the hair on your arms stand on end. You realize, without the need of amplification, that the horse is the miners themselves, who descend below the face of the earth as children and dig coal down in the pit until they can dig no more and then are buried, often literally, down there.

The moment of The Horse in Germinal is one of the supreme moments in French literature—and it would have been impossible without that peculiar drudgery that Zola called documentation.

— Russell Working


Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.



Apr 022013

Sheila Heti Photo by Lee Towndrow -Sheila Heti: Photo by Lee Towndrow

Sheila Heti is a Toronto writer whose 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? created a trans-Atlantic sensation. It was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and it has just made the long list for the prestigious The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in the UK. David Haglund in The New York Times Book Review wrote: “Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.” The Economist‘s reviewer said: “Ms. Heti’s deadpan, naked voice is what makes Sheila’s journey so engaging… [Her] mordant take on modernity encourages introspection. It is easy to see why a book on the anxiety of celebrity has turned the author into one herself.” And in The New Yorker, no less a critic than James Wood opined: “[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.”

It’s a delight to publish here what might be the definitive Sheila Heti interview, a lengthy, intimate, wide-ranging conversation with Jill Margo as interlocutor. Margo probes and nudges most gracefully and does not limit the topics to the purely literary.  Her interview has the aura of something overheard, and what you overhear are two intelligent women talking about art and the writing life. It’s a treat.



I interviewed Sheila Heti at her home in July of 2012 on one of those disgustingly hot and humid Toronto days that—to swipe a phrase from Billie Livingston—felt like “being under a dog’s tongue.” Sheila, as it turned out, lives not far from me on the top floor of a house on a corner lot that I’d walked by several times before. I’d always admired the place because of its gothically romantic and overgrown garden that disappears the tall fence and nearly obscures the house.

When Sheila came to the door, she looked cool (literally) and put together. She was even wearing nice, proper shoes instead of flip flops or bare feet. I’m not sure if I would’ve thought to put shoes on if I was being interviewed in my own home—especially in that heat. I couldn’t decide if it was a gesture of fashion, professionalism, or maybe even a kind of guardedness.

I had met Sheila twice before. The first time was around 2001 when she read from her debut book, a story collection called The Middle Stories, at a reading series I hosted in Victoria, BC. The second time was nearly ten years later, in 2011, when I hosted her reading at the Robson Reading Series in Vancouver. That was the year after her fifth and most recent book, How Should a Person Be? had been released by Anansi in Canada. It was published the following year in the U.S. by Henry Holt & Company and has since been featured on many Best Books of 2012 lists, including in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Salon, Flavorpill, The New Republic, and The New York Observer.

How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “a novel from life” and is described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional.” It exists in ambiguity between the real and the fictional. Its characters are based on Heti and her friends and, for the most part, appear to have their same names. There are emails and transcribed conversations throughout the book that could be considered real documentation. The book is structurally and thematically compelling and I’ve recommended it to many of my friends and colleagues because it’s well-written and occupies such an interesting space in the zeitgeist.

In the years between the two times I hosted her for readings, Heti has published three other books, including a novel, Ticknor, (2005); and an illustrated book for children, We Need a Horse, (2011), featuring art by Clare Rojas; and with Misha Glouberman, a book of “conversational philosophy” called The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which The New Yorker chose as one of its Best Books of 2011.

Heti also works as Interviews Editor at The Believer and has contributed many interviews with writers and artists to the magazine. It’s also of note that in 2001, she created the ever-popular Trampoline Hall lecture series (hosted by Misha Glouberman), at which three people deliver lectures on subjects outside their areas of expertise, then take questions from the audience.

It was a pleasure to talk to Sheila and to be reminded how a writer should be along the way.

— Jill Margo



JM:  Let’s start at the beginning. Your first book was The Middle Stories. It was published when you were twenty-four. Tell me a little bit about where you were at when you wrote that book.

SH:  I was studying art history and philosophy at U of T and it was around the time I was twenty-one or so. I was trying to teach myself how to write. The last writing I’d done before that was at the National Theatre School where I was studying playwrighting, but that didn’t really end up working out for me. So I started to write stories. I was writing a lot and I was writing very quickly and all I really wanted to do was get to the end of each story. I’d sit down and write five or six in a row. In the actual collection, the stories are pretty much as they were written and were only very lightly edited. Mainly, the editing was me selecting the good ones from the hundreds of stories that were just nothing—that didn’t have any spark in them or anything.

JM:  Did you always want to be a writer?

SH:  It was one of the things I always wanted to be since I was a kid, and I also wanted to do other things. Like a lot of artistic kids, you just sort of want to do everything— you want to act, and you want to direct plays, and you want to write, and you want to draw. But writing always fit in there.

JM:  What about the family you grew up with—did they support your artistic endeavors?

SH:  I think my mom didn’t necessarily want this for me, but my dad supported anything I did. He didn’t have preset ideas of what his daughter should be like, or what his daughter should do. He supported me when I wanted to act, he supported me when I wanted to write. He was always very encouraging.

JM:  What do you think is the best thing you ever did for yourself as a writer?

SH:  Probably moving out when I was seventeen, and supporting myself since then. I think it gives you some confidence and a lack of fear to know that you can support yourself from a young age. I’ve never had to support myself in ways that hurt my ability to write so that gave me confidence that I could perhaps write and support myself over many years.

I think maybe the worst thing I could have done would’ve been to get a well-paying job at a young age that I then got locked into because I got used to a higher standard of living. I think moving out at seventeen and living on so little meant I got used to a low standard of living and I know if I had to, I could always go back to that.

JM:  What other kinds of jobs have you had?

SH:  I worked as an editor at this magazine called Shift, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a technology and culture magazine in Toronto. I’ve done temping and I’ve worked in restaurants and just the usual kind of makeshift things.

JM:  Do you feel like you’ve had to be quite strategic with your writing career?

SH:  No, I’ve had a lot of good luck. I’ve never been afraid of sending my stuff out so that’s allowed for good luck to happen because I haven’t just been on an island. I sent my stories to McSweeney’s, but if I didn’t send them, they never would have published them, so I think that’s paired with good luck. I don’t think I’ve had a strategy; I’ve had a desire to be in the world.



JM:  Technically, how do you write—when and where and with what?

SH:  I use my computer. I’ve always used a computer. I usually write in this middle room in the place where I live. I always usually just write in whatever apartment I’m living in. I don’t write in cafés or anything like that. I can’t imagine it. I don’t write with music on. I don’t like having people around. That’s pretty typical.

And then I just write whenever I want to. I don’t really have a schedule. I used to worry a lot about that. I used to think that you had to have a schedule but I realized that I don’t need one. I like writing enough and I want to write enough that I do write enough. I don’t have to beat myself with a stick.

Every day is completely different. I feel different every day when I wake up, and what I want to do every day is different. By this point in my life I have so many different projects that I’m working on, like editing interviews for The Believer and various collaborations, that there’s always something I most want to do. I figured that out a few years ago. I used to think that you could only work on one thing at a time but I realized that it’s better to work on lots of different things because that way there’s always something that you’re in the mood to work on.

JM:  Was it much of a struggle to just let yourself work organically like that?

SH:  It took probably ten years or so for me to accept my way working, and to believe that work was going to get done. But when I was writing The Middle Stories, even then my only discipline was that when I felt like writing I had to write. You can’t miss those times. That was the foundation of discipline for me. I really tried to be sensitive to those moments. Sometimes I’d leave class and go home to write. Now, I don’t just wait for those moments of, let’s say, inspiration, but I still try to always write when I have that feeling. If I don’t—if I have the feeling, but instead watch a movie, or read a book, or go on the Internet or email—then I feel really bad and like I’ve let myself down. It’s like something wanted to be expressed in that moment and I missed it and I’ll never get it back.

JM:  Do you know the late poet Ruth Stone? She said that when a poem came barreling across the fields where she was working she had to stop what she was doing and run and catch it. If she had to, she’d grab it by the tail and pull it back towards her. I’ve always loved that image. You’re basically saying the same thing—that you have to capture the moments and trust that the writing is going to get done.

SH:  I have to trust that it’s going to get done and that that’s just me and that’s just my process and there’s nothing to really worry about. And if it doesn’t get done, also, who cares?  If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. The world doesn’t need your books. So it seems silly to force yourself to write if there’s nothing to write.

JM:  “The world doesn’t need your books” is an interesting statement coming from a writer. Can you talk about that a bit more?

SH:  Well, the world isn’t sitting around waiting for your books. The world is taking care of children and making money to pay the rent and eating dinner. If you don’t write your books, pretty much who cares? There are already more than enough good books for any reading person. You do it because you want to, not because the world is begging you.

JM:  Earlier, you said that the stories in The Middle Stories weren’t really edited and that the ones without spark were just thrown out. That’s unusual. Can you talk about your editing process—or lack of it—then vs. now?

SH:  It’s something I’ve learned to do over the years. I’m not sure what I thought in the beginning. I guess I must have thought that everything I did was perfect. Now I see all the ways the things I’ve written can be better and better, almost to infinity. I don’t think it’s because my standards have changed, but my imagination for what writing can do has expanded. I used to only think about writing in terms of the sentence, but now I think that a piece of writing can be a game that a readers uses to play with the world, a book can be so many things. So all new kinds of calibration are needed.

JM:  Do you have any superstitions or rituals around writing or do you take a strictly pragmatic approach?

SH:  I don’t have any superstitions or rituals around it. No… no, I can’t think of any.

It’s just work. It’s a certain kind of work, but it still is work. You have to put in a lot of time, but I don’t think superstition comes into it. I don’t think magic comes into it, apart from the magic that comes into it when you work. That’s magic—when things happen that you weren’t trying to make happen, but sort of happen on their own. It’s like, if you work for a number of years on something, then there are just layers to it that give it more meaning than you could give it if you just spent a week or a month on it. I think that’s the most interesting thing about writing—working on something over five or six years. I’ve learned to really love that. I guess Ticknor was my first experience of that. You’d think that you’d get bored, but there are so many different angles on something and there’s a whole world that you’re looking at and so I think the text becomes more intelligent the more time you spend on it.

JM:  I think so, too.

SH:  I don’t think two years is enough.

JM:  I wonder what Joyce Carol Oates would say?

SH:  [Laughs.] For me, I think you need five years. That so far seems like the right amount of time to spend on a book. Maybe seven years is even better. That’s one full cycle they say, right?

JM:  Do you always feel that patient with the process?

SH:  Mm-hmm. Yeah.

JM:  So you’re really, truly enjoying the process?

SH:  I mean, what’s the rush? You want to make something good.


JM:  What do you consider your best or favourite piece of writing—and not necessarily a whole book?

SH:  I don’t have that, but I really like doing the interviews that I do for The Believer. I like—I love editing them. I think that it’s really fun. I find that the most enjoyable work—I don’t know if it’s the best work, but it’s probably the most enjoyable work that I’m doing these days.

JM:  What do you like about it?

SH:  I like other people’s voices and I like how other people think and I like how other people express things and I think editing an interview is really fun. I think it’s some suppressed playwrighting urge. I move things around a lot. I change people’s sentences sometimes. I cut things out. I really edit it a lot. I try to edit it in such a way that when I send it back to the person I interviewed they don’t think I’ve done anything to it because it still seems like them and feels like them.

JM:  Trampoline Hall, which you started, is also about curated voices and it’s hosted by Misha Glouberman, whose words you transcribed for The Chairs Are Where the People Go. So other people’s voices really are a thing for you. I wonder how much of that has to do with the writer wanting to get out from behind her desk and engage with the world?

SH:  That’s part of it. Part of it is just—I know what I think, what I feel. My biggest fantasy is always being inside someone else’s body, their experience of the world. Sure, I can imagine that from behind my desk, but I can also approach it more directly, but actually talking to people.

JM:  What writers, past and present, do you feel closest to?

SH:  I love Kierkeggard. I love Jane Bowles. I love C.S. Lewis. I guess those are the first ones that come to mind. In the present [scans the bookshelves in the room], I like Helen DeWitt a lot. I love Ben Lerner’s recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station and Sarah Manguso’s memoir about her illness. Leanne Shapton’s work I really like a lot…

A lot of those are people I know, but with the exception of Leanne, who I met through a friend when we were quite a bit younger, I know them because I like their work. I want to know the writers who are alive today whose work I like. I want to talk to them.

JM:  You have an amazing multi-disciplinary artistic community yourself. How does your community—having a network—support you as a writer in your life?

SH:  It’s everything. I don’t think you can exist professionally—not to mention as a human—apart from the support of other people. I think people put a lot of emphasis on being published, but I don’t think being published is exactly what matters. I do think you need people that think you’re great and that think your work is meaningful. They don’t have to be people that can publish you, but that have to be people who believe in you and can be critical of you.

I’ve always had people to show my work to and I’ve managed to find supporters. I feel like the work doesn’t really exist in the absence of somebody else engaging with it. I think one often shows their work hoping it’s done and hoping that somebody else will say it’s done, but really the deeper hope is that they’ll say it’s not done. It feel like it’s important to hear that things are not done, that things are not ready. With Ticknor, one of the most important things my editor, Martha Sharpe, said to me when I handed in the book was that it wasn’t done. She didn’t even say why. Margaux said the same thing when I showed her How Should a Person Be? I guess athletes have coaches, but for a writer it’s someone who says “it’s not done.” You always know what needs to be done though… no one needs to tell you that.

JM:  Do you have the same first readers?

SH:  They changes slowly over time, just like one’s friends change over time.



JM:  Let’s talk about How Should a Person Be? It’s been called “odd” by The New York Times Book Review and “weird” by Margaret Atwood and Geist Magazine and none of them meant it in a bad way. I think it is probably meant in terms of structure, but I’m not sure because I personally don’t find the book “odd” or “weird”. Do you think it is?

SH:  I don’t know. I think that maybe it is in comparison to a straight-forward, realistic narrative of the kind that you tend to see, but I don’t think it’s odd in itself. I think it makes a lot of sense.

JM:  What do you think they meant? I’ve puzzled over this myself.

SH:  I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter to me. People just use the words that they have. They’re trying to communicate to their reader that it’s unusual.

JM:  How did the unusual structure evolve?

SH:  Just really gradually over the years. I had a lot of different sections that were unrelated on the surface. Only I could see their relation, but I had to bring the relation between them out so I think the book became more narrative and became more of a story. Things that were just so far outside the world of the book fell away and I made Margaux and Sheila and their friendship more the focus over the years. I think it was more intellectual earlier on and more philosophical. It was more about ideas than the people.

JM:  How or why did it become less about ideas?

SH:  I just felt some of that stuff was perhaps not as interesting. It’s better to put the philosophy into the action of the characters and the form itself, as opposed to just stating what you’re thinking. I think if you put it into the bodies then it sticks around in the reader’s memory longer. It’s more emotional and more visual.

JM:  Philosophy is part of your background and education. Psychology seems to play a part in the book as well—

SH:  With the Jungian analyst—

JM:  Otto Rank is mentioned as well.

SH:  Psychoanalysis was the 20th century’s great new field, wasn’t it? It affected all the artistic work that has been done in the last hundred years and it really changed the way we see sex and sexuality. It’s huge. It’s hard not to think about what Freud has done to us. One of the things I wanted to do with this book early on was to write a history of art. I just couldn’t because I’m not a historian, but I think some of that fascination with art’s development and change over time, and the influence of psychoanalysis upon it recently, has remained.

JM:  I wonder about “authenticity” too. There seems to be a never-ending search for it these days. Does the book critique that or participate in it?

SH:  I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking that word a lot.

JM:  No?

SH:  I don’t really understand what you’re being authentic to. The idea of authenticity is that there’s a fixed, certain central self that you can move closer to or further away from. I don’t know that I believe that—that there’s this one fixed self that you’re betraying or being loyal to depending on how you behave.

JM:  I think the notion of authenticity is very much a product of our time and the market. David Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, argues for authenticity and I know Shields gave your book a positive blurb so he must have seen something that furthered his argument. Is the book consciously attacking the ideas of what fiction should be though?

SH:  I don’t see the book as an attack, it’s just not interested in a lot of the conventions because I just found them really boring. I just find a lot of fiction boring. I have all my life.

JM:  The book is subtitled “A novel from life”, so that to me means that it blends fiction with autobiography. So, is that hybrid what you find most exciting? Can you talk a bit about that?

SH:  No, I’m not interested in that in itself. If you tell me that someone has written a “hybrid” book I wouldn’t by that fact be excited to read it. I like when writers do what they have to do. I had to write the book in this way because I wanted to think about what we owe to other people, and what the artist owes to the people around them, and I thought the only way to do that would be to put it to the test—to engage and write about my friends and in the process answer some of these questions for myself. I couldn’t have moved forward in any other way. There were some questions I needed answers for, and fiction was the only way to answer them, and so was talking to my friends.


JM:  Did you have a personal code of ethics—dos and don’ts—for using real people, like Margaux Williamson, as characters in the book?

SH:  I would have never used somebody’s name if I hadn’t got them to read the manuscript many times and received their approval. I have very rarely written about real people without them knowing it. Mostly it’s a matter of consent and I’d say consent was about 90 percent there.

JM:  So you asked the people before or as you were writing about them?

SH:  As it was happening. I had a friend who didn’t want to be taped or written about, so I didn’t tape or write about him. I kind of gauged who was interested in being part of it and who wasn’t.

JM: Was there anything off limits that came up?

SH:  Yeah, of course. You make all sorts of decisions about that and the sensitivity of the people around you.

JM:  Was there any backlash to any of that or did you come out relatively unscathed?

SH:  No, no backlash. I don’t know what you really mean by backlash but my friends are still my friends and everything is okay. People are usually more upset about not being in something you’ve written.

JM:  You found that?

SH:  I’ve found that all along from my whole time writing.

JM:  I read somewhere that you can’t imagine working with completely fictional characters again since writing How Should a Person Be? Is that true now, and if so, why?

SH:  I’ve never said that and it’s not true. Right after finishing that book I wrote, in a week, an entirely new book made up of fictional characters in fictional scenarios. There was some part of me that was longing to do that, I think. It’s so much easier to follow your imagination than to deal with other people and try to follow your imagination at the same time.



JM:  There are several references to sand in the book. For example, Sheila blows a speck of it off of the spine of a book and she brushes it off a seat on a bus. What’s up with the sand?

SH:  It’s because they’re in the desert. I wanted to suggest that it is still the desert. There is this echo of the desert or this residual desert tying all my characters to the Jews and the exodus and wandering and trying to find—I mean, the Jews in the desert got The Ten Commandments, you know, to try and figure out how to live, and they wanted the answers and the rules. I evoke Moses a lot in the book and so the sand relates to all of that.

JM:  I figured it was part of the underlying Jewish narrative—the forty years in the desert. To what extent does Sheila the character and Sheila the writer tap into that metaphor and make it her own?

SH:  It’s in the book. I can’t really explain it more than that. Sheila the character wants to answer the question about how to be and she wants to be a great person.

JM:  But what about Sheila, the writer—you—do you want those things too? Or, would you rather we, the readers, not think about that?

SH:  I don’t think anyone wants to be a lousy person.

JM:  What about Israel’s name being Israel? Is there any significance to that?

SH:  There’s lots, but I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to say point by point what I was thinking, mainly because I can’t remember. Also, I was thinking so many things Of course there are so many connotations to the kind of place Israel actually is and ideally is, and how Sheila feels about how her lover actually is and ideally could be.



JM:  When people talk about this book they inevitably talk about the sex. In some ways, that makes me want to not talk about the sex, because there are a lot of other things going on in the book. At the same time it’s something I, as a reader, am still trying to make sense of. The sex scenes are tonally different than the rest of the book and float apart from the main narrative involving Margaux. How did you intend the sex scenes to work—what’s their function?

SH:  Their function was sex. Their function was the body and the uncontrollable force. The thing that takes you over, despite yourself. I think that the writing is different because it’s different to be in sex than it is to be in conversation. Also, Israel is not a boyfriend, he’s a lover. Sex with a reliable boyfriend would be portrayed differently.

JM:  The blow job is presented more as an art form than a sex act. There is a point when Sheila talks about perfecting the blow job that made me think of Martha Stewart. I say this with tongue in cheek, but it’s that same sense of obsession, dedication and perfectionism that she has. Martha also turns what could be considered—in stereotypical and heteronormative terms— banal, ‘women’s work’ into art too. Why blow jobs?

SH: I feel like it’s kind of a joke.

JM:  Mm-hmm.

SH:  I was also thinking about Internet porn. Would we have become so interested in Paris Hilton if it wasn’t for her sex video and all these goddamn sex videos?  The blow jobs also related to the work of art that isn’t an object—the work of art that is an act, which Sheila is so obsessed with after reading Otto Rank. It’s just—I mean, it’s silly and it’s awful and it’s terrible to think about, and it’s funny and it’s degrading and it says something about—well, what are we more interested in? Seeing women make their paintings or seeing women perform blow jobs? Obviously the second. That’s the age we’re in. Maybe that’s always been the age. Maybe history has always been in that age but only now do we have the Internet with all its porn, and men and women can see so much of it, and do.

JM:  There’s a real satirical element to it.

SH:  It’s pathetic. But maybe it’s not pathetic. Maybe there’s something there. I don’t know.

JM:  I’m thinking about some of the men I’ve talked to about this book. There were a few confessions—when pressed—that reading the sex scenes made them feel insecure. In other words, women are used to being objectified but men aren’t. Was there any element of payback?

SH:  How could it be payback? People watch porn that’s all about worshipping the cock. How could it be so different to read about it than to see a video about it? Why should the words make them so much more uncomfortable than the image? Is it just weird to be inside of the woman’s head instead of inside the man’s head when you watch porn?

JM:  Yes, that’s exactly it, I think. It’s the female gaze, as opposed to the usual male gaze. If women write about sex, people talk about it. Even if a female author only mentions sex on three pages of a whole book, especially if it’s explicit, it’ll get talked about. There’s something to that.

SH:  Why does it make men feel insecure?

JM:  Mm-hm.

SH:  No, I’m asking you. You’ve talked to them.

JM:  If the female gaze is worshipping a cock, I think men want to know how they measure up.

SH:  Really? That’s interesting. Like, I’m not as good a lover as that character… or no one’s worshipped my cock… or I don’t have a big cock… or what?

JM:  All of the above, maybe. Just like how women measure themselves up to the women depicted through the male gaze. Also, I think men are surprised to find out that women think about cocks that much.

SH:   I don’t know if women do. It was just that piece of writing.

JM:  I think it plants a seed—

SH:  I’ve had more men respond to, “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.” There’s a friend of mine who I asked for some advice about a work thing and he was like, “Well I have an opinion about it but I don’t want to be another man who’s trying to teach you something.” And I’m like, “Look you’re my friend, my colleague, and I’m asking you for your advice.” That’s the thing that gets back to me, not the sex stuff.

JM:  I only talked to a small sample of men, so who knows how representative they were, but your book made them, at least, think about their own sexuality and whether they measured up.

SH:  It wasn’t what I was going for.

JM:  It’d be great though if your book made James Wood think about his… wood.



JM:  At one point in the book, Sheila says she has to take a “massive shit”; she repeatedly objectifies Israel’s cock; she is ambitious, and; at the core of the book is Sheila’s friendship with Margaux, which revolves around dialogue on art rather than on men. These things don’t scream “girly narrative” to me and yet, that is what some of the media have deemed it to be. How offensive do you find that to be?

SH:  I don’t care. I don’t care what anyone says about the book. It doesn’t touch me. I read what people write about it because I’m really curious but I don’t really feel like my doing this is right, or wrong, or good for the book, or bad for the book. Anyway, this is just a first wave of responses and I don’t think the verdict of any book is determined by the first wave of responses.

JM:  But you didn’t sit down to write a girly narrative.

SH:  No, but I don’t care if someone says that. You put something in the world because you want people to having feelings and thoughts about it.

JM:  Has it made you notice anything about the world and people who are still treating women a certain way?

SH:  I’ve always known that women writers and male writers are looked at through different lenses, but so are male athletes and female athletes, and so are mothers and fathers. On a certain level, I think we’ll always have that, unless gender stuff gets so fucked up in the future that male and female become so small.

JM:  I think that the sex scenes and supposed girly narrative are not the most interesting things to talk about when talking about this book, yet the responses are interesting to me.

SH:  It’s fun to see that stuff going on in America. In Canada, nobody was talking about the book in that way, so it’s cool to see it being used as a prop in peoples’ arguments. It’s funny. It’s interesting to hear.



JM:  The book was first published in Canada in 2010 and is now having a second life having been published in the States, with revisions, this June. Though you had dedicated readers and admirers here in Canada when the book first came out, I still found the response to be underwhelming. The book, sadly, wasn’t even considered for any of Canada’s major literary prizes. The response in the U.S., however, could be described as overwhelming—including major coverage in The New Yorker. Why do you think that is?

SH:  I’ve experienced that difference from the very beginning of my career. I could not get published in Canada. I sent my stories to every literary journal in the country for years. I sent four stories to McSweeney’s and they published them.

I think America just has a completely different aesthetic than Canada and it’s a less conservative place. America likes to fight and I think people are more open there. Canadians pretend to be very open but I don’t really think that’s true. I know a lot of Canadians who, as individuals, are open, but I think as a culture we’re not.

Canada is a very ‘pay your dues’ kind of place. The perfect title for a Canadian book is Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are. That’s the problem with Canada in terms of being an artist here. There’s great financial support, but there isn’t a lot of cultural support and I think a lot of writers would agree with me. We do have some great people writing about books and we do have great readers, but it’s not a mass, it’s just these dots of light.

JM:  Do you feel a sense of rejection from the literary powers that be? As a reader, I feel that you should be on more lists and that you’re not the only one in Canada that’s been looked over.

SH:  I had no expectation that I’d be on any of those lists.

JM:  Do you feel let down by that at all?

SH:  No, it’s not my stomping ground, you know? I don’t get invited to the Griffins or the Gillers. I’ve never been invited to read at Harbourfront. I just don’t get those invitations.

JM:  I hear you when you say that’s expected because it’s happened since day one, but no outrage for that?

SH:  Certainly not outrage. I mean, I kind of figured out my place when The Middle Stories came out and was so weirdly received, and when my stories weren’t being published here. You quickly get used to that kind of rejection so it becomes the norm. Then I think, maybe this is actually better because I live here and I have a nice life here and I write here and I have all my friends here who I make art with, and my family. Then, in America, that’s where I publish and it’s like when you go downtown to your office and do your work there and then you go back home. So in some ways it’s nice to have those things separate.

Most of the money I make is from being published in American magazines, from my job at The Believer and publishing my books with American publishers. At this point in my life, I’m happy to have them separate and I don’t crave anything from Canada. I’ve had support here from Anansi, who has published all my books. Martha Sharpe is hugely important to me because she’s supported me from the beginning, but she’s no longer at Anansi. I have other supporters like Stephen Osborne at Geist and Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore in Montreal. Like I say, there are these little points of light and that’s good enough for me.

JM:  That’s a healthy way to look at it. I can tell you though that when I think about the Sheila Heti story from my point of view, there is something really pernicious about the prize cultures and the upper canon and how many people don’t fit in here. I also find it to be a heart-sinking feeling that we’re not always claiming our own in Canada.

SH:  America just has feelings about things much more easily as a culture than Canada. If you have a culture that doesn’t have feelings about art then you don’t have an artistic culture. I look at Shary Boyle, I look at people in the other arts—artists who I think are great—and I don’t see the culture having a lot of feelings for their work. I’m sure Shary has her supporters. I know tons of people who love her work. Despite her show at the AGO, you still don’t feel like there’s this feeling in Canada that we have a great artist here and that we want to make her greater. I suppose she’s representing Canada at the Venice Biennale, but there’s got to be more than that.

JM:  So you feel for her what I feel for you. Again, I maintain that there is something embarrassing about your own country not recognizing its artists as it should. What is there to learn from this?

SH:  I don’t know if there is anything to learn. I don’t know if Canada wants to learn. Do you think Canada wants to learn to be different in this regard?

JM:  I think Canada does recognize some amazingly talented people, but there needs to be a greater range of recognition.

SH:  They give you your grants. It’s almost like, here’s your money and leave us alone—or, we’re going to leave you alone. There’s just this weird—

JM:  Administrative approach.

SH:  Maybe, yeah. There’s just no emotion in it. The last sort of scandal I remember was when the National Gallery bought Voice of Fire. Do you remember this? It was like fifteen years ago. People were like, “It’s just red with a black stripe.” People got so angry about it. Has there even been a painting in the paper since then?

JM:  There was Sniffy the Rat. The artist Rick Gibson was going to crush the rat between two canvasses in downtown Vancouver, but was sabotaged and then chased by animal rights activists. That was the same year though.

SH:  Right. So our conversation is then about cruelty to animals or ‘I’m a taxpayer and I don’t want to spend all this money on a painting my kid could do.’

JM:  You must be grateful for the States.

SH:  Like I said, I’ve had a good career so far. I know a lot of people for whom it is incredibly depressing though. You can’t make a living in Canada as an artist in any satisfying way.

JM:  Would you ever leave Toronto?

SH:  I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not planning on leaving. I love Toronto. I love living here and I most want to live here. Who knows though? I’d also move if I had reason to.



JM:  Do you like talking about your current projects?

SH:  No.

JM:  Earlier you said that you have a “nice life.” Can you describe what makes your life nice—give us a little peek into the woman behind the writer?

SH:  I’m not sure what to say. I have a wonderful boyfriend, my brother lives nearby and so do Margaux and Misha. I recently got a little studio so now I don’t have dirty dishes calling to me when I’m working. I have a lot of books on my shelves that I can’t wait to read. The apartment we live in is very charming with a nice lawn. What else?

JM:  How should a writer be?

SH:  Oh. Well, I think you have to write whatever you want to write and not worry about how you’re going to come off or how you’re going to appear. You have to put your ego aside and not think, ‘People are going to look at me a certain way if I write this way.’ It matters zero. All that matters is the book, so you have to be willing to sacrifice some kind of decency, or appearance of decency, or else you’re going to come up against so many things that you won’t let yourself do. I think people are often afraid of the thing they most want to do and I think that’s the thing you should do. If all you want to do is write about red trucks and you think ‘that’s so childish’ and ‘who wants to read about red trucks’ then you just have to do it. You have to do that on every level and in every sentence.

I don’t think there’s anything interesting about a writer who isn’t doing radically what they want to do. I feel like there’s no other realm in life in which you can be free. You can’t be free in a relationship, you can’t be free as a mother, you can’t be free as a daughter, you can’t be free as a citizen, and you can’t be free in any realm of life. The only person who can be free is the artist through their work. They can’t be free as a human but the work can be free—they can be free with their work. I think that’s why we go to art, to see what the human is when they’re free.

If you’re not free, because you’re afraid you’re going to look weird to people or something like that, then I don’t see what there is to get out of the work or where the pleasure is for the reader. The thing one hopes for in a work of art is for it to be an example of freedom—and by freedom I think I mean totality—the totality of what a human is. Then people can experience every part of themselves. Going through life, you usually can’t experience every part of yourself on a day-to-day basis, but art should be a reminder of all the different parts of yourself and should light those up.

—Sheila Heti & Jill Margo


Jill Margo

Jill Margo’s work has been published in literary magazines and newspapers. She has been a finalist for both a Western Magazine Award and for The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. She is also a former executive director of the Victoria School of Writing and a former artistic director/host of two reading series (Sundays at the JBI and the Robson Reading Series). Originally from British Columbia, she moved to Toronto in the summer of 2011 to attend the University of Guelph’s MFA program. Her mentor through the program is Francisco Goldman. You can read a sample of her work online at Geist Magazine.


Mar 212013

Here is an interview I did with Robert Coover in 1996 shortly after the publication of his novel John’s Wife. We were talking over the phone; the interview starts slowly as we feel each other out. But as it gathers steam Coover says marvelous things about his forerunners, Ovid, Kafka, Rabelais and Cervantes. He talks about how, when he planned the novel, he actually started with a paragraph count and the idea of a Bell curve. He also does a lovely reading of a passage — as he says, his first “telephone reading.”

This is from a raw tape that has been in a cardboard box for years; so my usual apologies for the sound quality.

Click the little triangular button to listen to the interview.

Coover Part 1

Coover Part 2

—Douglas Glover

See also interviews with Gordon Lish, John Hawkes & William Gass.

The Enemies of the Novel: DG Interview With John Hawkes
Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish
Limericks, Degraded Modernism and The Tunnel: DG Interview with William H. Gass

Mar 062013

 Choreographer Elizabeth Schmuhl & Composer Ariane Miyasaki

I’m very proud of this one, almost paternal: A Numéro Cinq first, an original piece of music by Ariane Miyasaki combined with an original dance choreographed and performed by Elizabeth Schmuhl, commissioned specially for Numéro Cinq. In other words, the first NC ballet. Never before in the annals of art — okay, well, maybe a bit over the top, but this is extraordinary. Ariane is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition program and Elizabeth is an MFA student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. They had never met before I put them together and suggested they collaborate on a work just for us. The result was recorded on video, a grainy, fixed-camera production that is itself part of the finished product, an edgy, alienated, even terrifying orchestral composition for female voices based on a text written by Miyasaki when she was seventeen, after she had lived wild for four years on the streets of Seattle. The music is concrete, startling, acousmatic — none of the usual instruments appear, but as you listen the voices create an aesthetic space in your mind, the words become notes. The dance follows the movements of the musical composition, beginning with silence/stillness and moving into the frenzied contortions of the a girl on the run, a girl with no skin inhabited by voices and street sounds.  This is just a gorgeous thing to have.

See the video below. Best watched in the full screen mode. And underneath the video we have brief essays by the collaborators on their compositional process (also choreography notes from Elizabeth). So not only do we get the art, we get insight in the making of art.




Ariane Miyasaki


Now there is no Where or Where to.
There is no What or What next.
Only Run.
Run through the panic and the blurry vision,
Through the ringing ears and rattled bones.
Run until the spinning stops.

Two sets of feet, out of sync,
Beat the earth, scattering rocks and debris,
Kicking up yellow clouds of pine dust.
The first is all panicked, mammalian desperation.
The second merely follows, waiting for his prey to fall,
With the predatory patience of experience.

Raw throat, lungs breathing air made of salt.
Chest creaking, on fire, and full of survival.
Force clear a dazed brain and

I lifted the poem directly from my notebooks, written at the age of 17, a week after I had finally “come in” after living four years on the street, mostly in Seattle. I had run away from home in southern California in January, 1999, when I was 13; I left the street in February, 2003. I was, to say the least, a super angry person. My uncle described me as “almost  feral.” Oddly enough, I never lost the certainty that I would eventually go to college. There was a Value Village where people would dump their old books; the store didn’t sell books, so the books got thrown out. I used to dumpster dive behind the store and come up with armloads of books. I ended up with a pretty good background in literature (apparently, people don’t throw out their old science and math books — I still have gaps). I didn’t edit or rewrite the text, though now I know it’s not poetry; at the time, I had no idea of the rules of form. But I thought about it and realized that if these were the words of any other 17-year-old, I wouldn’t change them. I didn’t want to tamper with what I had written, even though my aesthetic has changed; now I have what you might call a “reserved aesthetic.” I decided I would accord the past-ME the same respect I would give to someone else.

The music is acousmatic, meaning that you hear the sound through speakers, the source is unidentifiable. Compositionally, I am really interested in the way the human voice affects the sound and text and the way the sound will affect the perception of the words. Formally, the piece is written in two main sections with coda that goes back to “run;” the first section focuses on “run,” the next part focuses on “fall,” and then “run” comes back again. The texture of the sound begins to change about two and a half minutes in and then again at the five and a half minute mark. The coda is very short, only a minute, and it’s calmer, using vehicle sounds like a train. To get the voices, I basically spammed all of the women I knew on Facebook, asking them to record readings. I asked 42 people; 15 sent in recordings; of those I used only 13, 13 different women reading the text. There were places where the voices become decorrelated, they begin break up, kind of come apart, the rhythms start to change; originally, I was going to use a granular synthesizer but in the end did it the old way, I just spliced it by hand, which isn’t that difficult anymore, splicing them or stretching them out without changing the pitch. What I hadn’t expected was the vocal range, from young girls with high pitched voices to the two older women, in their sixties, who had low grainy voices; I could almost make real harmonies with the voices — they contrast nicely with the sampled sounds and presented me with a nice way of blending the voice-text in with the train in the last section.

— Ariane Miyasaki


 Elizabeth Schmuhl



When making a dance, I usually begin with an idea or situation I want to explore through movement. Shortly after, I find music to help give structure to the dance I’m creating. The music serves as a skeleton, often shaping the narrative (if there is one, and for me, there usually is). Collaborating with Ariane Miyasaki was so refreshing to me as an artist, as my process was altered: I directly responded to the song “Run Fall Run’ that Ariane gave me, instead of searching for music that complimented my initial idea for a dance. In order to make a dance, I first listen to the music and then break apart into segments I hear. I use this as the basis for different sections of the dance. Usually I do several recordings of myself improvising to the music and watch the videos over and over again until I can see what type of movement phrases I’m repeating, as they tell me something about what I’m feeling. Once I have several movement phrases, I begin to make floor pattern drawings, and write my movement phrases with counts (especially phrases that are difficult for me to execute).

I staged this in a rectangular space, in the city of Benton Harbor. I had a deadline nearing and there was snow on the ground; the temperature was hovering above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to dance anyway, with boots on, no less. The cold gave me a new energy that I never experienced during my studio rehearsals of the piece. The weather was bewitching, and I was able to get into character quite well. It’s also important to note the importance of the sky, and how it created a feeling of limitlessness while I was dancing. Not only did it create this for me inside, in my interior, I believe it is expressed in my focus throughout the dance. If and when the piece is performed indoors, the dancer must make a huge effort to dance beyond the walls, something that is possible, but never quite the same as dancing underneath the sky.

For me, the feeling invoked in my body when listening to the music was one of claustrophobia. I envisioned a girl who is in turmoil, desperately trying to get herself through a difficult situation. She experiences reprieves, moments of rest, but ultimately, whatever situation or life-phase she is in is affecting her deeply. In the beginning of the piece, the threat of falling is present. The girl acknowledges the possibility of falling and ties a string around her middle, to keep herself up (see 3:59). It doesn’t completely work, because she still experiences moments of great sadness, when her body feels almost not her own.  However, throughout the piece, there is a force running through her; this force is what I believe to be the human spirit, which gives her the ability to get up and persevere, despite her situation.

— Elizabeth Schmuhl


Elizabeth Schmuhl is a modern dance instructor, performer, choreographer and writer. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied dance and earned a BA in Creative Writing and Literature. Currently, she is an MFA in Writing candidate at VCFA. She has won an Avery Hopwood Award and recently published a story in Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, put out by Wayne State University Press.

Ariane Miyasaki is a composer based in Schenectady, New York. She is chiefly interested in electroacoustic and acousmatic work, though enjoys writing acoustic music as well. Her piece “she said” for hand bells and stereo fixed media was premiered in 2013 by Cassandra McClellan as part of the 2013 I/O Festival in Williams, Massachusetts. Miyasaki is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also holds a Bachelor of Music from State University of New York at Potsdam, where she studied music theory and history, an Associate of Science and an Associate of Arts from Schenectady County Community College, where she majored flute performance and humanities and social science. While attending classes at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she studied electronic composition with Paul Steinberg. She is currently studying electroacoustic and acousmatic composition at VCFA. Miyasaki remains active as a flutist. She regularly plays with the SCCC Wind Ensemble and Capital Region Wind Ensemble, and frequently can be heard in other area ensembles and in the pit  orchestras of local musical productions. Miyasaki studied flute with Kristin Bacchiocchi-Stewart, Norman Thibodeau, and Kenneth Andrews.



Mar 022013

Douglas Glover changing the world one reader at a time…


I reviewed a book a while back that has stayed with me for many months and has affected the way I write and read, and it’s opened my eyes to a weakness in much creative writing, even in published books. Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012) criticizes many aspects of fiction, but saves its most withering scorn for the rampant and indiscriminate use of copulas.

via The Case of the Copula Overdose, or, Why I’ll Never Write (or Read) the Same Way Again | The Saturday Morning Post.

Mar 012013

Laura K Warrell

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.



Perhaps it was a strange twist of literary fate that a dramatic production of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man opened at the Huntington Theater in Boston ten days after Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy Django Unchained debuted in cinemas across the nation. Two days after seeing the play, I read Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” and the weekend after that I went to see Tarantino’s film. Each work portrays, as a center-piece, a fight scene between black men with white men as an audience; such a convergence was too intriguing not to explore.

Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, is considered one of the finest novels of American literature and a groundbreaking interpretation of the black American experience.  The novel is about a young black man’s struggle to define himself against the backdrop of early twentieth century American racism.  The story “Battle Royal,” which Ellison published separately in 1948, is the first chapter of the novel.  In the story the young narrator is invited to read a speech he has written on social progress to an audience of white men who force him to participate in a boxing match with his peers before he can deliver his speech.  The play, adapted by producer Oren Jacoby and directed by Christopher McElroen, was first staged at the Court Theatre in Chicago in 2012 and ran at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston from January 4 to February 3, 2013.

via WBUR, Boston

The first thing I noticed about the staging of the fight in the theater production was how horrifying and heartbreaking it was.  The bare-chested black actors seemed incapacitated by fright; their fear made them appear child-like as they swung their arms and stumbled, blindfolded, around the stage.  At the time, I found it simply heartbreaking, but in retrospect wondered if it was somewhat manipulative on the part of the director to make these men appear so completely debilitated by their victimization.  It reminded me of the way I sometimes feel watching certain movies by Steven Spielberg, as if the director simply wants to tug at our heartstrings without asking us to think much about what is happening.  Any integrity, grit or sophistication these men might have had before entering the boxing ring seemed to have been wiped out in in order to present them as defenseless and scared.  It seems insulting and just plain inaccurate to suggest that grown men are not still grown men even when they are scared senseless.  Additionally, to infantilize them in a sense robs them of the same dignity the play’s white characters take from them.  However, these personality traits – utter purity and childlike innocence – are personality traits “good” black characters commonly possess in popular culture.  It is as if in America, we can only handle discussions about oppression and violence when the victims are angels and the aggressors are complete assholes.  Consider how some people’s sympathies change when a rape victim turns out to have a sordid sexual past or how the Trayvon Martin case “took a turn,” at least in public perception, when the boy’s alleged Facebook page was discovered showing him wearing sagging pants and flipping off the camera.

In Ellison’s story, a white woman is brought out before the fight to dance provocatively for the enjoyment of the white male spectators.  In the stage play, this woman’s sole emotion seemed to be fear as well.  The actress playing her danced around pitifully, looking as if she were about to start weeping.  All the while, the white characters, played by two white actors and a handful of black cast members wearing emotionless, quite frightening white masks, acted like our worst nightmares of what sexist racists can be.  So maybe this was the problem with the stage version of the battle royal; the actors were asked to play one note.

Admittedly, I did not come to this conclusion until I returned to Ellison’s text days after the performance (before then, I pitied the black men and white woman, and was disgusted by the white men, as, without doubt, was the entire audience).  But in Ellison’s text so much more is happening.  For one, the author injected a significant amount of sexual tension into the scene.  One of the other black fighters even has an erection.  Ellison also showed us the range of reactions the main character experiences internally; even while he gets pummeled he is thinking about his speech and his dignity, telling us how he feels about the other men, plotting ways to achieve his ultimate goal and negotiating with the other fighters.  Most importantly, his future self is interpreting events.  Then there is the tangle of responses the main character has to the white woman’s dancing – desire, revulsion, empathy.  He wants to protect her, to kill her and have sex with her.

In fact, even the white woman seemed more complex in Ellison’s text than she did on stage.  At first, I sensed apathy in her as I read the story, as if she were mechanically going through the motions of seduction.  It was only after the white men started aggressing her that I sensed her fear.  And what about the other black man in the fight the narrator tries to negotiate with – suggesting they fake a knockout to end the spectacle – but who will not take the deal?  His presence in the story added a whole other layer to events, which his absence on stage negated.

So what was missing on stage, for this scene at least, was the nuance and complexity the short story gives us through narration.  The same nuance and complexity that is required of any in depth, smart examination of race and culture, and which is often lacking even in the most elite intellectual circles.  Sure, we could say, ‘well, this was a stage production, there’s no way to convey the same depth.’  However, most of the play was presented with extensive monologues and asides; the lead actor would take center stage and explain his character’s thoughts and reactions to the events of the play by reciting lengthy passages from the novel verbatim (which Ellison’s estate apparently required of the playwright when asked to turn the book into a play).  So, in some ways, the fight scene was one of the only scenes where there was really no narration.  What was happening internally for the character was never presented to the audience; we simply witnessed the fight scene, and thus, only understood one dimension of its significance.

The notion that oppressed characters are sometimes turned into flawless, defenseless figures to gain empathy, is related to the fear many Americans experience of being labeled culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, or worse, racist. It is easier to depict an oppressive incident and its perpetrators as thoroughly bad and awful, and shave off any edges and contradictions in the victims’ characters, so as not to leave any room to interpret events otherwise.  But it is this flatness, the inability to hold two or more potentially contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time, the notion that things are either categorically good or bad, that is what I find frustrating in many conversations about race, culture and gender in American society.

Does such a controlled rendition of the fight scene in the play protect both the play’s producers and its audience from being un-PC?  Would showing any of the narrator’s unattractive traits or impulses confuse our allegiances?  Do such controlled interpretations also protect us from having to look too deeply at the very things we fear most, for instance, that black men might desire white women (a fact that has a tendency to set off explosions in both communities)?  Then there are other realities we do not really want to face, like that decent, upstanding citizens might also be racist, that violence might sometimes be arousing, that even victims of oppression can have unappealing compulsions.  When we fail to embrace the complexity of these issues, we risk not coming to a true or lingering understanding of them.

 In staging the fight this way, the director also contributes to, rather than underscores, the dehumanization and objectification of the black male and white female characters by turning them into mere symbols of oppression instead of full-fledged human beings with complex identities living in a complex world.  Even worse, such flatness goes against Ellison’s original intentions for the piece.  He included the narration in “Battle Royal” and all of Invisible Man for a reason.  Consider the following, which is from Ellison’s introduction to the novel.  As Ellison was putting the work together, he wondered, “why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth.  Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them.”  Even if these kinds of characters did not exist, Ellison felt it was “necessary, both in the interest of fictional expressiveness and as examples of human possibility, to invent them.”  His goal, in part, was to “create a narrator who could think as well as act” and to “reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.”  It is the characters’ intelligence, depth and complexity, as well as the complexity of the fight itself, which are revealed in the narration.  By eliminating this part of the narration, the stage production reduces the characters to empty, even stereotyped figures used to demonstrate a social struggle.  The characters in the onstage battle royal were presented as subjects of history rather than real people able to contemplate their individual fates.

via MTV

Let us turn to Django Unchained and the so-called Mandingo fight scene, in which a slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio lustfully watches two black slaves beat each other.  It should be noted that after the film was released, a legion of historians came forward to prove that many of the films most horrific scenes would never have occurred historically, including these fights.  Still, the point, if there was one, of staging such a scene must have been to show how shitty slave owners were, stripping black men of their dignity by turning them into beasts fighting for their own perverse pleasure.

As opposed to the stage production of Invisible Man, where we have the context of the rest of the play to attach some sense of humanity and personhood to the boxing men, the fighters in Django have no personhood at all.  They are simply growling, bloody animals.  Tarantino seems to have a fascination with white men sexually violating black men, considering the anal rape of Marsellus Wallace by a white man in Pulp Fiction, the homoerotic master-and-slave relationship between the DiCaprio and Samuel Jackson characters in Django, not to mention the marble statue of two naked wrestlers entwined that stood prominently behind the DiCaprio character’s seat during dinner.  Perhaps such references are just Tarantino’s way of attacking men he finds loathsome by calling them gay, which would not be too far-fetched considering how juvenile he can be.

It is worth considering where Tarantino “places” his audience as compared to the two other productions.  In the stage production, the audience is sitting in a theater so does not have a camera directing them to watch one thing or another.  They are more like spectators of the fight itself.  Still, they are clearly watching the events of the play, and the fight, through the eyes of the main character who has been their guide since the play’s beginning.  Ellison’s story is told in a close, first person narrative so, as in the play, the audience sees the fight through the narrator’s eyes.  But in Django, the audience sees the black fighters mostly through the white slave owner’s point-of-view, thus, they watch the fight through his objectifying gaze.

Through this gaze, Tarantino turned the two fighting men into sex objects; the violence, as in much of his work, adding to what seems to be his own sense of eroticism as these half-naked men slithered all over each other on the floor, covered in blood instead of sweat.  We hear bones cracking, skin splitting and blood splattering, along with some agonized screams.  But these men say and think nothing and no one says or thinks anything about them, except for DiCaprio’s horny moaning and encouragement to keep fighting.  Of course, we also get to see the Django character and his white friend seethe every so often as they watch the fight as if to remind us that this is in fact terrible.  But by not allowing these men to have voices, let alone identities, Tarantino has done to them what he apparently loathes the slave owners for doing; turning them into objects for an audience’s enjoyment, the audience being those of us sitting in the theater.  In some ways it feels we as audience members are complicit in Tarantino’s efforts to dehumanize these men, inadvertent as these efforts might be.

 In the movie, I would wager to guess that these men were portrayed as over-sexualized, disempowered victims devoid of complexity or humanity not because of any desire to provoke sympathy or be politically correct, but because they were created and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, for all his talents, seems to have lost the intellectual ability to see nuance and complexity at all, let alone the nuances and complexities of race in America.  Pulp Fiction and some of his earlier films handled such material better.  No doubt, part of the movie’s appeal, like so much in the culture, is its ability to arouse our basest, most animalistic instincts; the erotic charge American audiences seem to get from naked (literally) aggression, blood and violence.

While the play takes an intellectually remote stance to its fight, Tarantino’s movie takes an emotionally and intellectually desensitized stance, which fits our tragically desensitized culture.  Both offer simplistic representations of the racial struggles their fights present, though I would never place the play, which in other ways was revelatory, in the same category as Tarantino’s movie.  Only the fight in Ellison’s story is complex and layered, which is fascinating, considering how long ago, and at what point in the nation’s history, it was published.  This must speak either to the gradual decline of both high and low culture in this country, especially when it comes to conversations about thorny issues, or the innate structure of fiction which allows for greater nuance.  Of course, it could also be both.

The artistic consequences of such simplistic portrayals are as important as the cultural consequences.  Without the nuance, audiences do not get to enjoy the layers, complexities and surprises multi-dimensional characters and fictional situations offer.  Such portrayals stifle fruitful discussion and progress.  They also make for intellectually offensive, half-assed or just plain boring entertainment.

—Laura K. Warrell


Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz. The Weinstein Company, 2012. Film.

Invisible Man.  By Ralph Ellison.  Dir. Christopher McElroen.  The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston.  2 February 2013.  Performance.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Vintage Books, 1990.  15-33.  Print.


Laura K. Warrell lives in Boston where she works as a writing teacher and tutor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University.




Feb 272013

I write what I want. I try to write what I’d like to read. I think about not wasting a reader’s time, my own included. As to the what and the how, I’m certainly not the first to use those terms. I guess others would call it content and style, and so forth. Of course, they can never be untangled from each other. They are each other. My point, and it’s an obvious one, I think, to many writers and readers, is that the story is nothing if you are not invested in every line of its telling. I’m talking about that charged feeling, the startling stuff, the poetry, the humor, the hurt, and getting your effects through language as well as through the situation. Your desired effect might be something percussive, or languorous, or plain-spoken, or richly complex, but they all require artifice, manipulation, in order for their power to compel us and to be sustained, undeniable. And here’s the crucial thing: By not thinking of your sentences as mere delivery trucks for the information of your story, by putting pressure on them, you often end up with a much more profound “what” than you could have dreamed up beforehand. As I said, this is really obvious. But it took me a long time and the help of teachers to figure it out.

via Paris Review – Pressing Flesh with Sam Lipsyte, Giancarlo DiTrapano.

Feb 212013

Researchers at Keele University, UK, and Amridge University, USA, have discovered that Genesis uses an early example of a technique known as ‘bracketing’, which sandwiches one theme between two mentions of another theme. The technique is commonly used today, such as when bad news is sandwiched between two bits of good news. The new analysis of Genesis reveals a striking pattern between the two key themes of ‘life’ and ‘death’. The opening and closing verses of the book contain frequent mentions of life, whereas mentions of death are only found in clusters in the middle.

via New analysis of Genesis reveals ‘death sandwich’ literary theme.

Feb 182013

Lee Rourke‘s novel The Canal (published by Melville House in the U.S.) won The UK Guardian‘s ‘Not The Booker Prize 2010’. Here is another of those great PATHOS interviews on the writing life at Full Stop.


Give one example in which you had high hopes for success (artistic, commercial, or otherwise) but had those hopes dashed.

Always. I’m never satisfied. I look at my books, everything I’ve written and think: is this it? Is this all I’m capable of? Is this all it’s going to bring me? But that’s only normal, right?

Do you feel like the world owes you a chance to make a living as a writer?

The world owes me nothing. The world is indifferent to me, it feels nothing for me. I am merely attempting to secure some sort of foothold on the sheer cliff face up to its sumptuous plateaus.

via Pathos: Lee Rourke | Full Stop.

Feb 052013

Ballard wrote the autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun that was made into the great 1987 movie of the same name (with John Malkovitch and Christian Bale; directed by Steven Spielberg) and the novel Crash that was made into the great 1996 movie of the same name by the director David Cronenberg. I always find it interesting when writers talk about obsession; it always seems to me the best work, the most intense work, develops out of obsession (or the obsession develops as a reflection of the artistry and concentration needed to complete the work).


Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 85, J. G. Ballard.

Feb 042013
Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

One gets tired of all the logrolling articles about Gordon Lish’s editorial dramatics and possibly malign influence on the likes of Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah or Amy Hempel. They are refulgent with schadenfreude and envy. He bought my novel The Life and Times of Captain N for Knopf on the strength of 50 pages and was decent and helpful to me. He would phone me, launching into monologues in that deep, stentorian voice. “Douglas, you have a contract with Knopf, the finest publisher in America, you have nothing to worry about. You are writing to God.” Something like that, meant, I am sure, to encourage me, although the effect was often rather more alarming. These phone calls were terse and epigrammatic (sometimes, though, he would talk about his wife dying or his troubles with his son) — and distracting. I ended up taking notes and putting some of what he said in the novel (the dwarf Witcacy occasionally speaks Lishian).

I don’t say he was perfect; he had some very eccentric ways. But through the editorial process and an interview I did with him later, I realized he had a method, a theory behind what he was saying, that he was not anything like the middle of the road, tell-a-good-story, sentimental realists that are so commercially successful in America. His own best fiction is monologic, obsessively recursive, relentlessly pushing the story and images forward, yet seeming to invent out of a few initial narrative axioms. He loved to cut words, he talked about the whiteness of the page, and about limiting explanation in order to reveal mystery. Mystery is a word that has a special meaning to him. Above all he was thinking about art, not the market.

We publish here a long and comprehensive essay, not about the the Lish-Carver debate circus, but a thorough and honest look at Lish’s theory of composition. Lish hasn’t written this down anywhere. Jason Lucarelli, a young writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania, had to work with class notes published by former Lish students, interviews with Lish and interviews with some of his former students. And then he looked at the writing, Lish’s own work, and the work of people he edited or taught. This is really the first essay of its kind, the first to take Lish seriously as a theorist and try to parse what he says. Lish comes out of an era, the sixties and seventies, the golden age of American experiment, the high modernist years of Hawkes, Barth, Barthelme and Coover (among others). But he is also deeply influenced by French critical theory, especially Deleuze and Guattari and Julia Kristeva. He has had a profound influence on American writers, something like Gertrude Stein in the 1920s. Jason Lucarelli here begins to balance a rather one-sided view of the man who was once known as Captain Fiction.




“…a topic he took up had to be thought through to the end, everything involved in it had to be gone over point for point before he could be satisfied, to take up a topic means to think it though to the end, no aspect of it must be left unclarified or at least unclarified to the highest degree possible…” – Thomas Bernhard, Correction

“Let us endeavor to sum up. How much repetition does it take?”  – Diane Williams, “Scratching the Head”

W HEN I STARTED LEARNING TO WRITE, callow and rebellious like an adolescent, I wanted to repudiate tradition, deny the classics, and discover my art only in what was new and original. I found my natural bent in the modernist aesthetics of Gordon Lish and, especially, people he taught and edited — writers who seemed to me to be in full cry against every convention. Yet when I put my mind to studying Lish, painstakingly decoding his enigmatic nomenclature, I very slowly began to realize that what seemed like an eccentric focus on recursion and “attack sentences” was actually a brilliant way of re-describing the compositional process, how the repetition of words and sequences of events progress toward a naturally developed short story with a coherent plot structure. I gradually began to understand that what he was saying was not so very different from the advice of the classicists — good writing is, after all, good writing. Lish’s genius is in making it strange that we might see it better.

Fiction editor at Esquire from 1969 to 1976, editor at Alfred J. Knopf from 1977 to 1995, publisher and editor of The Quarterly from 1987 to 1995, Gordon Lish edited, taught and championed writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Diane Williams, and Christine Schutt. Lish also taught private fiction writing classes where he talked at length about a compositional toolbox he called consecution, a writing process of “going forwards by looking backwards.” Decoded, consecution seems to mean moving forward in a story while keeping in mind what has gone before through the use of repetition.

Christine Schutt—whose first collection of stories Nightwork was one of the last books to be published by Lish at Knopf—was also one of Lish’s students. She defines Lish’s concept of consecution in the following way:

Each sentence is extruded from the previous sentence; look behind when you are writing, not ahead. Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them…Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitably be used in composing the next sentence…The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before. (Believer, 71)

For Schutt and Lish, consecution is about continually coaxing action, conflict, and interest out of prior sentences by bringing out what is implied or suggested in what has already been written. Lish further outlines the type of plot-profitable narrative material most beneficial to a story when he says:

Examine your objects for the tension inherent in them, the polarity, the natural conflict, the innate conflict, what is already there, and in the unpacking of this tension, you will reveal…the whole of your story, and how each unpacked object relates in [the] story to every other object. (Lish Notes, 47)

This “relationship” between objects is the same relationship discussed by Viktor Shklovsky when he says, “A literary work is pure form. It is…a relationship of materials” (Theory of Prose, 189). Douglas Glover says that, “In many stories, much of the material is used again and again” (Copula Spiders, 36). This relationship between and recycling of materials begins at the sentence level and extends outward over the work as a whole. Progressive construction and narrative logic evolves out of clearly represented relationships between materials while indicating what these relationships mean within the context of the rest of the work.

Consecution involves repetition at the sentence level and at the larger structural level of a narrative. The recursive compositional methods of Lish’s principle of consecution are a means of using form to create content.


Starting the Narrative Riff

The start of any story is in its initial sentence, the goal of which is to create interest and draw readers into the world of the story while also announcing, in some way, the essential desire, topic or structure of the story. Lish calls the initial sentence of a story an attack sentence. In a set of class notes transcribed by Tetman Callis, a student who enrolled in one of Gordon Lish’s private fiction workshops, Lish is quoted as saying, “Your attack sentence is a provoking sentence. You follow it with a series of provoking sentences” (Lish Notes, 15). By provoking sentences Lish means sentences that initiate intention, action, opposition, and conflict—all words on loan from Douglas Glover.

Lish continues, “You take the initial sentence, your object, and you extrude and extrude, unpack and unpack, reflect and reflect, all in ways thematically and formally akin to the ways in the attack, the opening, the initial sentence” (Lish Notes, 41). In other words, the attack sentence starts the riff of the narrative, then what follows pushes the narrative forward through a kind of narrative logic that says whatever comes to the page must be a function of what is already present on the page. Consecution is about unpacking or revealing more and more of what is implied—the natural conflict, the innate conflict, as indicated by Lish—in what has already been written.

Lish refers to the process of querying the preceding sentence for what might be profitably used in composing the next sentence as refactoring. Refactoring is the mental process of finding a better or clearer way to word something through continually reinventing upon the initial conditions established in the attack sentence of the story. Think of refactoring as sentence-by-sentence refining, or exposing and excavating of details in the text only hinted at in the prior sentences. The objective of each successive sentence of the narrative is not to fill the narrative space with inconsequential details, but narrative details that further develop character, motive, and conflict.

In the lecture notes transcribed by Tetman Callis, Lish is also quoted as saying, “Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically” (Lish Notes, 4). This is not only the key to consecution but to all forms of fine writing. When Lish says “curve back” he means repeat references to hints or clues deposited by earlier sentences through methods of consecution that aim at profitably extending the construction of the plot, the theme, the image or word patterning, or simply words mentioned previously.

Douglas Glover explains more of what should be considered narrative material:

Stories have a liner component based on the forward movement of plot and time. But the stuff, the textured density of material draped over this bare bone of plot, often takes on a churning, recursive quality. Words, thematic topics or motifs, images and memories start up and then recycle through the story, coming back again and again, with variation. (Copula Spiders, 36)

These materials naturally develop relationships as they repeat and recycle throughout a narrative. Glover’s compositional premise is in line with Lish’s consecution. Glover continues to articulate Lish’s recursive compositional method of “curving back,” adding:

A rule of thumb: during composition, when a gap opens up and the story seems to resist moving forward, reach back into the earlier text of the story, find something to bring in again and proceed from there. This recycling or juggling of a basic set of materials contributes to the overall effect of unity and coherence in the story. (Copula Spiders, 36)

This “juggling of a basic set of materials” is accomplished through compositional techniques of consecution that aid in the progressive development of a story by “curving back” or “reaching back.” These same strategies are at the heart of consecution.


Methods of Consecution

The main technique of structural consecution concerns the repetition—or recycling—of relevant plot elements or motifs through the progressive, step-by-step repetition of a story’s main desire and resistance pattern. Glover defines story plot as “a structure of desire and resistance (conflict) in which the same desire and the same resistance meet in a series of actions (events)” (Copula Spiders, 85). Glover uses words like “goal,” “intention,” and “motive” to describe desire while he defines resistance as “the force pushing against the achievement of the concrete desire” (5). Parallels between the main plot and subplot of a narrative are another technique of structural consecution.

A technique of structural consecution at the level of the sentence involves the use of a but-construction—a Douglas Glover term—to create tension at the level of the sentence. Glover defines a but-construction as “the use of the word ‘but’ or cognate to create contrast or conflict between what comes before and what comes after” (106). Lish’s name for this narrative turn is a swerve, meaning to contend with. But-constructions help formulate contrast and surprise or juxtaposition and opposition as a way of adding a surprising turn in the momentum of the narrative.

Parallelism at the level of sentences and paragraphs is another technique of structural consecution that uses sentence-to-sentence repetition in the form of parallel construction (using the same pattern of words to juxtapose or compare equal ideas), tautological repetition (rephrasing an idea using an alternate choice of words), and anadiplosis (ending a passage or paragraph with one word and following that passage or paragraph with that same word).

The thematic method of consecution is the technique of repeating references to the desire and resistance pattern of the story with the aim of adding narrative depth by exploring and questioning character action and motive and general story meaning. Another technique of thematic consecution is the use of rhetorical questions through varying forms and points of view that help to develop deeper insights into the narrative while opening up the possibility for new and surprising action. Another technique of thematic consecution is the use of aphorisms, or stylized assertions that offer insight into the actions and motives of characters in a story, and thereby providing observations about overall story meaning. Aphorisms can help enforce a story’s theme. Image patterning is a technique of thematic consecution that repeats the same image, word or set of words in altered contexts.

The acoustical method of consecution involves, as Christine Schutt says, taking narrative direction from sound. She says, “As a writer, I find that sound can give me meaning, narrative direction. Produce a sentence with any sound and respond to it” (Believer 67). Acoustical techniques include alliteration (the repetition of stressed first-syllable-sounds), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), and consonance (the repetition of consonants). Dating back to the classical Greeks, these ancient techniques are often used in harmonious and poetical combinations of sounds within the same sentence or paragraph.

At the level of the sentence, consecution focuses on carrying or pushing forward plot-profitable narrative material, like thematic passages, as the story progresses. At the level of the story as a whole, consecution aims at the progressive step-by-step development of the desire and resistance pattern relative to what has gone before.

As Gordon Lish, in his roundabout way, says, “A story must be about what it is about and continue to be about what it is about” (Lish Notes, 38).

Example Texts and Story Analysis

While these recursive principles abound in all examples of fine writing, I thought it would be interesting to look for examples of all three methods of consecution in writers edited by Gordon Lish or who studied under him—writers whose writing strategies were heavily influenced by Lish’s teaching and insights into composing prose under the methods of consecution. My examples of structural, thematic, and acoustical consecution will come from four stories: Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me,” Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” Christine Schutt’s “Daywork,” and Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People.”

Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me” is a story written in the past tense and told by a first-person narrator who remembers the event that evidently became known as “The Death of Me.” The story reads like a monologue or voice-driven fiction. Lish uses an unconventional plot, or, what is essentially a non-plot. All external action has occurred up to the start of the narrative, which begins with the narrator stating his desire (“I wanted to be amazing.”). The monologue traces the progression of that desire as it meets resistance inside the narrator’s obsessive mind. The boy narrator wants to be amazing and has become amazing by winning every field event during his camp’s annual day competition. However, after becoming the only boy ever to win every event in the day competition, the narrator begins to feel everyone around him forgetting his achievement. Lish’s narrative employs consecution at the sentence level where he employs techniques such as parallel construction and tautological repetition to slowly work his way through the ongoing desire and resistance pattern inside the mind of the narrator. At the end of the monologue, the narrator waits with his father and mother for the head of the camp, who comes to shake the boy’s hand. Then the head of the camp goes away and the narrative ends.

Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars” is written in the past tense in a first person, reminiscent point-of-view. “Water Liars” is self-referential and uses repetition to create meaning through the story’s thematic connections. The story begins in a monologue style similar to Lish’s “The Death of Me,” though without the obviously repetitive sentence constructions. The narrator begins by telling us what occasions typically send him down to Farte Cove where old men tell lies and invented tales on the dock. The plot begins when the narrator reveals that he is still upset over his wife’s revelation on the morning after his thirty-third birthday, a birthday that seems important to the narrator “because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three.” On that morning, the narrator’s wife revealed that he was not her first sex partner as she had sworn when they married ten years before. The external action of the story begins in a scene in Farte Cove where the narrator and his friend Wyatt listen to “a well-built small old boy” tell a story about high school kids boozing, smoking dope, and swimming naked. Hearing this story reminds the narrator of his wife and the high school kids who had trespassed against her in the days of her youth. Then “a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered” tells a story about being frightened during a fishing trip by “unhuman sounds” coming from shore. When the man went in search of the source of the sounds on shore, he discovered his daughter having sex with another man behind a bush. The other old liars are outraged at this story because it is not a lie. But the narrator feels a kinship with the old man who told the story because, as it turns out, they were both crucified by a sexual truth. The final line of the story coupled with the earlier reference to Jesus being crucified acts as the story’s resolution and evidence of Hannah’s use of thematic consecution to aid in plot development.

Christine Schutt’s “Daywork” is a present tense single scene story told by a first-person female narrator. The external action begins when the sisters enter the attic with the desire of cleaning out the attic, including their mother’s old, unused appliances—the medical and prosthetic devices she relied on to aid in her mobility. Conflict arises when the sister agree that they might be too early in taking apart their mother’s house since she is not yet dead. Each device or appliance in the attic triggers memories of the mother’s hospital trips and her long struggle with sickness and death. The items in the attic (“…these parts of mother that seem a part of her still…”) also trigger the subdued conflict between the sisters over varying care tactics (the narrator buys her mother cigarettes while the other sister spoon-feeds her), and the conflict each sister feels over sending their mother away to live under someone else’s care. Throughout the text, Schutt uses rhetorical questions—a technique of thematic consecution—in which the narrator calls attention to separate instances of resistance against the sisters’ desire to simply clean out the attic. Schutt’s use of image and word patterning links associations between the different appliances littering the attic. By the end of the narrative, the narrator realizes that the sisters are finally cleaning out the attic in the way that their mother wished she could have done herself: “Hose down, no care.”

“I Crawl Back to People” by Gary Lutz is written in the past tense and told by a first person narrator who recalls four separate love affairs all ending in failure. The title itself—“I Crawl Back to People”—is a tip-off to the technique of structural consecution Lutz uses in the story; after each relationship ends for the narrator, another one begins and the narrator moves on to someone new. The story is divided into four sub-headed sections containing parallel plots that detail the rise and fall of relationships. The first lover Leatrice leaves the narrator after discovering a hint in a dream or a diary that the narrator would not be having her much longer. The narrator takes her to the airport, and afterwards, begins searching other people for signs of her. In the second section about a male lover named Caulen, the narrator moves in with him and begins sending Caulen off to bars alone for reasons unknown to the narrator. The narrator’s third relationship with a female named Kell begins with mutual feelings of “I’m not going anywhere,” which eventually progresses to “I won’t keep you.” The final fourth lover is named Faisal, a woman the narrator loves but who eventually grows tired of the relationship and asks the narrator for a lift to the airport. In each story, there is an overlapping theme of the narrator continually looking for remnants of former lovers on the next one. The final section ends with the notion that the narrator has likely reconstructed his most recent lover’s features all wrong in memory, which suggests that the narrator is looking for remnants of someone that he or she cannot even accurately recall.


Techniques of Structural, Thematic, and Acoustical Consecution

I. Plot Structure as the Main Technique of Structural Consecution

Techniques of structural consecution at the level of the work as a whole include the step-by-step progression of the main plot via repetitions of the desire and resistance pattern, and plot doubling in the use of sub-plots and parallel plots.

On the “progressive structure” of plot construction, Viktor Shklovsky says, “The story usually represents a combination of circular and step-by-step construction, complicated by development” (Theory of Prose, 57). By “circular” Shklovsky means “action” and “counteraction,” another way of understanding Glover’s idea of plot as a repetition of a primary desire and resistance pattern. The step-by-step development of the desire and resistance pattern occurs within a series of scenes or event sequences in which, says Douglas Glover, the “central conflict is embodied once, and again, and again” (Copula Spiders, 24). The progressive construction of scenes or event sequences extends the desire and resistance pattern, which develops intensity over the course of the narrative.

Gordon Lish, Gary Lutz, Barry Hannah and Christine Schutt eschew the conventional scene-by-scene embodiment of the same desire meeting the same resistance. Instead, they choose to subvert the conventional linear progression of the desire and resistance pattern of conflict in favor of variation of form.

Let’s look at the progressive step-by-step development of the plot in Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me.” The desire and resistance pattern occurs in a linear series of steps inside the mind of the narrator. The narrator’s concrete desire is initiated in the opening lines: “I wanted to be amazing…I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point.” The narrator’s desire to be “amazing” is refined when the narrator becomes “the best camper in the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp.” This desire develops a step further when the narrator says, “I was better than all of the other boys at that camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else,” and then refined even further when he says, “I felt like God was telling me to realize that he had made me the most unusual member of the human race…” Recognition for the narrator’s “amazing” feat comes in the form of a shield with five blue stars of which the narrator is the “only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” Suddenly, the narrative momentum shifts and the narrator encounters resistance inside his own wobbly, obsessive mind. First, the narrator feels himself “forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” Then he feels “everybody else forgetting—even my mother and father and God forgetting.” More resistance occurs when the narrator says, “I felt like God was ashamed of me.” The narrator attempts to thwart this internal resistance when he says, “I had to be quick about showing God that I could be just as amazing again as I used to be and that I could do something, do anything, else.” Instead, the narrator oscillates between “lying down on the field,” “killing all of the people” or “going to sleep and staying asleep” until his parents are dead and there is a new God in heaven who likes him better than even “the old God had.” This indecisiveness represents the plateau of action and counteraction inside the narrator’s mind, and when his parents ask him where they should go, or what they, “as a family,” should do, the narrator says, “But I did not know what they meant—do, do, do?” which is repeated again, “I did not know what to do” and again, “I could tell my parents did not know what to do.” While the narrative continues for a few more paragraphs, this is where the desire and resistance pattern ends. In “The Death of Me,” Lish depicts the desire and resistance pattern, or action and counteraction, in an internal fight within the mind of the narrator using techniques of repetition in the form of parallel construction and tautological repetition.

Another technique of structural consecution is the repetition or reflection of a story’s main plot within the sub-plot. In Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” the main plot concerns the narrator and his inability to handle the truth of his wife’s past lovers: “I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago” (8). The sub-plot concerns the man on the dock who discovers his daughter having sex with another man. After the man tells his story, the narrator says, “He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about” (10). The conflict between the narrator and his wife mirrors the conflict between the man on the dock and his daughter. Coupled with a reference to the narrator turning the age of Jesus when he was crucified (“Last year I turned thirty-three years old…I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three”), the last line of the story ties the main plot and the sub-plot together: “We were both crucified by the truth.” This level of repetition works on the structural and the thematic level. On repetition of this sort, Viktor Shklovsky says, “In spite of this symmetry, the repetition carries a different nuance the second time around, thereby revealing the full meaning of the story’s structure” (Theory of Prose, 58).

In another similar parallel or repetition in “Water Liars,” when the narrator in hears a story on the dock at Farte Cove concerning naked teenagers smoking dope and swimming, he is instantly reminded of his wife: “I could see my wife in 1960 in the group of high schoolers she must have had. My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me” (10). This repetition represents a perfect instance of “recycling” or “reaching back” with the purpose of referencing and advancing the main desire and resistance pattern, which concerns the conflict between the narrator and his wife over the lovers she had before him.

Let’s look at structural consecution using parallel plots. On parallel structure, Viktor Shklovsky says, “In a story built on parallel structure, we are dealing with a comparison of two objects” (Theory of Prose, 120). In the case of Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People,” Lutz relates four parallel plots concerning the “displacement of one object by another” (Theory of Prose, 120). “I Crawl Back to People” contains four sub-headed sections titled for the narrator’s lovers: Leatrice, Caulen, Kell, and Faisal. Each sub-headed section is a depiction of a failed relationship that leads up to another depiction of a failed relationship. Lutz’s parallel plots are based on the same object being brought back in a different way, the same set of issues embodied in a different character.

Besides the repetition of plot structure, each parallel plot carries repetitive details of characters that are seemingly created through comparison. As Shklovsky might say, these details act as a way to “transition from one plot line to another” (Theory of Prose, 138). For example, the narrator cannot tell whether Leatrice was “on the mend or not yet finished being destroyed”; Caulen was “the type not ruinable ordinarily”; Kell “was none too grubby for having dug herself out from other people”; and, finally, Faisal “had suffered at all the right hands.” In the first sub-headed section, the narrator drives Leatrice to the airport after their relationship ends. In the final sub-headed section, the narrator drives Faisal to the airport after their relationship ends.

After Leatrice leaves, the narrator says, “In a couple of days I was already picking her out by the piece here and there on other people…” This is the narrator’s desire—to find pieces of former lovers on other people. After the narrator’s fourth lover Faisal leaves, the perhaps-purposely-genderless narrator is told that, “I would turn up something nicely remindful of her dry-boned elbows or collusive knees on somebody nearer my own age.” The narrator’s desire in this sub-headed section mirrors the narrator’s desire initiated after Leatrice left. While the narrator’s desire is to find these “remindful” remainders of previous lovers on other love interests, resistance occurs when the narrator finds reminders only to lose them once the relationship ends. In an after-story where the narrator meets a kid of seventeen after Leatrice leaves him, the narrator says, “In fact, it was this kid, a high schooler, that I mostly got her dwindled down to by the end of that first summer.” The “her” here is Leatrice, and there are two more instances where the narrator succeeds in finding a “piece” of her: “I could get him to feed me the seizing feel of her sometimes.” And again: “I milked his arms for further thrill of her farewell.” These are all repetitions of the narrator’s central desire.

The fourth section, concerning a female named Faisal, begins with, “There were holes in what I felt for people, and it was through these holes that I slid finally toward this fourth,” which is, essentially, an aphoristic statement that mimics the parallel plot pattern of each sub-headed section. “There were holes in what I felt for people…” is also peculiarly thematic in the way that it references the narrator’s desire to turn up “remindful” remainders of former lovers on new one. When skeptics of the relationship between the narrator and Faisal ask, “What does she see in you?” the narrator responds with, “I told them I was doubling for somebody.” The narrator’s response carries a hint of irony, since the narrator’s new lovers seem to be filling in for the ones of the past. Finally, the narrator’s assertion of the fourth lover (“I have probably got her features collated all wrong in memory anyway”) suggests that the cycle of thematically parallel relationships will never end.


II. Techniques of Structural Consecution at the Level of the Sentence

Techniques of structural consecution also happen at the level of sentences and paragraphs; these include parallel constructions, tautological repetitions, but-constructions, and the use of anadiplosis.

Douglas Glover defines a parallel construction as “a means of using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. This can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level” (E-mail from Douglas Glover). My first example of a parallel construction is an example at the sentence level: “I wanted to be amazing. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point. I wanted to be more amazing that I had been up to that point” (160). In this series of parallel constructions, Lish begins with the attack sentence, “I wanted to be amazing,” which initiates the narrative by naming the desire of the narrator. While Lish adds slight variation to the next sentence, the sentence uses a parallel pattern of words to the one that preceded it (“I wanted to be so amazing.”) In the third sentence, Lish adds the phrase “up to a certain point,” further unpacking the circumstances surrounding the narrator’s desire within another parallel construction (“I had already been amazing up to a certain point.”) With each repetition, Lish lures readers deeper into the world of the story by baiting them with the narrator’s intensifying desire “to be amazing.” Each addition to the following parallel construction becomes the obsession or base formulation of the following parallel construction: “I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point.” After a sentence turns the narrative momentum on a but-construction, Lish repeats “point” from the prior sentence (“I had already been amazing up to a certain point”) and introduces motive with “I wanted to go past that point.” The next sentence refines the desire again (“to be more amazing than I had been up to that point”). With each consecutive parallel construction, the narrator’s motive increases in intensity.

The next example of a parallel construction—an example at the clause level—comes directly after the first example:

I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one. (160)

In this example, Lish elongates the construction on the clause level. In the first half of the parallel construction (“I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points…”), Lish elongates the sentence by inserting the conjunction “and” between a range of restrictive phrases that quickly raise the narrator’s motive in steps: “…to do something which went beyond…” 1.) “…that point…”; 2.) “…every other point…”; 3.) “…all other points…” The parallel construction continues on with the added contingent: “…and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one.” The narrator’s desire grows throughout the sentence until he arrives at a place attainable by no one other than himself.

The next example of a parallel construction continues along the same desire line: “It was 1944 and I was ten years and I was better than all of the other boys at the camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else” (160). Here, Lish also refines the circumstances regarding the narrator’s desire “to be amazing” within consecutive clauses. The narrator was “better than all of the other boys” 1.) at the camp; 2.) at any other camp; 3.) everywhere else. Again, Lish uses the conjunction “and” in order to link the range of restrictive clauses. Lish might call each move within a parallel construction “refactoring the attack sentence,” but basically he is using repetition as a way of refining the narrator’s desire while feeling his way toward the story.

Viktor Shkolvsky refers to tautological repetition as an “impeded, progressive structure” with a “peculiar poetic cadence” and which “reveals a need for deceleration of the imagistic mass and for its arrangement in the form of distinct steps” (24). He also says that within tautological repetition “a parallel is often established, not between objects or actions of two objects, but between an analogous relationship between two sets of objects, each set taken as a pair” (25).

First, let’s look at Lish’s use of tautological repetition in “The Death of Me”: “They said that I was the only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it. They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it” (161). This example offers a further refinement of the narrator’s desire (“I wanted to be amazing”) by establishing relationship between the narrator becoming the 1.) “only boy ever” 2.) “to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” At this point, the narrator has reached the pinnacle of his being “amazing,” and Lish employs tautological repetition to linger on this moment for added emphasis.

The next example of tautological repetition also comes from Lish:

My parents kept asking me where did I want to go now and what did I want to do. My parents kept trying to get me to tell them where I thought we should all of us go now and what was the next thing for us as a family to do. My parents kept saying they wanted for me to be the one to make up my mind if we should all of us go someplace special now and what was the best thing for the family, as a family, to do. (162)

In this example, the overall progressive structure of the narrative is also decelerated. The impeded progress of the narrative concerns where to go and what to do now that the narrator has reached the pinnacle of his achievement. The narrator is caught between action and inaction, and Lish uses tautological repetition as a way to emphasize the narrator’s internal conflict. Interesting enough, these tautological repetitions are also couched in a series of parallel constructions.

Here is an example of tautological repetition with slight variation from Schutt’s “Daywork”: “Here they are tiled against the attic walls: the legs, the arms, the clamshell she wore instead of a spine. Here is some of mother leaned up in the attic” (57). Schutt’s use of tautological repetition has a way of refocusing on and refining a specific detail in the narrative for emphasis, which is, in this case, the mother’s old medical devices that haunt the sisters as they clean the attic.

A but-construction is a grammatical swerve that torques a story’s progression with subversion, conflict and surprise. According to Douglas Glover, the use of a but-construction “demands content that might not initially be there in order for completeness” (Copula Spiders, 72). The use of a but-construction is a way of creating content—and conflict—at the level of the sentence. Again, a but-construction creates contrast or conflict between what comes before the “but” or cognate and what comes after.

Let’s look at a but-construction from the passage I previously referred to from “The Death of Me”: “I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point” (160). Here, the narrator’s emotional state changes from a contentment at “being amazing up to a certain point” to being “tired of being at that point.” The but-construction undercuts the previous sentence and adds conflict to the narrative by suggesting that the narrator’s success in being amazing is not enough, that he is not satisfied, and that he is motivated to do something else. Lish applies the same sort of contrast in the next example of a but-construction: “They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it. But I could already feel that I was forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it” (161). In this example, Lish combines the but-construction with repetition (“…as many as that many stars on it…”) for easy-to-follow refinement and subversion as the narrator feels himself forgetting his “amazing” achievement. The but-construction initiates the issue of “forgetting” that intensifies to the point where the narrator is afraid that everyone is forgetting about his achievement.

Now, let’s look at an example of a but-construction from Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars”: “I could not bear the roving carelessness of teenagers, their judgeless tangling of wanting and bodies. But I was the worst back then” (10). This but-construction juxtaposes the behavior of teenagers—which, because of the recursive pattern of relation in Hannah’s text, also includes the “high schoolers [his wife] must have had”—with the narrator as himself as a teenager, whose behavior was “the worst.” The association provides temporary comfort to the narrator, who is bothered by the number of his wife’s past lovers. This but-construction is a crucial turn in the narrator’s desire and resistant pattern of conflict.

Let’s look at a cognate of the but-construction in which the narrative momentum of the text turns on “yet”: “It makes no sense that I should be angry about happenings before she and I ever saw each other. Yet I feel an impotent homicidal urge in the matter of her lovers” (8). The narrator introduces reason into his first statement (“It makes no sense…”) and then undercuts his previous assertion in the sentence that follows (“Yet I feel…”). This swerve helps increase the narrator’s conflict while developing the main desire and resistance pattern of the narrative.

Anadiplosis, another technique of consecution at the level of the sentence, is an ancient Greek device in which the last word of a preceding sentence is used in the beginning of the succeeding sentence. Schutt uses this technique a few times throughout “Daywork.” For example, here: “…the patched on nipples from when her breasts had seams and looked shut as drawstring purses. / Purses, there are none here in the attic…” (59) Here again: “…the nurses have been turning Mother, keeping Mother clean in a clean bed. / The nurses, I half expect to see them in the attic…” (63). Then another example with variation: “‘…Remember, will you, visit.’ / One of the visitors…” (58) Anadiplosis helps with continuity between narrative sequences, while also informing the narrative direction of the next narrative sequence.


III. Techniques of Thematic Consecution

Thematic consecution adds a deeper level of coherence and unity to a story with passages that offer insight into story meaning. On thematic material, Douglas Glover says, “A thematic passage is any text in which the narrator or some other character questions or offers an interpretation of the action of the story. Characters in the story explore the meaning of the story by asking questions of their own impulses and actions” (Copula Spiders, 37). These questions are sometimes literally asked through the use of rhetorical questions. Other techniques of thematic consecution that reinforce theme or overall story meaning include the use of image or word patterning and aphorisms. Glover says, “Authors use repeated images, words and concepts to reinforce the thematic encoding of a text” (125).

Rhetorical questions are a technique of thematic consecution that increase thematic narrative depth while opening up the opportunity for surprising new motivation that might aid in the development of the plot or the desire and resistance pattern of conflict. As Douglas Glover notes, rhetorical questions often take the shape of inquires like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Why is that other character doing what he is doing? What does this look like? What does it remind me of?” (Copula Spiders, 7). Rhetorical questions speculate on character motive and overall story meaning. Glover continues, saying, “Thought is action. Characters don’t necessarily have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before.”

Let’s take a look at two examples of rhetorical questions from Schutt’s “Daywork” that explore the theme of the mother’s dying. The first example: “What does Mother want? we wonder. For what cruel attentions does she still lie down?” (59) In this example, the long amount of suffering the mother has endured throughout her life is brought up as the sisters speculate on how long the mother means to live. Another rhetorical question: “Oh, why should it be strange how, loving death the way she has, our mother wants to live?” (64). While the sisters have withstood the mother’s long amount of suffering, this rhetorical question, from the point-of-view of the narrator, seems to suggest that the mother lives by “loving death.” This particular rhetorical question opens up the possibility for new action while speculating on the larger truth of the mother’s existence. Together, these rhetorical questions present the conflict the sisters feel over their mother’s way of living through sickness.

Aphorisms are another technique of thematic consecution that offer insight into the actions and motives of characters in a story, or observations about meaning in the story that result in references to the story’s theme. On aphorisms, Douglas Glover says, “Aphorisms are short, pithy, somewhat artificial statements…stylized forms of thought, or conjecture, mostly structured on the contrast of opposites…” and are good for “rendering thought vigorously, concisely and authoritatively” (37 and 76). An example of an aphorism comes from Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People”: “What I mean is that people shaded into each other pretty easily, and all I had to do was find her somewhere there in the gradients” (119). A bit ambiguous at first, the first half of this aphoristic phrase references the thematic nature of one relationship displacing the prior one, while the second half reveals character motive through the narrator’s desire to find traces of former lovers on new ones.

Regarding image or word patterning, another technique of thematic consecution, Douglas Glover says

Image (or word) patterns begin with mere repetition and accumulate meaning by association and juxtaposition, splinter or ramify, sending out subsidiary brand patterns, and finally, discover occasions for recombination or intersection of the various branches in…tie-in lines. (Copula Spiders, 95)

Schutt and Hannah use a variation of word patterning by using the same word or set of words within altered contexts, often splitting the main image into associated images throughout the text. Sometimes, these word patterns have a way of reinforcing the narrative’s thematic coding, and other times, these word patterns help to initiate motive and deepen overall meaning.

In “Water Liars,” Barry Hannah uses a variation of word patterning as a technique of thematic consecution, though Hannah’s use of word patterning also progresses the desire and resistance pattern of conflict concerning the narrator and his wife by creating parallels that aid the structure and form of the narrative.

Hannah initiates the main word pattern in the title: “Water Liars.” The main pattern continues in the first sentence: “When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another” (7). The main pattern of “liars” continues, but with “lie”: “The lineup is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again…” Another reference: “On the other hand, Farte Jr., is a great liar himself.”

The main pattern splits into a subsidiary image of “ghost people” and “ghosts”: “He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.” Then another branch pattern begins with “crucified” (portions of text in italics increase the significance of the image or word with history): “Last year I turned thirty-three years old…I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three” (8). Here, the narrator establishes a significant parallel between his age and the age of Jesus when he was crucified. In the same scene, Hannah develops a branch pattern with “truth,” arranging a pattern of opposites, or juxtapositions: “On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we’d had before we met each other” (8). The branch pattern also reveals the conflict of the narrator’s wife having lied to him over how many lover she had before him: “For ten years she’d sworn I as the first,” or, in other words, she lied.

Hannah’s word pattern extends to include “liars,” “ghosts,” “crucified,” and “truth,” of which subsidiary branch patterns include “lies” and “sworn.” Hannah brings the main pattern back around to “liars”: “Then I’ll get myself among the higher paid liars, that’s all” (9). This is ironic—the narrator has been lied to, though he claims to be a liar himself.

Toward the end of the story, while on the dock with his friend Wyatt, the narrator overhears two old men on the dock tell stories about “ghosts,” continuing the branch pattern. The first story involves a man named Doctor Mooney having “intercourse” with a “ghost” while the second story involves the “ghost” of “Yazoo hisself.” What follows is a series of tie-in lines that serve an important structural purpose. First, comes the story from “a new, younger man…with the face of a man who had surrendered.” The man says, “We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts” (10). This word pattern with “ghosts” seems to extend along the similar path as the ones before. Instead, the source of the sounds is revealed not to be ghosts, but the man’s daughter having intercourse with another man: “My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.” Hannah ties the word pattern of “ghosts” and “truth” together when an “old geezer” on the dock asks, “Is that the truth?” Then again from the narrator: “He’d told the truth.” And finally, in the most important plot-profitable tie-in line: “We were both crucified by the truth” (11). Here, the narrator feels allied with the man at the dock who tells the true story of discovering his daughter having intercourse with another man. This tie-in line references the structural consecution technique of parallel plots between the main plot, which concerns the narrator and his wife over the narrator’s inability to cope with the truth of his wife’s earlier sexual relationships, and the sub-plot, which concerns the man on the dock who “never recovered from” discovering his daughter with another man. Hannah’s use of word patterning works two-fold by advancing the thematic coding of the text with “lies” and “truth,” and also progressing the parallel conflict between the narrator and his wife, and between the man on the dock and his daughter.

The next examples of image or word patterning come from Christine Schutt’s “Daywork” and concern the main image pattern of “the attic”: “We enter the attic at the same time, which makes it all the more some awful heaven here, cottony hot and burnished and oddly bare except for her appliances, the parts our mother used to raise herself from bed” (57). Here, the main image “the attic” begins and splinters into a subsidiary image pattern of “appliances” and “parts,” which is given meaning through revealing history. The next reference to “the attic”: “We make such terrible confessions, my sister and I, which is why we are uneasy in the attic in the presence of these parts of Mother that seem a part of her still, quite alive and listening in on what we talk about” (59). The image of “the attic” and “parts” are tied together for the significant reason that being in “the attic” means being in the presence of “these parts of Mother” that aided in her mobility around the house. References to “the attic” are related to setting while references to “parts” and “appliances” are related to the mother’s history with being ill. There are an additional four references to “the attic” throughout the text, but it would be best to trace the subsidiary image patterns. First, the subsidiary pattern with “appliances”: “So what are we going to do with these appliances, these sheets?” (63) Then, the subsidiary pattern with “the parts”: “Dark bags full of Mother’s house—so much we don’t know what to do with we throw out: old clothes cut to fit over the parts that Mother buckled on” (58). In this subsidiary pattern concerning “parts,” another pattern branches off from “Mother’s house.” An additional two references to “Mother’s house” occur in the text. The next example concerns a subsidiary pattern with “the attic walls”: “Here they are against the attic walls: the legs, the arms, the clamshell she wore instead of a spine” (57). Here, the main pattern of “the attic” splits into “the attic walls” where the pattern of “appliances” is extended by the naming of these “appliances.” Another pattern branches off “the attic walls” with a reference to “the legs”: “I look at Mother’s legs, how they stand up by themselves in the attic” (62). “Mother’s legs” is an extension of the subsidiary image pattern concerning “parts” and “appliances.” An additional reference to “the attic walls”: “She is looking at the hinged machinery hooked on the attic walls: a cane with teeth, a bedside pull, a toilet seat with arms” (58). Again, in this reference to another subsidiary image pattern of “the attic walls,” the “machinery” image pattern is detailed in similar fashion to the “appliances” pattern. Image patterning allows the details of the text to pursue themselves into other details later in the story that add depth and significant history when one image is tied to another. Schutt’s compositional patterning of images adds to the cohesion of the single scene story of sisters cleaning out their mother’s attic.


IV. Techniques of Acoustical Consecution

The final method of consecution, acoustical consecution, involves ancient recursive techniques in which sounds repeat in the form of alliteration (repetition of first syllable sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), and consonance (repetition of consonants). Viktor Shklovsky, advocating for poetical techniques in prose, cites Nietzsche’s aphorism on “good prose” in which Nietzsche says that only in the presence of poetry can one write good prose (Theory of Prose, 21). In a lecture delivered to writing students at the University of Columbia about the strengths of focusing on the effects of sounds in composing prose, Gary Lutz says:

The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. (Believer, January 2009)

In acoustical consecution, sounds repeat when one word discharges something within itself into successive words in the same sentence. Whether in the composition of poetry or prose, writers often use multiple acoustical techniques within the same sentence or sequence of sentences. Before I highlight the effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance at work in the same sentence, I would like to highlight examples of each effect separately, starting with alliteration.

On alliteration, Lutz says, “Avail yourself of alliteration—as long as it remains ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal. Such repetition can be soothing and stabilizing, especially in a sentence whose content and emotional gusts are anything but” (Believer, January 2009). An example Lutz’s use of alliteration: “Go-betweens impart important impromptu breadth to any population, keep cities backed up and abrim” (123). The alliteration is evident with the inclusion of “impart,” “important,” and “impromptu,” though Lutz also uses a slight variation of alliteration with “breadth,” “backed,” and “abrim.” Another example of alliteration from Lutz: “You get better and better at dialing down the light to the point where passerby decide the place is probably closed” (121). Here, the alliteration within the sentence also overlaps between one set of words (“dialing,” “down,” “decide”) and another set of words (“point,” “passerby,” “place,” “probably”). As Lutz says, the content and emotions of these sentences do not pack much of a punch, and so he relies on the repetition of sounds to briefly carry the momentum of the narrative.

On assonance, Gordon Lish says, “The force of English lies in its vowels. You want to resonate the stressed assonances in your work, in a phrase, a clause, a paragraph, a sentence…” (Lish Notes, 45). Similarly, Lutz says, “…reserve assonance for the words in a sentence deserving the greatest stress…” (Believer, January 2009). An example of assonance in a fragment from Lutz: “Jollied a lone, focal mole along the slope of the nose” (124). The assonance is evident in the force of the “o” in “jollied,” “focal,” and “along” and the “oe” sound in “lone,” “mole,” “slope” and “nose. A similar effect of assonance is created in this sentence from Schutt’s “Daywork”: “But we look and look at how the blistered skins of covered bins and trash bags have gone yellow” (57). The assonance is seen in the shared “i” between “blistered,” “skins,” and “bins.”

Now an example of consonance from Lutz: “I milked his arms for further thrill of her farewell” (120). Lutz’s use of consonance is evident in the shared “l” between “milked,” “thrill” and “farewell.” Another example of consonance from Lutz: “We were together one spring, briefly, tickledly, and then it came to her—in a dream, in a diary entry; I forget, that I would not be having her very much longer” (119). Lutz uses the consonantal sound of the shared “y” between “briefly,” tickledly,” “diary,” “entry,” and “very” to drive the rhythm of the sentence.

Finally, let’s look at a sentence bringing together the combined effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance in another sentence by Lutz: “I could make out the timid din of who she had already been, a hum of harms hardly done” (123). The alliteration effects in the sentence: “hum,” “harms,” and “hardly,” “din” and “done.” The assonance effects in the same sentence: “timid,” “din,” and “been,” “harms” and “hardly.” Finally, the effects of consonance concerning the consonant “d” in the same sentence: “timid,” “had,” “already,” “hardly.” In this example from Lutz, the combined effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance create a wholly recursive effect of sound throughout the entirety of the sentence. Christine Schutt says that she takes narrative direction from sounds. In a sentence that is so busy with overlapping effects, it’s easy to see how these sounds might have driven the narrative direction of the sentence during composition.

While acoustical consecution holds effects for strong prose at the most fundamental level of composition, Lutz advises against searching solely for sound when composing sentences without keeping in mind how this smaller technique works most effectively in the larger structure of narrative form.  In Lutz’s lecture to writing students at the University of Columbia, he says, “Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside…” Something similar might also be said about the techniques within structural and thematic consecution at the level of sentences. In fact, what Lutz warns against is what Viktor Shklovsky also warns against when he says, “Images alone or parallel structures alone or even mere descriptions of the events do not produce the feeling of a work of fiction in and of themselves” (Theory of Prose, 52). Douglas Glover takes this point a step further when he says, “The structures which lend plausibility, focus and meaningful density to a piece of writing are primarily structures of repetition and it is by repetition that we know that reality through our ability to apply consistent and predictable descriptions to it” (127). While the techniques of structural, thematic, and acoustical consecution provide readers with a self-referential map for finding their way through a story, they are techniques that are repetitions—or reflections—of the development of a story’s plot. The logical sequence of events as a depiction of the step-by-step progression of the desire and resistance pattern of conflict is the main feature of narrative, and the recursive details relative to the ongoing action (desire) and counteraction (resistance) are what bind the narrative with unity and cohesion.



Reaching back into the text to pull forward something deposited earlier that can be used to further flesh out the world of the story is the heart of narrative logic. On narrative plausibility, Gordon Lish says:

In the business of world-making, logic is everything…Nothing can be there that you don’t put there, so be careful about what you put there, and be careful about what you assume is there but is, in fact, in the eye of your mind and not in the words on your page. (Lish Notes, 31)

Even with the structural, thematic, and acoustical methods of consecution in my pocket, my problem still lies in improving the situation between what I think is on the page and what actually ends up on the page. More advice from Lish that points to another limp of mine while composing drafts of stories: “You must learn to look and see if what you are writing is appropriate to the form of your story, or if it is mere decoration, empty and pointless fluff” (20). The point here, of course, is learning to write while staying true to the content or structure initiated in the attack sentence of the story, and never leaving the surface of the true narrative as it develops in the moment. As far as I can see, this will always be my struggle. The very least of what I have learned from Gordon Lish through the mouth of Douglas Glover is that the work is never over.

—Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli


Works Cited

Callis, Tetman. “The Gordon Lish Notes.”1991.

Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Biblioasis. 2012.

Hannah, Barry. Long, Last, Happy. New York: Grove Press. 2010.

Lish, Gordon. Collected Fictions. New York: OR Books. 2010.

Lutz, Gary. I Looked Alive. Black Square Editions and The Brooklyn Rail. 2010.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press. 1990.


Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, PA. He is in the final stages of completing his MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Feb 012013

A great piece about Thomas Bernhard and his publisher. They don’t make publishers like this anymore, or writers, for that matter.


Bernhard knew that he existed on a thin and arbitrary boundary between sanity and insanity. Comparing himself to his friend Paul Wittgenstein, who did several long stretches in a mental hospital, he wrote that Wittgenstein “has so to speak been overcome by his insanity; while I have taken advantage of and controlled mine.” Bernhard also had a keen sense of Unseld’s perception of his “neurosis” and sought to make the most of it. During a walk with his neighbor and friend, a pork wholesaler named Karl Ignaz Hennetmair, the writer confided, “With Unseld I have the freedom of a madman (Narrenfreiheit), I can do whatever I like.”

Safety Net: On Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld | The Nation.

Jan 302013

My first two books, especially, came out of a kind of shock at the realization that life could be hard and capitalism could be harsh. And that it could be harsh to me. I don’t know why that was a revelation to me, but it was. Those stories tended to be located around the places where things went wrong, and people were cruel to one another, and so on. They reflected what was probably the most urgent truth operating in me at that time: oh, shit, things can go wrong, and if they do, people get hurt, and I might be one of them, in spite of the fact that I am, you know, me.

via On “Tenth of December”: An Interview With George Saunders : The New Yorker.

Jan 302013

Here’s a 46-part short course on short story writers, beginning with Chekhov and ending with Roberto Bolaño. Each segment concentrates on a particular writer. Some wonderful biographical details and odd angles of vision. I love this bit on Robert Walser, for example.

Despite writing several novels, it is in the short form that Walser excelled. Many of his pieces defy conventional expectations of short stories – William Gass describes him as “a kind of columnist before the time of columns” – while he himself referred to them as “shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced up or torn-apart book of myself.”

Click the link below for the series.


A brief survey of the short story | Books | The Guardian.

Jan 252013

Some years before writing Impressions of Africa, [Raymond] Roussel discovered a poetic technique he called prospecting, which became his trademark compositional method, as well as the foundation for Impressions of Africa. As he explained in his posthumously published How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935), he would find two almost identical words with separate meanings, and put them inside two almost identical phrases. Then he would establish a connection between the two different phrases, however disparate and roundabout they might be, and write the narrative that linked them together as realistically as possible. For example, the marksman Balbet is a synthesis of two phrases: “1ST Mollet (calf) à gras (fat); 2ND. mollet (soft-boiled egg) à gras (Gras rifle); hence Balbet’s shooting exercise.” And the zither playing worm: “1ST Guitare (title of a Victor Hugo poem) à vers (verse); 2ND. guitare (guitar, which I replaced with zither) à ver (worm).” Foucault described Roussel’s procedure as “a certain way of making language go through the most complicated course and simultaneously take the most direct path in such a way that the following paradox leaps out as evident: the most direct line is also the most perfect circle, which, in coming to a close, suddenly becomes straight, linear, and economical as light.”

Roussel’s prospecting forms images, plots, and characters with a numerologist’s calculated serendipity. At once demystifying and absurdly complicated, his methods inspired Foucault to question the nature and limitations of language and the Oulipians to create their own complicated linguistic procedures.

via Self-made Enigma: Raymond Roussel | Idiom.

Jan 192013

Via Richard Skinner’s website, here’s a fun little compendium of writing advice from the German writer W.G. Sebald.  Compare this list with the Gordon Lish Notes,  (via The Art of Tetman Callis) another wonderful ‘crash-course’ in fiction writing for the cyber age.

Particular pearls of Sebaldian wisdom that stood out:

There is a species of narrator, the chronicler; he’s dispassionate, he’s seen it all.

The dispassionate chronicler is never shocked or sentimental, yet he retains a sensibility that might well qualify as wise and compassionate.  This is the modern condition. Unless you’ve been living on an iceberg for the last 50 years, very little will surprise.  And yet storytelling still demands a narrator.  I’ve been reading Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s  memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, which is a lovely but highly narrated book.  First published in 1939, Saint-Exupery could get away with a more heavy-handed narrative style.  But the contemporary reader is less willing to trust the author these days. So the all-knowing, omniscient narrator might well be a thing of the past, like Saint-Exupery’s open cockpit bi-planes.  But the post-modern trend toward killing the author (and by extension, the narrative voice) often makes for a jumpy, cinematic effect. Sebald’s dispassionate chronicler might be something to ponder as a narrative device.

I also found this thought enlightening:

Particular disciplines have specialized terminology that is its own language. I could translate a page of Ian McEwan in half an hour—but golf equipment! another matter. Two Sainsbury’s managers talking to each other are a different species altogether.

The lively language of specialized labor often makes for wonderful reading.  I recently finished reading “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire” by Barry Lopez (in  About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory), in which Lopez intricately describes the process by which a group of Oregonian potters work a communal kiln.  Now, all things being equal, if someone had told me that I was about to read a thirty page essay on pottery, I would have gladly offered to take out the trash and scrub the hardwood floors instead.  Yet Lopez creates one of the most mesmerizing essays I’ve ever read, in part because he takes the reader inside the highly specialized process of these potters.

– Richard Farrell

Jan 102013

It always makes me nervous when Nietzsche starts talking about things like writing with blood because, well, it doesn’t sound like a healthy writing practice. But what he says about readers and writing for readers makes me think.



From Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (tr. R.J. Hollingdale):

Of all that is written I love only that which is written with blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit.

It is not easy to understand the blood of another: I hate the reading idler.
He who knows the reader does nothing further for the reader. Another century of readers–and spirit itself with stink.
That everyone is allowed to learn to read will in the long run ruin not only writing but thinking, too.

Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it is even becoming mob.
He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, he wants to be learned by heart.

Dec 272012

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point – a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before – many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word – and, word is, before that too.

via In theory: the death of literature | Books | guardian.co.uk.

Dec 012012

This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on.

We may end up miles from here.”As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”

via Kurt Vonnegut term paper assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. – Slate Magazine.

Nov 112012

The riddle is an ancient and persistent literary form. In Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar Viktor Shklovksy writes about riddles:

Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that “the riddle belongs to conscious symbolism.” What is the riddle’s answer? It is derivation of meaning. According to Hegel, the riddle consists of “individual traits of character and properties drawn from the otherwise known external world and, as in nature and in externality generally, lying there scattered outside one another, they are associated together in a disparate and therefore striking way. As a result they lack a subject embracing them together [as predicates] into a unity . . .” This disparity of signs hinders the immediate solution as to which whole they all belong to.
 In veiling the whole, the riddle forces us to rearrange the signs of a given object, thus showing the possibility of diversity, the possibility to combine the previously irreconcilable in new semantic arrangements.

Herewith we have a shrewd, clever, witty and expansive essay on the riddles and riddle poems in (mostly) Western literature from The Book of Exeter to Harry Potter and J. R. R. Tolkien and Emily Dickinson. It’s partly a highly suggestive craft essay and partly an informal history of ideas, also a refreshing sort of literary criticism, the kind that takes a long and inquisitive look at the words on the page.

Julie Larios is a friend, an esteemed colleague in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program and a gifted poet whose work has already graced these pages more than once (here and here). It is always a huge pleasure to have her back.



I’m not much of a “main highway” kind of person when it comes to thinking about the craft of writing.  I go down lots of sides streets, I let my mind wander. Sometimes even a side street feels too wide. And I’ve been thinking lately about a small alley named “Riddles,” a deceptive short cut (sometimes filled with broken bottles and garbage cans) between one street and the next. I have the feeling deception is important. “Most felicitous sayings rely…on a capacity to deceive beforehand…” said Aristotle. “We have even more obviously learned something,” he said, “ if things are the opposite of what we thought they were, and the mind seems to say to itself, ‘How true. I was mistaken.’”

Riddles are all about questioning our own grasp of the world by questioning the nature of things, casting a new light – thereby casting new shadows –  and I believe that thinking in riddle-mode can help us be better writers. After all, don’t riddles follow the pattern of all great works of literature by asking large questions of us like “Who am I?” and “Are things what they appear to be?” and – perhaps the most important question of all – “When is a door not a door?”  Ah, yes, one of the great questions of Western literature.  It has survived the test of time, as has its existential answer – “When it’s ajar.”

I remember the first time I heard this riddle, I was in Mrs. Frizzy’s second-grade class at Booksin Elementary, standing outside the cafeteria in the lunch line.  A boy named Dickie, who was in line in front of me, turned and asked, “When is a door not a door?”

I repeated the riddle out loud. “When is a door not a door?”

Dickie waited as I turned the riddle over and over in my head. Well, I thought, maybe it’s not a door if it’s like a –what do you call it? – one of those swinging things you see in the movies; cowboys push through them when they walk into an old-time saloon, like Gary Cooper did in High Noon, or maybe John Wayne in something?You know, not a door but like shutters on hinges.  I didn’t say that, because it didn’t seem to me like Dickie was waiting for that particular answer.  So I repeated the riddle with more emphasis.

When is a door not a door?”

Dickie looked annoyed, so I gave him what he was waiting for: “I don’t know.”

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

What?” I asked, which is actually a good question the first time you hear a riddle like that.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.

A jar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Dickie, snickering.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“When it’s ajar,” Dickie repeated.

“What do you mean, when it’s a jar?” I asked.

“Ajar,” Dickie said.

I said nothing.

“Ajar,” Dickie said again.

“Oh,” I said, as if I understood. And that was that.

I think it was my father who explained the answer to me. I bet my mother groaned, but my father probably thought it was funny, and I was left at 7 ½ years of age wondering about the world of discomfort and flat-out deception that the English language might inflict on me for years to come.

And that was my introduction to riddles. I didn’t like them. They weren’t funny. They made me feel stupid. I don’t remember ever telling them to my friends. I don’t think I ever checked a riddle book out of the library. Some people groan when they hear punning riddles, other people laugh. For a long time, I didn’t laugh, I groaned.  Now, if I’ve never heard the riddle before, I usually laugh and groan.

“What’s black and white and “red” all over?” Answer, of course, a newspaper – black and white and “read”– r-e-a-d-  all over.  

This category of riddle is also called “Shrewd Questions.” The riddle of the Sphinx is a shrewd question in an answer-this-or-you-die way. Basic shrewd questions and punning riddles are the riddle forms most children are exposed to, and I think it’s fair to say some of these shrewd questions are shrewder than others.

What did one wall say to the other wall? (Meet you in the corner.)

What birds are always unhappy? (Bluebirds.)

How do you make a lemon drop? (Hold a lemon up and let it go.)

If there were no food left in the city, what would you eat? (A traffic jam.)

I particularly like that last one.  It turns the word “jam” so steeply and suddenly on its head that the reader thinks immediately, “Traffic jam – what a strange phrase.” Anything that slows us down and makes us hear language in a fresh way is alright by me, though I didn’t believe that when I was seven.

I do remember liking the following shrewd-question” riddle, even when I was young: What flies but has no wings?  The answer –most of us know this – is Time. That riddle is elegant – it moves away from goofy wordplay and into the territory of poetry. Emily Dickinson, whose poems were sometimes riddles and sometimes what appear to be their opposites – definitions –  knew this when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” To turn that definition into a riddle, all you do is reverse it – “What has feathers and perches in the soul?” One answer could be Hope. That’s the kind of riddle I’m interested in.

Listen to the lovely beginning of this “riddle” by Ms. Dickinson:

She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife// in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond.

Who is the Housewife in the Evening West with her many colored Brooms? She’s the sunset. Dickinson’s poetry is full of definitions and riddles. What house has no door? “Doom,” Dickinson answers.

At the very least, riddles help us understand that definitions are elastic, as is identity itself, and language is delicious and strange, not to be taken for granted. As a creative writing teacher, I like encouraging fiction writers to taste them – words – once in awhile. Like blueberries, they are good for you, full of antioxidants.  It’s a fine approach, slowing down and thinking about word sounds, word choices, and how language either flows or gets tangled into traffic “jams,” or – and this is a shame – how it loses its luster and becomes dull, rusted out by cliches.   I believe we write better fiction when we balance forward motion (plot) with attention to language.  And I could justify studying riddles that way, hoping they would be seen as evidence of the nutritional value of wordplay.  Acquire a taste for wordplay and see where it takes your prose. If it takes you too far, step back – no need to go overboard, and certainly no need to go beyond wordplay and overwrite the thing, no reason for your language to get fancier than the story requires it to be.

But I‘m actually more interested in how our minds use language as a way to organize the world – that is, the way the mind searches for stability by creating categories and classifications, and the way it makes meaning. I’m quite serious in saying that the study of riddles – their long history, their presence in nearly every culture of the world in every age, their subversive nature – affects our mode of thinking. Riddles interrupt our human inclination to stash things in well-defined cubby holes, to insist upon order and to find “solutions” to things that puzzle us. Riddles ask us sometimes to live comfortably without firm solutions. At their best they can teach us to think metaphorically, to find fresh ways to say things, to think about indirection as a writing strategy, to build a tolerance for alternative meanings and contradictory truths, to turn away from infallibility and learn to live with our own stupidities, and to question assumptions – something every writer, not to mention every good citizen in a participatory democracy, should know how to do. For example, here’s a riddle which is not poetry but which I do like:

A bus driver was heading down a street in Colorado. He went right past a stop sign without stopping, he turned left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign and he went the wrong way on a one-way street past a cop car. Still – he didn’t break any traffic laws and didn’t get a ticket. Why not?

(Because he was walking.)

Our assumptions are wrong from the beginning, and the person who framed this riddle understood how to manipulate the reader into believing one thing (a bus driver only drives) while many alternative things about a bus driver are true – for example, a bus driver can walk. Riddles obstruct our desire to pigeon-hole people, objects and events, and to keep things neatly organized in categories. They make us rethink our assumptions.

I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the interruption of assumptions as a technique of fiction. We lead people to believe something, based on the preconceptions they come into the story with. Then we turn those preconceptions on their head, and we take our readers someplace unexpected. Neither our characters nor our readers have to go where stereotypes, clichés and assumptions push them – they don’t have to file things into orderly little categories like “bus driver” or “walker” or – more irritatingly – “bad guy” or “good guy.” Characters can be more complicated, readers can be asked to leave their assumptions behind. And as both readers and writers, we can say, as Aristotle wants us to say when we learn something new about the way the world works, “How true. I was mistaken.”

Sure, there’s a level of discomfort associated with admitting we are fallible. But being convinced of our infallibility will ultimately make us miserable (along with our readers, our spouses or partners, and our children) due to a little thing called hubris. Believing as an author that you have a lesson to teach, that you know the truth, that you are infallible, can be lethal to your storytelling.  For starters, it usually produces boring stories.  It also assumes your readers are children in need of guidance – not bad if they are children (after all, five-years-olds are probably not quite ready to be knocked senseless by the blurred line between good and evil) but not great if they’re young adults and fully-grown adults.

One solution to being boring and pedantic is getting into a riddling frame of mind – admitting that answers are hard, that tricks are played, that situations and people are not always what they appear to be, that the “right” answer sometimes proves to be wrong, that we’re not the only ones who head one way and then have to circle back or start over in order to understand.

I grew up thinking riddles were only puns and plays on words. I moved from the typical groan to a kind of bemused admiration for the best punning riddles, and lately I’ve felt true affection even for the worst ones. Especially for the worst ones, actually. But punning riddles and “shrewd questions” are only a small part of the whole idea of riddles.

I took several classes at the University of Washington with the poet Richard Kenney, whose delight in word play, proverbs, charms, curses and blessings was infectious. He mentioned in passing one day that his favorite riddle was a medieval one, traced back to the 1300’s: Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window.

I’d never heard a riddle like that, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was a riddle, yes, but it was also mystery and a story, and it was also poetry. Who or what was going around the house? Why more than once? Who did that white glove belong to, why was it at the window, what was happening? Could I conjure up a narrative to stand alongside this riddle? A girl who is pushed…is it sorrow that spins her round and round, is there something of herself she leaves behind? Something that says, “I was here”? Or something that asks “I was here, but who was I?”

Professor Kenney told us one answer to that riddle, of course. What was swirling around the house was snow, and it left a white glove – a small drift – at the window.  But he wasn’t as interested in answers as he was in questions.  He believed, as Samuel Coleridge did, that “In a complex enigma, the greatest ingenuity is not always shown by [the person] who first gives the complete solution.”

I thought about that riddle – Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window – as I went to sleep that night. Along with all the other questions I had, I began to think about another person – the one inside the house, looking out.  What is that person doing or what is happening to that person? I loved how far I could take this riddle, loved feeling haunted by it, loved trying to make sense of it and loved its changing perspective.  Good poetry makes you do that, makes you wonder. Wondering was what I enjoyed, not the “solution.” And the riddle didn’t say, “Snow is like someone going around and around the house and leaving an accumulation at the window frame that is similar to a white glove.” And it didn’t say “Snow IS a white glove at the window frame.” Those imply a more direct approach to metaphor and simile. I’m interested in the leap – the method to the madness– and in what we don’t see.

The snow riddle’s method is indirection – another term for “sleight of hand” – the trick of magicians and con men who convince their audiences to pay attention to one hand while the other hand is hiding the card up the sleeve.  Indirection is what Archibald MacLeish was talking about in his poem “Ars Poetica” when he said that for “all the history of grief” you could substitute “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”  This ability to direct attention somewhere else – to describe something by describing something else – is the key component of poetry. Taken larger, and sustained a bit longer, it becomes T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Basically, it boils down to this: You turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and observable, in order to understand something deep, emotional and invisible. Grief exists, yes, but it’s an emotion, an abstraction, while an empty doorway is touchable and real – much more powerful for a writer to use, because it gives us an image rather than something ephemeral or intellectual.  What we encourage our readers to do, when we use this strategy, is to think about convergences: “How and where does this touchable object intersect with that emotion or idea?” But we don’t ask the question directly. We simply turn to the physical world and evoke it. We let readers understand, either immediately or later, on closer reading, that we directed their attention to this other thing for a reason. This is the point at which the writer makes a leap of trust –we trust our readers to notice and to make meaning.

One reason we use indirection is because it’s more subtle. No one wants, hopefully, to hit a reader over the head with a 2×4 to get a message across. We don’t say, “Hey, that maple leaf, it’s grief, get it?” Instead we want the reader to intuit that when a character turns to look at something – let’s say it’s a bird flying – the bird stands in physically for an invisible desire. Perhaps the character wants “to fly,” to break out of his or her oppressive world.  The repeated trope of the flying bird becomes an objective correlative, triggering this convergence automatically. Granted, a bird standing in for freedom is a cliché; writers should be able to come up with something fresher than that.  But cultivating a riddling frame of mind helps us turn from blatant telling to subtle showing, via correlatives – things that correlate –  and that’s an important tool for our writing toolbox.

At the heart of riddle-making are the concepts of correlation and equivalency. A equals B. That sounds more like basic math than story, doesn’t it? But math is not the opposite of story, because math, like much of human behavior, is about patterns. Metaphorical-thinking is also a matter of patterns and convergences – A and B overlap and intersect like harmonies in music.  Or, in chemistry, A and B exhibit the same properties when reacting to C.  Or maybe it’s alchemy – base metal (the story’s bones) turn into gold (the story’s beauty.) By thinking of a story that way, I can create a riddle:

Bones in my body, that’s how I stand.
Beauty as I move, my sleight of hand.  
Who am I?

Does my riddle-poem have an answer? Well, one answer could be “a good story.”  Her bones and her body are structure and plot – without them, she can’t stand.  The beauty and sleight of hand are language and metaphor – without them, there’s no magic, no elegance, no “liquefaction of her clothes” to borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Herrick.

You can notice freshness of thought in something as simple as a Mother Goose rhyme describing a candle: Little Nanny Etticote in a white petticoat and a red nose. The longer she stands, the shorter she grows. In this ditty is the most basic of all lessons about writing: “Say it new.”

After taking Rick Kenney’s class, I started collecting “Who Am I?” riddles. I love the idea of identity being hidden behind the mask of metaphor.  It’s a little exciting, a little creepy, a little Carnivalesque. Reality with some slippage into the dream-world, that’s what the language of many riddles is like. Here for example:

Always old, sometimes new, never sad, sometimes blue. Never empty, sometimes full,
never pushes, always pulls. Who am I?

One answer is “the moon,” which is old, yes, but sometimes we see a “new” moon, we see a blue/sad moon though never a blue/blue one.  How lovely, in this case, to find identity in contradiction. Not a bad thing for people to think about, that contradictory things can both be true.  There’s the moon, a large stone in the sky, supposedly dead and cold.  And yet, it glows, it pulls.  That feels like something to put into a story, a very human story, something that turns to the sun and says, “Did you do that?”

In my hunt for “Who Am I?” riddles, I found a huge encyclopedia of Indian Literature offering up these three Punjabi riddles:

I’m the son who can climb to the roof before his mother is born. (Smoke)  

See her coming, see her going, thinner than water, sweeter than sugar. (Sleep) 

Tied in a blue cloth, a handful of rice –  lost in the daylight, found at night. (Stars in the night sky.)  

Compare that last riddle to one from the Aztec culture in Mexico, transcribed by early Spanish explorers – same answer, but it goes like this: A blue calabash sprinkled with toasted kernels of corn.

Here is a lovely riddle from the Congo: Who am I that when I fall, I make no noise?   (Night.) To me, that feels like the beginning of a story. It encompasses the Zen idea of satori which, by means of a koan – a kind of riddle –  produces first, hesitation, then, self-revelation.

It’s curious how the Western mind puts objects and people into well-defined hierarchies of classification,  just as pre-determined as those used in museums of natural history. The famous cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker calls categories “fuzzy similarity clusters” and the key there might be the word “fuzzy.” The edges are not always as well defined as we want them to be. When is a door not a door? If we think too rigidly, in “unfuzzy” similarity clusters (in this case doors) we can’t come up with solutions. The more determined we are to sort things according to the closed cluster we assume they are in, the more we fail.  If something is a door, it can’t NOT be a door, right? If something is a son, it can’t be smoke, can it?  Well, what if we learn to think of fire as a mother? Is smoke her son? We’re re-clustering when we try to understand the relationship of fire and smoke to mothers and sons. George Lakoff, who knows a thing or two about metaphor, says that putting things in categories is a “bad habit” left over from the days of Aristotle. Lakoff says “pristine categories are a fiction.” So if we want to move over from Aristotelian territory into a landscape where categories are fuzzy, maybe we need to change the way we think and the way we use language. As the wonderful poet Richard Wilbur said, riddles are the “confounders of categories.” Deception is not only the riddle’s method but the riddle’s glory.

The language of literary riddles can cross over into a dream-world in the same way charms, incantations, curses and blessings do, as opposed to punning riddles where much of what confuses us and makes us hesitate is a trick. Many of the great writers of fantasy, interested in the dream-world, have been interested in riddles. That’s because one essential question of fairy tales, legendary quests or shape-shifting is “Who am I?” Looking at the Harry Potter series, an extended journey where Harry moves from innocence to self-knowledge, we see a world filled with riddles, including at the most unsubtle level, Lord Voldemart’s original name, Tom Riddle. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, whose characters Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit engage in a riddle duel, using along with traditional folk riddles some examples written by Tolkein, like the following about the wind: Voiceless it cries,/  Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters. And this, whose solution is Time: This thing all things devours: / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; / Gnaws iron, bites steel; / Grinds hard stones to meal;/ Slays king, ruins town, / And beats high mountains down.

Imagine yourself as a twelve-year old again, reading The Hobbit for the first time, trying to figure out the answers to those riddles.  The more committed you are to finding a single solution, the more you must learn how to de-code, looking for words that block you and send your thinking into the orderly, tidy world of classifications and categories, rather than into the messier poetic world of overlapping meanings and metaphors.

De-coding is a valuable thing – nothing wrong with looking for the trick that’s being played on you. But it’s a familiar undertaking, and it treats storytelling as if it were a standardized test.  Find the right answer, fill in the bubble. The thinker who stands outside the box and see alternatives that are equally interesting or plausible traditionally does the worst on that kind of test.  Do we want always to encourage the decoding approach? Stories are not information, there are not right answers. A story haunts us not because it can be decoded but because it can’t. Not quite, anyway.

This is another thing the lowly riddle reminds us of: Good readers – and the good editors and good critics who judge them – don’t always want the most easily de-coded narrative. They often want something innovative. They don’t always want to know exactly how the story is built and where the story is going; they want surprise, whether in structure, language or plot.   As Emily Dickinson said: The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise —/ Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise —

Some riddles, like some very good stories I know, are not meant to offer solutions; they’re only shaped to make us wonder.   Part of the pleasure derived from them is in the hesitation they produce – that “satori” I mentioned. Hesitation, failure of the author to spell it all out, drives readers who want easy answers crazy. What on earth are those bears about in Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels?? Lanagan wants us to hesitate – she expects us to make a guess, she wants us to make our own meaning from her story. Some riddlers and storytellers take such a lot of pleasure in the hesitation that they offer no answers at all. “How is a raven like a writing desk?” is one of the riddles Lewis Carroll posed in Alice in Wonderland, and it’s never actually been “solved.” Carroll did come up with an answer, but it was after the fact; he never intended the riddle to have an answer, and the one he made up later is pure nonsense. Northrop Frye, in his essay Charms and Riddles, says that Carroll’s riddle tactic was often to overwhelm sense with sound. I think that’s true, and not all of us want to overwhelm sense with sound, at least not all the time, though you’ve got to admit “Jabberwocky” is a lot of fun.

If we look up the word “riddle” in the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace it back to the Old English root “rede” – meaning counsel, opinion, or conjecture. We come back again to the idea of interpretation. If riddles with no firm answers, and fiction open to interpretation and conjecture, can move us toward actively making meaning, that’s got to be a good thing, right? Most of us would be proud to help our readers do that. One of my students recently shared a quotation with me by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus: “Writers are people who can make riddles out of answers.” If that idea appeals to you, you are in a riddling frame of mind.

And what if the answers to the riddles are lost? For over a thousand years, people have been offering up solutions (the answers have disappeared) to riddles in The Exeter Book, written between 960 and 990 A.D. by Benedictine monks. Some answers seem guessable: A wonder on the wave / water became bone. Could it be ice on a lake? Possibly. Some are more difficult:

I was locked in a narrow nest,  / My beak bound below the water
In a dark dive; the sea surged / Where my wings work – my body quickened
From the clutch of wave and wandering wood. / Born black, streaked white, I rise
from the womb of waves on the wind’s back,  / Sailing over seals’ bath. Who am I?

Bright people, many of them doctoral candidates working hard, have guessed at the solution over the centuries: Maybe it’s an anchor, a bubble, a barnacle goose, a water-lily, a baptism…? We just don’t know. Besides, dissertations notwithstanding, aren’t we better off swimming in that lovely poem and not knowing the answer?

With literary riddles, we sometimes learn to let go and say, “There might not be an answer I understand,” or “There might be more than one answer.” If you can be comfortable with that, then you’ve learned a very large and important lesson for writers, which John Keats described as “negative capability” – the ability to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s another lesson riddles can teach us – to live in uncertainty, to shrug and say, “I’m not sure I can come up with anything more than my own answer.” What we give our readers is not a possible answer, and not even a partial answer, but wonder.

Overwhelmingly, English teachers unfamiliar with poetry present it to their students as a process of decoding and finding an answer. “Here’s a poem; let’s decode it, let’s figure out the solution to the riddle.” That’s not bad exercise, actually – certain muscles build up. But one problem about this approach is that readers want the solutions to come fast. It’s a fast world, there should be fast answers. That’s a problem, because the best riddles (the best stories) don’t have easy answers – the reader works to make meaning.  The biggest problem is when a teacher says, “There’s only one right answer to this riddle – one proper interpretation of its meaning.” Admitting to alternative interpretations, admitting there might be NO answer, understanding that the joy is in the wondering, is essential in the classroom.  And it’s just as essential when it comes to the fiction we write.

It’s especially important to get into a riddling frame of mind for writers who are vulnerable to the super-virus called didacticism. If you have learned to live with uncertainty (that is, no single answer to the Big Riddles) it is very, very hard to be pedantic. We may offer up a scenario or a guess, but remaining open-minded is vital to being a good writer. There are so many ways people deal with adversity and try to live meaningful lives and make good choices in this world. Writers tell stories about the choices people make, and the changes those choices provoke, and the end-product is empathy. We don’t want to be “right,” necessarily – I don’t like to think of myself as a judge, coming down with the gavel and startling everyone in the courtroom. The economist Daniel Kahneman theorizes that people have two different systems for processing input – System 1 is the knee-jerk brain, the one that makes fast and easy choices based on biases and assumptions. System 2 is thoughtful and open to new perspectives and new information. I want to write a good poem or tell a good story that is filtered in by System 2.

After all, the effort to make meaning is often more valuable to us than what particular meaning we make. As writers, we present people with the stories that will help them pick up cues, think about behavior, think about complications, assumptions, categories and – bottom line – will encourage them to take all that System-2 thinking and make meaning with it. We give readers compelling situations and complicated characters. We give them a well-shaped story arc. We do it, hopefully, with some attention to well-crafted prose. That’s our part of the job. Then we let go. Our readers make meaning. And good for them for doing it.  A little work, a little lost sleep as they try to puzzle out their particular perspective on a story – isn’t that a good thing? It’s just as valuable as saying, “I’ve written a book that will tell you the answer about the right way to live in the world. I know who the bad guys are. I know who the good guys are, I know the solution to the riddle.” If you find yourself in that frame of mind as you write, feeling wise, feeling certain, feeling smug, get up from your desk and take a walk. Relax, come back later, when you remember that you don’t really know much.

So, I’ve been thinking about thinking. As I said, I go down not just side streets but narrow alleys when it comes to wondering how fiction and poetry work. For a moment, let’s allow  the vista open up on Heraclitus, the 5th-century B. C. Greek writer known as “the father of the riddle.” He came up with the idea of “logos,” which has at its core the idea of flux. In flux, the nature of things is not fixed and everything is in process. Heraclitus famously suggested that you can’t step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly moving and changing.  He also suggested that despite attempts to understand our world, “Things keep their secrets.” I like that idea. I find that satisfying because it humbles me. It encourages me to write poems, not teach people lessons. It allows me – and my readers – to guess. As Northrop Frye once said, “Guessing is an integral part of the poetic experience.”  And as Emily Dickinson once wrote to her sister-in-law, “’In a life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home.”

So, here we are, embracing the common riddle. Riddles are common to all language groups, all cultures, all parts of the world from all periods of time. How is that possible? Why do riddles in cultures with no contact share motifs and have, more often than coincidence can explain, near-identical phrasing and similar patterns of musicality?

Well, it has something to do with the nature of a world in flux and the phenomena of synchronicity. The riddle scholar Craig Williamson says, “All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.”

This synchronic system – of patterns, events and objects that mirror each other and that are grouped not by cause and effect, but by similarity of meaning – sits on the opposite end of the seesaw from Causality – Cause and effect – the stuff we are told drives plot. Now we’ve entered the world of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell. The books they’ve written belong on our shelves as much as any traditional how-to books about fiction, because they offer writers examples of a different way to organize the world – possibly more ancient, more a part of the dream-world, shared by other cultures. How exciting a tool is that in our writing? Jung believed that synchronicity shared something with the idea of the “intervention of grace,” a kind of spiritual awakening, and you can’t get much bigger than that.

Maybe the vista has gotten a bit too Big and Grand now. I’ve arrived at the doorstep of what I sometimes point out to my students as a BPM, a Big Poetry Moment. At those dangerous and inflated moments, when spiritual awakening is accompanied by the call of trumpets, crashing waves, fluttering flags, sunsets, rainbows and a grandmother’s tears,  I usually ask students to step away from the vehicle, put down their weapons and take a deep breath. Instead of talking anymore about these large ideas, I want to leave you with two riddles  –  the first from The Real Mother Goose:

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

The second is by children’s author Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Sliver of moon / slice of a star. / Rhinestone in / a jelly jar.

If we can learn to think that a firefly is a rhinestone in a jelly jar, learn to think of the golden apple of an egg yolk and the marble walls of an eggshell, our stories will be richer and deeper.  Next time you put your head on your pillow, listen – can you hear night falling? Can you imagine a girl who, like the night, makes no noise as she stumbles in her life from daylight into darkness? A girl who asks, like the best riddles, “Who am I?” I think you can. After all, you’re a story-teller.  Train yourself to listen carefully, see if you hear the wind muttering without a mouth. When you can hear it, that’s when you sit down to write.

—Julie Larios


Julie Larios has had poems appear in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, Field, and Margie, among others. Her libretto for a penny opera titled All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed was recently performed as part of the VOX series by the New York City Opera. She has published four poetry picture books for children, and she teaches at the Vermont  College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Oct 292012

Amber Sparks tell us how NOT to put together a story collection over at HTML Giant.

DO NOT say to yourself, Well, I’ve got a lot of stories now, so I guess it’s time to shove them all into a manuscript and send it around.

DO NOT treat your story collection like a mix tape.

DO NOT save the best for last. Save the best for first. Put every single “best” story in the beginning. Frontload that motherfucker and then frontload it some more. Great story, great story, great story, great story – keep them hooked and don’t let them read anything less than your best until at least halfway through.

More here.

—Jason DeYoung



Oct 232012

In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.

What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.

via The Millions : Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List.

Sep 262012

There’s a plagiarism tempest (in a teapot) going on in Toronto right now. A Globe and Mail columnist, Margaret Wente, stands accused of plagiarism by an anonymous blogger who isn’t really anonymous because everyone (I am not clear how) in the Twitterverse seems to know who she is (apparently, she is a painter and adjunct faculty member at the University of Ottawa named Carol Wainio). So far hardly anyone is looking good in this debate which you can follow on Google News; the football term “piling on” seems a propos. Also the words “naivete” and “holier-than-thou” and “schadenfreude.” Plagiarism is one of those words that twists in the wind. William Shakespeare and Laurence Sterne were genius plagiarists; students who get caught plagiarizing essays in university (sometimes) get expelled. The Bible is a redaction of innumerable texts amalgamated and sewn together, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes elegantly, by multiple anonymous editors, but without the least scintilla of attribution except for the more or less Hellenized versions of the names of legendary putative authors; a whole academic field, textual criticism, is devoted to sorting out who wrote what (much as Carol Wainio did with Margaret Wente’s work). Of course, in those days the idea of plagiarism hadn’t been invented yet; plagiarism is an invention of capitalism and the industrial revolution. The naive view of plagiarism, that any copying, mis-attribution, borrowing,  quoting, appropriation, or reworking of someone else’s written words or ideas, can be small-minded and stultifying, can limit creativity and intellectual advance (there is, in fact, an ongoing legal debate about the balance between protecting copyright and infringing on a society’s right to the creative flow of ideas). In truth, the culture lives on borrowed ideas; painters learn to paint by copying other painters; children learn to speak by imitation. In the newspaper world especially your words aren’t your words; they belong to the people who pay you. Nothing of what I wrote in my years as a newspaperman is my own to republish or resell as I wish. As a copy editor at the Montreal Star, one of my jobs (very much like the ancient editors of the Bible) was to cut up texts from various wire service reports and glue (this was before computers—it was real glue) them back together, synthesizing multiple reports and sources (at the top of the story, we’d acknowledge that the story was put together from AP, UPI and the Washington Post, for example, but without attributing specific parts of the text). By some measures this was plagiarism, except it wasn’t. Actually, the whole plagiarism debate masks a much more blood-curdling issue: does anyone these days have an original thought and what does one look like? I don’t think anything I have just written is remotely original — I’ve wasted a good deal of my life reading and then forgetting who wrote what — except for the bit about my job at the Montreal Star. The twist in the argument at the end, the sting in the tail, is mine; except that its form is a rhetorical flourish I learned from someone else (I forget who but maybe it was Ortega y Gasset who first gave me the idea of arguing by inversion).

At NC we’ve noted some recent aesthetic manifestos and imbroglios in the ongoing whatever-it-is.

More on the Plagiarism v. Literature debate

David Shields’ semester title

Further Signs of the Apocalypse

To add to the joyful confusion, herewith a quotation and a link to Jonathan Lethem’s fine piece of plagiarism (elevated here to a literary genre) “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Thanks to Frank Tempone for his Tweet that brought me to this text.


Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked. Technology has only multiplied the possibilities; musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion. In Seventies Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry deconstructed recorded music, using astonishingly primitive pre-digital hardware, creating what they called “versions.” The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London. Today an endless, gloriously impure, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of music.

via The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, By Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s Magazine).

Sep 182012

Here is another text in a series of posts on how to read like a writer. This time it’s a work of fiction, Elizabeth Tallent’s very short story “No One’s A Mystery.” You should read the annotations in conjunction with my essay on short story structure in Attack of the Copula Spiders, also Gwen Mullins’ essay on plot structure published here on Numéro Cinq. For more on the contemporary use of  classical rhetorical devices see my essay on Mark Anthony Jarman in Attack of the Copula Spiders. Repetition and parallel construction are dealt with helpfully in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay “Plot Construction and Style” in his book Theory of Prose.

This is the second annotated text I’ve published here. I am including them in the NC collection we call The Numéro Cinq Book of Literary Craft & Technique.

Annoyingly enough, I find that this pdf doesn’t “play” on all pdf viewers. It was written on an elegant pdf viewer called PDF-XChange Viewer which is free and can be downloaded here: http://pdf-xchange-viewer.en.softonic.com/ If you have trouble seeing the comments, and have the patience, please download and install the viewer.


Tallent – No One’s A Mystery w comments

Sep 052012

I was going through the NC archives and discovered a very early blog reference to a now defunct file sharing site I used to keep for my students. I was referring everyone to a copy of Ted Kooser’s brilliant essay “Small Rooms in Time” which I had marked up in my usual colourful and ebullient manner.

I am uploading the pdf of that essay with my commentary as an example for readers, also as a homage to a wonderful writer. The markup is a bit informal and I am not sure how it will reproduce on a variety of pdf readers. Have fun.


Kooser – Small Rooms of Time w comments