We learn how to build better stories

An interview with author Benjamin Hale

Mud Season Review co-fiction editor, Natasha Mieszkowski,  and editor-in-chief, Lauren Bender, recently talked with Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and a featured author in MSR’s print issue Vol. 3. Here’s what Ben had to say about his work, his craft, and his advice on writing.

Author Benjamin Hale will read at the Mud Season Review launch party on April 21, 2017.


To hear Ben read from his work: Join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >


Your piece [featured in Mud Season ReviewTower of Silence is an excerpt from your next novel. What inspired you to write this work? What do you hope readers take away from it?

I was teaching a class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last spring, and at some point I mentioned a story about the legacy of Kafka’s archives. When he was dying of tuberculosis, Kafka gave all his unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters and so on to his friend Max Brod, and told him to burn them all after his death. He didn’t—instead, Max Brod published a lot of them (which is why we have most of the Kafka we do), and held on to the rest, which he then left to his secretary and maybe mistress, Esther Hoffe, when he died decades later in Israel. And when she died in 2007, she left them to her two daughters. The fate of the Kafka papers is still undecided—the National Library of Israel is suing the sisters to obtain them. One of the students in the class remarked on how much she hated romantic anecdotes about famous male writers giving their papers to mistresses with solemn commands to destroy them. That comment sparked the idea for this story. The other ideas floating around in there have to do with our bad habit of romanticizing the lives and suicides of great artists who were bad or badly dysfunctional people; legacy; fame; and why anyone bothers to make art in the first place.

 

You spend a lot of time in this section developing the background of the two central characters. How much time did you take to plan these characters and their histories out? Have you mentally mapped out their future as well, or do you let the story shape itself? 

I always do a lot of planning and groundwork before beginning to write the sentences of a story.  I try not to start laying down the bricks and mortar before the architect has drawn up pretty thorough blueprints for the house. I always try to start a story with a nine-part outline: I detail the action that needs to happen or the information that needs to be revealed in each leg of the story before moving on to the next. This story takes place over the course of several months, and I know what happens to each of the characters during that time. I have no idea what they might do after the story is over.

The two main characters have not met by the end of this section. Yet you’ve established enough tension surrounding them to make the reader want to know what will develop between them, and what will happen to the boxes. Could you describe your thoughts on constructing a story with such a gentle build-up of tension while maintaining a reader’s interest?

Besides thinking about the story of the Kafka archives, the other source of inspiration for this novel was Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas. A year or so ago I was reading all of Kleist’s novels and stories—an interest that was brought on by Kafka—but I was particularly astounded by Michael Kohlhaas. It’s about a very stubborn, principled horse trader in sixteenth-century Saxony who gets screwed out of a couple of horses by a bored aristocrat; in seeking remuneration for this relatively petty injustice, events compound upon events, and the situation spirals rapidly out of control as Michael Kohlhaas stumbles into leading a violent peasant rebellion. The novella is narrated in a cold, distant style, hovering a mile above the characters’ heads. A dry, businesslike voice moves the story quickly from one action to the next. That’s the way I want this story to unfold. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it yet—it’s a work in progress.

Since this work is currently in progress, how do you feel publishing this excerpt will impact the story? Do you ever have any hesitation or anxiety about releasing a piece of your story for the public before it’s completed? 

Maybe I should feel some hesitation about publishing part of it before it’s done, but I don’t.

With such a compelling beginning that leaves so many questions unanswered, I’m sure our readers will be anxious to know when they can expect to read the rest of it. Do you have a timeline in place yet?

All that is undecided so far. I don’t want to say anything specific, for fear of jinxing it. 

Do you have any other writing projects in the works? How far out do you plan in advance?

I have quite a few novels and stories lying around in states of semi-completion, waiting to be returned to. I hope eventually to get back to all of them, but that is all dependent on a million things, most of all the fluctuations in my teaching schedule.

Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?

Step one: Planning/research. I read a lot of books about the subject I’m working on, and when I’m ready, I map out the plot. Mapping the plot usually takes at least a few weeks, and I expect to go back to my outline and fiddle around with things many times over the process of writing.

Step two: Write the first draft by hand. I always write the first draft of anything by hand in notebooks first. I try to work as quickly as I can at this stage, hopefully during the chunks of time when I’m not interrupted by teaching—during the summer, or the winter break between semesters, in January. I don’t let myself start typing it up until I’ve finished a draft of the whole thing by hand.

Step three: Type up the second draft. I prop up my notebooks on a music stand next to my desk, and type the second draft into my computer. This process takes months and months and months.  In typing the second draft, I work much more slowly, reworking the sentences as I type, taking things out and putting things in. This stage of the process is better suited to the school year, when my writing time is much more stop-and-go than those long, unbroken stretches in the summer.

Step four: Hand-edit the manuscript. I print out the manuscript, and carefully go over every sentence, again taking things out and putting things in, playing around with word choice, grammar, messing around with the sentences. This, for me, is the most fun part of writing—paying extremely close attention to every word, experimenting with language, trying to make every sentence as beautiful and interesting as it can be.

Step five: Type up the hand-edits. I put the typed and edited manuscript back on the music stand next to my desk, and make all the changes to the manuscript. This is a very slow and careful process, as I’m hoping this one will be something like a final draft.

Step six: Repeat steps four and five until happy with the result.

What are you reading right now? 

A quick list of books I’m in the middle of reading, or that I’ve read or reread recently: Mark da Silva’s Square Wave, Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E., Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief, The Collected Poetry of Wallace Stevens, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. And then there are things that I’m rereading because I’m teaching them, or about to teach them: Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Kafka’s “The Burrow,” Jakob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.

You’ve already published two books: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and The Fat Artist and Other Stories. How has going through the publication process changed how you start to write a new novel?

In one way, it heightens anxiety about writing a new novel: I know that this one will probably be published—I’m not working desperately in the dark, as I was with my first novel. But it lessens another kind of anxiety, which comes from the terrifying questions that haunt a writer who hasn’t yet published a book while working on a book: Am I wasting my time? Will anyone ever read this? You might never get back the hunger you had when you wrote while you were starving.

The subject of writing, and other writers, seems to wiggle its way into your works. Why is that? Is this a way of examining your own processes and place within the literary world?

Whether directly or not, all literature is commentary on other literature. Some works of literature choose to ignore this. Others address it head-on. Borges, for example, or Roberto Bolaño, assume that if the reader is the sort of person who is interested in reading a Borges story or a Bolaño novel, it’s probably a safe bet that such a reader would be interested in the lives and works of writers, critics, and poets. Some books seem to be set in worlds in which writers, readers, and books do not exist. That’s not my world, or any world I would want to live in.

What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

The single most useful tool anyone has ever given me to go about the process of trying to write fiction was a trick William Melvin Kelley taught me about sixteen years ago. Willy Kelley died at the age of 79 just recently (on February 1, 2017), and I will continue imparting his system for outlining to my students until I die, or quit teaching. Here it is:

  • Write your story in three sentences: beginning, middle, and end.
  • Take those sentences and break them into nine sentences:
  1. The beginning of the beginning.
  2. The middle of the beginning.
  3. The end of the beginning.
  1. The beginning of the middle.
  2. The middle of the middle.
  3. The end of the middle.
  1. The beginning of the end.
  2. The middle of the end.
  3. The end of the end.

You now have an outline. Take this, and start writing. This system builds a three-act structure into a story, and helps you think about a plot architecturally.

You are a senior editor of the literary journal Conjunctions. What do you enjoy most about this role? How has it influenced your own writing?

A few years ago, I co-edited an issue of Conjunctions with Bradford Morrow (the magazine’s founder and longtime editor), but aside from that project, the title is basically an honorary one. I have a direct line to Brad open though, if I ever want to send him something or if I want to pass someone else’s piece along to him. I’m a proud member of the Conjunctions family.

Has writing been a part of your life since childhood? What is the first story you remember writing? 

The first pieces of fiction I remember finishing were a couple of stories that I adapted from Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I was a freshman in college. They were sex-revenge jokes set in monasteries, which I re-set in a boys’ boarding school. They were the puerile and gleefully nihilistic products of an eighteen-year-old boy, and I bet I’d be mortified to reread them now. And yes, writing has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been a fully conscious human.

What writers have been important to your development as a writer? 

Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Günter Grass, Italo Calvino, Miguel de Cervantes, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Patricia Highsmith…to name a few. There are many others.

Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?

I don’t have a particular experience that leaps to mind, but I do have something to say about the writing workshop in general, which is a fashionable thing to malign. The subject of what to call our writing classes here at Bard comes up from time to time—some people dislike the word “workshop” and want to do away with it. My colleague here, Ann Lauterbach, hates the word. I on the other hand rather like it. I like the humbleness of the word. It makes me think of shop class in high school: we would all be nailing and sawing on our birdhouses, while Mr. Arnold walked around the room, offering woodworking tips, practical advice about measuring, cutting, gluing, sanding. That’s pretty much the way I see my role as a teacher. I asked Ann why she hates the word “workshop” so much, and she said she doesn’t like the way it implies we’re “fixing” something. I don’t think of it so much as “fixing,” but as building—in this class, we learn how to build better stories. And in the process, we will have a more general conversation about what literature could be and should be, which is always the more important thing.

 More about Ben

Benjamin Hale is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011) and the collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2016). He has received the Bard Fiction Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Award, and nominations for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. His writing (both fiction and nonfiction) has appeared, among other places, in ConjunctionsHarper’s Magazine, the Paris Review, the New York Times, the Washington PostDissent, and the LA Review of Books Quarterly, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. He is a senior editor of Conjunctions, teaches at Bard College, and lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.

More about Mud Season Review Vol. 3

Mud Season Review Vol. 3 is the third in our annual MSR print issue series. This volume features fiction by Benjamin Hale, nonfiction by Jericho Parms and J. Drew Lanham, poetry by Chen Chen, and additional work by many other talented writers and artists. MSR Vol. 3 will be available for purchase soon at MudSeasonReview.com.

To hear Ben and others read selections from MSR Vol. 3: Join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >

 

 

“A collision between grace and brutality”—Natasha Mieszkowski on capturing childhood in fiction

Natasha Mieszkowski, Burlington Writers Workshop author

Natasha Mieszkowski, author of “Bug,” one of four short stories in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

Our fiction editor, Elizabeth Gaucher, recently had this exchange with Natasha Mieszkowski, author of the short story, “Bug.” “Bug” is one of four stories featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology. Natasha lives in Northern New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College, and currently is co-editor of fiction for Mud Season ReviewHere’s what Natasha had to say about developing the child character, Bug, and how she uses scenes to advance her story.

Bug is the name of the child protagonist and point of view character in your story. He leapt out at me immediately as an exceptional character, truly unique and compelling. How did you come to create Bug? Did you have any particular inspiration for him?

Bug grew out of a scene I had in my head of a child interacting with a weird cat. Then I was driving home on a winter night and the car ride scene joined with that scene. He’s not based on anyone I know, he’s more a compilation of strange childhood impulses I still remember. I did, however, know the cat [featured in “Bug”]. He never blinked.

You sustain a very tight, intimate world in this story. There are few characters and only two settings we “see,” a car and an apartment. By implication there are other settings, but everything takes place in one car and one small apartment. Did you know when you set out to write this story you would keep it this close, or did the narrative just tell you what it needed? How did you decide to keep things mostly on a car seat, a couch, a kitchen chair?

I try to think of things from a child’s perspective. The whole world is huge, but what is right in front of you means everything. When everything is too overwhelming, you need to break it down into smaller segments.

It helps to compartmentalize it, to isolate and really explore all of Bug’s small moments. What might seem minor and significant to an adult can seem huge to children, can occupy their entire world. The details that are so worn out for us are new to them, vibrant and unexplored. So you don’t necessarily need an expansive territory when writing from a child’s perspective. A car seat can be an entire universe.

There is an unseen character in this story, Bug’s father. Yet he is profoundly influential and ever-present. How did you go about creating this character, one who in some ways drives all the action and yet never appears or speaks?

Silence and absence can really help you punctuate a story. By writing around a gap you end up revealing so much about it, and the present characters, just through how they behave, react, and remember. It’s the elephant in the room, and it carries a lot of weight.

There is always an ‘outside’ affecting our decisions and our lives. The father character is both an ‘outside’ and an internal presence for Bug. For me, this story has always pivoted around the bar of soap, a tangible representation of a person Bug both misses and fears.

As the literary community knows, Harper Lee passed away this year. Her general readership adores To Kill a Mockingbird for its social justice messages and heroic father figure. Most writers, though, admire this work for its consistent narration by a child. It’s incredibly difficult for an adult writer to establish and maintain a child’s point of view. How did you go about structuring this story and keeping everything in Bug’s POV? Were there special challenges in your early drafts?

The challenges always revolve around vocabulary, and characters’ awareness. Would Bug be able to understand the meaning of the phone ringing? Am I using the right words to communicate his experience to the reader? It’s about striking a balance between a raw world of unarticulated emotion and adult reality.

It’s kind of like puppy-proofing a home. You just get down there on the floor and see things from their eyes. The scale of everything becomes different. A puff of dust is a mountain. It’s challenging but incredibly refreshing.

What special value do you see in the child narrator/POV?

Children have a unique way of seeing things. In a sense they have a great amount of freedom in how they express themselves. At the same time, they lack the vocabulary and social knowledge to respond in the way adults might. They are subject to all of the emotions and circumstances that adults are exposed to, yet have a limited set of skills in terms of how they can react.

I feel this gives a pure lens into human experience. Childhood can have a raw, unfiltered take on things, which can drive a story toward the most primitive and pivotal emotions.

Childhood, for me, has always been a collision between grace and brutality. We lived near woods and a river when I was growing up, and I remember once our family dog came home carrying what I thought was a stick. It was a deer’s leg.

It is this juxtaposition between innocence and a pragmatic knowledge I am reaching for.

You are very good at writing scenes. “Bug” hums along with some amazingly well-wrought scenes, and it’s clear that you are skilled at avoiding expository writing. Has that always been the case? Is it natural for you to write in scenes or is it something you have developed over time? Any tips for other writers?

When I start a story it usually begins with one image. This is why I struggle with plot. I have an image and the story takes off from there. I am attracted to very small moments, and want to see what I can extract from awkward intimacies. Writing is awkward and painful. I tend to keep things condensed into scenes because that is what makes sense to me. Interactions between people are often just microscopic happenings, that don’t seem important at the moment but ultimately mean everything.

So I guess I just stack the scenes on top of each other like building blocks, and try to tie them together to make a sound structure.

Own what you feel, and visualize it. The world you write should be the world you live in, for the moment. Let everything else around you disappear.

How did you come to write fiction? Do you mostly write short stories? What do you like about fiction writing?

I actually never thought I could write fiction. I used to write poetry when I was a kid, but was eventually pulled away by art forms that were a bit more social in nature. Then one day a theater friend boasted he was the better writer, and something clicked inside. I took a class at a local university just to prove him wrong. The instructor took me aside one day and told me I should go to grad school.

I write short stories partly because they are the underdog of literature, and I have a contrary nature. Everybody says you have to write a novel in order to get anywhere and that may be the case. But I’m not willing to let go of the short story. It’s an art form that deserves its own significant place and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the pressure to publish ‘the novel.’

How has your engagement with the Burlington Writers Workshop influenced your development as a writer?

The Burlington Writers Workshop has been invaluable to me. I didn’t know anybody or anything when I moved to this area, and this group gave me a platform to express myself, and a community I could be a part of. The workshops are so helpful, and are always aimed at helping a writer to achieve his or her goal. Frankly, if I hadn’t discovered this group, I might not still be writing. It’s a warm, encouraging group of people who just want to see everybody grow and learn in their progress as writers.

The final scene of “Bug” is intense. I’ve heard people call it things like terrifying, powerful, and unforgettable. I admire it for its layered complexity. You leave the reader with a lot of possible interpretations and debates. Without giving too much away, how did you develop that scene?

I wanted there to be a climax that concerned Bug, from his point of view, while bringing in the unseen, hovering presence of the father. I wanted it to be Bug’s scene. He is the one who has to launch himself out of this hurt. But because of his young age he isn’t fully able to comprehend what is happening, the significance of the events, or even his own actions. He’s operating on raw emotion and reaching for something he doesn’t even understand.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a short story about an empty box of wine. And how to get rid of it.

To hear Natasha and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshopseries. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >