Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS



Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.

I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.

David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?

Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.

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Structure: What Writers Can Learn from Visual Artists

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Image courtesy of Julian Partridge

Of all the rules that artists follow, this one is paramount: never ever fill in details before the structure is done.

Painters sometimes spend hours sketching before ever touching the canvas. And when they finally do, they build their work slowly, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing in the composition before tightening it up. And once the structure is securely in place, it takes vigilance to ensure it isn’t weakened or lost. Have you ever wondered what an artist is doing when she steps back from her easel and squints? She’s blurring out the details to see beyond them and take stock of the form underneath.

For years, I earned a living by this rule, sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters. Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Nuetron, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson—hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio.

Each figure began with a block of clay. I’d work the shape from all angles, adding and subtracting to it, leaving tool marks everywhere. With every change I’d step back. I’d look at it from above, below, and every angle in between. I often used an old art school trick and looked at it upside down in the mirror, all in an effort to look through the clay and see the structure of the figure underneath.Continue Reading

What is Your Writing Routine?


What is your writing routine? What does it look like when you sit to write? Any special rituals?

I am so glad you asked. It’s really pretty great. I sit at my computer, and I check Facebook for, like, ten minutes. Okay, haha, twenty minutes. And then I write. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I do research. Once, I bribed myself with M&Ms to get through my edits.

Julia Alvarez keeps a bowl of water on her desk when she writes. Can you tell us about your own writing routine?

Yeah, huh. I’ve been getting this question a lot. I mean, I just… I sit there. And I write. I don’t even listen to music. I mean… Wait, don’t look sad. I’m sorry. Listen, you don’t actually believe that about the water, do you? Next to her computer? Come on! Sorry, wait, I’ll try again. I, um, I’m there at my desk. And I have—wait, this is interesting! I have some postcards on my desk! Of places I like!

Hemingway wrote standing up and claimed to be done by noon and drunk by three. How about your writing routine?

I understand that you want a window into my brain, I get that, or maybe you want some special trick, like something I do before I start writing every day, and if you do that thing too, all your problems will be solved. As if I know what I’m doing. I just… I don’t know what to tell you. A movie of me writing would look like a person sitting at a desk and writing. It’s like, What’s your email routine? You just sit there and answer email, right? Listen, I don’t mean to be cranky, because I’m flattered that you care. I just feel like I’m disappointing you.Continue Reading

Origin Stories: Fiction by Prompt

Ethan Canin + Amy Hempel

How do great authors begin their fiction? With a line or a character, a memory or a mission? This year, as Ploughshares’s unofficial origin-story archivist, I’ll investigate.

Because I’m a teacher, I started by looking for stories that grew out of writing assignments. Here’s what I found.

1. Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”

Amy Hempel’s most anthologized short story came from the first assignment in a fiction class taught by Gordon Lish. Hempel recounts the experience in a Paris Review interview:

The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough…I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”

“Cemetery” is full of manic joke-making; the pathos waits in the wings. In light of Hempel’s interview, the comedy seems less an artifact of the narrator’s need to distract her friend than an artifact of her need to distract herself. Hempel is the patient: her self-regard is dying.

2 & 3. Ethan Canin’s “Accountant” and “Emperor of the Air”

If Gordon Lish isn’t around to pummel you into genius, take heart: you can be your own teacher. Ethan Canin favors this approach, as he explains in The Atlantic:

I’ve always set assignments for myself. The assignment for the story “Emperor of the Air,” for example, was to write a story in which an unlikable character becomes likable by the end. For “Accountant,” it was to write a story in which a pair of socks takes on large emotional importance.

The assignment for “Emperor of the Air” reminds me of Vince Gilligan’s pitch for Breaking Bad: “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Turn a Mr. Chips into Scarface might itself be a good story prompt.

“Accountant,” about the world’s most upstanding criminal, is one of my favorite stories, and the freighted sock is a perfect emblem of the narrator’s simultaneous silliness and pathos.Continue Reading

What Happens When We Read: The Mind’s Eye and How it Works


Reading is a cognitive experience and written language can elicit in the brain an array of sensory perceptions. A description of an apple pie once made me put the book down so I could bask in its warm smell. But what the brain does most readily is see. It’s the mind’s “eye” that engages when we read.

There is a synergy between the mind and the eye, and writers would do well to examine it. Making the reader see may be the fiction writer’s most powerful tool because we are hardwired to respond emotionally to images and emotional response is arguably the most critical component of great storytelling.

For example, if I were to ask you in conversation, is it better to kill one person in order to save five people, chances are you’d say yes. It makes logical sense. But what if you read or heard this? An old woman stands next to you waiting for a bus. She’s wearing a faded yellow dress, a dress more in keeping with what a child might wear. There are holes in the toes of her faded white tennis shoes. Her pink ankle socks are turned down. Wisps of her thinning hair catch the waning sunlight as she stoops looking at the ground. Would you push this woman in front an oncoming bus and kill her if it meant saving five strangers on the other side of town? The answer may be less clear. With the mind’s eye, we can now see her, and seeing her unlocks our ability to feel for her.Continue Reading

Majestic Endings


majestic endings

As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have to smooth out the road between, say, pages 75 and 300, maybe even rewrite them completely. But that final scene was divine. Tears would probably fall to my keyboard as I wrote it, and readers, in turn, would weep.

Instead, when I reached my perfect ending it was dead. After a period of mourning, I pulled out my trusted writing books and flipped to the sections on endings.

I began with Robert McKee’s Story, a book about the principles of screenwriting, which is to say it’s about plot. It’s peppered with references to Aristotle’s Poetics, including Aristotle’s requirement that an ending be both “inevitable and unexpected.” McKee’s prescriptions can be reductive but his confidence is overwhelming. If nothing else, I figured his advice on the matter of endings would be clear.

“If…as the protagonist takes the climactic action, we once more pry apart the gap between expectation and result, if we can split probability from necessity just one more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will treasure for a lifetime. For a climax built around a Turning Point is the most satisfying of all.”

I want to give my novel a majestic ending, and so I read this passage over and over. It was kind of vague, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what I’d expected from McKee at all. (Do you see what I did there?)Continue Reading

Tension mounting


We spend our lives avoiding conflict, and then we reach academia. On the playground we’re told to make peace, but in the classroom we’re praised for our thesis statement that makes an “argument,” that introduces “tension,” that “complicates” a previous notion. Conflict becomes, all of a sudden, the engine of every good story. During discussion, one comment jars a thought, which can clash with another and spark a third, ad infinitum. The young student may find something violent about ideating. Make nice, children—that is, until you begin to write.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Tension lives in the fabric of the sentence itself.Continue Reading

Writing the Mind: Nicole Krauss, W.G. Sebald, & Paul Harding

10 krauss sebald harding

How does one apply the adage show don’t tell to the interior of the mind—a vast expanse one inhabits daily, but never sees? While Pixar’s Inside Out turns the subconscious into a playful and sometimes dark adventure, literature must rely on language—pacing, syntax, and form matching function.

In the early pages of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House, Nadia mentions to an unnamed character that when her significant other moved out, she was left with little. A friend suggests she call a Chilean man who was searching for a place to store his furniture while he traveled back to Chile. Krauss writes:

“It took a minute for him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of a friend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get rid of it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair.”

Rather than being told that Nadia is nervous, or having Nadia state, I was nervous, Krauss utilizes pacing and language to convey anxiety. Similarly, the word “loopy” mirrors the looping, spiraling structure of the sentence, and heightens the repetition of words and phrases, such as “a minute,” and “a friend of a friend.” The three questions embedded in the sentence, one after another, rapid-fire, suggest the firing of synapses in an uncomfortable exchange—when one’s mind and mouth are trying to sync up, make sense, or be understood. Not only are there three questions, but three mentions of “a minute,” conveying how quickly this all happened, but how long and drawn out the exchange seemed to feel. Likewise, Krauss pairs three verbs—apologizing, hanging up, and carrying on—and three nouns—mattress, plastic utensils, chair—to create a winding, well-rounded sentence.

The form matches the function; the structure of the sentence conveys the rushed and uneasy nature of the phone call, without explicitly stating what was said between them, or the tone of voice, or the external details or gestures that were made in those quick moments. We are wholly embedded in this character’s mind. We are intimately woven into their internal landscape, at once cerebral and emotional.Continue Reading

Lying as survival: the literary pep talk


Has a young child ever asked you to watch him run? Are you ready? he asks, and then the same intense eyes that one tries to remember a dream with. Then his arms start pumping at a speed that must seem lightning-fast to his own mind but really looks more like an impersonation of slowness—it’s objectively unimpressive, even your leisurely walk would overtake him, his legs simply lack the length. He runs in uneven circles and when he returns to you, his little lungs straining, what do you do? It doesn’t take a behaviorist to know that you, we, must “O” our mouths in shock. We must “Wow!” and enlarge him and protect him from the world while we still can.

Of course, we don’t apotheosize an adult’s work that aims to soar but barely gets off the ground. We’re old enough to take the truth. As adults, we should hold each other’s work to high standards, and our own work to the highest of all. As writers, we shouldn’t settle for a single pale line. But before the poem is written, I say, we should lie to ourselves, the way we lied to that winded child.Continue Reading

Letter to myself: On fatherhood and poems


A published letter is a strange act. It’s like a whisper made into a loudspeaker. It’s a secret note the town’s tacked onto the city hall bulletin board after the carrier pigeon nosedived into the public square. It’s intimacy externalized. Some letters seem to speak to no one at all, but the best letters, though they’re addressed to another, make us each feel touched: think of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Or Kazim Ali’s to Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Or, right here on the blog, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s lovely one to her daughters urging them not to “be good.” You overheard it. You’re pilfering the epistolary form now. A self-addressed published letter is strangest of all, but you and I could use a speaking-to.

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