Recently I was reading the prose section of an online literary magazine’s fall issue when I could not overcome a nagging sense that something was lacking. The stories themselves were well-written; the style was cohesive with the magazine’s tone; the narratives were engaging. Yet it somehow felt incomplete. As I scrolled through the stories again, it finally hit me–dialogue. None of the stories contained a stitch of dialogue. Certainly there were references to it and summaries of conversations. Actual dialogue, however, was nowhere to be seen.
When I was a junior in high school, we read The Great Gatsby in English class. I hadn’t read the book yet, but I knew the rest of my family hated it. (They’re Hemingway fans.) “Ugh, that Daisy,” my mom said. “Who cares?” Obviously a lot of readers care about Daisy and Gatsby, but many readers also place a priority on likeability.
On popular review sites, reviewers refer to everyone from Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley to Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester to the cast of A Visit from the Goon Squad as unlikeable. Part of this is a personal taste issue, but it also deals with what kind of people we want to surround ourselves with. A novel that’s over three-hundred pages long is a fair time commitment—it can be grating to spend that much time with a character you wouldn’t want to interact with on a daily basis. Likeability is about ease and comfort and a kind of emotional bond.
I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.
We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.
She sipped her wine. “What is it?”
“Well.” He shoved the tangle of spaghetti in his mouth and chewed.
She fiddled with her spoon.
Suddenly, the waitress appeared. She had a grease stain on her apron. Her nametag read Renee. She symbolized harsh reality. “Can I get you somethin’ more, hon?”
He smiled and shook his head. He returned to his spaghetti. The waitress walked off, probably thinking about her ex-husband.
“What is it?” she asked him, tearing off a hunk of bread.
“I think,” he said, stirring his spaghetti in its blood-red sauce, “that we should stop perfunctorily setting fictional scenes in restaurants.”
CJ Hauser’s evocative debut novel The From-Aways will take you deep inside small-town New England, a budding friendship, and troubled family ties. It’s a whip-smart and heartfelt book. It also shares some common ground with the fan-favorite television series Gilmore Girls, and below CJ and I discuss the show, as well as her novel, the nuances of small town life, and the myth of belonging.
Q. Both The From-Aways and Gilmore Girls explore the breadth of female relationships. How did you decide to place Leah and Quinn’s new friendship at the heart of the novel?
A. The true story? I started writing the book with just Leah. Then, in a sulky fit, I threw it out because it wasn’t good enough. I started the book over, with Quinn. In a sulky fit I threw that out because it wasn’t good enough either. Then I poured myself a whiskey even though it was four in the afternoon and I sulked some more. When my best friend and roommate came home from work she retrieved both chapters from the trashcan and read them. Do you realize, she said, that you should write about both of these women? I think they would be friends.
And she was right. I realized that neither of the women could tell this whole story on her own. Each needed to push the other into making different, difficult decisions. They made each other better because they were these two different halves of a pair, and I like to think that made the book better, too.
Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, has gone 84 days without a catch.
His apprentice, Manolin, still likes him, but his parents have made him go work with a more successful fisherman.
So on day 85 of his Bad Luck Streak, Santiago sails his skiff out alone, beyond the usual shallows.
Fans of the Ploughshares “Writers and Their Pets” series have probably noticed the majority of those blogs are about writers and their dogs. In my view this is because dogs are the best writing companions. For one thing, they never ask, “What’re you working on? or “Aren’t you done yet?” or “Why don’t you just write books like [insert any best-selling author name here]?” Cats may not ask these questions out loud, but their faces say it all. Makes you wonder how on earth Hemingway managed. More importantly, however, dogs are also terrific writing teachers. Below I’ll illustrate why, with the help of one of my current canine companions, Sadie.
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
I’ll eat that.
Was anyone else feeling a little emotional after doing last session’s Sliding Doors exercise? Sheesh. While there’s definitely something freeing about exorcizing regrets and shoulda-woulda-couldas from your own life experience, it also can also stir up a heck of a lot of emotions surrounding those times you wish things had gone differently.
We were in our green Ford Aerostar, my high-school self trying to engage my parents in a serious discussion, when my brother began quoting, softly at first, lines from my diary. The kinds of lines you write for yourself, lines that are embarrassing and incriminating when recited out loud by an obnoxious sibling.
You want to know what those lines were, don’t you? Well, that’s the power of the diary.
I stumbled into the Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes 1911-1947 by accident. I’d been hunting for an appropriate 100-year-old read for the month of October, something slightly spooky, and I landed on her collection, Stories in Love and in Terror. Her diaries were shelved right beside it, and I picked them up as an afterthought.
The stories, it turns out, were the perfect smash-up of Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Even with a century on Lowndes’ slightly twisted love stories, I still had that cold heartbeat that comes from the macabre—or advancing macabre—into a character’s life.
And after finishing the stories, I wanted to know more about her. Who was this woman who sent her characters off to die in sunken submarines or had them wrestle out how to love a madman?
It’s been a long, tortuous path from the inception of the Fantasy Blog competition to the finals, full of upsets and surprises—but here we are, left with two teams standing after the semifinals three weeks ago which brought surprises of its own.
After a cross-country move, the commissioner was rendered connectionless in his new apartment in the Great American Midwest. As if to mock his Net-less existence, Facebook decided to cripple our voting system with no warning. Without even a hanging chad to count, we were forced to rely on an arcane calculation that involved mixing salt crystals taken from the white T-shirt Kerouac wore when writing The Scroll and mixing them with the dregs of a dusty bottle of ron añejo found in a closet at the Hemingway House, creating an obscene, literary Papa Doble daiquiri. The resulting concoction sent the commissioner into a disturbing sleep during which he learned, in a dream, that the winner was none other than What the Chuckin’ Buk?!