Recent Interviews and Notes on “Animal”

November 4, 2016

Book Notes – Laurie Stone “My Life as an Animal” LARGEHEARTED BOY

My Life as an Animal
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Laurie Stone’s collection of linked short stories My Life as an Animal is sharply funny and deeply humane.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“With an expert eye, Stone finds valuable insights in the mundane bits and pieces of everyday life and generously shares them with her readers.”
In her own words, here is Laurie Stone’s Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection My Life as an Animal:

The other day on Facebook someone posted a link to an a cappella version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” On the phone I said to Richard, “People sing that song as a hymn and make it sound pious and solemn, but it’s about sex.” I was in upstate New York, walking on a country road with rickety reception. Richard was in Arizona, where it had cooled down to 100 degrees. We had to keep saying, “Can you hear me?” like whales on opposite sides of a large sea.

Richard looked up the lyrics to “Hallelujah.” I said, “Can you sing it to me?” He said, “I don’t know the melody well enough.” I said, “I like your voice.” It was deep for a man so slight, like the voice of Aaron Paul. All the time I was watching Breaking Bad, I thought about Aaron Paul’s gravelly baritone fondly calling people “bitches.” Richard recited the lyrics, and when he got to the lines, “She tied you to her kitchen chair/And she broke your throne and she cut your hair/And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah,” I said, “He’s coming, that’s the hallelujah.” Richard said, “I think it’s about violence, too. All the David references.” I said, “There is violence in sex.” I wanted the song to be only about sex. I didn’t know much about Leonard Cohen’s music, but I thought he was a sexy man, even now that he was old, because he gave himself away. It turned women on to see desire and abandon like that in a man.

I knew if I mentioned Bob Dylan in comparison to Leonard Cohen, Richard and I would have a fight, but I could not resist. It was a Dylan thing to do, not give a fuck. (I did give a fuck and do not have the stomach for my impulses.) I don’t know how this happened, but for the past ten years Richard and I have been fighting the gender wars on the body of Bob Dylan. I remember when I was young and everyone thought Dylan was God because of his music, his looks, and his snarling attitude. I saw this beauty, too, but what eclipsed Dylan’s gifts was the thought: This guy uses women to comment on men. Women are instrumental. He doesn’t consider them as separate human beings, with their own desires and interests, both the women he sneers at in say, “You’ve got a lot of nerve . . . “, and the women he reveres for supplying “shelter from the storm.”

As a matter of fact I had just listened to “Shelter from the Storm” as the credits for a TV show rolled along, and as I heard them I remembered when I had said to a man, “Come in from the storm.” I had wanted to see the man naked. I had wanted to get my hands on his skin. I liked Dylan’s jaunty tune and the crunchy authority of his voice, but I thought: The guy in the song thinks the woman is selfless, and he likes thinking she is selfless. (I should add that I am a person who is always seeking shelter from storms. Friends and strangers let me in. It may be my homeless dog aspect, circling until the door opens.)

Richard has read many books about Dylan, all written by men. Has a woman ever written a book about Dylan? What would she say? When I say to Richard, “Only penis people write about Dylan,” he says, “I hate that term.” I say, “I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a man, but I know there are people with penises.” I think in these moments I remind Richard we are not always on the same team. For example, even if he notices women are instrumental to men in Dylan’s songs, it may not go into him the way it goes into me. And if he cares less than I care, it shows we have different sets of experiences, observations, and understandings of cause and effect in the world. Well, you say: You both know this, so why inscribe it every time you hear, “Like a Rolling Stone” or reflect on the award to Dylan of the Nobel Prize in literature? You might ask: Why do you want to taint Richard’s enjoyment of an artist who gives him pleasure, peace, and excitement? Why do you have to remind him all the time you think Dylan is not an artist women and men can equally enjoy? And I would say: It’s my job.

If I had not met Richard at an artist colony, I would not have found myself, for a couple of years, arguing with him in the Arizona desert and producing the material for My Life as an Animal. For the first year I did not know where I lived because of love. I was sixty. I had a thing about being sixty. I got over it. If I had not lived in Arizona, I would not have missed New York like a fever. Like a malarial fever and returned to my apartment, where now, as a consequence of a new condo, a playground and a basketball court reside below my windows. I sleep with noise cancelling headphones and during the day stream classical music on my iPhone. If I am awake and not speaking to someone, I am listening to classical music. Right now Yo-Yo Ma is playing a Bach cello concerto. A little while ago I heard Mozart’s Requiem. Before returning to my apartment, I did not think I could write while listening to music. When has anything you thought about the future turned out right?

In the course of most days I listen to Glenn Gould playing The Goldberg Variations and The Well Tempered Clavier. Some days more than once. Is listen the right word? I dissolve into the music, and the music bends me to its shape. I don’t know it’s happening, as with any addiction. Addictions have given me my life. I hear Gould softly humming behind the joyous rhythm tinged with melancholy of Bach’s English Suite No. 4 in F. Is Bach always a little melancholy, or is that me? Sound is freedom. Next Maria Pires plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor. My fingers fly. Happiness produces language. Even the language of argument.

One summer I stayed at the Edward Albee barn, an artist colony in Montauk. I was there during the month of July, when, in Arizona, the temperatures average 120 degrees and baby desert squirrels turn to crisps in their holes. The barn accommodated five artists, and during my stay we banded together in shared shock. To say the barn was dirty, to say the bedding was gray and mildewed, the plates chipped, the upstairs area thick with a Miss Havisham coating of dust does not do justice to the sadistic glory of Albee’s mousetrap. There we were scratching about while he lounged nearby in a pristine villa. The pod went swimming and ate clams together. We were a mismatched crew made kind by our prickly surroundings, and one night—the night I remember with pure pleasure—we went to a dive bar and danced. Then we sang karaoke, and I sang all the verses of Dylan’s “Tangled up in Blue,” even though I cannot carry a tune, and as the lyrics scrolled along, I thought, Wow, this is a really great song.
Laurie Stone and My Life as an Animal links:

the author’s website
excerpt from the book

Literary Rejections on Display interview with the author
Read To Write Stories interview with the author



My Life As An Animal, Stories

by Laurie Stone
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Laurie Stone writes about My Life as an Animal from Triquarterly Books.

The first story in My Life as an Animal is called, “Yard Sale,” and you could look at the book as a yard sale you browse in, turning over lived-in artifacts. I did not write the stories with the idea of building a book. After a while, though, when a consistent narrator emerged as well as linked stories about falling in love and leaving New York, I began to shift the puzzle pieces into a structure. Each story earned its place by either making something strange feel ordinary or by making something ordinary feel strange.

To research a story, I go outside. I, like our primate ancestor Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago, spend much of my time walking and looking for something to happen. I picture Lucy on a savanna, a stick in her paw, her eyes alert for a means of escape. She looks like my mother. She would, wouldn’t she?

In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s partner is a Brit named Richard, and he is a museologist based in Arizona. He thinks about the kinds of institutions museums are. He is interested in spaces that have been interpreted, whether wildlife trails with marked lookouts or sites of conscience, their former uses now defunct, such as a concentration camp. Richard is interested in how meaning rises off collections of things.

I, too, have a partner named Richard who is a museologist based in Arizona, and he has made me aware of what I collect. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I want to say something about the difference between the narrator of the stories and me. I have created her. Me, I have less control over. She is more generous, more loving, more curious, less judgmental, funnier and probably sexier than I am because she needs to seduce the reader to the next sentence.

In building stories, I work at the level of the sentence. The first sentence is a provocation setting in motion the next sentence, and so on. I layer the narrator’s reaction to an earlier moment with what the narrator makes of it now—at the time of the telling—whether the lookback is five minutes ago or twenty years in the past. I see actual memory as the enemy of story, in that we remember what consoles and arouses us, and the reader doesn’t care about the author’s need to re-experience a feeling.

One winter on Broadway, on the coldest day of the year, I said, “Hello,” to a homeless man swaddled in a dirt-caked blanket in front of the Victoria’s Secret on 84^th^ Street. He looked up under a mop of dark curls and said, “Another place, another time.” I met a Russian woman who said, “I love the smell of men in war.” I said, “What do they smell like?” I could see the swell of her breasts above the opening of her blouse. She said, “Like the perfume Shalimar, very concentrated.” A friend said, “Why do you work as a servant?” She was referring to the catering jobs I took. She was past middle age and slowly cutting a piece of smoked salmon. She put down her fork and said, “You need a hundred seconals to die. It takes forty minutes. My father’s Alzheimer’s came on when he was seventy-two. You have to find the right moment after knowing what’s coming and before you can no longer act.” She picked up her fork and said, “Why do you serve?” I said, “It makes me forget who I am.” I think of human remains as indistinguishable from other kinds of objects, but when I think about my father’s ashes and my mother’s ashes, I find it difficult to breathe. A lawyer gave me a silver dish that had belonged to her mother and said, “Don’t sell it.” I polished the silver and placed a begonia plant inside it. The leaves were edged with tiny teeth. It was a cutting from a plant she’d been given by the family of a man she’d failed to deliver from death row. Storm clouds over the desert are extra black, making up for the fact it seldom rains.

Why these incidents among so many others? I am looking for moments that change direction. I like to dramatize contradictions that cannot be resolved. Human beings desire to be in two places at the same time: the present and the past; home and anywhere but home. The narrator of Animal is vulnerable, limited, and often comic. Comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence. I don’t believe in transcendence.

The other day I was weary, and it was hot. My sister had had a toxic reaction to several prescribed drugs, and we had spent six hours in an emergency room in New Jersey. She was nauseous and had not eaten for three days. She held my hand and said, “Help me die if it comes to that.” I knew she would recover and said, “I’m not going kill you and go to jail.” She said, “It’s legal in Vermont. Promise you’ll drive me.” She was given fluids and began to feel better, and I returned to Manhattan to attend the birthday party of a friend. He lived in a neighborhood forgotten by public transportation, and I walked miles from the subway, my computer on my back. After midnight I retraced the route to the Essex and Delancey Street subway. My ballet slippers were in shreds. The platform of the F train was the dive bar at the end of the universe, every planet and dirtball piece of space debris drifting around. It was 110 degrees, at least, and everyone was glistening, and I thought about people in boxcars because boxcars come to mind when the air is that close. I walked a little, just to move, and my sister came into my thoughts, and I felt like a fly in glue, and then suddenly I heard music and was changed. A band was playing a raucous mix of doowop and indie rock. The singer was a guy in a dress with tiny lights in his wig. He played guitar and sang in a falsetto that bent notes into velvetty Billie Holiday blues. The drummer wore a hat ringed with colored crayons and stared out with an impassive squint. They were called Pinc Louds, and they had set up in a sauna, and it made no sense. Everyone had arrived through the same slog, and now everyone looked beautiful. They looked like fashion models, swaying and jumping. There is always a girl who dances by herself as if she’s stoned and at Woodstock while her date looks on stiff and mortified. Our girl was wearing a sheer blue blouse, and her eyes were half-closed, and I remembered when I was that girl. I felt my outline dissolve, and the day drew into itself, dense and small enough to hold in my palm. The city was the illness, and the city was the cure, and it has given me, little by little, My Life as an Animal.


An Interview with Laurie Stone On READ TO WRITE STORIES by Michael Noll

Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press. October 2016), the novel Starting with Serge (Doubleday), and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.
Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, “has an intelligence rare in contemporary American fiction,” according to Jeffrey Renard Allen.
Laurie Stone is the author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, the novel Starting with Serge, and the essay collection Laughing in the Dark. She is editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. A longtime writer for the Village Voice (1974-1999), she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air.

To read an exercise on using backstory to create drama in the present based on My Life as an Animal, click here.

In this interview, Stone discusses her approach to truth and fiction in “stories,” jump cuts, and why talk of therapeutic writing sends her to the bar.

Michael Noll

My Life as an Animal is subtitled stories, and I’m curious about that. The narrator has your name, and Richard and Andre Glaz (two of the most important characters in these stories) both appear in “Tangled,” an essay you published in Joyland, (I found that essay because, in the book, you tell the reader to google André Glaz, and so I did!) So, I’m assuming that the book, which is fiction, is based in large part on your own life. I’m not interested so much in what is true and what has been invented. Instead, I’m curious about the decision to fictionalize. It’s one that I think a lot of essayists and memoirists face. What made you decide to write these as stories instead of essays? What was your approach?

Laurie Stone

I am delighted you read the piece in Joyland. First, I’d like to speak about the way I view literary genres in relationship to my work. Pretty much everything I write these days is a story. The pieces in this book and elsewhere are dramatic narratives. I would say this of much of my criticism as well, such as a long appreciation I wrote about Spalding Gray published in American Theatre. The piece is a monologue about Gray, a story. It’s not about me, and yet it reflects the elements in Gray’s work and life that quickened my thoughts. That is what I am interested in communicating. What I find sexy, scary, surprising, strangely ordinary or ordinarily strange. My work incorporates elements of fiction (scenes, dialogue, the build-up of dramatic revelations, etc.), memoir (some of the stuff described happened in some form or other), criticism (my narrators enjoy thinking about art and politics), and nonfiction (some of the reporting is journalistically verifiable).

I do not consciously “fictionalize” events. In literature, I am not especially interested in things that happened because they happened. I am interested in whatever I find dramatic. It might be the relationship I had with André Glaz, a psychoanalyst I saw in treatment who, during my teenage years, took me into his bed. Or it might be driving in Scottsdale’s soul-crushing heat to buy a $5 Ikea rug from a woman about to return to Kolkata. The term “essay” does not apply to my work generally. I don’t seek to convey meaning or understandings. I hope I am staging little provocations for the reader to react to anyway the reader wishes.

I do not believe circumstances are intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Narrators create interest by their passionate investment in the story they are telling. They do this by layering in two time frames. Something happens, the narrator reports a response at the time it happened, and the narrator also looks back and weighs in on the incident now—at the time of the telling—whether the look back is five minutes later or 20 years later. The reader attaches to a story the reader can enter as if the story is about the reader. The less the narrator asks for something from the reader, i.e. feel my feelings, share my understandings, love my friends, hate my enemies, sentence my parents or siblings or lover to death, etc., the more room readers have to feel their own emotions.

The stories are constructed through language, not memory. I write at the level of the sentence. I sit there, looking at the doors and windows a sentence has opened for the sentence that can follow, and so on. I do not write with a plan. I do not know where a story is going ahead of time. There is no prewriting. It all happens in the moment of looking at the words. To get back to your interest in André, I return to him over and over because he stirs contradictions that can’t be resolved. Those are the stories I want to read and write.

Michael Noll

You play with chronology quite a bit. The first story takes place after many of the stories that follow it. In “Leaving Gardner,” the chronology is continually scrambled, with the narrator describing Gardner’s death and them jumping to a time before it and then after it. What was your sense for when to use straight chronology and when some other element made it less important?

Laurie Stone

I start with a dramatic moment and look at it from as many perspectives as I can. I do not know of a story worth its salt that proceeds chronologically. We think associatively. If I am listening to a person tell a story, and they start with getting up and listing what they had for breakfast before getting on the bus where they found themselves next to a lost child who could not speak, I move away for a drink long before learning there was a diamond clasped in the child’s grimy paw.

Michael Noll

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
On a similar note, one of the things I love about your stories is your ability to jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic with incredible speed and while maintaining a clear sense of direction. I was particularly struck by a passage in “Toby Dead” that jumped from Nebraska City to Gertrude Stein and William James and then to the narrator’s family. How many of these asides and jumps were trimmed or cut from the manuscript? What’s your measure for how far you can stray or jump from the main thread of a story?

Laurie Stone

I am glad you commented on the jump cuts in the texts. I use a number of techniques shared with film and visual art, among them montage, fades, collage, bricollage, etc. The sections you refer to are not “asides.” For there to be “asides,” there would need to be a central intention. Nothing was cut or edited out because it was extraneous. I cut when a sentence is repetitious, obvious, or clichéd. If you feel there is a dramatic build-up in the stories, and I hope you do, it comes from adding complexity or switching from direction A (melancholy in separateness) to direction B (ecstasy in solitude). I hope connections for the reader will jump across the border between one thing placed beside another thing . . . the way we understand what is happening from montage in film . . . a shot of a cat in an open door, the next shot of a mouse behind the leg of a chair. I wonder what you felt reading the example you gave. Having put those bits together experimentally, I can offer this reading now: the narrator of “Toby Dead,” who is caring for a mother she does not actively love, expresses her ease with abjection in two anecdotes of disappointment and entrapment. The juxtapositions are also funny, I hope. As often as possible, I am looking to find comedy in weird, cruel, and sad moments.

Michael Noll

The story “André” is about a difficult, awful subject: the narrator’s sexual assault by the psychoanalyst André Glaz. The trauma is clear in how the piece is written. For example, the narrator tries to describe the way that Glaz has stayed with her for years and says, “He formed me. Not really.” Then she tries out a few other descriptions that don’t quite seem to capture what she feels. And yet I was also struck by how sympathetic your portrayal of Glaz was. For example, you write that the narrator read two articles Glaz had written and was “surprised by their sensitivity.” What was your approach to the character of Glaz? It would be easy and justified in portraying him as a monster, but he comes off as something more complex. Was that difficult to achieve?

Laurie Stone

There would be no story unless André was complex, and I think readers would lose interest in a one-dimensional character. He must have had something compelling in his personality to seduce so many people, albeit naïve and striving ones. It is not emotionally difficult for me to write complexity into a character. If trauma gives you a subject over and over, let’s raise a glass to trauma. When people speak of writing as cathartic or therapeutic, I am off to the bar for another drink. Mel Brooks says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and I’ll go with that. When I’m working, I think, “Okay, if there are no heroes and no victims . . . what does that leave?” I have to be on guard against flashing and showing off—asking the reader to look at me and like me. For me the hard thing to re-experience over and over is Gardner’s death. That section is clinical and listy, and yet for me the most wrenching. The rest of this book, honestly, is a bunch of sentences.

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.



How a Character’s Past Can Inform the Present Action

Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, is about a woman constantly seduced by strangers, language, and the streets in the downtown scene of New York City in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Here is one way to think about conflict: A character has a desire (like, say, wanting to eat a really good sandwich), but something stands in the way of satisfying that desire (there are no good sandwiches, only Subway). The story becomes about that character’s effort to overcome the obstacle in order to obtain the desired thing (the quest for the sandwich). There is nothing wrong with this structure, clearly, since it’s the basis of any number of famous stories and novels. That said, it has a simplicity that can feel false. In real life, we often act in ways that takes us away from the thing we desire. Or, we have conflicting desires. When this is the case in a story, a different structure is needed than the “Quest for the Sandwich” narrative.

A great example of this type of internal conflict can be found in Laurie Stone’s new book, My Life as an Animal, new from Northwestern University Press. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Story Works

The book is a collection of stories, the term that Stone uses to describe her fictions that often use material from her life. (Read about that definition in the interview on Thursday.) One of the stories in the book, André, revolves around the sexual assault that the main character suffered, when she was 14, at the hands of her psychoanalyst, a man named André. Her reaction to the traumatic event was a kind of dissociation:

Have you ever left your body? People talk about this happening during trauma. Maybe it is a throwback to our chimpy past, when the endangered primate searched for a tree to climb into at the sound of pounding hooves. I looked down at a girl in a blue cardigan with her arms by her sides.

Many years later, she tells the story of this assault at a dinner party, and a man at the party has this reaction:

The man had been quiet until André was mentioned. He had intense eyes and an enigmatic smile. His belly was round, his hair thinning, his arms and legs untoned, despite his work as a landscape gardener. We were drinking margaritas and eating chips. Sailboats raced outside the windows, and I looked around my friend’s peaceful loft with its large, abstract paintings, couches by a window, a coffee table made from an old, green door. I was on a stool and once or twice rubbed my shoulder. The man said, “Can I give you a massage? I have studied massage.” I said, “Okay.” My mother used to say, “Nothing is free.” I did not want her to be right. The man stood too close as he worked on my neck. Softly, he said, “Does it feel good?” I said, “Yes.” He kept working. I closed my eyes. I didn’t like him. His hands were soothing. He was silent for a while and then he said, “Can I kiss your shoulder. These shoulders don’t know they are loved.” I did not want the kiss. I thought he was ugly. I said, “Okay,” and I felt his lips, cool and quick, on my skin.

That night in bed Richard said, “Why did you let him kiss you?” I said, “It felt easier than saying no.’

There is a lot to be learned here about men’s behavior and consent, of course, but the scene also reveals something important about craft: A character’s behavior becomes a lot more interesting and suspenseful if must choose between competing desires. In this case, she wants to be left alone but also wants to avoid a confrontation. The result is that the scene becomes less predictable. There are several different ways it could have gone. The narrator could have slapped the man or told him to get his hands off of her, and it would have made sense. She could have begun crying or stormed out of the room. In short, the narrator’s actions depend on which desire she chooses to act on (to be left alone or to avoid confrontation).

Because the choice between those desires is so difficult, the story becomes about the choice itself (and the stress involved in making it) rather than the action that follows. The narrator alludes to that stress shortly after this scene ends when she says, in one of the best lines of the book, “Suffering does not ennoble people. Suffering mostly crushes people.” The description that leads up to this statement is alone worth the price of the book. And, it’s possible because of the way Stone creates the narrator’s internal conflict.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create competing desires within a character, using “André” from My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone as a model:

Give your character a critical event. In My Life as an Animal, Stone uses the abuse by the psychoanalyst. It’s an event that hangs over the narrator for the rest of her life, coloring the way she understands herself and others. Because the narrator is so complex and well drawn, this critical event doesn’t entirely explain her character, and that is important. Characters who can be distilled to a single event too completely risk becoming flat and unrealistic. So, the event shouldn’t define your character, but it should be an inextricable part of your character. For your own character, consider what memory he or she returns to, loves, or dreads. What past event keeps the character up at night or gets told to others again and again?
Jump forward in time to a similar situation. The situation can be exactly the same or vaguely similar; in My Life as an Animal, the narrator is receiving unwanted attention from a man, and the kind of attention is similar but of a different degree. But the situation can also be similar only from the character’s perspective. In real life, we tend to use our own critical events as yardsticks for much of what happens around us. So, the critical event and present situation may seem totally different to one character but similar to another. The point is that the present situation makes your character feel the same—or in a similar way—as she did in the critical event.
Give the character a desire related to that situation. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s desire is pretty simple: to be left alone, not harassed. The desire can also be small. For example, some people avoid certain foods (oranges, chives, etc) because they once had a negative experience with them (getting sick). As a result, they live their lives with the ongoing desire to avoid those foods. The desire can also be a positive one. If someone had a good experience in the past, he or she might actively seek out similar experiences.
Give the character an expected way to act on that desire. You’re simply following the logic of the desire. If a character wants to avoid oranges, she’ll behave in predictable ways: avoiding certain aisles in the grocery store or never eating breakfast in a restaurant. How does your character usually act on his or her desire?
Create another desire that, if acted upon, has the opposite effect of the previous action. In My Life as an Animal, the narrator also wants to avoid confrontation with the man who is bothering her. She’s at a party and doesn’t want to make a scene. As a result, she allows the man to give her a massage and kiss her even though it runs contrary to her deep desire to be left alone. To a certain degree, she’s also bombarded with mixed feelings about the man. He’s ugly and creepy, but her shoulders do hurt and his “hands were soothing.” So, place your character in a particular place and time with particular people. What else is going on in that moment? What else does the character want (to avoid making a scene, to relax her shoulders)? These desires don’t need to be inherently contrary to the first desire you created, but the actions that result from them should work against that first desire.
Let the character choose. Generally speaking, drama requires release. A scene builds and builds, and readers wonder what will happen. So, what will your character choose?
The goal is to create a scene by exploring the ways that a past event creates desires that can or cannot be acted upon in the present.

Good luck.

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This is a Facebook post about being censored by WKCR FM, Columbia University’s radio station. There are a number of important contributions in this discussion of free speech, free expression, and the narrowing of minds on university campuses.

Flash Fiction Frontier Interview with Laurie Stone, about her new book My Life as an Animal, Stories

Flash Frontier: This is a collection of interlinking stories. The chapters revisit themes, characters, and locations. Did you set out to write such a collection, or did the idea occur to you when you discovered your stories were overlapping?

Laurie Stone: I don’t write individual stories with the idea of building a book, and yet a book has to be something different from a bunch of pieces arranged next to each other. Once I had a critical mass of writing connected to leaving and returning to New York and to falling in love, I began to move the stories around like puzzle pieces until a structure emerged. Each piece earned its place by either making something strange feel ordinary or by making something ordinary seem strange. Really, I do not think the order matters as much as the consistency of the narrative voice. I like to imagine a novel as a bowl you smash against a wall. The shards are these stories.

FF: The stories reflect different kinds of ‘dislocation’. Tell us more about that. Why is dislocation compelling for a writer? Is it compelling for you as a woman?

LS: The narrator of the stories, like the author who wrote them, lacks a sense of home in physical locations. She likes being a guest, a visitor, while looking for the next bed (preferably in a hotel room). The streets of New York City come closest to being a home, but more often “home” is people she loves. I do not know if dislocation is compelling as a subject for writers, but I think arrivals and departures provide plot elements. That and bond-and-betrayal. I don’t know too many plots. I am happy when I can seize on any.

FF: Humour runs through the stories. When for example the narrator goes to the hospital to see her mother for what will be the last time, she writes, “When I enter the room I see a pile of sticks. She screams, ‘Get away’. Her voice is so loud the woman in the next bed pleads with me to stop her. ‘How’? I say, ‘I’m open to suggestions’.” What is the role of humour in your writing?

LS: I work with Mel Brooks’ definitions of comedy. He says, “Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.” He says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I like to dramatize contradictions that cannot be resolved. Human beings desire to be in two places at the same time: here and somewhere familiar we have never seen before. I am on guard against writing stories that portray a hero and stories that portray a victim or a victim-hero – the most common form of the memoir. These are stories, in essence, that flatter the narrator. My narrators need to be vulnerable and limited. Comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence. I do not believe in transcendence. I am pretty sure a story has shaken loose the human’s needs to look good and show off when the story generates laughter.

FF: Tell us about your title. Did you come up with it before you’d written the stories?

LS: I mostly use one-word titles for my stories, and the titles are descriptive, i.e. ‘Catch’, ‘Dog’, ‘Happiness’. I do not want to suggest meaning for the reader. The job of the writer is not to organize meaning. That is the job of the reader. The job of the writer is to seduce the reader into thinking the story is about the reader. In other words I try not to tell the reader what to make of anything on the page. I only want to keep them reading. The title “My Life as an Animal” seemed descriptive of the narrator of these stories, a person who feels herself an animal riven by a brain that allows her to think about “not here” and “not now”—the tenets of language and of symbolic thinking.

FF: You recently had a story published at Blue Five Notebook. There’s sparseness in that story that we’ve seen frequently in your writing. You even go so far as to write in that flash about what was not said (reflecting the oft-quoted truth about flash, that the essence is often in what is not there). How does writing flash fiction differ, for you, to writing a set of stories like these?

LS: The process of writing longer pieces does not differ much from writing very short pieces because I work at the level of the sentence in everything. I work as the end of the pen or the finger tips on a keyboard, meaning a strong, sexy sentence conveying ambivalence or beauty leads to the sentence that follows it. For me there is no pre-writing. There is no outlining. I work with layering. Something happens in a sentence. The narrator tells the reader about the narrator’s reaction in the moment of that event, and the narrator also tells the reader about how the narrator feels now, looking back, from the vantage point of time passed. There are always two time frames at work: the immediate reaction (the present) and the reaction that has probably changed in looking back. The look back could be 5 minutes later or 25 years later. It does not matter. The story is not really about what happened. It is about what the narrator makes of what happened, that quality of thought and speculation and memory and joyous discover and make it up, sentence by sentence. Sometimes you get the job done in a few sentences. Sometimes you need thousands of words to exploit the possibilities your sentences have stirred up. It’s all invented in the moment, and it is all fiction in that the world you have produced is entirely composed of language.


Text and Image work with Leslie Tapsak

Building Low Res. jpeg
When building up and tearing down are simultaneous activities.
Zipper fish Low Res

Do you remember the first time you asked a stranger for direction as if you were connected in a former life?

Russia Low Res jpeg

I was in Russia, where I didn’t understand the language or culture. It was like having sex with a stranger, and I felt at ease.

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