Namesake: On christening your fictional characters

What’s in a name? If it’s your own — the moniker your parents bestowed before they ever got to know you – it’s either a blessing or a curse. Or you’ve changed it, legally or at least by reputation, to something more suitable. If it’s the title of a project, then a name becomes a brand, a calling card, and an introduction. In the case of band names, they often deserve more thought than they ultimately get — I’m looking at you, Hoobastank and Diarrhea Planet.

1953yearbook_1_largeBut what I’m thinking about, in this case, are the names of characters in works of fiction. In tenth grade, inspired by my parents’ hippy friends, I named a character in a short story Omega. My English teacher wrote, in red pen, “Do you even know what this word means?” When my first novel was published, one reviewer — who was overall kind and enthusiastic — wrote, “I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.” So names matter. They set the tone for the character and they also serve as a litmus test for the believability and authenticity of a story.

As writers (unlike parents) we know the people we’re tasked with naming, so we need to try our best to do right by them. I say this as someone who sometimes gets it wrong. But I’m not alone. I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and while I like it, I find the name of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, rather pretentious. Plus, it makes me think of Andrew McCarthy’s Blane from Pretty In Pink, of whom Jon Cryer’s Duckie said, “That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” And what about Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, also by Fitzgerald? Not to pick on F. Scott — even lovely Nick Hornby is prone to soap-opera names for fictional musicians, e.g. Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked. Continue reading

Q+A with horror writer Grady Hendrix

This story was originally published at mountainx.com.

Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstör (set in a haunted IKEA-type big-box store), returns with the 1980s-themed My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Of a recent author event he said, “I’m going to be talking about the Satanic Panic in the ’80s when everyone thought heavy metal music and backwards masking were sending kids straight to hell, Dungeons and Dragons was a doorway to evil, and Saturday morning cartoons were indoctrinating children into the occult.”

9781594748622The book — part humor and part horror — borrows a big from Hendrix’s own high school experience (as he explains below, in a Q&A with Xpress). Hendrix is also the author of Occupy Space and Satan Loves You, the co-author of the YA series The Magnolia League and the graphic cookbook Dirt Candy, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival, and a contributor to Slate, Village Voice and Variety, among others.

Alli Marshall: I suspect most people think their high school experience was, at least in part, a horror story. What was the idea for you that initially led to My Best Friend’s Exorcism?

Grady Hendrix: The title popped into my head first. Then I figured best friendships were most intense in high school, and my high school experience was in 1988, so that’s when it would be set. Then I wrote a first draft and showed it to my wife because I was feeling pretty studly … and she told me it was a dumpster fire of secondhand ideas and stolen characters. And she was right. I was just recycling John Hughes movies and other people’s ideas about high school. So I sat down with all my letters and diaries from high school (and all her letters and diaries from high school) and read them for about three weeks. And somewhere in there, I had a genuine, authentic memory about what it felt like to be in high school in the ’80s, then another, and then another, and then I was off and writing.

I love the high school yearbook design of My Best Friend’s Exorcism — are those photos from your yearbook by any chance?
My author photo is my senior portrait and I thought that was horrifying enough. The rest are from the staff at [boutique publisher Quirk Books], so there’s a heavy New Jersey/Philadelphia vibe to them. One thing I’d like to point out is that even though I wrote all the yearbook inscriptions on the inside covers, our designer, Tim O’Donnell, farmed out the actual handwriting of them to about 32 different teenaged girls, like a yearbook-signing sweatshop. Continue reading

Anton DiSclafani on historical fiction

“The thing about writing historic fiction is it’s easy to see the character’s flaws,” says Anton DiSclafani, author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party. “It give you automatic tension. The reader understands what the characters don’t: that their world is coming to an end.”

Story originally published at mountainx.com.

Anton-and-CoverAnton DiSclafani, the New York Times best-selling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, sets all of her books in the past. Her debut novel took place in 1920s Appalachia; her work-in-progress is set in 1940s Alabama, and The After Party, her just-published follow-up to Yonahlossee, gives readers a window into Houston in the 1950s. But “I’m a big believer in not letting the research get in the way of writing,” says DiSclafani. “I’m not somebody who wants to spends days and days in the library.”

The After Party was inspired by the River Oaks community, a wealthy neighborhood in Houston. Both sets of the author’s grandparents are from that city, and when she’d visit as a child, DiSclafani loved to drive past the sprawling homes of River Oaks. While many of those grand domiciles are now being demolished to make way for larger, newer houses (“Houston is all about the future,” the writer says), The After Party’s narrator, Cece Buchanan, can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Continue reading

Interview with Matthew Quick

“When you write about mental health, you want to start conversations [that are] helpful in the community,” Matthew Quick says. “But where does your responsibility as a writer end?” Known for Silver Linings Playbook, among other novels, Quick has recently published a new YA book, Every Exquisite Thing.

This story was originally published at mountainx.com.

Author PhotoThere’s a hint of The Catcher in the Rye to Matthew Quick’s new YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing. Main character Nanette is a star soccer player, but when she reads The Bubblegum Reaper, she finds she has a lot in common with that novel’s anti-hero. In a Holden Caulfield move, Nanette develops an aversion to doing what’s expected and in interest in what Wrigley calls “quitting.”

But the story wasn’t inspired by J.D. Salinger’s 1951 work. Instead, the idea came from Quick’s own experiences as an author. While known for Silver Linings Playbook, which became a film starring Bradley Cooper, it was Quick’s previous YA novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, that struck a chord with readers. In that 2013 book, a teenager plans to shoot the high school bully before ending his own life. “I get really intense fan mail from teens who connect with Leonard [and] feel like he represents things that they think,” says Quick. “They read symbolism into it and want me to confirm that their view is right.” While Quick is flattered by his readers’ investment, he’s also conflicted.

Continue reading

Indie 500 flash fiction contest!

In case you hadn’t heard, Mountain Xpress has brought back its Indie 500 flash fiction contest. Submissions are open through Tuesday, May 31. For details and to enter a 500 word story, click here or scroll down.

HOUSE FP FictionContest

All writers are invited to submit a Western North Carolina-set story of up to 500 words. Prizes include $50 plus publication for 1st place and publication plus bragging rights for two runners up.

The final judges are Katey Schultz and Jake Bible. Continue reading

Short story award!

I’m so delighted to share that my short story, “Catching Out,” won the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. The final judge was Ron Rash — I actually entered the contest (and agonized over my story) in hopes that it would make it far enough along in the contest to be read by him. For that reason, this award means so much to me.

I’m also excited to share this story. It’s about a college registrar who fantasizes about riding the rails and was inspired, in part, by a woman I saw at the gym. It will be published in The Thomas Wolfe Review in late autumn.

Read the press release from the North Carolina Writers’ Network here.

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Photo by Michael Ranta from Vice

Wayne Caldwell and Robert Morgan: Writing and Appalachia

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Robert Morgan, lower left, and Wayne Caldwell, upper right.

During an event sponsored by the Western North Carolina Historical Association, authors Wayne Caldwell (Cataloochee and Requiem By Fire) and Robert Morgan (Gap Creek and Boone: A Biography)read from recent work (Morgan’s latest novel, Chasing the North Star will be published on April 5, by Algonquin Books), discussed Appalachia as setting and inspiration, and talked about their own writing processes.

On being from Western North Carolina:

Robert Morgan: It was the example of Thomas Wolfe. If he could grow up in Asheville and write Look Homeward Angel, maybe I could write something.

I grew up with one foot in the 19th Century. Remember, the people coming here [now], whether Hispanic or retirees, they all have stories, too.

Wayne Caldwell: When I published my first short story, someone asked me if I considered myself as Appalachian writer. I’d never even thought about it.

On perceptions of Appalachia in literature

Caldwell: Traditional Appalachian people have been centered on the bible for centuries.

Morgan: [But} I’d never heard of snake-handling in Appalachian churches until I read about it in novels.

Caldwell: [Contemporary Appalachian literature] focuses on drugs, crime and violence. There’s a darkness that’s come over the view of Appalachia. It bothers me that that’s what New York [publishers] want to buy.

Morgan: There’s a connection, I think, between the resurgence of Appalachian writing and the disappearance of Appalachian culture.

On publishing

Caldwell: It’s not self-publishing that’s the problem, it’s self-promotion.

Morgan: Publishers and editors are caught in a rapidly changing business. I realize my writing is old-fashioned. … I’m lucky to get published. The answer to how to get published is any way you can. There’s no rule, you just have to try everything.

The hardest thing to publish is short stories because every other person in the Unites States is writing short stories.

On process

Morgan: When I work in fiction, I begin with the voice because it’s voice-driven

Caldwell: I try tho write every day, and I try to do it at the same time [of day]. I like to write for a couple of hours in the afternoon. If I have the energy in the evening, I like to dedicate an hour to cleaning up what I’ve [written] that day.

Morgan: The most important advice I can give is to have a schedule that allows you to write every day. I’m lazy — I never work more than a couple of hours a day. But if you can give two hours or an hour and a half, it adds up.

Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen on writing

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Meeting Joshilyn Jackson at Malaprop’s

New life goal(s): Write an incredible novel. Make a superstar friend who is also a fantastic novelist. Go on tour together so we can mostly hangout, share stories, crack jokes and be mindblowingly awesome — in a very down-to-earth and relatable way.

This isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s a performance model. On Saturday, Feb. 20, contemporary authors/critique partners Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen discussed the writing process, business, their newest novels and their friendship in a delightful event at Malaprop’s.

Joshilyn and Sara met on an online writers forum before either were successful authors. (For what it’s worth, they revealed that both sent their first published manuscripts to more than 130 agents each before securing representation.) With Karen Abbott, they formed a critique group that provides support, brainstorming, beta reading, and writing retreats. But as professional (and ingenious) as that sounds, Joshilyn and Sara have this enviable best-friend known-eachother-forever camaraderie in person.

On writing style

Sara: I’m a Northerner in attitude.
Joshilyn: I call her Canada. She calls me passive-aggressive.
Sara: But Paula, the main character [in Joshilyn’s new novel, The Opposite of Everyone] is very Northern, and Maddie [in Sara’s most recent book, At the Water’s Edge] is very —
Joshilyn: — passive aggressive.

On archetypes

Paula, a feisty divorce lawyer, was a minor character in Joshilyn’s previous novel, Someone Else’s Love Story. “I’d try to write a Paula chapter, and it would go on and on,” she says. “I realized she’d have to have a book of her own.” Paula’s backstory, which unfolds organically in the opening chapters of The Opposite of Everyone, includes an unconventional childhood during which her hippie mother frequently moved them and changed their names, while also raising Paula (then known as Kali) on Hindu mythology.

Joshilyn: I sink in a lot of Christ figures. … I feel like if you’re leaning into a mythology, you’re going to be telling story that will resonate because it’s bigger than itself.
Sara: I’m fascinated with oral tradition and folklore. … The oldest written account of the Loch Ness Monster [who plays a major role in At the Water’s Edge] is more than 600 years old.

On outlining

Sara: For my first couple of books I was dumb enough to outline until I realized once the characters come alive, they throw the outline out the window and set it on fire.
Joshilyn: You want them to. The good books live in the dark and salty reaches of your mental illness. Your characters want to go there.

On their critique group

Joshilyn: You want to keep at least one member of the group to read your whole manuscript [with fresh eyes] before it goes to your agent.
Sara: I probably don’t send anything out until I’ve gotten a third [written].
Joshilyn: One of the nicest things we’ve done over the years is go on retreats. On the first night you set a lofty goal, and as soon as your goal is met, you can play with the other writers.
Sara: Then we have fancy dinners and read to each other what we’ve written that day.
Joshilyn: None of us ever wants to write anything you can set down. Our goal is for none of you [readers] to get any sleep for the rest of your lives.