Hook, Line, and compelled to keep reading

post by Cheryl Russell

KnockemstiffSmall-e1305590714336Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack

Donald Ray Pollack’s short story collection Knockemstiff is a collection of linked short stories—tales that are dark and, most of the time, violent. These are people who understand they have no escape from the poverty of southern Ohio—they are people without hope and these stories reflect that hopelessness. This is a difficult book to read, but yet, it’s a book very difficult to put down once you’ve started reading.


It took me awhile to hit on a reason why this dark book stays with me and why I found myself re-reading it for this post, but the reason is Pollack’s opening sentences. His sentences at the beginnings of his stories are hooks that caught me, and the rest of his writing then reeled me in, no matter how much I wanted to put the book down.

“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive in when I was seven years old” (1) is the first sentence in the first story. Several questions come to mind: what kind of a father shows his seven year old how to hurt another man? And at a drive-in, where the only violence should be kids fighting in the backseat over the last few M&Ms. As the story progress, we find out what kind of a father this man is, and the life-altering (not in a good way) this encounter has on his son.

“Dynamite Hole” starts with “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf…” (13). While the first part of the sentence isn’t attention grabbing, the dead copperhead snake hanging around the narrator’s neck makes a reader pay attention. The rest of the story involves incest, rape, and murder–repulsing the reader while at the same time compelling the reader to finish the story.

“When the people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely” (39), or so the narrator says. Do the townspeople really mean lonely or do they really mean what ‘inbred’ implies? Lonely is one thing—kind of boring—but inbred is something else altogether. The reader is left to draw her own conclusions in “Hair’s Fate.”

Other opening lines that hook the reader:

“Nettie Russell died in the spring, and left her grandson, Todd, an old Ford Fairlane and a Maxwell House coffee jar with two thousand dollars in it, a fair sum of money in 1973” (70) opens “Schott’s Bridge.” What is Todd going to do with the money? At this point in the book, the reader can safely surmise it won’t be anything wise.

“I was staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole” (110) begins “Bactine.” The rest of the paragraph draws in the reader more firmly.

Strong opening sentences catch the reader’s attention throughout the book. Even though I found myself more than once wanting to put this book down and walk away, I kept reading, drawn in by Pollack’s strong opening sentences. What this writing has shown me is the importance of the hook, drawing your reader in from the first words, compelling her to keep reading, no matter how dark the stories may be.

Excerpt from Knockemstiff
Pollack, Donald Ray. Knockemstiff. New York: Anchor Books. 2009. Print.

Around the blogosphere-interior design and your novel

Ever thought about interior design for your novel? How important is setting, specifically interior design, to your story? I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this post at  Beyond the Margins.

To Hellion and Back

By Liat Faver

            Tobias Wolff has been lucky: Lucky he survived his mother’s succession of destructive boyfriends, to have learned from his father’s mistakes, to not have a rap sheet, and to have survived a year in the Vietnam War. In Pharaoh’s Army is a continuation of his coming of age account, This Boy’s Life. In the latter, we watch young Toby struggling to establish an identity, among the ruins left by his con-man father, and the often violent men his mother chooses as boyfriends and surrogate dads. At the end of This Boy’s Life, we realize, along with Toby, that whatever turns his life takes, his future is bleak if he stays where he is. So, he joins the army, and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next, and repeatedly, our protagonist proves he must learn the hard way.

In Pharaoh’s Army begins on the Mekong Delta, where Wolff has been sent to counsel a Vietnamese battalion. Although he is not on the front lines, his encounters with death and destruction are enough to create in him a sense of bartering against his own demise. He is aware that he is deluding himself, “but illusions kept me going and I declined to pursue any line of thought that might put them in danger” (5). Wolff’s humor is welcome in a story set primarily in the land of constant threat, compounded when our hero recognizes that the enemy is often one of his own people.

When Wolff and his friend, Sergeant Benet, steal a color television to watch a Thanksgiving episode of Bonanza, we again visit the ironies of war. Wolff and Benet are lulled and soothed in the glow of the Cartwright family gathering, and Wolff’s tired heart swells with “pride in the beauty of my own land, and the good hearts and high purposes of her people, of whom, after all, I was one” (37). Wolff’s sarcasm is not lost on the reader.

Wolff imparts fragments of the civilian life that led him to enlist, and some of what evolved upon his return from Vietnam. We are introduced to his crazed first fiancé and her family, and we get to know his father. And we see his evolution as a writer and scholar. He is forthright and humble and surprised at his ability: “Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith . . . I was saving my life with every word I wrote” (213).

Wolff ends In Pharaoh’s Army remembering and missing his friend Hugh Pierce, who was killed in Vietnam. He is now a father with a successful career and stable family life. He has overcome his father’s legacy and made peace with his demons. And he has made us see and laugh at ourselves in his failures and underdog victories. For a book whose bulk is based mostly in the muck and mire of a pointless, brutal war, it is an enthralling, easy read that leaves one feeling hopeful, and looking forward to another book from Tobias Wolff.

Wolff, Tobias. In Pharaoh’s Army. New York: Knopf. 1994. Print.



Characters and Their Professions

One difficulty I have in crafting three-dimensional characters is finding a meaningful occupation for them. I’ll often shoehorn in a detail about the protagonist being an accountant or contractor, because why not? But that’s often where the occupation ends. It never informs the characters actions or influences their thoughts. I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World to be a good example of a novel that has characters whose profession is integral to them as a whole.

In the novel the protagonist, Irina, is torn between two men. Half of the book tells the story of what happens if she chooses Ramsey while the other half looks at her life if she stays with Lawrence. Ramsey is emotional, impulsive, and passionate, and he is a professional snooker player (I was completely unfamiliar with Snooker when I began reading, but Shriver explains the sport so well through Ramsey that I was hooked). His career is uncertain, he is never guaranteed to make money, and he is never in one place for any length of time. His profession matches his personality well and it also ties into the central question of security vs. passion. He genuinely loves playing snooker, and even though the odds of making a living at it are slim, he gave it a shot and managed to do so. It is, however, worth noting that his demeanor is vastly different when he is playing snooker versus when he is with Irina.

On the other hand, Lawrence works as a fellow at a political think-tank. He works consistent hours, brings home a regular salary, and always knows where he will be working. This fits his personality because Lawrence likes to play it safe emotionally and he enjoys the security of the simple life he and Irina live. It wouldn’t make sense for him to be a rock star or a soldier; if that were the case his personality would clash with his occupation. Of course, this is always an option, but it has to serve a purpose in the fiction. In The Post-Birthday World both Lawrence and Ramsey’s professions highlight their character traits, while not being defined by their work. Not only this, but aside from helping to define who these characters are, their jobs represent another way Irina’s decision of security or passion has a profound effect on her life.

The Post-Birthday World is a good novel to study because it stands solely on the shoulders of its characters, and that is what good fiction should aspire to. The professions of the characters are not pieces of flair, tacked on for flashy effect, but rather those jobs are inseparable from who these people are. And this is the best way to meld something as prevalent as work into true fiction.

Shriver, Lionel. The Post-Birthday World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Poem in Disguise

by Gabrielle Freeman

In a lot of ways, reading poetry is like viewing art. Sometimes, you want to view a piece that stretches the limits of your understanding, that makes you think in ways that you might not be used to or comfortable with. You know, something surreal with hybridized creatures and hands sticking out of wooden bridges, or something abstract like a 36″X36″ canvas painted entirely in chrome, that sort of thing. But sometimes, you just want to view a picture of a flower. The Poem-A-Day offering for March 11 is just that.

“Life” by Joe Brainard appears on the page in paragraph form, and it begins as follows: “When I stop and think about what it’s all about I do come up with some answers, but they don’t help very much” (lines 1,2). Brainard goes on to write that life is hard, and “life is short,” and that we should fill the days we have “as best one can” (lines 5, 15). He writes that “Other people are most important,” and after that he suggests art, books, and movies (lines 15, 16). 

All of this sounds very like many of the posts that many of us scroll past on Facebook, you know what I mean. Those posts that are designed to be motivational and uplifting, but we often ignore them because, well, they are platitudes. Image

While it might be tempting to create a Joe Brainard meme, “Life” avoids platitudes and being relegated to “older posts” because of its structure and its last paragraph.

Brainard employs fragments throughout the poem. “I know that much. That life is short. And that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it. That life is short. Just because it is” (lines 5-7). The fragments, and the repetition of the same fragments, call attention to the obvious statements being made making them seem somehow less obvious. The fragments call into question the believability of the statements. Imagine the difference in tone and mood if this had been written in a complete (if long) sentence, “I know that much, that life is short, and that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it, that life is short just because it is.” This does not have the same impact. The reader feels that something else is coming, something that does not attempt to explain life in such simple terms. The last paragraph proves her right.

“Now you know that life is not so simple as I am making it sound. We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves. For what time we have left” (18-21). The fragments are continued here, and they serve to further disrupt the read. While, at first glance, the poem is in paragraph form and seems to be easily digestible, the fragments and the last stanza with the abrupt use of profanity cause the reader to feel slightly off-balance; all is not what it seems.

And so, perhaps, “Life” is not a simple picture of a flower. Perhaps it is dripping clocks disguised as a flower. And perhaps that is what makes it work.

Brainard, Joe. “Life.” The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Ed. Ron Padgett. 2012.

“Live like someone left the gate open.” Clark Griswold’s photo. Facebook.


What About an MFA?

Having trouble deciding if you should pursue and MFA or not? Here are some resouces from around the web:

Do Writers Need an MFA?” at Leslie Pietrzyk’s Work-in-Progress blog.

“To MFA or Not To MFA?” by Robin Black at Beyond The Margins

Links at the Literary Citizenship blog.

The Creative Writing MFA blog

AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs


Using Lyricism to Create Snapshots of Time

A Slant of Sun by Beth Kephart
A Slant of Sun by Beth Kephart

Using Lyricism to Create Snapshots of Time
By Yolande Clark-Jackson

 Beth Kephart’s first book, A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, is a deeply personal and moving memoir about Kephart’s journey to help her son Jeremy who has been diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, a disorder that shares some characteristics found in autistic children. Kephart details how the social and emotional challenges impact her and her family. She says, “This is a book about a little boy and his mother.  It is about a child who against all odds is learning to live in this world, to even incredibly, make it better.  It is about shame, prejudice, fear, solitude, and their natural counterparts.  About reaching out and holding on.”

Kephart relies on poetic strategies to tell her story.  There are lots of beautifully written lines of stringed metaphor and simile.  This allows her to compress time and events into images and gets her readers as close as possible to her thoughts and feelings at the time. She writes, “I sequester myself in my own concern, and the house leans into itself like an abstraction” (52).

She also uses repetitive strategies to add cadence to her prose and give snapshots of a series of events.  “I have to say that it wasn’t easy.  I have to say that the weeks seemed endless and that friendships dwindled and that what I considered youth left me.  I have to say that there were wars inside me and fists pounded into the bed at night” (149). She also described her son’s healing as being “like tidewater –the warm edge of the sea stretching in and retreating, the sound of a rolling fury never far off.”

Through a series of snapshots, the story covers the first five years after the diagnosis. They find good schools, loving teachers, and friends for her son, Jeremy.  By the end of the book she admits that she is still unable to articulate “what’s wrong” with her son. His diagnosis of PDD (Pervasive Development Disorder) remains “a cipher.” She does find ways in. She writes, “In the absence of medical understanding, a proven therapy, a crystal ball, my husband and I looked to love as the only possible solution.”

Kephart uses lyricism to tell a moving story about a growing development disorder that affects thousands of  children. Through vivid images she gives an intimate look at a mother and a son who learn to navigate a unique life together.  It is a beautiful book that can be read as a love story or a story of adversity and triumph.

Epistolary Writing: Why it Works in Fair and Tender Ladies

by Rhonda Browning White

Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies is an epistolary novel–a novel created with documents–written entirely from the viewpoint of protagonist Ivy Rowe Fox, through her consecutive letters to family and friends. The letters in the first part of the novel are written with many misspellings, as Ivy is a child around twelve years old at that point in the story. This brief period of phonetic spelling takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s certainly worth the effort. As Ivy matures and becomes better educated, so does the quality of her writing, though the entire epistolary novel remains true to the Appalachian vernacular of the early 1900s, the time in which the story is set.

The stories’ characters, as revealed through Ivy’s writing, come to life. The private nature of the epistolary novel gives the reader the sense of snooping, or eavesdropping, on the narrator’s private life, and thus one feels that intimate secretes are being revealed—important and covert things we might not otherwise learn, if we don’t continue reading. There is an underlying urgency for the reader to discover what happens next.

Though Smith chose letters as the form for her epistolary novel, diary entries or other documents may work equally well; however, the letter format allows readers to examine how Ivy speaks one way to, say, her sister, and yet another way to her teacher. We see myriad facets of her personality. Because the letters are written over many decades of Ivy’s life, we see Ivy’s emotional growth in a way that the traditional narrative form would not allow us to observe so clearly.

It is important for us as writers to always strive to improve our writing skill, and a great way to encourage growth is through the challenge of experimenting with new forms. As we consider the form of epistolary writing, let’s notice how each of Ivy’s letters follows the traditional storytelling rule of beginning, middle and end. Though the letters are brief, the narrative arc is present and intact in each, giving the reader a sense of satisfaction and of complicit understanding of Ivy’s most personal and private thoughts. We know her intimately, and because we know her, we care about her, and we are deeply invested in her story. This exciting writing form offers unequaled intimacy for reading, which is why the writing works.

Work Cited

Smith, Lee. Fair and Tender Ladies. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. Print.