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July 2, 2017

Scott Westerfeld

The Write Up

By: Rebecca McInroy

Scott Westerfeld is a bestselling author of books for both children and adults best known for his young adult series Uglies and Leviathan. While on tour with his new graphic novel Spill Zone, Westerfeld spoke with The Write Up host Owen Egerton about monsters, collaboration, teenagers and storytelling.

Westerfeld’s recent projects have embraced visual storytelling. From the stunning illustrations in the Leviathan series to the Uglies graphic novel adaptations to Spill Zone, Westerfeld says he’s learned lessons not only about writing for comics and other visual media, but about writing prose as well.

“I’ve learned that books breathe better when you vary scale or light between scenes,” he says. “And while, in a prose novel, your audience might not see the crowd or the space you’ve written around your characters, if you do it right they will feel it anyway.”

Spill Zone, is the first installment in a new series with artist Alex Puvilland. The graphic novel is set three years after a mysterious event destroys the town of Poughkeepsie and follows Addison and her little sister, Lexa. The narrative revolves around Addison’s secret: that she sneaks into the otherworldly Spill Zone to take photos to support herself and her sister. Westerfeld says he’s always been drawn to writing characters shrouded in secrecy.

“I love characters with secrets because there’s always something that can go wrong for them,” he says. “[There’s] always something churning in their head, and it allies the reader with the person with the secret because we’re in there with them. We’re keeping the secret with them.”

May 24, 2017

Dan Chaon

The Write Up

By: Rebecca McInroy

Dan Chaon is the author of three short story collections. His short fiction has received multiple awards including publication in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize stories.

Chaon’s first novel Await Your Reply was a national bestseller, and his second novel Among the Missing was a finalist for the National Book award. In his new novel, Ill Will, Chaon explores mystery, death, grief, and the personal narratives we cling to. Dan came by by KUT’s studios in Austin to talk to Owen about themes,

Dan came by by KUT’s studios in Austin to talk to Owen about themes, craft and shining a light into the dark corners of the human mind.

As Owen points out, many novels are called “haunting” but Ill Will can’t be fully described without using the word. Chaon tells the story of two crimes: the death of protagonist Dustin Tillman’s parents when he was a child and the current mysterious deaths of several college students around town. Dustin’s adopted brother Rusty was convicted of their parent’s murder, but new evidence has overturned this conviction, and Dustin must reassess his history with his brother as he also investigates the local deaths for a connection he is sure must exist. Ill Will is unsettling, unconventional, and unapologetically full of dark humor.

Talking about the genesis of this nuanced novel, Chaon recalls hearing a story about several college kids drowning in the river of a college campus and the surrounding urban legends that there must be some sort of connection between them. This idea becomes a central theme in this book: the oh-so-very-human determination to create meaning even or maybe especially in the face of tragedy. When our ideas of our story are challenged or contradicted, things can unravel quickly.

To explore these ideas Dan says he makes sure he has a touchstone to each character, and that this is especially important in a novel like Ill Will where there are so many voices and sometimes contradictions to articulate. “You hear authors say ‘the character took on a life of their own’ and it sounds silly but there’s truth to it”. Getting into the mental place to do that, he explained, is more like the imaginative play of childhood or musicians jamming together.

Dan also discusses what it was like to explore things that, while not completely biographical, had deep roots in his own life. His own experiences as a widower and as a parent to teenage boys both play a role in Ill Will. Just like with horror films, Dan and Owen discuss the power of shining a light into the dark corners of our minds and the relief and empathy that comes from imagining the worst that can happen:

“If I’m not shedding a few tears over something by the time I’m finished, I haven’t done my job”.

-by Felix Morgan

 

 

April 25, 2017

The Write Up: George Saunders

The Write Up

By: Rebecca McInroy

In this episode of The Write Up, Owen talks to George Saunders about craft, ecstatic empathy, and the afterlife in his new novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

George Saunders is an award winning and New York Times bestselling author of essays, short stories, novellas, and children’s books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, GQ, Harper’s, and McSweeny’s. His vast literary achievements include multiple National Magazine Awards, A McArthur and a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Bram Stoker Award, and a National Book Award.

In this interview during the Texas leg of his book tour, Saunders talks about his ever-present mental editor that drives him to refine his work. When referring to his recent essay on process, he talks about the connection he has to his readers.

In his constant drive to sound “less lame” he builds a faith-based relationship with his imagined readers. He promises them his best work and trusts that they will unfold themselves, tap into their empathy, and join him in his story.

The idea for this novel came some twenty years ago when he heard a story about Lincoln’s grief over losing his son. During his presidency, it was said that Lincoln would frequently venture into the graveyard and into the crypt where his son’s body was to hold him. From this anecdote he could see the outline of a story that would, eventually, become Lincoln in The Bardo.

Saunders was well known as a short story writer for some time before this new novel. When speaking about writing a longer work, he says he was at first unsure. But his skills in crafting short fiction translated into novel writing more easily than he originally imagined. Saunders described it as if he had spent years building small tents and then a large tent arrived. The material was greater and more complex but it was all based on the same principles.

In writing a larger story he found that not only that not only that he could combine several small structures to make a large one, but that there was room for new beauty and complexity in the places where the smaller pieces came together.

Saunders is well known for his essays, often going out of his way to put himself into situations with people he might not run across otherwise. He’s covered Trump rallies and once lived in a homeless encampment, which might have directly affected his most recent novel.

Saunders noticed that all the people living there had a very specific story. Always some variation on the theme of ‘I’m not supposed to be here’. Seeing how circumstance and tragedy could reduce personal narratives to a narrow monologue directly influenced the characters in his novel. The residents of the graveyard are ghosts stuck in an in-between place who tell their stories. Their voices illuminate pockets of experience and lives lived that weave around the main story.  

Saunders speaks simply and elegantly, both in this interview, and in his work. It’s impossible to not be inspired as he talks about topics ranging from ethics and spirituality to one of his characters’ supernaturally persistent erection.

Lincoln in The Bardo is Saunders’ first novel and, according to Owen, is “the best text about ethics and empathy, ever, including all religious texts and all the classics.”

-Felix Morgan