INCONVERSATION

MAKING ROOM FOR MYSTERY
PETER TURCHI with CHRISTOPHER CASTELLANI

Peter Turchi
A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic
(Trinity University Press, 2014)

Christopher Castellani
The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story
(Graywolf Press, 2016)

Christopher Castellani and Peter Turchi have a few things in common. They met at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where they both taught—and continue to teach—fiction. They both serve on that program’s Academic Board, and they’ve both served as administrators of programs for writers: Pete directed the MFA program at Warren Wilson for fifteen years and the Creative Writing program at Arizona State University for five (he’s since moved to the University of Houston); in Boston, Chris is the artistic director of GrubStreet, one of the country’s leading independent writing centers, and the director of the Muse and the Marketplace conference. They’ve both received Guggenheim Fellowships.

Christopher Castellani. Photo: Michael Joseph.
Peter Turchi. Photo: Dana Kroos.

Most relevant to this occasion, they’ve both recently written books on the craft of writing: Pete’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, recently released in paperback, is a New York Times bestseller, the Foreword ReviewsINDIEFAB Book of the Year Silver Award Winner for books on writing, and a finalist for the PEN Southwest Nonfiction Book Award; Chris’s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story is the newest volume in the acclaimed Graywolf Press The Art of series edited by Charles Baxter.

Chris is the author of three novels, each published by Algonquin Books: All This Talk of Love: A Novel, The Saint of Lost Things, and A Kiss from Maddalena. Pete is the author of a novel, a collection of stories, and an exhibition catalogue for the artist Charles Ritchie, as well as co-editor of three anthologies. His previous book on writing, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, has become a reference for writers and designers around the world.

They both have roots in Italy, and lobbied hard to conduct this interview in Sicily, over a few bottles of red wine. Brooklyn Rail’s counter-offer? The Olive Garden at Gateway Plaza. Appalled, they corresponded by email.

Turchi: The Art of Perspective is a wonderful book, full of good advice and smart close reading. It made me want to immediately read (or re-read) the books and stories you discuss. It’s also surprising. The back cover claims the book is about “every fiction writer’s most urgent issue: point of view;” in fact, you discuss something broader and possibly even more important: perspective as an element of overall “narrative strategy” (a term I will begin using tomorrow). Obviously, there’s plenty to be written about the handling of various points of view, some of which you touch on here. What led you to focus on this other, larger sense of perspective?

Castellani: Such a generous response means a great deal coming from you, Pete. Thank you. I’m sure that, like me, you’ve been in many a fiction workshop in which the consensus solution to a manuscript’s problems was simply to switch it from one point of view to another. The problem is that we hardly ever talk at great length about why the story would work better with that switch, or the more nuanced implications it would have on the entire enterprise. This makes the advice arbitrary and the eventual revision incomplete, much to the writer’s bewilderment. In most cases, the writer didn’t have a comprehensive rationale for having chosen the POV in the first place; it was not a means to an end, but to a beginning; the way he got into the story, but not a way through and out. I wanted to look at point of view as a cog in the machine of what I called the narrative strategy, not as the machine itself. I hoped this would help us all make better drafting and revision decisions.

This approach seems in line with your lens of story-making as magic, and of writers as magicians. I love your formulation that a great magic trick requires highly technical skill in order to achieve a sense of awe in the viewer, just as a great story requires craft in order to achieve a sense of wonder in the reader. I also love that you acknowledge the limits of craft, implicitly arguing that even if it were possible for a writer to master technique, that mastery would in no way guarantee him a great story. Do you worry, as I sometimes do, that so much emphasis on craft in writing programs—and, frankly, in books like ours—leaves less room for mystery and instinct?

Turchi: I don’t think there’s any chance that mystery, instinct, good fortune, and who knows what other unpredictable elements will stop being a part of writing, but I do sometimes worry that by focusing so much on what can be taught or what can be learned, we might create the impression—even start to convince ourselves—that writing a good story or novel is simply a matter of craftsmanship. (Though it sounds ridiculous to say that, because the craft is not simple.) I sometimes hear students say the most remarkable things: “Present tense is more intimate;” “First person is the most limited point of view;” and, of course, “Never tell what you can show.” With our (unintentional) help, they’ve mistaken tools for effects. I suspect that’s because clutching to a few “truths” makes the writing seem less daunting. But the daunting truth is also why we love what we do: there are no rules.

So yes, I wanted to acknowledge mystery and magic (which, as I see it, stands somewhere between the rational world of puzzles and the unknowable world of true mystery). We can’t teach mystery, but I do think we can learn to make room for it—to recognize useful ambiguity, to know when to surrender the pretense that people are rational creatures, to recognize that our work sometimes transcends our intention.

One of the first notes I received in response to A Muse and A Maze was from a professional magician, Joshua Jay, who writes about magic. He happened to be coming to Houston, and he was kind enough to sit in on our fiction workshop and talk about narrative, establishing character, and directing the audience’s attention. The entire time he was sitting at the table, he made things disappear, reappear, show up in people’s pockets, and so on; every few minutes one of the students shouted “No way!” or “Get out of here!” They never reacted quite so dramatically to anything we read in class.

A few months later, Josh was on the Penn & Teller show, where magicians try to stump the duo. Josh stumped them—no small accomplishment—but what interested me about the show was that Penn and Teller and the guest magicians all communicated in a sort of professional code, using shorthand to refer to various effects, recalling the ways earlier magicians had done similar things. It reminded me very much of writer’s shoptalk. In your book, you draw examples from a wide range of fiction, illustrating all of your points with insightful close reading. How did you develop that practice yourself? And how do you help writers develop that same discipline of reading not just as readers, but as writers who want to understand how things are done?

Castellani: You can only learn how to close-read by example; it’s an art more than a skill. I was lucky to have some great close readers as teachers in high school and college, who showed me how one phrase or choice of word or authorial move opened up meaning in a story or poem. They had a talent for decoding texts in a way that made them greater than the sum of their parts, and then arguing for those interpretations with both passion and logic. These were mostly English Lit classes, where we read as critics rather than as writers, but I strongly believe that the process of examining the implications of authors’ various craft choices, in both successful and unsuccessful stories, teaches us how to use our own craft tools more responsibly.

Paradoxically, the more closely we read a text, and the more assumptions we make about how it was made, the more possibility there is for mystery. We’ll never get all the way there, never capture or quantify the ineffable quality that produced the effect that moved us or made the whole thing “work.” And even if we could, we couldn’t reproduce it for another story. Likely, the writer doesn’t even know the magic ingredient; in fact, she is often the least qualified person to tell us what her story “means.” In your book, you used the perfect metaphor of the (wo)man behind the curtain, and you remind us of Flannery O’Connor’s call for vision. It’s vision that elevates a story from mere competence (responsible use of craft tools) to greatness.

It makes me think, strangely, of a candy factory. I love watching those videos that show how candy is made—all those conveyer belts and spinning trays and depositors—but watching them doesn’t make the candy taste any better. In fact, it tastes even more manufactured after I’ve seen the heavy machinery that’s gone into producing it. This is why I actually don’t always love hearing writers talk about where their stories “came from.” Just as the writer is the least qualified to talk about what her story means, she is also the least reliable when it comes to telling us how she made it. How she remembers her decision-making process is almost beside the point; most of those decisions were made by accident anyway, or by instinct, even when she was consciously trying to manipulate the craft. I’m more interested in examining what ended up on the page and the effects that the friction among the words created.

Along these same lines, I’m wondering if you can talk about what you call “unresolved characterization.” I found this to be one of the most illuminating and inspiring sections of the book, and one of the most articulate arguments for why fiction matters.

Turchi: That started with The Great Gatsby. I’ve always enjoyed and admired the book, but I thought I had gotten everything it had to offer from it. There was one little problem, though, and it’s related to what you were just saying: I’ve never believed Fitzgerald is entirely responsible for what makes the book great. I mean, of course he’s responsible for the prose, for the economy, for any number of choices and decisions that make the book great; but ultimately it defies reductive reading, in part because Nick Carraway is contradictory, not fully self-aware—and I’ve never been convinced that Fitzgerald fully appreciated that. What we do know (if you read Trimalchio, the earlier draft that’s been published, and the facsimile typescript) is that there were some howlingly bad lines that Fitzgerald cut. They’re bad because they make Gatsby out to be a dimwit and because they try to explain everything. (Just to save you time: in that early draft, Gatsby says, “The truth is I’m empty, and I guess people feel it. That must be why they keep on making up things about me, so I won’t be so empty. I even make up things myself.” Also, “Daisy’s all I’ve got left from a world so wonderful that to think of it makes me sick all over.” Nick offers this advice: “Take what you can get, Gatsby. Daisy’s a person—she’s not just a figure in your dream.”) We all write those sorts of lines, and we don’t always understand the mistake quickly enough to cut them, so Fitzgerald still gets credit; but we know that even after the book was published, he felt he hadn’t fully envisioned Gatsby as a character (he wrote as much when he signed the book for a friend). My sense is that the irresolvability of Gatsby, and of Nick, is what ultimately makes the book so compelling.

When I reread the novel, I noticed a little passage, just a paragraph, which had never caught my attention before. Starting with that, I started to see Nick differently. So I wrote a lecture on Gatsby, both so I could think through what I had found and to decide if it was possible to accomplish the same thing intentionally. Lolita seemed like an obvious example of a book with a narrator who’s meant to be irreducible: Humbert Humbert has done something horrible, repeatedly; but he also calls himself a monster, and says he effectively killed the girl named Dolores Haze. He’s also very smart, and genuinely funny, and juvenile and vulgar. Readers are significantly divided in their opinion of him, for good reason: Nabokov makes him difficult to judge. Then I started seeing other examples, like Thomas Fowler, the narrator of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and even Alison Bechdel’s father in her graphic memoir Fun Home.

I don’t think all good fiction needs characters like those, but if we’re going to write more psychological realism, we need to be honest and recognize that people are complicated, and inconsistent, and illogical. A lot of popular fiction (and television shows, and movies) tells us otherwise, because it’s taking shortcuts to make things easy for the reader (and writer)—but as soon as fiction seems smaller than life, it’s inconsequential, just idle amusement.

You talk about this as a feature of narration in your chapter “Try to See it My Way,” as you lead us through a consideration of a fabulous range of work, from Notes from Underground to What Was She Thinking?, from Light in August to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (which you convinced me I need to read, ASAP). You write, “Effective narration is about control […] manipulating distance and intimacy […] [and] mostly it’s about language, about the shape of the line, the sound of the voice.” That chapter is also about the “unlikable narrator.” I need to put that in quotation marks because as you point out, the truly unlikable narrator is the one we stop reading; “the unlikable narrator” is a character we disapprove of in some way, but whose story we want to hear. Do you think writers worry about creating “unlikable” narrators, narrators who aren’t ultimately warm and fuzzy, or who aren’t “explained,” as you say, by some childhood trauma or injustice done to them? Is there anything you would say to encourage the writer who’s worried about putting unfriendly or “incorrect” characters in their work? This is a serious question. In a nonfiction workshop I just taught, a writer was accused of including a lot of male characters who treat women like household servants. When he got a chance to talk, he said, “I know—but that’s what it was like where I grew up.” Some students seemed to think he had a responsibility to tell the reader, in so many words, “I disapprove of this behavior.”

Castellani: There is a lot of pressure—from publishers, for sure, and especially in some workshops—not only to write characters who are likeable and winning, but who are “well-rounded.” It’s as if the goal is to get these folks into a good college, not under the skin of readers, which is where I think every serious writer really wants them to be. The impulse toward well-roundedness makes some sense: because we know that most people contain multitudes of positive and negative qualities, we think that a “good character” will be one who exhibits a manageable subset of those qualities in relatively equal measure. The big problem is that, unlike those productively unresolved characters you so astutely point out, the “well-rounded” characters frequently come across as diluted or, in workshop parlance, “muddy.”

This is especially problematic if the muddy well-rounded character, hurtling toward redemption at the end of the book, also happens to be the narrator. I’m not excited by the narrator who gives me a fair and balanced or even neutral take on the events he’s living through and the characters who surround him. I’m excited by the one who shapes the story to suit his particular agenda, who manipulates language so expertly that we might not even notice he has an agenda at all, who argues lustily for his own reality. Language will seduce a reader much more effectively than a character’s noble works. As I say in the book, I think writers often miss the great opportunity to maximize the power of the narrator, to make him as dynamic a storyteller as he is rich as a character.

As far as advice goes, I encourage my students working on early drafts not to try and come up with a list of a handful of traits that form a composite picture of a character, but to figure out what that character’s dominant quality might be, and then to run with that trait. Let’s watch the character exhibit that dominant quality again and again, realizing or not realizing how much it drives him. This will certainly sound very reductive, but I think even the greatest characters in literature can be boiled down to a single trait or desire, one defining quality at the root of their actions. Sometimes it’s winning; sometimes it’s unsavory. Exploring the character in drafts reveals just how multi-layered that seemingly simple dominant trait is.

I tried to avoid “advice” like this in The Art of Perspective because, even as I wrote the above paragraph, I could think of a thousand ways it sends the wrong message. I want to resist anything in the teaching of writing that sounds like a formula or even a “best practice.” I was thrilled that you didn’t offer much in the way of specific advice, either. But that said, is there a lesson or two a writer could take from your book, something he or she could apply directly to a draft they’re currently working on?

Turchi: We share a wariness about lessons and advice; the last thing I want to read is a story or novel that dutifully adheres to anyone’s list of Rules for Writing Good Fiction. And yet, I’ve certainly benefited from various bits of instruction, and I’m always grateful for good suggestions from editors and trusted readers. When I was still in graduate school, Paul West very patiently sat beside me and pointed out where I was guilty of writing what he called “Q & A dialogue:” conversations in which characters respond to each other directly, repeatedly, as they dutifully move the scene forward. At about the same time, Ron Hansen read part of a novel I was working on in which the main character was essentially trying to keep separate two parts of his life. “You need to write the scene where they come together,” he said, “and your character can’t escape.” Obvious enough now, but at the time I was working under the self-imposed constraint that the character could simply keep things conveniently compartmentalized. In both cases, they were offering advice, not rules.

My hope is that Maps of the Imagination and A Muse and A Maze inspire writers and invite them to think about their work differently. Specifically, I hope the discussions of examples in A Muse and A Maze will help readers think about the strategic release of information; the ways in which significant mysteries can be framed and clearly posed; the creation of those complex, unresolvable characters; the need to carefully choose a narrative stance, particularly when writing in the first person; alternatives to Freytag’s Pyramid (a 19th-century German’s attempt to describe certain plays that, through some process of alchemy, was presented in 20th-century creative writing classes as a golden rule, and which is still seen by some as the mold into which all fiction must be poured); and about the pleasures of difficulty. In the final chapter, I tried to show as clearly as I could how good writers lead us into, and through, work that might at first seem frustrating. I worry that workshops lead developing writers to try to please and clarify, to a fault. In the same way that characters shouldn’t be groomed as if we were trying to get them into good colleges, stories shouldn’t be tidied up as if they were meant to satisfy everyone. You say in your book, “If there’s a common denominator in the texts I’ve chosen […] it’s that their narrative strategies continue to surprise and intrigue me.” Good fiction should trouble us, at least a little; it should encourage us to extend our grasp.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t write two books about writing to tell the world what I think it needed to know; I wrote them to try to understand a few things for myself. Would you say your book is a statement of discoveries that you had made before you sat down to write? Or did you find yourself making discoveries as you wrote it? And if it’s the latter, are there any particular ways you think writing this book might inform your own fiction?

Castellani: I do strictly abide by one rule, which is to write only about what I’m obsessed with. That’s been the case with my novels as much as with The Art of Perspective. Point of view has always been the most difficult, slippery, and exciting aspect of fiction for me, and at the core of every major decision I’ve made on (and maybe even off) the page. I’ve also noticed that, in workshop, the key to unlocking a story’s full potential is most often in the author’s choice of how it’s narrated: the strategy he’s chosen—if he’s been intentional about choosing one at all—is somehow blocking or obscuring the desired emotional or thematic effects.

I definitely did not write this book to tell people what I know about fiction, which is very little. I wrote it so that I could dedicate a big chunk of time listening to what the narrators of some of my favorite books have been trying to tell me all these years, and learning from them. I certainly discovered all sorts of things along the way, specifically about the resistance to traditional omniscience and the trickiness of first person. I also had another very selfish motive: I was about to embark on a new novel, one very different from my others, and I knew absolutely everything about it—the plot, the characters, the setting, the thematic lens—except who would narrate it, and how, and why. So I hoped that writing The Art of Perspective would lead me to my narrative strategy. I’m happy to say that it did, and my great hope for the book is that other writers will read it and have the same experience.

Turchi: Any writer who spends time with your book is going to be encouraged and provoked to think about the ways stories are told, and specifically about the choices we have in telling them. I’m excited to see your new novel, to see where this has led you.

Castellani: Thank you, Pete! Reading A Muse and A Maze was like looking over the shoulder of an expert puzzle-master, or being backstage with a great magician; I learned so much just watching your mind work. Maybe most importantly, you reminded me that virtually all of the pleasures and joys of writing fiction come not from solving the difficult puzzle, but from the ingenuity and imagination and mind-stretching that gets us as close as we can to the solution.

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