Contributor Update: Darrin Doyle

Well howdy, readers! This afternoon, Superstition Review is glad to announce that past contributor Darrin Doyle, who was featured in the Interviews section of our 8th issue (which can be read here) and the Fiction section of our 16th issue (which can be read here), has recently released the first album from his rock/folk/karate trio Daryl & the Beans, titled Burnin’ the Eagle, which can be purchased here. The album itself is $8, and all proceeds from the sale of this record go to funding a scholarship for students in the Creative Writing program at Central Michigan University. If you’re so inclined, feel free to up the proverbial ante and pitch a few extra bucks toward this wonderful cause when you purchase the album! Do yourself, and the students of Central Michigan University, a huge favor and purchase Burnin’ the Eagle.

Buy this record!

Burnin’ The Eagle, the debut album from Daryl & the Beans, featuring past contributor Darrin Doyle.

Guest Post, Darrin Doyle: Get the Most Out of that Smile! Descriptions with Meaning and Purpose

SmileCreative writers know that physical description is among the most essential tools for establishing a character.  How a person walks and talks; the clothing they wear; their hairstyle; how they chew and fidget and fuss, or sit stoically; the way they smile, frown, or stare blankly.  These can provide terrific insights into our characters.  However, merely listing the gestures often isn’t enough.

In workshop stories, I often see exchanges like this one (which I invented):

“I’m really happy you could meet me today,” he said.  He gave her a small smile.

She looked up at him.  “I love this restaurant,” she answered.

In this brief moment, we have two gestures – a “small smile” and a “look.”  That’s a fine place to begin, but as written, these are simply stage directions.  It’s as if the writer is merely puppeteering the characters, giving us a visual.  The actions aren’t telling us anything about the characters, about the situation, about the emotional register of this moment.  Is this guy actually happy?  Is she happy?  Or are they sad?  Worried?  Are they flirting?  Are they ex-spouses who haven’t spoken in months, with a history of conflict between them?  Is there resentment, love, nervous excitement?  What are these gestures telling us?

Students often express hesitance about “slowing down” the action of the story in order to give backstory about the characters.  They say they don’t want to bog down the piece with paragraphs of explication about who these people are and what brought them to this moment.

My answer is this:  You don’t have to slow down the action.  Weave the backstory into the action.  Make it part of the scene.  Connect the gestures to the characters’ backstory.  Every gesture should reveal something: the character’s personality, psychology, desires, conflicts.  Make the gestures work for you.

Here’s a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:

Mr. Willard eyed me kindly.  Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap.  I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.

Notice that Mr. Willard doesn’t simply “eye” the narrator.  That might be misconstrued as creepy.  Instead, he eyes her “kindly.”  That’s helpful to the reader; it gives us something about the mood, the tone.  Next, he clears his throat and brushes crumbs from his lap.  Is he nervous?  Is he about to say something?  People tend to clear their throats when they want to say something.  Sure enough, Plath makes it clear with the next sentence.

But most importantly, she adds another line that connects Mr. Willard’s throat-clearing to the characters’ shared history.  We learn that he is shy (therefore, they know each other).  We learn that he was a teacher, specifically an economics teacher, and she must have been his student.  The gestures aren’t only stage direction; they forward the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters.  And they haven’t slowed down the scene.

Sometimes simply choosing a compelling verb can do wonders for establishing character.  Here’s an example from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Then, suddenly overclouding all his features, he scowled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:

                        ‘For old Mary Ann

                        She doesn’t care a damn

                        But hising up her petticoats…’

He crammed his mouth with a fry and munched and droned.

Notice how much work Joyce’s verbs are doing.  “Overclouding all his features” makes me think this guy is in a bad mood.  And then he “scowled” and “hewed . . . vigorously the loaf.”  He’s eating, but he’s not just eating:  he’s eating violently, piggishly.  He sings a dirty little ditty, and then he “crammed his mouth with a fry.”  There’s aggression in that verb.  He’s literally stuffing his face.

Overclouding, scowled, hewed, crammed, munched, droned. 

From those six words, I know quite a bit about what kind of dude this is.  And I’d rather eat over here, thank you.

Flannery O’Connor is among the best at giving gestures with meaning.  She often uses an “as if” structure, and it’s a technique you can easily apply to your own writing.  Quite simply, she describes a gesture or expression, but then she adds one – or two, even three – similes that start with “as if,” similes that develop the character and the conflict.

From The Violent Bear It Away:

Rayber continued to speak, his voice detached, as if he had no particular interest in the matter, and his were merely the voice of truth, as impersonal as air.

As a writer I would be tempted to quit after “his voice detached,” which gives us something important.  But O’Connor keeps pushing it.  In what way is his voice detached?  The first clause tells us Rayber is talking as if he doesn’t care about the topic.  Then the second part really elevates the simile:  he has “no particular interest” because his “voice of truth” is absolute.  He has no need to argue passionately.

And finally, still not satisfied, O’Connor pushes it once more: “as impersonal as air.”

To me, this last clause makes the whole gesture.  In his own mind, Rayber’s logic is like an invisible, ubiquitous, and necessary force.  No person can live without air; it is all around us at all times.  And now the reader truly sees the full extent of the character’s ego.

The most important habit a writer can develop is to read like a writer. So the next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the ways the author uses gesture and detail to build character, to bring us closer to their conflicts. And then, as always, don’t hesitate to rush to the keyboard (or pen and paper) and use their techniques in your own writing.

SR Pod/Vod Series – Authors Talk: Author Darrin Doyle

Darrin DoyleToday we’re proud to feature Darrin Doyle as our twenty-second Authors Talk series contributor, discussing his story “Big Winner” in his podcast “Better in a Character.”

It’s a detailed and thoughtful discussion from start to finish, kicking off with a smart deviation of a recognizable concept – “This story began as a lot of my pieces do, with an opening line…and that opening line now is deleted forever, but it was enough to get me into the story.” – and concluding by twisting writers’ perception of what makes an interesting character: “in some ways, a character not changing can be as compelling as a character undergoing a change.”

In between, Darrin explores the other elements of his story that stayed in, including “characters who aren’t warm and fuzzy” and the writing techniques and influences he used to create, as he puts it, a believable fairy tale. Then there’s the humorous, true, and frightening premise that the story hinges on, that “an older woman who is set in her ways can create some conflict.”

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel, #206.

You can read “Big Winner” in Superstition Review Issue 16, and listen to Darrin read it aloud in SR podcast #204 or #205 (to play #204, ‘get’ and access in My iTunes U).

 

More About the Author:
Darrin Doyle’s most recent book is the story collection, The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). He is the author of the novels The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s Press) and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press). He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and teaches at Central Michigan University.

 

About the Authors Talk series:
For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’ve now established a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.

SR Pod/Vod Series – Recording: Author Darrin Doyle

Darrin DoyleThis Tuesday, we’re proud to feature SR contributor Darrin Doyle reading his story “Big Winner” on our podcast.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel, #204 or #205 (to play #204, ‘get’ and access in My iTunes U).

You can follow along with Darrin’s work in Superstition Review, Issue 16.

Also check out Darrin’s Authors Talk podcast (#206), announced April 1st.

More About the Author:
Darrin Doyle’s most recent book is the story collection, The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). He is the author of the novels The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s Press) and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press). He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and teaches at Central Michigan University.

Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.

Issue 8 Highlights

Issue 8 of Superstition Review is packed with talented artists and writers. Here are a few highlights:

Art
New England artist Paul Chojnowski creates vivid images not with pencil or paint, but with fire. His “fire drawings” are detailed images made by burning, scorching and sanding the surface of paper or wood. Take a look at “After the Deluge” to see how Chojnowski burned and scorched a piece of maple veneer into a beautiful image.

Ready to let your imagination go to work? Check out the work of Rafael Francisco Salas. Salas’ bio states that he uses “landscape along with narrative and symbolic elements [to] create artworks that investigate the nature of nostalgia, memory and dreams.” In Untitled (Funeral), we see a funeral scene, but the casket is obscured by . . . something. This is where your imagination comes in. What does your brain interpret the something to be—a ghost, a dream, a memory?

Fiction
How’s this for a first sentence – “My son was born under the carob tree, and all three fathers were there to greet him.” Three fathers? You’re interested, aren’t you? Read Eric Maroney’s “Grow, Grow” and you will not only learn how this first sentence is possible, you’ll realize this is a beautiful story of hope.

If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then we’re all stars of our own reality show or prime time TV drama. Eugenio Volpe explores this theme in his short story “Low Lives.”

Interviews
A peek into a writer’s brain can be just as entertaining and enlightening as reading their work. SR interviewed many fascinating writers this fall, including Darrin Doyle and Madison Smartt Bell.

In his interview, Doyle discusses how he creates the vivid images in his stories and talks about the difference between writing a short story and a novel (teaser – it has something to do with pregnancy).

Bell shares where he gets his inspiration (daemons: just read the interview) and what he is currently working on; a biography of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, first Emperor of Haiti, a romance, and a story about zombies. Real ones, though, not the movie kind.

Nonfiction
“Walking Sophie” is about kinderwagons, pollution, and Winston Churchill. How do these all fit together? Follow James Valvis on his daily trek with his infant daughter to the mailbox and the park and even further through the many emotions of rejection, endurance and what it means to be a father.

“I’ve never seen the top of my head.” How would you respond to the statement? Patrick Madden muses over this pronouncement from his daughter and other subjects in his set of essays “Contradiction: Poetry,” “Contradiction: Insanity,” and “Contradiction: Memory.”

Poetry
Ever lose part of a savannah? Misplaced a volcano? Read Karen Skolfield’s “Lost Mountain” to see if maybe you have.

“I Sit in on a Special Education Lesson” by Yu Shibuya shows how poetry can take an everyday occurrence and find the complexity of emotions that exist under the surface. Read this poem. You will not be disappointed.

Nor will you be disappointed with any of our other talented contributors to Superstition Review Issue 8. Now, go—look, read, repeat.