This winter, Bodega launched its first contest. Tracy O’Neill, our fiction judge and the author of The Hopeful (Ig Publishing, 2015) chose the flash piece “Global Warming,” Stephen V. Ramey, which you can read in this issue. We asked the two of them to talk about craft and character. Here’s what they had to say.
Stephen V. Ramey: Hi Tracy.
Tracy O’Neill: Hi Stephen. Nice to hear from you, and congratulations on winning the Bodega contest! It was a pleasure to read your work. I found that the sentences were surprising, the tone eerie, and the world one created by a familiar apathy of conscience.
SR: Thank you! First, let me say that it's an honor to be able to have this conversation with you.
Online you've discussed the value of revision, persistence of effort, long walks, and soft pants. How have lessons learned while writing The Hopeful impacted your current works in progress?
TO: These lessons have been helpful, but of course every book is a little different. The novel I'm working on now is in the third person, is staged in more places, and unravels over a longer period of time. That presents different puzzles, different questions. How will I transition in point of view? To what extent can the close third shift formally between characters without disrupting the coherence of the novel? How does a story about the failure of connectedness end its various narrative threads?
SR: Can you talk a little more about how time plays a role in your novels or other writing? Do you feel more freedom working on a novel with a longer timeline?
TO: No, I don't really see a connection between the span of time over which the narrative occurs and freedom in the work. There's plenty of flash fiction that gestures toward a wide cut of time and plenty of longer fiction that relays a shorter period of time by attending to details in the scene or making space for lush internal phenomena or exposition. I think the sense of freedom a writer feels is probably more contingent upon the techniques the writer feels able to put to use.
SR: In an interview for BookTrib you said "I wanted to show the way in which truncated dreams may advance even a very young person into the same sense that opportunities have been foreclosed, that there is not enough time left in one human life to reach meaningful existence." Do you typically go into a story/novel with this clarity of plan, or do you find that narrative purpose evolves during the writing process?
TO: You could say both. The sense that it's too late is pretty general. I think a lot of people feel that way, whether it's about becoming a writer, making a home, or traveling. How that sense manifests in action and gesture is quite different, of course. When I started writing The Hopeful, the narrator didn't do much with this feeling besides sulk. As I thought more of the character, however, it became clear that someone so obsessive might act out against this sentiment. Her despair and anger would be expressed in the physical world.
SR: Can you speak about the physical vs. the emotional? How do you write characters that are acting out in the physical world on the page? What draws you toward creating characters that are physically reactive on the page?
TO: I am probably less inclined to see the physical and emotional as binaristic than most. It seems to me that there's a dialogic relationship, that one informs the other or even that they are entangled in a feedback loop. I try to situate any character as both a thinking body and a body expressing thought because while the internal may hold more cultural capital, it seems to me that there is some recuperative work to be done in staging the body as a site of narrative. Our bodies, after all, do seem to galvanize much of the drama of our lives. We're treated with suspicion or kept out of bathrooms. We give birth or we're asked to adopt particular technologies to communicate in the language of the majority. Our points of entry are more or less difficult. And maybe because I often find myself at a loss for words or unable to advance my thoughts in an organized unit at a given moment, I see plenty of room for people to speak through their bodies when words fail them. I think, for example of a time recently when I didn't want the tenor of a friendship to change and it seemed it was happening in a moment. I couldn't stop dropping things, and I had nothing to say.
SR: Do you more often invent a character to suit the story and then hone their voice to make them real, or does voice and character emerge to drive the story?
TO: A lot of times, the voice defines a problem, a certain tension in the character. The first story I published began, "I meant to buy a gift on discount, but the coupon expired before I wasn't hungover anymore." The voice in that sentence registered a character with a particular problem arising from the tension between his intentions and his other drives. The novel that I'm working on now is the first time my fiction has begun with a handful of situations and had to find a voice, or voices, to match. In beginning this book, I asked myself to try what did not come naturally to me.
SR: That’s such a great line because it’s telling in so many ways. We get a bit about the character's finances, time management, and general life outlook, etc. all at once. Do you have any other dialogue tips that help you accomplish double (or more duty)?
TO: I suppose a lot of fiction writing is working backwards. You're thinking about the effects you want to create and searching for meeting points for multiple effects.
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania. His eclectic short fiction has appeared in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal and Connotation Press among others, and is upcoming in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. His debut collection, Glass Animals (Pure Slush Books), was published in 2013. He is currently compiling a collection of post-progressive flash fiction tentatively entitled We Dissolve.