Joel Chafetz is the author of The Chaff. We interviewed Joel between February 5 and February 9, 2014.The novel is on amazon.com and other mainstream outlets.
R&R: In this interview, we want to focus on technique and process in your writing of The Chaff rather than on story so we’ll get right to it: How did you get to this place? Why did you write this novel at this time?
JC: I used to think of myself as a short story writer. I believe that the meat grinder of critique – getting feedback from writers I trusted – would hone my skills or at least remind me to deal with the weaknesses of my prose. Combining multiple views of writers with different focuses, strengths and insights helped me clarify what I couldn’t see in my own work.
Then, over twenty years ago I started writing practice, structured timed writing. It helped develop the writing of scenes, develop voice, push a story to the end. This added to my focus of what I thought writing should be, do, become. The short story, novel, poem, creative non-fiction prose, all are the products of the narrative.
Robert Olin Butler said about short stories, “I have this to say about that.” Butler also said of the novel, “I have all these things to say about that.” My struggle in trying to write a novel was finding anything to say about one subject. What do you say? I had much to say about the incidents in my life, but there was nothing that could power a novel length project.
I had, in my arsenal of possibilities, this nagging desire to write about my great-grandfather’s escape from the Russian pogroms. These were stories my father told me, and they stuck in my gullet like a Dick’s hamburger and greasy fries. But what did I know about 19th century struggles of the Pale of Settlement? Next to nothing.
I did however, have experience with the overarching corruption of the human condition and racism. Racism to me is the unreasoned hatred of another clan. That hatred can be focused on different skin color or a different set of beliefs. In my own case, anti-Semitism.
I wrote a short story about my father’s view of his ancestors escape, but it was too short to mean anything, too quick to develop the long themes needed for a subject of horrendous violence and hatred. Hatred was the word that brought The Chaff into focus. I could write about hatred. Every human knows a lot about hatred. When I began researching the horrors of those times, I changed. My imagination stepped into the shoes and the character of a heroine emerging from the depravity of her times. And I found in the story a connection to the culture of our times—the subjugation of women, the seeds of the holocaust, the beginnings of communism, the quest of the Jewish people for a homeland and the voice of a human paradigm to help the helpless.
But that wasn’t enough to make me sit down and crank out at a long story.
And then I met a young man. He said his name and I said, A-A-R-O-N, and he said no, “E-R-I-N. I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a Jew.” Now this is America. Jews have had their problems here, but we’ve moved beyond the negative stereotypes and have become part of the American melting pot with its high ideals of equality for all.
So I replaced the anger of a non-response to the young man with a simple goal and told myself that there’s a place for writing about that ancient enemy—racism. A reminder that constant vigilance against the ancient enemy is worth the struggle. Even for a Jew in 21st Century America.
R&R: There are several rewrites or drafts of The Chaff . How do you know when a novel finished?
JC: To quote Graham Greene, “A novel is never finished, just abandoned.” When I re-read The Chaff I have to deal with the fact that what I’ve done in the past is no longer the standard I set for myself now.
There’s a point in every work of fiction where I find myself changing a few words here and there one day and changing them back the next. That lets me know I have reached my limitations. If I go through another round of feedback that doesn’t alter the language or the structure or the metaphor beneath the story I say okay. It is enough. I give up and am willing to submit it. Sometimes I’m wrong and must go back to square one.
In the first version of The Chaff, a young swashbuckler, whose name was Yitzhak, was in love with a Tsarist princess. Yitzhak was never a sympathetic character because he was too strong. The story was about the destruction of culture. He was too strong to engage the reader. I needed weaker characters, still courageous, but weaker against an empire that could wipe out communities in a moment.
I wasted a year and a half on Yitzhak but then one day in writing practice I found the voice of Usell Binah. I found her at Louisa’s Bakery in Seattle on a Tuesday. By the end of the Friday write I had a heroine worthy of a book. She was a motherless 17-year-old whose father taught her in the classical manner—languages, literature and the Socratic dialogue. She is a young woman whose community doesn’t accept her because women aren’t taught anything but obedience to men and God. When her father tells her she’s going to be married, she has her first epiphany. She takes a small step to becoming an individual by exercising her independence, by avowing that she is separate from the collective. But, she is swept up by forces beyond her control. The chaos she experiences when her sthtel is attacked and destroyed sets her off on a quest for order. That quest gave the story a spine—the harpoon thrown at the beginning that sticks and quivers at the end. (That’s Stewart Stern, the writer of Rebel Without a Cause, cropping up in my memory.) Every bit of writing from that point on was about the images of chaos and order that sing in the mind of the reader.
R&R: You have hundreds of short stories, won some prizes for them. How does short story writing figure into your novelistic technique?
JC: The short story is more like a gem you polish over and over until it sparkles. It is fast. It shoots right to the end and the techniques I’ve learned in writing short stories I’ve incorporated into chapters or scenes in a novel. The problem with the short story is that there’s little time to elaborate and develop multiple characters and so I use the novel to develop more than one perspective. This is done whether there’s one point of view or many. There’s time in the novel to expand the divergence of ideas and run the conceit—the complex metaphor.
The idea of connecting multiple short stories to create a novel never rang true to me. The novel forces the writer to stretch his mind, cover more than the snapshots of a short story. I’m not saying that that can’t be a method—Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is a compilation of short stories in different voices, told in reverse time so that we see the whole from the end to the beginning. But my idea of putting together a novel was more than connected short stories. The novel to me had to have a greater sweep – not necessarily in time – but the epic nature of the human quest for meaning.
R&R: You practice timed writing, some call it writing practice. How has that process shaped your writing?
JC: Let me summarize how I think the process works. Timed writing is a way to hug the muse. Some brain theory experts say our minds evolved to tell stories. Our vision projects a moving image, the image is compared to other images and the hard wiring in our brains makes stories of them. We see a woman with a swollen belly and we see the birth, and the child and its growth at the same conscious moment even though we are unconscious of the process.
To get to that unconscious, we have to let go of the analytic left brain The left brain has the language and speech centers and is therefore analyzing, critiquing everything we do, giving us alternatives, telling us to watch out—look for the leopard, be aware of the thieves who will steal our food, assess the kind of mate we want. Somehow, we need to turn off that editor and push our way inside our image-making, right brain where the whole pictures of the story lie. Fortunately, there is a way we can slip across the corpus callosum and snatch a bit of it with timed writing.
Timed writing is magical. After the first few minutes of writing under the clock, you forget the outer world and its leopards and its sexual intensities and you immerse yourself in the story. You hear characters say what they want, not what you demand they say. Characters develop, they’re born, they grow and they become part of the narrative, dialogue, thought and actions, they give up their secrets and they tell the subtle story that keeps pushing your pen over the page.
It took a long time for me to internalize some of the techniques of timed writing. By writing scenes over and over the story refines itself. The memories of the characters grow deeper, become rounded, real, with consistent inconsistencies and flaws. Real emotions emerge, not just the ones we’d like to see. Over time the story takes shape, just like it does in the processes of our brains.
R&R: Do you suggest timed writing as a discipline for other writers?
JC: Absolutely. But it takes time and trust in yourself. Once you get hooked though, your writing takes off.
It’s obvious that you do a lot of rewriting. Can you tell us something about how you approach a rewrite?
It’s actually my favorite part of the never-ending process. I try to rewrite in chunks. The chunks are the connected pieces. Set up, character interactions, character developments, consistencies and conflicts. I do it with plot points, the movie term for a different view of the Aristotelian incline. The characters engage, the scene is set, a goal, a need, what’s in the way, complications. When the protagonist has an epiphany, an insight into her world view, the story shoots forward with complications. At plot point 1, there is a change of direction. Things get worse. By the time story reaches mid-point the developments of character and difficulties dealing with them are taking place. The hero is losing ground, but at mid-point the balance subtly shifts. It tips in favor of the protagonist and develops to plot point 2 where again the direction shifts, and you’re heading toward the end. There is a crisis. A climax ensues and the story heads for a resolution. A new epiphany emerges when the characters act on their decisions.
Plot points break the novel down into five chunks that make the plot easier for me to handle. So I write the chunks, set the plot points and hope they all fit together.
R&R: Your novel, The Chaff, is built on scenes. It’s very cinematic in that regard. How did you get to the point of such visual writing?
JC: A couple of very smart writers pointed out how movies cut seamlessly from one scene to another. These same writers told me that stories are built on action and image by stripping the non-essential from the narrative. Movies keep the story running. Everything must add to the drama and plot. Images engage the readers’ mind. The transitions from scene to scene have to be obvious to readers so they can move with the story as the story moves forward. Because back-story slows the narrative, you want to put it in dialogue in small doses. Using the senses engages the reader, makes the scenes part of the overall metaphor—you feel the cold, you jump at the blast from a machine gun, you smell the fish in the market as the forces of evil give chase. You do this so readers can’t put the book down. One scene to the next, one foot in front of the other, always “seeing” what’s happening. Avoid the cliché of telling readers what’s going on. Readers are too smart to be told what to think.
R&R: Visual writing means you “see” the story. In your writing, which comes first: the story or the image of the story? Is there a tandem effect here? What do you want your readers to “see”. What did you first “see” that made you write The Chaff?
JC: Sometimes I start with an image, sometimes I start from an idea. But, I always describe what I see. There’s a trick to description that took me a long time to learn. You don’t need every detail, but you do need specific details that mean something more than just an image. The detail tells you something about character. John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist talks about a man describing the side of his barn after he’s learned that his son has died in a distant war. What he sees describes his emotion and tells us the certainty of death. A rusty pitchfork, an over-turned barrel of dirt, the bare wood beneath the flakes of paint on the wall. Details give us the what’s-going on as well as alerting our story brain to what’s going to happen. This is a way for the writer to control what the reader is thinking. A description keeps the image moving, keeps the reader engaged.
What is it I want the reader to see? I make a list before I write. If the list is too long, or has too many details, I try to pick out the salient features and then in the rewrite, emphasize what the overall image will be. The image reflects either the character—his/her mood—or the forces in opposition. I like mixing scenery with weather because if the character focuses on a blank white landscape and the wind whips the hem of her dress we experience the empty chill. These kinds of images are a big factor in The Chaff, as I try to tell the story of what hatred has done.
Also, using atmosphere allows me to cheat. In The Chaff, the protagonist’s father faces a mob. The clouds are rumbling in the sky. Her father demands the mob leave and raises his arms. Lightning cracks the sky. Of course, her father didn’t call forth the lightning, but the mob shivers at his power. I cheat, but the readers know it’s cheating and smile at the good guys being smart enough to time it well. That makes readers feel smart. The process of cheating is in the set up, which begins earlier with the hint of a coming storm when the protagonist worries about confronting her powerful father. Foreshadowing. First step. Another is when the wind whips her heavy cloak and she pulls it to her chest. Second step. The crunch of ice on the ground beneath her homemade and leaky boots is a third step. The weather becomes a force and the force of human deception is to use whatever it takes to survive. Fourth step. And now readers are hooked.
Which came first, the image or the story? Is there a first? Is it the image of the gathering clouds or is it the set up in the story? Timed writing gave me the image, revision, helped me set the image in the story. Story and image build each other. The writer has to keep writing to let the unconscious rise to the surface and then seek out what the imagination has said.
R&R: Movies seem to be the art of the day. Yet you write novels and short stories. Do you see any value in adapting your novel to a screenplay? Have you tried that process to see its effect on your style?
JC: Not being a writer of screenplays puts me as a narrative fiction writer at a disadvantage, but that doesn’t stop me from theorizing the following:
- The screenplay focuses on those instances that tell the story best.
- The narration between the screenplay’s actions sets the scene, establishes the emotional context of the characters, and sets the mood.
- To look at a work with different eyes is always a way to re-envision it.
- Once a script version of the original is created, the original is forever changed.
Adapting the novel to a screenplay would create a different view, much like looking at your characters from another point of view. That shift gives the writer a new view of the characters, the effects and what’s needed to perfect the novel.
R&R: In your sentences you use active verbs and concrete nouns. In fiction, the sentence is the foundation. Take us a little bit deeper–What is a sentence? How does the sentence work for you?
JC: A sentence is one clear thought expressed with a subject and a predicate. That notion was drummed into me from childhood. But a sentence does much more.
At the beginning of a paragraph it sets the stage, lets the reader know where the thought is going.
Sentences are the muscle of the thought.
They can act like poetry:
The crimson rose deflowered.
They can provide a surprising and visual image:
The clouds folded over the sun until it bruised the sky.
They can provide the reader with the character’s mood:
Frightened by Homer’s gesture, Art tossed the hot brandy down his throat.
They can provide the narrative action:
The arrow point shot across the meadow and “thunked” into the oak behind Chromian’s head.
They can be a transition line…
As he said, the fowl died in a burst of feathers.
They can reflect on the speaker:
Young Aris thought himself immortal.
They can summarize:
“So you see,” the blind man said, “there is liitle to your statement that the world is coming to an end.”
They can contrast or complement:
Between the two hedgehogs, there wasn’t a spine of difference.
Between the two hedgehogs, one’s bristles stiffened.
And so the uses abound. The sentence still exists as one thought, but I think that tells us little except about grammar.
I think the salience of the sentence to the fiction writer is the image. A sentence without an image passes unnoticed. It may have creative uses such as defining the nature of a character as lackluster and insignificant, but without an image, the sentence doesn’t move the story forward. Images paint pictures and like flip cards become a moving story.
In fiction the lack of an image can be deadening.
When someone reads your writing and says I didn’t know how the protagonist felt and you say, look here on page 43. I said it. Didn’t you read it? I wrote, He had little to say, because he is a sneaky ridiculous man.
The problem exists in telling rather than showing. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of fiction. You would best be looking at the line you wrote. You told the reader how a character felt. While some telling is unavoidable, even necessary, some telling is just lazy. Wouldn’t your reader have learned more about the character if the line were written, He squirmed with resistance, or She delighted in his silence or Her dancing eyes froze him to a pulse beat.
What makes the sentence stand up also allows the reader to take notice, engage, remember. One strong verb per sentence, identifiable nouns, and a picture in few words, as my feedback wardens constantly remind me.
The Ming vase glistened with porcelain light.
I say all this with humble inadequacy as there is so much more that can be said about the sentence.
R&R: You say that good writing is built on action and image. That sounds a lot like poetry. Would you care to define “poetry” and/or “thought?”
JC: You ask tough questions, but I’ll give it a shot.
What is a thought? Are our conceptions singular or is a thought an attempt by our mind to separate a jumbled image into a slow step by step process? I think no single thought stands alone. Here’s an example. An abstraction.
Love – a general, non-specific, whole – What image comes to mind? Mother, daughter, comrades, first love, last love, an act of coitus. What’s the context? What sharpens the focus? Do we dream of love and see it? Do we feel love in the dream? The endorphins race through our brain. We see the sway of the body before us, we feel the touch of a hand, we hear the whisper in our ear, the lock of eyes and even in sleep we experience a chill or warmth.
The thought of love is never alone. We lucky humans have brains that listen to the words addressed to us, consider our responses and speak with some integrity within the blink of an eye, hopefully with some clarity, but often with a confused sense of the thought coming at us from the page, from the screen, from the mouth of another, from our own mouths. It’s the miracle of evolution that we understand each other as well as we do.
The writer’s task, as I see it, is to put the considered sentence down, revise it, shape it and structure it to meet the needs of the scene, one sentence than another and after that and after that, through the paragraph, through the chapter, through the final sentence of the book, short story or whatever the artful attempt at finding metaphors the writer attempts.
As I’ve said, I think the mind tells stories without our conscious help. The images give us beginnings, the middles and ends that are their ends, but as the writer you can provide the suspense to suspend their story and make it yours. You can disrupt readers’ random narrative and cause them to search for clarity.
The acrobat swung back and forth on his trapeze building momentum – has as its immediate consequence – a released of his grip, and a flight through the air. The tension derives from whether or not there is a grip of wrists at the end of his flight or a plunge to the ground. This is where the writer controls. The reader will already engage. The writer’s decision is about what minimum amount of words completes this task in a manner that is both elegant and explanatory and beyond what we assume. The writer furnishes the surprise element. The unexpected enters and the reader can nod his/her head with satisfaction.
The angry lovers high above center ring worked their trapezes to their heights before attempting the triple. Lola hit Alphonse like a cannonball and kicked the backswing past the horizontal. Looking into her eyes, Alphonse smiled, before letting her go.
I can’t count beats. Never could, so I’ll never be a poet or a drummer.
What I can do is create rhythm.
I can mix up the length of my lines to follow the action of the story. Long lines are: dreamy, flowing, racing through an internal emotional conflict or mixed with short lines create Mr. James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Short sentences are clipped, abrupt, listing, shooting bullets one-two-three-four, or scattering disconnected but sequential ideas that show brilliance or madness.
To me this is poetics. Repeated sounds, juxtaposition of nouns, anaphor, complementary rhythms, contrasting voices, a dialogue that’s crisp or funny or to the point or open to interpretation. All that is poetry. It says what it says about the story you write and the sounds echo in the reader’s mind.
Rhythm mixes with pace. Phrases or short sentences. Flowing long sentences carry the reader across time and space so that we understand what has happened and are breathing easy or hard, worrying about the protagonist’s danger or infatuation, emulating it as if the readers were in the story.
Rhythm follows feelings, follows intensity, follows the actions.
R&R: We’ve read Cormac McCarthy. In Blood Meridian he writes paragraphs several hundred words long then gives us paragraphs of only a few words. So, the obvious question is: What is a paragraph in fiction?
JC: I try to write the paragraph from the thoughts of a limited narrator, one who knows only what that particular character can know and little more. How large or small the paragraph is depends upon the shifting mind of the narrator. The distractions, the flow, the logic of the character must make sense to the reader. So for the flow of the paragraph to make sense it has to follow the point of view. If the paragraph doesn’t follow the point of view the reader feels lost or stupid and puts your piece down. There are some heady writers that have made a living by keeping you off balance by writing paragraphs with just enough information so that you stay with the character madness, or intensity, but keep the reasons hidden so the readers will be surprised when the character discloses or lets slip what’s really going on.
If the paragraph follows a single protagonist it is his/her thoughts that you stick with, agree with and learn what the story is about.
So the paragraph becomes the mechanism of a shifting mind. It can stay on track. In multiple points of view it can follow the perp down an alley in one paragraph, see the darkness of the character through description. Creepy things by the garbage dumpster, the slick oil in the cobbles, the shadow lurking on the iron fire-escape, but the paragraph dwells in the mind. When the mind changes focus, the paragraph shifts.
A caveat: Writing from the omniscient point of view has different paragraph rules. In the omniscient the narrator can jump from one person’s thoughts to another’s and in time and space. They can know everything and can step back to give us the philosophical or explanatory view of the universe. This requires a certain necessity to provide transitions, a paragraph of explanation, that doesn’t necessarily follow my idea of narrator’s thoughts. This point of view is more 19th century writing than it is todays. More Godly. Modern characters are closer to normal people or people’s psychology or craziness and don’t have an overarching view of “the” truth or the narrative flow of the modern novel. However, many European writers disagree.
R&R: You have studied anthropology and biology. Have those two disciplines shaped your writing? And if so—how?
JC: Jim Anderson, a biologist friend of mine, once defined fiction in terms of an evolutionary fitness. Animals do what they must for instinctive reasons. Humans make choices regardless of what’s good for them, but underneath their actions is this basic path. Birth, nourishment and mating so the species can survive. Our task as writers is to make our characters do what they do in whatever eccentric way we choose, but ultimately they must follow these survival rules, to live, find sustenance and mate before death. Even if the main character commits suicide the fix is followed. In James Baldwin’s Another Country, Rufus Scott, the narrator and a homosexual, with little hope of producing offspring, dies halfway through the book, leaving his friends in shock. What fitness does this serve? Death sets in motion the questioning and guilt of his friends, who engage their own quest of sexual discoveries, thereby fulfilling the archetype of the evolutionary process. What I understand from this is that beneath the façade of character an evolutionary process drives the narrative and unless the writer completes that path the human animal readers will not agree with the writer. Rebirth through change, love and satisfaction follow that line of thinking in my writing.
Anthropology – History repeats itself. Examination of the human condition and what we feeble life forms manage to become is the repeated story of our imperfect lives. How do we view Homo sapiens sapiens trapped in bodies and brains that were meant to survive on the savanna? In our altered environment – civilization—how do we behave? This provides the curiosity of what comes next. We have become evolutionary products of culture, of genetic drift, of the languages that are hard wired into our brains, but we cannot escape the primitive creatures we are.
Without these two disciplines I could not have written The Chaff. It takes multiple layers to create a book that helped me talk about racism. Heroes, villains, and the supporting cast have their own wishes, desires, behaviors, and have the same evolutionary mind-sets as any animal with a hindbrain. We are what our basic drives say we are, but in that search for territory, rituals, hierarchy, aggression and sex we can find a sliver of hope. We have two layered brains on top of our reptilian complex that alter the moment, cause us to pause and sometimes find alternatives. Sometimes we make a choice for another that is not ourselves—a thing worth writing about.