Charles Baxter Discusses His Writing Process

Master writer Charles Baxter was on hand last night at SubText bookstore in Saint Paul to give sage advice and walk us through one of his stories in progress.

He was born in Minneapolis, graduated from Macalester, and completed his graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Now teaching at the University of Minnesota, he is the author of five novels, seven collections of short stories and essays, three poetry collections, and his work The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot won the 2008 MN Book Award for Nonfiction. He is also the recipient of over a dozen other awards and honors, including National Book Award finalist for Feast of Love.

“There’s this misapprehension that teachers provide formulas for all writers to use. It’s not true,” Baxter said. But there are elements that make a story a good one and allow it to find a home in the reader’s imagination. He’ll ask his students to list the things they’d like to see in a story and they typically answer: interesting characters, an interesting setting, conflict, and so on. They typically do not include urgency and momentum–two elements Baxter thinks are essential to a successful story.

The story begins when the trouble begins. Baxter used the example of a character who hears screaming in the middle of the night. It causes the character to wonder what’s happening, to wonder, what should I do? and then the character wonders, what can I do?

Another way of starting a story is to have the protagonist approached by another character who says, “There’s something I want you to do.” This puts the protagonist under pressure and opens an entire moral universe. Shakespeare employed this technique in Hamlet by having the ghost of Hamlet’s father demand that his death be avenged.

Baxter is currently writing a collection of short stories revolving around virtues and vices, all taking place in Minneapolis. He read two pages from “Chastity” which is about a  protagonist coming across a young person treating life as a joke. His stories have clues in them that the reader hopefully picks up on which circle around for his characters and carry more meaning later on.

“We all have echoes of past events in our lives that we’re either aware of or not,” Baxter explained. And there’s always things happening below the surface.

Like most writers, Baxter writes with a combination of excitement and dread. He often daydreams and thinks about his stories and how he can provide urgency and momentum. He is an observer of others and what gets him going is noticing something people do that nobody else notices.

You should, as a writer, he said, “go beyond yourself and go out in society and culture and find out what people think about a certain phenomenon. How are they reacting? Stay on the lookout.”

Conflict in a story need not be some grandiose world-altering event. Baxter used A Streetcar Named Desire as an example. Conflict comes easy when characters are crowded, when they’re forced onto a stage that’s too small for them and they’re always in each other’s way.

Baxter laughed. “It’s great fun!”

Pat Dennis Live in Concert: Hotdish to Die For (laugh ’til you hurl!)

Ah, sweet, sweet summer solstice. The time of year here in Minnesota when the thumb-long zucchini in your garden grow into something the size of baseball bats overnight. The time of year when the pretty college student working at the movie theatre lets her friends in for free when no one’s looking. Your son loses yet another Little League game, mosquitoes descend upon you like a biblical plague, and neighbors up and down the block exchange batches of homemade wine, the kind of wine that takes the enamel off teeth. After a swig of it, you’re afraid to exhale for fear of starting somebody’s garage on fire.

For Pat Dennis, mystery writer and stand-up comedienne extraordinaire, summer is great, but in Minnesota, hotdish is a year-round phenomenon. Tuesday night she performed at Once Upon A Crime bookstore for KSMQ, southern Minnesota’s PBS channel, in town filming a documentary tentatively called, Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story.

Pat hails from Chicago but has lived in Minnesota for 28 years. “Which makes me a newcomer,” she says and we laugh.

“Do you trust me?”

“No!” we shout.

Pat hadn’t heard of the term hotdish until she arrived in Minnesota. By her estimation, the heartland word for casserole contains a can of soup, a can of veggies, I-got-it-on-sale meat, and rice. It’s then baked until all the moisture’s been sucked out of it.

“Hotdish is the sensible shoes of fine cuisine,” she states. This from a woman who uses a leaf blower to clean her house.

She has also been a hotdish judge where she once had to taste 80 different hotdishes. Besides deciding which one tasted best, she wanted to give out awards for, among other things, most dry, most burnt, and most calories, but thought better of it.

After her very funny performance, KSMQ wanted to get more laughter from another camera angle, so there was this magical moment where we’re all laughing on purpose while they’re filming us and it got so ridiculous we sincerely could hardly stop. The hotdish documentary is scheduled to come out on PBS sometime this fall.

In Pat’s collection of mystery short stories, Hotdish to Die For,  the weapon of choice is of course hotdish. The book has sold well everywhere except in Grand Rapids where it has been banned for containing cuss words. Knowing that, whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall, how can anyone NOT want to live here?

We Who Are About to Die, Salute You!

Last night’s Literary Death Match, held at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis, was far from your typical literary reading. Goth girls, kids who play with matches, musicians, and several nods to the recently deceased Ray Bradbury were on hand in what proved to be a wild gladiator fight of words because we all know, the pen is indeed, mightier than the sword.

The scene was bursting with the subversive, raucous energy of its contestants: photographer Jeffrey Skemp, who released his first collection of poetry and music album, Spent, last year; Pete Hautman. winner of the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for his works Godless and The Big Crunch; Stephanie Wilbur Ash of MPR’s Electric Arc Radio fame, who has written for numerous publications and companies, and Juliet Patterson, author of The Truant Lover and the forthcoming Threnody, who has won many prizes and fellowships for her writing.

Literary Death Match series founder–Opium Magazine editor Todd Zuniga–set up the rules. The four writers were to be faced off in seven minute readings of their work, with each piece adjudicated according to its literary merit, the quality of the writer’s performance, and the most mysterious category, “intangibles.” Novelist Marlon James was the judge of literary merit, cartoonist Danno Klonowski the judge of performance, and Dennis Cass for intangibles. All were hilarious.

The first fight was between Patterson and Hautman. Patterson had the crowd cheering “love!” every time it was mentioned in her poetry, but died after Hautman read from his novel, Invisible, and emerged the victor of the first round.

Juliet Patterson

Pete Hautman

After a brief intermission, Skemp took the stage in his fight against Ash. There was an awkward moment of dead air before Skemp’s back-up guitarist got in tune but the wait was worth it. Everyone in the pub loved his whiskey husky voice. Alas, it could not compete against goth mom Ash, who had four members of the Prairie Fire Lady Choir to back her up while she read and won round two.

On to the grand finale between Hautman and Ash, which involved unscrambling letters to spell out famous authors’ last names. Hautman got hung up on the author Plath and Stephanie Wilbur Ash emerged as the victor of the night. What did she get as a prize? Bragging rights, of course. Some mighty fine bragging rights.

Stephanie Wilbur Ash, Literary Death Match winner

Todd Zuniga, Literary Death Match founder

The Literary Death Match in Minneapolis was presented by the Loft, and produced by Sarah Moeding. The Literary Death Match series takes place around the world. For more information, visit Literary Death Match

Sisters in Crime Get Unsexy Perspective on Medical Examiner’s Work

When it comes to reading a good mystery, nothing is more exasperating than being pulled out of the story’s spell by an author’s inaccurate detail, which is why mystery writers like to get it right.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, MD would like writers to get it right, too. His presentation–complete with graphic images of human remains–at the Twin Cities’ Sisters in Crime meeting on Tuesday gave over three dozen members a chance to learn autopsy goals and procedures, and a chance to ask specific questions about medical examiner work that will give crime writing authenticity.

Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Medical Examiner

The first thing Dr. Baker wanted to clarify is that despite what television may have us believe, a medical examiner’s job is anything but sexy. Once bodies start decomposing, they begin to look the same. Bloated. Gray. Green. The skin kind of slips off, making the victim kind of unidentifiable. And therein lies the single most important piece of evidence needed to solve any crime: the identity of the victim.

Dr. Baker ascertains identity through a variety of ways: personal effects, dental records, x-rays, fingerprints, and TV’s favorite, DNA. Although he says, “unlike the medical examiners on television, I cannot tell what kind of car they drove or how they voted in the last election.” Yes, it is clear Dr. Baker does not think highly of the unscientific, godlike skills medical examiners receive on TV.

When determining cause of death, the external examination of the body is crucial to the medical examiner. He pays close attention to pattern injury. Patterns of bruises that reveal what kind of weapon may have been used: a baseball bat or looped extension cord for example. Every once in awhile a body with bite marks comes through. You find a body with bite marks, you know the death was up close and personal. Seat belt marks due to a fatal car crash are helpful to insurance companies as well as car manufacturers.

While listening to the hour-long presentation, it is also clear that Dr. Baker knows his stuff. He’s calm, complete, prepared, and articulate. He said he has to be thorough for families, the law, public health, and in case he needs to testify in court. The first time he was cross-examined by an attorney, he said he felt like this:

That feeling has since gone away. Dr. Baker’s past assignments include identifying victims in the 9/11 Pentagon attack, Hurricane Katrina, and the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

It was a terrific, informative presentation for crime writers, and Dr. Andrew’s patience with our questions remains much appreciated.

For more county medical examiner information, see http://www.hennepin.us/me

A big round of applause also goes out to Erin Hart, Sisters in Crime President, for orchestrating this event. The Twin Cities’ chapter of Sisters in Crime meets the first Tuesday of every month at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis unless otherwise noted. All–including brothers–are welcome: readers, writers, librarians, bookstore owners, and publishers. For more information or to become a member, please visit the SINC website: http://www.twincitysinc.org/

Twin Cities Book Festival Fun for Everyone

Especially for me as a volunteer. Last month I blogged about the Literary Punch Card and how MN book publishers, The Loft, and booksellers were doing their part to keep our literary community thriving, and I also mentioned the importance of everyone contributing as best we can, in any way we can.

I volunteered to work at the Information Desk at the 11th annual Book Festival hosted by Rain Taxi Review of Books, which took place at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College this past Saturday. Other than the occasional yo-yo hailing down on my head from the kids’ section upstairs, it was a lot of fun. I mean, what’s not to like about a place full of books and book lovers:

The all-day, free-admission book fair featured authors, booksellers, magazines, publishers, librarians, prizes,  author panels, readings, presentations, writer opportunities, and of course, books, books, and more books.

Eric Lorberer,  the festival director and Scott Parker, the volunteer coordinator worked with nonstop enthusiasm and were so busy all day they were nothing but blurs, otherwise I would have taken their pictures, too.

Hi ya, David!

At the Information Desk all I had to do was answer people’s questions and point them in the direction they wanted to go. I enjoyed meeting readers and writers, authors, and seeing friends. It was fun being a part of something so vibrant, so important. I loved every minute of it. I hope others will consider volunteering their time at the book festival next year. It’s easy to sign up. Just go to the Rain Taxi website and under the Twin Cities Book Festival section, click on the word volunteer.

To thank me for my time, I got a wonderful gift bag filled with books, magazines, coupons, a museum pass, and stationery. Many thanks to the other volunteers for making the day great, and especially to Mr. Parker and Mr. Lorberer for all that you do.

Asides:

to the gentleman who left his writing journal by me after rearranging his backpack: I did not look in or read any part of your journal. I swear.

to the guy who lost half his bike light: no, it was never turned in. Hope you made it safely home in the dark.

to Paul Metsa: the answer is, sometimes.

to the woman looking for the diabetes expo: hope you found it

and to the security guard whose knees I took out with the flatbed book cart during cleanup: again, so sorry! those things were really hard to steer.

Take a Poem to Lunch Day

This month is National Poetry Month. I’ve been perusing Magers and Quinn, dragging volumes home, memorizing sonnets, and trying to write my own stuff.  Today I decided it was Take a Poem to Lunch Day, and chose this one:

Instrument of Choice

By Robert Phillips

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba. Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover’s embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

The goal was to not only introduce the poem to my co-workers at lunch time, but also entice them to put down their Jimmy Johns and memorize the beautiful thing with me. From the looks I got, you’d think I’d asked them to meet me at some truck stop for a filthy weekend. How about in high school? I ask. Didn’t you have to recite poetry in high school? Shakespeare? The Canterbury Tales? Yes, exactly, Victor answers. And it was torture.  Benita, still in college, outright refuses. She has a test on Friday. She doesn’t want to confuse the Latin names of muscles with oompahs. What’s the point? Adam wants to know. The point, I say, the point is that something marvelous happens. The poem begins to have more meaning. You feel it from inside you and it feels good. It feels sublime.  The way singing a song by heart feels better than sight-reading it. They agree in the end, not for my sake but because they want to finish their sandwiches, to each take a section, four lines. Boom. It’s done. For the rest of the day, we whisper pieces of the poem as we pass each other in the hall. We smile and we grin and by the end of the day, we each know the entire poem by heart. Sublime indeed.