Writing Towards Surprise: Bret Anthony Johnston and Jennifer duBois

So what if a happy ending isn’t actually a happy ending? Or the proverbial guy in the white hat isn’t actually the good guy, and the bad guy isn’t all bad?  Or we only see what we want to see?

In the hands of a talented writer, the answers to questions like those – found by navigating through the shoals of what-if and should, expectation and presumption – are the anchors of evocative, thought-provoking novels like Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This (Discover, Summer 2014) and Jennifer duBois’s Cartwheel (Discover, 2013, now in paperback).

A kidnapped child returned to his family, a young woman accused of murder: simple statements of fact. But Johnston and duBois’s expansive storytelling acumen turns simple statements of fact into deeply resonant stories of families living through the unexpected, the aftermath, the grey areas of life.

So here are Bret Anthony Johnston and Jennifer duBois on the dangers of conflating fiction and reality, why revealing character is key, and how writing stories and novels each inform the other, and much more  — beginning with, What comes first, character or story?—here on the Barnes & Noble Review. – Miwa Messer


Bret Anthony Johnston: For me, the story always begins with a character, and yet a character alone isn’t enough.  I need an action too, or a place, a setting that interests me.  I’ll imagine a character in a specific location, or doing something that I wouldn’t immediately associate with what I know so far about this person, then I’ll wonder how she arrived at that place, where she’ll go next.  It may take years for those things to crystallize in my imagination, but once they do, I can start writing.  From there, to find the story, I head in the opposite direction of what I know.  If the person’s past is clearer to me, if I have a deeper understanding of how she’s found herself in this particular moment, then I feel no inclination to write about what’s happened and so I follow the story into the future.  If the future is clearer, then I let the story lead me into the past.  I write into the dark, trusting that I’ll find a light I didn’t know existed.  I’m always writing toward surprise.


Remember Me Like This started with the image of a woman volunteering for overnight shifts to rehabilitate a sick dolphin.  I wondered why she’d signed up for such brutal times, these long and lonely slogs when I would expect her to be asleep at home.  Then I started wondering about her family, started thinking she volunteered for the overnight shifts because she wanted to be alone, wanted some semblance of anonymity.  By now I was imagining her with a husband and children, but I also thought she’d be using her maiden name at the rehab facility.  So I had this woman in my mind, an insomniac whom the other volunteers knew by a different name, and she was sitting beside a pool, watching a dolphin swim in circles in the middle of the night.  It occurred to me that she would bring in an inflatable toy for the dolphin, a silly alligator that her sons no longer used.  From there I started thinking about her sons blowing up this alligator, how it would be a boy’s breath, not hers, inside the toy, and then I knew why she was there, why she was lying about her name, what she was hiding from: her son was gone.  He’d been gone for years and she hadn’t been able to save him and everyone knew her as the grieving mother, everyone except this sick dolphin she came to visit in the middle of the night.  I understood what she’d been enduring for the last few years, but I couldn’t imagine what would happen next.  I had to write the novel to find out.

Where does it begin for you? Did the image of Lily doing her cartwheel signal the whole novel for you?  One of the many things that I really admire about the book is how different characters meditate on the cartwheel, how it fairly or unfairly becomes the lens through which Lily is refracted.  I love how what they think about the action reveals infinitely more about them than it does about her.

Jennifer duBois: I love the idea of moving away from what you already know about a character and toward what you don’t. I imagine shifting from that inflatable alligator to an understanding of your character’s loss must have been rather startling–almost in the same way that incidentally learning about a real person’s loss can be. That sense of not knowing and of wanting to find out is what leads me into a story, as well–“writing toward surprise” is a wonderful way to phrase it, and I’d like to steal that for my teaching. In fact, I realized a few days ago that I already have been stealing your thoughts for my teaching–in my notes of favorite quotes to share with students, there is this one from you (I give them the full quote but am excerpting here):

What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth, isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? If we succeed, if the characters are fully imagined, if they are so beautifully real that they quicken and rise off the page, then maybe our own experiences will feel smaller, our actions less consequential…Maybe we worry we’ll be forgotten. Maybe we’re afraid of what we want most—for our characters to outlive us—and maybe the possibility that the writer, not the reader, will get lost in the pages of a great book is, ultimately, too much for us to bear.


I think this quote (and the Atlantic essay it comes from) is so smart. I tend to be very suspicious of our reflexive tendency to conflate stories and reality, both as writers and as readers, and I’m always trying to sew the seeds of that suspicion in my classes (I hope you don’t mind being roped into my propaganda campaign!). It’s fascinating to consider that we might have this tendency not only because invention is difficult, but also because it’s a little frightening; a successful feat of imagination is, in some ways, a disappearing act. Is this something you’re aware of grappling with in your work? And how do you find yourself navigating the relationship between fiction and fact more broadly–how do you keep those realms separate in your thinking, while still remaining open to ideas that might come from the world?

Cartwheel began with my curiosity about the ways in which intelligent, well-intentioned people can look at the same situation and see wildly different things, and why it’s so difficult to revise a vision we’ve committed to. Like you, I like to write about what’s mysterious to me–those questions I find truly vexing and intriguing. The process of writing Cartwheel was a matter of taking one of those and then zooming in: trying to explore the particularities of four different characters’ minds and imagine how they might come to a radically different set of conclusions about the same person and event. The book didn’t begin with the cartwheel itself, exactly, but rather with an idea of the disparate refractions it might inspire. A lot of details in the book serve a similar function as the cartwheel, and any one of them could stand in, I think, for the greater issue at play (though Cartwheel does make for a better title than, say, Ambiguous Moment Near Condom Display or Questionable Wardrobe Choice Outside Catholic Church).

In reading about the origins of Remember Me Like This, I found myself wondering about how your experience of writing a novel felt different (or similar) to your experience writing the stories in Corpus Christi. You describe one detail about your character pulling you toward another, and then another–did one of those details suggest a novelistic scope? Or did you know from the outset that you were working on a larger canvass? And having written a story collection and a novel, what insights did you discover about the respective challenges and opportunities of each?

Johnston: Hold up: Are you saying that you started writing Cartwheel based on the question of how intelligent folks could see the same details through different lenses?  Does that mean you had that question in mind and then found an event to explore it, or did you begin with the event and then find the question?  Having so thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I’m really interested in how you used an infamous court case as a springboard to a story that transcends its source material.  But maybe I’m looking at your process backwards?  When I reflect on Cartwheel, I think of a book where almost every detail serves as a Rorschach test.  That is, how a character perceives certain stimuli—the voicemail certainly comes to mind, as do the places where DNA was found—reveals who that character is, what that character wants.  I loved how deeply you carved into their consciousnesses.

For me, navigating the relationship between fiction and fact has always been pretty utilitarian: I think of facts as a map where fiction is both the path and the destination.  We need both, of course, but we never mistake one for the other.  I do a lot of research, a lot.  Do you?  With A Partial History of Lost Causes, did you immerse yourself in chess and Huntington’s Disease?  I require my students do research for their stories, too, and I’d love to assign them one or both of your novels to show how the research liberates rather than limits a writer’s imagination.  For Remember Me Like This, I volunteered to help rehabilitate a dolphin that had beached itself, interviewed dry cleaners and pawn brokers and lawyers, studied middle school Texas History and spent the better part of a sweltering day riding a ferry.  I also read everything I could about kidnapping.  Some of this was incredibly good for my soul, and some of it was all but unbearable, but I wanted to know what the characters would know.  The research was the map by which I found their hearts.

And I work the same way when I’m writing stories.  I’m an awfully slow writer, and whether I’m writing a novel or story, I generate about the same amount of work each day, which is to say not much.  I’ve always written at more of the pace of a long-distance runner than a sprinter, even when I’m supposed to be sprinting.  What I’ve learned, though, is that I don’t believe that writing a novel is more difficult than writing a story.  I really don’t. It’s a longer process, but not a harder one.  The trick is, I think, choosing the material that will sustain your interest for that long, imagining and rendering characters that you can love unconditionally for the duration of the writing process.  So far, the form—meaning, the length—has always suggested itself with the characters.  I knew Remember Me Like This would be a novel with multiple points-of-view that took place over a summer, just as I knew that some of the stories I’ve been working on lately would be really short or really long.  What surprised me was how, while I was writing the novel, story ideas would pile up.  In her amazing collection of letters, The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor mentions a few times how she would take “vacations” from writing her novels to write stories.  When the novel started frustrating me, I would follow her lead and write something shorter.

What is it like for you?  Did you ever conceive of either book as something shorter?  Were you working on stories at Iowa or have you always been drawn to writing longer fiction?

duBois: I do think that the questions that motor Cartwheel–how different people look at the same situation and not only arrive at different conclusions, but also seem to see different things–were ones I’d been grappling with always (in the vague way one grapples with such questions). But they were certainly crystallized by my thinking about the diversity (and certainty) of the reactions inspired by a sensational news event, and also the extent to which these reactions seemed bound up in much bigger issues (misogyny, sexuality, class, privilege, anti-American resentment, American entitlement, etc). I became intrigued by the thought of a character who serves as a blank slate of this sort, and at some point I realized that I had a novel-sized curiosity about this idea. A Partial History of Lost Causes had a question of similar scope at its center–how do we approach a situation in which doom is pre-ordained?–and so both books felt like novels from the start. I love and am ultimately probably more satisfied by writing novels than stories–but I love stories, too, and find them very thrilling, and I miss them. For me, novels sort of become these black holes while I’m writing; every idea or image or interesting word I come across winds up thrown in, and so things that might turn into short stories under different circumstances tend not to–everything is drafted into the war effort. I really admire your ability to pause from a novel and turn your attention back to stories for a bit. When you did this during the drafting of Remember Me Like This, did you feel that your perspective on writing short fiction had been changed by your experience of writing the novel? Did you find yourself bringing anything back with you into the novel from your stories?

It’s interesting to hear about the amount of research that went into creating such an authoritative rendering of your characters’ worlds in Remember Me Like This (I’m noticing Whataburger has made a couple of cameos, so I’m hoping you made a few trips in the name of research). I’m impressed by how lightly you weave the research through the book, as well; for me, it’s always a struggle not to sprinkle in research like Pop-Up video fun facts. My approach to research is a blend of obsessively acquiring certain kinds of information and willfully avoiding other kinds. I try to get a good sense of the objective realities of whatever I’m writing about (chess, life in Soviet Russia, the workings of the Argentine legal system) and then let my characters interact with those realities in their own fictional subjective ways. With A Partial History of Lost Causes, for example, I researched Russia pretty extensively (though I traveled there briefly as a child, it was only after selling a book set in Russia that I could afford to go back there as an adult, so all of my research was done via books and the internet). I also tried to understand chess well enough to be able to describe its visuals and, I hoped, some of its emotional choreography (I’d look up the moves of famous games on Wikipedia, then act the games out on my own chess set, while sitting on the floor, like a crazy person). But I mostly stayed away from accounts of individual sufferers of Huntington’s Disease and their psychological reactions to their diagnoses (though I did research the clinical progression of the illness). With Irina, I was trying to create a character whose reaction to her situation was not typical, because it was her very unusual reaction that was going to propel the story. Similarly, with Cartwheel, I mostly stayed away from accounts of real people’s experiences–families of victims, families of accused criminals–because I was trying to explore the experiences of one set of specific, fictional people. I think of my job as a fiction writer as very limited in scope–I’m never trying to capture the universal, only the individual (though I also think every individual contains something of the universal).

The shifting perspectives in Remember Me Like This is one of the most masterful–and heartbreaking–aspects of the book. I think what I admire most about your handling of point of view is the way you delineate not only how differently the characters think and assess and interpret events, but also how differently they experience the world emotionally. Each character is so well-imagined that these schisms emerge not only in ways that are wrenchingly significant, but also sometimes in ways that are hauntingly minor (for example, the mysterious postcard the family receives is the “California” postcard to Laura and the “arrowhead” postcard to Cecil–a slight difference in perception/attention that feels almost harrowingly authentic). And you really delve into the full possibilities of the omniscient point of view–giving us not only complete access to multiple characters’ consciousnesses, but occasionally more access about those consciousnesses than the characters themselves actually have (I’m thinking here of an emotionally intense moment when we learn not only what’s going through Laura’s mind, but also what would be going through her mind if she were thinking more clearly). This is something that isn’t commonly attempted by contemporary writers, I don’t think–probably partly because it is terrifying and seems impossible (though you make it look effortless). In order to pull it off, you must have gotten to know your characters profoundly intimately–better than we ever really know other people, or ourselves, in real life–and I am so curious to hear about this process. Did certain characters emerge alongside others? Did you find different access points to each character’s way of thinking? Did any of them prove harder to get to know than others, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Johnston: It sounds like we view point-of-view in much the same way, and I’m really bolstered to hear how you rendered your characters’ perspectives.  Your idea of a character serving as a “blank slate” is really fascinating, not least in how what the other characters see or impose will necessarily reveal more about the observer than the observed.  The whole business of point-of-view thrills me.  As a reader and writer, I’m endlessly curious about what characters focus on and where they have blind spots.  Lately I’ve been looking into the topics of “change blindness” and “inattentional blindness,” which begin to explain how our concentration can work against us.  Our brains run on about 12 watts of energy, which isn’t much, so to conserve power, we prioritize what we consider and how deeply.  Our brains have evolved so that we can really only process one thing at a time.  The result is that when we get obsessed with something—like, say, the way various characters obsess over Lily’s cartwheel or sexuality—we go blind to information that doesn’t conform to our obsession or the expectations that the obsession raises.

And thanks for noticing the different ways that different characters relate to the postcard. Hearing this from you is really gratifying.  In truth, knowing how each character would refer to the postcard kind of epitomizes how I came to know the people in the novel.  The discrepancies in how various characters react to the same triggers reveal who the characters are.  And, for me, the operative word here is “reveal.”  A lot of writers talk about “building” characters, and I’ve never seen it that way.  If you build a character, that means a book or story begins with an unformed character that has to be assembled page by page and, as such, the reader spends most of the narrative in the company of a cast that lacks dynamism and complexity.  If, however, our job is to reveal character, then we start with a dynamic and complex cast that is stripped to a kind of soul-essence by the end of the book.  This feels far more rewarding to me.  The story concludes with us knowing the characters better than we know ourselves because we can see them in a revelatory light.  I’m always working to reveal my characters, to excavate their consciousnesses.  Frank Conroy used to say the job of the writer is always to reveal, never to conceal.  That obviously made a huge impression on me.

As for stories and novels, I think the best thing a short story writer can do is write a novel—even a bad one.  The scope of a long narrative breeds a new understanding of how short narratives work.  My students often think they need to learn how to write stories before tackling a novel, but I’m convinced the logic should be flipped.  My own stories benefitted immensely from writing Remember Me Like This. I take more risks in the stories—stylistically, structurally, emotionally.  If I thought I could get away with it, I would require my students to draft a novel in the name of learning to write short stories.  Writing a novel broadened my idea of what’s possible in short stories.

On the subject of teaching, there’s been a lot of debate recently about whether aspiring writers should move to NYC or go to an MFA program.   What are your thoughts on MFA programs?  Do you see any downside to earning a degree in creative writing?

duBois: I love your idea of “revealing” character instead of “building” it. I’ve heard it said that fiction shouldn’t ask the question “how did the characters get this way?” but “given that the characters are this way, what do they do?” (I want to say I heard this from Charles D’Ambrosio, though there’s kind of a folk music quality to writing advice, isn’t there? It seems like everybody is always quoting somebody else.) I think that distinction relates to one of the things I most admired about the characterization in Remember Me Like This, which is the way you make us believe that all these people exist independently of the book, somehow–we really feel that they had lives before the book begins, and that their lives will continue after the book ends. That’s part of what makes the ending of Remember Me Like This so striking, I think. It seems like a beginning of a kind, as well as a conclusion, and this feels very authentic–since in life we don’t tend to get tidy endings, per se, as much as significant turning points. Were you thinking of any of that as you considered how to end the book? How far ahead in your drafting process did you have a sense of how it would conclude? Do you have any thoughts on what makes endings satisfying more generally?

I have been following the MFA vs. NYC discussion with some sense of mystification, I must admit. The observations about the evolution of two literary sub-cultures are interesting, certainly. But the debate itself seems to me to be oddly removed the actual experience of any individual writer, inasmuch as it seems to ignore the most fundamental motivation for writing–if you love to write, writing is an end in and of itself–as well as the most fundamental obstacle to writing–it takes time, and you can’t buy time unless you have money. I think part of what’s missing from the discussion is the acknowledgment that for young people who are working to support themselves, time vs. money really is a zero-sum game, and New York is very, very expensive. Whether or not it’s a meaningful dichotomy generally, the MFA vs. NYC thing is only a meaningful choice for an individual who can expect to go to New York and find both a way to survive and time left over to write–and for most aspiring young writers, armed only with their B.A.s in English or whatever, this is just not realistic. The discussion rightly acknowledges that writing is an enormous gamble that only a very few will win, but I’m not sure it properly acknowledges that writing is a gamble that only the at-least-partially-subsidized can afford to make in the first place. The biggest virtue of MFA programs, in my eyes, is that they can offer young writers a way to simultaneously write and survive. In terms of whether there are any downsides to MFAs, honestly, I think there are mostly downsides to seriously pursuing creative writing in any way at all; the only upside is the subjective, transcendent experience of creating art–and to the extent that MFA programs make that experience available to a slightly broader spectrum of people, I think they’re a good thing. But then again, I may be missing something here; these days I tend to find myself rather stubbornly focused on the concrete over the abstract in any argument I’m party to, possibly due to lingering trauma from my philosophy undergraduate degree. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, particularly since you must have occasion to counsel a lot of young writers about their next moves. What advice do you tend to give to your students?

Johnston: Thank you for these awfully kind words about the ending of Remember Me Like This!  It sounds like we admire the same things about the way each other’s novel draws to a close.  Most of the endings that I love in fiction correspond in pretty direct ways to Flannery O’Connor’s idea that an end must be both “surprising and inevitable,” and Cartwheel absolutely achieves such a rare balance.  With my novel, I can say that I assumed the book would end differently and when I realized it wouldn’t, when I realized I’d been writing toward the wrong ending, I felt liberated and grateful.  And yes, I hoped the ending would feel like something of a beginning in the same way that I hoped the beginning of the book would assure the reader that the characters had lived full lives before the first page.  I tend to think of fiction, whether stories or novels, as being powered by both acute and chronic tension.  The acute tension is the narrative frame, the occasion for the story and the window through which the reader receives it.  The chronic tension is everything before, during, and after.  It’s not the window or the frame, but the landscape extending beyond our limited view.

My feelings about the whole MFA vs. NYC debate, which has unsurprisingly all but evaporated even since you and I started talking about it, is that it’s a false dilemma.  Maybe there were some interesting points made, but the argument itself feels flawed.  I agree, most vehemently, with your idea that it seems removed from the actual experience of any individual writer.  That’s very well said.  In a still broader context, the debate never resonated with me because I don’t feel the need to justify, defend, or rationalize the choice to write.  To write is to think.  To write is to feel, to empathize, to take part in the profound act of witness.  Any argument mounted against those endeavors feels capitalist and precariously close to the agenda that brought us the disaster of the Common Core.  The focus is on the product, not the process, and it denies the benefits of community, of sustained time in an environment of likeminded peers, and the pleasures of patience and rigor and diligence.  Writers need time and readers, and there are multiple paths to find both of them.  The debate presupposes that we also need efficiency and speed, which, again, smacks of consumerism.  I’m reminded of a scene from the movie The Shootist that Richard Bausch sometimes cites.  There are two gunslingers, an apprentice and a veteran.  The young fella is practicing his draw, trying to get faster and faster, and the veteran says, “You don’t have to be fast.  You only have to be willing.”  This makes perfect sense to me as a writer and a teacher, and it’s what I tell my students.  Focus on the work itself, on your willingness to log the hours and embrace the daily habit of making literary art.  Don’t saddle your art with doing something it wasn’t meant to do, which may include keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.  I ask them to consider what they’re willing to sacrifice for this life not what they hope to gain.  I ask them how long they’re willing to wait, how long they’re willing to spend on the unimaginably difficult labor of coaxing an imagined soul onto the page before it quickens to life and finds the ideal reader.  I ask them if the work itself is enough, if they would still do it even if they never get published.  No one has ever said anything other than yes.  By the time they’re asking the question, they’ve already answered it.  Whether they do the work in NYC or Iowa City or San Marcos, Texas doesn’t matter.  It only matters that the work gets done.  It only matters that there are writers willing to do it, regardless of the results.