Danielle Evans on Writing the Subterranean Story
In Conversation with Courtney Balestier on the WMFA Podcast
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
This week, Courtney talks with Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections, about flipping received narratives, reckoning with the past, and the relationship between a work’s active and emotional plots.
From the episode:
Courtney Balestier: Is that something that comes up while you’re writing, this idea of the subterranean story? I know from my own writing too, like you say, you only really after the fact are seeing, oh, that’s what this is about. But at a certain point, I think, in the writing process, you are kind of harnessing that recognition and putting a foundation of it in there.
Danielle Evans: Yeah, once I get to the second draft of a story, I have to have an answer for what the story is actually about before I can continue revising. I think there are lots of different ways that that relationship can work. Part of what was interesting in this collection is that the emotional space of the story was more of a surprise to me than it was in my first book. I talk sometimes about active plot versus emotional plot, and sometimes it makes sense to think about the threads of a story that way. Sometimes there’s more than two, and so it’s not always a neat way to capture everything a story is doing. But I do try to ask myself at the end of a first draft, what are the active plot questions, and did I resolve them in some way? And what are the emotional or thematic questions, and did I leave enough room for the reader to engage those?
In this collection, often the emotional plot was doing something completely different than the active plot. My first book was largely coming-of age-stories, so the emotional arc of the story and the plot arc of the story were often in the same place. Sometimes that was complicated by having a retrospective narrator who was looking back on something, so you were getting another layer there. But usually there was an event or a decision in the story, and the emotional response was to that event or decision and the way that it changed a person’s future, changed a person’s sense of who they were.
And here, because I’m writing about characters who are a little bit older, I’m writing sometimes about grief or crisis or things that are beyond the scope of characters’ agency, or about people who are not so much making choices as realizing they’ve already made choices. And so, sometimes the emotional plot is just a flat line. It’s like, here’s the thing that hurts or matters or that shapes everything, and here is the plot of things this person can control, which often have nothing to do with the things that matter most but is just putting one foot in front of the other to get through the day, or creating new drama to evade the underlying grief of the story.
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Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN America PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection. Her stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories. She teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.