Katie Crouch in Praise of the Not-Perfectly-Plotted Novel
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Katie Crouch is the guest. Her latest novel Embassy Wife is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
From the episode:
Katie Crouch: Honestly, in every single novel—I guess it’s my fourth literary novel—it always solves itself. It comes to the subconscious. If I do the work of really knowing these characters and really giving them human needs and things that they want, then the story solves itself at the end. I’ve been comparing it recently—I teach creative writing—to songwriting. We’ll listen to pop songs, stanza refrain, stanza refrain, and then there’s the bridge. And the bridge, that’s where your novel has to really sing. It has to either be plot, like something surprising happens, or maybe you bring a new character or you change point of view. If you don’t have a perfectly plotted novel, that’s okay. If you just do something really amazing there, you have a really good bridge, people aren’t going to notice.
I’ve read so many books like this where I’m like, wow, that didn’t really make sense, but I really loved what they did at the end of that book there, so that’s fine. That’s the one little trick I rely on. They call it the refrigerator-door question, where you go to a movie and you open the refrigerator later and you’re like, “Wait a minute, what happened to the woman in the submarine? We never got to the end of that.” The refrigerator-door question is the thing that the author gets away with that doesn’t quite get resolved. But I think that if you wrap it up nicely, just do something surprising at the end, you can get away with not having a James Patterson–plotted book.
Brad Listi: Right. There’s a little bit more wiggle. You talk about a novel that’s plotted where you’re dealing with multiple character storylines, and it’s got some comedic qualities and some kind of pop entertainment qualities. And I don’t say that in the pejorative. I want to make sure to underline it; I think it’s actually a virtue. I wish I had more of it. I’m kind of jealous of having that sensibility. But it was a reminder to me that I was along for the ride and thoroughly content. Even though, if I’m being honest, the plotlines might have resolved themselves to a degree that they might not in real life. Do you know what I’m saying?
Katie Crouch: Oh yeah. No way.
Brad Listi: I was like, oh yeah, this is fair game in storytelling, and it works, and it’s okay. For some reason I can get lost sometimes thinking that plot has to mirror real life or something. Do you see what I’m getting at?
Katie Crouch: Yeah, I totally do. I watch Schitt’s Creek with my daughter. And she’s like, wait a minute, wait a minute, they bought the town? So do they own the motel? And I’m like, honey, it doesn’t matter. Just go with it. It’s really funny. Listen to David Rose. Look at Moira. You know? I think if you really fall in love with the things you’re doing that are fun—as long as it’s fun for you, I think it’s going to be fun for your reader. I really believe that. Which is why, to be honest, Abroad, which was not fun to write, it was really cathartic, people were like, that was not a fun book to read, Katie. That was all about a young girl who gets raped and dies at the end. I’m like, okay, sorry.
Brad Listi: I should interrupt. Abroad is one of your previous novels.
Katie Crouch: Yeah. I was exploring something there. But this book, every time I sat down, I was turning something sad into something fun for myself. And I think people are reacting to that. But yeah, the plot, I think one can get too, “Ahh, this plot, does this make sense?” It’s a story. It doesn’t have to make sense. I mean, we have so many things that have to make sense in real life. Especially now. Where are my children? Can I go outside? Do I have to wear a mask? Who cares. Let’s just wrap it up in a fun way where my characters get to spin off into oblivion. I mean, I don’t think it can be so out there that it’s not authentic to the story. It can’t be like the end of Lost.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of Otherppl with Brad Listi, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.
Katie Crouch is The New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks, Men and Dogs, and Abroad. She has also written essays for The New York Times, Glamour, The Guardian, Slate, Salon, and Tin House. A former resident of Namibia and San Francisco, Crouch now lives in Vermont with her family and teaches creative writing at Dartmouth College.