“Writing Is My Way Of Chasing”: An Interview With Dennis Norris II
How do you think your past experiences as a figure skater have influenced the way you approach or consider writing?
I think there are two main links between my skating career and my writing career: tenacity, and freedom. The learning curve in skating is steep—it can quite literally take years to master a single skill. That’s a lot of falling down, getting back up, chipping away at it, learning incrementally, and continuing to try. It builds a unique ability to persevere in front of an audience and the judges who, well, judge you. There are people I know who are no longer writing, and I tend to think to myself that if they had been figure skaters, they’d probably still be writing.
When I say freedom, I mean that for an accomplished skater, the ice becomes a free space. You have control over it, your body knows what it needs to do to be beautiful, or athletic, or both, and you have this huge space where you can do anything you want. I think about writing a novel in a similar way. The number of words or pages of your typical novel, or the scope of the story I’m trying to tell, can be overwhelming, but mostly it just feels like freedom. I think that perhaps, now that I’m beyond my skating days, writing is my way of chasing that same feeling of boundlessness.
A thing I really admire about your writing is that you don’t look away from sex. It’s important in your characters’ lives and you refuse to use the literary equivalent of fireworks going off, a train entering a tunnel, etc. Have you always been at ease writing sex? What advice would you give other writers who are trying to find the balance between—ugh, this sounds so professorly, but I can’t think of another way to put it—the erotic and staying literary? Who are some writers that you think write sex scenes well?
Thank you for saying this—I take sex scenes very seriously, so this compliment is much appreciated. At the outset it always seems so difficult to write a sex scene, but I don’t think it’s really any more difficult than writing anything else. It’s such rich material because you can play around so much. That said, I didn’t always feel this comfortable writing them. During my second-year at Sarah Lawrence, I began working on this novel. Sex (and shame) were key elements in its genesis. So one of my great mentors and friends, Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace) looked at me and said, “Dennis, you need to write a sex scene and you need to do it now. I want to see it next week.” She knew the book needed it and she knew I was terrified to write it. Writing that scene was pivotal for me, and from then on out, I just sort of knew I could do it.
My advice regarding sex scenes, first and foremost, is to go for it! There’s no point in employing euphemisms because they only ever seem to distract. You don’t want distraction during sex, so why would you want it in your sex scene? Name what’s happening, be specific, and have fun with it. Which, I think, is pretty good writing advice in general. Writers whose sex scenes that I’ve read and re-read in order to feel comfortable writing mine include Taiye Selasi, Angela Flournoy, and James Salter, but Toni Morrison is the great master—in all respects, but especially when it comes to writing beautiful, surprising, arresting sex scenes.
When do you think you first wrote something that pleased you as a reader?
I wrote my first short story when I was a high school senior. I’d read a short story in this magazine for gay teens and I immediately went to my computer and wrote a short story, something maybe 5 pages. But it felt good. Literary, and serious, and smart. I showed it to some teachers at school and they agreed and encouraged me keep writing. A few years back I re-read it—it’s good for a 17 year old, and a lot of my rhythms and cadences and sentence choices have remained, which is interesting now that I have all this training. But more generally, I think of myself, and other men, or boys, like me, as my primary audience—the people I’m writing for. So I’m writing for myself, and yet, I can’t seem to find a way to look at my work through a reader’s eyes. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though. I mean, I have to write it. Other people will read it. I’ll read other things by other writers.
Writers talk a lot about how to begin and end a story. But for a lot of writers, it feels like the middle is where things can go astray: situations go on too long or important, resonant events get compressed away, the protagonist feels like she’s a different person on each page. What advice would you give a writer about making a story stay interesting and notable?
Number one, for me, is always language. Your sentences are literally your vehicle, so not only should they be kept interesting, but they should be crafted in such a way that their very construction, their sound to a reader’s ear, contributes to the overall momentum and movement of both the larger piece, and the moment at hand. That just requires constant re-writing, editing, and re-editing, and for me, constantly reading aloud to myself. The other thing is tension. Tension is such an amoebic thing—it can be shaped and built and manipulated and hidden and exposed and all of these different things, and that’s just between two characters, or even a character’s inner life. So there really is a ton of room to do whatever you want to as a writer. And I think that when we embrace that space, we can get so creative that we’ll be surprised at what we come up with. And when the writer is surprised, that’s a good sign. Lastly, I think it’s critical that a writer write what they want to write. If we do that, there’s a good chance that we wrote it because we wanted, or needed, to read it. And if we need to read it, there’s a very good chance that someone else does too.
About the Reader:
Dennis Norris II is a graduate of Haverford College and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His fiction appears, or is forthcoming, in Bound Off: An Online Literary Audio Magazine, Madcap Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He has previously won awards and fellowships from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, VONA, the NYS Summer Writers Institute, and in 2015 was named a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. He is a 2016 Tin House Scholar for fiction. He lives in Harlem and is hard at work on his first novel.
About the Interviewer:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.