Stephen G. Eoannou is giving away a copy of Muscle Cars this week. He’ll be sending it to the author of the story he chooses to publish.
One of the most striking things in “Muscle Cars” for me is that very little actually happens in the narrative present, yet the story is still so tense and taut. How did you fight the temptation–one I think a lot of writers would’ve had–to have this story take place on or closer to (SPOILER ALERT) the day Gregg died?
The story dictated that distance. I had this idea of a compulsive bodybuilder in mind for a while. He was actually a character in an early failed novel. The question, of course, is why is he so compulsive? What’s driving him to this behavior that has his wife so worried? That’s the question I set out to answer in the short story. As the answer began to reveal itself, it made perfect sense to push the present action away from his brother’s death. Time needed to pass for his issues to manifest itself in his behavior and his desire to protect himself, his wife, and the lost boys next door. I used a similar strategy with Carlton, the main character in “The Girl In The Window”. How did a member of the Neighborhood Watch Patrol become a voyeur? How did he get to that point in his life? Time needed to pass from the traumatic event that set him on this path before that answer made sense. I think that time delay makes both characters more sympathetic. They’ve been struggling with what haunts them for a while. By the time the reader meets these guys, they’re already in trouble.
Take us through the process of putting together your collection, Muscle Cars. How did you decide on order? Title story?
Muscle Cars was always the working title. I thought it might grab a reader’s attention enough for them to pull the book off the shelf and take a look. I also thought that it might give us the opportunity to do something cool and creative with the cover, which I think we did. But as I wrote more and the collection started taking shape, I waffled and thought Lost Things might better reflect the theme of loss that is threaded throughout the collection. By the time I finished the manuscript, I couldn’t decide between the two so I asked several of my writer friends their opinion. Everyone thought Muscle Cars was the stronger title so I went with that. As for the order, I knew I wanted Muscle Cars to bat leadoff. That story introduced the theme of loss, male relationships, and the inarticulate male main character that are all explored throughout the collection. And I knew I wanted Auld Lang Syne as the final story. So many of the stories are dark, and I wanted to end the book on a hopeful note. Slip Kid was the last story I wrote and it seemed that was the centerpiece of the book so that took the middle slot. With the rest, I tried not to have back-to-back first-person stories or third person stories and I wanted to spread out what I thought were the stronger pieces. That last part backfired a bit as everyone seems to have a favorite story.
What similarities would you say there are between writing a short film’s screenplay and composing a flash story?
Both are smaller canvasses compared to their big brothers of feature-length screenplays and traditional-length short stories. Because of that, every scene, every line, every word needs to be essential to the story. If it’s not, it must be cut. The challenge in working in miniature is being able to achieve an emotional impact in your readers (or movie audience) in a short period of time. The questions I constantly ask myself when working in these forms are “Does this matter?” “Am I touching the reader?” You want them to feel something when you deliver that last line. It doesn’t matter if it’s a smile or a laugh or a sharp, intake of breath as if they’ve been gut punched by what they just read. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That’s the type of emotional impact you want to shoot for.
Sometimes when I’m reading submissions, I think stories live or die depending on how well the dialogue functions. What advice would you give to a beginning writer on how to write dialogue?
Eavesdrop! I travel a lot for work and I’m always eavesdropping on the conversations going on around me in restaurants and at the hotel bar. I listen for what is said and what isn’t said. Sometimes what’s left out is even more telling than what is spoken. I try to pick up the rhythms and nuances and think how they are affecting me. I’d also remind beginning writers that the purpose of dialog is to move the story forward or reveal character. If it’s not doing either of those two things, you need to cut it.