Nora Bonner is a fiction writer and writing instructor from Detroit, Michigan. Currently, she lives in Atlanta and is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at Georgia State. You can find her story, “As Though She Could Actually Do Something,” in the Potomac Review’s 60th issue.
We hope you enjoy the following interview between Bonner and former Potomac Review interns, Collin Brown and Victoria Sookoo, which was conducted in the spring and fall of 2017. Together they discuss how Bonner’s acting background plays a role in her writing, the value of effective communication, and the wonderfully helpful tools that are writing prompts. Bonner even recommends a few of her favorites.
Collin Brown: One of my favorite aspects of your stories are the characters you create. Characters such as Lindsay and Mary from “Theresa Scott,” and the neighbor from “Final Warning;” are fascinatingly unique, yet still relatable. Where do you draw from when creating these characters?
Nora Bonner: That’s a great question. I suppose memory is where I get most ideas for characters, whether they’re the ones carrying the story’s narrative perspective or on the margins contributing to the conflict, which is the case with those you brought up: the neighbor and the schoolgirls who like to empower themselves through their exclusive clubs. Both of those stories are directly related to my experiences, but the memories are the just starting points, the ideas. Not all of my stories are from memories, but I often use them to get started.
If those characters read as at all interesting, I’d probably have to thank my theater training for hours of character development exercises. Before I was a writer, I studied acting and performed in a lot of plays, but made the switch because I preferred to work toward my own creative visions without having to go through anyone else. But stage acting conditioned me to choose a character’s actions based on their motivations. When actors get a script, they have to make all kinds of choices how to play a scene—what they are doing with their voices and bodies when they’re listening and reacting to other characters.
So, if those stories were plays, Lindsay and Mary and the neighbor would be considered supporting roles. I’ve played a lot of supporting roles over the years, and so that helps me to think about making those characters matter or stand out in a story by giving them interesting things to say and do based on what they want.
CB: How about your experiences as a musician and songwriter? Do you find they have influenced your writing as well?
NB: Not that I’ve reflected upon–maybe I’m more attuned to accidental rhyme in my prose? I once wrote a story (“Walk Out”) that I attempted early drafts in the ballad form. I had a refrain and used a ballad rhythm in the prose, but most of that got cut for subsequent drafts.
Victoria Sookoo: I really liked the unconventional elements incorporated into your piece “We Like.” There are no functioning names for the characters and the brunt of it is dialogue. […] It’s as if we are eavesdropping on a date between two strangers. In the end, I found myself curious about the title. What was your hope in giving this story the name that you did? Did it signify a larger idea that you wanted the reader to take away at the end?
NB: I’m glad you enjoyed this story. I suppose I hoped the title would capture that awkward stage early on in relationships, when two people are scouting each other out, looking for common interests. And often, early in relationships, we tend to expect that our partners will share every taste in common—food, music, movies—and leave little room for difference. It’s easy to dismiss someone in that stage of getting to know someone, simply because they don’t like what we like, or they like something we don’t like. Maybe the deeper meaning to the title is that common interests are at the surface of intimacy—we all “like” something—but sharing an interest isn’t quite the same as connecting on the level that would sustain a meaningful relationship.
CB: Many of your characters seem to struggle to communicate with those around them. What is it about this theme that attracts you as a writer?
NB: Thanks for noticing that! I think you’re the first person to bring it up, but I do think about miscommunication all the time, and I like to write about it. I sometimes say that if I could have any super power, it would be perfect communication. I would be able to speak all languages perfectly, and everyone would always know exactly what I was trying to say at all times. The more I write, the more I realize how hard it is to transform thoughts into words. I also teach writing, and it’s amazing to see how I communicate well with some students but not with others. I have to rethink ways of explaining assignments so that everybody understands, and that gets me thinking about how much our experiences interfere with how well we communicate with different people, depending on circumstances.
I am also interested in writing about miscommunication as a practice in empathy. When people tick me off, I hope to remember that it’s probably because of how I interpreted what they said or did, and what I interpreted isn’t necessarily what they meant when they said or did something to anger me. Maybe sometimes we are just mean, but I think we have good intentions well most of the time; we just use body language or express something with our voices in a way that sounds meaner than we intend.
CB: Some of your stories such as “Final Warning,” “We Like,” “New Translations,” “Last Attempt,” and “At the Opera” convey a multitude of emotions in under 1,000 words. My question is: how do you know when a story should run this short, and what are some challenges you face when writing flash-fiction?
NB: I make the decision to write a flash before I sit down, and it’s rare that I’ll sit down to write something longer and it actually comes out like a flash. For me, they are different modes of writing with different rules. Initially, my writing process involves a lot of asking, “And then what happens…” I know that in a flash, I can only really pull one or two writing maneuvers before I run out of available words. One or two things can happen in less than 1000 words (or sometimes I make the game harder and challenge myself to 750 or 500 words). I also tend to think of it like this: in flash, you get three lily pads and you’re at the other side of the pond. A longer story can use more than three lily pads and bounce all over the pond before it reaches its destination.
Writers like to say that in flash, language carries more weight, so the choices are more crucial. This is true, but I like to spend the same amount of time with language on longer pieces that I do with flash, and by that I mean, after I finish a section, I highlight it and then try to remove ten to twenty-five percent of the words. It’s like a word game that polishes the writing. But the biggest challenge of writing flash is maintaining focus and precision. It’s a fun challenge.
CB: I noticed that you write in various points of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd). Is there a process you go through when deciding which point of view to use?
NB: When I write I make two choices about how to tell a story before I begin: who is storytelling (or which perspective to use) and in which tense.
CB: What unique challenges do you face when writing from different points of view?
NB: Different combinations of tense and [point of view] yield different freedoms and limitations. For instance, first person/present restricts the point of view character from engaging in any sort retrospection or hindsight, but that combo works great if I am writing a story that’s driven by discovery after discovery as it solves its problems. Present tense is great for a story that resembles some sort of quest.
Second person is so intimate that it’s very difficult to widen the lens in a scene and show what’s going on around the point of view character, but it’s great if I want the story to feel inherently rhetorical. Second person present is intense, and so it’s fun to use but it can be hard to slow down and control the speed of the language. Not impossible, but just more difficult.
Third person omniscient/past tense is wonderful for stories that need an inherent narrative authority, but they risk coming off sounding cold. I’ve been using third person more, lately because I’ve been studying James Joyce’s sentences. He and the other modernists are great at finding intimacy in third limited, but right now, for me, that is the hardest thing to pull off.
VS: I was blown away by the way you so easily portrayed Thailand as an outlandish place through the eyes of a foreigner while keeping it a familiar place through the eyes of a native. Two of your works are set in Thailand. Where does your knowledge of this country come from? Did you have to do extensive research to be able to fully achieve the immersive worlds you created in these stories?
NB: I lived in Thailand for two years (2006-2008), when I worked at a public opinion polling center, helping the faculty with their English. I found it to be one of the best decisions I could have made for my writing career because living in a place that is so different than Detroit, where I grew up, forced me to pay attention to details I might otherwise have taken for granted. For those two years, I lived in a constant state of curiosity and fascination. Part of that was because I was fortunate enough to make friends who were generous enough to take me to places—national parks, historical cities, monuments, landmarks—where I could learn more about their culture and history. And because I worked at a research center, polling for Thai people’s opinions on matters of politics and community development, I also had the chance to see the country from a different point of view than I think most Americans get when they visit there. I also loved learning the Thai language (as well as I could), because thinking about how they use words served as another window into the place.
VS: What writers inspired you to want to pursue creative writing?
NB: I think maybe the first time I really wanted to be a writer was after hearing Julie Orringer, at a bookstore in Ann Arbor, read from her first collection, How to Breathe Under Water. She read from a story that was about children facing adult problems (sound familiar?), and I connected to it so strongly that I wanted to try my own version. Reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which is, in some ways, about the need for us to share and listen to stories, also felt like a beckoning to try writing fiction. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides was the first novel I read about Detroit, and it was so fascinating that it made me want to write stories in order to continue the conversation he started in my mind with that book.
VS: Are there any habitual writing exercises that you do to spur up the imagination?
NB: I love that phrase, “spur up the imagination.” I never thought about it in quite those terms, but yes, I do have a few practices that help me to get started on projects. But it’s always important to have ideas on deck and to use them for the timer. Every time I read, I try and look for prompts. For instance, if I read Edwidge Danticat’s amazing essay, “Westbury Court,” I might jot down directions to write a story about a place from my childhood, or a time I felt guilty. Usually, after those ten minutes, I have something to work with. If I want to write a flash about what I’ve discovered, I’ll set a word count. If I feel like the piece should be longer, I’ll make a goal like, “write a description of the house today,” kind of like what Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird.
VS: What sort of process do you go through in battling writer’s block? Is there anything specific that you do to regain your creative juices?
NB: I have had times when it was harder to write, but I have come to learn that the only way through writers’ block is to put words down on a page. This is why having ideas on deck for automatic writing exercises are so important. I also keep a book around, 3am Epiphany, which has writing exercises in it to help me get started. Setting timers and keeping our hands moving helps us to get out of our heads and into the physical work of writing, and it is from there that ideas come.
CB: Are there any writing prompts you would recommend for new writers?
NB: I enjoy one from Natalie Goldberg where she recommends writing for ten or so minutes, starting each sentence with “I remember” and then writing for another ten starting with “I don’t remember”—some interesting story ideas can come up that way. She also recommends picking an abstract concept, setting a timer, and writing everything we know about it, like “Everything I know about death.” But I usually use books of prompts, like the one I mentioned, or like Bret Anthony Johnston’s Naming the World, because they contain a variety of ideas. Often it’s the prompts I’m most resistant to (like, “write 500 words where a handful of characters are plotting the demise of another character”) that give the most interesting results.
CB: What are you working on right now and what are some of your goals for the year?
NB: This summer I hope to play that word game with my novel, which right now is sitting in its file at about 150,000 words. I’d love to try and knock off 15,000 words (or more) so that it will be polished enough to start sending it out. I’ve also been translating Dubliners into stories about Detroit, which is more of a personal project to improve my writing.
CB: Would you care to tell us a bit more about your novel?
NB: I’m a little superstitious about talking about it too much, but I’ll say it is a novel about Harry Houdini and ghost stories set in Detroit.
VS: Do you have any advice for aspiring creative writers or those who are beginning to consider it?
NB: I’d say, if you go through a day or a week and feel like there is something missing in your life because you haven’t sat down and worked on a story, then you should take that seriously because you were probably meant to be a writer, or at least, a creative person.
If you do decide that the act of writing enhances your life experience, the next step would be to read everything you can so you can find out what it is that you like to read the most. After you find out who your favorite authors are, read everything they’ve written, and read it again to find out what they are doing that makes you so excited about their work. Then, aspire to write the stuff you’d want to read.
Also, be patient with yourself. Protect early work or drafts from people who will discourage the ideas, so if you take a workshop, don’t turn in something you just wrote the day before. Take the story you’ve been working on for a while, and nobody’s critique will change your mind about your determination to make it a masterpiece. Also, take classes to make friends whose writing you like to read.
Being a writer is more than writing, it’s actually an entire lifestyle that we pursue to keep us going. It involves attending readings, keeping up with what books are coming out or books that other writers are reading, having friends who love to discuss the writing process and their discoveries, etc.
In general, learn to love everything about writing that has nothing to do with publishing and having people read your work. Once you do that, and you’re still writing, the publishing and compliments can become a bonus. Those things are nice, but they are not why we do it. Writing, in its nature, is exhausting, frustrating, and often discouraging, but the alternative—not writing—is worse.