On Tuesday, October 29, 2019 at 7PM, Craft on Draft, a reading series developed by Grub Street’s Novel Incubator alumni, presents Writing Your Novel’s Biggest Moments at Trident Booksellers, 338 Newbury St. Boston, MA. Come hear how authors Rachel Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars), Mark Guerin (You Can See More From Up Here) and Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne (Holding On To Nothing) found the right volume for their novels’ biggest moments.
At our last Craft on Draft event on May 14th, 2019, authors Susan Bernhard (Winter Loon), Louise Miller (The Late Bloomer’s Club) and Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light) discussed their work as we presented How to Tackle your Novel’s Murky Middle. The evening’s writing contest winner, Jordan Coriza, agreed to answer a few questions for Dead Darlings.
Jordan Coriza’s stories have appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Worcester Review, The Bare Life Review, and elsewhere. His debut novel, THE DEAD PHONE, is historical fiction set in Argentina during its last military dictatorship. Though he calls Boston home, he’s lived in Argentina, Brazil, and Italy. A seasoned translator, he makes a living as a communications professional for a nonprofit global health organization. He has an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. Find him on Twitter @JordanCoriza.
Your winning entry, an excerpt from “The Dead Phone,” depicts a tense and terrifying scene of two women hiding from officials and then making a horrific discovery. What was your research like for this scene and how did you go about imagining it?
As horrific as that is, it’s based on something that actually happened. THE DEAD PHONE is a historical novel set during Argentina’s Dirty War, when tens of thousands of people disappeared at the hands of the military government. I read and watched a ton of material to make sure I portrayed the historical context as accurately as possible. The book Nunca Mas: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared was shockingly illuminating. It contains personal accounts of abduction, torture, and death told in grisly detail. Among the hundreds of accounts in the report, one caught my attention: a man, forced into labor in captivity, found a fetus in a plastic bag while building a sports field in Buenos Aires. My book is set in the early days of the dictatorship, and my characters are trying to piece together what’s going on from the little information they have. They hear rumors about suspicious activity at a sports field in the edge of town and decide to go check it out at night—a dangerous if not stupid decision, to be sure. I wanted them to find something scary and confusing, so the reader can understand what everyday people experienced in those days and the lengths to which they went in pursuit of answers. For this particular scene, I had to find maps and aerial images to make sure my characters could have reached the construction site by foot back in 1977. I even went there myself in 2018. It continues to be part of a military complex and civilian access is restricted.
Is the scene part of a novel, and if so, how do you go about your work? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you know the ending when you begin?
Although I’ve written many short stories by the seat of my pants, I am definitely a plotter. This is my first novel, so I wanted to have a good plan before starting. I had a pretty clear idea about the whole story even before I started the first draft, although many things—including the ending—changed in later revisions.
Who are some of the writers who you have admired? What is it about their work that interests you?
I have always admired the late Jose Saramago for his ability to keep my attention through long passages of stream of consciousness and for the insightful metaphors his novels present—a crisp, and often very dark, commentary on the human condition. I also love Ottessa Moshfegh’s writing: her astute observations, her precise use of language, and the often grotesque themes in her stories—all so fascinating—and Rachel Cusk and Dan Chaon for similar reasons.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a short story and doing research for my next novel, which will be set in Spain and South America at the turn of the 19th century. It’s about the life of The Dead Phone’s protagonist’s mother, so the two books are connected.
The following excerpt comes from my novel, THE DEAD PHONE. The story is set in Buenos Aires during the late 70s, when an estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” at the hands of the military government. My protagonist is a middle-aged woman who widows at the beginning of the book. Ravaged by the loss of her husband, she must overcome emotional and financial challenges to survive. When she finds an old phone in her late husband’s tool shed, she uses it to call him. Word gets around, and neighbors begin to flood my protagonist’s house bearing gifts of cash and valuable objects in exchange for time with her magical phone. A man who is looking for his missing wife offers my heroine a meaningful friendship and a sense of possibility. To get through the Murky Middle, I gave my protagonist a series of problems to solve, fashioned into a type of quest to help various people in her community find their disappeared. In the passage below, she and her friend Ines go inspect a sports field under construction in the middle of the night, where the authorities are said to be burying or burning detainees.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness, steam rising from my nostrils. I could hear things dragging. Although we couldn’t see what was happening beyond the mound, it was easy to conclude from the presence of the truck and the men’s officious murmurs that they were hauling something important. I thought I heard the metallic clatter of chains and couldn’t help but imagine it was the shackles of people forced to work in the sports ground under construction. Were they carrying the dead bodies of their colleagues, forced to dump them into a pit?
My feet hurt from squatting. I fumbled around for something to lean on, and my hand touched something slimy that gave when I pressed it. I winced. It was a supermarket bag with something small in it. I picked it up and opened it. Inside were a fetus and some liquid. I almost screamed. I toppled over Ines, who groaned. The men suddenly stopped talking, and I knew for sure that someone would come around and find us, and shoot us, and dump us in the grave, and douse us with kerosene, and burn our bodies until we were nothing more than a lump of scorched bones and ashes, which the morning breeze would carry across the city and scatter lightly on the cobbled streets like snowflakes that trickle with the rain into gutters, to rest with the rats and garbage.