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The Redemptive Imagination
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Interactive Timeline, 1876 - 1999 interview Transcript Webography

Page 12345

Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

Santiago: One person's story that's bigger than you ever imagined. I'd like to go back to something that you said earlier when you were -- what gave you permission to approach this, or what gave you the courage to approach it, is this sense that this was one person's story. And that then within that person, you could then go into that life, and they make mistakes, and whatever. And one of the things that -- it really sparked something in me, because that's what allowed me to write a memoir. I remember just being terrified at the prospect that I had to write about my life. And that, in fact, because there weren't a lot of books about Puerto Ricans coming to the United States, and all the kinds of experiences that I had, that I knew on some level that it would be seen as representative of a whole group of people; when in fact, my experience was very particular.

But I do remember sitting in front of my computer one day and just saying, you know, I just have to write my story and trust that the reader is going to see that it's one person's story. And the interesting thing is that when you do that, you do put it in a historical context, because you have to. In order to be specific about your character, or about yourself as a protagonist, you have to get into the real, nitty-gritty specificity of that moment or of that life. And that's what brings it, or makes it universal. Then it doesn't seem as daunting. But in fact it's a lot bigger than you ever imagined.

Miller: In the way you tell the story, you tell it front to back. Is there any reason for that?

Santiago: I think that's the way I think! [laughter] I live chronologically, so...

Golden: You know, could I make a comment about this issue of chronology? Because I've thought about it quite a lot as a novelist. It's terrifically important in storytelling; because if you imagine a situation like, for example, you're at a dinner party and the host looks across the table at you a moment longer than he should, you're a man, it doesn't mean anything. But if you put a story behind it, you're having an affair with his wife, now suddenly it's a bone-chilling event when he looks at you too long like that.

But if you start a story with that, and then flash back to the beginning of the affair and work your way up through the dinner party, it's a very different story from starting with the beginning of the affair and working your way through in its natural, chronological order. Because in the first case, you pose a question in the reader's mind: "What was that look all about? Why did it upset him so much?" And now the story is really principally there to answer a question. It's a sort of intellectual satisfaction.

But if you do it in its proper order, when you get to that scene, now it has an emotional effect upon the reader. And I think chronology is intrinsically more emotional, or emotion-laden.

Miller: I'd agree. But a lot of history has gotten away from the art of storytelling. We forgot Herodotus, we forgot Thucydides, we forgot what made history compelling; and we're back to analysis, without story. But I think the idea of a storyteller has a more interesting legacy and heritage. I'd rather pen up with Homer, you know, than Charles Beard.

Golden: That sounds like an easy one!

[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: Yeah, yeah it is. But the storytelling technique, I deal with a scene in a book I'm writing now, in Vicksburg, where Grant goes behind the lines, the Confederate lines in Mississippi. He cuts off communication with Washington. And he wins. But again, in the history book, they'd say, "Well Grant, it was a fantastic campaign; he cut behind the lines, and he won."

But what you don't see, there was another army in Mississippi at the time that could have ambushed him. You don't sense the danger of Grant going behind there unless you put those options out there, that all these things could have happened to him. And that's storytelling, you know? All these things could have happened...

Johnson: And the grit, and the mud, and the dust of human experience and existence...

Golden: When you write, no matter how much you give yourself permission by saying, "It is just an individual," it does often happen that readers read it and think there's some larger meaning, which is all right, but it doesn't have to be what you meant.

Santiago: You know, when people come to me and say, "I've discovered this, or I've found that, or did you mean this," you know, I have to remind them I'm really not that smart to put that kind of very abstract thematic thing in there! It's just not something that I sit down and say, "I'm going to put something in here so that you can write a doctoral dissertation!" Very few writers will do that. You really...

Johnson: I do that, though.

Santiago: [laughs]

Miller: You do?

Johnson: I do that, yes.

Miller: How do you start?

Johnson: Well I mean, my work is philosophical fiction, largely. So there is going to be usually some kind of universal theme. But the whole point is to put flesh and blood on it. I mean, abstract ideas don't begin floating up here in the ether, or Plato's realm of forms. They begin down in the grit, and the mud, and the dust of human experience and existence.

Santiago: But do you go and try, are you very specific about putting these things in there?

Johnson: What it is is, they emerge. They emerge from tracing the drama. Because there is no way, I think, that you can separate them. You know, very fundamental questions, such as who am I? You know, questions of identity. Even further questions like we're talking about right here, like, what can I know? Questions of epistemology. What is knowledge? How do we define that? You know what I'm saying? Those are questions that can be dramatized, and indeed are in fiction all the time.

I mean, I personally think that fiction and history are sister disciplines. So you know, it's not like putting things in one box, and that's a novel; putting things in one box, that's history. No.

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