An Interview with Fred Leebron

by William H. Coles


Fred Leebron Interview June 15, 2012

William H. Coles

Fred Leebron Interview

Fred Leebron is a professor at Gettysburg College where he teaches fiction.  He is the director of the Pan-European MFA program at Cedar Crest College (PA), the director of the MFA program a Queens College in Charlotte, NC, and the director of the summer program at Hollins College at Tinker Mountain, Virginia.  His novel, Six Figures was optioned and directed by filmmaker, Chris Christensen, and proposed for an Oscar for best adaptation.

Hollins Collage, VA
    Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia

I’m at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia at the Tinker Mountain Workshop where Fred Leebron is Director of the program and teaches a workshop on novel.

WHC

Fred, I’d like to thank you very much for agreeing to talk to <www.storyinliteraryfiction.com>

FL

My pleasure.

WHC

How do you define the classic literary story?

FL

Well, I think that’s part of the problem.  If you start trying to define the elements of a classic literary story, then you’re looking at some kind of literary straightjacket.  There is more than one way of looking at classic literary fiction.  You can say the classic elements are conflict, crisis, resolution, or you can broaden that and say the classic story allows for the illusion of progression, the suspension of disbelief, the sense that the story lingers in the reader’s mind long after he or she has finished reading it, and that the characters go on beyond the last page.  So it depends on how narrowly you want to define it.

WHC

In class you mentioned that an author said her work would endure and you pointed out that no author can really tell their work is going to endure.  I wondered.  If you look at the literary works from the past and try to find the elements that contributed to endurance, what would you conclude about novels such as Howards End, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, or Madame Bovary?  What are the elements that make those novels, and many others, come through the generations?

[Enduring] novels are bigger than their own times.

FL

Well, that’s it.  The novels are bigger than their own times.  That’s the definition of endurance, but that’s a two-fold definition.  The first is it’s bigger than it’s own time, thus it endures; the second is [that] something is going on in the work that you can see makes it greater than its own time.  It transcends the temporal limitations that the author living in the time he or she is living in brings to the page.  By definition, it extends beyond, and it extends before.  White Noise would have meaning to someone in the nineties . . . I think White Noise willendure . . . and White Noise would have meaning to reader thirty years after it’s published, and probably have meaning to some thirty years before it was published.

WHC

Is there a way we can learn from what was specifically done in those novels that we can apply to our own writing.

Essential nine stakes to any story telling: birth, sex, death, friendship, family, money, identity, spirituality, and liberty.

FL

Well, I think it begins with this whole word called universality.  That the work has a greater meaning to more people than the people it might have been written for in the first place.   You can break apart any work of fiction and you can go to those nine stakes that are essential to any story telling: birth, sex, death, friendship, family, money, identity, spirituality, and liberty.

WHC

Those are the paradigms?

FL

Those are the paradigmatic stakes in fiction writing.  Everything comes from that.  The work itself, the character is at risk in some way that someone else reading it from another time and another culture can still see that struggle and identify with it.  That‘s what universality offers . . . identification.  Beyond that it’s not only to be willing to have that quality of risk, the characters seem human, that they are real, that they are complex, and they are motivated by multiple and complex reasons rather than by singular and simple reasons.

WHC

You’ve discussed suspension of disbelief in class.  You see that as a conscious tool to be used by writers.

FL

Right.

WHC

As a writer deals with suspension of disbelief, there is the danger of losing credibility.  As you lose credibility, you move into fantasy as opposed to reality.  When you lose credibility, do you begin to alter effective characterization [in literary fiction]?  And in the long run, lose the meaning you’re trying to develop through characterization?

FL

It seems to me what you saying—I’m not sure I fully understand the question—is that suspension of disbelief implies you have to do a lot of evocation.  You have to make the work real to the reader to leave his or her world behind.  And in doing all that evocation, and scenic writing, you might be focusing too much on setting and not on  characterization?  Is that sort of it?

WHC

More in the thrust that if you require a reader to suspend disbelief, then your moving them away from the reality of characterization and the solidity of what reality can bring to characterization and meaning.

FL

I’m not so sure about that because what your requesting them to do is leave their own world and enter your world.  Now, your world might be the same as their world, for this type of reader it might be 2012 the United States.  But then you’re hopefully going to have readers in Asia, Africa, South America, and that’s going to become a different feeling for them.  So what you’re saying is that they will naturally resist that and in resisting that they might turn away from character because they don’t believe the world the character lives in.  Suspension of disbelief means making the character’s world believable, and somehow accessible to the reader so the reader can enter into and experience that world with the character and remain outside the world.

WHC

With equal effect.

FL

With equal effect.  Yes.

WHC

If I give you a [movie] example such as “Avatar”, where you have to suspend all sorts of disbelief, and the film does try to express some morality and awareness of injustice and environmental threats, and compare something like “Howards End” [EM Forster], isn’t the impact of story on the recipient more in “Howards End” than in “Avatar”? Because . . .

FL

Because of the realism.

WHC

Yes.

FL

You’re not really arguing about suspension of disbelief.  You’re arguing that the school of fantasy, romance and sci-fi is a harder school to suspend disbelief than the school of realism.  That makes sense to me.  And what’s funny, it all still comes down to character and how real, whatever entity it is, how real the emotions are, and how real the reader can identify with emotions.

WHC

It seems to me, for a writer, one of the most difficult [challenges] is effectively developing character on the page.  There are techniques you teach very well, of description, of interaction, of internalization and emotional progression.  Are there special advantages to moving the character into action to aid in development and to demonstrate characteristics?  Especially as opposed to narrative description.  Are there advantages of working in scene and do you recommend the use of action in prose?

FL

Action generally results in character development as opposed to characterization.

WHC

Is there a difference?

FL

Well, characterization is who the character is before the story starts. 

WHC

Ah.  I see.

FL

And character development is how the character changes over the course of the story.

WHC

Yes.

FL

So action is generally going to change an event.  You know there are three levels of action in any narrative: event, interaction, evocation [bring or recall to the conscious mind].  Action will often result in character change, so that’s character development.  So, yes . . . if we’re talking character development.  If nothing happens, it’s hard to argue why or how the character changes.  Now it’s also true, the world is now so complex because that any minor movement can lead to revelation in the way that anything can serve as a mnemonic device, and we can recall something we thought we understood, and understand it in a new way.  So it doesn’t have to be some huge event or interaction that precipitates character development, but so much that it teaches us to experience something that we thought we knew in a different light.

WHC

That’s an important differentiation.  Thanks.

What are the most important concepts of narration for beginning writers to grasp, and to study?  I ask because it seems that narration is so complex and produces widely different effects.  How do we grasp the process of narrating a story in fiction?  How should we prioritize what we should learn.

FL

I think the biggest distinction for beginning writers to learn is the difference between anecdote and story.  In anecdote it’s the situation that matters, in story it’s the character.

WHC

Okay.

FL

The story affirms the value of individuals in the way it unfolds and becomes different from what it was.  So if an anecdote is just: A and B go out to dinner, the waiter serves a bad steak, someone throws it against the wall, and A is arrested, it doesn’t matter who the character is.  In story, it’s the character that makes [the story] transcend itself.

WHC

As writers develop stories, they look at points of view, they’re making decision for 1st person or 3rd person for the most part, issues of distance, but in every story there is a basic idea that the author is creating a story, a narrator is telling the story—even in 1st person narration–and a character is acting in the story.  In each of those narrative silos, should the voice be consistent when delivering the story through character or narrator . . . or author?

FL

It’s a very interesting question.  It goes against monotony and predictability and reader comfort.  I like making my readers uncomfortable, to feeding their expectations rather than meeting them.  I do like a story where there are more levels of voice in play and where you do get that inconsistency.  But most people would say they prefer consistency.  Most editors would say, “I don’t know why you’ve got that second level of voice in here, and I don’t know how to take that, whether it’s ironic, or prejudicial, or instructive.  What I’m trying to do is have a secondary effect as well as a primary effect.  I like the distinction between narrator, authorial, and character voice, and I think it’s a very useful distinction to hold once you’ve got the reader settled.

WHC         

The extension of that would seem to be, if you look to classical literature, the distinction [among author, narrator, and character] is between narrator and character.  There is rarely an authorial voice.  In contemporary writing and teaching, the authorial voice seems always present in storytelling [and usually predominant].  Authorial predominance seems to give the freedom to offer authorial thoughts, opinion, and perceptions (even feelings of setting), that seems to move the classic concept of fiction, authorless-voice construction into memoir.  If, as an author, you’re trying to sort out advantage between memoir and fiction, it would seem that separation of authorial voice from the story telling would be worthwhile.  The idea to remove the subjectivity of the author to make the story live [through the objective delivery of voice in narrator and character worlds]–does that make sense?  And doesn’t the persistent presence of authorial voice collapse the advantages of classic fiction techniques [with distinct voices]?

FL

If it is a consistent authorial presence, it does diminish the useful distinction among the three because then it’s always there.  But the authorial voice doesn’t always have to be there.  That it’s like the distinction between Nick [Great Gatsby] as judge and Nick as actor.  He’s not always capable of standing there and pronouncing judgment and offering wisdom.  He’s so caught up in the action he can’t.  So if you’re going to have authorial voice, it’s better to have it with ebb and flow rather than an undercurrent.

WHC

What is voice?  We use it all the time.  But I never can come up with a useful definition.

FL

Voice is the marriage of style and point of view and the sound that is makes in the reader’s ear.  So you have word choice, tone, mood, and the influence characters have over it as well.  Literally, voice is the sound of the story in the reader’s ear, as if it were spoken aloud.  But it’s much more complicated than that and it has many more symphonic qualities; there are many more instruments available than that.  It’s the element that everyone likes to talk about, but few want to define it because if you define it you break it up into various components, and various subdivisions as well. 

WHC

Voices are created because of what you just described in certain time periods.

FL

Yes.

WHC

There are only certain ideas and thoughts and words that can come from a specific voice because the voice has it’s own individual world, experiences, thoughts, ideas and opinions specific to the time the voice speaks.  You can’t discuss the World Series in 2012 in a voice of the moment in a story happening earlier.  Is it valuable to keep the narrator, character, and authorial voice true to the world from which the voice is spoken?  Is it wise to be careful and true to the time from which the voice is speaking?  Pay attention to the story timeline?  Do you understand what I mean?

The voice that knows more than the reader diminishes the reader.

FL

I’m a big fan of the bend in the river, where all time is accessible and you can go forward and backward, even if you’re in a fixed point.  So I don’t mind the infection of voice on earlier events as long as the reader can share it with the author, so to speak.  They’re cocreators of that voice, and they each understand where that voice is coming from.  And that’s where the hard part is because what you’re describing is the voice that knows more than the reader and that is where the problem lies, because the voice that knows more than the reader diminishes the reader and makes the reader understand the story has already been told.  And that becomes an issue because it [diminishes] the natural surprise of narrative.

WHC

Good.  Thanks.  You discuss a lot about risk taking as an author.  What are the various levels [of writing] that risk can be applied?  It’s more than just releasing yourself in prose, isn’t it?

FL

Right.  There are three types of people that can be at risk.  The writer, the reader, the characters.  So what the writer is risking is a bit different than what the reader risks.  The reader risks being taken in or out of his or her comfort zone and feeling as if this is something I don’t want to be in but I’m still in it.  And I’m still risking going forward, and why am I doing that?  The writer’s risks are more complex.  You can risk yourself in terms of not knowing where you’re going and having to back from there to some place of control (the risk of loss of control); there’s the risk of not knowing what your doing and trying techniques that are antithetical to your usual tried and true approach.  And sometime the reader will sense that, and sometimes they won’t, but you know yourself when your stretching and trying to transcend your limitations as an artist.  Like if you’ve never written something in the second person and you’re going to try to do something on the second person.  So there’s risk in technique.  There’s also risk in content when you’re writing too close to a real truth and risking exposing something that’s uncomfortable or even hurtful, and so there is a risk in content and also risking offending the reader, and do you really want to do that?  There’s risk in meaning if you write meaning that you  know everyone will disagree with.  A story that would show the good side of Hitler [for example].  Or a story you yourself disagree with.  Why are you writing that?  Why are you participating in that?  And the characters are obviously at risk in their various ways as what’s at stake.  But the risk for the writer is always the gravest.  If you can get the reader to believe they risk as much as the writer than you’ve really achieved something.

WHC

If you’re asking a writer to risk revealing emotions, we’re you talking about the writer’s emotions or the characters’?  Is that all the same?

FL

I don’t think it’s all the same.  I think they’re separate.  And there are two different risks.  If you’re going to flay open a character and have the character’s emotions rendered and laid bare on the table.  That’s one thing.  But if you do it to ostensibly be yourself, where you’re ripping up yourself as opposed to character, that’s a whole different level of risk.

WHC

It seems the delivering of emotions can be done subjectively or objectively.  In contemporary writing emotions are mostly delivered subjectively, and often through an authorial point of view.  Are there situations where objective presentation of emotions, meaning that presenting emotion through the story structure and action rather than narrative description of how either the author feels or the character feels?  Are there times when objective presentation can have an advantage?

FL

Where you know how the author feels?

WHC

Were the emotion delivered to the reader is in objective rendering (story based, character based, character or narrator voice, without authorial feelings).

FL

The advantage of objective rendering is that it allows the place for other emotions to exist.   If it’s really objective, then everyone can get their own emotion out of it.

WHC

Yes.

FL

And that becomes very interesting.  Which is sort of like saying O’Connor intended that the grandmother was trying to save herself when the reader reads the grandmother is trying to save The Misfit.  It’s the same thing.  It’s objectively rendered so everyone can get something potentially different from it.  The issue is that you want that as a writer what you mean to be something that the reader gets. 

WHC

Or what you feel?

FL

What you feel.  What you mean.  You want the reader to get.  And if you understand that if they don’t get it, the intent doesn’t marry the effect and it’s a different story than you intended, and you can live with that.

WHC

I see.  So in general we ought to lean toward objective rendering?

FL

It’s a strategy.  Subjective rendering has tons of judgment and it’s fun to read (the Great Gatsby).  Objective rendering is always going to have a multiplicity of meaning.

WHC

How do you work on a timeline?  You like the . . . how do you call it?  The flexibility?

FL

The elasticity.

WHC

Yes, elasticity of timelines.  Yet, you’re very conscious of how long a story takes.

FL

How much narrative time the story takes on.

WHC

But you’re also aware of how much reader time it takes to read a story [compared to narrative time].  That is how reading time relates to the time that passes.   There seems an advantage for an author to be aware of where they are creating on the story timeline.  How do you structure your timeline as you’re writing?  It must be important to keep a mental timeline because it helps judge how long scenes and ideas take, as well as where things should go.  How do you do it?  Do you do it physically?

FL

Yes.  I do it physically.  When I’m done, or when I’m stuck, I’ll do a literal timeline as to how much time the story is taking on, both in the narrative present and in the narrative past [back story] and potentially in the narrative future.  And that gives me a sense of all the time I’m missing, and what opportunities there might be in that time.

WHC

Does it also help you with the rate of revelation of story information?

FL

Definitely . . . because a lot of the information you need is in the past.  So you have to have an awareness of the past as you go forward.  And also if you want to give a sense of the world beyond the story you have to have a sense of the story in the future as well.

WHC

Do you believe if your back story begins to bludgeon your story, overwhelms, is that a time to look at the timeline and see if the information delivered in the back story can’t be delivered in a chronological way in story present?

FL

Sometimes it means you have to reorder events.  And you have to replace them on the timeline to make it work.  It depends on the nature of the work.  [Some authors] are perfectly happy to have stories or books that have a heavy presentation of the past in them.  But if your intent is this forward moving narrative present and you find the past coming in and overwhelming the present, then you have to make adjustments. 

WHC

In terms of information and the rate of revelation, do you think about the information that’s crucial to the story?  The reason I ask is that the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is genre fiction has suspense that is withheld information—what’s going to happen or revealed?—whereas in literary fiction you basically deliver all needed story information as needed for story progression [plot] and then you show how everything works out and suspense is created by a need to know what is going to happen to a character the reader cares about.  Do you think about the rate of revelation?  I know you’ve suggested outline thinking in terms of plot.  How do you bring story information in dramatic ways and how do you determine the rate of revelation?

FL

It would be nice to have something revelatory in every sentence.  So there is the sentence by sentence revelation, but you’re talking more of the bigger revelations.

WHC

Well, yes.

FL

The epiphanies.  The realizations.  The realizations of the things you don’t know.  You want to have sense of the higher-stakes revelation, that’s what you’re talking about.

WHC

Yes.

Higher-stakes revelations actually need to occur in a novel more frequently than you think to keep the reader engaged.

FL

Those higher-stakes revelations actually need to occur in a novel more frequently than you think to keep the reader engaged.

WHC

And earlier?

FL

And probably earlier too.  To me revelation is about loss of control and finding your way back from moments of loss of control.  So I’m always looking at the various pivots that get me there where I don’t know where I’m headed and how I’m going to get back.  That can be a character’s interior that goes on too long, or it can be an obstacle that arises that we didn’t anticipate.  In terms of revelation, I like to think in terms of surprise.  And when the material surprises me when I write it as opposed to I knew it was there all along.  So I’m looking to surprise myself as often as possible.

WHC

How does surprise relate to suspense?

FL

Well, suspense is as you said, in genre fiction, withholding information, withholding development that the writer knows.  Whereas surprise is something both the writer and the reader don’t know.

WHC

Suspense is augmented, maybe, by the reader wondering about what will happen to a character they care about? 

FL

Yes. 

The “shot index” in revision.

WHC

Thanks.  You’ve [in class] presented the idea of a shot index in revision.  What is a shot?

FL

A shot is the camera (it’s from Hollywood) shots that you need to get through the movie.  Exterior.  House.  Porch.  Ron and Mable talking.  That’s the shot.  Right?  So how many shots do you have in your book?  You’ve got the camera, you’ve got the setting, and you don’t really have to move it a lot.  And then when do you need the new angle and the new setting, and sometimes the same setting but a different camera angle.   So you’re trying to look for all your scenes in your work, and those scenes are just found where you have to change the camera angle and thus your changing the shot.  Literally, the camera eye.

WHC

Is it useful to think also in terms of how an artist might approach?   That is a story board?

FL

Yes.  It’s very much like a storyboard.  Except. The storyboard concept I don’t think you can contain a whole novel on it.  Where the purpose of the shot index is to contain a whole novel on an eleven by fourteen piece of paper.

WHC

But the storyboard concept gives you more depth, implies action, may suggest emotion than just a camera shot.  Maybe useful in chapters?

FL

Yes.  I can see the storyboard concept working very well in chapters.

WHC

You do shot indexing in the latter part of the revision process.  Is that correct?  How exactly and when, so you use the index in revision?

FL

It’s a way of looking for repetitive material figuratively and literally, and looking for material that moves by dramatic fracture inch by inch, step by step.  And trying to see where the bold leaps occur, and where the omissions occur.  Sometimes omissions a are good, and sometimes you need to address omissions.  So you’re looking for gaps, and you’re looking for speed, and you’re looking for opportunities, and you’re looking for waste.  That’s the way the shot index really helps me.

WHC

Terrific.  Could you tell us about your books how we can find them.

FL

I have three novels out: Out West, In the Middle of All This, and Six Figures.  They’re all out of print but you can get them on Amazon for like a cent or two cents.  1996. 2000, 2002 were the updates.  And then I’m always publishing stories, a story or two every year.  I’ve been working on a story cycle (that needs a lot of work) that follows one character through thirty years of his life.  I have a textbook that I cowrote with Andrew Levy called Creative Fiction Writer’s Companion  which is a pretty open approach to writing fiction.  And Andy and I, with a third party, did an anthology called Postmodern American Fiction, a Norton Anthology, and that’s the one book of mine still in print and easy to get on Amazon.

WHC

Great.  Six Figures you developed into an indie film.  Is that available?

FL

It is available.  You know David Christensen did the development into a film.  He optioned the novel and wrote the script.  I worked with him on the script.  He kept sending me versions and I responded with various edits of the script.  Then he did the actual filming of the novel.  He’s Canadian, so that’s the easiest place to find the film, which was up for a Canadian Oscar for best adaptation.  So it’s easiest in Canada.  Either Blockbuster or Netflix does have a version available.

WHC

If our readers would like to study with you—you are the director of many different programs and you teach in many venues.  How can students access those opportunities?

FL

Sure.  If your an undergraduate, or looking for an undergraduate education, please come to Gettysburg College.  My wife and I share a professorship there; she’s the nonfiction writer and I’m the fiction writer.  http://www.gettysburg.edu.  I you’re interested in graduate education, I run a low residency program based solely in Europe called the Pan-European low residency MFA run out of Cedar Crest College MFA.  cedarcrest.edu.  The American MFA program I run is set in Charlotte (NC), a low residency program.  That’s http://www.queens.edu/Academics-and-Schools/Schools-and-Colleges/College-of-Arts-and-Sciences/Academic-Departments/MFA—Creative-Writing-Program.html.  Then I run a summer program for Hollins here at Tinker Mountain.  That’s a one week program.  http://hollins.edu/summerprograms/tmww.

WHC

Do you do any private mentoring?

FL

Yes.  Very carefully.  People can always email me at fleebron@gettysburg.edu and propose whatever they want to propose.  But I do it very carefully.

WHC

Fred.  I’d like to thank you very much for contributing to www.storyinliterryfiction.com.  It’s been a great pleasure and I’ve learned a lot.

FL

So have I.  Thank you very much.


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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