Idea Mining: Interview with Novelist Ethan Chatagnier
by Writing Workshops Staff
6 months ago
We're in conversation with novelist Ethan Chatagnier, known for his novel Singer Distance (Tin House Books), which gained recognition as a standout book in 2022 according to NPR, Lit Hub, Vulture, PopSugar, and more. Ethan's writing isn't limited to novels – his short stories have found homes in the Pushcart Prize anthology, New England Review, Georgia Review, Story, and more.
In this interview, we delve into Ethan's upcoming class, Idea Mining, a new 4-Week Generative Fiction Workshop. Rather than waiting for lightning-strike moments of inspiration, Ethan sheds light on how ordinary elements from the real world can be the seeds for remarkable literary ideas.
He shares insights on how to nurture these seeds into comprehensive narratives. Join us as Ethan guides us through the art of extracting stories from everyday experiences and equips writers with not just fresh story concepts, but also the essential skills to keep the creative reservoir flowing consistently over time.
WW: Can you share a bit about your background as both an author and an instructor? How has your own experience with idea generation influenced the creation of this course?
EC: I’m omnivorous as a reader and a writer. One day I’ll be writing a very literary, realist short story. Another, I’ll be working on a speculative novel or a comic saga. Writing in such different forms is a product of trying to give the idea its best expression. For a while now, I’ve considered myself a writer driven by premise before plot or character. I love developing plot and character, but for me, it’s the premise that calls the right characters and plot into being.
As an instructor, I like to create courses based on personal breakthroughs—parts of the process I once struggled with but don’t any longer. I stumbled into my method for idea generation. Raising babies was an isolating time and I started listening to podcasts just to hear other voices in the room. Soon enough, ideas were bubbling up through that primordial soup. But it wasn’t just new ideas to write. These new sources and new ideas opened up new avenues in my writing. They changed and developed me into the writer I am these days.
WW: Idea Mining sounds like a unique and intriguing concept. Could you provide some examples of the real-world sources you'll be using as prompts in your class? How do you envision these sources helping students spark their own creative ideas?
EC: My go to source—for the class and for myself—will be nonfiction podcasts. A few reasons why: they’re typically free and can be accessed in multiple formats; they’re portable and can be used while doing chores, driving, etc.; and, the right ones are amazing at digging up forgotten histories. I’ll recommend some documentaries and other sources as well, but those are more often behind a paywall. We’ll hear about the model for many of America’s early statues, a jazz composer in the 1960s trying to build an automatic songwriting machine, Henry Ford’s nostalgic American town built in the South American jungle, and much more. These are launching-off points, not limitations.
It’s almost a trade secret for me (or would be, if I could shut up about it) that there are several whole industries devoted to finding the most interesting stories in history and presenting them to people. Documentarians, radio and podcast producers, magazine writers. That’s the idea mine, for fiction writers. It’s a buffet of ideas. You can use these sources as prompts, as we’ll be doing in the class. But over time, you’ll also find that certain stories don’t let you go. They keep asking you to write them.
WW: The course promises to help students transform sparks of inspiration into larger narratives. Could you elaborate on the strategies or techniques you'll be teaching to guide students through this process?
EC: Just above, I mentioned stories that keep asking you to write them. That’s usually because a theme in the story, identified or unidentified, resonates with you on a personal level. In the class, we’ll work on unpacking the themes and forces in these non-fiction stories, and how those can be used to create fiction that has a beating heart. Some of that is figuring out the characters you’ll use to tell the story, who may be based on characters from the original source or created to draw out the theme.
Some of it is figuring out potential plot directions, which we’ll work on by analyzing opposing forces in our source stories. Working from the idea to the page typically involved collecting enough of these elements to have starter potential, which will be the focus of our final class session.
WW: What is the balance between individual work and group interaction in your class? How will students collaborate and engage with each other to enhance their idea-mining skills?
EC: We’ll use a number of shared sources, but the students will be tasked with coming up with their own approaches to them. Usually, that doesn’t take any prodding. The expression of an idea in fiction is highly individual. No two writers will arrive at the same translation. It’s very instructive, not just for the students but for me as well, to see the many different imaginative leaps different writers take. You start to see a whole multiverse of ideas, and get better at seeing more of that multiverse yourself. There’ll also be some chances for students to choose from a menu of sources and create a bit more of their own path.
WW: In a world where many writing classes focus on particular genres or styles, your class seems adaptable to both realism and speculative fiction. How will you help students tailor the idea-mining techniques to suit their preferred genre or writing style?
EC: It absolutely is! Writing of all genres is enriched by some kind of grounding in the real world. That grounding makes our characters more complex, our settings more lived-in, our plots more nuanced. Paradoxically, drawing from real life usually makes our ideas more original, offering a path beyond the tropes and cliches that populate our minds. As a class, we’ll explore the many different ways an idea can come to life, the way a statue can be a statue, an ideal, a symbol. The way it can be imbued with magic or enlivened with technology.
Students can use these techniques to tailor ideas to their own style, but it’s also my hope that exploring these pathways may lead some of them to take a stroll into some unexpected territory. I never imagined myself as a speculative writer. Finding the best expression for ideas that wouldn’t let me go led me there. I’ll never push another writer to change their genre or approach. But sometimes chasing an idea can stretch who we are as artists, and that’s a beautiful thing when it happens.
WW: Beyond the four weeks of the workshop, how do you envision students integrating the idea-mining skills they learn into their long-term writing process? What sort of impact can they expect these skills to have on their future creative work?
EC: I’m teaching this method because it’s the method I use. I’ve been using some version of it for twelve years, and in that time, I’ve never been short on ideas. The bigger challenge has been finding time to write them all. But when I do sit down to write, I’m not struggling to find ideas. I’m choosing among favorites that I’ve already banked. I hope that’ll be true for my students, not just in the class but for all the years afterward.
But I also like to think it will flow into their writing in larger ways. For me, this process of sorting through nonfiction for the ideas that wouldn’t let me go was the process of becoming who I am as an artist. It unlocked doors I didn’t know existed and led me places I hadn’t known I wanted to go. I’m hopeful it’ll do the same for these writers as well.
Ethan's Idea Mining: A 4-Week Generative Fiction Workshop starts soon!
Instructor Ethan Chatagnier is the author of the novel Singer Distance (Tin House Books) was a best book of 2022 at NPR and PopSugar and a most anticipated fall book at LitHub, Gizmodo, Vulture, Tor.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, ALTA, Debutiful, and DailyHive. Ethan’s short stories have also appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, the New England Review, Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Story, and other journals.