Scaling the Obstacles: an Interview with Novelist Ethan Chatagnier
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
We are thrilled to introduce you to Ethan Chatagnier, an accomplished novelist and instructor, who is embarking on an exciting journey with us at WritingWorkshops.com.
Ethan's impressive literary track record includes the acclaimed novel Singer Distance, published by Tin House Books, which not only secured the Golden Poppy Award from the California Independent Booksellers Alliance but also earned recognition as one of NPR and PopSugar's best books of 2022. His storytelling prowess extends to his collection of thought-provoking short stories, Warnings from the Future, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES awards. Ethan's work has been published in the Pushcart Prize anthology, the New England Review, Georgia Review, and more, cementing his reputation as a prominent voice in contemporary fiction.
Now, Ethan Chatagnier is ready to share his expertise through a limited enrollment one-on-one 6-Month Fiction Mentorship program, exclusively available at WritingWorkshops.com.
This mentorship program is designed for aspiring writers committed to bringing their novel or story collection to life, offering tailored guidance for those who already have a foundation of at least 10,000 words. With a focus on producing approximately 5,000 words each month and providing valuable insights, Ethan will help mentees navigate the creative process, refine their work, and set achievable goals. Whether you're delving into a specific fiction genre or venturing into the realm of genre-blending, Ethan's mentorship promises to be a transformative journey marked by personalized support, accountability, and a deep commitment to nurturing your literary ambitions.
WW: Ethan, you've had the unique experience of both writing a novel and curating a story collection. How do these two creative processes differ, and how will this insight benefit mentees in your program?
EC: Writing a novel is a process of orchestration. Everything is connected, so you’re trying to balance the characters with the plot direction, the ups with the downs, the immediate scene with the long view. That can be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes infuriating. It’s easy to lose faith or get stuck. Something I’ve experienced, and seen writers like Matt Bell discuss a lot, is the experience solving a narrative problem that’s been vexing you. Some issue with the book seems insoluble, and then something clicks into place and you know exactly what to do. The river is uncrossable, and then you suddenly see the bridge. For mentees working on a novel project, I hope I can help accelerate the process of finding those bridges.
For a story collection, you’re assembling a constellation. You may simply be collecting and revising your previous work, or you may be writing toward a certain theme. Either way, you need to figure out two things: how does each story work as a story? And, how do these stories work together as a book? A lot depends on what kind of constellation the writer wants to build. Figuring that out may be part of the mentorship process, or if a writer comes in knowing exactly what they’re aiming for, we can work toward hitting that target as well as possible.
Also, a quick shout out to the projects in between! Two of my favorite books of recent years are How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and Inheritors by Asako Serizawa. Both these books are not exactly a novel and not exactly a short story collection. What they are is brilliant. A project like this would absolutely be welcome in the mentorship.
WW: In your mentorship description, you mention being open to projects that combine or lie between genres. Can you share a bit about your interest in genre-blending, and how this plays into your teaching approach?
EC: My interest in these is simple: a lot of my favorite books do this! If you’re looking to do literary, thematic writing, the realms opened by sticking a foot in another genre can enhance your ability to do that. I think Kazuo Ishiguro put a big dent in the wall between genres with Never Let Me Go and Emily St. John Mandel demolished it with Station Eleven. Openness to different genres lets you reflect and distort our world in new and illuminating ways. It also gives you access to new toolkits. Many books can be enhanced by an element of mystery, the uncanny, the sublime, the epic. These are the core drivers of genres like science fiction, mystery, fantasy, and horror. But these tools are equally effective outside their native habitats.
Blends also don’t have to be literary. It’s been a great couple decades for the horror-comedy, the sci-fi-noir, and other genre mash ups. Singer Distance has elements of science fiction, literary fiction, mystery, and even romance because those all helped me tell the story I wanted to tell. They made the book more engaging and more artistic. I’m not going to push any genres on anyone who doesn’t want them. Single-genre books are equally welcome. But it can be useful to ask, what unknowns are you setting up to draw in your reader? How are you conjuring up wonder or fear or curiosity in them—even when you your project is set in a wholly realistic world?
WW: As someone who has had their work recognized in prestigious anthologies and journals, what do you believe sets a story apart and captures the attention of its readers?
EC: The key thing here is that there’s not a way to set a story apart. There are many ways to set a story apart and make it stand out. A Yiyun Li story and a Ben Lerner story are different animals, but you can find both in the New Yorker. Successful stories share a lot of DNA on where they don’t fail. They usually don’t have flat characters, don’t have bad prose, don’t have forced plots, etc. You can smooth all those things out and have a pretty good story.
One thing you’ll hear journal editors say frequently is that they get a ton of good stories. That’s what makes the odds so tough. You’re not competing against crap; your peers are very talented. For a story to leap the very high bar at top journals, I think it needs to have at least one superpower. The prose is off-the-charts good. The psychology and interiority are unusually nuanced. The plot is perfectly executed and surprising. The structure is new and interesting.
You don’t need to do all of those things, but I think writers benefit a lot from leaning in to at least a couple. Figure out which of these qualities interest you most as a reader and writer. Think about which you feel most talented in. And push yourself to grow in those areas to a level that goes beyond a simple “good.” That helps you not just to fare better in the submission queues, but also to find out who you are as a writer.
WW: The program promises "moral support" as part of the mentor's input. Can you share an instance from your writing journey where moral support played a significant role in overcoming challenges or pushing through creative blocks?
EC: Oh yeah. Most of the writing on Singer Distance came without too much of a struggle, but there was one really rough patch. I knew where I wanted the last section to end but not where I wanted it to start, and my attempts to begin kept frustrating me. At the same time, Covid shut down schools and all of a sudden I was an elementary school teacher to my two kids. I stepped away from the book for about six months.
It was my writing group that brought me back to it. They wanted to know what happened to the characters. They’d seen me work my way through two-thirds of it and didn’t want to see me stop. They cared about how it went. And you know what? The beginning of Part 3 still frustrated the hell out of me, but I powered through it and got the book where I wanted.
Writing a book is really hard. Stopping blocks abound. Sometimes we need people to push us to keep scaling the obstacles. Sometimes we need someone who cares what happens to the book, and to all the energy we put into it. Sometimes we just need to know that someone is going to be reading the pages so we’d better finish them. Sometimes we need to see the potential someone else sees in the project. For me, having those things was probably the difference between finishing the book and not finishing it.
WW: How do you envision the "personalized goal setting" process in the mentorship? Is it more about the completion of a project or the journey and growth of the writer?
EC: That can really be up to the writer. Personalized is the key word here. The primary consideration is what the writer wants a push or some accountability on. That may be a certain number of words per month, or through a certain part of the project. It may be rewriting a section to make it work better, writing a new story for a collection or rewriting one.
Basically, we’ll do an initial consultation and make a plan based on the writer’s goals and my advice for how to meet them. It’s nothing binding and can be adjusted over the course of the mentorship. It’s there to help give the writer some direction and accountability, so the mentorship gives them a feeling of steady progress.
WW: With your essays, book reviews, and interviews appearing in renowned publications, how do you believe exposure to varied writing forms enhances an author's fiction writing skills, and how will you incorporate this into your mentorship?
EC: When you review a book or interview its author, you have to take a deep look at the book as a whole. What were its goals? How well did it achieve them? What were its particular virtues and successes? What made it unique? These are the same tools we use to move toward the writers who influence us. Reviewing isn’t at all necessary to being a close reader, but it does force you to turn up that dial.
Mentees won’t have to write book reviews or reports (though I’m happy to advise any that want to). But I do anticipate telling some, “You should really read this book; it speaks to what you’re trying to do.” Or working together to deconstruct a book that influenced the project to see how the author made it work.
WW: The mentorship program emphasizes commitment from the mentees. From your perspective, why is commitment such a crucial aspect, especially when working on a novel or story collection?
EC: Simply put, it’s to gear the mentorship to those writers who are going to benefit from it most. Writing a book takes a certain force of will. A writer isn’t necessarily in force-of-will mode at every stage. Sometimes you’re brainstorming. Sometimes you’re reflecting. But the part where you’re writing hundreds of pages? That takes commitment. You have to build that up bit by bit. The writers who’ll get the most from the mentorship are those who have a sense of what they want their project to be and are ready to move it forward week-by-week and month-by-month.
WW: With the diverse range of your writing experiences - from short stories to essays and book reviews - how do you plan to tailor the mentorship to cater to writers of different genres, especially those looking to combine or venture between genres?
EC: When I decide to start converting an idea into a draft, my goal is to unearth the way that idea can flourish. To find and unfold the potential. Different ideas lend themselves to different executions. That’s why in different stories of mine you’ll find literary realism, dark dystopias, speculative wonder, and other impulses. The goal will be the same for the mentees as well. If they come in knowing they want to write a space opera that conforms tightly to that genre, I’ll help them make it as good as they can. We’ll read and discuss works in the genre and ways to put together a stellar one. The same for any other genre or subgenres.
For writers blending genres, we just get to increase the fun by seeking out works in similar genre spaces and finding what overlaps and what doesn’t. In these kinds of spaces, you’re a little more likely to be working in uncharted territory, but you can still navigate by the points of light that are already there. Singer Distance doesn’t neatly fit into any genre or subgenre. The most common description is “sci-fi that’s not really that sci-fi.” But it does work (if that’s not too self-indulgent to say). That’s really the question we can focus on for students inside or outside of genre rails: “How do we make it work? How do we make sure this tells a great story?”
WW: One unique aspect of this mentorship program is the 'writing accountability schedule.' Can you elaborate on what that entails and how it can benefit the mentees in staying on track and enhancing their discipline?
EC: This is also highly flexible and personalized, coming more from the mentee than the mentor. It’s a way to break down the writer’s goals into a manageable plan that still keeps them moving forward. I’ve set goals for myself like this—write x words this week; finish this section by the end of the month. They’re useful when I’m busy because they make me find the time in my schedule. They’re useful when I’m less busy in keeping me from frittering away extra time.
A schedule like this can also be helpful in psychologically managing a long-term commitment. Being able to see that writing 2,500 words a week gets you to a 300-page novel draft in under seven months, for example, can make the road to that goal feel more manageable.
WW: Crafting a successful query letter is often seen as a challenging task for many emerging writers. How will your program help mentees navigate this process, and what personal insights will you share from your journey to get your works published?
EC: It is challenging, but I hope I can also help make it fun. The biggest aspect of it is understanding the appeal of your project. Editors and agents call this “understanding the market” for your book, which can sound a bit too commercial for many writers. But a less corporate framing can put it in terms that resonate more with writers. Who do you think the readers of this book will be? What other authors did you want it to read like? Who’s going to be excited about it? What’s the special appeal for those readers?
Most of the stuff you want in a query letter has origins rooted much earlier in the process. What inspired you about initial idea? What’s important to you in your execution of it? What books helped inspire this one? What’s your unique vision for it? We’ll be talking about these things from the beginning of the mentorship. With a little adjustment, they can be the heart of your query letter and your comp titles.
I’m proud of the fact (perhaps absurdly so) that summary from my query letter made it into my agent’s pitch letter and then onto the back of the book with only a few changes. I think that’s because I took a good amount of time to understand what my project was and what I wanted readers to get from it. When we work on query letters and submission strategy together later in the mentorship, I’ll help my mentees navigate the same process.
You can learn more about Ethan's upcoming 6-Month Fiction Mentorship, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year!
Instructor Ethan Chatagnier's 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.