Stephanie Noll studied fiction writing at Texas State University, where she earned her MFA. Last fall, she published a young adult novel titled Breach, a book that she co-authored with four other writers. She is a frequent storyteller at The Story Department, a monthly fundraiser for the non-profit Austin Bat Cave. Stephanie has 17 years of teaching experience and has worked as a senior lecturer in the English department at Texas State for the past 8 years. She also leads a memoir writing workshop for female inmates at the Travis County Jail and has written a novel about a standardized test cheating scandal at an inner-city Houston high school.
On Saturday, November 14, Stephanie is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Setting as Character: How to Make Place More than Just a Set Piece in Your Writing” at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more. There’s only a few seats left so hurry if you want to register!
Scribe: What is one novel that you think makes exemplary use of setting?
Stephanie Noll: I’ve just finished teaching Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman. The novel is set in Afghanistan, a place that Ackerman described in an interview as “unreasonable.” The complex and frustrating nature of the plot and the character’s actions are highlighted by the setting—remote villages used as pawns. Closer to home, I’m a huge fan of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. For those of us writing novels told from the perspective of multiple characters, Haruf’s book is an excellent model. I’ve heard it described as a “quiet” book, but what I see is a book that shows how inextricably we are all linked to place. Also, there are some amazing post-apocalyptic novels that have been published in recent years. My favorite, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, offers a depiction of what the American Midwest would be like 20 years after a pandemic. In a barren and isolated setting, the tension of the plot and the motivations of the characters feel more vibrant, more immediate.
Scribe: How has setting contained or set loose the emotions of characters in your own writing?
SN: My current novel in set in a Houston neighborhood not far from downtown. The community I write about, however, could not be any further removed from the rich opportunities found at the center of the country’s fourth largest city. Two of my characters are teenagers, and I think they see the place they come from in the same way that most of us do: either as the only place they will ever know or the place they can’t wait to leave. The decisions they make about their lives are wholly connected to where they are from and how they see that place.
Scribe: To what extent do your settings come purely from imagination? Or do you often base them off of real life settings you’ve come across?
SN: I was a high school English teacher in Houston for several years, and I had a pretty complicated relationship with the city. It was important for me to set my novel there, and I’ve returned many times, taking notes, meeting with old students, returning to familiar places. I think I’ll always set my novels in places that I know or research; I’m such an observer of buildings and people. I like to visit a new city and just walk around, imagining what it would be like to live there.
Scribe: Using setting as a metaphor for the characters’ emotions can feel forced sometimes. How do you see a way around this?
SN: I hear you. We don’t need every romantic break up to happen next to a building that is about to be destroyed. It doesn’t mean that place didn’t have a hand in why that break up happened, right? I guess I would say that you want your characters’ actions and emotions to reflect an authentic truth and not a contrivance.
Scribe: In the class description, you state that setting gives “a sense of the emotional ground on which your characters walk.” It’s a great description. Could you elaborate on this a little?
SN: When we’re writing, we need to be able to see and hear the people we are writing about, and we need to understand how the spaces that they occupy influence who they are. Maybe it goes back to the old “show, don’t tell”? If we tell our readers why a character has such anxiety about returning to their childhood home, then we aren’t inviting the reader to do some of the work, to fall into the dream. If we show how that character is living their life in one place and move them to another, their small bedroom with its peeling wallpaper and dusty trophy collection, the reader has a moment to “feel all the feelings” along with the character.
Click here to register for Stephanie’s class.
Click here for our full schedule of fall classes.