Art of the Opening: Tyler Barton
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story, essay, memoir, or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the prose we publish. In this column, we explore the art of the opening in an interactive way, re-reading the masters, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.
This column is led by associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section co-editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this piece, Grove speaks with Tyler Barton about his new story collection, Eternal Night at the Nature Museum. —CRAFT
From a distance, you can see the lights.
The air is mosquito-thick, damp. The usually desolate backroads of Butler County, PA have become a caravan of motor enthusiasts. From the grassy shoulder, a deer struts with meticulous posture as his eyes flick over the turbocharged Honda Civics and Subaru Imprezas, the lifted Ford F-150s and Chevy Silverados. Windows down, the evening becomes an agitation of diesel engines.
Beyond the line of vehicles, the sky refuses the lustrous magenta and gold of a paint-by-numbers summer dusk. Instead, a ceiling of grey gauze hangs low, the clouds stretched thin and listless. But moving westward, the horizon transforms into the electric white of a television gone full of snow in a darkened room. And everyone is moving toward the light.
It’s racing night at the local speedway, the whole perimeter luminous like a high school football stadium. Four fields are packed with tailgaters, and the late arrivals park on the edge of the state highway, denim and bare thighs and cowboy boots teetering along in search of the entrance. Across the road, a dozen men have set up lawn chairs and coolers of beer in front of an auto repair shop. Over the PA system, the announcer’s voice is static-shocked and booming.
In many ways, this real-life scene might not be so different from one found in “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” the opening story of Tyler Barton’s collection Eternal Night at the Nature Museum. In Gettysburg, some two-hundred miles southeast of Butler, former shock-jock radio host Todd lives behind his dealer’s double-wide in what amounts to a makeshift doomsday shelter. He’s leaving town when he experiences a dual collision—with the Integra in front of him and with Luther, who buys Todd’s mangled car and ultimately draws him into a demolition derby turned cult.
In this story and the twenty other pieces of fiction that occupy his collection, Barton grounds surreal elements in settings that feel unequivocally real, which is perhaps what makes them so vibrant and believable. At the core of his ability to craft rich settings exists his distinctive style and command of detail—those seemingly small, specific inclusions that carry significant weight, impacting mood, atmosphere, and character. At the sentence level, Barton writes with precision and care. He possesses an eye for oddities, for the uncanny details that populate our lives.
Imagine, for a moment, the difference between a crowded supermarket on a Sunday afternoon and that same space at three a.m. on a Monday. Children begging for free cookies at the bakery counter, gregarious smiles beneath hair nets, samples of cheese dip and thick, crackling Bavarian pretzels, a perfect purchase for Sunday Night Football. Then, the vast emptiness of the parking lot with its lone shopping cart, dented and groaning against a wind that can be heard but not felt. The open space not freeing, but leaving you exposed. The slow crawl of the automatic doors, the spotless shine of linoleum. The white white white of the fluorescents. A Top 40 radio hit broadcast through the speakers to no one.
Well, maybe no one.
Barton seems to understand how the smallest shifts can transform a space, a character, a story. In “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” he writes:
We shipped in red clay for the derby surface because dirt slowed you down. Under the new halogen lights, the slick adobe shined. Turnouts skyrocketed, standing room only. The Track was like a university, an outpost on the moon—the dust of crushed glass embedded in the clay and made everywhere we walked look like a Kingdom.
On a Friday afternoon, a high school student watches her house explode from a classmate’s cell phone in “Hiccups Forever”:
A cop car parked on our block had a dashcam going. It’s a normal day. Spring. Blue sky. Mr. Simms has Groucho on a walk. On the left, a white house goes pufferfish. For a millisecond it’s still our house, just expanded, with space in between every piece. You can see sky through each tiny seam. My green room spreads out. Then: confetti. Black confetti.
Within these pages exist the claustrophobic entrapment of hotel elevators and a singular flagger stationed at a bend in the road, no construction cones or signs in sight. A prepper’s stockpile of canned goods so expansive it can be seen on Google Maps. Two young brothers shouting military slogans and attempting to sell their sister at the end of their driveway. The house across the street with a mailbox that transforms into a multitude of miniature architectural masterpieces.
Eternal Night at the Nature Museum also succeeds in the drawing of its characters, who, like the settings, feel fully realized but also conflicted. These are people on a precipice, escaping but not yet escaped, leaving but not yet gone. They are searching, lost but also found. Through each of the stories are threads of loneliness and unfulfilled desire, of wanting to change but not quite knowing how to do so.
While reading Barton’s collection, Amy Hempel’s 2003 “The Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review came to mind. She comments on what interested her about the work of Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and Mary Robison:
They didn’t sound like anyone else I had read. For me, they redefined what a story could be—the thing happening off to the side of the story other writers were telling; they would start where someone else would leave off, or stop where someone else would start. As Hannah said later in Boomerang, a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his “underview,” scouting “under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.”
Barton’s characters seem to exist here—with all of life’s debris under the bleachers. They move and speak and live in more liminal spaces. While the towns, cities, and regions we occupy undoubtedly have the power to influence our personalities and the trajectories of our lives, our culture often attempts to instill the idea of a solid, permanent home as an absolute defining characteristic. Elvis Presley once sang, “Home is where the heart is,” and now that same language, done up in a cursive scrawl, adorns plenty of faux rustic signs you can buy at any box store for $14.99. But what of the in-between spaces that make up a life? Not so simple to slap on a piece of home décor.
Speaking of bleachers. And lights. As Barton’s collection comes to a close, one can’t help but think of Friday Night Lights. The final episode of the show’s first season commences with a slow-motion parade through the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, as the community celebrates the Panthers’ upcoming state championship game. In the background thrums Tony Lucca’s hypnotic and melancholy cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” One can almost picture the same cinematic sweep over the landscapes of Barton’s stories with the same soundtrack and imagine someone like Billy Riggins—stealing copper wire and attempting to sell it to a local meth dealer or buying a longhorn steer at auction to serve as the mascot for his new auto repair business—as a character in one of Barton’s stories.
Despite the show’s heavy emphasis on place—Dillon is vital not only to the show’s aesthetic but also to nearly every element of every storyline—the characters of Friday Night Lights are in a constant state of flux when it comes to their relationship with their hometown, pondering what it might mean to leave, to venture out, to expand beyond the boundaries the town has placed upon them. In Eternal Night, Barton has created people who are similarly conflicted; and, for his readers, created places that are similarly hard to walk away from. And, yet, no singular place can define any of us. Remember that even Coach Taylor left Dillon—and the state of Texas—for where else but Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Suzanne Grove: I love how you unravel and divulge various details in these stories. They are all so specific and sharp, working to constantly reorient our understanding of what’s happening on the page and reveal these characters to us in new ways. For example, in “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” the narrator says, “Luther bought my car for three hundred dollars, but then I had nowhere to live.” Or in “Watchperson,” the narrator keeps unspooling information about himself. In her craft book The Making of a Story, Alice LaPlante paraphrases E.M. Forster to say, “[A] characteristic of good writing is that it is surprising yet convincing.” I found this to be true of your stories as a whole, but also true of all your details—I was often surprised, but each element felt so true, so essential. How does the process of incorporating details work for you? When writing the stories in this collection, did you find details arriving organically as you wrote, or do you perhaps keep notes and lists, incorporating the details throughout the entire process, from first draft through revision?
Tyler Barton: For me, writing is all about details. I’m far from the first to prioritize specificity, but honestly, when I think back to all the stories I love, what comes to mind are one or two specific, detailed images. Not plot turns, or character names, or dialogue exchanges. It’s Esperanza’s grandmother resting her “sadness on an elbow” in Mango Street. It’s the way the baby in Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” keeps flicking the light switch on and off during the mother’s talk with the doctor.
I find that even if they aren’t directly symbolic or coded, details make the world feel real, and the absolute necessity for me is that the reader believes the world and can, hopefully, feel themselves inside it. Most of the time, the details come out as I write—they suggest themselves. One begets another. Then revision ends up being so much troubled trimming.
Then again, I’m constantly stealing details from the world around me. I ride my bike and take walks and stop to jot the tiniest of observations in my phone notes. Sometimes a detail will become the start of a story, maybe even its opening sentence, as with the opening of the book’s title story—“On the roof grows a tree Facilities kills every summer.” While pointing to a giant weed atop the museum I used to work at, someone said a version of this sentence aloud to me, and I wrote it down, edited it, and the piece grew out of that. The term “Facilities” being used in that way felt so charged to me.
I am also guilty of shoe-horning details into stories. I’ll come across something so beautifully weird that I just have to put it into the thing I’m working on. This happened with a scene in “The Idler” where the bar’s dancefloor is filled with Christmas trees, each dressed up by different local businesses. Stuff like that is just sublime, and I’m sorry, but if I see it, it’s mine. It’s going in a story.
SG: Some writers are so skilled at creating a specific atmosphere in their stories. It’s almost as if the quality of the air—or the texture of the world—changes when you’re reading. You feel as if you’ve truly stepped into another space. These stories all have that quality—the places your characters inhabit feel so full, so lucid. How do you approach the idea of setting and place?
TB: My answer above applies heavily to my answer here. I grew up playing open-map video games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Elder Scrolls and Fable. Though I don’t game anymore, I think those hours taught me that what makes an invented space (a virtual world, a book, a play) feel inhabitable is the way its creator uses color, texture, surprise, and poetry. The rail you grind on the third floor of a factory building should be streaked with pigeon shit and it should absolutely shoot you through a glass window. You might even hunch up your shoulders as you go through.
I’m inspired by place, but I rarely start there. I often take details from ten different places and use them to create the world of the story I’m working on. I grew up in South Central Pennsylvania, so many of my stories end up being set in York, Gettysburg, Lancaster, Philadelphia.
In these stories, I rarely set out to write about a specific place. It sounds kind of backward, but it’s the truth: a lot of times I have an entire draft of a story and then realize I don’t know where it’s set. So sometimes revising is about placing the story in the right locale. One exception in the collection is “Black Sands,” which is set in Portage, Indiana. I only spent one day in Portage, but the whole time we were there it was as if I could hear the town being described by an angsty, funny, troubled teenaged girl. I took so many notes. I set a story there by just letting that narrator talk as much as they wanted. It’s funny, though, because when it was published online, it immediately received a comment from a Portage local who said simply: “There are no Arby’s in Portage, Indiana. And there never has been.” I think I responded: “Thanks for reading!” As silly as that is, it has since made me more attentive when writing about a real place.
SG: In the middle of reading “Breakthrough Mailboxes of Southern Pennsylvania,” I suddenly recalled a particular moment in Amy Hempel’s 2003 “The Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review. She’s speaking about writers who had the most impact on her when she began—Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison—and recalls: “As Hannah said later in Boomerang, a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his ‘underview,’ scouting ‘under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.’” I feel as though your characters occupy that same space—under the bleachers. I found myself endlessly fascinated by how so many of them seem to exist in these liminal places, these in-betweens. What drew you to these characters in particular? What about them made you decide to spend four, fifteen, twenty pages with them?
TB: My obsession with liminal spaces began once I realized that I no longer had a capital-H Home. My parents divorced when I left for college (literally weeks after I was in my dorm), and the house I grew up in was sold a few years later. Neither of my parents owns homes now, and though they are both much happier and still love me absolutely, the places where they live do not feel like home, and if my life fell apart, I’m not sure I could see myself returning to either place to live while I got back on my feet. It’s this dislocation that inspired a lot of the writing.
I was writing these stories while living in Minnesota, in an apartment I liked but still did not feel at home in, and when I thought about “returning home” to Pennsylvania, I didn’t quite know where or what that even was. So, yearning for this old, comfortable home and not knowing where or how the next one would form…it inspired a lot of the angst and trouble the down-and-out characters in these stories feel. I still don’t own a home and the anxiety of that instability weighs on me and many in my generation heavily. I’m incredibly privileged to be able to afford a rental, but I still don’t think I’ve found my real, physical adult home. My home, for now, is in books.
It’s so interesting that you bring up liminality. Originally, in a much earlier draft, this book was called Get Empty and it was more focused on characters in liminal spaces trying to rid themselves of their haunting desires to find a place of peace. I had some very esoteric “book jacket copy” written all about how capitalism forces the individual to constantly be in a constant liminal space, never at home in the now and constantly reaching hungrily toward the future or futilely back for the past. Anyway, I eventually realized the book was simply about home, and that clarified things a lot. But there’s certainly a lot of liminality remaining in this version of the book. However, I did cut a story which all took place on one long, absurd airplane ride. How more liminal can you get than the airspace between departures and arrivals?
SG: I’ve always found myself haunted by this idea that there is no now. Past and future? Yes. But—especially as someone who’s trying to interrogate the idea of mindfulness and living in the moment—I keep thinking that by the time you’ve technically processed the moment, the moment is gone. It’s easy to end up awake at 2:00 a.m. down a physics rabbit hole. Some of your characters seem to be tangled up by similar ideas. In “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” both Todd and Luther circle around what it means to approach life with no judgment and no wanting, to sort of alter reality and recreate life as they see fit. So much of “Stay, Go” contains these threads centered around anticipation and arrival, around what it means to occupy a certain space in time. The elevator functions so brilliantly in that story. Overall, there is a lot of literal and metaphorical destruction and recreation. Can you talk more about these ideas and how you see them working within these stories?
TB: Lately I have been thinking that, for me, ‘the now’ is the space directly between having an idea and realizing that you have had an idea. And by idea, I’m including observation or imaginative moments. It’s the space just before an idea becomes a to-do list. I just looked out the window and saw the way the stream is reflecting on the wall of the bridge. I was in the now just before I thought to record what I saw. It was really nice! Sometimes this leads me to conclude that writing is only distracting me from living a truly peaceful life. Then again, I think I would consider the space of deep reading (where you forget time, forget yourself) another surefire path to the now, so maybe I’m motivated to write in order to create more spaces like that in the world.
I love that you shared the way you’re processing ‘the now.’ I don’t think there’s anything I’m more interested in than that. And for all the reading and thinking and writing I’ve done about ‘the now,’ I’m not sure I know anything about it. It’s certainly either very, very small or else so massive you can’t see it.
SG: I’m always thinking about character desires and motivations. This was on my mind a lot as I read this collection. In “Breakthrough Mailboxes of Southern Pennsylvania,” Rhonda remembers the first of five times her deceased ex-husband hit their son. Her reaction: “All he wanted was your attention.” The children in that story are desperate for attention; Rhonda herself imagines her artwork in a museum, addressing a crowd of admirers. The narrator asks, “Doesn’t everyone dream of being seen?” I immediately thought of this quote from Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” So many of your characters seem to be searching for attention. Can you talk about how you view this element of craft—character desire and motivation—and how you see this recurring theme of wanting to be seen?
TB: Ross Gay’s phenomenal book-length poem, Be Holding, explores the connection between love and attention so beautifully. The book even opens with an epigraph by Christina Sharpe: “…to be held. To behold.” To get attention from someone, even in the simple fact of listening to their funny little anecdote, is a way of hugging them, saying I’m here for you right now.
I think every character in this book struggles with wanting to be seen, and often they freak out when they are seen too clearly or too often. Personally, I have an unhealthy relationship with attention. I love it. I love to talk in groups of people. I love to be in front of a microphone, whether I’m always eloquent or gregarious as I think I am. I often get online and try to post things that will get me attention because I feel lonely. Then again I often fight that desire in myself.
Something I can never forget is my first trip home after moving away for graduate school. I was at a party with all my high school friends, and someone I didn’t know was like, “So I hear you’re a writer,” and I was like “Idk, sure.” And he said, “So who’s your audience?” And I got super defensive and evaded the question, talking about how I didn’t really give a shit if anyone read my writing, because it was literary fiction, and it was art, and it was… I didn’t have a good answer. I had no idea if I would ever have an audience. Some days it still feels like I don’t, or that I’ll lose whatever scrap of an audience I have. I’m still not sure what I would say if the same kid were here with me now asking the same question.
SG: The epigraph for this book is devastating, stunning: “I like feeling at home, but I wish I didn’t feel here.” It immediately sets the tone for what’s to come. What are some of your favorite epigraphs in literature?
TB: Thank you so much. That epigraph is by Mary Robison (a very underrated short story writer!), and it comes from a beautiful flash-length story, “In Jewell” from Tell Me, about leaving or not leaving your small hometown.
My relationship with epigraphs is complicated–I never used to use them, found them pretentious. I’ve also never forgotten this idea that I heard first in the discussion of hip-hop albums, a sort of de facto rule of album-making, that you never start an album with another rapper’s voice. If it’s your album, you should be the first person to speak.
An earlier version of this collection had a title that was much more pointedly about “Home,” and so when we found the new title, I wanted to still put home directly into the reader’s head before beginning the book, so the epigraph made sense. Plus, what a sentence, right?
One epigraph I adore is from The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash, which is a riot of a novel about a certified public accountant working in a very small Midwestern town. The epigraph is from a code of conduct for CPAs: “In the absence of specific rules, standards, or guidance, or in the face of conflicting opinions, a member should test decisions by first asking, Am I doing what a person of integrity would do?”
I also want to share that I keep a note in my phone called “Possible Epigraphs,” and it’s just all the best quotes I come across while reading. There are hundreds of lines in there, so I have a lot of books to write. Currently, the top of the note is a quote by Ian Mackaye, talking about why he couldn’t watch any footage of 9/11: “There was nothing I was going to learn by watching it, other than how to not feel it anymore.”
I think typing out my favorite sentences like this makes me, albeit incrementally, a better writer. It’s like I’m tricking my hands: see how easy this is?
TYLER BARTON is the author of Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande Books, 2021) and the flash chapbook The Quiet Part Loud (Split/Lip 2019). Find his stories in The Iowa Review, Subtropics, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Find him at tsbrton.com, @goftyler, or in Saranac Lake, NY.
SUZANNE GROVE currently serves as the associate editor for CRAFT. Her fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barren Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, No Contact, No Tokens, Okay Donkey, The Penn Review, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, XRAY, and elsewhere. She has also received honorable mention for her fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus, & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. You can find her at www.SuzanneGrove.com.