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Picture of The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hell) (detail), Hieronymous Bosch.
Original image credit: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hell) (detail), Hieronymous Bosch.

Where the Devil Is: The Craft of Specific Detail with Tara Ison

Date(s): Saturday, September 15, 2018, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Piper Writers House, 450 E Tyler Mall, Tempe, AZ 85281 (view map)
Discussion, Workshop
Genre and Form(s): Fiction

$119 Regular, $107 ASU, $99 Student

About the Class

"Vivid detail is the life blood of all major genres, the inner strategy is the same: the reader is regularly presented with proofs - in the form of closely observed details - that what is said to be happening is really happening." - John Gardner, The Art of Fiction


Those "closely observed details" are what make our stories come alive, and engage the reader in both the external world we're creating, and the inner-lives of our characters. In this workshop/discussion, we'll discuss strategies for honing in on the illuminating the "telling detail," and explore how the selection of realistic, concrete, and specific details can help us create verisimilitude, illustrate theme, establish narrative authority, develop an idiosyncratic voice, and avoid generic cliché.

Meet Your Instructor: Tara Ison

Picture of Tara Ison

About Tara Ison

Tara Ison is the author of three novels: The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber), a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), featured as one of the "Best Books of Summer" in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013. Ball, a short story collection, was published in 2015, and her collection of essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, was the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Salon, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus,, Black Clock, TriQuarterly, The Mississippi Review, The Santa Monica Review, Publishers Weekly, The Week, LA Weekly, O, the Oprah Magazine, numerous anthologies. She is also the co-writer of the cult film Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead.

More about this Instructor

Duke, Eleanor. "Wild Women: Eleanor Duke interviews Tara Ison." Los Angeles Review of Books, January 6, 2016.

I grew up during the fading end of the myth of Hollywood glamour. I got a taste of that growing up, but those days are gone. I think I still hold some of that in my head and in my heart, but when I’m here, I’m hit by the reality of an Urban Outfitters and a Chipotle on every corner. Los Angeles is more generic now. As with everything, it’s louder and more crowded. I forget a lot of those things because I’m still nostalgic for the Los Angeles of my childhood. And I don’t live here anymore either, so I think I do get to see it all through rose-tinted glasses. So yes, it’s ambivalence. I love coming back here, and yet I don’t live here.

Dunn, Brian and Hoekman Jr, Robert. "Tara Ison Likes to Keep You Off-Kilter (Mature)." Spillers After Show, May 2, 2016.

Tara Ison has amassed so many writing awards she should be talking to Charlie Rose, not us. After her Spillers No. 4 reading, the writer of everything from screenplays and essays to novels and short stories talks about embracing dark themes, how she drives her characters to their reckoning points, and why unreliable narrators are just the thing to keep readers turning pages.

Ison, Tara. "Bakery Girl." Nerve, 2007. 

There are two kinds of women here: the old ones, wrinkled and chipper, with hairpinned buns or permed wisps, knobbed knuckles and grandmother names like Ruby, Esther, or Bess, who work the morning shifts and slice and bag marbled ryes with the efficiency of nuns. And then there are the girls, in their mid-to-late teens, who come in after school, if they go to school, to relieve the old ones. The girls work till closing at nine, and all day Saturdays and Sundays. The smell of their fruity lip gloss and gum competes with the cherry-topped cheesecakes and yeast, and they cinch their bib aprons tight around their waists, tug them low over their tank tops, lean far over the counters toward the rare male customer.

---. "How To Be A Slut: The Choices and Priorities of a Promiscuous Woman, and No, You Do Not Complete Me." Electric Literature, February 5, 2016).

Moscow, 1913: an icy Russian winter, the crystallizing Soviet chill. Gorgeous seventeen-year-old Lara has been secretly sleeping with her mother’s lover, Victor Komarovsky, an older, slimy opportunist — she has just introduced him to Pasha, her idealistic young revolutionary fiancé, whom she is still planning to marry. Now alone with Lara, Komarovsky is unimpressed

 There are two kinds of men, and only two,
 and that young man is one kind. He is
 high-minded. He is pure…. There is another
 kind. Not high-minded. Not pure. But alive….
 For you to marry that boy would be a
 disaster. Because there are two kinds of
 women, and you, as we well know, are not
 the first kind….

Lara gasps, slaps him. He pays no mind

 You, my dear, are a slut.

---. "The Meat Bee." Tin House no. 75, March 20, 2018.

Honey, he says, Can you pass me another one, and this finally sends her over the edge, after a hard-ground hour here, sweating on a blanket itchy with fierce imagined ants, for there is only one sandwich left of the many she has so painstakingly made, a baguette brick of marbled prosciutto and triple-crème Brie, and for that endless hour of this magazine couplehood picnic she has bloated herself with seltzer and nibbled kale chips, origami’d her sunscreened legs into slimming designs, and watched him smack down those simple carbs, stuff himself on greasy flesh and dairy fats, while all she can taste are the words that have thickened her tongue for weeks, the sour flavor of words she still cannot get out of her mouth, the words You’re fucking Renee, aren’t you?

Watson, Keith. "Boundaries of Choice: Tara Ison's Ball.Slant, November 11, 2015.

Tara Ison writes stories of love, sex, and abuse, but they’re all, in the end, stories of destruction. Ostensibly set in Los Angeles (and, in one case, St. Louis), the 11 short stories collected in Ball really take place in the vast, alienated expanses of the contemporary female psyche. Ison’s protagonists, who also typically narrate their own stories, may seem normal enough at first, but they’re invariably psychologically dominated by men—boyfriends, lovers, fathers, abusers. There’s no escape, only annihilation.