Andrea Caswell Speaks with Brendan Stephens
TITLES, FIRST SENTENCES, AND HOW “HELL’S MOUNTAIN” CHANGED
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
In the story “Hell’s Mountain” by Brendan Stephens (Issue 42), readers are invited into the Underworld with a narrator who must scale a looming mountain to discover what awaits at the summit. Senior fiction editor Andrea Caswell asked the writer and Cleaver contributor to share his insights on titles and first sentences, and to describe how “Hell’s Mountain” changed during revision.
Andrea Caswell: Could you tell us “the story” of that first sentence? Long ago, after I died, I found myself alone in a vast wasteland with nothing on the horizon except a single imposing mountain gray with distance. Did the rest of the story take shape from there, or did the opening sentence change quite a bit as you wrote further into the story?
Brendan Stephens: I know writers who begin with a single sentence and discover the story image by image, but that doesn’t work for me. I generally have a bulleted list of upcoming scenes I’m working towards, so before I wrote anything with “Hell’s Mountain,” I had the story in broad strokes. I was reading the story “Hellion” by Alissa Nutting—which is incredible, by the way—and it made me think of other stories that take place in Hell: The Inferno, Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce, even The Good Place sitcom. That got me thinking about how many of these works center around “bad people” who are irredeemably selfish, greedy, or violent. But if Hell exists as Christians believe, it’s almost entirely populated with ordinary, even good, people who just didn’t believe.
I also wanted to explore character growth in the afterlife. The assumption that after you’ve died you’re now eternally locked in as the person you were when alive is kind of strange to me. I look back on things I did just a few years ago, and it seems incomprehensible. In eternity, I feel like people would say, “Back when I was 100,000 years old, I was just a dumb kid.” So from this idea of ordinary people in hell who grow and change, I started to get the outline of a video game streamer trying to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. Having all of that in mind, by the time I sat down to write the first sentence in particular, I kind of knew where I was going and didn’t have to change it substantially.
Andrea: How did you land on the title “Hell’s Mountain,” which is both on-the-dot and figurative?
Brendan: Confession—I’ve never felt extremely confident in my titles. Even the titles I’ve had that really resonate, I often have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps there’s a better title buried somewhere in the text or maybe an allusion that just hasn’t occurred to me yet. But I can say that my intention with “Hell’s Mountain” was to be as up-front as possible about the setting of the story. Between this and the “Long ago, after I died…” first line, I wanted readers to be oriented immediately. The sooner the better because that would let me delve more quickly into characters, relationships, and comedy. So that was my primary concern, but I felt like including the mountain in the title rather than just “Hell Story” or something because it puts a bit more emphasis on that central goal the characters strive towards.
Andrea: So much of our writing amounts to rewriting. Can you share a problem with “Hell’s Mountain” that you had to solve in revision? How did you work it out and “fix” it?
Brendan: As much as I knew the central premise of the story, the early drafts, as expected, were full of unnecessary details. There was significantly more that ended up being cut: unnecessary world-building, tertiary characters who didn’t impact the plot, and more than one philosophical speech on damnation and justice. Thankfully, a friend of mine basically said, “The best part is this friendship between a video game streamer and a berserker pagan king, so why not make that the whole story?” That ended up becoming my north star in revision, leading to lots of cuts and new scenes. It was a classic example of needing to emphasize character over plot and world-building. I find it funny how it’s possible to write 30 pages that follow Freytag’s Pyramid and have a whole character arc without even fully knowing what your story is truly about until someone else comes along and tells you.
Brendan Stephens is a writer hailing from western Maryland. His work has appeared in Pinch, Epoch, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Southeast Review, and elsewhere. His awards include multiple Inprint Donald Barthelme awards, an Into the Void Fiction Prize, and a Sequestrum Emerging Writer Award. Brendan earned his PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. Currently, he serves as a submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly.
Andrea Caswell runs Cleaver’s Short Story Clinic, offering detailed feedback on fiction up to 5500 words. Whether you’re wondering how to improve a story, getting ready to submit one to a lit mag, or preparing an MFA application portfolio, editorial feedback will be personalized to help you reach your fiction goals. Writers may also schedule a conference with Andrea as a one-on-one workshop to discuss their work further.