New Year, New Fiction

Issue 121 of The New Quarterly arrived in the mail yesterday.

It includes my story “27 Days” and also a reflection on the story behind the story, posted below:

I have been writing short stories for two decades and from the beginning I’ve been curious about the elements that go together to make a story successful. What makes a story different from an anecdote? From a joke? Stories can contain anecdotes and jokes, but they are also something more. And without being highfallutin, I’d argue that that something more is mysterious and beyond definition. It isn’t something we can ever reach, but how we approach it makes all of the difference.

I have two school age children, and from the assignments they bring home I see that they have been told a story is something that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Myself, I’ve always been most interested in beginning and endings. A story, if I were to risk a definition, is a series of beginnings and endings that cluster around a theme. Douglas Glover has called these segments narrative nodes. The story “27 Days” is rich in nodes, though it’s possible some readers will simply say it’s rich in fragments. There are lots of different bits; how do they fit together? How did they come to be ordered that way?

First, the first draft of the story was very different. Actually, I never finished the first draft. I got about halfway through, then couldn’t continue. At that point, the story was about the father with the twins (which is a true event, based on a friend’s experience). I lost the thread, I think, because I didn’t know who the narrator was. I’m always conscious that the story the narrator is telling needs to reflect back on the narrator in a meaningful way, and I couldn’t figure out what it was about the narrator that made the story of the twins meaningful. Was it about the cruelty of life? The absurdity of life? The struggle to maintain meaning in the face of tragedy? And what would those look like in the narrator’s life (i.e., in real, concrete terms)?

Years later I was looking through my electronic file drawer full of story fragments, and I thought I saw a way to fit a number of them together into a single piece. Many of them (and this is unusual for me) are real-life examples, either from media reports (German cannibal, returning US soldiers, couples psychologist, the Nigerian refugee) or from people I’ve known (father of twins, two elderly ladies). I worked on the story for a while, but I still couldn’t come up with an ending. Another year or so later I picked it up again, determined to finally finish it, and I found an ending that brought it all together.

Or so I thought. Because when I submitted the story to TNQ, I received a note from the editors that they pleased with the story, but they also couldn’t publish it because the ending seemed too sudden. No, no, I thought. The ending is the ending. I have no Plan B for the ending, but I could see their point, too. The ending did take one by surprise, so I reorganized the nodes, cut material that seemed extraneous, wrote some transition pieces, and resubmitted the story to TNQ, original ending intact.

And that is the story you see.

What drew me to the material? What effects was I after in settling on the story’s particular imagery? These are hard questions to answer. Having plugged away at short stories for two decades all I know is that there are certain images and narrative strategies that keep appearing. I try to press against them, challenge them, complicate them, but at the end of the day I write about what I write about and I don’t really know why. I write about the emotional lives of men. I write about the transition from youth to adulthood. I write about the absurdities of contemporary life. My characters are often optimists in a world determined to turn them into cynics. Hope is better than fear, as Jack Layton said, but naïve hope is stupidity. Beauty, however, abounds.

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