November 23, 2008 § Leave a comment
We were getting off the Ferris wheel when Judy said,
“I think I was raped.”
Things were going around in circles.
“I’m not sure. But I think I was.”
I waited for her to continue but she just looked at the wheel.
“Raped? By who?”
A balloon guy started walking towards us. Most of his balloons were red, but there were some white ones too.
“Look, I don’t know. I’m not sure. Maybe I wasn’t. Never mind.”
The balloon seller stopped and sat down. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and although it wasn’t quite a trick, I liked it anyway.
“Come on Joe, I’m tired,” she said.
We walked back to the car. On the way a boy was crying because he’d dropped his cotton candy. He was jumping up and down, pushing it into the mud. I gave the boy a buck and said to get another. He stopped crying and ran off. Judy yelled at him, Say thank you, but it was too late.
When we got to the car I let Judy drive. I figured it would take her mind off things. I didn’t know if she was angry with me or the guy that raped her. Not that it mattered. I’d seen her like that before. When she got mad, the best thing I could do was keep my big mouth shut.
I rolled the window down. It was a warm night and I could smell flowers. The streets were clean from the rain, the dust not really settled. Even though I had work next day, I wanted us to drive for hours, my head hanging out like you sometimes see dogs do. But Judy pulled over after the third set of lights. She turned off the motor and the crickets got loud.
“He was a friend of my Dad’s.”
“And he was the one who raped you?”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You said he might have.”
“Look Joe, if a woman says it’s rape, it is.”
“OK, alright. So he raped you. When was this?”
I tried to get comfortable.
“It was the summer before I went to college. I was working in a place just across the street from Dad. He used to come in after work, sometimes on his own, sometimes with Bob. They usually sat at the bar and talked about fishing, you know, lines and bait and shit. It was pretty boring. Are you listening?”
I said I was.
“You’d fucking better be. Gimme a cigarette.”
I fished one out the pack, thinking how much cooler it would have been to reach behind my ear. She lit it, took a deep drag, then blew the words out with the smoke.
“Dad said Bob’d been married twice but hadn’t learnt a thing. That the only thing he could commit to was a rod. And he was definitely one of those guys who looks and doesn’t mind if he gets caught. He was careful when Dad was there, but as soon as Dad went to the john, Bob had a good look. That summer was really hot, I usually wore a shirt and shorts.”
“I bet you looked hot,” I said.
She broke off, inhaled and held it. Then she blew it out and said,
“If you say another fucking word, I’ll break up with you right now, I swear.”
I said I was sorry.
A police car approached and slowed. The officer leaned out.
“You folks alright there?”
“No, we’re just talking.”
“Alright, have a nice night guys.”
“You too officer.”
We watched the car glide off.
“One day, when Dad was out of town, Bob came in on his own. He drank beer when he was with my Dad but that day all he drank was rye. I treated him like any other customer, you know, smile, be nice, but not too much. He asked for twenty bucks of change and then disappeared. I forgot about him because this little guy named Mitch started hitting on me, but it was okay, it was almost funny. He kept trying to kiss my hand, saying all this crazy shit about how I was a princess that would one day be a queen.”
I reached out and stroked her hair; she didn’t seem to mind.
“Anyway, then Mitch starts giving me all this crap about how if I was in a tower he’d damn well climb up. And I got really mad, I knew what he was saying. I told him to leave it but he just kept on. Then the music began. It was definitely a Doors track, I don’t know which one. It was about a girl, it sounded weird. Bob came back, walking slow, just as the chorus kicked in and it was obvious he’d timed it, just so he could make some sort of entrance. I wasn’t impressed but Mitch got the hell out of there, so I was kind of grateful. Bob said, Just look at the old boy go, and I had to laugh. I thought he was going to keep talking but all he did was order. After that the music kept on, he must have put the twenty in. It was old stuff, but good, a lot of Stones and Elvis, some stuff that sounded British but wasn’t the Beatles. The whole time he just sat there, drinking, playing with a ring.”
She was looking straight ahead, maybe at the car in front, maybe at the lawns.
“Eventually the tunes ran out. The place was quiet, so I went over. He said how you doing kid? I asked if he wanted another, on the house, for all the music, and he said no, he’d had enough. He looked like he was about to leave, not that he was getting up or had his jacket on, he just seemed sort of ready. I asked how come he’d got divorced. He laughed, twisted his ring and said, Which one? I said either and he said, Well, alright. First time because I was dumb, the second because we both were.
I thought this was an asshole thing to say, so I asked how she was dumb. He told me how she always bought the wrong milk, every week, for two years, and how he got to thinking if a person can’t get something that simple right, the rest hasn’t a chance. And although this sounded stupid, it was kind of interesting. I didn’t know anyone else who’d been divorced, it was that sort of town. And he had one of those voices, the kind that are easy to hear, like on the radio.”
I saw a car approaching and was sure it was the police. But the car didn’t slow or stop, it just carried on.
“Then he stood up to go. He walked to his truck in a straight line, I guess he could really hold it. But he didn’t drive off right away. I could see him in the cab, sitting, smoking, his eyes shut. Then he rolled the window down. He flicked out the butt then drove away and if some guy hadn’t ordered, I’d have gone and stood on it, you know I hate that.
After that it got really busy. It was some guy’s birthday and they were playing games. I must have poured a hundred shots. Earl had to break up a fight after one of them said something to a Korean guy who seemed pretty nice.”
Judy always had a soft spot for them.
“I must have gotten out of there sometime after ten. Usually I didn’t mind walking, not if the weather was good. That night I just wanted to be home. So when I saw Bob sitting in his big red truck, my first thought was to catch a ride, and only when we’d been driving for a few minutes did I wonder why and when he’d driven back.
Bob asked if I went fishing and I said a bit, not much. I told him sometimes me and a few guys went to the lake by Denton’s farm. He said, You ever catch anything? and when I said No he said Really? Not even VD? Then he laughed and said I know a place where no one goes, the fish are so bored they want to be caught. If you want to go, it’s close. But you’d better tell me, that’s your turn off. And before I knew it I’d said yes and we were going past.”
I risked a question.
“I don’t know, maybe the ride had woken me up. Or perhaps it was like my Dad asking. I guess I wasn’t thinking.
We turned off the highway, down a small road that became a track. Branches brushed against the truck, I guess no one did go there. We stopped and then got out. He must have seen me shiver because he reached in the back. He brought out a rod, some bags, and then a sweater, a big old heavy thing that came down to my knees. It had a strange smell, like lots of things mixed together, aftershave and smoke, dust and maybe sweat. But it smelled alright, not dirty.
The path twisted left and then I saw the lake. There was a big moon and the water looked like it’d had a load of milk poured in. It was a good night for swimming, and if it was now I would. But I didn’t swim that well then, really, not at all, so I didn’t, and anyway, I guess there could have been all kinds of stuff.
I looked at the water while Bob went to get the boat. I wasn’t sure I wanted to but Bob said it was a nice night, we should. We pushed off and when the engine started it seemed way too loud. But then it settled down and we chugged on out towards the centre. When we got there he cut the motor and it seemed like all the insects were holding their breath.
I watched Bob bait the hook. When he handed it to me I realized that it was the only rod. He said, I’ve fished here plenty times, I’ll let you have the pleasure. Then I cast off and made a real mess of it. Bob didn’t say anything, he just took the rod and reeled the line back in. Then he gave it back to me and said, Let me show you. He put his hands on mine and they were large and smelled of soap. He raised my hands to one side then flicked my wrist quickly and I felt the line and my hands flow forward. I watched the hook sink in and wondered if the sleeping fish would notice. He moved his hands to my shoulders. I didn’t flinch or tell him not to. I guess I wanted to be touched, maybe just held and if he was there and wanted to, well, that was OK.”
I took my hand from her neck and hung it out the window. A cool breeze was starting and I remember thinking there’d be rain by morning.
“He kept them there a while, and although I thought I felt a few tugs, nothing really happened. Then his hands moved to my hips and he said I was pretty.”
I felt a yawn begin but got to it in time.
“He shifted to get closer and the boat began to rock, not much but enough to make me scared. I didn’t know what to do, my hands were busy with the rod. He started kissing me and then his hands were between my legs and tugging at my shorts. He pushed me down into the bottom of the boat, but not in a rough way. I told him I didn’t want to but then he was on top of me. He held my hands tightly. It didn’t take long.”
Outside the wind picked up a little, not much but enough to make me wish I’d brought a jacket.
“Afterwards I lay there looking at the stars. I don’t think I knew what had happened. It had been that way with my boyfriend too. We’d been making out in the woods and then he’d been on top even though we’d agreed to wait. I think until a few years ago I thought that was just how things were. And on the drive back Bob acted like nothing had happened. He asked when I was going to Buffalo, if I knew people there. When he stopped outside our house he said, See you around. I got out and then he nodded and drove off.
When I got in my mom and brother were asleep. I took a shower and went to bed. And when I woke up next morning I told myself that it was just a dream or didn’t matter.”
Judy started the engine.
“Didn’t you tell anyone?”
She shook her head.
“He and Dad had a falling out and then we moved away. Last week my mom told me he’d died a few years back, lung cancer she said. I guess I hadn’t thought about him much until then.”
I rolled the windows up and we started the rest of the drive back. I wondered what I was supposed to say. I had a few ideas, but in the end I figured that I wasn’t supposed to say anything. She’d just wanted me to listen.
When we got in we watched TV and then went to bed. I was horny, but also nervous, like it was our first time. I lay next to her, wanting to touch her but not knowing if I should. In the end she put her hands between my legs. When we’d finished I lay awake for a long time, not just thinking about Bob but about all kinds of stuff. And a few weeks later I started seeing one of the secretaries.
-first published in Stand Vol. 8 (2)
November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment
Details of the first round of readings (all Edinburgh and Glasgow) can be found at the Forest website:
At some point early next year there’ll be readings in London, Oxford and elsewhere.
The book is also now available on Amazon, priced 5.99, plus postage.
November 6, 2008 § Leave a comment
Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.
Fiction is, by definition, that which is ‘made up’. Unlike biography, reportage, or booklets that purport to explain how to assemble your washing machine, fiction makes few claims to ‘truth’, not even the limited variety present in these genres. Which begs a couple of questions— how does a writer ‘make up’ something? and what is the relationship between this construction and the truth? —the first of which we’ll try to answer, the second of which we’ll try to ignore.
When we, as writers, begin a story, most of us do so with an event, image, or psychological question we wish to explore. Sometimes there is only a title (‘Richard and His Excellent Bears’), a first line (‘Melanie refused to discuss her penchant for being inverted’), sometimes a last (‘And with that the boy entered the deep, dark, dripping tunnel that led to the mine of adulthood’). All the above could be placed under the heading ‘An Idea’. These are what people ask us about after we have given a reading. They march, totter or are pushed to the mike, then after clearing their throats, croak, “Where do your ideas come from?” Usually we offer the same response given by Henry James in his 1908 preface to The Portrait of a Lady.
As for the origin of one’s wind-blown germs… who shall say where they come from. We have to go too far back, too far behind, to say. Isn’t it all we can say that they come from every quarter of heaven, that they are there at almost any turn of the road? They accumulate, and we are always picking them over, selecting among them. They are the breath of life— by which I mean that life, in its own way, breathes them upon us. They are so, in a manner prescribed and imposed—floated into our minds by the current of life.
Whilst this is enjoyably grand (not to say suitably mystifying), James’ response, like our talk of first lines and images, is a form of evasion. To say that ideas come from ‘every quarter of heaven’ is little better than saying they come from the faeries, our ‘collective unconscious’, or a tiny green shoulder weasel that whispers ideas only we can hear.
The main items in ‘the current of life’ are people, who, as characters, are usually the main parts of a story. So a better question may be, ‘Where do characters and their actions come from?’ James suggests that ‘life’ gives them to us, but comes closer to the truth when he speaks of ‘picking them over, selecting among them’. Our ‘made up’ characters and events are thus not so much given as taken from life. The writer’s task is to select those parts of life he or she feels can be satisfactorily assembled into something as pleasing as a washing machine that not only makes one’s clothes smell mother-laundered, but also never leaks in a manner that seems downright sorrowful. These range from the individual detail— a pencil-drawn eyebrow, the heft of a breast —to a particular face or way of speaking— pedantic, hectoring, a boiled sweet in the mouth —up to a sketch of a person remarkable in its verisimilitude: one that captures the manner in which they laugh, dress, breathe, eat and fall down stairs.
None of this can be avoided. Writers are, after all, not God. We cannot create something from nothing. We are also not all-seeing: the majority of us are probably no more observant than average; certainly no more than policemen, pimps, or psychiatrists. When one considers the daily life of most writers—sitting in a room, perhaps the kitchen, often alone for most of the day —it becomes clear that the sphere from which most of us draw our ‘wind-blown germs’ is fairly limited. Those events and people that interest us most are often drawn from family, friends or colleagues, perhaps because we think we understand why ten-year-old Adam throws stones at dogs, why our friend has yet to cheat on her husband, why Polly works so late, so often, what she is avoiding at home. It may be that given our emotional connection to these people, their stories have a greater resonance for us, that they seem more deserving of being written, or at least included in our narratives. It is certainly easier than devising the inner lives of people who do not quite exist.
Which brings us to the nub of all this. For whilst there is nothing inherently problematic about placing one’s girlfriend’s nose in a story, fitting it, as it were, on another woman’s face—not unless said nose is so malformed it resembles a whelk more than an organ of scent, such an inclusion calling further attention to an already sensitive matter—it is an altogether more fraught endeavour to place your actual girlfriend in a story, even under another name, with auburn hair rather than brown, but still with the same issues about your relationship, such as, for instance, her fear you’ll leave for her someone with a shapelier nose. Although it might be an excellent story, one of your best, it will cause her great suffering. Amongst the many accusations she might later hurl as the two of you stand in the kitchen, you pressed against the washing machine, she leaning against the wall with the spice rack, the main point she might return to, as her hand sweeps the sage to the floor, would be that it was her nose and that you had no right to just take it and put it in a story for fucking strangers to gawp at. And though it was only a nose, for God’s sake (and a horrible, mollusc-like one at that), by no means the most intimate detail you could have borrowed—not her baby-talk during sex; the way she snored like a vagrant; her habit of opening her mouth to show you the food she’d chewed—you would have to concede she had a point. You had taken, you had stolen something that did not belong to you.
Later, much later, after she had moved out, you might begin to question this notion. Although a person clearly ‘owns’ their own nose, can they be said to have the same rights of ownership when it comes to things they have said or done, especially if you were also present? What about your rights? After all, these were things you saw and heard. Surely that gives you the right to use them? But regardless of whether a person can truly ‘own’ their words, deeds and thoughts — in the way you still ‘own’ that Captain Beefheart record she took, even if you said it was a present—what is far more germane is that people feel they do. And it is they, rather than any abstract ethical or legal code, who matter. They are, after all— pace James —the proverbial hands that feed us.
The main issue is thus one of permission. This is the difference between borrowing and theft (at least when it comes to records). There is nothing to stop a writer from asking their partner, their colleague, or the girl on the no. 47 bus telling a long and impressively detailed account of what she did with a Cypriot waiter on Mykonos if they mind themselves or their actions being included in a work of fiction. Nothing, I suspect, except the prospect of being told ‘no’ (and several other things besides). Ideally, these people would instantly contract some baffling perceptual disorder unknown to clinical science, rendering them physically unable to read any story in which they or their actions appeared. Given the likelihood of this scenario, most writers instead pile wigs and sweaters on the people in question, change their sex, nationality, and religion, or even split them into two or more characters, especially if they are writing something that shows the person (or their nose) in an unfavourable light. This, of course, does not always succeed. Some people are surprisingly acute at spotting themselves in fiction.
The other, somewhat safer option is to portray the person in a manner unlikely to cause offense. Many of the stories in this anthology portray their subjects in a sympathetic manner, though this by no means guarantees a favourable reception, the most common accusation being ‘that-isn’t-how-it-was’. There are, however, several stories in the anthology (‘Applesauce’, for example) that gleefully announce their lack of shame at what amounts to a violation of trust, of telling a story those involved might prefer not to be shared.
We wish we’d been sent more stories like that.
Malice aside, perhaps what is most important is not a story’s provenance, but how its author deals with the ‘stolen’ material. We were sent (and rejected) many stories that did little more than reproduce anecdotes, some of which were so enjoyable—children whose glass eyes fall out; women who publicly insult each other’s genitalia on a London bus; a man who claims to have ‘built’ the robot known (to the rest of us) as Naomi Campbell —we believe we could be forgiven for making a further volume of doubly stolen stories, if only because some of the ‘wind-blown germs’ we inhale seem to demand they be allowed to burgeon into a sickness (even when its prognosis is likely to be terminal).
But however enjoyable or compelling the anecdote, what ultimately mattered to us during selection was how it had been transformed. How something overheard in a bar had been expanded into a structured narrative that did not merely tell you what happened, but gave you ways to think about it you did not expect; a piece of writing which, through its control of event and language, might affect you in some lasting manner— in short, how it had been made into a story.
Before we began putting this anthology together, few of us had doubted the ethics of appropriating from others’ lives, probably because we never gave it much thought. A good story is all that matters, as journalists may still say. But in the end, if you write enough stories, someone will eventually say J’accuse. They will stand in your kitchen and ask by what right you took something private, something shared, and turned it into a story. They may be crying. So may you. But as you stare at their face, their unbelievable nose, you will realise that they will stand there as long as it takes. That they deserve— and you may need —some kind of answer to this.
 Booming; badly; from their diaphragm; messily; with grace.
 Even Henry James, who had a remarkably wide circle of acquaintance—in London during the winter of 1878-9, he admitted to accepting 107 invitations—based many of his heroines on his cousin Minny Temple (e.g. Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale).
 Whilst this is probably not among most writers’ higher aspirations for their work, revenge as a guiding motive cannot be entirely discounted (cf. Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar).
Though let’s face it, how many writers are going to take ‘no’ for an answer? It is as rhetorical a question as, “Do you mind if I have the last scone?” Or, “Do you mind if I take another breath of air?”
The question of why we are sometimes compelled to use a person, event or nose is one that warrants further study. We would like to think that this urge, while not entirely philanthropic, is at least as public-spirited as the donation of one of those benches with a memorial nameplate. That we only use such material because we believe that its inclusion is fundamental to the world-improving quality of our work. We would not like to think of it as a piece of arch-selfishness, one wholly typical of us and our deceitful, treacherous, spiteful, self-centred and thoroughly writerly ways.
The other main reason we rejected stories was that they took the ‘stolen’ theme as an excuse to make free with the writings of already-famous authors. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this—William Burroughs used to write ‘GETS’ in the margins of books, when he felt something was Good Enough To Steal—if you’re going to tinker with the canon, it needs to be done not only outstandingly well (e.g. J.M. Coetzee’s Foe or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea) but also with a better legal defence than we would be able to muster.
November 4, 2008 § Leave a comment
Stolen Stories is a new anthology of fiction that I co-edited and wrote the introduction for. This is the back cover blurb, that hopefully explains the concept of the book (or is, alternatively, so mystifying, so great an enigma, that you positively have to buy the book, just so you can know).
“Never, ever trust a writer. One minute you’re pouring your heart out in the pub: the tale of you and him, or you and her; the tears, the anguish, the pain. Next thing you know, it’s all over the papers: the hilarious and best-selling tale of some twit who resembles you in every way except they have black hair and better taste in music. But this is what writers do: they steal, they take, they lie. And there is no shame in this. Quite the opposite. In order to celebrate this fact, we have compiled an anthology of the finest ‘stolen’ stories, a collection of 16 tales from both established and emerging thieves, all of whom have been forced to confess the source of their thefts.”
The anthology is published by Forest Publications, and for those not residing in Edinburgh, or Glasgow (where we’ll be having our initial readings and launches) it can be ordered from Wordpower Books, price £5.99.