Free Fall by April Darcy, published in Shenandoah

I was so taken by the gentle power and precision of April Darcy’s story, Free Fall, that I just had to ask her a few questions about the story itself. I won’t tell you anything about the story leading up to the interview, but should you decide to read Free Fall — which you should — prepare to be spellbound starting with the first paragraph. How does the author mesmerize readers? Well, here’s a hint: multiple layers of musicality coupled with wise and well placed insights. Check out our interview below.

Keith Lesmeister: There’s a wonderful, melodic structure to the story, which moves naturally and allows for the protagonist to focus on one character at a time, mostly. And those four characters are introduced to us in the first paragraph — husband, sister, lover, and the protagonist herself. Did the structure originate with the story, or did you find the structure in later drafts?

April Darcy: Oh man, did you win me over with this question.

First, thank you for reading the story so closely and taking the time to ask such great questions. Second, it’s amazing that you used the word melodic right out of the gate. My first love in life was music. Growing up, I sincerely believed that I would someday be a musician, or I would die. (My childhood journals provide proof of dramatics.)

Growing older and discovering music hiding underneath my love of language was such a joy–writing brought musicality back into my life in a new and concrete way. When I write I am almost purely focused on rhythm, sound, repetition. I read out loud for beats and drum along with my hand on my desk. If it doesn’t sound like a song, it’s not done yet. It’s subtle, of course, and it’s not like I do it on purpose, but sound and story go hand in hand for me.

And no, focusing on one character at a time wasn’t conscious when I drafted this story, but I see it now that you’ve pointed it out. (Thank you!) And that’s not unlike a song either, right? Bringing one instrument to the forefront while the rest falls into background briefly. I so wish I could say structure dictated anything, but no, this story flew out of me in one weird swoop and in more or less this structure from its conception. I fussed with it for years, of course, but to be honest it was a gift. I was not in charge. (I am never in charge.)

KL: I found myself pulled into the story by the conflict, certainly, but also by the language and specific phrases, specifically the repetition of some of these words or phrases. For instance, “Her hair was plaited over her ears, like a farm girl but somehow sexy, always so sexy.” In this case, those last words.

Or in dialogue: 

“Her eyes widened. She put down her fork. ‘Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘It’s just sex, Taylor. So what?’

‘So what? Don’t you think it would hurt him?'” 

In this case, the “so what” connects. 

And there are other instances throughout, and these moments often feel like a kind of echo. But echos can get distorted as they bounce off canyon walls. Or — as is the case with your story — they’re clearer, and more powerful, than the initial burst of language. I think it’s an excellent effect. Could you speak to how/where/when you employed this technique? 

AD: This technique was in fact purposeful, so I feel smarter now! In my first drafts there tend to be little beats that stand out upon re-reading. When I look at the text they pop as if written in yellow highlighter. Once I find those moments, usually by scanning my eyes over the page to see what leaps out, I know they are the sections that need to echo, to make the most of their power.

For instance the story ended with “So what?” in its first draft, which I found exciting, but it didn’t have an echo yet—the ending was the first time those words appeared. I wanted to create an echo there, and it finally occurred to me that although the words hadn’t been said before, Jessica’s whole vibe was a giant “so what” to the entire world. I just had to put the words into her actual mouth. In a diner. Because everything I write accidentally has a diner in it.

So yes: echoes create emphasis, extra beats create resonance. That style is purposeful and sort of done with a musician’s ear as best I can: to make certain moments ring.

KL: In addition there are a lot of short declarative statements that contain a lot of power: “I still wish for sex.” Or “Duplicity is easy, turns out.” Or “That was it.” Or “She never would again.” I guess this isn’t really a question, more of an observation. Though feel free to comment as you see fit.

AD: I love varied sentence structure, and find it vital for compelling reading. One of my writing ticks is that I too often lean into long, meandering, sort of complicated sentences. I’ve learned the hard way that the only way to pull off sentences like that is to balance them with short plain ones. Long long short. Complex complex simple. You can hear the beats if you’re reading aloud.

At first I did this unconsciously, and in my very first workshop Susan Cheever pointed out what I was up to. She said I had written a couple of beautiful sentences but that she sensed I “didn’t know what made them good, and that talent without knowledge wasn’t good enough.” I couldn’t tell if I’d been complimented or insulted (both were true!). Although humiliating, that moment was exciting. I vowed to learn the mechanics of what I had previously been doing kind of by ear, so I could employ it with better control in the future.

From that, I learned the value and power of simple declarative sentences, but that they stand out most beautifully set against a more complicated line.

KL: Did you listen to any music/musicians while you wrote this piece? Do you listen to Tom Petty?

AD: I can’t listen to music at all when I write. The story has its own rhythm and I can only focus on that. I can’t listen to music if I’m doing anything of value, honestly: at my desk at work, emailing, talking to people, nothing. The song takes over and I sing like a fool and embarrass myself. I can only listen to music when doing mindless things like driving, cleaning, or running, so I can ignore everything else.

I wish I was one of those cool-kid writers who listen to smoky music as they bang away on a keyboard deep into the night, but I am so very not.

KL: Jessica, the protagonist’s sister, is this larger than life character who does who/what she wants whenever she wants. She seems invincible, as though nothing in the world could ever bother her. Until… until her sister rivals her behaviors and attitude. Did it take mad skills to keep Jessica from taking over the story? 

AD: Until the moment the story begins, Jessica had taken over Taylor’s entire life. This was Taylor’s story, for once. Her chance to break free and to breathe. There was zero chance I’d let Jessica steal the show in Taylor’s pages. (But yes, it was tricky.)

What’s funny is that Taylor recently showed up in another story as a side character, and in that story she is older, single, lives at sea, and has Jessica’s name tattooed on her wrist. Again: I am not in charge.

KL: So is this a hint to what you’re working on currently? Perhaps a linked collection of stories? Or a novel similar to, say, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which is really just a collection of stories)?

AD: Oh god, isn’t Olive Kitteridge wonderful? Another collection that blew my mind recently was Andrea Barrett’s Servants of the Map, where the characters overlap but in gentle, subtle ways that could almost go unnoticed. Another favorite is Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. Something about linked work soothes me—the surprising connections, the refracted quality. I’m fascinated by that kind of storytelling.

So yes, I’m working on either a linked collection, or a true novel in stories, and I have no idea which way it’s going to land yet. This isn’t purposeful either: I just keep finding the same handful of people strolling around in the background of my stories. Like party guests who won’t go home. I’m not sure if the connections will be subtle or overt yet. I’m waiting for them to fill me in.

KL: How has writing this story enlarged your view of the world? Or yourself? How has it changed you?

This story was my first attempt at fiction after a couple of years of writing nonfiction, being awful at it, and deadly bored of myself as subject matter. I wrote this story like an animal let out of a cage. It changed everything for me as a writer. I am stupidly grateful.

As a human though, what I was interested in is character. Are we who we are because we were born that way? Or do we become who we are because of circumstances beyond our control? Who are these people who do the things we believe we’d never do? Have wild affairs, lie with abandon, steal, commit crimes, walk out on jobs and families. It’s easy (and common) to judge people who do extreme things, but it’s possible, even likely, that at some point those people were not so different than you or me.

I think of John Williams’ beautiful novel Stoner, in which the protagonist falls in love with a younger woman and has an affair. In a scene where his wife confronts him, this text follows:

“For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear; and what Edith said was part of what he saw. He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt. He looked at this figure as closely as he could; but the longer he looked, the less familiar it became. It was not himself that he saw, and he knew suddenly that it was no one.”

I think of cheaters, addicts, criminals—people it might be easy to judge—and I try to look closely instead. Every time I step over a sleeping homeless person (which happens weirdly often) I feel a shudder of awareness as to how easily I might be them, and they me. Taylor learns this in this story, when she judges Jessica until she becomes her.

In no way am I advocating for bad behavior. Understanding isn’t the same as endorsement. What I do advocate for is empathy. The line between a “good” person and a “bad” one is thinner than we realize. In the end, it’s just another fiction.

KL: Do you prefer root beer or cream soda?

AD: Ugh, gross, they’re both the worst.

KL: Raspberries or strawberries?

AD: Strawberries! By the bucket.

KL: Walnuts or pecans?

AD: Pecans, especially if candied, warm, and from a NYC street vendor on the first chilly October day.

KL: Canoes or kayaks? 

AD: A canoe is a boring, uptight, old-man version of a kayak. And there are always spiders hiding in the inside corners. Kayaks for life!

 

April Darcy is from Jersey City, New Jersey. Her work has been shortlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and Family Matters competitions, the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Free Fall is her first published story.

Arcadia by Emma Cline

The month of May is short story month and because of that, and because I recently turned in my final grades, I’ve been lately reading a lot of short stories. Namely, those stories included in the most recent Best American series, edited by Meg Wolitzer. There’s a lot to admire in the anthology — slices of life on display that show characters at their most urgent, desperate, and vulnerable moments.

One story I’d like to discuss is “Arcadia” by Emma Cline. It’s a story of orphaned siblings, Otto and Heddy, and Heddy’s boyfriend, Peter. All three live together in a rural area of orchard country. The orphans are not orphans in the traditional Orphan Annie sense, but rather, they are older, more mature, and running the farm/business like they know what they’re doing. Their father died four years ago and their mother had left for the east coast with a new boyfriend, so Otto had “pretty much raised” Heddy.

“Arcadia” is told from the perspective of Peter. The outsider, the boyfriend. We learn early on that Heddy is pregnant, presumably with Peter’s child, and when Peter moves in with them he immediately starts working on the farm. There are others who help too: hired hands who live in a series of trailers on the edge of the farm.

The entire situation — the characters’ isolation, the mystery of the parents, and Peter moving into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, “still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages…”– is fascinating, but what takes center stage is the relationship between Heddy and Otto.

Peter notes, early on, “Otto kissed [Heddy] goodbye, making a lazy swat at her ass…” And on the next page, “[Otto and Heddy] carried on long, sober conversations… that trailed off whenever Peter came into the room.” And later still, “[Peter had] been surprised that neither Heddy nor Otto cared that much about nudity, Otto striding naked down the hall to the shower…”

All of which adds texture and mystery — who the hell are these people? — to this eerie, backwoodsy story featuring this trio of characters. If you haven’t already, check out the Best American Short Stories 2017. Along with Cline’s story, you’ll find several more that entice and tantalize readers with their precision, language, and compelling — and sometimes slightly perverse — situations.

“Texas” by David Gates

To my knowledge, “Texas” by David Gates (January 22nd issue of the New Yorker), is the first short story published by the venerated fiction writer since the release of his latest collection A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (Knopf 2015). The collection is comprised of stories and a novella that were published over the course of a twelve year period, in places such as the aforementioned New Yorker, but also Tin House, GQ, Ploughshares, Paris Review, and Granta. There’s a reason for Gates’s consistent inclusion in these top-tier literary journals and magazines. Simply put, he’s one of the best. And “Texas” is a much anticipated follow-up for those of us who know — and love — his work.

“Texas” takes place in upstate New York, and features a man, Garver, whose “children had left home” and his wife had “made her escape to Italy.” Garver is alone, an artist, and enjoys a host of pleasures — music, cannabis, baseball, and whiskey. But he’s alone, and in need of money, and when a nice, unsuspecting artist-couple, with a kid, are searching for a place to rent/live, away from the City, Garver acknowledges to himself, about the couple, “You’ll do.”

The couple: Ben is a composer with an NEA grant and a weakness for weed. Lois is a writer with an MFA from Columbia. The couple have a daughter who has “pudgy legs” and still uses a car seat. The family takes a liking to Garver, but their affections are short lived.

What unfolds is a host of complications between the threesome, starting with Garver’s and Ben’s mutual affection for weed, and Lois’s motivation to keep Ben off of it. But it becomes more than that, and as Garver’s intentions are subtly revealed, the story takes on a needling kind of menace. Only the kind that Gates can create through sharp details and pitch-perfect dialogue — all rolled out for us in a timely, nuanced fashion.

We do eventually get to Texas, the actual state, and it is there, at the end of the story, where Garver confronts his daughter, “the only one of the kids who still kept in touch” to find out what she thinks of him. It’s a poignant moment for Garver who, after this brief conversation with Emma, his daughter, resorts back to what has always comforted him.

Read the story here.

And a great interview with Gates, about the story, here.

The Smell by Ruth Mukwana, reviewed by Lina Rodriguez

Lina Rodriguez is originally from Colombia. She is currently a student at Lincoln Memorial University, where she is studying Veterinary Health Science, and will be attending LMU College of Veterinary Medicine next fall.

Ruth Mukwana’s story, The Smell, was orginally published in Solstice, and can be read here.

 

Ruth Mukwana addresses the issue of women’s rights in her fictional story The Smell. The author uses this story as a way to bring awareness about women’s rights in other countries or, to be more precise, the lack of them. She does so by narrating the story of Rose, a woman who not only suffered from domestic violence but also suffered horrific consequences when she decided to stand up for herself.

In The Smell, Rose is literally ironed by her husband as punishment for spending money for their baby’s formula. After murdering her husband, Rose is incarcerated in inhumane conditions and subjected to abuse from the guards at the prison. She mentions how she tries to “understand what pained [her] the most, [her] broken body or spirit.”

Author Ruth Mukwana has experienced what it is like to live in a society where women are considered to be less than men. She was born in Uganda, a country where women’s rights, especially in rural areas, are practically nonexistent. Although fictional, The Smell is based on a society that she has been a part of. She has witnessed firsthand the suffering of women in her home country. This is perhaps one of the main reasons she has taken upon herself the mission to bring awareness of this situation.

When she narrates the story of Rose, a woman who murdered her husband after years of abuse, she is narrating the life of hundreds of women who are being mistreated. The reality portrayed in this fictional story is common among developing countries, especially those countries that live in extreme poverty. Women are treated as property, and their families marry them off young to obtain a dowry. Young women do not go to school. They do not have a childhood. Getting married, having kids, working, and taking care of the home is the future countless girls have accepted as their only option. These girls submit to this future as part of their cultural beliefs sometimes without questioning it or even realizing that they have other opportunities.

The author, although living in a society where this situation is common, did not have to go through this situation herself. In fact, Ruth Mukwana holds an MFA from Bennington College, works for the United Nations and has lived for an extensive period of time in New York City. She is a well-educated woman who was able to have a successful career in a country where this is an exclusive privilege.

In The Smell, there is a successful female lawyer who fights for Rose’s freedom. This lawyer represents a sign of hope for all young women. This young lawyer shows that, although it is not common, a woman can have a successful career. This figure represents a powerful woman capable of helping others. The lawyer represents someone who stood up for herself. She fought against her culture and succeeded. In the story, Rose admires this woman: “she was older than [her], but she looked much younger.” Rose is aware of how “her face exuded youth, but it didn’t have any of the physical scars and the haunted look wedged in [her] eyes.”

By juxtaposing Rose and her lawyer, Mukwana is showing two possibilities. Not every woman suffers from domestic abuse. Not every woman has to follow the cultural belief that their job is to take care of the house. Rose’s story is not exceptional. This is a situation that has been going on for multiple generations. Rose remembers how her mother “married [her] at the age of fourteen to a maternal uncle much older and twice [her] size.” This is the same situation her mother went through when she “was married at the age of twelve and had her first child the same year.” Perhaps this pattern is why young girls do not fight for their rights. In most cases, they are not even aware that they have rights. They have lived in a society that has belittled them for so long that they believe this is the way it is supposed to be. Through the lawyer’s character, the author is also providing these young women a role model—someone they can look up to. This does not literally mean that young women should become lawyers. What the author is trying to do is inspire young women to stand up for themselves. She is showing them that it is possible to be successful. Mukwana is showing little girls that they have something to fight for, and they should do so.

Women around the world suffer from discrimination. It is true that some women such as Rose face far more challenging types of discrimination than women living in wealthy countries. That being said, according to Lenora M. Lapidus, Director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, “today, women at all income levels are still facing barriers to advancement, and in some ways, these challenges are harder than ever because there are some people who think that discrimination against women no longer exists. Sadly, that’s just not true.”

Wings, 1989 by Robin MacArthur, published in Shenandoah

I’ve been reading — and loving — Robin MacArthur’s debut collection, Half Wild. So far, the stories are set in rural locations (log cabins, gardens, meadows) and feature women and kids (or young women) battling husbands, fathers, lost loved ones, strangers moving to town, and, most poignantly, the notion of what they might have been. Stories that explore this kind of regret could easily slip into miserable histories which in turn could drag the reader into a kind of fitful, disoriented daze (where are we in the story?). But not so with MacArthur. Her stories move steadily forward showing through sharp details and subtle action her characters’ ongoing conflicts. For instance, the story linked here, Wings, 1989, is about a girl who observes the melancholy movements and actions of her mother while her husband, the girl’s father, is away for work. They are not well-to-do financially, and their need for cash keeps the father away for days at a time — building houses and enjoying the excesses of being away from home/family (getting drunk and stoned with a co-worker), while the mother and daughter are at home picking an insurmountable weed patch threatening the garden, along with the constant pile up of household/cabin chores (the mother’s hands always smell like dish soap). The details in this story, so subtle and perfectly wrought (the 1/2 inch gap in the door frame that the father patches with duct tape) and we get so completely wrapped up in this place and its run-down loneliness, that, by the end of the story, we understand the kind of compounded stress of a woman (the mother) whose dreams and hopes have been dashed by an absent husband, housing developments wiping out the wilderness around her, and, really, a family with whom she does not readily identify, along with the stifled dreams of her past. What might have been.

One of the lovelier scenes is a brief flashback of how the protagonist’s mother and father met; a story that the protagonist can play, “like a movie in my mind.” It’s a skinny dipping scene, but as the mother is jumping in, the reader is interrupted by the mother’s commentary about her future, the kind of knowing that she suspends — or ignores — for an adventuresome spirit (the father) who eventually moves her to a pine log cabin in the woods to start a life and a family.

Wings, 1989 isn’t the only gem in the collection, though it might be the only story found online. If you enjoy rural landscapes filled with back-to-the-land types who can’t seem to get ahead, while fighting substance abuse or absent family members, pick up a copy and enjoy. If you’re not convinced, start with this story here.