Backstory

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Dot writes: this is an utterly self-indulgent post in which I’m going to jot down some notes about the little stories I’ve been putting up here recently. Although they are all very short and simple – the longest is A Reunion at just over 2500 words, and The Man in the Library is only 1660 words – they all involved some puzzling and arranging.

1. The Man in the Library

Writing this story, I was conscious of the patterns I was creating. For example: the books in Sarah’s list are all real books and derive from the things that she has seen or that have gone through her head in the preceding few paragraphs.

So, A Glut of Tomatoes and Salad Vegetables refers to the salad sandwiches the man was eating earlier; Freud and the Lonely Planet Guide to New York both relate to Portnoy’s Complaint, which is couched as a man talking to his psychoanalyst and is set in New York; The Male Brain is there because Sarah is having trouble imagining the man’s viewpoint and is seeing him as an alien, if fascinating, creature (I made him argue back against this kind of gender essentialism later by telling her the book’s no good). At the end, Sarah borrows a book on Zaha Hadid: she is the first female architect to be mentioned in the story, and I was thinking that Sarah was now starting to look for female role-models rather than focusing so much on admired men. The nest-like house Sarah designs at the end is supposed to express something about her too, offering both cosiness/shelter and the opportunity to take flight. This was all a bit oblique and I think several readers felt the story just stopped in a rather unsatisfactory way, but in my head it had a good progression from teenage crush to intellectual and creative awakening. There was also the fact that it was obvious no romance was ever going to happen between a schoolgirl and a clearly quite nice young man rather a lot too old for her. He’s an impossible prospect as a boyfriend but does a pretty good job as a librarian.

2. The Passage Tomb

Writing this felt very intense and exposing; I was drawing on old but strong feelings, and also borrowing details from the lives of several real people (in fact all the stories have elements of real people in them; I switch things around, but I don’t seem to be able to make up characters out of nothing). I never quite made up my mind if it was set in England or Ireland. England, I think, but it does trouble me that I am vague about the geography of the seaside town Clare and Hannah visit: where exactly could you find a shale cliff with fossils in it and also a passage tomb? However, of the four stories I’ve completed so far this is the one I’m proudest of.

3. A Reunion

Initially I was vague about the setting of this story too, but as I filled in the details I needed to know what a solicitor’s career trajectory would be, so I got the details from the Irish Law Society website. That meant the story was taking place in Ireland. It ended up set in a lightly warped version of Dublin. The places are based on Dublin places but don’t map onto them exactly: for example, Tom’s flat is in a kind of mix of Stoneybatter and the area around Great St George’s Street. At the end of the writing process I went back through the dialogue to make it sound more Irish, or rather Irish-compatible; I didn’t want to end up with stage-Irish or a pastiche of The Commitments. It was an enjoyable exercise.

I realise that Julia and Tom’s past encounter is a rather sleazy little episode, but I like these characters, Tom especially, and find myself wondering what happens next for them. In particular, I’ve given them the problem that Tom is in the middle of buying a small, shabby apartment, while Julia part-owns a much shinier one in a posher area with her ex. (I think Julia’s ex, who is called Aidan, only left her a couple of months ago. She’s on the rebound.) It’s too early in their relationship to make big decisions about houses and so on, but if they do stay together Tom’s apartment is going to be a liability; it’s too small and it’s going to be hard to sell on. I worry about this stuff.

4. Triptych

Again, this threw up some practical problems and I also have thoughts about what else happens for these characters. At one point I was thinking of sending Adam off to Auckland, but I wasn’t sure there would have been opportunities there for both mathematicians and historians in the late 80s (the date is set by the fact that Becky is exactly my age, though not a portrait of me: she is my entry into this story). Sydney seemed safer, especially as, as Ken has pointed out to me, there are several universities in Sydney. I’m not sure what everyone else’s jobs are. June must have gone to one of the London colleges for her MA and met Adam through a choir or other organisation (since they are in different disciplines), but in order to be hanging around in Cheshire during the summer dissertation period in 1987 she must have finished her studies in 1986 and taken a (temporary?) job. So I think she’s about 23 in 1987; he is a couple of years older and has just finished his PhD. I expect he gets over her and marries someone else relatively soon; meanwhile June becomes a teacher – I made that clear in the story – and I think she also marries, but looks after her father after her mother’s death, and doesn’t have children.

Adam gets the last word in this story, so it’s his view we’re left with, but I’m conscious June’s perspective is never expressed. Caroline clearly has a very particular slant on things that’s not fair to Adam at all, but I left Michelle as a dangling detail that his letter doesn’t clear up. I think June can’t face leaving her family, and doesn’t have the confidence to take on a PhD, but there may have been other things going on that help to explain her behaviour. And I suspect Adam enjoyed kissing Caroline rather a lot, though I’m sure he’s right that she took the initiative and that he was fairly quick to put a stop to it.

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