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February 1999

A Literary Conversation

This is a transcript of an email conversation between Suford Lewis and myself. It begins with a discussion of the epic poem The Keeper of Her Soul, the related short story, and the mock scholarly notes on the poem. The conversation then shifts to a discussion of the short story, Hanging Out At Louie’s Place.

A fair bit of editorial license has been taken in rearranging the commentary and some extraneous material has been deleted. Comments on comments are indented. My comments are in dark red and Suford’s are in black.

SUFORD: I really like “the almost always unreliable Barath” and his notion of feminity! You have some real possibilities here in a cycle of stories, poems and scholarly squabbling about them. Except that there is not enough of it (yet) it would make a great collection!

HARTER: Thank you. I’m rather fond of Barath myself. Now that you mention, yes, it would make a neat collection – great may be a considerable overstatement. The odd thing is that I had no such intention. Zhandivar is an expansion of a two paragraph fragment in an old PN which I did in a fit of totty-headedness. I hadn’t any intention of doing anything more but people asked for more and I would reply with offhand comments on the nature of, “I don’t plan to do anything else but if I did I would right about someone who put their soul in a jewel and had it stolen by a dragon.” Then I would think, “Hey, that’s a neat idea. How would that work out?”

You see how this works. Here I am, saying to myself, “Self, you’ve done that. It’s time to get on with something else,” and someone comes along and says, “Hey, it would be neat if you had some more stories and poems and scholarly squabbling about them.” And I say to myself, “Self, that’s an interesting idea. Suppose you had some stories that stood all by themselves, and some scholarly essays, and an Elonian sonnet.” And then I say to myself, “Self, don’t do it.” I don’t know whether I am a very good listener, though.

One of the nifty things about the Elonian cycle is that every added bit extends the boundary of the mysterious and unaccounted for.

SUFORD: Interesting. The poem “shows” more than just “telling” but does not really get much deeper into the characters than the “fairy tale” version which just “tells” it. This makes the fairy tale version easier to read but makes the poem seem like a better version – though not by huge leaps. I know that in real life you don’t get to “really know” people much better than that, but one of the ways in which art is not real life, I have always thought, is that in art you can get to know people fairly completely. Indeed, part of the point of the story is just who the people are and what their motivations are, thus, part of telling the story should include making the characters motives and priorities clear. Maybe that is why I am not quite satisfied I really know what happened in the poem … then again, maybe not…

HARTER: One of the problems I have with the story and the poem is that I don’t know what it is about. It is obviously about something but I don’t know what it is.
SUFORD: Maybe part of what is leaving me unsatisfied about the dragon and Lutetia, is also that you haven’t made up your mind what it means. Thus a reader has the choice between deciding for themselves (now there’s an interesting form: the singular indefinite pronoun) based on their own prejudices, bending the story to their own will, or not knowing.
HARTER: Keeper is quite different. It is pregnant with meaning; I can feel that. It’s not a matter of “making up my mind what it means”. It’s one of those things that works the other way around.

HARTER: One of the SF usenet groups has had an interesting discussion of LOTR and Narnia going on. One of the discussions revolved around the ending of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the last part of the book the four children become kings and queens and then, one day, magically leave Narnia and become children again. Someone brought up the point that they weren’t historic kings and queens, rather they were storybook kings and queens. They gave as an example the difference between meeting Sir Lancelot and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh is a historical character. One could write a novel about him, full of just the sort of thing that you ask for, motivations and who people were, and so on and so forth. I imagine that someone has done so. Lancelot is ahistorical. He is not a person, as such, but rather a bearer of archetypes and symbols. In a novel Raleigh could fart in church. A tale about Lancelot would not (or should not) have such an incident because it is not relevant. The people in myths do not have motives – they are the expression of motives. We do not understand Campbell’s heroes in terms of people like ourselves; they are distillations of what being people is about.

The characters in myth are like a gloss of humanity, like masks worn in a Noh play, ritualized expressions of humanity. This raises the question – is there anyone under the mask? Indeed, should there be anyone under the mask? I do not know the answer but a story entitled Under The Mask sounds intriguing.

SUFORD: Yes I did like Hanging out at Louie’s Place but, again, since you never hint what happened with her father, there is a part of her character left out. Now, her husband has the rest of her actions to learn her character from, but we, the readers do not so it is simultaneously a really sweet thing that he doesn’t bug her about it and really rough on the reader, it being told from the husband’s viewpoint.

You seem to specialize in that sort of thing. I not sure whether you’re being clever or cheating…

HARTER: This is a different matter since Joyce definitely is a “real” person. I thought of half a dozen different things that could have happened and, in the end, decided it worked better not to tell. There is a technical difficulty. If you do tell, it has to be a much longer story because, whatever happens, you have to get inside Joyce’s head and her father’s head and it really has to be told from her viewpoint.

Perhaps I’m rationalizing but there is a justification for not telling. What happened is personal to her and very private. In a way, this is a cop-out because the story really is about Joyce, even though it is told from her husband’s viewpoint. That is the point, though. We don’t know everything about our beloveds, no matter how well we know them. You can speak to this better than I can but I am reminded of a study that was made of people who had been successfully married for a long time. It turned out that they communicated very well and understood what each other was likely to say and think; however part of that success was knowing what not to talk about and what landmines to avoid.

Seeing one person through another person’s eyes is an odd thing. We see Joyce’s internal conflict through Joe’s eyes which is to say that we really do not see it at all. What Joe sees are the manifestations that matter to him. He is not a clod; he is sensitive to her feelings and has a pretty good idea of what is going on in her head. What we don’t see is what she thinks about what is going on in Joe’s head. I hadn’t thought about it but we don’t see her talking to Joe about what he feels. It is as though there are a lot of things that she can’t talk about. This, I think, is in character.

I hadn’t thought of it this way but in a sense it is not just a love story (and a very sweet one) but it is also a redemption story.

Cheating or clever? Got me boss, I just do the scripts. The stories tell themselves. It is a short story, though, and part of the art of the short story is to provide suggestive cues that let the readers fill in the details for themselves. For example, there are no descriptions of any of the principals – only Marie is described as “a thin, mousy, quiet woman” – and yet I will bet that you have a picture in your mind of what each of them looks like.

Maybe you are right, though. Maybe I’m being too rough on the reader. I will have to think about that one.

SUFORD: While it is true that the author has different amounts of knowledge and different obligations to the people involved depending on whether they are actual people, either historical or friends, the act of turning the material into character and plot involves deciding what the meaning of it is (or what you will use the material to mean this time). To do this usefully for your audience, you have to give “enough” information. So, if you don’t want to invent (or reveal) the “encounter” of Joyce with her father, you need to tell us enough about Joyce so that we can see what her attitude is towards men in general, her father in particular, how she has dealt with leaving home, become her own person, what she passed through to decide to get close to her husband. Yes, it does make the story longer, but, as you said, the story is about Joyce.

HARTER: Most of that we already know by virtue of who she is, what she does, and where she is. Thus: She ran away from home at 16 – she ended up on the street, sold her body to get by and got recruited into Sadie’s house. She isn’t into drugs – that’s a negative inference but sound. She doesn’t know much about men in the ordinary way of experience – her father was very strict and she didn’t date or do ordinary boy/girl things as a teen-ager. We don’t need to be told that; that’s implicit in the kind of person that he was. She’s streetwise about men but really only as John’s.

Sadie’s is a good place to work if you are a whore – it’s stable and it’s family. Joyce has drawn up very rigid lines for herself. She doesn’t like what she has to do but it’s okay because she has defined herself as a whore and that’s what she does.

Withal, she is pretty innocent about men and about love and romance. The story screams that. She is attracted to Joe and doesn’t realize and doesn’t know what to do about it. The other girls know what she is about but she doesn’t. They’re a little gooey about it but they recognize that she has to figure it out for herself. They’re definitely pulling for things to work out, though.

When she asks him to come to the house she is offering affection in the only way that she knows how to do it. When Joe asks for the “real thing” she panics – all of a sudden she is 16 and in way over her head; she is way outside her lines.

She is torn; she values the intimacy of their coffee sessions but she is scared of real intimacy. After settling down from being spooked she reaches for the relationship that she has come to value but implicitly asks that it be safe. She doesn’t consciously think about the relationship going anywhere and doesn’t want to but subconsciously she comes to terms with it. That’s why she is willing to go to the play, despite being skittish. It is the intoxication of the play, drinking, and a fun evening that breaks her inhibition barrier.

All of that is in the story – it isn’t explicit but it is there by inference. It might well be a better story if some of this were fleshed out but it is not essential to the story.

SUFORD: All the advice to writers is constantly yelling “Show, Don’t just Tell”. And you are not only not showing, you are not telling either, but relying on the reader to deduce it. There have to be illustrative incidents that sweep the reader into the action, put the reader into the skin of the narrator and by empathy into the skins of the other characters in the narrative. Just from your description of what one could deduce:

This description is more empathy provoking than her husband’s description of events. For one thing, it is from Joyce’s point of view and focuses on her. In the husband’s story, one is focussed on him – we have very little action on her part that would draw us into her feelings. What you describe is what her husband might feel in her presence thinking about her past. It is not what a reader will feel reading the narration of events by the husband. For one thing, the reader is reading the husband’s words about the events, not sitting across the table from Joyce in the coffee shop having a conversation. Both the immediacy of the husband’s perception of Joyce as a real person: her looks, her scent, her voice, her mannerisms, her conversation, and the knowledge of her past and her attitudes are not available for processing as the story is told. They are available as deductions critically reading the story a second or third time, as if one were a police detective going over a witness’s narrative for motivations. I disagree with your statement that these are in the story. The reader does not experience them in the reading.

HARTER: On the other hand you have a real point about there not being enough about what happened between her and her father. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that we are not to know about the actual details. What she did and why she did it and why it “worked” are her business. In the end she gives everything else of herself to Joe; this she does not. It is her last line and part of the unspoken contract between them.

When I think about it, I know exactly what happened – what must have happened. She didn’t sleep with him, that you may be sure of. She didn’t intend to, else she wouldn’t have greeted him with “Hello, father”. What happened was that he turned very red and literally ran away and that she laughed at him as he was leaving. That’s what a man like that would have done; the alternative would have been to have raped her. He didn’t do that or she wouldn’t have been so self-satisfied. Which is not to say that she wouldn’t have been gratified if he had assaulted her (it would, you should excuse the expression, have exposed him to both of them) but I think she would have called the bouncer. [Damn you for making me think it out – I really didn’t want to know.] In a sense, when she said “I’m not telling” it was because nothing happened; there was very little to tell. However that little meant everything to her. That moment when he turned very red, when he was confronted with what he was, was a very delicious and private satisfaction, one that she didn’t want to diminish by sharing.

The other thing that occurs to me is that Joe might have figured it out also. They talked to each other about their families; he would have had a pretty good picture of what her father was like. In the ordinary course of things he would have been able to deduce what was likely to have happened. I’m not sure that he would have, though, because he would have been too close to Joyce. You can see what would have happened if you step back and think “how would a person like X behave?” That is hard to do when the person is someone you are emotionally involved with. I have a feeling that Joe wouldn’t really want to know – he’s easy with being with whores but the incest angle disturbs him. That casts a different light on the ending, of course. It’s not just a matter of being sweet (it is sweet); it’s also a matter of he really doesn’t want to know.

SUFORD: Sorry, I didn’t realize you were telling a story about an undescribed event that you wanted to keep undescribed or that it’s not being known was specifically what appealed to you about it. It’s dangerous to write stories like that. Usually you have to know way more than you write down.

HARTER: I dunno. The more I think about it, the more it seems precise in telling you just enough so that you know everything that happened. The thing is, you have to think about it a lot which may be unfair to the reader. I may do a rewrite but I will have to think about it carefully.

SUFORD: What are the feelings you want the reader to have? You have to lead the reader through them. That’s the whole point of the “Show, Don’t Just Tell” rule. By going through the experience of the story, the reader feels what the author wants to communicate. The usual device for that is for the story to start with a conversation and then shift to a narrative of the experience of one of the speakers during an experience they are talking about (or even just thinking about).
HARTER: I think we’ve sort of jumped the track but it makes for some thought provoking discussion. Let me start with a digression inspired by your query: What is this story about?

The subject is a short story; that is what I am doing – writing short stories. Now a short story is a very different animal from a novel and the things that make a short story successful and memorable are not the same things that make a novel successful and memorable. A successful short story has three main elements, the story idea, the narrative movement, and the gut-grabber. Of these, the gut-grabber is the one that is most important, the one that makes the story memorable. By the gut-grabber I mean the defining scene or lines that stick in the mind. Let me give some examples:

First three stories by Asimov, Nightfall, A Sense of Power, and The Final Question. These are all very famous stories. People remember reading them even if they don’t remember who wrote them or where they read them. If you go back and reread them it is notable how clumsy the writing is. The plots are pedestrian and have little to do with why the story is memorable. The story ideas are striking but you could take the same ideas and write an utterly unmemorable story. Wherein lies the gut-grabber? In each case it lies in the final lines.

This is often the case. Short stories are often famous for their surprise endings. Saki and O’Henry are authors who are thought of as “surprise ending authors”. I would say, though, that the essence is the striking character of the ending rather than the surprise which is just a component of that which makes the ending striking. The Gift of the Magi will do as a case example.

The gut-grabber need not be the ending lines. For example, many of Poe’s stories are memorable for a particular scene. Thus, in The Cask of Amontillado, what do we remember? Is it not the cry of “For the Love of God, Montressor”? In Pit and the Pendulum we remember the horror of the pendulum.

Nor does it have to be a scene; it can be an emotional sense. A famous example is To Build A Fire. The ending does have a bit of the gut-grabber about it – the dog moves on – but the thing that makes the story memorable is the narrative progression, the march of failure and the emotional tone aroused by that march. This is a hard kind of story to write; my Grandfather Lizard is a failed attempt at that approach.

A short story must have a story idea and it must have a narrative flow (otherwise it is no story.) Characters and characterization are a different matter. Quite successful short stories have been written with no characters at all. In the nature of things a short story does not have room for extensive characterization; one must make do with minimalist suggestion. Moreover the kind of characterization and the degree of characterization varies wildly with the needs of individual stories.

Working within a short story is like writing a poem with ideograms. Everything is brush strokes; placing a brush stroke suggests.

So. The short story is about the gut-grabber. Always. There may be more than one but there must be a principal one if the story is to work. The story must have a fair bit of unity of structure; there is not room elsewise. Moreover the structure must support and build around the gut-grabber.

To answer the question that we have batted around, to wit, what is the story about: The story has two gut-grabbers, a minor and a major. The minor one is when she says “Joe, let’s go to your place.” This is the culmination of the love story. The major one is the ending when he says that she doesn’t tell, that he doesn’t ask, and that he is not going to ask. That bit, the fact of the secret that is not shared and the love that does not ask, is what the story is “about”. You remarked at one point that the ending is “rough on the reader” and it is – that is what gives the story its punch.

The old maxim about “show, don’t just tell” is sound enough but, then, the story does that. The advice, “There have to be illustrative incidents that sweep the reader into the action, put the reader into the skin of the narrator and by empathy into the skins of the other characters in the narrative.” is far too formulistic, at least for the short story, to lay down as a general rule. It all depends on the story and how the story works. However we are not talking about short stories in general, we are talking about this particular short story.

The real question, as I see it, is whether the story is warm enough, whether the proper emotional tone has been established. The love element is a key part of the story and that almost demands warmth. (I am distinguishing here between warm and cool affect.)

It isn’t a matter of “getting under the skin” of the characters. You can’t really do that in a short story; what you do is create the illusion of getting under the skin. You don’t need to know a lot about the characters; indeed you can’t know a lot. The story does, however, have to bring out the right things.

A love story in short story form is tricky. Most attempts to do so are dreadful. All you need to do is to look at the utterly forgettable stories that grace the pages of women’s magazines or the unfortunate “love interest” in many an SF short story.

I reread the story to check it and I’m not sure. The love story works. The public gardens scene is hot; Joyce’s ambivalence is shown nicely. The evening of the play isn’t quite strong enough. The “coffee conversations” scene is a little too vague. The scene where Joyce tells her story isn’t strong enough; it plays against Marie’s story which is very strong. We do see Joe falling in love but it may be a little too low key – the thing is, of course, that he doesn’t realize that he is falling in love. That is a little tricky because the story is being told retrospectively and he knows how it turned out. A paragraph about Joyce in the initial coffee conversations scene would strengthen the story. The second “coffee friends” scene is also a little weak.

In summary, I think it works pretty well but it is not quite there. I may be wrong but I do get the feeling that you crave the novel, that you want the richness and depth that you can get in a novel.

SUFORD: I guess my complaint comes down to the story being about Joyce but the viewpoint character being Joe, and, really, just essentially what you say here in your last paragraph: “it works pretty well but it is not quite there.”

On the other hand, I think I did get “grabbed” sufficiently, given the length you gave it. It is really a short short. However, when you fleshed out the background that had been previously just hinted at in a few sweeping brushstrokes, I wanted a larger, more detailed canvas. It is perfectly valid for you to point out that you were not producing that different-in-kind sort of work. Given the length, it is plenty powerful. Sounds to me you know just what to do to get it the rest of the way “there”.

This page was last updated February 1, 1999.

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February 1999