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