Your story “Balloons” is set at two junctures in its protagonist’s life: the first, when he has an affair with a married woman; and (spoiler alert) the second, decades later, when the woman’s husband asks him for help ending his life. Was it always a two-part story? When you were writing the first half, did you already envision the second?
I didn’t. I often write until a story strikes some impasse, which can be terminal. That was nearly the case with “Balloons.” But I was helped by a dream in which the married woman, Joan, was dead. It changed everything and greatly enlarged the prospects for making a story out of something that had baffled me, without causing me to lose interest in it.
This isn’t the first time that a dream has prompted you to start writing or revising a story, is it?
Dreams are most helpful when a story is under way but unfinished. Then the dream world may offer a hand. Writing before you are quite awake is a good way to keep the unconscious in play.
You write about this world and these characters in a kind of shorthand. Just a few details about Roger’s professional life give us a strong sense of who he is, or at least who your narrator thinks he is. How do you choose what information to share or not share with the reader?
I’m impatient with stories that bang on long after I’ve got it. What I love about short stories is that they necessarily bend toward concision, or ought to. It’s too bad that great collections of stories, especially first collections by young writers, so often lead to bulbous novels.
Joan is a cipher at the heart of the story. Neither man seems to have truly known her. She’s a balloon that drifted inscrutably away. Is the center of the story the unrequited love the men feel for her, or is it the rivalry they have with each other?
Joan is, indeed, a cipher, and that is how she appears in her obituary, where the details about her are scant: she was someone’s partner; she was the granddaughter of a banker and barge owner. Her dog, Olive, gets more prominent billing. Her partner’s job is described; if Joan had one, it goes unmentioned. The men are both in love with her, and they struggle to define exactly how they own her, a delusional but commonplace impulse. She seems to have drifted through their lives, and perhaps through her own.
You reworked the ending of this story a couple of times (or more?). How do you decide when you have something right?
I rely on Robert Stone’s advice for revision: “If you think there’s something wrong, there is.” Robert Lowell noted that Yeats knew a poem was finished when it closed with a click like a box. Lowell said that he himself struggled with a poem until it “simply reaches a point where it isn’t worth any more alteration, where any further tampering is liable to do more harm than good.” Guess which of these descriptions is affectation and which is useful and reassuring.
A number of your recent stories have explored the ups and downs of marriages and relationships in small towns in Montana. Are you writing a series?
I hope not. Thinking about marriages has a retrograde quality, since it’s been a long time since it made sense to get married at all. I belong to this fading cohort, so I go on wondering about such hopeful arrangements. In fact, any outcome of hope interests me, in marriage or otherwise.
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