Been spending much time lately revising stories written longhand over the past few months. It is an enjoyable, arduous, puzzling and exhausting activity. So imagine my surprise when I come upon this, in an essay called “The Biography of a Story,” Shirley Jackson’s account of the reaction to her famous story “The Lottery” when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1957:
I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning… I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later I decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All i know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it…
This complements another bit I have recently read in a book of essays on writing by Ray Bradbury:
Dandelion Wine, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its gaze on eternity, and dies.
So here I am laboring on “ideas” for months on end, hoping to make prose sparkle and cliches disappear. Not so young, either. Odds?
Sent it last week. Now the hard part: waiting. (Well, a hard part, anyway.) The editor agreed to read the version that I nearly sold back in the 1990s to Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins and compare it to the recently revised version and give me her take on what I fixed that didn’t need fixing, and what I failed to fix. Once the content is set, she will line edit.
I usually don’t care for present tense narratives. That is to say they usually count a big strike against a given piece of fiction as I start reading it, but this is an exception. I first read Spark, who is most famous for THE PRIDE OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, when I encountered her short story, “The Portobello Road,” which I find quite wonderful. That caused me to seek out a volume of her ghost stories, none of which were quite as good as “Portobello.” When I read that this novella, THE DRIVER’S SEAT, was particularly shocking, I decided to read it. I was surprised, then amazed, by the narrative tricks used to tell it. It is nearly experimental, and an introduction by Frank Kermode in the edition I read mentions Alain Robbe-Grillet and experimental French writing at the time it was published (late 1960s). That may be the case, but I don’t care. It is a great little book, and the execution is constistently stunning. The main action is told in the present tense, flashbacks are in past tense, and the author comments on the protagonist’s ultimate fate in the future tense. A sample:
…She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case.
On the evening of the following day he will tell the police, quite truthfully, ‘The first time I saw her was at the airport. Then on the plane. She sat beside me.’…
Now, as the plane taxis along the runway, he gets up. Lise and the man in the aisle seat look up at him, taken by surprise at the abruptness of his movements…
The author’s playfulness with time is in addition to the grim and horrifying subject matter. We know very early on that the protagonist is murdered, and are compelled to watch it happen. “Whydunnit” is what Spark called it (it’s what I love about Patricia Highsmith’s books, as well), and Lise, the protagonist in this book, even uses the word.