Susan Tepper: Robert, what I find so intriguing about your story “Shades of Gray“ are all the details that are left out. Nothing tells us very much. Yet it’s like a bomb about to detonate. Or a reduction sauce heated down to its most basic elements. Tell us how the story evolved in this manner.
Robert Vaughan: I saw Evita on Broadway when I was 19. Patti Lupone starred as Eva Peron, and threw Peron’s mistress out in Act One. Actress Jane Ohringer sang a brilliantly simple song called “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” I can’t fathom how much this song spoke to me then, and it haunts me still: it felt like it was written for me. That lingering lyric, “Where am I going to?” The unanswerable questions.
Susan: Evita! Loved it! I saw it with Elaine Paige. “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a fabulous lingering image. God, it’s just tearing, when you look closely at it. It screams of pain and emptiness which is what your story does. And we don’t know whether your narrator is male or female. Only that the person who does the “leaving” is a he. Was that an intentional choice, to leave the narrator’s gender up to the reader?
Robert: I had no clue what gender the narrator is/was. Still don’t, and I’m not sure it matters. I often write from this premise, leave gender determination to the reader, or in some cases hint just casually, certainly less than “he” or “she” to give suggestion. In this story, I wanted that ambivalence, the unanswerable question of gender to be as haunting as the story itself.
Susan: And it works perfectly. It allows us all entry into the story. Because we’ve all been there, at one time or another. You write: “I watch him put his clothes on. After he leaves, I feel numb. Another stranger takes off before midnight.” This is economical and gorgeous prose. Without embellishing, you invite us to step into the suffering.
Well, Robert, we started off with Evita, but this also recalls to me the Woody Allen film Interiors. You know that one?
Robert: Do I know Interiors? I’m a New Yorker, that’s like asking me if I know Woody Allen plays clarinet! Of course, and because of the movie’s release (around the time I saw Evita) perhaps the two are somehow archived in my brain together. Certainly, in Interiors, the falling apart of a family, or lives spinning out of control, or simply “feeling numb” or deserted, all render themselves to heightened tension and conflict. On another level, I do feel like the majority of this flash is interior, on the inside, potentially unknown.
Susan: Does Woody play the clarinet? Ha ha! (I forgot you are a fellow-NYer, Robert, please forgive my momentary lapse!) Now you got me laughing!
But the story, yes, the majority of this flash is interior: the room, mind, body, the heart/soul connection. When the “leaving character” departs the story, when he leaves before midnight, there is this terribly cloistered feeling. You write: “I feel miniscule. Shades of gray, patterns on the wallpaper.” These patterns- what do they look like?
Robert: It wouldn’t be the same as usual if laughter was not included here!
Yes, after the “butthead” leaves (ha! ha!), the narrator has these feelings of insignificance or transience which carry through to the next section. I wonder how a space can choke, or cage a character, like a prison or a well. (Of course the transpired events might also be working on the psyche here, we can only surmise). Originally I wrote this as one night, it all happened that same evening. But I felt as if it needed the jump in time in order to strip away even more, dig deeper into the physical and emotional bearings.
Susan: Yeah, I like it a lot that you segued into the next day. The horrible next day- after a night like that. But I really need to know what the patterns in the wallpaper looked like to the character. Please tell me!
Robert: Isn’t it great how much I avoid answering? The wallpaper patterns are some horrible middle-class “Hitchcockian meets Interiors meets Looking for Mr. Goodbar” bedroom wallpaper: perhaps bluish-gray with a velvety raised pattern, like hearts or better yet, swirls that are unending.
Susan: I will admit you’ve perfected the avoidance technique to New York proportions. Bet you don’t look anyone in the eye on the subway, right?
Well. Now this is some answer you gave. I knew your avoidance contained crucial information to this story. Because we really don’t know exactly how the furniture (wallpaper, furnishings, etc) got there. Were they chosen by the narrator, or is it a rented flat (whoops I just jumped the pond), or is our trusty narrator perhaps house-sitting in the outer boroughs? It’s all very NY. Oblique, the way NYers can live. Rent, sub-let, skip out on the last payment, mysteriously lose the furniture. I love this answer! It sounds so repulsive and totally unlike what I expected for him. I had thought perhaps the patterns were hallucinations (being a former interior decorator, I just gotta know these things!)
You write: “Pale white sheets bury me in the bed.” Robert, is this story perhaps all about the “little deaths” in each life?
Robert: I do believe as much in “little deaths” as one might in “re-births.” With those pale white sheets (appealing oh so much to your former interior decorator needs), I think I am fascinated by how one can become bedridden. Or disabled, or movement impaired. What leads up to this, how does it happen? Also, yes, those New York horrors of “the in-betweens” of living spaces: whose furniture is this? We don’t know. It “seems random, rather unpredictable.” Then again, what isn’t in life? That the narrator wonders “Did I live here?” is not unlike most transitory people, those folks who seem to be just passing through. Impermanence. Stayed on your couch while you vacationed and watched your turtles.
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.