Susan Tepper: Jane, you set up “place” almost immediately (in the second paragraph) of your story “The Uninvited Guest.” A few choice words and we get a clear view of where we are and who we’re going to spend time with. This is very strong. “Place” is definitely one of the driving forces in this story. You write:
The first time I see her, she is slouched in a tire swing, pushing off with one foot and dragging the other in the dirt beneath a dying pecan tree that probably hasn’t made a nut in 20 years. A colorful mess of sweet peas and hollyhocks swarm the trellis that leans up against a falling-down garage. Chickens peck their way through the litter in the yard.
Have you ever been in this particular place, or anywhere similar? Because it feels so intimate in the way of known places.
Jane Hammons: My first response to this question is yes, yes I could get in my car and drive right to it. But the truth is no, no I have not been to this place except in my imagination. It is a composite of my great-grandmother’s back yard in Roswell, New Mexico. Yards of houses you see if you get off the Interstate and drive the blue highways of the Southwest. Specifically I imagine this yard and house to be in a neighborhood of Albuquerque that is (or was) south of Central Ave., which is the old Route 66. At the turn of the 20th century people who worked for the railroad built Victorian houses there. When I went to school at UNM, these Victorians were mostly rundown and carved up into cheap apartments. Place and setting are — I can’t even think of a word to express what I want to say — essential, critical, organic? — to pretty much everything I write. Stories generally come to me in two ways: voice or idea — and each usually leads to a different kind of story. But both are always very clearly attached to a place, even when the place isn’t as present on the page as it is in this story.
Susan: I did pick this story for several reasons. One being a selfish reason: the fact that you and I have this “Roswell connection,” in that we both know Roswell, NM to some extent, though you much more so than I. But I saw Roswell in here, too, and it just grabbed me so hard.
Immediately after establishing your setting, you jumped right to character. Names. Tayber and Opal. Perfect for this setting. You put Tayber (Tay) in lizard skin Lucchese boots. You give us big heat: July, noon, 100 degrees. You tell us about a baby scam right away. All this in the first few paragraphs. This story is thick.
Jane: With this story I wanted to write something that met some of the requirements of the suspense genre. And that is to hook the reader quickly, hold tight, and set the plot in motion. From writing flash I’ve learned to pare things down to the essentials. The challenge here was to flesh things out with the plot in mind and convey the characters fairly quickly. Thus those boots (I want them!). I didn’t really know how the story would end for a long time. I was very wrapped up in the birthday
As for the atmospherics — you know that heat. It is as oppressive as hell. I wanted distinctive names, but not the kind of clichéd names people often use for rough, Southwestern characters. I had once worked as a cocktail waitress for a horrible woman named Opal. So there she is. I don’t really know where Tayber comes from — I imagine that it is probably spelled Tabor or something like that, but I wanted a phonetic pronunciation, so I gave it that spelling. I’m a really slow writer, but this story came fast for me. I drafted it in a couple of days and then took another month or so to revise it. I sort of picture it as a dust devil or whirlwind!
Susan: Your first line has ominous undertones. You write: “We go where we go because of who Tayber knows.” As a reader it struck me as: hmm… really. Why is that? Jane, did you know from the very start how bad these people were? Or did their badness evolve as the story progressed?
Jane: I knew that Tayber was an SOB from the outset — he had to be. One of the things I wanted to explore was Rox/Lydia’s submissive nature. I didn’t understand where it came from until I got close to the end and had to figure out why they were even together in the first place- sort of addressing your question about the opening line.
Susan: That was going to be my next question. WTF was she doing with him? Why do certain young women become enslaved? Tayber was such a treacherous guy yet also charismatic. He turned Rox/Lydia into his collaborator and then he got hold of Connie. What do you suppose was his charm?
Jane: I’m not so sure that it isn’t Connie who has gotten hold of Tay, but I guess we’ll never know . . .
These relationships — like Rox with Tay — interest me. We see near the end that they met at a shelter where he worked and that Rox was a street kid at the time. She’s vulnerable in that way, and she’s considerably younger than he is. So there’s that.
As for Tay, I tried not to make him a stock character predator or charismatic bad guy, but he does have some of those inexplicable qualities. I don’t understand them, but they are clearly powerful.
Susan: Clearly powerful. As is this story. The intensity here in both setting and character is just spectacular. I could so easily see this as a film.
Read “The Uninvited Guest“ by Jane Hammons
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.