Susan Tepper: “Origin” is a complex and layered story, the most difficult type of story to write well. Marcelle, you pulled it off, and then some. Your first line: “The woman was looking for the bathroom when she came across the girl.”
Woman / bathroom / girl
That the woman was not looking for, say, the kitchen or living room or front porch – when she comes across this girl- well that simple first line felt very loaded to me.
Marcelle Heath: Thank you so much, Susan. I knew when I began the story that I would have a woman brushing a girl’s hair and that the girl would be a stranger. There’s an intimacy in brushing someone’s hair. I also knew that the woman would be at a party, and that the house would be unfamiliar. So, in this scene, she’s in this strange place, and the girl guides her. The bathroom is definitely loaded– it’s a private space, a place of sanctuary, and can be its opposite as well, a place of shame, repulsion, and fear.
Susan: The woman (who remains unnamed) seems to be at a crossroads. You tell us that she “…waved tentatively at a colleague who was promoted ahead of her.” You also tells us the house in which she is visiting, contains “two narrow staircases that led in opposite directions.”
What is that all about, the two staircases, in terms of this story?
Marcelle: Yes, the woman is at a crossroads. The colleague, and the person she wanted to seduce, left with someone else. The party is a disappointment, a burden, and an obligation. I think of it as a fairytale – the two staircases are paths in her journey.
Susan: So the staircases are symbolic?
Marcelle: Yes, one will lead her to enlightenment, the other to destruction.
Susan: Hmm.. And someone she wanted to seduce left with someone else. Not much fun in that! You get her into the bathroom and someone outside is trying the doorknob.
You write: “The woman scrambled into her underwear. The garment was aubergine and baroquely laced around the edges.”
What shade is aubergine? It’s a beautiful word, by the way, as is your other description baroquely laced around the edges. Words that set the tone of the story as it continues. Do you think if you’d dressed her in plain cotton undies, the story would have taken on a whole different slant?
Marcelle: Ha! Yes, aubergine is a great word – it’s eggplant. The language becomes more ornate, definitely, as a way to describe the sense of strangeness or other-wordliness by contrasting the realist setting with the beginnings of the uncanny – embellishment. Of course, “baroquely-laced” suggested something both old-fashioned and futile to me. After all, she wore them for the purpose of a failed seduction. If she had worn something else, the effect would be much different. The tone would be starker, perhaps? I’m not sure. If the description had been “plain, white panties,” I almost think the tone would add an element of the grotesque, especially with the word “panties.” I remember one reader suggesting I cut “baroquely-laced” from the story, but I couldn’t part with it.
Susan: I agree with you about leaving baroquely-laced in the story- totally! It’s so interesting how word choices can make such a difference in what the characters decide to do and how the story will progress. You made other lush choices:
“The oval hairbrush was a silver antique. There was a repoussé design of a woman’s head at top. Flowers flowed out of her hair and continued down her neck into the handle.”
All of this suggests to me that you were working deep out of your unconscious. I believe it’s the unconscious flow of words that create the most provocative stories. Tell us more about the little girl and her significance.
Marcelle: Thank you! I spent days thinking about the brush, its shape, its heft, its bristles. I could feel it in my hand, how heavy it was. I thought of the woman’s hair like Medusa’s – as if at any moment it could come alive. However, I’m not sure how unconscious the words – I did a lot of research, looked up antique brushes. There was no brush that matched mine, but the term “repoussé ” is completely taken from descriptions. My vocabulary isn’t that extensive! The little girl was strange to me from the beginning. Her heavy flannel nightgown and matted hair, suggesting that she had woken up from something, maybe a nightmare.
And when the narrator begins to question who she is, asking at one point “You’re not Matilde, are you?” I remember thinking, yes! I’ve found a way in. Like the woman, she seems not to belong anywhere, she’s a wanderer in a way.
Susan: It’s a fascinating story. I don’t want to go much further because it will give away too many of your delicate and delicious plot details. But I will say that I was captivated by what you wrote and what you ask of the reader to consider about this story. And about their own delicate lives.
Read “Origin” by Marcelle Heath
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.