“Marlinspike” by Tom Paine
Issue #185 • October 25, 2013
Tom Paine’s short story collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist. His stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, Story, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. He is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.
The blue ferry carrying Julia nodded through the waves to Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. Phineas sat under a tamarind tree above Cruz Bay in his tuxedo, watching it go. The five layers of wedding cake perched in his lap.
Q&A by Will Allison
Where did the idea of this story come from?
I waved to a child in an SUV in a grocery store parking lot. Her mother or father must have left her there while they shopped. She looked at me, and I gave her a big existential wave. And she looked terrified. Which I totally get, but it hit me as sad, as I was just waving. I’m the guy who makes faces at your kid on an airplane to amuse them. I like kids more than adults. Anyway, I was talking about the amazing story “The Little Winter” by Joy Williams in my MFA class at UNH—which has a complex friendship of a dying woman and a little girl. I made a joke that I was going to run home and write a story about a grown man and a little girl. And there were two beats, then laughter, because a grown man and a little girl is not okay. So I listened to that horrified laughter, and walked toward it, and waved to Julia.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
I’m Phineas more or less, and Julia is a little girl I love, so it wasn’t hard.
And the most satisfying aspect?
There are moments I miss. I loved sitting on the wreck of the Mandrake with Julia. Or arranging tamarinds by tartness. I don’t feel there is any there to get to in life. And Julia knows that naturally, as do all undamaged kids and most people on St. John. I mean, as odd as it sounds, I miss being in those moments with the imaginary Julia. I suppose it is odd to be sentimental about time spent with someone in a story, but time with her was deeply memorable. She is a cool kid.
“Marlinspike” involves the intimate relationship between Phineas, a grown man, and Julia, a ten-year-old girl. What’s the secret to keeping such a relationship innocent on the page?
I guess it can’t be, sadly. I suspect readers were on alert for the perv shoe to drop. But Phineas is a good guy.
I love the story’s strong sense of place. How did you come to know St. John?
I listen to Kenny Chesney’s “When I See This Bar” to see faces I know, and because that and a few other Chesney songs nail what I feel about that island. A lot of my adult life was spent on St. John. I started The St. John Sun Times, an arts newspaper.
I also love the story’s rich symbolism. Almost every aspect of “Marlinspike”—every location, every gesture, every object, every action—does double duty, functioning on both the literal and symbolic levels. Are you typically aware of a story’s symbolism when you began writing, or does it tend to arise later, as you revise?
That’s an interesting question. Take the Australian hikers with the headlamp. The deep thought process went like this: Why not pick up hitchhikers? It’s dark! The hikers must have headlamps! Hey, kids love headlamps! Hey, the headlamp light is coming from Julia’s third eye, her chakra! I say it’s an interesting question, but it actually is kind of tragic to learn most people wouldn’t see a symbol in Gatsby’s green light if you waterboarded ’em. Writers do it like they breath; they are always aware of the soul of things chattering away. But you do feel kind of lonely when you realize everyone else sees the seagull as just a fucking seagull.
At the end of this story, Phineas and Julia are facing her impending departure from the island. Do you imagine their friendship continuing, or is it one of those brief but wonderful friendships that can exist only in a particular place, time, and circumstance?
The ferry heads into dark waters.
How long did it take you to complete this story?
I think a few days.
What are you working on now?
More stories for a collection called A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns. Like Phineas, all the men in the stories are totally cracking up. Don’t ask, Will.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
That you can’t write a good story until you become the person who can write a good story. I mean a change in your soul, not your sentence structure.
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