“Safety” by Lydia Fitzpatrick
Issue #207 • June 1, 2015•Buy Now!
Lydia Fitzpatrick was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 2012-2014. She received an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan, where she was a Hopwood Award winner, and she was the 2011 Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s also a recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, and Opium. Lydia lives with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles. She’s working on her first novel.
In the gym, the children are stretching in rows. Their arms are over their heads, their right elbows cupped in left palms. Class is almost over, and this is the wind-down—that is what the gym teacher calls it—though the children move constantly, flexing their toes inside their sneakers, shifting their feet, canting their hips, biting their lips, because they are young, and their bodies are still new to them, a constant experiment. The gym teacher counts softly, one, two, three, four, and before five there is a sound that reminds a boy in the back row of the sound a bat makes when it hits a baseball perfectly. In the front row, a girl thinks it is the sound of lightning, not lightning in real life, because it is sunny out and because she can’t remember ever hearing real lightning, but like lightning on TV, when the storm comes all at once. Next to her, her best friend thinks it is a sound like when her mother drives her into the city and the car first enters the tunnel, only this sound is sharper than that one and stays within its lines, and she is not inside it.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
The first line came first. “In the gym, the children are stretching in rows.” Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever written any line but the first line of a short story first, although I’ve written a lot of first lines and paragraphs that haven’t grown into anything at all. In this case, the first line came from a memory: the gym in my elementary school had skylights and high ceilings, and all this dust floating up there in the light, and I remember being little, lying on my back during the wind-down, staring up into space, and feeling completely relaxed and safe. I wrote the first couple lines hoping to tap into that emotion and transfer it to the reader before it’s broken by the sound of the gunshot.
“Safety” is unlike most of my stories in that I set out to write about a school shooting. There’s that Donald Barthleme quote about writing what you’re afraid of, which is, I think, usually an organic process. As the story evolves, the writer’s fears surface, and her job is not to shy away from them. With “Safety” that relationship was reversed: it began as a fear that I felt compelled to write about. I began writing it just after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when that tragedy was very much in the public eye. I’d just had a baby, and all of a sudden, my fears all involved this new person and the safety of her current self, over which I had some control, and her future self, over which I have no control. I didn’t have any connection to the victims at Sandy Hook, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and this story was the best way I could find to express those fears.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Not protecting my characters. In the first draft, the ESL teacher was the only fatality the reader sees. The gym teacher was wounded, but survived, and there wasn’t a girl with a cloud-shaped birthmark. Elizabeth Tallent read that draft and, with her typical brilliance and sensitivity, said that because I cared for my characters, I was keeping them safe, and that, in the service of this story especially, I couldn’t.
Did you do any research into school shootings before beginning this piece?
No. I was a teenager when Columbine happened, and there have been over a hundred school shootings since then. Sadly we’re all familiar with what happens during these tragedies and how, so I felt like I could write the first draft, at least, without research. Also, I didn’t want the story to become about a specific school shooting, and I was afraid that by doing research, details would stick in my mind, make their way into the story, and then stick out as clues to the reader. I hoped that there would be more power in the story if it remained anonymous, if it could take place at any school, if that could be any group of children under the parachute.
Why did you decide not to name any of the characters in this story, and instead to call them “the boy who is the first to know...the girl who is counting...” etc.
Names seemed to break the voice of the story. Plus there would have had to be a lot names. There are eighteen kids under the parachute, and I think I go into the heads of a ten of them at least. Also, as I said above, I wanted to make the story feel universal to the reader and names felt limiting in a way that identifying the children by their reactions to this experience did not.
Omniscient POV is one of the most difficult to pull off for a writer, and yet you handled jumping from character to character so seamlessly. Can you talk a bit about why you chose omniscient for this story, and how you handled the transitions?
I’m glad to hear that! This is the first story I’ve written from the omniscient point of view, though it’s something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. “Wickedness” by Ron Hansen is one of my favorite stories and was very much an inspiration for this one, especially in the POV. So I went into the story planning to make it omniscient, and once I’d hit on the voice, the transitions happened naturally. It did become tough to maintain a balance between the interiority of the boy who recognized the shot, the gym teacher and the children under the parachute after they all split up geographically. I found myself giving more page-time to the teacher and the boy once they were outside, and in revisions I tried to make sure that the story didn’t in any way neglect the children who stayed under the parachute.
The gym teacher is so wonderfully human, scared and yet also valiant. Can you talk a bit about his character? Why did you choose a gym teacher, and why did you end on this final image of him releasing his son’s shoelace?
I wish I had a better answer for this one, but the gym teacher appears in line two because line one takes place in a gym. The final image of the gym teacher cutting his son’s shoelace is one of those bits of memory that I can’t place. I thought that had happened to my dad and brother, but in fact-checking, my mom said nope, and that my dad was definitely not the type to carry a pocket knife. So I’m not sure of the genesis, but I guess I used that memory as a sort of gift for the gym teacher, so that he could die thinking of a moment of crisis when he had been able to make a child’s fear disappear.
One of the biggest questions everyone asks after an event like this is “why.” You even have the shooter say, “They’re going to ask you why.” Did you have a “why” in mind while working on “Safety”? Or was the “why” just as elusive in fiction as in reality?
The “why” was just as elusive in fiction.
How long did it take you to complete this story?
I wrote the first draft in a week. For me, the quicker I get the first draft down, the better the story is. I think it’s got something to do with staying in the same mental space for a whole draft. I workshopped the story and then spent another week or so revising it afterwards.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
I have a tendency to overwrite, and at some point during my MFA, Peter Ho Davies advised me to have the confidence to describe something well once. Huge emphasis on the once. I hear him saying that pretty much every time I write a sentence, and I still find myself negotiating with him, thinking, how about twice?
Now that I’m working on a novel, I keep thinking about another bit of advice from a workshop with Michael Byers. He urged us not to talk too much about works-in-progress. I may be taking wild liberties here (or fabricating completely), but I think he used a metaphor of a brown paper bag that’s filled with the magic of your new idea, and he said that each time you talk about it, you let a little of the magic out, until it’s all gone. Kind of like not telling someone what you’re going to name your kid until you’ve done it so that you can spare yourself the look on his face, the “How do you spell it again?” I wish I could say that I followed this advice right away, but I’m an oversharer by nature and it took years and lots of blank stares before I saw the wisdom in it.
What are you working on now?
A novel. And I guess in the interest of following Michael’s advice, I’ll leave it at that.
Subscribe Risk Free!
Try One Story in print risk-free. Get our two free-trial issues today!
News & Events
Visit One Teen Story
our sister publication