“Coda” by Whitney Groves
Issue #194 • August 6, 2014
Whitney Groves is a high school English teacher. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BA from the University of Richmond. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Georgia Review. Whitney, her husband, and their dog live in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. This is her first published story.
When the nurse leaves, my father pulls down his oxygen mask and says, “Tell me something you remember from before.”
Q&A by Karen Friedman
Where did the idea of this story come from?
The basic trajectory of Vera and Rusty’s story mirrors my own relationship with my father. Like Vera, I thought that meeting my dad would be a healing experience. He was more honest with me than Rusty was with Vera, but we never connected as deeply as I’d hoped we would. When he died, I had to deal with the knowledge that the emptiness created by his absence during my childhood would never go away. My response — several years after the fact — was to write about it. I wanted to address the idea that time doesn’t, in fact, heal all wounds. An individual may remain emotionally and spiritually moored to a certain event, even as it recedes into the past. The good news is, it’s possible to acknowledge that event as a part of one’s present with grace and courage, not remorse.
The relationship between Vera and her father, Rusty, is striking for its simultaneous intimacy and sense of alienation. Despite years apart, Vera is able to fill in his silences, and yet in the most basic ways they do not know each other. How did you arrive at that level of complexity? Was it there from the start?
I think it was there from the start. I heard the opening sentence all of a piece in my mind, and I wrote it down immediately and never changed it. That style of conversation seemed the best way to show the dynamic between Rusty and Vera: neither wants to jeopardize their superficial connection — it might be the only connection they ever have. That’s one reason why Vera is good at filling in his silences. Plus, she’s spent her whole life attuning herself to others’ needs. She engages in a sort of reverse manipulation to meet her own needs for information, approval, emotional harmony, etc.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
The hardest part was knowing what to tell and what to leave out. It’s one of my perennial problems as a writer, but it was even more challenging with “Coda.” Because the story is loosely based on my life, I could imagine decades of experience that made Rusty, Vera, and Lauren who they were. But I also recognized that the gaps in understanding, for both the characters and the reader, were essential to creating the resonance I wanted. Finding that balance proved to be a crucial (read lengthy and difficult) learning experience for me.
Music is integral to the way Vera relates to the world. At what point in the writing process did you realize Vera was a musician and did it alter the way you approached her as a character?
I don’t remember consciously deciding that Vera would be a musician. Classical musicians need to be almost fanatically disciplined, but they also need the ability to access profound passions. That apparent contradiction has always fascinated me. It seemed to describe Vera’s internal conflict pretty effectively. In the first draft, though, I didn’t have Vera and Rusty listening to jazz together. During the revision stage, I expanded the role of music throughout the story, with the result that Vera became somewhat less passive. Of course, her actions are still calculated to gain Rusty’s approval, but her effort to use music strategically made her a more complex character.
One of the first words you used when describing your story to me was “fractal”, which I remember thinking described it pretty darn well. How do you think structure works to enhance this story? And was playing with form something you set out to do?
When I started working on “Coda,” I’d just read Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” That story was a revelation to me: I’d had no idea that structure could pack such an emotional wallop. It gave me the courage to try a nonlinear before-during-after structure with “Coda.” I figured out immediately that the during part would be Rusty and Vera’s last conversation. Other than that, the “fractality” developed largely on its own. As you know, fractals are repeating patterns that occur in nature in some weirdly awesome ways. The same structural pattern can occur at a macro level, such as the pattern of a tree’s branches, and also at the micro level, with its individual leaves. With those images in mind, I wanted “Coda” to use time, not space, as the scale on which Vera’s patterns of behavior repeat themselves.
The flash-forward near the end of the story is one of my favorite scenes. Without giving away too much, why was it important to you as an author to take your readers there?
In keeping with the idea that a single moment can resonate backward and forward in time, I wanted the readers to see what Vera does with the knowledge she gains from Rusty. The flash-forward challenges the idea that closure is possible. It also gives her the opportunity to vary the pattern she’s been living out for twenty years.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel in stories, set at a truck stop in west Texas. Many of the characters are less educated and have a narrower experience of life than did Rusty and Vera, so it’s a challenge to address complex ideas while staying faithful to the characters’ voices. Like “Coda,” though, connections and patterns seem to be emerging, whether or not I create them intentionally. That’s the great mystery of the writing process, I guess.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Tough question! In the last few years, I’ve been blessed with several outstanding teachers who’ve helped me develop my craft and my confidence. Two of them are Clint McCown and David Jauss, both of whom advised me to write the sentences, scenes, and stories that move me. This may seem like common sense, but I don’t always do it. It’s easy for an apprentice writer to get caught up in her own (real or perceived) cleverness, or to write a story the way it “should” be according to someone else’s construct. I’m grateful to Dave and Clint for encouraging me to trust my own imagination and aesthetic sense. Maybe one of these days, I’ll be able to do it consistently.
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