A Splendid Life
by Carrie Brown
Issue #116 • January 30th, 2009•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The evening before his last day at the Balm of Gilead, where he had worked for thirty-four years as the psychiatrist in residence, he called his sister Neely and asked if he could come stay for a few days.
“Of course,” she said. “It’s still your home, too, Petey. Are they throwing a party for you?”
“Nothing like that,” he said.
“Well, they should.”
He had not considered a party. Maybe it would be good for the residents, the forty mentally retarded men and women at Gilead, to bid him a formal farewell. Many of them had lived at the hospital most of their adult lives. They—and Peter—had grown old together. He had been touched by the endearing excitement the news of his retirement had generated, as if he had announced winning the lottery or embarking on a cruise ship vacation. Many of the residents had presented him with gifts—toothpaste, a disposable camera, sunscreen, a roll of Lifesavers—things that could be purchased from the hospital’s store, a room no bigger than a broom closet and which was open for an hour on weekday afternoons. Maybe he flattered himself that there would be trouble later on, after he was gone. He tried to envision a party: balloons, a cake, something cheerful to establish the right tone. He couldn’t decide.
Carrie Brown is the author of a story collection as well as five novels—most recently, The Rope Walk (Pantheon). She’s a recipient of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CB: When I was in grade school, one of my classmates was teased mercilessly by some of the boys. I can’t actually remember now what happened to her—did her mother come and chastise us? Did the girl leave school?—but I do remember the frightening feeling of knowing that some line had been crossed in the children’s treatment of this child, and I knew that she suffered. I think I wanted to give her, all these years later, a kind of triumphant finish.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CB: When Peter falls into the lake and almost drowns, he has a hallucinogenic experience...yet that experience needs to make sense emotionally and psychologically—perhaps even metaphorically—as well as biologically. His brain is behaving like a brain that is being deprived of oxygen, but the circumstance meanwhile must be meaningful—not just exotically strange and bizarre—to the reader. A good friend, the writer Jennifer Brice, was kind enough to supply me with a very vivid and useful description of near drowning from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Junger quotes some passages from an account in the Edinburgh Medical Journal in which a Scottish physician named James Lowson describes his experience in 1892 as a passenger on a steamship that sank off the coast of Sri Lanka. She also gave me some passages from Sherwin Nuland’s book How We Die that were very helpful. Still, it was a difficult scene to write. I’m still not sure I got it right.
HT: Arguably the first real description in the story belongs to the lake that, Peter Duvall thinks, seems to “absorb sound,” and stretch on forever. The lake then becomes the geographical center of the story. Did you base it on a real lake? What purpose did you want the lake to have in the story?
CB: Sometimes stories arise for me out of places—imagined as well as real—that mysteriously linger in my mind, and this lake, which is an imagined lake, is one of those places. I like stories with a vivid sense of place; when I have trouble falling asleep at night, I try to discipline my mind to stay in a certain place and wander from room to room or over a particular landscape. I’ve been wandering around this lake in my head for some time, trying to figure out who might live there and what their stories might be. Lakes surrounded by deep forest seem magical and slightly frightening, beautiful and eerie at once, peaceful and melancholy. Peter’s story seems to echo those qualities.
HT: G.K. Chesterton makes an appearance in “A Splendid Life” by way of a quote Peter thinks of as he opens the doors to the boathouse. Are you a fan of Chesterton’s? What influenced your decision to include his words in the story?
CB: Pure coincidence. I happened to read those lines of Chesterton’s while I was working on the story and thought they were sentiments Peter would appreciate.
HT: Though the piece is occupied with the character of Mary Danger and her involvement with the narrator, it would be wrong to discount Neely as a less interesting mark of time. It is her life, in fact, that is referred to in your title. What did you hope to accomplish through the character of Neely?
CB: Some people seem to struggle harder than others for grace in this world; Neely is not one of those people. Peter is, however, and Mary Danger certainly is. Peter consoles himself with the notion that Mary Danger’s life—despite how cruelly she was treated as a child—has turned out to be “splendid,” and with the apparent fact that Neely has made the best of a circumstance in which other people might have had more difficulty finding happiness.
HT: The three boys Neely hired for the summer make a funny appearance at dinner, and are surprising entries into “A Splendid Life.” How did you decide to add these characters to the mix?
CB: The three boys—their carelessness, their youth, their appetite—serve as an additional reminder to Peter that he is nearing the end of his life...without him ever quite acknowledging that in the story. It seemed to me that they added in some way to Peter’s sense of unsteadiness.
HT: It is interesting that after his embarrassing rendezvous as a young boy with Mary Danger, a girl seen as a freak from the lake community, Doctor Duvall would spend 34 years with the mentally retarded. Do you think he hoped to in some way redeem himself for the childish behavior of his younger self?
CB: Peter was a sensitive boy, fragile and troubled by severe asthma. Sometimes so-called sensitive people are only sensitive about themselves, but I think Peter is sensitive—and sympathetic—about other people, too. His career, I suppose, is evidence of both those qualities.
HT: Though she has been the subject of much speculation in the story, Peter Duvall (and the reader) leave the story without a reunion with Mary Danger, though we can hear her music from the dock. What influenced your decision to leave a reunion with present day Mary out of the story? And why do you think Peter kept clippings of Mary’s accomplishments?
CB: The possibilities for schmalz in an actual reunion between Peter and Mary just seemed too infinite. Plus, it seemed better for the story’s purpose that Peter does not have the opportunity to address Mary directly. Sometimes that’s how life is: we don’t get to do it over again.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CB: I wrote the original draft of this story very quickly—for me—over the course of a single week when I was (unusually) the only person in my house, a circumstance that hardly ever occurs. I got very little sleep that week, but the story was told from beginning to end in five days. Then I did a lot of rewriting.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CB: End the writing day by printing out what you’ve written that day—even if it’s just a paragraph or the last three pages of the chapter you’re working on—and marking it up by hand. Then the next day you’ll have something concrete with which to face the page, and you can fool yourself into not being afraid of it by attending busily to these minute changes.