by Karen Shepard
Issue #157 • December 1, 2011•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
One summer when they were all still friends, they were the bridesmaids, determined for once to do their best. Their jobs were to smile and fuss, offer agreement and an extra set of hands. They were to play at intimacy, past and present. They were to overlook that they hadn’t been together for the past five years. While they believed the bride belonged in their little human pyramid, they also agreed she’d always been bottom row material. They’d seen the movies and read their Jane Austen. They understood this one time they were to be her back-up singers, her session drummers. Her beaver posse, Cleo said on the day they arrived at the bride’s childhood home for their week of pre-wedding Girl Fun, but Cleo had always said things like that. She was spacey and tone-deaf, and since college—could it already be nine years?—had made her living as an escort. Anna, the Legal Aid lawyer and former President’s great-great-granddaughter, told her her remark was repulsive. Cleo said she had just been kidding. “Can’t we just be nice to each other?” she added.
Karen Shepard is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and, most recently, Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Bomb, and Ploughshares, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Boston Globe, Self, and More, among others. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, their three children and their three uncommonly quiet beagles.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KS: A friend’s daughter was living in an apartment in a town nearby with two other twenty-something women. Upstairs was an elderly woman who had a nephew or son who would occasionally come around. One morning, early, he knocked on the girls’ door. He said he needed to use the phone. The girl who had answered the door let him in and went back to her room. He went to the kitchen, got a knife, went to my friend’s daughter’s room, where she was sleeping, and began stabbing her. He stabbed her with the knife. He stabbed her with her paintbrushes (she was an artist). He left her for dead. The two other girls were in their rooms. They didn’t call anyone. When the guy left the apartment, the two girls ran out as well. They still didn’t call anyone. My friend’s daughter called the police herself. When the ambulance came, the guy returned to the house to ask what was going on. The two other girls returned as well, identified him and he was arrested. This is obviously a horrifying story, and I was haunted by those two girls. How did they go on after what they hadn’t done? Their official story was that they hadn’t heard anything. I’m sure on some level they believe that to be the truth. My friend’s daughter has chosen to believe that official story. They’ve remained friends. How does that happen? What has to be negotiated within oneself and between each other for that to happen? In what ways will the denial break down? These were the questions that started the story.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KS: Balancing my judgments of the girls with my sympathies for them. I tend to write characters who are difficult to like, but that’s probably because I tend to believe that literature that asks us to empathize or sympathize with seriously flawed people gives us more than literature that asks us to empathize with the saints of the world. Literature is about expanding our capacity for empathy. It’s not so hard to do that if I’m asking you to empathize with Mother Teresa. As the writer Charlie Baxter has put it, “Bad people are just good people on permanent spiritual vacation.”
HT: Do you think college friendships are different than other friendships, because of necessity, and also the forced intimacy of living quarters?
KS: I’m sure they are, but also because we’re all so young in college. 18! 19! How can those friendships not be different than the ones we make and keep now? On the other hand, I find myself turning in my writing to those friendships that played themselves out in those kind of contained spaces—high school, college—because of the pressure those spaces apply to the group dynamics. You’re being observed almost all of the time by people whose judgments matter a great deal to you. It’s a useful situation if you’re interested, as I am, in writing about moments when your characters find themselves revealed in some way they would have preferred remained hidden.
HT: Why did you choose to tell this story from the group perspective, instead of one girl?
KS: The point of view of this story is bizarre and I’m not sure where exactly it came from—probably from my need to simultaneously be inside and outside a consciousness capable of something like this. And that capacity is, I think, tied in crucial ways to the group. The group both protects and exposes all of them, and I was interested in a point of view that mirrored those dynamics. But probably most importantly, the plural point of view enacts the diffusion of responsibility behind which the girls hide and take shelter.
HT: Why do you think the girls stayed in their rooms that night? Was it fear, or apathy, or something else?
KS: I think I’ll let the story answer this question, since although that’s one crucial question the story addresses, it’s not the only one. They did, for whatever reason, stay in their rooms. Now what?
HT: Cleo says, “That’s what girls do. They do stupid hurtful things until they figure out not to.” Do you think any of these women “figure out not to?” If they were put in a similar situation, would they act differently? Or would they continue to deceive themselves?
KS: I’m probably the least qualified person to answer this question, as I almost never think about what happens to my characters after the story is over. I’d like to think they’ve understood something about themselves that they’d avoid in the future. On the other hand, they’ve always understood something about themselves and gotten really good at protecting themselves from having to act on that understanding.
HT: In your mind, do any of the girls see Daphne again after the reunion, or each other? Or did that moment in the bar break their friendship forever?
KS: Again, I don’t usually think about the future of my characters, but if I’m forced to (say for a Q&A in a magazine) I’d say they do not willingly see each other again.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KS: I started work on it about a year ago, finished a draft pretty quickly, but then I’ve returned to it periodically over the last year, revising it with various feedback from various readers. It wasn’t done in this form until about a day ago!
HT: What are you working on now?
KS: I’m in my teaching semester at Williams, which means no writing, just teaching, but come January, I’ll get back to work on a story called “The Palace of Happiness” that I’ve been wrestling with for a few months.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KS: When I first started writing, I tended towards well-intentioned, perceptive female characters who sat around in overstuffed armchairs or upholstered window seats, holding mugs of tea with both hands, thinking well-intentioned and perceptive thoughts. My husband, the writer Jim Shepard, put a small yellow Post-it note on the corner of my computer screen. It said: Act. It was underlined twice.