The Widow’s Cruse
by Emma Donoghue
Issue #168 • August 26, 2012•Buy Now!
Edited by Will Allison
It was peculiarly warm for an April morning. Huddlestone left his apartment and crossed Dock Street to the best coffeehouse in town. The young attorney nodded to a couple of wholesalers, but he took his coffee alone by the window, with the New York Weekly Journal.
There was a paragraph about some females down in Chester County who’d formed a sort of secret court to arraign a man who’d battered his wife over some trifle. They’d sentenced the fellow to be ducked three times in a pond, and shaved off half his hair and half his beard to make a laughingstock of him. Huddlestone grinned over this story but was not convinced; newsmen today would invent any nonsense to fill an inch of paper.
Two ships from Curacao had just docked on the East River, he read. Missionary work among the Mohawk might prove a waste of Christian energies. One Scriblerus Despondus wrote to complain that no play had been mounted in two years, the whole thoughts of the boorish freemen of New York being turned upon price and profit. Huddlestone couldn’t see that this constituted a problem. God knew, he hadn’t followed his father into the law for love of Justice. He was an eager servant of Mammon, even if he hadn’t yet been rewarded for it, since business was so damnably tight.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue spent eight years in England before moving to Canada. She writes fiction both contemporary (Room, which was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange Prizes, Landing, Touchy Subjects, Hood, and Stir-Fry) and historical (The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Slammerkin), as well as literary history (Inseparable) and drama for stage and radio. For more information, go to www.emmadonoghue.com.
Q&A by Will Allison
WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
ED: Since inspiration is often a murky, semiconscious business, it’s rare to be able to answer this question as succinctly as I can in the case of “The Widow’s Cruse”: a one-sentence news item in the New York Weekly Journal (26 May 1735). When it comes to sources, for my kind of historical fiction, less is more; I have written stories and novels based on voluminous archives, but I generally prefer the experience of having my imagination catapulted by a single, suggestive fragment. That doesn’t mean I make it all up—I do serious research into the time and place, to understand the context of that fragment—but there’s a lot of freedom to fictionalize.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
ED: Not giving the game away. I’ve always loved classic short fiction with a twist at the end, and I wanted to respect the rule (which I suppose comes from detective fiction) that the very smartest reader should be able to figure it out before the end, but most readers should be kept in a rich state of ambivalence and suspense. I’m not that hypothetical very smart reader myself, by the way: I almost never guess who dunnit!
WA: The lawyer Huddlestone is the story’s protagonist but hardly its hero, as the reader is invited to regard him with a considerable degree of ironic distance. (For instance, the story’s subtle humor invariably comes at Huddlestone’s expense.) Why did you choose to write the story from Huddlestone’s perspective and not from the widow Gomez’s?
ED: She’s the enigma, the obscure object of desire—so I knew I had to get at her in a roundabout way that would preserve this sense of mystery. Similarly, when I was writing a story many years ago about a cult leader who persuaded her followers to stop eating (“Revelation” in my 2002 collection, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits), I wrote it from the point of view of her much more ordinary second-in-command. As for poor cocky Huddlestone, from my first novel on I’ve often enjoyed writing in the Austenian mode of the third-person-with-ironic-distance (i.e., hovering over a character’s shoulder and occasionally delivering a swift kick in the pants).
WA: “The Widow’s Cruse” will appear in Astray (October 2012), your fourth story collection. You’ve also written seven novels. Do you consider yourself more a novelist or more a short story writer? To be fair, since you also write plays, I suppose dramatist should be an option too.
ED: To avoid having to choose one, I usually call myself a writer, but that word has such dilute overtones that people often respond with “Right. Have you ever published anything?” I’d say I’m primarily a fiction writer (who strays into both literary history and drama on a regular basis), because my collections of short stories mean just as much to me as my novels, even if they don’t win me as wide an audience. Not to suck up to One Story subscribers or anything, but people who read short fiction are true readers: willing to plunge into a literary adventure, sight unseen, with few of the guarantees and comforts that novels tend to offer.
WA: I love the eighteenth-century language in this story, such as the passage where Huddlestone reflects “that the young widow was going to be a very great fortune indeed,” as if the woman herself were made of money. Could you talk about your use of period-appropriate language in historical fiction?
ED: To use a period-appropriate metaphor, that those of us who write fiction set in the past have to pick our way along the treacherous path between the swamp of pastiche and the cliffs of anachronism. Basically, the language of the 2010s pulls the readers of today close, and the language of the 1730s pushes them away, so my ideal is to find a hybrid prose which will keep them on their toes. This doesn’t mean the style of 1870, but one that moves fluently, sprinkled with flavorsome idioms. They don’t have to be showy (odds bodkins, me hearties!); in fact, the one you quote is a great example because simply replacing one monosyllable (have) with another (be) betrays the mindset of the time.
WA: In addition to works of fiction, you’ve published three books of literary history. How does your work as a literary historian inform your fiction?
ED: Sometimes directly (my 2004 novel, Life Mask, is about a sculptor whom I’d first written about in a study of eighteenth-century writings about desire between women back in 1993) but more often indirectly. My literary history researches have immersed me in many moments and styles, from medieval romances to twentieth-century science fiction, which I think gives me a fearless approach to the question of when and where I’ll set my fiction. It’s not that I know it all already, but at least I feel I have my passport in hand.
WA: Is there a difference in the ways you approach historical fiction versus contemporary fiction?
ED: Not as much as you might think: they both require a lot of research, but readers only tend to notice it when it’s historical. Other novelists might be able to write contemporary fiction out of the contents of their heads, but I’m so forgetful about detail that I have to look everything up on Wikipedia, from flight attendants’ uniforms and immigration law for Landing (2007) to Crayola crayon names and police slang for Room (2010). No, the main difference for me is that with my contemporary fiction I often throw in more of my own experiences (or those of friends or acquaintances) and more laughs.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
ED: A couple of weeks. (That’s what’s so satisfying about short stories, from the writer’s point of view: they’re like honeymoons rather than marriages!)
WA: What are you working on now?
ED: A novel about a unsolved murder in San Francisco in 1876 that has stuck in my mind like a burr for more than a decade. Nineteenth-century San Francisco is a thrill to research: more like some crazy twenty-first-century multicultural metropolis than you’d imagine.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
ED: I’m currently enamored with something attributed to Hilary Mantel: “Drop the charm. Eat meat. Drink blood.”