Things I Know to Be True
by Kendra Fortmeyer
Issue #209 • August 13, 2015•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
I am leaving the library when Miss Fowler stops me, peering through her glasses like they are windows in a house where she lives alone. She says, “Charlie, a patron saw you ripping up books.”
“I didn’t,” I say. These words sound true, but Miss Fowler holds up The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Bits of paper flutter from its edges like snow.
I know a man in that book. He was trapped underground, dying in the dark and the antiquated language. He coughed then. He rustles in the pocket of my windbreaker now.
From elsewhere, Miss Fowler says, “Give me the pages.”
“I am going to take him outside,” I announce. I declare. Declare which is like clarion call which is of trumpets. “I am going to take him into the light.”
“Look,” Miss Fowler says. Her lips blow bubbles of words into the air: crisp, faceted ones like replacement and thin-filmed ones like expensive. She speaks to me like I am a child. Like operations can smooth these cracked, dark hands, like damages can topple the twenty-seven precarious years stacked in my name.
Kendra Fortmeyer has an MFA from UT Austin and edits fiction from Broad! Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best American Nonrequired Reading and appears in The Toast, PANK, NANO Fiction, apt, Psychopomp and elsewhere. She has a fondness for mermaids. You can find her at www.kendrafortmeyer.com or on Twitter @kendraffe.
Hannah Tinti on Things I Know to Be True
In the 1960s my mother worked as a librarian in Brookline, Massachusetts. She still talks about how the building was a lifeline to the community there–not only for students and families but also for the elderly, the unemployed, the lost and the dispossessed. At libraries, people who can’t afford an education (or even a newspaper) have access to books from around the world. At the very least they can find quiet and shelter until the stacks close at night. Our new issue, “Things I Know to Be True” by Kendra Fortmeyer, explores the library as refuge through the unique voice of Charlie Harrison, a Vietnam vet struggling to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Charlie uses books to escape the visions in his head, but when an incident gets him banned from his local library, he must find a way to build his own stories, and eventually face the past he has been hiding from. In Kendra Fortmeyer’s Q&A with us, she discusses the challenges of creating a point of view like Charlie’s, and how libraries have played a role in her own past (and future—as she is now in library school!), so please check it out by clicking on the link below. “Things I Know to Be True” is an important story about trauma, mental illness, family, and the power of words. I hope it will inspire some of you to dust off your old library cards. There is a whole world waiting at your local branch, and with any luck, a friendly librarian, who can put the right book into your hands.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
KF: Charlie came to me as a voice. In my early twenties, I lived in an endless succession of generic apartment complexes and spent a lot of time feeling strange and lonely and peeking out at the world from plastic Venetian blinds. I was lying on the floor one day (carpet generic, beige) when the first line of the story jumped into my head and literally pulled me to my feet and had me scrambling for a pen. The voice was so clear and vivid; it felt simultaneously impossible to deny and impossible that it came from me. There are shreds of evidence that bridge Charlie’s life and mine—I was working in a university library when I wrote it; I was poor and taking lots of buses—but it felt for all the world like I was communicating with a distinct, fully formed human. As writers, we spend a lot of time listening for those voices and snatching at the scraps of them; this one appeared solidly at the door and began to patiently relate his attempts to rescue The Cask of Amontillado’s Fortunato from a tyrannical public librarian.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KF: Inhabiting the 1970s was enormously challenging. Because Charlie essentially showed up in my head and just started chatting, it took me a while to figure out who he was and what had happened to him. It wasn’t until close to the end of the first draft when the GONE book finally appeared and it became clear that Charlie had been in Vietnam. Up until that point, the story had been contemporary, so a significant overhaul was needed.
This was my first (and only) historical piece. I’m always a bit anxious about the appropriation of other people’s narratives when writing realism, and in a period piece, that anxiety is multiplied n-fold—where n is every object in a room, the décor on the walls, the way people swear. The considerations are really endless. I was looking up publication dates of novels, contacting research librarians about obscure military law, trying to track down pictures of Raleigh city bus driver uniforms in 1976. And then to make it all come to life! I have a great deal of respect for writers of historical novels. Their ability to describe Victorian wallpaper is impressive; their ability to make us dwell within those walls is astounding.
HT: You do a marvelous job inhabiting Charlie’s POV, especially when he “falls” into the stories he is reading, and the line between reality and fiction blurs. How difficult it was to capture his unique voice?
KF: Charlie’s voice is the most distinct I’ve ever worked with—so clear that in revisions six years after completing the first draft, I was listening to lines with his ear, rather than my own. I feel guilty saying that it was easy to capture his voice, but to be perfectly honest, it captured me.
HT: Often the family members of soldiers suffering PTSD or brain injuries struggle to find ways to help the ones they love. Can you talk a bit about Charlie’s relationship with his sister, Linda, and how she keeps him from falling over the edge?
KF: Linda is based in no small part on the host of strong, amazing women who have mothered me like juggernauts—relentlessly sweeping in and setting things in order, offering sympathy just as readily as demanding accountability. That tender, tough love underscores Linda’s relationship with Charlie—she supports and genuinely aches for him, but also refuses to indulge him when she feels he’s being out of line or self-destructive. It’s never a question for Linda: this is just how family works. It’s what you do. Which is part of why she’s so outraged at their mother, who copes with Charlie’s trauma by self-medicating with denial and whiskey sodas.
HT: The library is one of Charlie’s lifelines in this story. Do you have a strong connection to a particular library, or a particular librarian from when you were growing up?
KF: I’m ashamed to say that no particular librarian stands out, but the library was my lifeblood when I was small, and when I was older, too. I worked in my university library as an undergrad, and then another, larger one after graduation. I’m in library school now, in fact, becoming one of those nice ladies in a smart dress who will help you find your book on dinosaurs. It’s beautiful to come full circle.
HT: How did you come up with the idea of Charlie writing his diary within another book, and why did you choose Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 to be the novel that holds his words?
KF: It seemed clear that there was a reason Charlie believed that fictional stories were real, and partway through the first draft it became evident that it was because he’d tangled his own narrative into one. Catch 22, with its central themes of war and (in)sanity, seemed like a perfect choice, and seemed a likely candidate for a soldier of the era to be carrying in his rucksack.
HT: Charlie talks about how, in stories, two things can be true at the same time. Do you have a sense of how Charlie’s own tale will end? Or do you imagine multiple ways for his life to go from here?
KF: I’d love to imagine that the emotional journey Charlie makes over the course of the story leaves him ready to re-enter society, but he’s got such a long road ahead. He began conflating truth and fiction to help him cope with the horrors of war, and got sort of stuck that way. At the end of the story, he’s beginning to internalize two things: that he can’t escape his past, and that despite this, he can still build a future. But these realizations aren’t a magical solution. He’s still broken in many ways—still banned from the library, still financially dependent on his sister, a long way from being able to hold a job or maintain an adult relationship.
The greatest brush I’ve ever had with literary fame was meeting the wonderful children’s author Lois Lowry in a signing line and asking her about the ending of The Giver. When The Giver was published as a standalone novel, the ambiguous ending allowed for two possibilities: that the protagonist escapes, or that the comforting imagery at the novel’s end is a hallucination he suffers as he dies. When I asked Lowry her original intent for the ending, she replied, “I think it was optimistic.” And so, to cop that enigmatic but gratifying answer: I feel good about Charlie. Recovery is not going to be easy. Some days he’ll feel like he’s falling back off of that wordless cliff. But someday, especially with his sister in his corner, he’ll find a way to stand on top of it.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KF: I generally write very quickly, but this story’s been six years in the making. It actually got me into grad school once upon a time, but since then, I’ve fiddled with it endlessly. I’m still not sure it’s done—every draft uncovers a little bit more of the world.
HT: What are you working on now?
KF: In theory, I spent the spring and summer working on a second novel. In truth, though, I’ve been caught up in the seductive world of short fiction. I’m afraid I’ve become addicted to it—the heady rush of finishing a thing looks awfully appealing when one is on the long, slow road of a novel draft. I’ve produced some strange and beautiful short pieces this year, but I’m starting to feel the anxious tug of the unfinished novel. I’ve promised a few more short stories to various presses, but after, I’ll turn back to the longform.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KF: Write what you love. It sounds obvious, but only because it is so, so true.