by Christopher Santantasio
Issue #247 • November 21, 2018
Edited by Will Allison
The first betrayal, a trifling one, occurred at the schoolhouse on the day I performed for Honey Smyth, the girl I claimed as my truest friend. It was Ms. Adams, my piano teacher and determining force, the woman whose every directive compelled me toward resolution, who stood on the schoolhouse steps and told me I was finally ready for an audience.
Maxie, we should begin, she said. Honor will listen.
This afternoon in March 1960, Honor Smyth—only I called her Honey—should have been standing at the edge of the playground awaiting her brother Hubert’s pickup truck, which would soon rumble down the dusty road that hooked around the schoolhouse like a bracing arm. Instead, she was seated in the front row of the classroom where Ms. Adams conducted my daily piano lesson. My etude was in A minor, and I felt a familiar calm upon reaching the page, which was dog-eared and covered in Ms. Adams’s scrawls. The melody, with its halting ascents into the highest keys, evinced the desperation of straining for something just out of reach. I pinched my mother’s necklace between my thumb and forefinger for good luck. It was the only piece of her jewelry Father hadn’t sold: a silver chain on which hung a cross adorned with a tiny glass bubble that, if squinted into, revealed a minuscule rendering of a prayer I cannot recall. With a lift of my wrists, time passed unnoticed. After the final cadence, Ms. Adams applauded, but Honey was silent, her eyes sparking with excitement.
I want to learn, she said. Maxie can teach me.
Christopher Santantasio’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Lake Effect, decomP magazinE, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in the Hudson Valley and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction at The Ohio State University. You can find him on Twitter @CRSantantasio.
Will Allison on Persistence
The first time I read “Persistence,” by Christopher Santantasio, I was reminded of one of my favorite novels, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, in which the narrator is guilt-ridden over his failure to help a childhood friend fifty years earlier. As a reader, I have rarely encountered such a profound sense of regret on the page, and as a writer, I continue to be inspired by it.
Maxie, the narrator of “Persistence,” is haunted by a similarly powerful guilt. In 1960, when Maxie was twelve, her mother died, and she moved with her father to a small town in upstate New York. Maxie’s life in Clyde’s Creek was not a happy one. The only bright spots were the piano lessons she received from her teacher and time spent with her sole friend, Honey.
Honey’s life was no picnic either. As Maxie came to learn, Honey suffered severe abuse at the hands of her domineering older brother, Hubert. And as the only person who knew Honey’s secret, Maxie was the only person who could help. However, exposing Honey’s secret threatened to upend Maxie’s life as well. Suffice it to say that the choices Maxie made failed Honey entirely.
Like the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxie understands that her childhood actions were driven not by malice or heartlessness so much as by fear, confusion, and a child’s limited understanding of the world. Even so, Maxie struggles to come to terms with her behavior. In reading about this struggle, I found myself haunted by some of my own childhood mistakes, and I bet you will too. I also hope you’ll agree that Santantasio, despite being new on the literary scene, captures Maxie’s guilt with a sensitivity and depth that would make William Maxwell proud.
Q&A by Will Allison
WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CS: “Persistence” began as an interrogation of self-concept. What happens when actions or circumstances force a person to reckon with something essential to their identity? There can be growth, denial, a combination of both, or something else altogether. I saw the potential to delve deep into a consciousness, which for me is the most exciting and important part of writing.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CS: This story required the narrative distance of hindsight, which presented a variety of challenges. I found myself contending with questions of memory, not only in terms of what the narrator remembers of the events she recounts, but what she chooses to reveal. The next step was getting inside the psyche of my narrator’s young self. Adult Maxie’s motivations came easily—the story was always in her head, her voice—but her young self remained closed off to me through much of the writing process. Figuring out her hopes and fears, and particularly her relationship with her parents, ended up being key to the story I was trying to tell. I fleshed out a great many details about the characters in earlier drafts, and though only a fraction actually made it into the final version, it all feels necessary. One thing I was never concerned about was making my protagonist likable. It was, however, vitally important that her actions be valid and aligned with her own emotional logic.
WA: Before you enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at Ohio State, you held a wide range of jobs: office assistant, special education teacher, orchestra conductor, house manager at a classical theater, nonprofit development manager, freelancer. How has your varied job history affected your writing?
CS: Writing has been one of the few constants in my adult life, and I’m so grateful for that. Working in different fields in multiple cities has given me the chance to meet lots of people who see the world in a way I never could. I can’t say exactly how this experience has shaped my work, but I do see writing, fundamentally, as an effort in connectivity. Much of the joy of writing, for me, is the joy of connecting with others in a meaningful way.
WA: One thing I love about “Persistence” is its strong sense of place. The story is set in Clyde’s Creek, a fictional small town in central New York. Why did you choose that particular setting?
CS: “Persistence” is actually the second of four stories I’ve written so far that take place in or near Clyde’s Creek. I latched onto the idea of a “novel in stories” that depicts the evolution of a small town over a century. I chose the particular area of central New York due to its proximity to the historic site of the Oneida Community, the famed 19th century Christian commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I’m fascinated by that history. More generally, I’m interested in how people shape, and are shaped by, place.
WA: Another thing I love about “Persistence” are the passages that deal with music. Could you discuss your musical background and the relationship, for you, between music and writing?
CS: I didn’t start studying music with any degree of dedication until late in high school. Coincidentally, it wasn’t a love of performing that got me started—that came later—but a fascination with the lives of composers. I devoured biographies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninov. A piece of music takes on another layer of meaning when I can envision the life and the motivations behind its creation. I’m consistently surprised with the capacity of music to move people, and I suppose I aspire to write prose that can affect a reader that profoundly. So for me, writing about music is, in essence, an interrogation of emotion.
I also enjoy reading prose aloud, both my work and work that I love. My favorite prose possesses what I would call rhythmic vitality. I’m not sure if I could define it precisely, but I know it when I hear it, and it always thrills me.
WA: “Persistence” takes place in 1960, but the language and style give the story an even older, almost Gothic, feel. Is that an intended effect?
CS: In fall of 2017, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Garth Greenwell, a writer of great generosity whose work I deeply admire. One of my takeaways was this: many forms of art can be employed to tell a story, but only literature can embody a consciousness. The writer’s primary tool for constructing consciousness is voice. In “Persistence” my intention behind the style was primarily to translate my concept of Maxie’s character to the page and bring her to life. She is an old soul, a woman who perhaps sees herself as being born “too late.” She leans into the tragedies of her life, consciously or not, with a kind of relish. Of course, I didn’t have this impression of her when I began the first draft. Her character both informed, and was formed, by the prose.
All this being said, I didn’t intend to create a Gothic feel with “Persistence,” but I absolutely see it. It’s a gloomy story, I think, propelled by emotions, to the extent that I have always worried about it seeming melodramatic in a bad way. I suppose I felt those emotions required a particular stylistic gravity to convey.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CS: About eighteen months. I workshopped it first with an incredibly talented and dedicated group in Philadelphia, the Frontyard Writers (disclaimer: I’m a founding member). Then I workshopped a completely reworked draft when I got to Ohio State, again with a group of unbelievably dedicated and skilled writers. After One Story very kindly picked it up, I commenced another series of rewrites until reaching the final version.
WA: What are you working on now?
CS: I haven’t given up on this novel-in-stories about Clyde’s Creek, but I’ve decided to focus on a new novel project for the time being. I’m also working on adapting a screenplay I wrote into a novella.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CS: Again, from Garth Greenwell. He said that when you find a piece of prose that really knocks your socks off (he didn’t use those exact words), copy out a paragraph or two. If possible, do it by hand. Forming the letters, carefully transcribing every punctuation mark, noting how each sentence is constructed—these are intimate acts of creative observation that have become part of my writing process. It brings me closer to the writers whose work I love, and always teaches me something new.