So Much For Artemis
by Patrick Ryan
Issue #53 • March 10, 2005•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
At the beginning of the summer Jennifer hypnotized Frankie with her Medic Alert bracelet. “You are in my power,” she said. “You will do exactly as I say.” She told him to bark like a dog, and he barked. She told him he was a car, and, sitting across from her on her bed with his eyes closed, he honked and lurched forward, screeched and reared back. “Now you’re a beggar,” she said. “Go ask my mother for a dollar.”
Frankie got up and walked out of her room and down the hall, fluttering his eyelids, his arms raised in front of him like a zombie. Jennifer’s mother, who, now that school was out, was Frankie’s babysitter on the weekdays, was in the above-ground pool in the backyard, floating in a tire-shaped raft that had a holder for her plastic iced tea cup. Her hair was piled onto her head with bobby pins, and she was reading a book through a pair of large, round sunglasses. At the top of the metal steps, his arms still raised, Frankie said, “Mrs. Woodrow, I need a dollar, for I am a beggar.”
Patrick Ryan’s first book, a collection of interwoven short stories which includes “So Much For Artemis”, will be published in the spring of 2006 by The Dial Press. His stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The Iowa Review, Ontario Review, Denver Quarterly, and other journals. The recipient of the 2004 Smart Family Foundation Award for Fiction, he grew up in Florida and lives in New York City.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
PR: I was working on a series of interwoven short stories about a family, and Frankie was taking shape as a major player. The stories cover a period of roughly forty years. Because I knew that in later years Frankie was going to be dealing with an illness himself, I started thinking about what it might be like to expose him, at a young age and on a very personal level, to someone terminally ill. Jennifer is based on a real person I knew as a child. I was fascinated with her, and have always thought it would be interesting and challenging to write about her. My fascination at the time, I think, had nothing to do with her illness (progeria) and everything to do with her personality. I never even thought of her as having an illness once I stopped noticing the sharp differences in our appearance, which was probably around day two.
The storyline of the father losing his job and becoming obsessed with the lawn was originally a separate idea, for another story. But I started thinking about what it would be like to merge the two “plotlines.” I thought it might benefit both in a kind of nurturing way. So I pursued it, and the story emerged from that pursuit.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
PR: I worried that the impulse to merge the two story lines mentioned above might prove disastrous, in that I might not be able to bring them together in any significant way. It’s a fine line to walk: either you try too hard, and it shows, or you work at not being obvious and end up being obscure. The best scenario is when you write out of instinct and a reader (say a friend who’s just read an early draft) tells you scene x was so vibrant because of its connections to scene y, and those connections never occurred to you until that moment. It’s like winning a lottery when you weren’t even aware you’d bought a ticket.
HT: Why did you choose to set this story in Florida, among the families of NASA employees?
PR: Some of the scaffolding for the story is autobiographical. I grew up on Merritt Island, and my parents worked at the Space Center. It’s been an interesting backdrop to have, as a writer, because on the one hand it’s rich in texture and even exotic; but on the other hand, were our lives really shaped by living close to NASA? I don’t think so. If I start thinking that way—if I sit down to start a story thinking, these people lived close to NASA during the Apollo program, they were proud of the moon landing, they had the echo of Kennedy’s speech in their ears—then I start thinking about theme over plot and character, which, at least for me, is always a mistake. Granted, I like thinking of how you can draw an arc that has, at one end, the Kennedy speech about the space race, and at the other end, Skylab falling to pieces over Australia, and how that arc might have subtly woven itself into the psyche of the average American during that time. But I try to keep all that out of my head when I’m actually writing.
HT: Was it difficult to write from Frankie’s point of view?
PR: It was definitely a challenge. I knew I wanted the story to be in third-person because I didn’t want it to feel nostalgic, and with this material it was easier for me to avoid nostalgia by avoiding the first-person. The challenge came when I realized how limited I was in terms of language. The story isn’t told in a seven-year-old’s voice, of course; there’s a narrator speaking for Frankie. But it would be inaccurate for that narrator to imply that Frankie knew certain facts or phrases that a seven-year-old wouldn’t know. I caught myself, for example, changing “photographs that hung in document frames” to “photographs, framed in thin black metal” because a seven-year-old probably wouldn’t think or say “document frame.” Likewise, he probably wouldn’t think of the kitchen counter as “formica.”
I wanted the voice to have a feeling of immediacy to it. So not only did I need to keep the language true to the point of view, but I was limited to describing only what would register with a kid who’s seven. When Frankie and his father are sitting on the couch, that first afternoon, I had an impulse to describe the silence that falls over them at the end of the scene. But Frankie wouldn’t conjure up a description of the silence, even for himself. He would be aware that it was quiet, that’s all. I’m usually not a minimalist, but to a degree this story needed it.
HT: Why do you think he was so drawn to Jennifer?
PR: She’s bossy and pushy and insulting at times—traits that would normally make her someone you wouldn’t want to be around. But given Frankie’s home life (he’s the youngest of four kids; his siblings aren’t shy or introspective, like he is; his mother is high-strung; and his father is emotionally distracted), Jennifer is a kind of vacation. He enjoys the attention she gives him and he doesn’t feel the sting of her remarks. She’s calm, and she likes getting mileage out of her playtime. I think he was drawn to her because somewhere in his unconscious, she was a model kid and a model adult, and he needed both of those things.
HT: The Outer Sea and Frankie’s father’s lawn are beautifully connected at the end. How did these two branches of the story work their way together for you?
PR: That’s great to hear, because originally they didn’t come together at all. An earlier draft, which was weaker and had a very murky ending, had the story’s other two main characters—the father and Jennifer—appearing in the same scene for the first time as they do here, in the Woodrows’ back yard, but they didn’t interact at all. Because they didn’t, I couldn’t see my way through to an ending that would merge the two “worlds” of the story.
In subsequent drafts I reconceived the back yard scene, making it closer to the way it is now. Then I went back and put Jennifer and her mother in their car midway through the story, pulling up alongside the Kerrigan lawn and commenting on it. That allowed me to then have Jennifer mention the lawn-killing directly to Frankie’s father when they’re all in the backyard together. And only by having come that far could I realize the option of merging the concept of the Outer Sea with the image of the father standing on a beach at the end.
Ultimately, what made all the difference was a willingness to keep the story malleable and the help of a very good editor.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
PR: The first draft took about two months to write. After that, on and off, I probably spent another month’s worth of time revising it. The question of how long something took to write, of course, is always relative to how many hours a day one spends writing. When I wrote that first draft, I was writing for three hours a day, five or six days a week.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
PR: The best advice came from William Styron, talking to an audience I was lucky enough to have been in, around ten years ago. He said the most important thing to do, if you’re really serious about writing, is construct your life so that you can write. That’s frighteningly far-reaching, because it addresses everything from your home life to your love life, to what kind of job you take, to what you do with your leisure time, to what you do with your money. (For most writers I know, including me, money first equals food and a roof, but right behind that, it equals time to write.)
But here’s the runner-up for the best bit of writing advice I’ve ever received: Years ago, I met the late historian Byron Farwell at a party in Virginia. I was just out of grad school and he asked me what I was working on. “A novel,” I said sheepishly, but then explained that I’d been having a hard time of it lately because I kept finding excuses to get out of the house and not write. “Dammit, man,” he said over his cocktail, “keep your ass in the seat!” I went home and wrote that on an index card and taped it to the wall over my desk: Keep your ass in the seat.
HT: What are you working on now?
PR: I’m finishing up revisions for the collection “So Much for Artemis” comes from, which has the working title ROOMS AT THE HURRICANE INN and will be published by The Dial Press in the spring of 2006. I’m also taking notes for a novel.