The Strings Attached
by James Scott
Issue #96 • July 30, 2007•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The twins were born eight minutes apart and died three days after one another, eighteen and twenty-one days after they had been born. For those three days, Becky and Arthur Blanton were closer than they’d ever been, knowing when the other needed water or coffee, comforting words or silence.
The day after the funeral, Arthur had to go back to work. While he was gone, checking hot dog packages as they came out of the chute, Becky threw away all of the twins’ toys and clothes. Arthur came home to a house emptied of color.
Most nights Arthur woke up at odd intervals, expecting to see another doctor avoiding his eyes. But it wasn’t until his feet hit the cold floor that he would be shaken from his dream, where the twins were still hanging on in their matching, purring incubators.
James Scott lives in Boston, where he is pursuing his MFA at Emerson College. His work is forthcoming in American Short Fiction. James is finishing a novel and a collection of linked stories.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JS: The whole story came out of an idea of a guy who hated his nickname, and that nickname being Banjo. I just thought it would be an annoying nickname to have for someone who doesn’t play or love the banjo. Though in truth, who doesn’t?
It’s kind of a bipolar story—at first I wanted to write something light and funny, but when I started there were these dead twins. I guess I’m not as happy as I think I am.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JS: Not stepping in front of a bus every time I had to go back and revise it. Not true! I actually liked Arthur and Barrel so much that I wanted to keep working. I guess the biggest problem for me was making the last third of the story work. Everything was leading somewhere, I just couldn’t figure out where. I had a guy, a dog, a mystery, and had no idea what they should do next. Open a law firm? Fight crime? Hmmm...
But problems are the most fun, aren’t they? That’s where you get to feel like MacGyver, writing your way out of this impossible situation (which you have—of course—written yourself into in the first place). Instead of a book of matches, a paperclip, and a piece of lint, you have whatever you can imagine. Unfortunately, all I can imagine is a book of matches, a paperclip, and a piece of lint.
HT: Tangent is a small town with a cast of colorful characters. How did you create this setting? And what effect does it have on Arthur’s story?
JS: I can’t say anything better about small towns than what Daniel Wallace said in his interview, “A small town has it all: history, love, eternal hatreds. And it’s within a two-block area.” So for Arthur, that meant everyone knowing all of his secrets, which makes everything more difficult.
For some reason, Tangent’s main industry being hot dogs was one of the first things in the story. The bowling alley was kind of a natural, because what else would people who make hot dogs all day enjoy doing? The Polish/Jewish Community Center was simply a bad joke. I didn’t purposefully set out to create a zany town of misfits, but that’s what most small towns are. People get stranger in the details.
HT: Arthur’s preoccupation with the origin of his nickname, Banjo, is one of the forward thrusts of the story, and the fact that he and his wife didn’t name the twins before they died seems to bring him great pain. What role did you want names to have in this story, and have you ever struggled under the weight of a nickname?
JS: Sometimes I play that game with friends where they’re about to meet someone that I’ve talked about for a long time, and I have them guess what the person looks like. A name carries a lot of visual associations—sometimes names are like self-fulfilling prophecies. Character names prove that—they either feel right or they don’t. Nicknames are a way of correcting or amending names, I guess. Just when you think you’re an Arthur, people decide you’re a Banjo. People decided for a while that I was a Jimmy and, later, a Scooter.
I’m also a fourth, and carrying the same name as my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather makes me think about names a lot, I suppose. I didn’t realize that until just now. The One Story therapy couch is very comfy.
HT: Martin Murcy’s refusal to sell his land triggers one of the most moving images in the story; a small plot of land in the middle of an enormous lake that doesn’t exist. How did you come up with this? Did you mean it to echo Arthur’s feeling of alienation?
JS: I think of Martin and Arthur as being paired. So, yes, the island is as much a reflection on him as it is Murcy. I don’t know where it came from—I wanted a town with both a sense of hope and loss, and having this unfulfilled promise in the form of a lake somehow came to mind and ended up doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the story. Thanks, lake that never happened!
HT: Humor goes a long way to diffuse and at the same time ratchet up the sorrow in Arthur’s life, creating a friendly door for the reader to enter this man’s life. How do you create the balance between humor and sadness?
JS: I think they’re so intertwined that it would be harder to separate them. If you can be humorous but stop short of ridicule and you can be sad but stop short of maudlin, you’re doing pretty well.
HT: We love dogs at One Story. One of the great things about “The Strings Attached” is the character of Barrel. Can you talk a bit about what you wanted Barrel to accomplish in the story? And did you base him on any dog in real life?
JS: Arthur needed some kind of companion for his adventure, a sidekick, and pairing him with a human didn’t seem natural. It would have worked against the story, in fact. But then the goal was to make Barrel as much a character as any of the people. Hopefully I succeeded.
The one aspect of Barrel that I took from experience was when I went with my sister to adopt a dog, and we took this one dog for a walk and he was having... stomach issues. He kept looking back at us like he was embarrassed. He seemed to get over it, and say, Hey, what’re you going to do? But my sister did adopt a different dog. When I get a dog of my own—which will hopefully happen sooner rather than later—I hope he’ll be half the dog Barrel is.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JS: This story went through the wringer. It started in a craft class taught by Daniel Wallace at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Then I worked on it off and on (mostly off) for two years or so. Next it went through this amazing class at Emerson’s MFA program taught by Pam Painter called “Revision.” You basically play the part of butcher, eviscerate your story, see what’s edible and what gets tossed, stitch it all back together, and hope it’s delicious (Yes, I know—and am very glad—that butchers don’t actually sew meat together, but the metaphor worked up until then, don’t you think?). I also have to thank Urban Waite, Laura van den Berg, and Taylor Rogers for their close readings. And Hannah and everyone at One Story were so patient and wonderful and kind. So all in all, “The Strings Attached” honestly took at least twelve major edits and I don’t know how many—twenty?—little clean ups and tightenings over the course of three years.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JS: Tess Gallagher wrote of Raymond Carver, “It was Carver’s law not to save up for some longed-for future, but to use up the best in him each day and to trust more would come.” There’s a great lesson in that. I think the great short stories have a sense of expansiveness, of a larger world. Any good story has six or seven good stories within it, and if you save anything for what’s coming next, you’re not giving enough to what’s in front of you.
That kind of goes hand in hand with my other favorite piece of advice: keep yourself entertained. If you’re bored, the reader will be looking for sharp objects. Or they’ll just stop reading, which is safer. But either way, you’ve lost them.
HT: What are you working on now?
JS: I’m writing a novel set in upstate New York in the early 1900s called The Kept. For the last few years I’ve been writing a series of linked stories about a veterinarian—I’ve just started sending those stories out. I also wrote a thriller with a friend of mine that’s in the editing phase.