Friday, June 14, 2013

Susan Steinberg and the Story of the Twelve-Foot-High Chair

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Susan Steinberg, author of Spectacle (Graywolf Press), discusses a story a friend told her that later inspired a story of her own.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
It wasn’t my story, but a friend’s. He told me about the time he went to see ELO. He was fourteen and living in a small town in the South. The concert was at the Civic Center. It was in another city. It was a big deal going to another city, a big deal seeing ELO. It would have been a big deal to me. It wasn’t just about the music. There were rumors of a spaceship. There would be a light show. It was important to get up front, to get as high up as one could.  

My friend’s plan was to build a twelve-foot-high chair that he would sneak into the concert, in pieces, strapped to his body, under his clothes. He would work his way up to the stage, he would build the chair (imagine wooden legs that snap together), and he would climb to the top.

One detail I remember is that he wore a white three-piece suit to the concert, no shirt underneath. The other details I remember have to do with what it was to live in that small town with no bands ever coming through. And with what it was to be fourteen and living in that small town. There are other details I could tell you about that place. There are sadder stories to tell.

But what I think about most is that chair. The motivation behind it. The desire behind that.  

When I was fourteen, I had perfect plans for how to run away from home. I thought up ways to to sneak onto a train. Ways to steal a car. I would somehow get to a bigger city. My family would never find me. I would start a band there, become famous, live large.

When my friend told me his story, I wasn’t yet a writer. So there wasn’t much I could do with it. Other than just hold on to it. He wasn’t going to write it himself. He had other, more important, stories to deal with.   

And when I did write it, years later, I only used the image of the chair. In my story, the narrator is a girl. She’s in love with a basketball player. She’s at one of his games. She’s sitting up high on this chair she built and cheering for him. But really she’s only imagining this. Which seems like enough. 

There’s a difference between desire and desperation. Desire doesn’t need to be seen all the way through.

What I mean is, I never ran away from home. When the house reached a certain pitch, the nights I thought to pack my things, I just stayed where I was, listening to music in my small room, staring at the ceiling and thinking. 

And my friend did not build that chair. He thought about it for a long time though. He even collected scraps of wood. But the night of the concert, he stood in the crowd with some other kids, watched the show from there.