Monday, July 15, 2013

Jamie Quatro and the Anarchic Image

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More (Grove/Atlantic), traces the unlikely sources of her stories.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
"Story ideas." The wily little buggers. Prodding, nagging, eventually hovering over you with such irresistible luminosity you can only submit, like the Virgin Mary: I will enflesh you. But the moment you sit down at the keyboard, the seemingly divine presence withdraws, and you're left with a blank page and the simple truth: Stories don't begin with ideas. They don't even begin with characters, as many of us were taught.

To quote Charles Baxter (who I believe is paraphrasing William Gass): "[Stories] begin with words, one word after another."

But where do the words come from? The impulse to sit down and make something of them? I might say that stories—my best ones, anyhow—begin with image. In my case, it's almost always something bizarre, seems to come out of nowhere, and—no matter how many times I look at it—resists meaning or symbolization. A piece of stained glass jumping out of its casing; a trickle of barbecue sauce in the corner of a corpse's mouth; a blown-glass penis inside a mesh backpack worn by a marathon runner. (The seminal images from "Demolition," "Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives," and "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement.")

When I was five or six, my grandmother kept a bronze sculpture of a beanstalk on her dining room credenza. On a platform fused to the top of the stalk—impossible to see unless I stood on a chair—sat a tiny bronze castle. It had turrets and flags and barred windows, even a working drawbridge. On the platform surrounding the castle, where the moat would have been, my grandmother had arranged clumps of decorative grapes. They were green, translucent, a few silk leaves attached. I could see the grapes from below, hanging down over the sides.

The deal was this: If I stood in front of the beanstalk and remained absolutely silent and listened very hard, I would be able to hear the Giant chanting fe-fi-fo-fum. It was the highlight of trips to Grandma's house, to creep up to the credenza and stand at the base of that taller-than-tall beanstalk (in hindsight, 3 feet at most) and hear the Giant's voice.

I knew the Giant was my grandmother, hiding around the corner in her kitchen. I didn't care. The thrill of the approach, the tingle of fear (only possible because safety was a given), the half-believed-in notion that there could exist a tiny alternate world of tiny innumerable actions going on inside the castle —listening for it, like Horton with his clover of Whos—irresistible magic.

My point: What stands out most vividly in my memory, 35 years later, are the plastic grapes, those incongruous fat globes laid out as if on a platter. They didn't belong. There's nothing inherently scary about grapes. But the fact that they were there somehow changed them: They took on the quality of delicious fear I experienced, anticipating and hearing the Giant's voice. And the grapes, in turn, leant to the castle some of their own innocuous good cheer.

What's more, I'm almost certain that if the grapes hadn't been there, I might not remember the other details: the way the stalk would sway back and forth if you pushed it a little; the fear/safety cocktail; the way my grandmother's voice sounded, deep and husky with a playful edge. The plastic fruit, so odd in its placement, left a "memory stain" (Baxter again) and is now a point-of-entry to the past. I think of the Portkeys in the Harry Potter books, Harry and Hermione and the Weasleys standing around a "manky old boot" on Stoatshead Hill—J.K. Rowling was on to something, I think, in selecting common but somehow misfit objects as enchanted gateways for travel.

"There is always something anarchic about the imagination," Baxter writes in his essay "On Defamiliarization." "It likes to find details that don't belong, don't fit." The writer's job is to remain open to the misfit image; to give it room to breathe in the imagination, and eventually on the page; to sketch, watch, sketch a bit more; see what the image wants to say and where it wants to lead. As Barry Hannah says, to let the work "[rush] on in a zone of sudden joyful combinations." There's a childlike trust in this stance, an attitude of non-judgment typical in young children but rare in adults. When faced with the extraordinary—anything that resists simple categorization—children tend naturally to accept; adults to balk, and then to assimilate.

One of the payoffs in tracing out the anarchic image, for me, is self-discovery. I try to resist the doubt and self-censure (this is a "bad idea," this image or scene or line of dialogue is "too weird"), and simply ask: Why is this image insinuating itself precisely now, at this moment along my life's trajectory? Why is this particular story necessary to me? If I can get to a place where I understand something about why I'm writing what I'm writing—a glimpse through something one of my characters says or does, perhaps —well, there's a big part of the joy.