Read This and Tell Me What It Says

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Winner of the AWP Short Fiction Series Prize

The stories in Read This and Tell Me What Is Says were chosen from among over fifty stories I’d written between 1988 and 1993. I selected them because of their similarities: all deal with rural people, many deal with issues of gender and spirituality, and all have a strong Midwestern flavor. Two of the stories, “Lost Objects” and “Read This and Tell Me What It Says,” can be read as precursors to my novel Sister, explorations of a particular family dynamic. Sometimes people ask me if I have considered turning one story or another into a novel, but since I conceived of them as stories, complete as they stand, I find it impossible to think about them any other way.

The oldest story, Sybil, was written in the spring of 1988, while I was an undergraduate. I worked on it as a means of keeping my sanity during an incredibly tedious British lit class, a class in which not a single female author was taught (Woolf was dismissed as “political.” Austen? “Frivolous.”) As the (male) professor cracked jokes about going home to beat his wife (and worse) I drowned him out with the music of this story. He probably thought I was madly scribbling notes. The idea for the story came to me as I read the epigraph to The Wasteland, which goes something like this: I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae, hanging in her cage, and when the boys asked, “What do you want?” she answered, “I wish to die.” (I should mention I have not gone back to look at this quote since writing Sybil; I want to keep the impression it made on me, rather than the exact words, and I don’t want that impression altered.) After asking the gods for eternal life, she’d neglected to ask for eternal youth to go with it. As a result, she’d withered into a miserable creature, a freak to be caged; boys teased her, poking her with sticks.

People always want to know if a story is autobiographical: in this case, I suppose I identified with the feeling of being at everyone’s mercy. In 1988, I was using a wheelchair to get around, and I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute or two, which was frustrating. I was in a lot of physical pain, and I kept thinking, if I’m going to feel this awful, what’s the point? Though I avoid going into Sybil’s feelings directly for fear of being sentimental, I hope this comes across, as well as her quiet endurance of the twins’ indifferent ministrations. I must admit I think parts of this story are really funny, but not all readers agree. Sybil was rejected by over 20 magazines before finding a home in The North American Review and winning a Pushcart Prize. The original title had been “Sybil, What Do You Want?” Even now, I go back and forth about the title: should I have left it? But done is done.

The newest story is “Neighbor,” which I wrote in 1995 while I was an Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. The man in the story is one of those people who believes that because he has lived a “good” life, he deserves only “good” things. Initially, he was based on a colleague, a man who wore his Christianity like a boy scout badge, but because I was writing fiction, everything got inverted, and I wound up using Christianity as the proverbial bogeyman. (The title “Neighbor” is an allusion to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”)

But this convolution-and subsequent leap from life into art–is what happens whenever I write fiction, which is why I’m often frustrated by the “Is this story true?” question. Yes, it is absolutely true; it simply isn’t factual. I have an imagination, and I use it. People whose primary means of reading a story is to say, “Aha! This is where the story comes from!” are missing the whole point.