The Most Difficult Story I Ever Wrote

August 29, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

The story “Foxes,” from my collection Black Light, took me more than a dozen years to write. It was the last story I turned in to my editor at Vintage in 2018, though it was the very first one I started, back in my first semester of Columbia’s MFA fiction program in 2005. In those days, the story was called, “The Teeth,” and later, “The Tent,” and later still, “Foxes Know How Near the Hunters.” Some components have remained the same across every iteration: a troubled child brings their troubled mother into a living room tent they’ve fashioned from barstools, sheets, and blankets. The child holds the mother captive in the flashlit space, sometimes with stories told aloud, sometimes with shadow puppets cast on the walls of the tent. The child has always had bad teeth. The mother has always spoken in a formal tone, has always been a little afraid of the child. But why was the mother afraid? And how exactly were these characters troubled? I wasn’t always sure.

There were other big, crucial elements I had yet to settle. In early drafts the child was first a boy, then two boys, then one mute boy, then two mute girls, and finally, years later, the right girl: smart, compelled by gore, “an excitable kid prone to rushed speech…happiest describing her dark-spattered worlds.” The child solidified and I shifted to her parents. Though the mother was the narrator, there was a lot I still didn’t understand about her. She’d always been unreliable and secretive, but it wasn’t until a 2009 draft that her alcoholism became apparent. And where was the girl’s father? Did it matter? I didn’t know until 2012, when I worked on him for two years—his infidelity, his idiotic sense of humor, his affinity for hunting.

Finding my way into voice is always the part that takes me the longest, but usually once I’m there, the story comes in a steady reveal. “Foxes” was different—it stayed murky at every turn. Usually, that’s an indication that the story should be put down, or at least put in a drawer, but for whatever reason I was okay with the not-knowing, even as it went on for years and years. I couldn’t seem to figure the story out, but I couldn’t forget about it either. It was a troublemaker, something that kept me up nights, and I couldn’t bring myself to kill it.

In 2017, I “finished” it. That’s in quotations because it’s a lie—I knew it wasn’t really finished, that there was something very wrong with it, though I couldn’t say what. But by that time, I’d gotten impatient. I had a whole collection I felt ready to show people, so I buried “Foxes” in the middle of the manuscript and ignored my doubts. I ended up signing with a terrific agent who helped me understand the shape of my collection. “Foxes” escaped cuts and deep revisions while other stories had not. Maybe it was okay! After we sold the book, I worked with my brilliant editor on revisions. We went through a few rounds, and she didn’t seem to have any major issues with “Foxes” either. So why did it make me feel sick every time I thought about it?

In 2018, I was staying in a guest house in Austin so I could focus on my last round of revisions. Though I’d “finished” days before, I couldn’t bring myself to send the final email. I had 48 hours until I had to come home, and I decided to go through that monster one more time, just in case. I printed out the story, tore each section apart, and spread the little scraps all over the floor. In that version, the version that was almost final, the narrative is mostly locked in the mother’s mouth. We have little glimpses of the daughter’s bloody story, but it is heavily filtered through the mother’s voice, taken out of context with no real parallel to the actual traumatic events occurring in the daughter’s life (abandonment by her father, the mother’s subsequent drinking problem, etc.). Suddenly, seeing the disparity between the pieces of the mother’s story versus the daughter’s story, I knew what was missing. I lined up the parts written in the daughter’s voice next to each other on the floor. There were a few random images of violence, but no consequential narrative. From the earliest drafts, the idea had been that the mother is tuning in and out of the daughter’s story, so what the reader gets is fragmented. But that was a cop out! The daughter needed a full, rich narrative to run alongside her mother’s story. One couldn’t take precedence over the other, simply because it came from the mind of a child. “Foxes” was a story about storytelling after all—and the way narratives grant control. I opened a new document on my computer and wrote the daughter’s account straight through—a warped, gruesome fairytale about a knight who wants desperately to return to his daughter, the vicious enemies pursuing him, the dangerous animals hunting him in the deep, dark woods.

Another critical thing had happened to me over the years since I started this story: Between the time of my first draft in 2005 and the 2018 one, I’d had two sons. Suddenly the language of children, full of creepy comments and odd connections, was accessible to me. Kids were in my house, in my lap, booming into my eardrums, asking a thousand questions every day, making a million bizarre, unbidden observations. Perhaps I hadn’t written anything in the daughter’s voice all those years ago because I hadn’t known how. But now, two days before my final deadline, I easily lifted the cadence and rhythms and strange word choices from my sons. Their speech seeped into the girl’s mouth. I knew I needed to show the daughter wrenching the narrative back from her mother, and I knew she had to do it in her own words. Once I figured out her story, my story finally—finally—felt whole.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

is the author of the short story collection Black Light. A recipient of fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Columbia University, her fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, New South, Black Warrior Review, No Tokens, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her partner and children in Portland, Oregon, where she is completing a novel about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.

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