What Can We Steal From Kate Folk’s “Islanders”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Islanders,” short story
Author: Kate Folk (on Twitter @katefolk)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Spring & Summer 2014 issue of PINBALL.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses: Here is a short short story Ms. Folk published in Neon.  Whoa…Ms. Folk had the honor of interviewing Joyce Carol Oates by e-mail.  Here‘s how she and her colleagues rose to the challenge of asking Ms. Oates interesting questions that she hadn’t heard a million times.  Want to see Ms. Folk read her work?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Stakes

Discussion:
This epistolary story relates the sad tale of an unnamed man who is still in love with Bonnie, the wife who apparently left him to throw herself into the arms of a “jobless artist.”  Through the course of nine e-mails, we learn that the narrator is in the middle of a tense diplomatic situation; an island off the coast of a “strategic coastal sardine town” is drifting into the sea.  There are two narratives here: the story of the conflict between islanders and mainlanders and that of the narrator’s seemingly futile attempt to work things out with Bonnie.

I love the efficient way in which Ms. Folk establishes the parallel narratives.  The very first sentence introduces the personal conflict:

Don’t know if you’ll even read this email, as you are probably busy fucking your artist lover who has all the time in the world to spend with you due to having no actual job and leading the artistic lifestyle you always wanted for yourself…

The second paragraph establishes the crucial external conflict:

Supervisor Ross has sent me to this strategic coastal sardine town Re: Island Drifting Irretrievably to Sea. Tiny man-made island has floated a half mile off the coast for decades. In recent months, it has appeared more distant.

While this story isn’t a pure short-short, it’s still fairly brief; the author wastes no time establishing the situation and the inherent stakes involved.  The narrator is coping with the painful loss of his wife and wants her back and a coastal community has been torn apart.  We are more likely to care about these problems because Ms. Folk makes them clear from the beginning.

As I read the story, I wasn’t expecting to learn the name of the protagonist’s ex-wife.  After all, how often do we use our significant others’ names when we write them e-mails?  I did, however, love the way that Ms. Folk slipped her name into the story.  The penultimate e-mail, sadly, was written while the narrator was drunk and particularly lovesick.  He lies about being under siege, trying to convince his ex-wife that his life is in danger in hopes that the prospect of losing him will change her mind about the jobless artist.  Dissembling, he leaves his ex-wife with these words:

My one true love, my beautiful, sweet Bonnie!

What a graceful and natural way to slip Bonnie’s name into the narrative!  We never learn his name; learning hers personalizes her and helps us understand how he really feels.  Further, when we know someone’s name, we naturally feel closer to them.  In this way, Ms. Folk simulates adding some of Bonnie’s voice to the story.  Sure, the narrator probably did some crummy things, and we’re not happy that she seems to have taken up with the kind of slimy loser of whom we were jealous in high school (and college and after college).  “Bonnie” humanizes the character very quickly.

You already understand the principle if you remember The Silence of the Lambs.  (A must-see film.)  Remember when Clarice and her Quantico friend, Ardelia Mapp, are watching the press conference in which the Senator asks the then-unknown kidnapper to return her daughter?

                                   SEN. MARTIN
I’m speaking now to the person who is holding my daughter. Her name is
Catherine… You have the power to let Catherine go, unharmed. She’s
very gentle and kind – talk to her and you’ll see. Her name is
Catherine…

Clarice is moved by what she sees. Other trainees are all around her.

CLARICE
(whispers)
Boy, is that smart…

ARDELIA
Why does she keep repeating the name?

CLARICE
Somebody’s coaching her… They’re trying to make him see Catherine as a person – not just an object.

Ms. Folk’s story is certainly very different from that of Thomas Harris and Ted Tally, but all three writers make great gains by using the simple release of a name to create powerful characterization.

What Should We Steal?

  • Establish conflicts clearly, particularly in shorter pieces.  If you’re writing an epic novel, you have a little bit of time before you risk losing the reader’s attention.  Front-loading the conflicts and the stakes they create can immerse us in your piece very clearly.
  • Name an otherwise tangential character to humanize him or her.  What sets us apart from others more completely than a name?

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