Hey, Why’d You Do That, Jan Bowman?
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS-character-to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
I don’t happen to know Jan Bowman very well, but it is very clear that she is a very good literary citizen and a dedicated writer. She cares about the community, but more importantly, she cares about trying ever harder to improve her own work. In 2015, Evening Street Press published Flight Path & Other Stories. I’m sure you will enjoy Ms. Bowman’s insights into her own work; why not consider picking up a copy directly from the publisher?
Yes, you may wish to read 10,000 words in which Ms. Bowman describes the methods by which we can add depth to our characters. Instead, I am curious about the tiny choices that Ms. Bowman made when she wrote the title story of her collection. Let’s take a look at her way of thinking and see how it affects our own! (Don’t worry…I made sure that you’ll still get some use out of the interview if you haven’t read the story.)
1) First sentences are always very important because they are the first parts of stories that we see, unless we skipped ahead. Here’s your first sentence:
Years ago Anna took them all to Kings Dominion.
So you establish that at least some of the story will take place in the past, that the protagonist is Anna and that some of the story will be set in an amusement park: a place of great stress. But look at your second sentence:
She remembers stopping the Chevy at the amusement park entrance and her then-fourteen-year-old son Tommy leaping from the car and leaving her to unload her husband Patrick alone.
Whoa…whoa…there’s a ton more exposition in this second sentence. How come you put that shorter sentence first?
I wanted to set up clearly the reader’s expectation that this was not going to be a horizontal story. This short opening statement signals the use of both horizontal and vertical time to help tell the story. So from the first we know we are entering the close third person perspective of Anna, and we know stress and conflict were present in the amusement park location, and we know something happened there that was powerful. It is her story. Then the second sentence is loaded with who, what, when, and where, leaving the reader to wonder why.
I try to give readers a place to stand early in my stories, so they know whether they are on Planet Earth or Planet Mars. I experimented quite a lot with this story, and it has undergone sea changes over the last couple of years. I tried two or three loaded longer opening sentences, but the effect was that readers in workshops were initially so pulled out of the story as they tried to establish the essential who, what, when and where, that they began not to care much about the why of it all. That’s not a good thing for the readers or the story.
Perhaps my concern with clarity in these elements early on in a story comes from my experiences teaching Advanced Journalism classes at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD for a number of years. I also taught AP English Literature and Creative Writing Classes, so I am always interested in clarity that involves the reader in the process and allows the reader to feel smart.
2) The two main characters in the story are a mother who disconnected from her child and the son she hasn’t seen in more than thirty-five years. Why’d you decide to examine this family dilemma from the mother’s perspective instead of the son’s? How would the story be different to you the other way around?
Actually, I did write this story a number of times from different perspectives, but I didn’t find the results particularly compelling, nor did my early workshop readers. I could not get past thinking that Anna’s story was the most tragic of all.
She actually lost her present and her future. For example, if she’d been able to stay until Patrick died, her life and her son’s life would have been totally different. It seems to me that all the possibilities of life and fiction make our existence an evocative mystery.
Initially, I wrote this from a close first person perspective for Anna, but realized that limited so much of what I could show. Clearly (at least to me) this had to be Anna’s story, but how to do it was a puzzle. And I really wanted to know what had become of Tommy, too.
Patrick was too incoherent and damaged to be even an unreliable narrator. Tommy was a teenager who did not yet know enough of the world, and because he’d never had a good personal model of father, mother and marriage, he just wasn’t ready to see Anna and her world enough to appreciate fully her dire situation. If he’d been a bit older, then perhaps he would have, but that would have been a very different story from the one I had imagined. In fact, an early version of the story included twins: a girl and a boy, but the weight of managing all that displaced energy overwhelmed me as a writer. I admit that while I grieved at removing one of the characters, it was a necessary surgical decision.
A close third person narrative form worked best, but I struggled for a couple of years with how to manage the time frame for it, since flashbacks tend to pull readers out of the forward motion of a story. I heard my old friend, Daniel Mueller give a talk this past summer at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University. He talked about using horizontal and vertical time and that led to an epiphany of how to manage time in the story, so I took it apart and rebuilt it in July.
3) Here are a couple of the first bits when mother and son reunite after thirty-five years:
“Mom? It’s me, Tommy.” His open-necked sports shirt has small sweat stains under each arm. “So you’re living in Baltimore now.” He called earlier in the week out of the blue. And that’s exactly what he said, “I know I’m calling you out-of-the-blue, but finally - I tracked you down. You weren’t easy to find.”
He plays with a sugar packet before emptying it into his coffee. “You know for a long time I really hated you.” He clears his throat.
Tommy seems pretty laid back about the whole being abandoned thing. You add some cool details to show he’s stressed-the sweat stains and the fiddling with the sugar packet-but this is a much more restrained encounter than I would have thought. Why’d you do it that way?
I wouldn’t say he’s laid back. He has matured; he’s grown into a man who has made a complexly layered decision to find his mother. Eventually we realize that he’s come to forgive her; making peace with what happened to her and to them all; it will help him, too.
We also learn that he’s had a lot of support in arriving at this moment. And as we read this, we see that he’s right. He has done well. Being taken in by his father’s sister probably did save him. He had his aunt who cared, a wife who has encouraged him to find his mother, and two daughters who could benefit from having a grandmother. And let’s not forget, he’s had a therapist who would have encouraged him to deal with this unfinished business. In addition, Tommy has acquired the perspective from life’s experiences that enlarge his understanding of the complex issues his mother faced. He has sorted though his seething anger, and has decided to make peace with himself. We don’t see it happen on the page, as we might if he told the story, but we discover it.
A subtext here is that when an adult abandons a child, for whatever reason, including death, the child often believes he or she caused it. Forgiveness frees him of a lot of baggage. This act of finding her, and saying this to her, frees him and gives him closure. And we discover this is what he’s longed to do.
4) Patrick, Tommy’s father, is a Vietnam veteran who suffered a lot. He lost limbs and likely has some psychological problems because of what he saw and what happened to him overseas. Patrick’s problems give Anna problems and Anna’s problems give Tommy problems.
Why did you decide to focus on Anna’s problems instead of Patrick’s or Tommy’s?
As I said earlier, I could not get past thinking that Anna’s story was the most tragic of all. Some might see Patrick’s life as tragic and wasted, and yes, I suppose it is always safe to say that war ruins people forever. It ruins lives and nothing much good ever comes from it. The primary winners in wars seem to me to be the rich industrialists: people who never go to war, but who sit at home using up people and the planet’s resources, while gaining the benefits. There’s money to be made in war, but never by the poor souls slogging into battle. I don’t intend to preach, but I do have strong feelings about it.
But wives (and now the husbands) of some of these war-torn soldiers have a horrible time trying to provide care. And they often face incredibly harsh cultural judgments, if they don’t do enough to patriotically support these ruined lives that continue to be largely abandoned by the very military, politicians, and governmental agencies that sent them into war. People like the Annas of the world are largely invisible, and yet she too has been damaged and traumatized. She even says at one point when she’s talking with Tommy, that she was numb and considered suicide when she initially left them.
5) Cameras and photographs are really important in the story. Tommy drops a camera while riding a ride…Tommy is motivated to see his mother because of a picture he took…
Why did you make cameras and photographs so important in the inciting incident that kicked off the story?
Well - to paraphrase Chekhov - if you mention a gun on the fireplace mantle, it must be there for a reason, and if it doesn’t ever figure in the plot, the reader wants to know why or why not.
Object as metaphor is an important part for realizing deeper levels of meaning in a story. Ironically, this object (camera) was hiding there, in plain sight, woven through the events in previous versions of this story. At first it became (for me) a metaphor for the missing happy memories and the bitterness Anna felt at having her dreams, even for something as basic as a camera and photography classes crushed.
Anna’s notebook lists her wishes for realistic and unrealized dreams. They are a unifying thread running through the story. Sadly enough, even her flight did not allow her to fully live her dreams. And we have that moment near the end where she says to herself, “I have missed so much” and we as readers know this too. She’s missed pain, but she’s missed joy.
And yet, there is that tiny moment when we (the readers) see how a simple cup of tea, a cat in the lap, and peace have provided small pleasures to this fragile, introverted woman. And there’s something poignant and satisfying in learning she finally gets to visit Paris, with an Elder Singles tour after she retires. When I realized this as I revised the story in July, I smiled.
The camera also reminded readers of the infinite possibilities of conjuring up associated unhappy memories when people view old family photographs. Then when I took the story apart in July and reassembled it, while actively looking at both horizontal and vertical time to frame the story, I couldn’t figure out what linked thing would help explain, and compel Tommy to find his mother and confront her. Then I had a dream that he was not so much confronting her, but rather forgiving her, and confronting himself. At that moment, the photograph came to me as an epiphany in that it was an organic metaphor, hiding in plain sight all along, that could help carry the weight of his discovery.
Jan Bowman is winner of the Roanoke Review Fiction Award. Her stories have been nominated for Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prizes and a Pen/O’Henry award. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, Uncertain Promise: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, Roanoke Review, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, and others. Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention for Short Story Awards for New Writers. Jan’s stories have been finalists or short-listed for the Gival Press Story Award, Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, Folio, The Phoebe, and So-to-Speak fiction contests. She is working on a new story collection, working title, Life Boat Drills for Children. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory, and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a regular blog on her website on the writing life and interviews writers and publishers.