My first draft of this short story was a novel.
From 1999 to 2004, I wrote, rewrote, workshopped, and revised a novel about Maddie Barrow – “small-time L.A. music agent and deal-maker,” in the language of my query letter, “whose most recently failed relationship sends her north to the San Francisco apartment of her sister Laurel and Laurel’s lover, Tess. Still seething, Maddie simultaneously disdains and envies Laurel’s domesticated bliss.” Maddie’s musical taste, like mine, favored horn sections, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads: I called the novel And She Was.
The version of myself who writes query letters is bold enough to say things like “And She Was is ‘Nick Hornby meets Lorrie Moore.’” Though she is not without modesty: “I have also worked as the Nordstrom piano player and as the singer of a Rush/Yes/Police cover band, so I know small-time.” Several agents agreed to read more about Maddie’s professional and personal travails – both of which sent her on road trips up and down California, the better to riff on her mixtapes and reflect on various experiences that I couldn’t fit organically into the actual scenes of the novel. And, I will take the agents at their word that it was close. So much talent, so little market potential; or, sometimes, vice versa. Though painful, these agents’ eventual rejections were gifts to me: they’d read the book thoughtfully, considered its virtues as well as its less virtuous characteristics; they’d gotten Maddie’s voice stuck in their heads. They were the only people outside my writing group or family who had spent this much time with my book. They’d suffered sleepless nights over their decision (Sorry, agents), but the market was subjective, I deserved someone who could fight for me, and they were going to have to pass. Lots of things happened in the meantime, and since, I’ve written another novel, as one does. I moved away from California and started a new job. I had two incredible daughters. A hurricane wrecked property and thwarted normalcy, but our town and others came together, rebuilt, restored. It made me reflect on the way we process our shared pain, and the way we mourn collectively. Like the characters in the story, I began to “tragedy free-associate.” As I drew my personal memories of loss together, I redesigned one–friends lost on Alaska Airlines 261–to visit upon Maddie.
Maddie Barrow had stayed with me, and when I sat down to write a new short story, I decided to do something I hadn’t done properly, in the 350 pages of character study I’d written about her: I tried to make her suffer. I took away her sister, and I didn’t let her use Interstate 5 as an escape route; I denied her the power of the horizontal stabilizer.
Unless Slow Lit starts getting as much play as Slow Food, I do not advocate this long-haul method of writing short stories. But I’m thrilled to be sharing Maddie with TLR readers…I have found her awfully good company for riding shotgun.