‘Kiddio was between shoe sizes when we went to my cousin’s wedding in a superannuated church that smelled of cooked dust.’
I suppose the first sentence of any story is a stone-cold delivery of formal consequences: writing the sentence calls down a penalty which the story must serve out. I don’t mean in the responsibility to plot construction or character development; I mean the obligation to voice. The first sentence of ‘Kiddio at the Wedding’ arrived shrilly, as unmitigated as the mockingbirds squabbling for sex-attention outside the window where I am writing this. I straightaway disliked this sentence. This brashness? I shoved it aside for some time.
Truculent as its rhythms first seemed, though, I recognized that the sentence came with certain sonic arrangements, and they goaded more work. Here was a narrator, itching for a hearing. And I’m devoted to sound and to listening. I’m also very keen on what’s unbefitting or foolhardy in language: in this case the immodesty of a word like ‘superannuated’. I tried to use other words in its place, words more miscible with fiction. But nothing struck quite the same blow for unseemliness.
And then, absolution, by way of Eudora Welty. In ‘The Reading and Writing of Short Stories’ (1949), she bids a writer, ‘Beware of tidiness.’ I write at a morbidly tidy desk. My longhand is clerically neat, and undistinctive as a five-year-old’s. My orderliness has its procedural and mechanical outlets, the better to behave profligately once inside language. And so I made peace with ‘superannuated’, and gauged I might also care for the stroppy consciousness that cooked it up.
The narrator inaugurated herself early in the writing. She was vexed with her lot, biggity, and in need of something to give and do. I started to enjoy sentence-time spent in her prickly company. In the story she has come home to a town in the American south. The town is fictional, but likely – its details distilled from places I know. She makes an alliance with a child who has shown up from ‘one of the most terrible places on earth’. Another unspecified but likely place.
I grew up in the Irish countryside, on the edge of the Burren. If we’re measuring by the mega-annum, it’s as fixed a place as can be. I have lived many years in the United States: for a long time in Massachusetts (where I continue to work), and now in the American South, specifically Alabama. This is home. In the past few years I have written short fiction set in the south, but ‘Kiddio’ is where I gave myself most go-ahead to scrutinize the stinging newness of this place. Joy Williams (in a writing lecture quoted in the Paris Review’s ‘Art of Fiction No. 223’) says American writers ought to ‘reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality’, and lately I think her directive gives a pleasurable, liminal responsibility to the interloper, the visitor, the non-native-but-long-resident writer. For it’s the small stuff – and here I mean the odd particulate matter of daily life – that lets me access the sprawl of a place that wasn’t mine but has incrementally become so.
Finishing this long thought on that first sentence, I’m tuned to spring in the window. Alabama in April is blowsy with growth, and a person might blush for its boisterous fertility. But mainly I hope it gives pluck to new sentences.
Photograph © oliver.dodd