Brad Watson’s story ‘Vacuum’ is published exclusively in Granta 109: Work. It will also appear in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, to be published this year by W. W. Norton. Three boys – known to us only as the ‘oldest brother’, ‘middle brother’ and ‘youngest brother’ – try to watch a western, obstructed by their mother vacuuming in front of the television. ‘The boys really wanted to see what was going to happen in the western show, but now they had missed it because they had been watching their mother make faces and then yell that one day she would walk out of the house and never come back.’ They try to solicit help from a maid their father had fired; the neighbour Dr Hornegay arrives, besuited and carrying whiskey. The boys decide to entertain themselves with some experimental outdoor stunts. Granta’s Patrick Ryan interviewed the author about the story’s inception, the role of the middle brother, and the strains on mothers as they started going out to work, with task of keeping a household together undiminished.
PR: In ‘Vacuum’, the middle brother emerges into a place of prominence by the end. He’s the one we learn the most about, internally, and the one who is the most changed. Did you know this (his prominence) was going to happen all along, or is it something you discovered as you drafted the story?
BW: Well, although it’s unusual for this to happen for me (I hear a lot of other writers claim it) this story did emerge from the single image of the mother, angry, vacuuming while her three boys watched television, a little dumbfounded and afraid. That’s a memory from my childhood that’s always stuck with me, and I always wanted to get a story from it. So, given that it’s my memory, and I was the one affected by it enough never to forget it, I guess it was inevitable the middle brother (I was a middle brother) would become central. That said, I want to add that after the image of the mother vacuuming, the story is entirely fictional except for the emotional content of the middle brother’s experience (and the razor blade incident – that really happened). My parents were not like those parents, and the supporting characters are fictional.
Related to that, how different is the finished story from the one you first envisioned?
Again, I normally do have something of a vision or idea of what a story will be (even if that changes in the course of writing) before I write it, but in this case I really didn’t: only the opening image and a strong sense of the emotional context for it, and the need to work toward some way of ‘resolving’ (for lack of a better word at the moment) that.
Can you explain why you chose to leave all the family members in the story unnamed? What did this provide you with as the writer, and/or what do you think it provides us with as readers? For all the anonymity this tactic might produce, the story feels almost wincingly intimate.
I’m not sure. I wrote the first paragraph, with that image of the vacuuming and the anger, quickly, in longhand in my notebook. After a long time of wanting to write a story from that image, this paragraph suddenly came out. It may have seemed right to say ‘the mother’ and ‘the boys’ because that was so strongly the picture I had in mind: in black-and-white, initially from a diffuse or omniscient perspective. It’s possible that I instinctively entered the story with a somewhat archetypal sense of its sources. Given that the impulse seems to have been largely emotional, this possibly makes sense. It seemed natural, also, to give names to the supporting characters, as if (as you suggest) naming them removes them some elemental distance from the central emotional content or development in the story.
The ending is so perfectly fitted to the rest of the story, and yet it is entirely unexpected. Were there other options you explored before settling on this one?
I can’t remember that there were, and I can’t find a draft any earlier than the one that ends the way it does now. I’ve also misplaced the handwritten first paragraph, and don’t recall if I wrote the entire first draft in longhand (but I don’t believe I did). So, although this is also unusual for me, it seems to have come out that way without tinkering or any substantial reconsideration. I guess that, once I got hold of the voice and my sense of the emotional evolution in the story, it was pretty firm. Again, that moment isn’t one that ever happened in my life, but I have a strong image of that particular kitchen and dining table and lamp, etc. In my memory, one or both parents are always at that table, too, with us boys. So the fact that the boys are alone says something about what’s at the heart of this story, I suppose.
‘Vacuum’ is the only piece in the Work issue that recognizes housework as an honourable (yet often thankless) form of labour. What is it about housework that makes it so invisible?
I know a few people who enjoy it, but not many. And for mothers of that era, between the 1950s and the 1970s, who were taking on jobs outside the home yet still expected to do most (if not all) the housework and cooking, too, it was especially difficult and probably began to seem degrading – in the sense that although it had fallen to a position of lesser status within the household, subjugated in importance to secondary bread-winning, it still had to be done and was expected to be done by the woman. That is, it became increasingly hard to get it done, but everyone (including those women, I think, in most cases) still assumed it would be done and with the same degree of diligence and by the person who’d always done it: the housewife/mother. Rushing home from work to face a pack of hungry children like fledglings squawking with open beaks takes all the joy out of cooking, too; it’s the polar opposite of Julia Childs’ world.
The society and individuals, alike and together, were complicit in allowing this gap between a tradition and a new reality to exist. I don’t imagine that there aren’t lots of people who never left the gap, you know, like defeated soldiers holding out in caves, for whom the war has never ended.
And, let’s face it. If you have to work a job outside the home, why should you like or want to spend your time off dusting, scrubbing toilets and floors, and pushing around an appliance as strange and loud and tyrannical as a vacuum cleaner? And why should any child, to be fair, view housework as anything but another sentenced element in the long incarceration of childhood?