Concerning Craft: On Sculpting a Story

Karolina Wilk reading her storyKarolina Wilk has an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in the Susquehanna Review, PennUnion, Maryland Life Magazine, and the Potomac Review blog, where she is an associate editor in fiction. She was a finalist in the 2016 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize and a quarter-finalist in the Nimrod 2016 Literary Awards. She works as a writer and editor and lives in Frederick, Maryland.

Karolina shared an excerpt from her story “Gossamer” at Little Patuxent Review’s reading last Saturday. The full story appears in our Summer 2019 issue.

Karolina’s essay is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.

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Hailey Foglio: We Are All Here

Hailey Foglio was one of the contributors in our Summer 2017 Issue. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her short story here.

Hailey Foglio

We Are All Here

“I wish someone would write something important on these.” Val runs his gloved fingers along crooked shapes carved into the bark of an oak tree. Kat + Mike Brian 4ever. A heart with an arrow through it, a date underneath: 6/12/13. Delicate edges flake off and drift down, landing on the frozen dirt at our feet.

“Something like what?”

“Poetry.” Val rotates around the tree, sliding in and out of view, his fingers dancing wide against the white bark, searching for meaning. His breath freezes in the air and expands around him like a fog. “A manifesto. A math equation. A suicide note. Anything.” He stops, sees something a few trees away, and I follow him.

The word “HERE,” etched into a nearby birch, grows from the base of the tree to my chest, the letters wrapping around the trunk. I knock the toe of my boot against the angles of the vowels. “WAS” stretches from my chest to two feet past my head, and “I” extends far above me. Val reaches his arm toward the letter and slides his fingers into the empty space of it. The wood is damp with winter, but Val’s coat snags on dried-out bark as he moves his hand along the vertical carving. I WAS HERE. Nothing else. No crowding of other people’s initials between the letters, no pictures stamped along the letters’ edges. Just this. Untouched. I WAS HERE.

I take a few steps away, crane my neck. “How do you think he got all the way up there?” I imagine a giant stepping through these woods, slow and quiet, slouching to keep his head below the canopy, to avoid detection. His knife is a broken rock, and though his hands are huge and inelegant, fists that could crush entire houses, his fingers are dainty when he holds the rock, when he carves the letters. I imagine him lying on his belly, feet kicked up and swaying behind him, gusts of wind shaking the trees and freeing loose leaves from tired branches, as he carves the final word.

Val shrugs. “Probably a ladder.”

He traces his thumb back and forth along the lowest curve of the “S” and says nothing. I watch the muscles in his jaw clench, then unclench, over and over, eyes set on the tree bark before him and nothing else. He gets like this sometimes. Quiet.

“So does this count?”

Val startles at my voice. “What?”

“As something important?”

He drops his hand from the tree, takes a few steps back to meet me, and stares up. “No.”


He zips his fleece, burying the bottom of his chin in the fabric. “No.” He starts walking toward the edge of the woods, trying to locate the spot where we came in.

“Well, why not?”

He turns, eyes on me. “We are all here, Helen.” I only notice his accent when he says my name, an extra syllable sneaking in at the end. Helen-ah. “This isn’t news.”

__I have an old name. Helen Taft. Helen Keller. Helen of Troy. Old names. People with stories. I don’t have any stories.

“Helen?” The officer ducks his head to meet my gaze. “Are you listening?”

My dad shifts on the couch beside me. The officer sits in my dad’s recliner, a pen in his right hand, a small notepad in the other. A second officer stands behind the recliner, stone-faced and staring.

“I’m listening.”

“When was the last time that you saw Valentyn Kozlovsky?”

This is the third time the police have been to my house, the fifth questioning in total. They’re trying to figure out what it is I’m lying about. In fact, there are one-and-a-half lies.

At this point, I don’t have to think before I speak. “One month and three days ago.”

“Where did you last see him?”

“Outside the woods.”

“Which woods?” There are a lot of woods in this part of Wisconsin.

“The ones by the park.”

“Which park?” There are also a lot of parks.

“Fairfield Park.”

“What was he doing there?”


“Where to?”

“Nowhere in particular.”

“Did you walk home together?”


“Why not?”

“He went back.”


“He said he dropped something.”

“Dropped what?”

“His wallet.”

“And then what happened?”

“And then he went back for it.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else.” This is the half lie.


I followed Val out of the woods that night, the one with the tree the giant carved. If we talked about anything while we walked, I don’t remember it. Chitchat about the weather, maybe, or about chemistry homework, or maybe winter break.

And then he stopped. “Helen.” Helen-ah.

I turned. “Yeah?”

I don’t know what he’d meant to say when he stopped, but what he said wasn’t what he intended. I know this because I know him. Knew him. I could anticipate him, could hear his laugh coming before the punch line, could see his eyes roll even before Rebecca Johanssen opened her mouth in the hallway. I saw all these things inside him, each one, all the time. And he’d meant to say something else that night, something hard, maybe, because his mouth was crooked and his eyes were set, and I’ll never know what that thing was.

“I think I dropped my wallet in the woods.”

“Your wallet?”

A pause. “Yeah.”

“Well, let’s go back for it.” I took a few steps toward the trees. There is no entrance, no right way to get to the heart of the thing. You just have to walk in and keep walking until you find what you’re looking for.

“That’s okay. I can go alone.”

I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Val. Let’s just get it and get out. The sun’s going down, and it’s already cold.” Wisconsin favors those who know how not to die of exposure, and wandering around the woods after sundown is tempting fate.

“It’s fine.” His voice was louder then. Firm. Then soft, like a whisper. “What do you think is on the other side of the woods?”

I shrugged. “More woods, I guess. It probably goes for miles.”

“Yeah.” Val nodded, adjusted his hat. “You should get home.”


“Helen.” Helen-ah. “Go home.”

I thought he was trying to protect me, from frostbite or freezing to death. I turned from the woods and walked to him, unraveling my buffalo plaid scarf from my neck. I unzipped his fleece.


I silenced him with a look. He sighed. I wrapped my scarf around him, tucking the ends down against his chest. I heard my dad’s voice: Always protect your chest. Keep it warm. Keep your heart pumping.

“Protect your heart.” I pulled shut the zipper of his fleece, the teeth pressed tight against my scarf. I took off my gloves, thin ones, the kind you can get for cheap at Walgreens. I pulled off each of his, replaced them with mine which were smaller but did the job just the same, then squeezed his own back over top. I pulled his hat down over his ears. “Don’t get lost. Call me when you’re home.”

I stepped back and Val grabbed my hand. “I love you.” He said that sometimes. He never smiled when he said it. It always felt like goodbye but never was.

“I love you, too.”

He dropped my hand, took a few steps back, and turned toward the woods. He paused at the edge of the trees and stared into the coming darkness for so long I thought he’d changed his mind, until he threw me a final glance and stepped in.

I began to walk away, but was struck by the silence. This time of year, every step sounds like ice shattering, but there was nothing. Val wasn’t walking. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and decided to go back. One step toward where I last saw him and the forest started shaking, loud, like something slamming against several tree trunks all at once, tiny icicles and frosted branches breaking off and clattering against the frozen ground. Then footsteps like stomping, pounding the forest floor, disappearing into the distance. Val was running.

“Do you know anyone who might have held a grudge against Valentyn?”


“Boys at school or anything?”


“And you’ve known him for how long?”

“Twelve years.” His family moved in across the street when I was five and he was six. We were too shy to want to be friends, but our parents insisted on play dates. His family came from Ukraine, “the bad part,” he always said. He taught me some Ukrainian phrases, I helped him with his English. By grade school, we refused to be apart.

“After all that time, you don’t have any idea what might have happened to him?”


“Did he talk about running away?”

“No.” But then again, he didn’t have to. I could see it on him, the way he stopped paying attention in class, the way he stopped talking to his parents, the way he stared at the sky and the stars and the moon, like there was something waiting up there for him, expectant. While I was studying on the floor of his bedroom, he was in bed reading. Vonnegut or Bukowski or Murakami.

“What are you doing?” I would ask, and he would sigh in response.

“I’m bored, Helen.”

“Stop reading, then.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean?”

He’d look at me for a long time and then smile, join me on the floor and never explain.

“Did he seem suicidal?”

I can’t help but roll my eyes any time this question is asked. “No.”

“And you’ve had no contact with him whatsoever since his disappearance?”

“None at all.” This is the big lie.

Val had only been gone for a week when I found the package on my bed, the window thrown open, the cold gusting in, making the curtains dance. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag from Woodman’s, a grocery store, the way we used to cover our textbooks for school. My name was scrawled across the paper in thick capital letters. A small sketch of a tree sprouted out from the top right peak of the “N.”

I let my backpack fall to the carpet and ripped the wrapping from the package. Inside, a box. Inside that, my scarf and my gloves, the ones from that day. I pulled them out and a slip of paper fluttered onto my yellow and white checkered bedspread. The note was seven lines long.

I’m beginning to understand.
I was here.
And so were you.
Don’t forget.

Nothing else.

It was colder that day than the day Val disappeared. I put on long johns, a pair of thick pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater over that, my scarf, my gloves, a coat on top, a hat to finish it off. I ran through the park, too cold for kids to be on the playground, and stormed into the woods. As soon as I was in, I remembered the shaking trees, the pounding feet, Val in the distance. I ran until I made it to the birch trees, the ones with the words, the names, the initials, the giant declaration I WAS HERE.

I don’t know what I expected to find. I searched the trees for new markings, a sign from Val, his name, a date, but it would have been something important—poetry, a manifesto, a math equation, a suicide note, anything—but there was nothing. Nothing changed. Nothing added. Nothing missing.

I sat on the ground, knowing it would be a matter of minutes before the frost melted and seeped through my pants. I leaned my back against the I WAS HERE tree. And maybe he had been. But he wasn’t anymore. I’ve never felt more alone than being surrounded by a hundred names and dates and doodles and nothing of Val.

By the time I got home, I was tired. Confused. The trees had broken me. I didn’t understand Val’s letter, but I couldn’t show it to anyone. That felt like betrayal. I slid it inside an old history notebook, put that in the box beside my scarf and gloves, put the box in an old duffle bag, put the duffle bag in my closet, all the way at the back, and covered it with clothes I don’t wear anymore.

“So what do you think happened to him?”

I am sick of these questions. “I think he walked into the woods and never came back out.”

The officer nods. The one behind him sticks his hands in his pockets. My dad sighs.

“That’s it for now. You’ll let us know if you hear from him.” It’s not a question, but a demand.


__Six months after Val disappeared, Cody Brigand asks me to the senior picnic, the swanky outdoor dinner hosted by the school board and the last huzzah before high school graduation. He tells me there will be food and a lake and games and a Ferris wheel.

He rubs a nervous hand over his recent buzz cut. “It’s really more of a carnival.”

I tell him no. I tell him I have plans. Which is both true and not.

The night of picnic, I put on a dress I bought at Goodwill, brush my hair, step into a pair of old Mary Janes. My dad stops me as I’m leaving the house.

“You look beautiful.” He smiles but not all the way. I think he knows where I’m going, that it’s not to the picnic, but I can’t be sure.

I used to sneak into Val’s room all the time. He kept the ladder propped up against the side of his house, guiding me to the window. This started in middle school and continued for years after. Eventually, I stopped using the front door altogether and entered solely through the window, whether I needed to or not. For a long time, his mom was surprised to see me when she opened his bedroom door, but she was never upset. She knew about the ladder, and we knew she knew, and she let him keep it there.

Tonight, though, the ladder is gone. I search around for it, find it behind the shed at the back of their property. I haul it to Val’s side of the house, unfold the legs, and place it in its rightful spot, careful not to let it slam against the siding.

I climb up, hear the familiar groan of wood on wood as I lift the window, and crawl into his room. It’s different than I remember, and not at all how he left it. I’m positive of this. There are no dirty clothes sprawled across the floor, no blankets kicked down to the bottom of the bed, no drooping corners on any of his posters. I open his drawers to find that his clothes are folded, put away neatly, unwrinkled and untouched. I examine the bed, the corners of the sheets tucked just so, the top of the blanket folded down. I inspect the posters, now framed, not a fingerprint to be seen on the glass. I think I can understand why his parents did this. A matter of trapping a moment in time, trapping a person in time. An exercise in preservation. But this isn’t him.

I open the middle drawer of his dresser, pull out the t-shirts, unfold each and drop them randomly around the room. I dig out a pair of pants for good measure. I take his blanket off his bed, ball it up between my arms, and drop it at the foot of the mattress. I remove a frame from the wall, the one with a poster of a Ukrainian metal bed, open the back, and slide the poster out. I let it fall in the corner of the room, which is at least closer to how it would have looked. I do this all in the nearest thing to silence that I can. When I’m done, I stand back and examine my handiwork. It still doesn’t look right. I pull more clothes out of drawers, yank down the sheets, take all the frames down and lean them against the walls. And still, I can’t replicate the way it had been, the Val-ness of it all. Him and his smells and his sounds and his mess. Everything is here but not. He is here. But not.

When I’m too tired to continue, I stop, sit down in the middle of the room on top of all his shirts, and cry. It’s the first time I’ve done this. Because I thought he’d come back. But I am alone in his room in a dress that pinches my skin, and he should’ve been here by now. A thin shaft of light expands beside me, and I see Val’s mom in the doorway. The hall light casts shadows against her cheeks, her eyes, and she is ghostly. If she’s surprised to see me, she masks it. I watch her eyes dart from the laundry to the bedding to the frames. I open my mouth to explain and to apologize, but she stops me.

“Okay.” This is all she says.

“I’m sorry.” The words are so quiet that I’m mouthing them more than saying them.

She nods, closes the door. Again: “Okay.”

She doesn’t tell me to leave, and so I don’t. I climb onto the bed, and I cry, and I try to keep quiet. I imagine Val at his desk, bent over an algebra textbook, humming or grinding his teeth, depending on how confident he feels in his answers. I imagine him standing at the window, asking “window open or closed?” He knew I was particular about those kinds of things. I imagine him on the bed next to me, arms crossed over his stomach, staring at the ceiling, pensive. I lie down like that now.

He might have said, “How big is the world?”

And I might have said, “As big as we want it to be.”

“And also as small?”

“And also as small.”

He might have paused there. “You’re a smart girl, Helen.” Helen-ah.

We might have laughed.

An hour passes, then two. Val’s mom doesn’t come back. I put the Ukrainian poster back in the frame and hang all the frames back on the walls. I wipe them with one of Val’s shirts to remove any trace of my fingerprint smudges. I make Val’s bed, perfect, the sheets all tucked in, the top of the blanket folded down, the pillows placed symmetrically on top. I pick up all of Val’s clothes, fold them, put them back in his drawers. When I leave, I don’t know when I’m coming back or if I’m coming back. I close the window behind me, fold up the ladder, and store it back behind the shed. Everything is different.

I sleep late the next morning, and when I wake, I’m still exhausted. My dad isn’t home. I get dressed—jeans, a shirt, a sweater, a pocket knife I swipe from my dad’s end table—and walk to the woods. There’s no right way to get to the heart of the thing. I pick a relatively clear space and walk in, knowing as soon as I do that this will be the last time I go in these woods. I find my way to the birch tree. By now, other people have come, left initials, crowded the giant I AM HERE tree with pointless, unimportant things. I walk until I find a blank birch. It’s small, but I am not a giant; my letters will fit. I take the knife from my pocket and press it into the tree, bark flaking and dropping, wood bits curling and spiraling away. I am slow and patient while I work, and I think about Val and his letter. That he was here. That I was here. And I still can’t make any sense of it except to say


I step back from my carving.

We are all here. This isn’t news, I know. But it’s important.


Hailey Foglio hails from the state of West Virginia, where she passes the time writing, hiking, camping, and art-making. She has previously been published in The Opiate, The Bangalore Review, and The Oddville Press, among others.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this story, please check out LPR’s Summer Issue 2017. Order copies here (Note that annual subscriptions are available online as well.)

Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Concerning Craft: Daniel Hudon

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.


Daniel Hudon (Photo: Miranda Loud)

Please meet Daniel Hudon. Daniel has published a broad body of work including poetry inspired by Magritte, humor and fiction inspired by science, and essays about his travels in Asia and Central America (one of which won him the 2011 Tiferet Nonfiction prize). His teaching also spans fields, covering astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston.

We published his short story “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. He read his story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (Note: The video is now available. Please find below.)

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

Ultimately, “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater,” was inspired by an undergraduate science course that I was a co-instructor for. Our goal was to give the students – non-science freshmen – our best stuff, and that was our pet name for the course, “The Story of Stuff.” So after introducing the Newtonian worldview, we’d spend two weeks effectively blowing students’ minds with the highlights of quantum mechanics. Beyond being a highly successful theory to describe the structure of the atom and atomic interactions, it’s great material for a fiction writer both for the strange world we’re forced to consider, and for the challenges we’ve had in interpreting its results. I wanted to convey some of this strangeness in a story.

According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the conceptual crux of understanding quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. If you fire an electron through a pair of narrow and narrowly separated slits, it turns out that you cannot predict where the electron will land on an observing screen. At best, you can quote a probability. This is a bizarre idea coming after the determinism of Newtonian mechanics – given the properties of a baseball, of course we can predict where it will land! Even better, until the electron hits the screen, it exists in a superposition of possible states, and its final end state on the screen is determined from the probabilities that can be calculated. I love that idea of the electron’s final position having all these possibilities and then being reduced to the one that is observed. In quantum-speak, that’s the collapse of the electron’s wavefunction, part of the mysterious particle-wave duality, and I took that and ran with it.

In fact, I’ve made a few attempts to write a story about quantum mechanics and this one came together best. Most of these attempts circled around a pun on mechanics – what would a quantum mechanic do differently from an auto mechanic? – but I couldn’t really get beyond the pun. When I hit upon the idea of the theater, I knew I could get a story out of it.

I wanted a character that goes on a good date and has a good time. One of the things that makes dating fun are the possibilities of what might happen. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do as you interact with them and try to get to know them. If there’s chemistry, then the conversation can be heady and tantalizing. That’s what I wanted my main character to enjoy. But as the evening carries on, one is always checking in and wondering if it’s going as well as it could – is the other person into you? Many possible threads of conversation are explored, from the mundane to the feisty, and this was what made writing the story fun.

One of the hardest things was choosing how much possible dialogue the characters should have and an early draft has our main character going a little overboard there. I also spent some time revising the scene where the couple enters the theater because, in the quantum world, consecutive electrons fired through the apparatus will not wind up side by side on the screen, so it took me a few tries to convey some of that confusion as they go through the doors. Some readers may recognize the more recent quantum experiments in that scene where scientists fire electrons through both slits and then close one slit or the other, or put a detector behind one of the slits, all to test the whole notion of particle-wave duality and when the wave function actually collapses. The first draft also had the story ending badly for the narrator – she didn’t get him at all, though she had invited him over. I realized it would be much more satisfying for all involved if she did get him, as that’s one of the things we hope for when we’re on a date.

The drafts had the same boring title, either Quantum Dating or Quantum Dramatics or Quantum Dramatics, and my final edit was to change the title to the present one, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the right title for the story. Possibly.

Note: If you enjoyed Daniel’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. More of Daniel’s work can be found at his webpage.

Concerning Craft: John Alford

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet John Alford. John’s stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Zone 3, and The Louisville Review. He has taught at numerous universities in the United States and abroad, and is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in connection with his scholarly publications on Middle English literature. However, John’s story, “Contrappasso”, is a distinctly American tale in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe.

We published “Contrappasso” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here he is reading an excerpt of that story at our launch event:

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

“Contrappasso” grew out of a trivial slight I suffered in the lobby of an Asheville multiplex on January 9, 2010. It was during the second intermission of the Met’s HD simulcast of Der Rosenkavalier. I was gushing to a friend over the visual aspects of the production, the lavish sets, the costumes, when she cut me short: “Opera is all about the voices.” I didn’t give her pronouncement much thought at the time but discovered next day it had lodged, like a splinter, under my skin. I let it fester into a story.

To get things going I took Poe’s classic tale of revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a template. Over time I worked up a scheme of parallels:

Setting                               Italy (19th cen.)                       New York (20th cen.)

Narrator                           Montresor                               Vera

Victim                                Fortunato                               Felice

Victim’s rival                    Luchresi                                  Lucretia

Bait                                     Cask                                         Callas

Scene I                                Carnival                                  Opera guild party

Scene II                               Catacombs                             Ruined theater

Form of revenge               Live burial                              Rats

In addition to plot there were many other opportunities for parallelism. Dialogue: Luchresi  “cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry”; Lucretia “doesn’t know Strauss from Stravinsky.” Imagery (including other Poe territory): the red moon and collapsing hall, from “The Fall of the House of Usher”; the huge bird, from “The Raven”; the orchestra pit and rats, from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Style: Poe’s fondness for certain words (ebony, sorrow) and certain constructions (“fortunately … I say fortunately because”). At some point I came to realize that my story was not only indebted to Poe, it was also about Poe.

Besides plot, the most consequential thing I took from “The Cask of Amontillado” was the narrative voice. Once I’ve settled into a voice, the rest follows. No voice, nothing comes. (Maybe, in writing, it is all about the voices.) Before she acquired her own voice, Vera mostly mimicked Montresor. She was sardonic, superior, confidential with the reader. Soon she was parroting other voices. The narrator of Lolita, for instance. Rereading the novel in the course of writing this story, I was astonished to hear an echo of Montresor in Humbert Humbert, though Nabokov’s narrator is more charming, more playful with words. (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) I gave something of his tone to Vera. Or rather Vera absorbed it simply by being in his company, just as my then five-year-old daughter, after a year in England, spoke “Yorkshire.” As for the physical qualities of voice—how my characters sounded—I hadn’t given this aspect much thought before the launch, where, for the first time, Vera and Felice spoke out loud. A good lesson. If I had spoken their parts earlier, during the writing process, I think they would have lived more brightly in my imagination.

What’s not in “The Cask of Amontillado” provided the theme of my story. In an earlier draft, after Vera declines to name the specific cause of her revenge, she goes on to say:

What was the insult for which the unfortunate Fortunato deserved to be walled up alive in a crypt? My Master does not say. Is his silence an accident, a mere lapse of memory? I cannot believe it. What, then, does it signify? What else but this? The motive does not matter. Revenge needs no cause outside itself, but if it should go looking for a motive (to satisfy the conscience or the police or the doctors), it will always succeed in finding one. May I be frank? I’ve begun to question the relevance of my own theme, the notion of contrappasso. In truth, I hated Felice from the start. Her very being was an affront.

This speech from an earlier draft illustrates how badly I was struggling at the time. The central concept of contrappasso (“let the punishment fit the crime”) was threatening to bring down the story. Vera’s analysis only made things worse. She wasn’t this self-aware. The narrative had reached a crisis point. Incredibly, I had not seen it coming. Suddenly I realized what had happened. Idiot! I had intruded into the story. This was not Vera’s voice. It was mine. Simultaneously I realized the problem was hers. Lured by the “esthetic appeal” of contrappasso and foolishly thinking to improve upon her Master, Vera had outsmarted herself. The concept of contrappasso is not merely irrelevant to revenge, it is incompatible, inimical. I decided to let this incompatibility stand as the whole point of the story. I cut Vera’s speech in half, leaving to the reader all speculations about Poe’s intent, and kept my title as a judgment on the nature of revenge, the absence of measure at its heart.

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