Susan Tepper: Your story “Something about L.A.“ begins this way:
He puts me out of the Benz south of Four Corners. He’s pissed because they’ve closed the monument for construction. Not my fault but he has to blame someone.
You have this story “set up” in just the first 3 lines. A really strong picture. The Benz (aka Mercedes) is sorta cool-talk, so we probably have a pair who think they’re pretty cool. He chucks her out of the car, so there’s immediate tension. Gay, these first 3 lines could be a scene in a film, it’s strikingly visual.
Gay Degani: Thanks for the kind words, Susan, and I will admit I do strive to be visual and to create tension immediately in a story. I need the anchor and I think it helps readers engage. When I first started taking writing seriously, I decided I would write screenplays (I do live in California after all). It was the eighties and there were all these wonderful movies out there like Trading Places and Arthur, Alien and The Terminator, Stripes and Ghostbusters that I felt an emotional connection with. I’ve loved movies all my life watching them on a black and white TV from the time I was very young. Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, Rebecca, these were the kinds of things I wanted to write. So I learned how to write from learning how to write scripts.
Susan: One of my early writing teachers told us that film was our biggest competitor as fiction writers, and that we should study film. Well, Gay, it sure paid off for this story!
You’ve placed it in the desert- telling us there are hot winds, sand, exhaust fumes. And our gal, flying solo now, is all decked out, trés fashionista, in her Gucci, Louis V, Jimmy Choo sandals. When you turn the story on its tilt:
“It’s not like I was born to money anyway. Not me.”
Gay: Ah… the element of surprise! Another thing I try to do is to throw in a curve-a reasonable curve, but a curve. This particular story- it’s weird- it just kind of came out of me, and that doesn’t happen that often, but it’s beginning to happen more now that I’ve been writing for a while. I think it has to do with experience and beginning to feel the turns of a story coming up. What I mean is that there is the set up (and I think this one came from a prompt. I can’t remember the exact prompt but I think “Four Corners” was in it. Since I’d been there, I thought, why not?).
So from the Four Corners setting, I wondered what would be a bad thing to happen there? In a somewhat isolated place and what else could I do to make it difficult for her. So that’s what I did- think, fish out of water. The question here for me was what attitude should she have in this situation? But as a rich girl, she wasn’t someone I could really understand or feel empathy for- that rich girl personality.
Susan: Right. ‘Cause if she had been born to money, I think it would have been an entirely different story.
Gay: The easiest thing was to make her nouveau-riche, a pretender of sorts, someone I could feel sympathy for. This meant going in the opposite direction of what she seemed, and realizing this at this point in the writing of the story, confirmed that she needed to be someone who wasn’t born to money.
I don’t know if I thought about this in this long logical way, though. For me, I was typing along and reached a crossroad. Here’s the set-up and now what needs to happen? To decide what happened next, I had to decide who she was.
Susan: The intuitive writing is the best writing. Just letting it glug out in its own form and pacing. It takes some practice and a fair amount of guts to let the work spill onto the page that way.
So there she is, our gal. Left alone at the side of the road. Fair game for what your unconscious mind wants to do next. You’ve upped the ante. You write:
“The truck shivers to a stop, dust swirling. The door opens as a small figure slides off the driver’s seat. A boy, just a boy, dark skin and hair, wearing a faded plaid shirt and jeans. Barefoot.”
Gay: Now this is exactly where my subconscious surprised me. Where does this stuff come from?? I don’t know. All I remember knowing at the time was I knew I didn’t want it to be a man– good, bad, or ugly. I wanted nothing romantic and I wanted nothing nasty. I had done some research on Four Corners just to ground the whole thing in detail and saw that it was on or near a reservation (I don’t remember exactly right now which) and so having the person in the truck be Native American must have been on my mind. I also wanted it to be unexpected, and I liked the idea that she couldn’t really see who it was. And Ruben just appeared, god bless him.
Susan: Ruben is magical. He’s twelve! A combination mensch and Don Quixote character. Her knight in shining armor, so to speak. But without the (ahem…) knightly night to contend with. He’s what gives this story its shine. The best stories turn on a dime that you can’t find or ever remember having in your pocket.
Gay: Isn’t that the truth? That’s why I always remind myself when things aren’t going well to have faith in the process. The process is everything. All we can do is show up every day and believe in the magic of the experience. And though I don’t think it ever gets easier, if I have faith that something will happen to make things work out in a story- and life, it almost always does.
Read “Something about L.A.” by Gay Degani
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories.Susan is fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.