Scott Garson writes fiction, he created Wigleaf and just last week Willows Wept Press announced his book, American Gymnopedies – a flash tour of cities in thirty states of union. His work is sterling, inventive, provocative. Consider this flash fiction. It was first published in Giancarlo Ditrapano’s great New York Tyrant. Special thanks for allowing the reprint. After the piece, I asked Scott some questions.
My uncle stopped me in the hallway and showed me a fifty. He nodded. Take it. I did, then waited through what he’d just purchased the right to say next.
Later I was shooting baskets. He walked out, put up his hands. But instead of shooting he rolled the ball away and pulled up the front of his shirt.
I looked at him.
Go on. Hard as you can.
I tried laughing.
Hit me. It won’t hurt.
He feigned with his open right hand. I flinched. He rushed me, then laughed as I tried to back my way out of the lock of his arm. He’d been in drug treatment. His wife had taken his kids. He was bankrupt. His throat had spots.
Easy there. Easy. He lifted both arms. He was laughing.
I stared at him.
Easy there, tiger.
I said I was going inside.
At dinner I saw that my mother had placed him across from me at the table. Where’s your fifty?
That fifty I gave you. Where is it?
I’d slipped it, folded, into a back pocket, the right one. I checked it now.
You’ve got to learn to be a little more careful with your money. Look what I found in the driveway.
Everyone was watching. My mother was trying to smile. My uncle held the folded bill and gave it an expert shake, like he might have done to extinguish a match.
Where did ‘The Fifty’ come from?
Usually I write in the morning, before my head’s had a chance to think anything. I wrote “The Fifty” late at night. I don’t know if that means anything.
I want to say that I wrote the story as if from memory, without any conscious push of invention. That seems true. In terms of materials, I did have an uncle sort of like this.
Besides dialogue and the actions of his body, the uncle has only three lines of backstory and one of description, “His throat had spots.” To me, that line has the crystallizing force of a deep freeze. If there is one shred of compassion for him in the piece—it is from that line. Even more than the drugs, family leaving or bankruptcy, the throat is such a tender area of the body and that it has spots makes me think how fallible he is. He could choose to be a better person with such a throat. Also the rhythm of the four simple sentences on him, each beginning with ‘he’ or ‘his’, are very direct, but the last one ends on the plural ‘spots’ and this kind of stretches the image out like a panorama of sound for the reader. How conscious are you of your sentence constructions? Do you edit by reading aloud? How many drafts did ‘The Fifty’ go through?
“He could choose to be a better person with such a throat.” How great is that?
I remember reading an Annie Dillard piece about becoming a writer in the NY Times Book Review. This was a while back, when I was becoming a writer, when I still read the NY Times Book Review. One story she told: how this student came up to her once after class and asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” As I remember, Dillard reported her own thoughts about the student—how the kid seemed more interested in identifying as a writer than anything else—and said how she would have liked to respond: I don’t know. Do you like sentences?
That’s good. And it heartened me because I did like sentences. I messed with the sounds of each sentence in stories that otherwise weren’t that great.
Lately I’m not so conscious of my sentence writing. It’s a learned process, I guess—the interior soundings, re-soundings (I don’t read aloud).
About those four simple sentences in “The Fifty” you mention: I think it was Aaron Burch who noticed how, being largely backstory, they come at a strange place—not the beginning, not the end. I like that about “The Fifty.” If the sentences are backstory, they’re not part of any retrospective narrativizing. They’re an immediate part of the experience that’s cast. Maybe the constructions, in their echoing tightness, reflect that immediacy.
One telling fact RE: the drafting: “The Fifty” never had a ‘2’ or a ‘3’ behind it, as a word-processing document. I didn’t rewrite it majorly. It was one of those ones that intuition sends the right way.
There seems to be a few men around like the uncle in the piece. ‘Assholes’ might be too kind a word for them. They relish power and prey on the weak, on the innocent. I would think there has to be a reason for what they do beyond making themselves feel better about themselves. Or am I giving them too much credit? Thoughts?
I don’t know, I really don’t. But I think you’re totally right about the menace and need in this particular character not being an isolated thing. The response to the story has surprised me a little in that way—how many people seem to just know the uncle, based on a couple/few hundred words. I remember that Giancarlo Ditrapano, when he took the story for the Tyrant, said something like, “The Fifty”—that’s true.
Looking back on this piece, can you identify any influences?
I’m all messed up in terms of influences. “The Fifty” might follow the Carver branch. Of course, Carver mostly worked at higher word-counts. So I’ll add Kim Chinquee. Her collection, OH BABY, is a perpetual ‘capper’ in my bookshelves; it never gets filed in the vertical.
Using no quotation marks makes the piece have a very clean feeling. Nothing gets in the way, but the reader knows where the dialogue is. In some pieces you do use quotes. What goes into that choice?
Man, that’s such a good question. It’s like, I’ve been trying to avoid asking myself that very same thing.
One easy thing to say: I like the challenge of writing without quote marks. I like having to write carefully enough that readers don’t need them.
Another thought: most big-house novels are built around dialogue—quote-marked sections of scene/drama. This type of novel bores me, most often. With “The Fifty,” though you have a kind of ‘dramatic’ happening, there are no quote marks, and this might bring things more ‘into’ the narrator, if you see what I mean.
Sometimes, though—for solidity?—I end up going the quote-mark route.
This story is also an initiation of sorts. The narrator will grow up and be challenged by people like this, and especially by those close to him, but in more subtle ways. Do you see this event as almost being inevitable? That maybe there is relief that at least a mostly harmless sod is doing this first (taking away the innocence) and not a child molester?
This gets me thinking new thoughts about the story. I guess it’s true that the adults who fuck with you first are the ones who get to—the ones who have access. And in most cases, hopefully, that fucking-with is more weirdo-suggestive than wounding.
Thinking about the story as initiation, though: it could be that the uncle surprises the narrator more at the end than anywhere else. If there’s initiation, that’s part of it too.