What makes engaging fiction? What keeps a reader up until 3am, until the last word of the last page is absorbed and the white space allows for reflection? What sends us back to that first line, that opening paragraph? Why do we read, and then re-read?
Many of those reasons – figuring out whodunit, crisp imagery, quirky characters, a déjà vu sense of our own lives on the page – were on display last Thursday evening during the fourth installment of Butte College’s Fall 2012 Reading Series. The event featured three fiction writers, Carrie Wasinger, Zu Vincent, and Molly Emmons, and a range of styles, from the quiet intensity of Wasinger’s short story “Wounded,” to the lyric imagery of Vincent’s short story “The Caretaker,” and the character-driven dialogue of Emmons’ novel in progress, Suffer a Sea Change.
Wasinger’s story “Wounded” explored the concept of aging via the character of Judith, who has moved home to deal with her parents’ morality and, as a result, her own. The idiosyncratic insights Judith offers, for example that “years of mowing an acre of grass” had earned her mother “an in-ground pool and a gardening service” and that her father, a diabetic, moves “through the day, pricking and bleeding, both cushion and pin,” kept the audience involved until the final line. Grounded in detail throughout, “Wounded” ends with Judith standing amongst shattered wine bottles with a shard of glass stuck in the side of her foot. She pulls out the shard and walks to her car; when a store employee asks if she’s aware that she’s hurt, she responds, “I am going to just let it bleed,” leaving the audience wondering whether this is a gesture signifies Judith’s acknowledgement of her own mortality or an attempt to feel and thus heal.
Vincent, author of The Lucky Place, followed with a short story titled, “The Caretaker,” in which a young couple sneaks onto private land in search of the perfect swimming hole. The descriptions and imagery evoked the summer-parched Northern California foothills, allowing the story to come alive for the audience. After some insistent snooping by the girlfriend, the couple finds the caretaker dead and rotting in his trailer. Narrated by the boyfriend, the story leaves his girlfriend, whom he doesn’t understand, a mystery. Why did she brave the crazy caretaker’s cabin? Why was she willing to pull the body up from the table? Why does she insist on pretending none of it happened? When asked after the reading, Vincent said she’s considering expanding the story and including more investigation of the girlfriend’s character. Yet, one wonders if, given another read, another draft, the character will still remain a cypher, like the people in our own lives we’re compelled to love, even when we can’t quite figure them out.
Emmons rounded out the evening with the second chapter of Suffer a Sea Change. The chapter introduces the novel’s protagonist, a young female reporter still reeling from the unsolved disappearance of her brother. But the scene-stealer in this selection was the local “crazy old lady,” whose wry tone and quick-wit inhabited Emmons’ well-paced dialogue. When a gunshot leads the reporter and her would-be subject to discover the body of a young boy in the woods, the reporter is swarmed with self-doubt, sadness, and anger over her brother’s disappearance and the knowledge that it could have been his body bleeding out on that damp trail. Left with a protagonist questioning whether she is stable and strong enough to continue, many in the audience were asking just how soon the novel would appear in print.
So, what does make for engaging fiction? As these three authors reminded their audience, it’s the quality of the details: the delicate balance of light, water, and decay, the dexterous use of an iPhone by someone old enough to be a techno-peasant, the greasy pop as a chicken leg, and a character, are dislocated.