Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Elizabeth Mayer’s fiction piece, Driving Home with Invisible Todd
Sommer: That point in the story when “you” momentarily falls asleep at the wheel is terrifying. It’s a good thing the narrator is there to wake her up. I feel as if the narrator doesn’t realize how much she does to save them on this drive. Could this be a symptom of her obvious grief for her friend, who is now “gone”? Is she blind to herself in some ways, and how do you think this impacts the story and the characters, if at all?
Elizabeth: I don’t know that it’s a symptom of grief, but, yes, the narrator is totally blind to herself. This is a coming-of-age story—the women are young, they’ve borrowed the car from their parents, they really have no idea what they’re doing. I think it’s a common condition for people of this age (women, in particular) to not have a clear view of themselves, or—and this is much worse—to have a negatively distorted view of themselves. This turns around a bit in the end when the story becomes more retrospective.
There’s wonderful suspense in this story, which you create via incredible pacing and movement: the constant reappearing of the deer, the skittish movements of Todd in the back seat, the lack of street lights in the dark night, the gas light. As you wrote, were you aware of creating this pacing and movement through feelings, or more as something logically planned?
Wow, what a wonderful compliment! Oh, pacing… I had the opportunity to attend a class on pacing given by Sam Chang, and she said something I think most writers know through experience—pacing is very hard to see in your own work. She’s worked out some sort of quadratic equation for analyzing the pacing of a story, which I’m not quite brilliant enough to put to use, but I’ve found, in my own writing, the best way to find/fix pacing flaws is to listen for them. After I’ve revised a story to the point where I think it’s decent, I’ll read the story out loud, recording it on my phone, and then listen to the recording. Listening to the story out loud, I find it much easier to hear where things are moving too fast, where there’s a lull, what just doesn’t sound right, and I know that’s where I need to go back in and tweak. Lather, rinse, repeat. So, I guess it’s a pretty logical process, but it’s guided by feeling, if that makes any sense.
We learn that the two women in the story are beautiful, which is why the “Todds” come after them. I’m reminded of that fabulous Ani DiFranco line: “God help you if you’re an ugly girl, course too pretty is also your doom.” I know this is a MUCH bigger discussion, but in what ways can girls and women push and learn to exist in the world as more than just physical beings? (Stories like yours help!).
Well, first of all, I think we’ve got to become more comfortable with our physicality. I think we have to unlearn all the bullshit—with which most of us have been inculcated from childhood—that tells us what bodies are supposed to look like, what beauty is. The times when I am able to fully inhabit my body, without tension or self-criticism, without worrying about what other people are thinking of me, are the times when I feel most fully engaged with whatever I’m doing—writing, reading, listening to music, being with other people. First, you have to be able to be in your body. This opens up a whole new awareness—and enjoyment, really—of the world. For writers, I believe this is critical. Writing is about being aware of what is happening around us—noticing how the wind feels on our fingertips while we’re walking down the sidewalk or the bleat of a recycling truck in reverse or the way the sunlight gets very bright just before dusk. You have to be in your body to see and feel and experience these things, and then, as a writer, communicate them to the world. It’s sort of like—and I realize this might sound like some topsy-turvy nonsense—you have to be able to be in your body in order to transcend your body. The amount of time I waste thinking about how my butt looks is heinous. I could have written ten thousand stories by now. We need to stop thinking so much about our bodies and, instead, enjoy them.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Oh lord. Be in your body! Feel the wind! Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately: Even if you submit a story somewhere and it gets rejected, hopefully, at least one more person has read that story. And that’s the point of writing, right? To communicate some thought, feeling, image, idea to another person? And, yeah, sure, if that magazine had published that story, it would have been communicated to a much wider audience, but the consolation is that someone, somewhere, though they may not have accepted it, read it. So, I submit a lot. And I get A LOT of rejections. But that’s how I think of it—like, maybe I submitted that story to thirty magazines, and got thirty rejections, but, hey, that means thirty more people have read that story. Also, there’s some UVA lore that goes around creative writing workshops that tells of how Ann Beattie submitted so many stories to the New Yorker, and was rejected so many times, that they asked her to stop submitting. She didn’t. She sent one more. And that was the first story they published. I know times are different now, but it’s a good keep-your-chin-up-kid story. Can you hear me, Deborah Treisman?
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
My pleasure. Thank you!