Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Jim Toal’s fiction piece, Among the Bull Calves
John: I’m a bit of a loud writer, so I always admire the ability to do more with the quiet moments. The meeting between Sammy and Andrea is great, but you have to put in a lot of work early to make a scene like that pay off. Did you write the story with that in mind, or do these things just happen?
Jim: It’s interesting that you ask that question. I often think the same when reading the stories of other writers—what came first? Did the writer work back from an ending or arrive at an ending while developing the narrative? Did it rise out of the writer’s subconscious or through the internal logic of the story, and, as you say, just happen? In practice, I think it’s a combination of all of these elements. From personal experience, I know when a story is going well because it takes on a life of its own that guides me as the writer, lighting the path ahead. However, that apart, writers commonly have to work hard to make endings work. With this story I didn’t have an ending when I began writing and for a while after that. Initially, I had the scene with Sammy and the calves and the first scene in the care home. When I arrived at the ending, it was like a gift both surprising and inevitable. From then on, I knew I had to work back through the story, ensuring consistency of tone and that the narrative contained enough detail to lead the way to the ending without being too obvious, or giving the game away.
One of the big themes here is the subject of care—how we care for each other, and the possible consequences of our inevitable failures. Vic reached the limits of his ability to care for Andrea and has a fairly fundamental failure in keeping Sammy safe. How are we to approach situations like this? Are good intentions enough to excuse our inherent incompetence?
In caring for others, we are challenged to put aside our own needs and priorities for those of others. Our capacity to do this is limited by so many factors—our emotional resilience, for example, or our practical skills, perhaps our physical capability or our financial resources. Internal and external demands often pull us in opposing directions. There is no perfect template to guide us though the messiness of life. Good intentions might help, but what’s well intended can also have detrimental consequences. While it may be better to step back and evaluate the best course of action, it is difficult to achieve perspective when caught in the emotional maelstrom of caring for a loved one. In that sense we are often walking a tightrope while blindfolded. We can only hope that love will guide us safely to the other side.
I love how you play with the parallel delusions in being young and old—Andrea’s dementia and Sammy’s inability to see danger. But Vic and Carla don’t seem to be completely immune either. Do we, throughout our lives, just lurch between different heaps of confusion and hallucination? And if so, does that imply that our lives are one big accident, and we have absolutely no control over anything?
That’s a really complex question. While we can’t know what will happen in our lives, we make decisions that send us down a particular path, open one door and close another. To that extent we have some control. Also, while we can’t be certain, we can anticipate what might be the consequences of our actions and decisions. To counter the confusion and uncertainty, as humans we look for patterns, we establish routines and rituals to give our lives shape and meaning. That’s a kind of control, too. Ultimately, it’s how we think about our lives, how we modulate and moderate those thoughts, that can offer solace and comfort, and therefore provide a degree of control.
What is Carla going to do when she finds out that Vic has been driving Sammy around without a child seat? Or, for that matter, taken him to see Andrea? Which will cause her more distress?
While she will be angry about the visit to the care home and feel let down—partly out of a sense of guilt in trusting Sammy’s care to Vic in the first place, as a mother she will be furious about the lack of a car seat and how that endangered Sammy. Her love for her son and her maternal instinct to protect him overrides everything else. Having said that, Carla is a forgiving person at heart, and I like to think that there is reconciliation not too far down the road. When Sammy talks to her about his visit to see his grandmother, Carla will question whether she might have been too cautious about Sammy seeing Andrea. At that point she will pick up the phone to her father.