Sarah Frisch is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Paris Review and The New England Review, and she has won a Pushcart Prize and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award.
In this interview, Frisch discusses the challenges of finding the right beginning, doing research on the tribal areas of Pakistan, and avoiding one-dimensional political speech.
To read Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” at The Paris Review and an exercise on making unlikely scenarios more plausible, click here.
The story begins with the main character, Seamus, doing things that are unlike him. He’s not a drinker, but he drinks several beers. He’s depressed, but he strikes up a conversation with a complete stranger and eventually asks her to stay the night. On the flip side, his house is a mess (and he’s a stranger as well), but Charity agrees to stay with him. I can imagine a lot of versions of this opening that don’t work–but this opening absolutely works. I heard Richard Ford once say that stories make the impossible possible, and that seems to be the case here. How did you approach this beginning? Did you ever find yourself thinking it wasn’t believable and needing to revise?
I drafted the first version of this story over a decade ago, at a time when I was inclined to write chance encounters of this sort that I could almost never pull off. Nothing survives from that original version except the setting, Seamus and Charity’s names, and the opening scene where the two of them meet and immediately start a relationship. I decided to keep the premise of their instant connection because it seemed right for Seamus to get taken in by an illusion of intimacy. I thought it was a good way to start a story which is about, in part, the difference between thinking you know something and really knowing it in a way you can’t shake. I did have a lot of trouble making this section feel believable, and I was still struggling to revise it even after the rest of the story was done. It wasn’t until a very good reader recommended that I cut my random and utterly goofy first three pages (at one point they played a game of jacks) and start further into the encounter that I felt like I finally might be able to pull off the opening.
It’s a long story, about 12,000 words. The opening scene alone is 1700 words, and as a result, I think, the story feels paced differently than shorter stories. More time is spent with dialogue. It’s still snappy, like this bit:
“You work in PR?”
“It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.”
“That’s not what I expected,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I imagined you were a teacher or an artist.”
“You’re looking at Weekend Charity. Wait till you see me in a suit.”
But a shorter story might end the scene with that line. But this one keeps going:
“He asked why she’d chosen to work with her company, and she shrugged and said that she’d mostly taken the job to piss off Greg.”
I’m curious at what point you knew that this was going to be a long story—and if you ever had second thoughts about it. Did you ever try to revise to make it shorter (and more submittable to most journals)? Or did you always know that it needed to be long?
The story was probably 7,000 words—about average for my stories—until I committed to setting part of it in Pakistan. Then it ballooned to almost 25,000 words, and I decided I was writing a novella. By the time I had finished revising and cutting out all the extraneous stuff, I was back down to forty-some pages. I might have tried to keep it shorter, but I was focused on finishing a collection and not thinking much about publishing in journals at the time. I knew how lucky I was when the Paris Review accepted the story, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the Paris Review is one of only a few journals that publish stories this long.
Now that you mention it, I can see how the pacing is a bit more novelistic than in shorter stories. I think this is partially the result of having committed to a clock of an entire romantic relationship, from beginning to end. Also, at some point I scrapped the idea that I would summarize Seamus’s time in Pakistan using backstory and dialogue. That was when I really felt I had committed to telling two stories at once and showing how both the past and the present played out in full for Seamus. By then I had entirely lost sight of the pacing required for short stories and started taking my time.
I love that the story takes on some sensitive political issues. Here are two characters talking about drone strikes:
Seamus made a point from one of the readings, that the civilian deaths and constant terror caused by hovering drones must be working against U. S. interests in the region.
“I hate that argument,” Melinda said. “People have a right to life outside our political agenda.”
What I love is that this moment has such clarity of moral vision, but that vision doesn’t take over the story, which is kind of a mess, morally speaking. The ending leaves us in a place of total uncertainty, not just in terms of what will happen but also how to feel about it all. How did you keep the politics from hijacking the story?
You really hit on what I struggled with the most. When I started this version of the story, I had already been reading about the drone strikes for a couple of years in the New York Review of Books. This was back when there was barely any media coverage of drones, and I had just given birth to my youngest daughter. I couldn’t get over how the American government was killing families and kids and nobody was even talking about it. I was so angry about it, I felt as if it were my moral duty to write about it. This turns out to be a pretty difficult place to write fiction from. Throughout the drafting of this story, I felt as if I was fighting my own tendency toward one-dimensional political speech. I tried doling out my personal opinions to various characters, including the more problematic ones, and taking my beliefs to the extreme or mixing them up with opinions that I didn’t agree with. I also tried to have characters challenge each other’s opinions in scene.
A real turning point for me in drafting this story was when a friend put me in touch with a reporter and writer who had traveled in the tribal areas and was willing to read a draft of the section set in Pakistan. She was very generous and insightful and gave me notes on my scenes and access to the journals she wrote during her travels. She pointed out that things were actually a lot more complicated in the tribal areas than I was making them out to be and that it was difficult to know what was real and what was propaganda (and who was a human rights worker and who was a fighter). She suggested that I play up the effects of not being able to tell right from wrong in the loss of Seamus’s faith. This change ended up working perfectly with the rest of the story and complicating everything in a way that helped keep a simplified moral vision from taking over.
The ending came to me all at once. I already knew that I wanted Seamus and Charity to break into a house together, but I was struggling with it until a sentence popped into my head while I was washing my hands. (I don’t mean to be romantic about it; this normally doesn’t happen to me.) The story had to “take a left turn through a window,” where it would hit up against some reality that Charity could not have communicated in her verbal account of herself. The arrival of the ending felt like magic at the time, but I think it actually grew out of a year’s worth of pushing against my own tendencies toward oversimplification and reductive political speech.
What kind of research did you do for this story? I’m assuming you’ve never been to Islamabad (though I could be wrong, of course), and so you had the challenge of describing a place based entirely on research. To that end, I was struck by two things: the reference to the market, Jinnah Super, and the wound on Seamus’s foot. The first is specific and makes us believe that the story really does know the place, and the second seems to divert our attention so we’re not asking questions about the accuracy of the depiction of Islamabad. Was this intentional or just the work of your imagination?
You’re right, I’ve never been to Islamabad. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. (Some guy drove around the city holding a video camera. There’s endless footage of avenues and intersections and cars.) I also read blogs and message boards where people discussed the city, and I asked a couple of people who had either grown up or lived in Islamabad to read over the Pakistan sections for accuracy. I ended up with a lot more information than I could use about Islamabad, but not nearly enough about the tribal areas, which I found very difficult to research. (Few news stories, no travel blogs, and only minimal video footage, some of which I would later learn was probably propaganda.)I lucked out when I was put in touch with the reporter. Her notes included a detailed account of the culture, customs, setting, and what it was like to travel as a woman in the tribal areas. She was incredibly generous about sharing her experience, making suggestions, and helping with the accuracy of those sections.
I hadn’t considered how the market and the athlete’s foot worked to make the Islamabad section more believable, but I can definitely see what you mean. I knew I wanted to set a scene in a market because markets are so different around the world, yet visiting them is a pretty common thing to do for travelers. I included the athletes foot because 1) There’s something disorienting about the way minor illnesses that would have been nothing back home take on weird ominous forms during travel. 2) I wanted Seamus to get sick in a way that he found difficult, uncomfortable, and slightly humiliating to share with Melinda. I think these are all emotions that in sickness women are made to feel more than men, and I got a rather sadistic pleasure out of having Seamus suffer an illness that he sensed made him appear unfit and ridiculous to Melinda. 3) Fungus cracks me up, at least in theory.
The information about the drone strikes was not that easy to find, and it took me a year to compile and confirm everything. I lucked out again when, a few weeks before the edits on the story were due, researchers from NYU and Stanford put out a report containing personal accounts of the devastation caused by drone strikes in northwest Pakistan. I was able to confirm a lot of my information and add details I didn’t know. The report is available online, and now there’s also a website with information and resources: http://www.livingunderdrones.org
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.