Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water and Feeding Strays. Her story “While Surrounded by Water” won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award and “Us Hungarians received second place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest. Stefanie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Witness, Western Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, Night Train, American Literary Review and Edge. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
To read an exercise on writing descriptive passages and Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans,” click here.
I’m interested in the story’s approach to close description. The first paragraph focuses on Maribel’s shoes and purse and then zooms in on her tights, particularly on the crotch. The language seems meant to make the reader feel claustrophobic (and from your blog post for Tahoma Literary Review, I know that feeling is intentional). I’m curious in the last sentence of that paragraph:
She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.
Typically I don’t intentionally tell the reader what I’ve meant, because I assume they’ve caught what I mean, but in this case I think you are partially right: I was following the rhythm of the prose. Also, I think having this list emphasizes that for Mirabel, she is counting and focusing on her discomforts. While another child might be proud of this attire and show it off to the aunties, Mirabel is physically sensitive – pride and appearances aren’t her vices.
In this story, the dialogue is italicized and not broken out into separate paragraphs. There are no quotation marks. This is a technical question that comes up a lot in drafts and in writing classes. Did you format it this way to avoid slowing down the prose? Were you trying to embed the dialogue within the voice, rather than getting caught up in prolonged scenes?
Both. I very much enjoy prose that doesn’t break dialogue into paragraphs by quotes. I find it a distracting break from the story and I often jut out of the dream to inquire, who is talking now? I realize that some people abhor italic dialogue, but I may unapologetically continue writing this way.
The narrator is listening to the grown-ups in the room and noticing them “using adult words like Naugahyde and paisley,” This is a recurring idea in the story, the distinctions marked by particular words and phrases: “something special” and “smile and shape up” and “smirk.” This seems like a really useful way to clue readers in to the narrator’s age and relationships with the other people in the house. Is it something you fell into—one of those happy accidents in writing—or was it an effect you were intentionally trying to achieve?
Let us go with the happy accident theory. I think I am watcher, like all writers I suppose, and a collector of the phrases people say. There can be a ton of dialogue between people, but there are those certain words that will stand out and directly indicate something about the character. I try not to waste any words that don’t have to do with the revealing the character, the story or some sort of underlying message.
I guess this story would be classified as “flash fiction,” both because of its length but also because it takes place in an instant. Was it always confined to this particular moment in time? Or, was it carved out of a longer piece of writing?
It isn’t yet carved out of a longer piece of writing. I was exploring the idea of anxiety in children and what adults might miss or can’t see. I was also recalling certain memories (will never forget the awful tights) and that sensation that one feels like they might burst or rip apart due to discomfort from all angles. To the other characters in the story, they have no idea what is going on with Mirabel, with that explosive distress. She has made some connections and decisions including that stealing what is forbidden is acceptable. So much is happening to her in a few minutes, in one room, in one scene, and nobody one knows. I love the idea of exploring what is happening to someone in an iota of time. Ray Vukcevich did this in his story “The Sweater” where the entire story is told while a character is trying on a sweater. A must read.