If you’re a Saturday librarian, you know the drill: it’s feast or famine at the reference desk. So, you learn to cope with those long, quiet stretches (during which time the most mentally taxing question asked of you is “Where’s the bathroom?”) by occupying yourself with any number of productive diversions. For me, those diversions include catching up on C&RL News and, for sheer enjoyment, my always mounting stack of One Story chaps. In fact, a few weeks ago, I brought a handful with me to my Saturday gig, but I only got through one: “The Remains” by Laura Spence-Ash. I read it three times that day and still, I am finding new things to love and admire about it.
Rightly or wrongly, I approach the short story in the same way that I approach any written work: I believe the hallmark of a well-crafted piece is that it reveals itself in layers — that it doesn’t merely require rereading to get the full effect, but that, instead, it so ensnares the reader by its charm or grit or wit that one cannot help but to return again and again and again — like an addict — for the fix it provides. This was precisely the effect “The Remains” had on me, and I am absolutely thrilled to have had the chance to discuss the piece with its author, Laura Spence-Ash, below.
This is your first published story. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about your journey (forgive the cliché) as a writer?
Thanks! I’m so thrilled to have my first story published in One Story – they really believe in supporting emerging writers and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to debut. I wrote in college but stopped soon after graduation as my career and then my family took hold of my time. My father died in 2007 and that made me reconsider my priorities. I decided it was time to return to writing, and I began taking classes and attending workshops. I received wonderful support and guidance along the way from teachers and fellow writers but my time was limited so everything moved slowly. Last summer I attended the One Story workshop and had the great opportunity to meet and work with contributing editor Will Allison and editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti. Like so many things in life, a small decision led to being in the right place at the right time. I’m hoping to dedicate more time now to my writing.
In your interview with Will Allison, you explained that previous readers were less than enthusiastic about your use of multiple points of view. How did you negotiate a balance between editorial input and staying true to your vision while writing “The Remains”?
I couldn’t imagine telling this story in any other way. So much of the content of the story, I think, resides in the form. There is this unwritten rule that you shouldn’t switch point-of-view in a short story as the structure and length don’t really support multiple viewpoints. I actually toyed with turning this into a novel after several people told me that there were too many viewpoint characters. But I really didn’t want to write a novel as I always saw this as a short story. When I worked with the One Story editors, we made sure that each character had a narrative arc of their own, and I think that helped immensely.
I’ll admit it: as an information professional, I almost had a bone to pick (no pun intended) with you. By the time we find out that Sophia Constantine is a law librarian, we’ve already seen her characterized as “that weird lady” who was an “odd sort, always kept to herself, never wanting much of anything to do with anyone else” and who seemed to act as if “she were better than everyone else.” Add to that her sensible shoes, her impeccable wardrobe, and her standoffishness toward children, and what remains is the quintessential librarian stereotype: a socially awkward, unexciting, aloof middle-aged woman. But, just as we are given that stereotypical depiction, we’re turned from it. At work, Sophia is quite affable and something of a mother hen to the young lawyers and paralegals. From Mel, we discover a Sophia who collects airplane bottles (presumably, she enjoys a strong drink) and has smoked marijuana. Most important, however, we discover that the detachment Sophia exhibits in the flashbacks is not a product of stereotypical characterization but (most likely) the result of the traumatic loss of her daughter. That said, while crafting Sophia, did you ever consider supplying her with an alternative occupation? In choosing librarianship for Sophia, did you find it challenging to work with and ultimately break those stereotypical associations?
This is fascinating to me because I never thought of Sophie as a stereotypical librarian. I wrote the first sections before I got to Bob’s section and it was only then that I realized that she was a librarian. I don’t think I ever thought of her having a different occupation. If anything, I saw her life as a librarian as being something that saved her – she so enjoyed being surrounded by books and talking about books with Bob. I also think that it’s mainly through Annie that we get a negative portrayal of her, and I think that’s more due to Annie’s personality than to an overall portrait of Sophie. Part of what I wanted to think about here is how we all view others differently – whether in life or in death – and that we never really know anyone because we only understand a sliver of who they are.
I don’t think it would be out of line to generalize and say that it’s just good form to eschew stereotypical depictions of characters. But I often wonder what underlying principle should guide that practice: do writers of fiction have an ethical obligation not to perpetuate certain stereotypes or is it just that stereotypical depictions lessen the artfulness of our craft? (That is, if we surrender characterization to a stereotype, we let the stereotype — not our imaginations — build the character.) Or is it both? Your thoughts?
I think it’s probably both although I would lean more towards the latter. Characters who are stereotypes are boring, I think, both to the reader and to the writer. The more that we can deepen a character by adding in quirks and flaws, the more the character becomes a real person. For me, this is the great challenge and the great joy of writing – to create characters who are believable and real. I find that I often start with a character who’s drawn too broadly and therefore ends up being one extreme or another. By adding in unique details, I try to move him or her closer towards the center where all real characters live.
One thing that struck me about this story was the use and arrangement of multiple perspectives. Perhaps I’m seeing (or want to see) this because I’m an academic librarian, but throughout the story I felt as if I were watching a research query unfold. At first, we don’t even know to whom the skeletal remains belong. But just as the systematic refinement of one’s search vocabulary (from broadest to narrowest terms) increases the precision of one’s search, so too do we refine our understanding of Sophia as we move through each increasingly intimate perspective: Sophia goes from being a nameless corpse, to Mrs. Constantine, to Mrs. C., to Sophia, and finally to Sophie. Because it contributes so significantly to the impact of the story, perhaps you could talk about the process of sequencing of those points of view.
I love this interpretation. I wish I could say that it was intentional but I think it was subconscious at best. I certainly did think about having the viewpoints become more and more intimate as we progress through the story, and I also wanted to contrast that with being physically and geographically close. As we move farther away from Sophie’s body, we find people who knew her increasingly well. I remember drawing a spiral on a scrap of paper – with Sophie’s body at the center – and keeping that image in mind as I wrote the story. It’s so sad to me to think that she was alone when she died and that the first person who finds her is a stranger. By the end of the story, she is no longer alone and is with Zoe forever.
While the final is scene is without a doubt the most moving in the piece, I think that the scene in which Sophia and Bob work together to calculate the visibility from Sophia’s ferry is the most crucial. Not only does it articulate the idea that there is a difference between boundaries and horizons, but it also implies that this difference matters greatly. It invites us to think about each point of view as a sort of horizon: each perspective can go only so far in presenting a picture of Sophia, yet we understand that what there is to know about her goes far beyond what we are told. Because of this, it’s hard to decide whether to be heartbroken or relieved at the end of “The Remains”. If we take the boundary approach, Kleenex are in order: Sophia’s dead, Zoe’s dead, Mrs. Turani’s dead. That’s it. The end. However, if we take the horizon approach, a sense of hope prevails: instead of a line in the sand, death becomes a spot in the distance beyond which we have no ability to see. For all we know, Sophia is lovingly reunited with her mother, her daughter, and her friend Mrs. Turani.
This is such a wonderful read of the story. What’s fascinating to me is that because the story was developed over a long period of time, I think it’s possible that the resonance of the ending changed over time. When I first started the story, my father had recently died, and I was thinking about memory and how people stay with us after death. When I edited the piece with One Story, my mother had died a year earlier, and I think the ending took on a different meaning for me. There had been a bit about Sophie’s interest in the horizon in earlier drafts but the scene with Bob was added during the editing process. I think you’re right that this scene becomes a turning point of sorts and it changes the ending, leaving the reader with that sense of hope.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you wish someone would ask (or point out) about “The Remains”?
What has struck me the most in hearing reactions from readers is how people read the story differently. I’m sure that’s true with every story to a certain extent, but it’s so interesting to me that people pick up on different themes or meanings that resonate with them. And I love that this ties in directly with both the form and the content of the story – just as the characters perceive Sophie differently so do people read the story through a variety of lenses.
Thanks so much, Laura!