Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. The writer and NER fiction reader Lori Ostlund spoke recently with author Genevieve Plunkett about her first publication—the story “Something for a Young Woman“—which appears in NER 36.3.
LO: Both times I read this story, I was struck by how sure of itself the writing feels, so I was surprised to learn that this was your first accepted story. Can you talk about how and when you started writing?
GP: I started college thinking that I wanted to be a songwriter. At the time, it was the only kind of creative work that I was able to sustain, because the process of singing the lines and picking the notes on my guitar was instantly gratifying. All other forms of writing were agonizing. I felt that I could never keep up with my ideas and my insecurities about grammar were endless.
When it came time to choose classes my freshman year at Bennington, I took a chance on something with which I had no prior experience and signed up for a screenwriting class. I thought that I could handle it because, like songwriting, there was a word limit. Everything had to be spare. Every word had to keep the story moving.
My first assignment, I was too self-conscious to write dialogue, so I wrote a script where no one spoke. My professor loved it and read it aloud to the class. It was that professor who would later urge me to study literature and become a writer.
LO: I love this idea of a script where no one speaks, and in this story I noted your judicious use of dialogue, notably between Allison and her husband, which almost always takes place over the telephone and is generally restricted to his comments about his work as a science teacher. This contrasts beautifully with that section on page 67 when she thinks about all of things that he does not ask her. Can you say a bit more about some of the decisions you made in this story, both in terms of the dialogue that you chose to include and the conversations that you withheld?
I don’t usually think of it in terms of when to add or withhold dialogue. For me, speech, in both literature and life, often presents itself as an atonality, words comprised of a different substance than the rest of the text. In the story, it was important to show that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Allison’s husband or their marriage, only that he represented just one more part of her life that was off key. The easiest way to do this was to hear his voice.
When Allison receives the necklace from her boss, it comes without explanation. The shop owner, in a sense, gives her a role—a young woman—and she takes it, whether or not it was consistent with her own understanding of what that means. These small exchanges in power are almost never spoken about, which is what can make them so hard to resist or even examine. Staying away from dialogue in this instance felt true to the nature of that power exchange.
LO: Another interesting aspect of this story is the way that you evoke such a clear sense of place without ever really naming that place. There are allusions to “the city” and moving “back north.” Did you have in mind specific places when you wrote the story, and can you discuss your reasons for not naming them?
When I was a teenager, my dad would bring me for rides on his motorcycle through the countryside. We would pass through small towns in upstate New York like Cambridge, Salem, and Schuylerville. There is something immediately different about the scenery once you cross the border from Vermont into New York. It is more sprawling and agricultural. In Vermont, there is a sense of containment because of the mountains, as if the towns are all settled into little bowls, but New York just keeps going: cornfields, sagging barns and farmhouses with blue tarps taped over the windows, the dirty hides of dairy cows, followed by sudden stretches of wealth—big houses up on hills with shiny horses in the fields. I imagined Allison’s first home with her husband to be in one of the more rural areas of moderate wealth. She moves back home to a larger town—like Glenns Falls—where her mother’s more modest house would be in walking distance of the shop owner’s affluent neighborhood.
I tried naming specific places in my first draft, but it felt awkward. It did not seem to match my choice to leave almost all of my characters unnamed. It is also how I am used to people speaking where I live in southern Vermont, even though there might be some disagreement on whether “the city” refers to Albany or New York City. (It almost always means New York City.)
LO: Can you discuss how you came to write this particular story? Do you recall how it started, where the idea for it came from? Can you describe the process of writing it? Are you someone who knows the trajectory of a story when you begin, or did you discover the story as you wrote?
I submitted this story in December and it had been through quite a lot of revision, so I must have started writing sometime in February or March of 2014. My daughter was nine or ten months and would often be sleeping in my arms on the couch in the evenings while I balanced a notebook and a pen. The story has been described as being “quiet” by some and I wonder if there wasn’t some subconscious “don’t wake the baby” vibrations at work.
I am still trying to figure out what my process is in general. I have been writing seriously for just over two years. During that first year of writing stories, I accepted that they would be bad (they were), but plowed through with the extremely hopeful idea that they would start getting better if I simply did not stop.
“Something For a Young Woman” was born of my decision (as if I could just decide such a thing) that I would start writing with more conviction, that I would let no sentence stand that I could not support completely. This meant that some nights I worked only on one sentence. Sometimes I had no choice, because the kids would be sick and not sleeping, or I would be too exhausted from the day. Due to these circumstances, I cannot say that I ever really knew where the story was going. All I knew was that part of what I wanted to do was to demonstrate the more subtle exchanges of power that can set people (especially women) into roles that are not completely subordinate, but disappointing, if not suffocating.
The only part that is autobiographical is when Allison falls off the horse and experiences the strange rush of déjà vu. This may not have been the take-off point of the story, but was something that I knew I wanted to include. Also, while the beginning of the story went through many changes, once I had written the last sentence, I knew that that was my ending and didn’t really touch it during the revision process.
LO: Finally, how would you place this story within the context of your work and themes overall? Does this story reflect your writing interests, themes, and preoccupations? What else are you working on?
I have five short stories that I am hoping to publish and two going through revisions. Add the two that were recently published and I have a body of work staring back at me with some obvious similarities. First, I write about horses a lot. Throughout college, I had a job at a horse barn where I was barn manager, horse trainer, riding instructor, and trail guide. The physical labor involved left me with a store of vivid memories and it also provides a great setting for characters—there are always chores to be done and accidents waiting to happen. In addition to this, horses are powerful and sensitive creatures that respond differently to their environment than humans. They have a unique psychology that lends itself to explorations of self, morality, and—another common theme for me—mental illness.
When thinking about what I have written and what I plan to write, I am shocked at how prone my characters are to acts of deviance and bad behavior. Kidnapping, escaping hospitals, voyeurism, harming others through negligence. I don’t say crime, because I consider that to be a separate category involving law enforcement and in my stories, so far, there is never much aftermath. Nor are the stories about some inner struggle between right and wrong. The acts are presented as something surprising, but inevitable.
Originally, I had wanted Allison’s near-stalking of the shop owner to be more manic and deviant in nature. I almost gave her a real diagnosis, but then found it to be unnecessary. It took away from the reality of the force that brought her back to him, that seeking of validation.
I’d say that “Something For a Young Woman” was written with more patience than is usual for me. I allowed myself to follow ideas and moments to completion without all the familiar anxieties: Will this lose my reader? How would [insert famous author] do it? I submitted it without having shared it with anyone and, of course, had no way of knowing if anyone would read it, much less like it. There is a certain innocence to that that I am trying to hold onto as I move on to future projects, writing for truth instead of a particular audience.
Genevieve Plunkett is a graduate of Bennington College. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two young children. This is her first piece of published fiction.