I am haunted by questions.
So much I don’t understand.
When I was a child, perhaps my questions were simpler.
Why did that boy pull my hair?
How does the moon stay in the sky?
What if I don’t eat my spinach?
When my mother didn’t have ready answers, she would make up stories. And I never wondered at that ability. After all, she read such enchanting stories to me from books. Why shouldn’t she have tales ready at hand to answer any question I might have?
As I grew up, conventional wisdom says I should have put aside childish things.
Mother taught me quite a lot. I don’t remember any of it having to do with being conventional.
The questions grew, as did my confusion and my irrepressible need to try to understand.
How could concentration camp guards go home to their own children and smile?
Why did that man beat his dog?
Which newborn in a hospital nursery will grow up to be a teacher? Which one will be a rapist?
Stories – the quest to understand the unfathomable — became my anchor. But they no longer came from Mother.
At night, I would try to dream answers. Stories I would tell my unconscious.
Some dreams I remember.
Some nightmares I wish I could forget.
And the stories grew.
Now I write to try to understand. But the questions out race my fingers. I have so many stories jotted down, in various stages that if I questioned nothing more I would have more than enough work to occupy me for the rest of my days.
Yet, nearly every day, another awakens me, if not from sleep, then from empty thoughts, filling me with ideas and wonder and the need to know.
Still, while the root of story, for me, are questions. The beginning is always a person. A character born in my mind, full-blooded and named, who will not be quiet.
My short story The Broken Bottle which was originally published in The North Atlantic Review (and is now available as an eBook) is a classic example.
Late one night in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, I witnessed a brief, vivid moment of what appeared to me to be irrational violence, when one man attacked another with a jagged bottle. Those few seconds of savagery pierced through me, running through my nerve-endings like a bolt of electricity. Terrifying me with my fascination with the violence and my inability to let that moment go.
But it didn’t evolve into a story until Johanna was born. A young, privileged suburban wife thrown suddenly into a similar situation.
No, Johanna is not me. She lives a life far different from mine, responds to people in ways I find sometimes strange, sometimes silly. (Nor, to answer a question I’m often asked, is her husband Andrew my Daniel.)
But, of course, Johanna is me. Just as Black Jacket is me. And Andrew. And the wordless waitress. They’re all parts of me, looking at the shocking scene from different viewpoints, trying to paint a picture of why, how, what if.
Through Johanna’s reactions to the violence – and, to a lesser degree, the reactions of those around her – I found no answers. After all it’s only a short story. I’m more ambitious with my novels. But I was able to wrap up them up into a package that made them just a bit more manageable… for now.
What questions haunt and inspire you?