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"Her Tale Shaped by Telling": An Interview with Sarah Malone

Sarah Malone's writing has appeared in Parcel, Five Chapters, PANK, The Common, The Good Men Project, The Awl, and elsewhere. She blogs at sarahwrotethat.com.

Her story "Bridal Discount" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Sarah Malone talks with interviewer Melissa Goodrich about dialogue, Ancient Mariners, the conditional, and happy accidents.

1. What is the origin story for this story?

It began with setting: a wedding at a Finger Lakes hotel, October eight years ago, and the season’s first flurries as the last of us staying elsewhere stumbled to our cars. The leftover wine I brought from another wedding.

All the characters arose wholly in writing, as did what develops, except the talk about the bride. I was remembering a group at the Finger Lakes wedding who peppered conversation with tales of another they expected and who never showed, remaining legend.

Occasions set aside from routine by ritual or geography—weddings, funerals, holidays; writing conferences—do much of fiction writers’ setup work. They have three-part structure built-in; they can contain, compressed, acquaintanceships’ entire arcs. At the time, they seem to culminate more unmarked days, epitomizing, signifying more. Weddings especially evoke a sense of summiting a peak that will be visible from years to come—and yet, for most guests, soon recedes into the blue distance. “The crowded past,” is Jay McInerney’s phrase in Brightness Falls.

2. It seems all the characters in Bridal Discount are talking past each other, Juan and Trevor buried in each other’s necks, Rich asking questions to no answer, the narrator staring at snow.  Even in direct conversation, such as during the story of the police on the train in Peru, the characters talk past one another, as if only half-hearing.  What kind of effect do you hope to have with dialogue like this? 

Writing this story, I soon sensed its drama less between characters, even between Rich and the narrator, than between the narrator experiencing and relating it. Often past tense stands in unobtrusively for present; readers pass through the fourth wall to go onstage with characters. Here, the time between telling and events is real. The narrator doesn’t report live, on scene, but recounts, an Ancient Mariner, her tale shaped by telling. Indeed it transpires in telling (though that anticipates your next questions).

We’re never really in-scene in the usual sense. While some conversation seems in real time—characters answer, disagree with, even dislike each other—we cut rapidly between direct and reported dialogue, remaining in the narrator’s cadences; and we don’t know how much she excludes. The dialogue tends suspiciously toward her point. If scenes ran longer, we would get more crackling of interaction, but we would lodge in events rather than in her telling, and the end of the main action would register as rupture rather than culmination. The story would become “what happened at the wedding,” not “I can’t shake off the wedding.”

3. What is the narrator’s angle?  In lines like “We—I—had spent so long with people who turned out not to be serious,” she seems to be uncertain of who she’s connected to, and what’s worth being serious/unserious about. 

She’s wary from lousy hookups; she and Trevor, longtime co-workers, have drunk each other through many poor choices. She’s either from the city or went there for one reason and stayed for another, or lack of a better idea. I see her choice as ambivalent but wise—Rich ends up seeming a decent guy, but who wants to be with someone who’s talking about someone else? She’s alone, but intact; she chooses for herself, and not from insecurity or obligation, and she’s propelled to empathy that doesn’t seem habitual.

4. Several “woulds” consume this piece: “We would bundle together and when the wine was gone we would heat brandy and tea by the fire,” “I would have [paid the police],” “She wouldn’t sleep with me,” “That would have been when to ask Rich to start a new bottle…and not start to say goodnight until Rich and I were by one of our bedrooms and one thing seemed as easy as another.”  What is your relation, especially as a fiction writer (when anything may happen!), with the might-have-been? 

This may be the only story where I’ve used the conditional so centrally. It needs to make sense for the characters, narrative, and shape of a story, or else it’s simply a move. It lends time a spatial feel, but sharply; readers tend to assume they and the teller are moving through events in sync, and then suddenly the writer runs them off a cliff like Wyle E. Coyote and leaves them staring down at the bottom of a canyon.  Here, however, the might-have-been gives us the narrator’s vantage and attitude and complicates time, maintaining the linear progression of what did happen—we have details to fill in what she infers—while adding two temporal strands: the narrator ruminating at the time of the telling (which is as “real” as the events), and what she imagines—and likely didn’t imagine until later. Her vision culminates the “woulds” and shifts them from might-have-been to never-now-will-be. The conditional lets the story inhabit a great expanse of time, and I think there’s an elemental narrative pleasure—one we recall from fairy tales, hopefully—in feeling a story’s time signature veer away from and return to the time we take to read it.

5. Is there some punning going on with the title, “Bridal Discount,” the character “Rich,” and the “Nothing” the narrator comes away with at the end? 

“Rich” is a happy accident; he seemed a “Rich” as I wrote him. The title is definitely punning, its ambivalence—is the story only available to the narrator through the discount; is it to be discounted?—relating back to such occasions residing outside the normal flow of things.

6. What are you reading as winter winters on? 

Right now I'm reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Alice Munro's Dear Life, and also dipping back into Munro's older stories; I return to her probably more than to any other writer, and I'm particularly interested now to revisit stories I thought I knew well. I recently read Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter, and greatly enjoyed the most latest issues ofParcelGulf Coast, and Missouri Review. First up in the new year will be Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. 

7. What are you writing now? 

I’m revising a novel of ’90s and ’00s New York City, and starting several new stories.

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