My students will tell you, sometimes woundedly, that I’m not a fan of narrative twists in which it turns out the point of view character has been keeping secrets from us. Plot developments that consist of revealing information a character has known all along, the kind that begin it turns out that—“It turns out that the narrator’s actually been married before!” “It turns out that her sister has been dead this whole time!” “It turns out that he’s never even been to Russia!”—feel sneaky to me. They are narrative pivots in which we are not invited to participate, separated from us in time and kept from us through authorial manipulation to be sprung on us only when they’ll have the greatest effect. People generally think about the things they know; when characters don’t, I become too aware that somebody’s shaping their thoughts, an awareness that makes it hard for me to live inside those thoughts the way I want to.
In writing “The Renaissance Person Tournament,” I had to work not to break my own rules. The story hinges on two parallel relationships, between the students Emily and Peter in the present, and the teachers Julia and Jim in the past—or on the parallel Julia sees between those relationships. I knew the past and present plotlines needed to crest in tandem on the page, since it’s the combined pressure of what’s happening now and of the memory of what happened before that makes Julia do what she does in this story. So I wanted the reader to learn in full about Jim’s climactic, decades-earlier betrayal of Julia only near the point of the climax of the present story, about the competition between and entanglement of Peter and Emily. But I didn’t want the reader to feel that Julia and/or I had been keeping Jim’s betrayal a secret in order to reveal it for maximal effect. I did not want to be sneaky.
So I decided to let Julia fill the reader in at the first point when this reveal felt natural: early on in the story, when she’s in her classroom, waiting (in vain, as it turns out) for Emily to come and confer with her ahead of the second day of the tournament, and reminiscing about the phases of her life that various corners of the room bring to mind. In that scene, she tells us about the long-ago shock of Jim’s bringing to the faculty Christmas party the woman who would become his first wife, at a point when Julia thought she and Jim were still together.
So we know about the shock. But we don’t live through it with Julia, in her memory, until later in the story, when Julia has just taken drastic and morally questionable action in order to protect Emily (as she sees it), when the final round of the tournament is about to begin and she and Jim are alone in the faculty room together. Only then do we see just how his betrayal unfolded, and how she experienced it and then snuck away without making Jim give her any kind of explanation, or anything at all. I hope that the placement of this bit of backstory just here shows the reader who Julia is, and why, at the same time Julia herself is coming to understand these things.
“The Renaissance Person Tournament” is a story in which the present action wouldn’t make sense without the past running below it and bubbling up at key moments. My challenge was to make that bubbling feel like the natural consequence of the motions of Julia’s mind, and not like something I’d arranged. It’s one of writers’ jobs, I think—doing our best not to be caught at our arranging.
CLARE BEAMS’s story collection, We Show What We Have Learned, was a Kirkus Best Debut of 2016; was longlisted for the Story Prize; and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. Her fiction appears in One Story, n+1,Ecotone, The Common, the Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and has received special mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV. A 2014 NEA fellow in prose, she was the Bernard O’Keefe scholar in fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2014. After teaching high school English for six years in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she moved with her husband and daughter to Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing at Saint Vincent College and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.