Louisa twisted herself in the cord of the old black wall phone. It went once around her body and five times around her arm. The thing was long enough that you could talk on the phone while rooting through the…
Because journey tales necessarily bring changes in more than just location, I set out to make the “The Station” a story in which the main character’s destination turns out to be slightly different than she expected.
In this story, Louisa dreams of finding high culture in France and also of rebuilding a failed friendship. Neither of these things exactly happens, but she learns some unpredicted things about herself and the world — especially what it means to judge and to be judged, to act and to be passive.
I started with the image of the summons to the journey — a phone call, which traps Louisa in the snare of the phone cord using the lure of high culture. From the outset, I knew I was writing toward a moment I myself once experienced: the vision of a madwoman screaming her banal-yet-profound message to throngs of travelers in a crowded Parisian train station. I realized that to get there in any meaningful fashion, I would have to cover certain events in Louisa’s backstory as well as the trip itself. To make room for those, I decided to jump over a couple of moments that, though important to the the story, seemed like they would be better left undramatized. Louisa’s decision to go to France is one of these. In one section, Louisa is determined not to go; a line space later, she has capitulated to the idea of the trip. I imagine most everyone has failed to hold a line in the sand at some time or other. What I hoped to tap into with that jump was the reader’s cringing recollection of such a moment in her own life.
I thought a lot about the use of French in this story. Generally, I think that foreign language passages are off-putting in fiction, and I try to avoid them, but in this case, Louisa’s state of being a bit off kilter had something to do with her being familiar with but not fluent in the French language. To convey this, I tried to include just enough French — including some untranslated or indirectly parsed passages, which I hoped would function effectively either on the level of sound or the level of meaning, depending on the knowledge of the reader.
This story falls roughly in the middle of a set of linked stories that together comprise a loose-knit novel. The final craft issue I want to discuss is withholding. For me, Louisa’s story is quite a lot larger than this episode. The challenge in each story, then, is to choose how much to include or withhold, leaving enough open space to allow for suspense but enough concrete detail to ground the character and endow each individual story with weight.
ELIZABETH GAFFNEY is the author of the novels Metropolis and When the World Was Young (both Random House). Her work has also appeared in the Paris Review, the New York Times, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, and many other publications. She was an editor for many years at the Paris Review, and is an editor at large at A Public Space. She teaches writing at New York University and the New School and has taught at Columbia University.