Exploring the art of prose


Author: Melissa Yancy

Author’s Note

During a break in a writing workshop, a fellow writer and friend shared that she’d been self-conscious choosing her outfit that day, on account of the “well-observed details” about my characters’ attire. Until her comment, I had not noticed my noticing, and assumed everyone else paid as much attention to garments as I do. I am not possessed of the gift Mary Gaitskill has for faces, for her descriptions that are not technically precise but evoke a character like an abstract painter might suggest an entire form with a few strokes of the brush. But clothes have often served as substitute.

Clothing is one of the ultimate signifiers—communicating culture, wealth, age, gender expression, sexual proclivities, and the subtlest matters of taste and status. In many cases, clothing is uniquely self-expressive, reflecting not only interior states but also the way a person wishes to be seen. The narrator’s or other character’s judgments of a character’s clothing also provide a rich opportunity for a writer.

Clothing plays a crucial role in The Golden Suicides, a book in part inspired by a true story, with a main character whose real-life counterpart possessed timeless style—effortless and enviably cool. I wanted to capture the spirit of what that person might have worn, without aping the specifics. In one of the earliest drafts of the novel, the character Simone is introduced wearing “high-waisted trouser jeans—which were not in vogue at the time, making them more sophisticated on her—and a linen button-down with a low-cut neckline, revealing a long thin necklace with a small gold arrowhead at the end, and a shorter necklace with a bar that looked like it had an inscription I couldn’t read.” Passable, I suppose, but not evocative and a bit anachronistic.

At one point in my writing, I returned to The Great Gatsby and the scene where Daisy is introduced. Like Gatsby (to say “like Gatsby’’—oh, what a sense of humor!), The Golden Suicides is narrated by a secondary character and tells the story of a doomed couple from a distance. On this read, I noticed the way Fitzgerald pays extra attention to the introduction of Daisy and Jordan on the divan, the rise and fall of the fluttering white dresses. I reconsidered the importance of that introductory moment, the way each choice—including clothing—informed the entire character.

In the later revisions of The Golden Suicides, Simone is introduced wearing a “crushed velvet jacket the color of malachite, the shoulders adorned with bronze epaulets, a general from the secret kingdom of women.” The narrator’s attire—a foil to Simone’s throughout the novel—was not originally described in the scene at all. It was only in later drafts we learn the narrator had planned to wear her “peach-colored crocheted cardigan with a daisy on the breast,” but instead meets Simone while still dressed as an ass for the school production of Don Quixote, in jodhpurs and a sweat-stained shirt, a sewn-on tail she has to tuck between her legs. Those were all missed opportunities in earlier versions.

But why a malachite jacket with epaulets? From where does such an improbable garment arise? That is the thing about craft: it can give you tools to know what you might need to do, but the specifics often arise from that other, mysterious place. I could analyze the literary merits of that choice—a garment both soft and strong, if slightly ridiculous—but it just felt right. The person who inspired the character deserved better than a linen shirt.


MELISSA YANCY’s story collection, Dog Years (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), was winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and a California Book Award and was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, The Missouri Review, and many other journals. The recipient of an NEA fellowship, Yancy works and lives in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @melyancy.