The last time I picked Hallie up at the airport, she was wearing a ratty beige shift that would’ve been a nightshirt if not for the decorative navy rickrack at the neck. Instead of hello, she said, “You hate…
In the spring of 2010, I was nearing the end of my first year at the Michener Center for Writers. We had a guest coming to visit for a week-long workshop, and my colleagues were abuzz with excitement. Several of them named this particular writer as one of their all-time favorites.
Already feeling a bit of imposter syndrome at my very admittance to the program, I feigned excitement of my own, even though I was unfamiliar with the name: Who the hell was J.M. Coetzee?
(It’s embarrassing, I know. And don’t worry—I’ve since caught up; he’s one of my favorites now, too).
Coetzee gave us a prompt at the start: Write a story about the discovery of something that isn’t yours to see. There was more to it than that, I’m sure, and it likely stemmed from a story we all read together, but I only remember the idea of voyeurism through random discovery—of the consequences of experiencing a sliver of someone else’s life and having that sliver impact you in some unforeseen way.
The challenge, of course, is to find something that reflects your characters’ lives, or speaks to their lives, or shapes their lives, but not too obviously. For example, my narrator and her daughter couldn’t find photos of an estranged mother-daughter duo (I can hear the workshop criticism even at the suggestion). They needed to find something that simultaneously brought them together and drove them further apart.
The woman in the photos came to me through the dress, a dress inspired by one I saw in a vintage clothing shop in South Austin. Anything that passes through multiple hands carries echoes—houses, clothing, cars, land—and most of the time, those echoes are left largely to our imagination. But what if we find concrete evidence of our belongings’ past lives? What if those past lives are ugly? What if they’re more beautiful than our own? What if they mirror ours in ways we don’t want to admit?
The woman in the photos isn’t a mirror of Hallie and her mother, yet somehow these images conjure similar feelings. As the narrator says, “There was nothing specifically wrong with the photos, but I could feel their indecency. I’m sure Hallie felt it too.” There is nothing specifically wrong with Hallie and her mother’s relationship, but we all feel the distance between them.
The characters in the present moment of the story are echoing something from a past they don’t know, and I think that’s the power of this particular prompt. Isn’t all literature an echo in some way? Isn’t this why we use metaphor—to find similarities in disparate moments?
VIRGINIA REEVES is the author of two novels, Work Like Any Other (2016) and The Behavior of Love (2019). Her first novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the French translation has been adapted into a graphic novel that will be released in early April, 2020. Virginia’s short story “Bloodlines” is collected in an anthology from Sasquatch Press called Pie and Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Virginia lives with her husband, daughters, and three-legged pit bull in Helena, Montana, where she teaches writing and speech at Helena College.