When I write fiction the central characters come to me first. They have names and trail a bit of backstory the way a child pulls a ragged blanket behind her on her way to bed. After the characters, I need an opening scene or an opening line. I need a title. The title can and often does change in response to the final element, the themes that ribbon their way through the story. Themes—ideas and concepts that lie at the core of any literary novel—those only emerge as the drafts multiply and the characters make choices and act on those choices.
In Graced Land one important theme is the tension between history and story. The former is ostensibly factual, the latter ostensibly embroidered. For Joyce Jackson and her daughters, Priscilla and Lisa Marie, this tension is portrayed with the notion of trash and antique, as in buy at trash, sell at antique.
If someone was to say, Wear this or go forever naked, you’d say, Okay, naked it is.
Joyce, Priscilla and Lisa Marie, haunt the weekend garage sales, buying lowly stuff, refurbishing it, and later, reselling at their own garage sales. The prize items are “antique quilts.”
“We take the really ugly clothes,” Cilla tells the reader, “so ugly that no one would wear it, so ugly, if someone was to say, Wear this or go forever naked, you’d say, Okay, naked it is. We take them and it’s my job to cut these up into neat little squares for the scrap box. Mama sews these scraps into quilts and we sell them as antiques. We always say our grandma, ninety, and near blind, sewed her arthritic little fingers right down to the bones making these antique quilts. (Never mind our one grandma’s dead and the other don’t speak to us.) Mama sews the quilts up quick, but she hand-stitches the hems. That’s all people look at anyway. People think a hand-stitched hem must of been done by angels, sitting by cozy fires with the kettle steaming, buttered toast, snow outside, and a little dog at their feet.”
You call it trash, it costs a quarter. You call it antique and it’s four and a quarter
At one of their garage sales a woman tearfully recognizes a family quilt she is certain her sister stole. Cilla goes on, “She tells us this Heartbreak Hotel of a story about a quilt her mother had made with a family tale for every piece in it. Me and Mama and Lisa, we listened to the woman’s sad story without looking at each other. We all shook our heads, and said, Really? Is that so?”
Sentimentally satisfied, even uplifted, the woman pays good money for the quilt and leaves.
Joyce, counting out twenties, comments to Priscilla and Lisa Marie, “Let that be a lesson to you girls. It never matters what something really is, it’s the story you tell about it. It’s not the thing itself. You call it trash, it costs a quarter. You call it antique and it’s four and a quarter. They’re both true, but which one is going to matter? People forget trash. They remember antique.”
A story that could also be described as a bald lie.
In the opening chapter of Graced Land the new, young social worker, Emily Shaw, makes a Home Visitation to her welfare client, Joyce Jackson. Emily‘s fiancé is a law student in DC, and she is friendless and alone in St. Elmo. Joyce Jackson is so warm and welcoming that this obligatory Home Visitation turns into a couple of hours as they drink iced tea and share confidences. When Emily is leaving, Joyce gives her an antique quilt (complete with the story about the grandmother sewing them all by hand). A story that could also be described as a bald lie. But to Emily the gift is meaningful, and endowed with comfort, even friendship.
History is so unbearable it must be dignified with story.
Stories evolve out of histories. Do we not, all of us, endow our histories with story of one sort or another? In the telling of anecdotes our experiences are made sprightly or lively or funny, incidents that, in the living, might not have been funny at all. History is cruel and random, messy, inefficient. Stories have form and shape denied to history. Stories may be cruel, but not random, or messy. Stories have beginnings and endings, and within those confines, stories—as Joyce recognizes—have significance that is denied to history.
But in history, people just croaked. Look at Elvis.
Later in the novel, Emily, reflecting on her experience in Italy in August 1977 when news of Elvis’s death makes the papers, she stumbles on a fundamental human truth:
“History is so unbearable it must be dignified with story. That’s why and how people dignified battle with bravery, dignified lust with love, dignified digestion with cuisine, dignified sleep with dreams and death with Last Words. In a story, no one ever dies without Last Words. Oh, they might die gruesomely, but it is always to some dramatic purpose. Without dramatic purpose, they would not die at all and you know that from the beginning. But in history, people just croaked. Look at Elvis. What did the morning paper say? Elvis had been found on the bathroom floor, fallen ingloriously off the toilet. The King fallen from the throne. The man who could move and touch so many disparate lives, could he truly be found mute, face down on the bathroom floor? Not in a story, he couldn’t. But that’s how real people died.
Random scraps and random crap
Fiction writers turn histories into stories. To create story the author shapes events and the choices characters make into actions that have dramatic significance and thematic resonance. In nearly fifty years of writing I have taken a lot of random scraps, one might even say random crap— bits of insight, wads of pain, drops of sweat, unwiped tears, tales told by others, heartbreak, elation, landscapes, laughter—and turned it into antique quilts. Though I must say none of this has happened swiftly. And much still remains in the scrap box awaiting assembly, and the hand-stitched hem.