Writing fiction is impossible: that was my earliest impression, and in some ways that impression has remained with me. How is it possible to make a world on paper or on a laptop screen, to create characters, moving those characters through space and time in convincing ways? How can words build something that will live on its own and, if we’re lucky, mean something to someone else? Each time I begin to create an imagined world I’m both excited and daunted by that lingering sense of impossibility.
The stories in Visitations deal with what I find particularly bedeviling: obsession, betrayal, addiction, denial—and so much yearning, including yearning for something a character can’t even begin to name. From the start, I hadn’t intended to write a book with a unified set of concerns. Nevertheless, I soon realized that my stories often addressed a common subject: books. A love of actual physical books, their weights and textures. The appetite for reading books. Or a character’s loss of the ability to read books without summoning rage. How childhood reading may shape an entire life. How we are in debt to the books that have been our most loyal companions.
Finding their way into Visitations are echoes or plot elements from a number of books, including The Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights, The Odyssey, Robin Hood, and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. In Visitations the goddess Venus and her son float in a field toward a lonely woman who grew up reading myths. One character joins the world’s laziest book club. Another character tries to find the last book that her mother read before her mother’s sudden death. The first sentence of Visitations’s first story is a partial, distorted echo of the opening sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Here’s Woolf: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” In homage to Woolf, here’s the first sentence of my story: “Tiffany’s mother is swearing at the flowers again.”
When I was a child I thought writers must be strange creatures, entirely unlike anyone I knew. Maybe more like unicorns. As I worked hard at learning to write fiction I found that re-reading the books I loved—re-reading with hunger and re-reading more than twice—taught me what I’d never have learned otherwise. My attempts at fiction grew out of emulation. Probably most writing does.
New books teach me new possibilities—and I’m grateful for that widening of possibilities. At the same time, I’m especially indebted to those books that first introduced me to a special sort of energy, an infectious possibility, right when I was feeling writing was most impossible. Below are some of those books. I don’t want to suggest that any of the books I’ve listed make writing look easy—no, it’s just that they’re so daring and fully imagined that they gave me enough heart to hope I could attempt to do that seemingly impossible thing: write a story.
Lucky Jim (New York Review Books Classics, 2012) by Kingsley Amis. Crisp and wildly funny, this novel contains unforgettable descriptions of a hangover, stage fright, and defensive actions in academia. It’s true to its era and yet a comic novel that deserves to live forever. Who doesn’t recognize the put-upon Jim Dixon, steaming with resentment?
Talking to the Dead: Stories (Anchor, 1993) by Sylvia Watanabe. Among my favorites in this luminous collection is “A Summer Waltz”–just shy of four full pages, and each of those pages is perfect. Two little girls, Sachi and Meg, wander together and wind up at a clubhouse bar. What happens when those little girls meet a bartender is wonderful.
Loitering with Intent (New Directions, 2014) by Muriel Spark. Written with vigor, wit, and comic sternness, Loitering with Intent is practically a guidebook for writing a novel. Spark’s hilarious narrator recounts her efforts to compose her first novel and offers plenty of advice along the way. Writing, the character tells us, “took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better.” Whenever I reread any of Spark’s novels I’m refreshed by her bracing, crafty, idiosyncratic intelligence.
Mrs. Caliban (Harvard Common Press, 2009) by Rachel Ingalls. A short novel that does something next to impossible: create a compelling contemporary love story about a lonely woman and a sea creature. The ending never fails to make my throat close. When I first read Mrs. Caliban, I experienced a soaring sensation: the wish to write something unexpected, to write a story that opened up a new vista on our inner worlds.
Hotel du Lac (Vintage, 1995) by Anita Brookner. How to describe this quiet novel with its undercurrents of deep feeling? Brookner was an art historian, and her sensibility is informed by her academic discipline. Parts of this novel, a study in melancholy and moment-to-moment realizations, are practically painted in delicate shades of gray. The wounded protagonist is a stoic in some ways, yet she nearly throws her life away. A novel so beautifully written, you could frame each sentence in gold leaf.
The Awakening (Dover, 1993) by Kate Chopin. Enacting the pressure a culture bears upon a woman’s burgeoning sense of herself and her own self-ownership, Chopin creates exalted, gorgeous romantic scenes and then punctures romance with realistic intrusions: “She was having a good cry all to herself. The mosquitoes made merry over her, biting her firm, round arms and nipping at her bare insteps.” The sensual particulars, the escalation toward tragedy, the complexities of embodiment: this 1899 novel is still one we’re coming to terms with.
The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics, 2006) by Shirley Jackson.The portion of this strange, nearly hallucinogenic novel that I return to most often: Eleanor’s drive to Hill House, that winding, fever dream of a journey in which we readers, and Eleanor, gently lose our grip. And then there are Jackson’s short stories. Among my favorites: “The Witch.” Jackson dramatizes how evil may enter a scene casually, and how children may see and name what we’d rather not.
Blow-Up and Other Stories (Pantheon Books, 1985) by Julio Cortázar, translated by Paul Blackburn. Has the art of the reversal ever been manipulated in more dexterous hands? Just when you’re about to wake from the tricky plot of any of these stories, another startling revelation occurs and a new question hovers. Who’s alive? Who’s dead? Has the narrator of the story become what he’s observed? A profound recognition of suffering animates this collection. Cortázar told a Paris Review interviewer that he wished “to go beyond the possible.” In the same interview, published in 1984, the year of his death, he said: “These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality. Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more.” That gap, it may seem to plenty of us, has now closed even more.
Lee Upton’s short story collection, Visitations, was released on August 16, 2017 in the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, LSU Press. Her stories recently appeared in Bennington Review, Notre Dame Review, Cincinnati Review, and World Literature Today.
You can read more about Upton and Visitations on the AGNI blog, on the Story Prize blog, and in Kirkus Reviews or do one better and buy your copy of Visitations today! Take home Upton’s poignant and luminous words.