We recently learned that Malerie Willens's story “Scandalous Women in History,” published in the Fall 2018 issue of the Sewanee Review, won a Pushcart Prize. Willens’s story is about a woman who stumbles into a job at a makeup counter at Saks and finds her way back to life. As a staff, we were especially thrilled to receive this news, because this lovely bit of recognition confirmed our initial instincts about the story's quality. Second, and on a personal note, my satisfaction was only increased by the work Willens did on the story in the editorial process. We talked about that a bit, as well as Chekhov, Flaubert, and Das Boot.
SR: I'm struck, when I re-read this marvelous story, by the distinctiveness of each character’s voice—how Nadia, Jade, Dane, and Kendra jump off the page almost strictly by how they talk. So I'm wondering: Do you hear your characters first, or see them, or both?
Willens: I know that a story is officially afoot when I hear a character speak in sentences, which invariably happens in the middle of night. The conscious day-work does seem to spark subconscious activity. That gestation process—when a character gets under your skin—is one of the mysteries of how a piece of writing comes together. I’m guessing it gets visited upon all fiction writers, regardless of their background, subject matter, and whether they wrote in the nineteenth century or are writing today.
Once the talking has begun, a character’s voice and physicality become stitched together for me. They materialize with a form and vocal identity that work in tandem.
I do try to rein in physical description, using it sparingly as a kind of shorthand: Dane’s swingy hair, Nadia’s almond eyes. Too many details can stifle momentum and blunt the scene. It was Chekhov who first disabused me of my great zeal to describe. He warned that it was hard on the reader’s brain.
SR: The story is about secrets: secret notes, secret acts of kindness, secret acts of deception, and how kindness and sharing dispels darkness and doubt. Did you write yourself into these themes, or did you have a clear idea of the motifs you were working with from the start?
Willens: I didn’t set out to write a story about secrets, but secrets became the delivery system. Connection was the fuel—the desire to connect, the fear of it, and the peculiar loneliness of living in a densely populated place. The secrets and notes helped get things moving.
My plan from the start was to set the story within a tightly framed environment. I love films like Das Boot, which takes place in a hyper-contained space, and All Is Lost, a film about one man all alone on an imperiled boat, with almost no dialogue. These are extreme examples (coincidentally, both about men in boats). Great workplace sitcoms have historically done this—where you minimize supporting characters and strip the setting to its bones to shine a light on the wealth of human experience possible within the confines. A makeup counter in a department store felt controlled and easy to visualize, and it allowed the space to recede so that human dynamics emerge. Internal, subterranean things like secrets and longing can be seen in relief against the mundane backdrop. While it doesn’t take place exclusively at the makeup counter, it’s a New York City story that stays off the streets and away from crowds. The novel I’m working on is the opposite. It jumps around in time and space.
SR: I know that, from my side, it was an absolute pleasure to edit this story, but I was wondering if during that part of the process, something crucial about the story's action came into clearer focus for you, or even something technical, that has carried over to what you're working on now?
Willens: The editorial process demanded honesty in the way I approached the story and my own tendencies as a writer—as it should. In one of our more philosophical email exchanges, you warned about the author interpolating herself too obviously into the narrative. You wrote that she should be “everywhere present but nowhere visible,” which I now know was a paraphrase of Flaubert. I’m tempted to tattoo it onto the tops of my hands— EVERYWHERE PRESENT on the left, NOWHERE VISIBLE on the right—so that I see it while typing.
The story originally had a very different ending, and I was attached to it. In retrospect, it was showy and jarring. It put the writer too much on the page while giving the story a different moral orientation. I think I wrote it as a mini-rebellion against the gauzy, open endings in realistic short fiction that can be poetic but feel too easy. Our back-and-forth about being “nowhere visible” made me see that endings are too important and too delicate to do the writer’s personal bidding as a critique on the form. The ending as it stands, and the edited story as a whole, benefit from my having gotten out of their way to make room for where they were always meant to go.