Finding the Form with Fraser Calderwood
My story in TNQ, called “Raft,” started as a fragment in a journal. But the fragment itself never made it into the finished piece.
I had been working on another piece, titled “Androids,” and I was really enjoying writing this character, the protagonist’s father, who was very much a caricature of my own dad. It was perhaps the first time I had used my dad in fiction. I’ve been writing variations on my mother for years, which seems like a more serious crime. Writing my dad was a lark. I would start with one true image—in that story a man who stumbles in late from work and is seen with suit and tie still on, but with his whole hand caught in a pickle jar like a raccoon, trying to fish out a good pickle—and then expand him until he was a person. And he would always be akin to my father, but just constructed out of that one detail, not so much a double as a long-lost half-brother.
Pivotal to the first draft of that story was this fragment, a memory about shoe shopping when I was a kid. My mother took us for most of our clothes, but I remember, as I got to fourth or fifth grade, my dad took over the shoe shopping. In that kid logic, I reasoned that shoes were expensive, and Dad knew we didn’t have a lot of money, so being in charge of shoes let him control the budget. I have these two anecdotes: a set-up and a pay-off. One is of the sort of silent auction that usually took place, where I would try to guess what my dad’s budget was for shoes and aim for it. I wanted a cool brand, but I never wanted to ask for too much. However, like The Price is Right, if what I asked for was close to his price without going over, he would be impressed with that thriftiness and suddenly the budget would expand. “I just want you to get the right shoes,” he’d always say. The second anecdote is about one time my mom had to handle this procedure. She took me to the Army & Navy, I remember, on Columbia Street in New Westminster, which is sort of like a military surplus store grafted onto a Winners. I told her these clunky, awful things were the shoes I liked. The brand was called “Look.” Each O was an eye. Mom didn’t see I was bluffing. She didn’t know the rules of the game. So, I came home with the shoes. And I remember her saying to my dad, almost in protest or apology, “He said these were the ones he liked!”
A major part of short story writing is eliminating characters. You start with a real family, but that’s too much for 5000 words. So, you start killing them off, sending them on long vacations.
The scene took up about 500 words. It became too long a digression, too much ballast for the thing to get off the ground. So, I saved it, and like a scrap of potato I sprouted another story from it. That story would become “Raft.” In addition to the shoe story, I had a scene with the father, secretly and out of a sense of responsibility, dashing on some rocks a raft his son has laboured to build. But again, by the second draft, the unwieldy shoe story had to be lopped off. Instead, the raft scene wrapped around and became a frame for the present-day story that’s sort of about the liberal/progressive divide. This was something I hadn’t done: having the past frame the present is less common than the inverse, I think. It seemed to present a problem, because the story’s conclusion would not be chronologically the last event.
At the same time, I was tutoring students who were learning English. One of my students liked to read out loud and have me correct his pronunciation. He needed a story in which he could practice different verb tenses, as well. I found Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” We have twenty or so different anthologies, and I swear “Cathedral” was in every one of them.
I admire Carver, but “Cathedral” wasn’t one of the Carver stories I found particularly memorable. As my student was sounding it out, I couldn’t see what made it work the way it does. This utter grouch, who resents his wife having friends, hosts his wife’s blind friend and together they draw a cathedral. They get drunk and then they decide to also get stoned—which in my experience seldom improves the night, unless your aim is to fall asleep. And yet, the story works. It must: it’s in so many anthologies!
Later, I wanted to see if I could repeat the experiment. What I wanted to borrow of its form was the great turn at the end when the wife enters and finds them in that awkward position, her husband leaning over the blind man and guiding his hand as he draws the church. I wanted to see if I could construct a scene similar to that.
A major part of short story writing is eliminating characters. You start with a real family, but that’s too much for 5000 words. So, you start killing them off, sending them on long vacations. In this story, that meant drowning the mother. You seal off rooms, eliminate possibilities. What I ended up with was the son’s girlfriend Jane—who I’d given an excuse not to be in the room—changes her mind and finds the men in a surreal and slightly compromised moment. I threw in the two men smoking a joint after they were already drunk as a little nod to Carver.
Fraser Calderwood grew up between Vancouver and Calgary, but currently lives in Toronto, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph. He is working on his first novel.