It wasn’t until I was asked to consider writing this blog post that I appreciated the tortured history of “Watching Her Breath.” According to my records, my first version of a story set in the Marche region of Italy was drafted in the autumn of 2014, just after I’d returned from a two-week trip to a rural property near Mondaino. I wrote a first draft—entitled “Roundabout” and several revisions later, abandoned the story in December of that year.
In the fall of 2015, I drafted a completely different story—entitled “Stung”—set in the same location. I tinkered with this version over the course of three years, sending it out only twice. In 2018, I changed the title, revised some more, and submitted the story to the US market, even though I was clearly dissatisfied. I know this because, by late 2017, I had pulled out the scene I liked the best (the ending, featuring the ants) and started again from scratch. This story—the first to feature two sisters and originally entitled “Vanessa”—was the version that ultimately became “Watching Her Breath.”
Writing about Italy may have complicated my ability to find the story. I’d lived in Rome as a teenager in the tumultuous late seventies, and the trip in 2014 was the first time I’d revisited the country. Naturally overwhelmed, I couldn’t find my way through the nostalgia, and my early efforts were over-embellished, the characters flat. The final story eventually emerged when I used Italy as a backdrop to the anticipatory grief I was experiencing over my sister-in-law’s inability to overcome her disordered eating. She died of complications of anorexia nervosa in March 2018.
In this, and many of the fictions I write, geographic place is often a starting point, giving me the sensory details that animate the story. The war memorial described in “Watching Her Breath” is a real place (known as Point 204, Canadian Gothic Line War Memorial – see photo) and seemed to me the perfect location for the sisters to approach a tough conversation. And the old stone house was real, too—its nooks and crannies and additions over the years a metaphor for the twists and turns of life itself.
In the end, I have two very different stories with the same “ant-gazing” scene as endings. But this one held emotional truth. The other was a necessary step in my writing process. The imperfect result was, ultimately, just me reminiscing about a country I love.
Jann Everard divides her time between Toronto, ON, and Sidney, BC. She was the winner of The Malahat Review‘s 2018 Open Season Award for Fiction. New work is forthcoming in the Humber Literary Review and Belmont Story Review.