Whose story was it?
July 19, 2010
My short story “Missing Women” was reprinted in this year’s edition of the textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Recently I was contacted by Matt Sarda, who was reading it for his Fiction Fundamentals class at the University of Denver. Here are his questions and my responses. While it’s gratifying to have an old story get a new life via reprinting, this particular piece dredges up some troubling issues for me, issues I’ve never fully resolved.
Clearly the story is heavily inspired by the unsolved 1992 case based out of Springfield, Missouri. One could read this story as a standalone work, or readers could compare and contrast the details in this story to what actually happened. Do you wish readers to view this short story independently of the source material?
Knowledge of the actual case may add interest to the reading, but I guess I intended for readers to view the story as a separate piece, inasmuch as I “intended” anything. It was a case that haunted me—I was a young woman living in Springfield at the time that it happened. I’d recently graduated from college and was working as an editorial assistant for the local paper that whole sinister summer. I tried to explore it through fiction a few years after the fact. I hadn’t published, so the idea of readers and what they might get from it was pretty abstract to me.
The details in this story are quite vivid. However there is no particular setting for Missing Women. Clearly this is intentional. Why did you choose not to specify the location or time period in this story? Can you explain your process in making some details, such as video footage of Adelle prancing about in a wedding dress, wholly inspired by reality, while others are entirely fiction?
I might have made some different decisions about details that hewed too closely to life if I’d gone back and researched (this was not something you could just Google then—not sure there was a Google yet!)—I was working entirely from memory and imagination, deliberately not reading old clippings. Not identifying the town freed me to not make it completely like Springfield. I pictured the small southern towns in my home state of NC just as vividly, in fact. And again, for me writing was rather like shouting down a hole; I didn’t seriously consider people reading it and what connections they might make or how they might respond.
When I was invited back to my old campus to do a reading (in 1998, I think), I was contacted by a reporter from the Springfield paper. She asked me if I was aware that the mother of Stacy McCall had read my story, was upset by it, and might confront me when I came to town. I was to do a public reading, so this was certainly possible (but it didn’t happen). I was shocked and sorry. I wished that I had never done anything to cause this family more hurt.
It raises all kinds of questions about ownership: As I recall from what the reporter said, Stacy’s mother was upset that I’d co-opted their story and used it for my own purposes. I get that—I still think abstractly that you can write about whatever you want, but I might have made some very different decisions had I considered the emotional consequences of fictionalizing such a recognizable case.
As the years pass, there have been numerous leads but nothing conclusive in the case. As of right now, the actual story evokes the same ambiguous ending as Missing Persons. Are you invested at all in the developments, or lack thereof, in the actual case?
Every so often I go online looking for new developments in the case. It’s more a personal interest than a literary one. I would like to know what happened. I would like to know the women’s families got their questions answered.
The anthology in which this story was featured has Missing Women in the section describing the importance of point of view. A colleague in the class describes this piece as a “plural first-person,” addressing the reader both directly and from a distance, utilizing “a sense of reportage.” In your initial drafts of the work, did you experiment with any other of point of view, or is this perspective what were you going for the entire time?
Here the point of view was my entry into the story. So much could not be penetrated, not known. It was kind of a collective narrator, the town hive perhaps, which was omniscient (or at least willing to speculate) on nearly every point but lacked the most central piece of intelligence. Lacking that solution, there seemed no other way to tell it.
This current class, Fiction Fundamentals, helps aspiring writers using creative exercises while studying story structure. Over the ten-week span these pieces are peer edited in groups and help contribute to a final short story. Is there any advice you would give to aspiring writers on getting the most out of your writing? How did editing help you refine this short story?
I know I worked on this story as a graduate student in an MFA program, but I honestly don’t recall whether it was workshopped! That’s funny, considering how important that process was to me then; peer review was invaluable in teaching me to read my own work more objectively and to edit with greater ruthlessness. They provided my first real sense of audience, and they were tough. So it sounds like you all are getting a taste of that right now. It’s hugely helpful, but I suppose I would offer the caveat that you should guard against letting the group call the shots. Learn to discern the best insights and leave the rest behind.
Case in point: One time my workshop read a revision of something we’d seen earlier, and the piece was a real mess. We all thought the earlier version was stronger. The writer was furious. He said, “But I did what you said to do!” And he had indeed incorporated everyone’s comments into this revision.