Recently, Shenandoah had the pleasure to talk with one of our contributing writers, Theodore McCombs, about his short story, “Faked Deaths in My Family.” His story will be featured in the upcoming issue of Shenandoah. Read on to find more about McComb’s somewhat autobiographical inspiration and his development of the story’s characters.
Are there any parts of this story that are autobiographical?
Many of the scenes—each of the faked deaths, in fact—borrow from old family stories, but these stories are vehicles for my own experience. For instance, my mother did lose a garter snake in much the same way Ellie does; but the interiority, Ellie’s struggle to own and assert her outrage, is mine. So, while the story isn’t autobiographical, it’s certainly personal.
Did any specific life event inspire your choices for setting, plot, characters, etc?
This story grew out of its final image—Nana convulsing in fits beneath the door while her daughter steps over her for a night out. I used to have rather dramatic panic attacks as a teenager and I’ve literally been stepped over like that. I’ve also been the one who (more figuratively) did the stepping-over. That tension between the cruelty and necessity of refusing to take on someone else’s pain has always fascinated me.
From writing the original draft to perfecting the final product, how long did this story take to produce? Were there any interesting or silly obstacles that you encountered throughout the writing and revision process?
It depends on what you consider the original draft! In one sense, I banged out this story in two summer afternoons on the Lighthouse porch, and that was largely the final version. In another sense, I wrote the original draft ten years ago, after my model for the mother, Rachel, died. The original version was all about her. Almost the only thing I kept from that version is the final image.
The most irritating issue I had was Ellie’s voice in the first paragraphs. The tone of this piece travels a great deal in a short amount of space, and Ellie sounded so twee at first, it made the rest of the story pretty gruesome. The trick was to work in that grimness early, just underneath the humor, so that when the tone shifts, it’s subtle.
With the characters who commit a fake suicide, including Richie and the narrator, does that speak to their need for more love and attention? For example, would you say that the narrator fakes her own drowning in order for her grandmother to worry about her?
When I picture these five characters in a room, they’re all shouting at each other to be heard. For Ellie specifically, her dilemma is how to get a witness to genocide to take her anger seriously. How do you penetrate that starchy hide of grief and trauma? Is that even something you have a right to do, or is Ellie just reiterating the same destructive patterns of her family? One of the ideas that excited me in this piece, which dictated its structure, was to stage the same conflict with different players and positions, to see what changed and if I felt differently about it each time.
What exactly happens with the mother in this story? Her character seems to be the most intriguing and I wonder what her character arc looks like. From being young and in love to hiding herself away in the room, what happened in between those two time frames?
Rachel is the saddest of the five, because at least the others have some say in how they hurt and ignore and intrude on each other; Rachel just degrades.
Some years ago, my cousin obtained FBI records through FOIA and we learned our grandmother, who was bipolar, had informed on her husband’s colleagues at Princeton during the McCarthy persecutions. She was so smart and winning, it took years for the feds to realize she was totally delusional. Who knows what she thought she was doing? You wanted to make her see the damage she’d done, but then again, you really, really didn’t. That’s the frustration and fear I was going after in Rachel: a more genuine, and therefore more unsettling Harold Skimpole sort—“I am but a child, a mere child!”